Future Corps

The Marine Corps, like the Army, has worn out a lot of equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is facing big bills to pay for the future force the Corps says it needs.

National Journal
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
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Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
May 9, 2008, 8 p.m.

At the end of April, a squad­ron of the Mar­ine Corps’s new V-22 Os­preys re­turned from the air­craft’s first over­seas de­ploy­ment, a sev­en-month tour in Ir­aq. The Corps trot­ted out pi­lots and ground crews to talk up the $67 mil­lion ma­chine, a hy­brid of heli­copter and pro­peller plane whose re­volu­tion­ary tilt-ro­tor tech­no­logy took 25 years to de­vel­op and claimed 30 lives in crashes along the way.

Largely over­looked in the cov­er­age and the con­tro­versy over the V-22 it­self, however, is the fact that the air­craft was nev­er meant to stand, or to fight, alone. The Os­prey is simply the single most ex­pens­ive ele­ment of an am­bi­tious plan to re-equip the Mar­ine Corps to ex­ecute a new kind of sea-based blitzkrieg.

Mar­ine of­ficers began to de­vel­op the concept, of­ten called “op­er­a­tion­al man­euver from the sea,” a quarter-cen­tury ago at the height of the Cold War, when the rise of ad­vanced anti-ship mis­siles was already threat­en­ing any fleet massed for a con­ven­tion­al, large-scale land­ing in the style of Iwo Jima. Today, the V-22 and key tech­no­lo­gies like it are fi­nally en­ter­ing ser­vice in a world rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent from the one in which they were con­ceived—a world in which some of the weapons that the So­vi­ets de­veloped 25 years ago are now in the hands of guer­ril­las and ter­ror­ists in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

For the Mar­ine Corps, look­ing for­ward to a large-scale pull­back from Ir­aq even as it takes on a new mis­sion in Afgh­anistan, the vis­ion is not merely about new tech­no­logy. It is about re­turn­ing to the Corps’s his­tor­ic role as a ship­borne rap­id-re­ac­tion force after five years of gruel­ing ground war­fare along­side the Army.

“We’re not a second land army,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Benes, the dir­ect­or of ex­ped­i­tion­ary war­fare on the Chief of Nav­al Op­er­a­tions’ staff. “We can al­ways be used to com­ple­ment the [Army’s] mis­sion on the ground, and we don’t shy away from a fight,” he em­phas­ized. “But our real tra­di­tion­al role of be­ing a nav­al force is what we want to get back to.”

To carry out this old role in a new way with new equip­ment, however, will be ex­pens­ive. Like the Army, the Mar­ine Corps has worn out in Ir­aq much of its in­vent­ory of weapons, air­craft, and vehicles, most of which were bought dur­ing the Re­agan-era buildup. Un­like the Army, which has pack­aged its main mod­ern­iz­a­tion pro­grams in­to a single, high-pro­file, hard-to-ex­plain and heav­ily cri­ti­cized Fu­ture Com­bat Sys­tem, Mar­ine mod­ern­iz­a­tion is scattered across a half-dozen pro­grams, some small enough to fly be­low most me­dia and con­gres­sion­al radars. What’s more, be­cause the fu­ture Mar­ine force will be car­ried in­to battle on Navy ships built with Navy money, about a sixth of the total cost to real­ize the Corps’s vis­ion will not be coun­ted in the Corps’s budget.

Adding up all of the ma­jor ele­ments—the new ships, the V-22, a host of up­grades to con­ven­tion­al heli­copters, and a kind of tank that swims called the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle—the bill comes to about $100 bil­lion. (This total doesn’t in­clude the Mar­ines’ share of the nas­cent multiser­vice F-35 Joint Strike Fight­er air­craft.) That is close to the $129 bil­lion es­tim­ate for the Army Fu­ture Com­bat Sys­tem and well above the cost of the me­dia’s fa­vor­ite poster child for over­priced weapons sys­tems, the $63 bil­lion F-22 Rap­tor fight­er jet.

