After a decade spent fighting low-tech insurgents, the US Marine Corps is again preparing to face enemies with tanks, missiles, and other modern weapons. PM climbs into the foxhole for a live-fire dress rehearsal of the next possible war.
The shell from an M777 lightweight howitzer leaps out of the barrel at a kilometre per second and doesn’t slow much during flight. The 90-cm-long round, aimed at a piece of desert earth labelled Gays Pass-13 (GP-13), won’t give up its kinetic energy without a fight. It gouges the rocky ground of the Mojave Desert before exploding in a spout of brown dust and black smoke.
Artillery impacts are commonplace here at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Centre at 29 Palms, California. The guns of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (3/3), have been hammering their target at the sloping base of a ridge for more than 20 minutes, making GP-13 a very unpleasant place, shredded with metal fragments and pitted with craters. It’s only going to get worse.
The bombardment of this patch of the Mojave Desert marks the start of a three-day live-fire drill, the last stage of the month-long Integrated Training Exercise (ITX). GP-13 is just one of many defensive positions the Marines need to shatter with artillery and airstrikes before the M1A1 Abrams tanks and eight-wheeled Light Armoured Vehicle-25s (LAVs) can push their simulated enemy out of Gays Pass.
The US Marines were founded on the ethos of expeditionary warfare, the ability to fight in enemy territory without established bases. The Second Continental Congress founded the service in 1775, not just to protect ships but to deploy from the sea to fight on land (hence its name.) The concept proved itself in modern combat during World War II, especially during the Corps’ island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.
But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, grinding counterinsurgency campaigns, didn’t fit this tactical model. Those conflicts were fought against shadowy enemies wielding rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and roadside bombs. Since 29 Palms is the place where Marines prepare for deployment, training here was based on the capabilities of insurgents the Corps would face.
The need to prepare for this type of combat came at the cost of preparation for expeditionary conflicts against better armed opponents. Jim Dunnigan, author and Pentagon consultant, says US forces have lost their skill at operating while “getting shot at a lot, often with big stuff”. Now the Marines must relearn how to survive enemy tanks, howitzers, and anti-aircraft missiles. “Infantry now have lots of experience, but the artillery and air-support forces have to adapt to more hostile environments,” Dunnigan says. “Senior commanders and planners have to practice procedures specific to high-intensity combat.”
At GP-13, stacks of tyres, shipping containers, and dirt-filled barriers stand in for enemy bunkers, T-72 battle tanks, and armoured vehicles called BMPs. These are the weapons used by the standing armies of rogue regimes and geopolitical peers, not insurgents. This is only the second time ITX has been run – the combined-arms exercise changed names when it swapped prospective enemies. It’s no coincidence that the 800 Marines of the 3/3 are preparing to deploy to the Pacific, where tensions are rising between the US and the well-equipped militaries of North Korea and China.
The concept of expeditionary warfare is evolving as new gear – particularly aircraft – enter the Corps’ inventory, but any changes are built on a foundation of classic Marine doctrine. “The key is to synchronise firepower with manoeuvre,” says Major Andrew Fanning, watching GP-13 from atop a slender ridge nicknamed the Gator, 4 kilometres away.
The instructors here at 29 Palms are called Coyotes; Fanning is the Coyote in command of those assessing the 3/3’s ground assault.
An F/A-18 jet is inbound to GP-13, carrying a 450-kg bomb that can turn a formidable T-72 into a smoldering ruin. But the warplane does not have a targeting pod – optical sensors that enable pilots to see the ground below from high altitudes, day or night – and the nearby fire-support team chose not to bring a laser designator that could guide the bomb. The Coyotes will certainly bring up this oversight during their after-action review. Close air support (CAS) is only as good as the pilot’s aim.
The 3/3’s solution is as old as World War I: A howitzer crew loads a flare into the M777 and sets the fuse to go off when the flare is on the ground. The flare skitters into GP-13 and ignites; the resulting bright light and tendril of smoke are a clear sign for the F/A-18. The warplane drops the weapon 9 kilometres away from the target – the bomb is already streaking through the air when the ground forces glimpse the jet, looking pale and almost ghostly as it cruises overhead.