Tight Budgets

Al­though the Mar­ine mod­ern­iz­a­tion cost is spread over many years, it is still bust­ing the budget of what has al­ways been the smal­lest armed ser­vice in the De­fense De­part­ment. “It’s hor­ribly tight,” said Kev­in Mc­Con­nell, a re­tired Mar­ine ma­jor now serving as a plan­ner with the Corps’s Com­bat De­vel­op­ment Com­mand, based in Quantico, Va. In the long-range fore­cast for the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, for ex­ample, “the in­vest­ment in EFV alone ex­ceeds, yearly, what we would nor­mally think of as the pro­cure­ment [budget] for the en­tire Mar­ine Corps,” Mc­Con­nell said. And in the near term, “we’re fight­ing a war that’s beat­ing the heck out of our equip­ment. So I will very much go after sup­ple­ment­al [budgets for Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan] as long as they’re avail­able—not only to sus­tain the force in-theat­er but to help us mod­ern­ize. If those sup­ple­ment­als don’t come through, the next dec­ade’s go­ing to be kind of tough.”

The Mar­ine Corps has already made hard choices. For the past two dec­ades, the Navy con­tin­ued to buy fight­er planes and heli­copters, but the Mar­ines mostly held onto aging and in­creas­ingly hard-to-main­tain air­craft while wait­ing for the V-22 and their ver­sion of the F-35 fight­er, now ex­pec­ted to enter ser­vice in 2012.

“There were a lot of ar­gu­ments for and against the V-22,” said Robert Work, a re­tired Mar­ine col­on­el who is an ana­lyst at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments. “Five years ago, I was not a fan. But the bot­tom line is, now there really is no oth­er op­tion. The war has es­sen­tially worn out the Mar­ine Corps heli­copter fleet. The V-22 is the an­swer we’re go­ing to make work.”

Oth­er ex­pens­ive as­pects of the Mar­ine Corps plan are not yet set in stone—above all, the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, which has been cut from a planned pur­chase of 1,000-plus EFVs to few­er than 600, even as the cost rose to $16 mil­lion per vehicle and the de­vel­op­ment sched­ule fell four years be­hind. “There’s still a lot of de­bate over the EFV,” Work said. “Do you really even need it? Could you do it a lot cheap­er?”

An­swer­ing these ques­tions re­quires go­ing bey­ond the prob­lems of spe­cif­ic pro­grams to look at the Mar­ine Corps’s over­all vis­ion of its fu­ture—and, ul­ti­mately, at the ba­sic mis­sion of the Corps.

“Who is this force sup­posed to be used against?” asked Dave Baker, an ana­lyst and au­thor who served in the Of­fice of Nav­al In­tel­li­gence. “Who are we go­ing to in­vade?”

Big Wars, Small Wars

For 200 years, the Mar­ine Corps has had a split mil­it­ary per­son­al­ity. Even the lyr­ics to the Mar­ine hymn de­clare it. “From the halls of Mon­te­zuma”—a ma­jor 1847 land battle in the Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an War—”to the shores of Tripoli”—a pres­id­en­tially ordered po­lice ac­tion against North Afric­an pir­ates in 1805—the Corps has swung back and forth between aug­ment­ing the Army in pro­longed ground com­bat and serving as a glob­al fire bri­gade launched from Navy ships.

The split between ma­jor war and crisis re­sponse goes back to the found­ing of the Re­pub­lic. “In the Con­sti­tu­tion, Con­gress has the au­thor­ity to ‘main­tain’ a Navy but to ‘raise’ an Army,” ex­plained D. Robert Wor­ley, a former mar­ine and a seni­or fel­low at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity’s In­sti­tute of Gov­ern­ment. “The De­part­ment of War was there to mo­bil­ize an army when Con­gress de­clared war. The De­part­ment of the Navy, on the oth­er hand, was a stand­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion the pres­id­ent could use without go­ing to Con­gress.” Com­bat troops who em­barked on Navy ships—mar­ines—car­ried gun­boat dip­lomacy ashore in what a land­mark 1940 op­er­a­tions manu­al co­di­fied as “small wars.” Even the massive con­flicts of the 20th cen­tury, which led to the mer­ger of the War and Navy De­part­ments in­to the De­fense De­part­ment in 1947, nev­er drew the Mar­ine Corps en­tirely away from its clas­sic crisis-re­sponse role, as in Haiti in 1915 and 1994, or the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic in 1916 and 1965.

“World War I, World War II, those are an­om­alies,” said Col. Douglas King, a seni­or plan­ner at the Mar­ine Corps’s Com­bat De­vel­op­ment Com­mand. King and oth­er mar­ines em­phas­ize that the Corps must be pre­pared for wars big and small, and that the pop­u­lar ima­gin­a­tion still thinks of the Mar­ines in terms of massive seaborne in­va­sions such as the 1945 at­tack on Iwo Jima. But the Mar­ines con­ceived of those tac­tics in the 1930s, per­fec­ted them dur­ing World War II, re­prised them one last time at In­chon in 1950 dur­ing the Korean War, and have nev­er un­der­taken such an as­sault again.

In the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War, the threat of a Mar­ine land­ing kept much of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s army along the coast while the U.S. Army out­flanked it in­land, but Army Gen. Nor­man Schwar­zkopf, the Desert Storm com­mand­er, nev­er sent the Mar­ines ashore for fear of heavy cas­u­al­ties. By con­trast, King said, “since the end of the Cold War, we’ve con­duc­ted about 85 re­sponses to crises, any­thing from raids to hu­man­it­ari­an op­er­a­tions.”

Many of these mis­sions are dis­aster re­lief. But the Mar­ines must of­ten go ashore in war zones to serve as peace­keep­ers or to evac­u­ate U.S. cit­izens. “Non­com­bat” can turn in­to “com­bat” in a leth­al hurry, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of power­ful weapons in the hands of in­sur­gents and rebel groups around the world only in­creases the risks. In 1983, a single truck bomb in Beirut killed 241 U.S. peace­keep­ers, al­most all of them mar­ines. In 2006, the Corps re­turned to Le­ban­on to ex­tric­ate 14,000 Amer­ic­an na­tion­als from the cross­fire between Is­rael and Hezbol­lah. Neither side at­tacked the mar­ines, but the po­ten­tial danger was un­der­scored by Hezbol­lah’s use of anti-tank and anti-ship mis­siles against the Is­rael­is, weapons that were once de­ployed only by the mil­it­ar­ies of na­tion-states. Hezbol­lah was able to fire a mis­sile that crippled an Is­raeli cor­vette sail­ing 10 miles off­shore.

Such weapons could make a tra­di­tion­al massed land­ing in the man­ner of Iwo Jima look like the Charge of the Light Bri­gade on wa­ter skis. The clas­sic tac­tic is to bring Navy am­phi­bi­ous as­sault ships with­in sight of shore to dis­gorge the land­ing force, which struggles through the wa­ter to seize the miles of gently graded beach ne­ces­sary to land a siz­able force and its re­quis­ite sup­plies. Only then could the mar­ines move in­land to pur­sue their ac­tu­al ob­ject­ives.

At Iwo Jima there was only one suit­able beach, and the Ja­pan­ese de­fend­ers knew it; com­ing ashore this way was bloody even in 1945. Against Ir­a­ni­an or North Korean forces with shore-launched cruise mis­siles, shoulder-fired anti-tank rock­ets, and abund­ant mines on land and in the sea, such a land­ing would be sui­cid­al.

The mar­ines’ solu­tion was to by­pass the beach. In­stead, they would keep the fleet well out at sea, with plenty of man­euv­er­ing room, and then launch a sud­den, sav­age, high-speed at­tack that would come ashore at mul­tiple points—seek­ing nar­row gaps in en­emy de­fenses in­stead of a single large beach—and keep mov­ing in­land without stop­ping to build up a single, vul­ner­able beach­head. The only prob­lem with this plan was that the Corps’s ex­ist­ing equip­ment could not pull it off. So the ser­vice set out to build such a cap­ab­il­ity.

High-Tech Am­bi­tions

De­vel­op­ing tech­no­lo­gies to ex­ecute the Mar­ine Corps’s new tac­tics has been a 25-year-long or­deal. The V-22 Os­prey pro­gram began in 1982 and first de­ployed to Ir­aq last fall. The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, still at least sev­en years from field­ing, of­fi­cially began in 1995 but is the suc­cessor of two am­phi­bi­ous ar­mored vehicle pro­jects that were aban­doned. “This is the solu­tion they came up with 20-plus years ago and have been try­ing to field ever since,” said T.X. Hammes, a re­tired Mar­ine col­on­el who wrote an icon­o­clast­ic book, The Sling and the Stone, on how low-tech foes can de­feat ex­pens­ive Amer­ic­an hard­ware.

The Corps suffered through all of the clas­sic dif­fi­culties of com­plex mil­it­ary weapons pur­chases and through pain­ful budget cuts in the 1990s. But its fun­da­ment­al prob­lem was the re­volu­tion­ary nature of what it wanted to build. Both the V-22 Os­prey and the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle are hy­brids, whose ma­chinery must be phys­ic­ally re­con­figured to op­er­ate in two dis­tinct modes.

The V-22 tilt-ro­tor, as the name im­plies, uses gear­boxes and hy­draul­ics to tilt its ro­tor blades at dif­fer­ent angles, al­low­ing it to take off and land like a heli­copter but fly long dis­tances like a tur­bop­rop air­plane. The EFV trans­forms from ground vehicle to wa­ter vehicle by fold­ing up its sus­pen­sion, re­tract­ing its tank-like tracks, de­ploy­ing sta­bil­izer fins from its back and sides, ex­tend­ing a met­al bow plate to bet­ter cut the waves, and rev­ving its en­gine to 2,700 horsepower, which kicks the 40-ton ma­chine bod­ily out of the wa­ter to skim across the sur­face at about 30 miles per hour. “It’s not just a swim­ming tank,” Hammes said. “It’s a wa­ter-ski­ing tank.”

It’s no won­der that get­ting such ma­chinery to work takes money, time, and—in the case of the V-22—lives. The Os­prey’s worst crash came in April 2000, when a Mar­ine pi­lot brought his air­craft down so steeply—drop­ping much faster than he was mov­ing for­ward—that one ro­tor des­cen­ded in­to its own down­wash of tur­bu­lent air and stopped provid­ing lift (a phe­nomen­on called “vor­tex ring state” or “power set­tling”). Be­cause the V-22’s test pi­lots had re­leased the air­craft to op­er­a­tion­al Mar­ine squad­rons to try out new air­borne tac­tics, the crash killed not only the pi­lot and co-pi­lot but 17 young rifle­men rid­ing in the back.

Wheth­er the V-22’s unique design makes it more or less vul­ner­able to this par­tic­u­lar kind of ac­ci­dent than a tra­di­tion­al two-ro­tor heli­copter is an opaque tech­nic­al de­bate. But an­oth­er crash, in Decem­ber 2000, began with a leak in the air­craft’s hy­draul­ics sys­tem that turned deadly be­cause of a glitch in the flight soft­ware—and both of those sys­tems are un­usu­ally com­plic­ated in or­der to handle the air­craft’s trans­ition between two modes of flight.

“The Os­prey is a won­der­ful concept,” said Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon chief of op­er­a­tion­al test­ing who over­saw the air­craft’s tri­al flights, “but in prac­tice it has in­tro­duced all kinds of new is­sues that I don’t think the de­sign­ers ap­pre­ci­ated or even con­tem­plated. It has lots of re­li­ab­il­ity fail­ures. The Mar­ine Corps will tell you that all new air­craft de­vel­op­ment pro­grams have prob­lems. Not like this, and not after 20 years of de­vel­op­ment.”

Coyle cites news re­ports and a leaked Mar­ine Corps memo on the Os­prey’s more re­cent prob­lems: land­ing gear that failed to de­ploy, en­gines that wore out pre­ma­turely, and even a poorly sealed fil­ter that clogged eas­ily and will cost an es­tim­ated $54,500 per air­craft to cor­rect. The Mar­ine Corps in­sists that fixes are in place or un­der way and cites fig­ures show­ing that the Os­prey’s main­ten­ance de­mands and break­down rate com­pare fa­vor­ably with the less com­plex but of­ten geri­at­ric heli­copters it is slated to re­place.

The Swim­ming Tank

The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, mean­while, is years be­hind the V-22 in solv­ing its mech­an­ic­al prob­lems. In a 2006 test, the main gun jammed, hy­draul­ics leaked, elec­tron­ics froze up, struts cracked, and the pro­to­types com­pleted only three out of more than 20 planned events.

“I didn’t have a smoking gun,” said Mar­ine Col. John Bry­ant, who took over as pro­gram man­ager in the de­mor­al­ized days after the ‘06 test. “I didn’t have one or two things I could fix. I had a very com­plex plat­form with fail­ures spread throughout. There were a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of fail­ures in the hy­draul­ics sys­tem”—used to ex­tend and re­tract the EFV’s as­sor­ted flaps, bow plate, and tracks—”which is pretty much unique, but the single largest source of fail­ures was the gun tur­ret. We know how to make tur­rets.”

In part, the Mar­ine Corps was pay­ing for de­cisions made earli­er in the pro­gram, when budget cuts forced the Corps to fo­cus on the crit­ic­al chal­lenge of get­ting a 40-ton ar­mored vehicle to skim the wa­ter like a speed­boat and skimp on the more-mundane re­li­ab­il­ity work. In part, the sheer com­plex­ity of the ma­chine over­whelmed the man­age­ment skills of the smal­lest mil­it­ary ser­vice, which his­tor­ic­ally re­lies on the Navy to de­vel­op its air­craft and on the Army to de­vel­op its ground vehicles.

“For the most part, in the past, the Mar­ine Corps was not in the de­vel­op­ment­al busi­ness; they were in the pro­cure­ment busi­ness,” said Col. Wil­li­am Taylor, a Mar­ine ac­quis­i­tion of­fi­cial widely cred­ited with help­ing to over­haul the V-22 pro­gram. “We’re in a trans­ition phase where the pace of the Mar­ine Corps’s de­vel­op­ment­al ef­forts is slightly out ahead of their cap­ab­il­it­ies.”

Since the 2006 test­ing flop, the Mar­ine Corps in­sists it has got­ten re­li­gion on re­li­ab­il­ity: The ser­vice ac­cep­ted a four-year delay to do a top-to-bot­tom re­design and set up its first ac­quis­i­tion of­fice, headed by Taylor, ded­ic­ated to over­see­ing ground-vehicle pro­grams. The re­vamped EFV will go be­fore the Pentagon’s De­fense Ac­quis­i­tion Board in late May; if it is ap­proved, the Corps will is­sue con­tracts for a new set of pro­to­types.

Skep­ti­cism re­mains in power­ful places. “We’ve seen a real em­bar­rass­ment,” said Rep. Henry Wax­man, D-Cal­if., who as chair­man of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee has made the EFV a par­tic­u­lar tar­get. “It’s hard to be very con­fid­ent after look­ing at the his­tory of this tank.”

Even the EFV’s top sup­port­ers on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, Mis­sis­sippi Demo­crat Gene Taylor and Mary­land Re­pub­lic­an Ro­s­coe Bart­lett—who head the pan­el over­see­ing Mar­ine pro­cure­ment—have leaned hard on the Corps to con­sider ma­jor re­designs of either the hull or the en­gine to bet­ter pro­tect the vehicle against the kind of im­pro­vised land mines that have proved so deadly in Ir­aq. “Every­body’s com­mit­ted to the vehicle,” Bart­lett told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “[But] the Mar­ines are go­ing to be liv­ing with this for 30 years, and we feel it’s worth a little ef­fort now to make sure we’ve got it as good as it can be.”

So what does all of this ef­fort, ex­pense, and mech­an­ic­al com­plex­ity ac­tu­ally do for mar­ines in com­bat? And con­sid­er­ing the Mar­ine Corps’s var­ied op­er­a­tions, ex­actly what kinds of con­flict are the V-22 and the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle suited for?

Seaborne Blitzkrieg

The V-22 Os­prey was con­ceived at the height of the Cold War for sweep­ing, high-speed man­euvers from the sea. It entered ser­vice 25 years later in Ir­aq, an all-but-land­locked coun­try where U.S. troops are slog­ging through a long, slow fight, one neigh­bor­hood or vil­lage at a time. Some of the ex­pens­ive cap­ab­il­it­ies that the Os­prey provides are simply ir­rel­ev­ant to Ir­aq—but by no means all.

The V-22’s ad­vant­age comes from its hy­brid flight. There’s an old joke among avi­at­ors that heli­copters don’t ac­tu­ally fly, they just beat the air in­to sub­mis­sion. The abil­ity to take off and land ver­tic­ally, without the need for a run­way, comes with a price: Heli­copters per­form poorly in long-dis­tance flight com­pared with fixed-wing air­planes. By tilt­ing its ro­tors at dif­fer­ent angles, the V-22 can dis­pense with an air­strip and still fly faster, high­er, and—be­cause air­plane-style flight is much more fuel-ef­fi­cient—farther than con­ven­tion­al heli­copters. (See map, this page.)

The Os­prey’s speed and range are ar­gu­ably overkill for Ir­aq, where most mis­sions are short-range hops in and out of the many U.S. bases. Its aptitude for alti­tude, however, has already proven use­ful: In­sur­gents have shot down con­ven­tion­al U.S. heli­copters with ma­chine guns, but the V-22 can climb to 13,000 feet, too high to hit with small-arms fire. In­sur­gents have oc­ca­sion­ally used shoulder-fired anti-air­craft mis­siles, which can reach high­er tar­gets, but fly­ing high­er than con­ven­tion­al heli­copters gives Os­prey pi­lots more re­ac­tion time to drop flares and evade.

A rumored de­ploy­ment of V-22s to Afgh­anistan, where U.S. troops are spread thin over vast dis­tances and at high alti­tudes, should be a bet­ter test of the V-22’s per­form­ance. But where the Os­prey really shines is at even longer ranges. When the mar­ines first de­ployed from their ships to Afgh­anistan in 2001, for ex­ample, they had to move in la­bor­i­ous stages from the In­di­an Ocean with the help of land­ing areas in Pakistan. With the V-22, the same force could have flown over Pakistani ter­rit­ory and hit the Taliban strong­hold of Kanda­har in two hours.

Over such dis­tances, however, the V-22s can move only mar­ine rifle­men, their per­son­al gear, and small loads of vi­tal sup­plies. (Work is pro­gress­ing on a mini-jeep that can fit in­to the Os­prey as well.) The lar­ger loads needed to sus­tain a ro­bust fight­ing force—bulk sup­plies, ar­til­lery pieces, Hum­vees—still have to be slung un­der hulk­ing heavy-lift heli­copters, the CH-53s. The Corps is budget­ing $16 bil­lion to buy a more power­ful “K” ver­sion of this es­sen­tial air­craft, but it will still be a heli­copter, which means it will fly slower, lower, and at short­er ranges than the tilt-ro­tor V-22.

Farther Off­shore

The heav­iest Mar­ine Corps equip­ment—tanks and oth­er ar­mored vehicles—can­not be de­livered by air to a battle zone un­til in­fantry troops seize an air­field large enough to ac­com­mod­ate Air Force trans­ports. If the Mar­ines need ar­mor in the first phase of an am­phi­bi­ous land­ing, it must come ashore either on vul­ner­able land­ing craft or un­der its own power—which is where the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle comes in.

Like the Amtracs of World War II and the cur­rent Am­phi­bi­ous As­sault Vehicle, the EFV can roll off the back of a Navy trans­port in­to the wa­ter, mo­tor to the beach, roll onto land, and start fight­ing. But the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle’s mech­an­ic­ally com­plex trans­form­a­tion al­lows it to skim the waves in­stead of wal­low through them, mak­ing it eas­ily three times as fast as its pre­de­cessors. So rather than come with­in sight of shore to launch the cur­rent am­phi­bi­ous ar­mor—thus ex­pos­ing it­self to at­tack—the fleet could de­ploy EFVs from over the ho­ri­zon, 25 or 30 miles away.

But is that enough? “Twenty years ago”—when the Corps’s new tac­tics were con­ceived—”we were talk­ing about 25 miles,” said one ana­lyst who works for the Mar­ine Corps. “The EFV is based on the idea that the en­emy can’t reach out 25 miles. Now they can.” The C-802 cruise mis­sile used in Hezbol­lah’s suc­cess­ful strike against the Is­raeli cor­vette in 2006, for ex­ample, has a max­im­um range of about 75 miles.

The Navy is so wor­ried about shore-based mis­siles, mines, and swarms of mo­tor­boats armed with sui­cide bombs that it is de­vel­op­ing a new class of “Lit­tor­al Com­bat Ship” spe­cific­ally de­signed to ven­ture in­to shal­low wa­ters while the rest of the fleet hangs back. (See NJ, 3/15/08, p. 26.) “Once the en­emy gets guided weapons, the whole [scen­ario] be­comes totally dif­fer­ent,” ana­lyst Work said. “You ain’t go­ing to be op­er­at­ing 25 miles off the coast. You’ve got to op­er­ate a hun­dred miles off­shore, and you’re go­ing to use, primar­ily, air­craft.”

Even at 30-plus mph, the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle can­not bring troops ashore from 100 miles out. The Navy has a massive hov­er­craft called the LCAC (Land­ing Craft, Air Cush­ion) that can carry one heavy tank or sev­er­al ar­mored cars over 200 miles of ocean at 45 miles an hour. But the hov­er­craft is ef­fect­ively un­ar­mored. Un­like the EFV, which can shrug off ma­chine-gun fire—al­though not rock­et-pro­pelled gren­ades or large road­side bombs—the LCAC can come ashore only on beaches already se­cured.

A Nar­row Niche

So how would mar­ines get ashore? The V-22 Os­prey can take off from a ship 100 miles out at sea and carry troops 400 miles in­land; even the CH-53 can man­age 200 miles bey­ond the shoreline in this scen­ario. (The CH-46 could reach only 40 miles in­land, a ma­jor reas­on for its re­place­ment by the V-22.) But any en­emy with enough anti-ship weapons to keep the Navy 100 miles out could prob­ably af­ford enough anti-air­craft mis­siles to shoot down in­com­ing Mar­ine Corps air­craft.

“You wouldn’t take a land­ing force and fly them in­to an in­teg­rated air de­fense without hav­ing done something about it first,” said Col. Glenn Wal­ters, a seni­or avi­ation plan­ner at Mar­ine Corps headquar­ters. Cruise mis­siles, un­manned drones, and jet air­craft—not only from Navy and Mar­ine Corps ships but also from Air Force bases on land—would have to sav­age an en­emy’s net­work of radar and mis­sile launch­ers first. Only then could tilt-ro­tor air­craft move through the gaps in en­emy de­fenses—us­ing their speed, range, and alti­tude to go around or over the re­main­ing threats—to land rifle­men in areas thor­oughly “san­it­ized” by smart bombs.

Those troops in turn could tear big­ger holes in the de­fenses to let the CH-53s, fly­ing lower and slower than the Os­preys, bring in heav­ier weapons. Thus re­in­forced, light in­fantry should be able to se­cure sites for the LCAC hov­er­craft to land heavy ar­mor.

Where the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle fits in such a scen­ario is not en­tirely clear. Un­like tilt-ro­tors, con­ven­tion­al heli­copters, or even hov­er­craft, the EFV can­not be launched from ships 100 or 200 miles out at sea. Be­fore the Navy would come in closer—even a small am­phi­bi­ous as­sault ship costs $1 bil­lion and car­ries 400 sail­ors, not count­ing mar­ines—it would want en­emy de­fenses thor­oughly beaten down, which would not leave much for the EFV to fight.

The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle’s re­volu­tion­ary tech­no­logy ends up mak­ing it suit­able for a fairly nar­row com­bat niche: at­tack­ing en­emies who have enough anti-ship weapons to force the fleet to stay 25—but not 100—miles off­shore, and who have enough ma­chine guns to keep the un­ar­mored LCAC hov­er­craft from land­ing but not enough rock­et-pro­pelled gren­ades or im­pro­vised land mines to pen­et­rate the mod­er­ately ar­mored EFV. On top of that, the Mar­ine Corps won’t buy enough EFVs to at­tack such op­pon­ents on a large scale.

“Would you ever do a clas­sic am­phi­bi­ous in­va­sion with this? We’re only go­ing to have just over 500,” said Ro­ger Smith, the deputy as­sist­ant Navy sec­ret­ary who over­sees Mar­ine ex­ped­i­tion­ary war­fare pro­cure­ments. Even the ori­gin­al plan to buy 1,000 or more would hardly al­low the Corps to rep­lic­ate Iwo Jima, Smith ac­know­ledged: “We’ve got a com­pletely dif­fer­ent force.”

The Old Is New Again

The Mar­ine Corps, and the Navy for that mat­ter, are simply smal­ler than they were dur­ing the Cold War, let alone World War II. Even the planned, highly ex­pens­ive ex­pan­sion of the Mar­ine Corps from its cur­rent strength of 189,000 to 202,000 will only re­turn the ser­vice to its 1980s peak. The Navy, mean­while, has gone from hav­ing enough am­phi­bi­ous as­sault ships to de­ploy three Mar­ine bri­gades sim­ul­tan­eously—a frac­tion of the force at In­chon or Iwo Jima—to not quite enough to carry two. Two bri­gades happened to be the size of the Mar­ine feint dur­ing the Gulf War.

“You could not stage an am­phi­bi­ous in­va­sion of Ir­an. You couldn’t stage an am­phi­bi­ous in­va­sion of North Korea,” said Baker, the former nav­al in­tel­li­gence ana­lyst. “God knows, you can’t in­vade China.”

In the con­text of the “small wars” and non­com­bat crises that have his­tor­ic­ally been the Mar­ine Corps’s forte, however, a two-bri­gade force looms lar­ger. The Corps’s plan for the “long war”—the Pentagon’s term for the battle against ter­ror­ism after the Ir­aq con­flict—calls for re­turn­ing to the tra­di­tion­al ro­ta­tion of small, flex­ible Mar­ine Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Units stand­ing by on Navy ships around the globe, aug­men­ted by new form­a­tions spe­cially tailored for “se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion” mis­sions: help­ing al­lied mil­it­ar­ies to train, to hunt ter­ror­ists, and to re­spond to nat­ur­al dis­asters. In the fu­ture, one Janu­ary 2008 strategy pamph­let says bluntly, “there will be few­er high-spec­trum com­bat op­er­a­tions that will re­quire our mar­ines to bring the full force of our com­bined arms cap­ab­il­it­ies to bear.”

Such a fu­ture of small forces op­er­at­ing over long dis­tances against re­l­at­ively lim­ited threats would of­fer many op­por­tun­it­ies for the $67 mil­lion V-22 Os­prey. The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, re­l­at­ively cheap at $16 mil­lion apiece, would see less real-world use for the dol­lar.

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