A fiery flash and curling bloom of black smoke herald the bomb’s detonation, 11 seconds before the blast reaches the ears of observers on the Gator. “That’s some old-school CAS right there,” Fanning says with gruff approval.
A sniper-scout team on a nearby ridge radios confirmation that the T-72 has been eliminated; the rumble of engines and squeals of tank treads soon fill the air as the M1A1s move forward, getting GP-13 in range of their main guns. The objective will soon fall to Marines carried to the fight by the LAVs – there are bunkers there that Fanning says “can only be taken by bayonet” – and the conquest of the pass will continue.
The marines lighten up
In some respects, the United States military is now the most combat-proven in the world. “Every Marine is supposed to be a rifleman, and the tough fights in Iraq and Afghanistan fit that model,” says Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “But combined-arms warfare does need reinvigoration. It’s not a crisis, it’s just the right thing to emphasise next.”
Armoured vehicles are perfect examples of how the past decade of combat changed the way Marines fight. The counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were ill-suited to the bedrock tenets of what the Corps calls expeditionary manoeuvre warfare. That concept is built on rapid mobility, attacks from unexpected locations, and flexible battle planning.
Instead, Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan found themselves relying on fixed bases and conducting predictable patrols to show locals they were present. This enabled insurgents to plant cheap, effective roadside bombs that could demolish lightweight US. Humvees. The Pentagon spent R450 billion to rush life-saving mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles to Army soldiers and Marines.
Now that the Afghan war is limping to a conclusion, MRAPs have outgrown their usefulness. The extra girth that made them so useful is now a liability. The Marines can’t take them along during an invasion because the vehicles can’t fit on the Corps’ amphibious transports or rotorcraft.
So the Marines are jettisoning MRAPs, and that means changing the way 29 Palms does business. The exercise-support motor pool at 29 Palms has 185 MRAP variants, but Marine Corps headquarters ordered the number reduced to just 24, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Silkowski, the officer in charge of the base’s exercise-support division. “We were getting heavier and heavier vehicles, and that was bringing the Corps further from our roots,” Silkowski says. “Now we have to start lightening up and get away from this landlocked mindset.
Officials in Washington, stung by the cost of extended campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are likely to rely on the Marines’ style of warfare in future conflicts. Retired Navy Admiral Gary Roughead and analyst Kori Schake sum up the prevailing wisdom in a 2013 strategy paper written for the Brookings Institution: “We will be sending fewer forces to theatres of conflict, but we will expect those we do send to arrive faster.”
The Marines are expected to be the first on the scene of any disaster or fight. During a wider campaign, the Marines will “buy time for the larger joint force” to arrive, says Major-General Kenneth McKenzie Junior, a former commanding officer of Marine Expeditionary Units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McKenzie is the Corps’ representative during the upcoming Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), a top-down examination of strategic priorities and budget choices. Budget cuts have already led to an upcoming reduction in active-duty Marines from 202 100 to 182 100 by 2016.
The Marines are figuring out how they can prepare to do everything the White House is asking of them – to face standing armies, expand their presence in Asia, and maintain forward-deployed forces that can serve as first responders. “You can use the QDR to go back to the president and say, We’re not resourced to execute the vision that you have,” McKenzie says. “Or say, We can do it, but it’s going to be at a higher level of risk.”
The end of beachheads
New weapons are giving expeditionary doctrine a fresh edge that the Marines say will defeat enemies who are better equipped than insurgents. In World War II and Korea, Marines secured beaches and used them to stage pushes to inland objectives. Modern ship-to-shore invasions will attack those objectives directly. “We don’t see fighting for beachheads anymore. There are a variety of ways to avoid that fight,” McKenzie says. “We’ll enter where the enemy isn’t, or suppress parts of his defences and reach deep inland.”
A soon-to-debut game changer is the F-35B Lightning II, a multipurpose jet developed as one of three Joint Strike Fighter variants. The Marines started testing the first-delivered aircraft late last year. When it’s ready for deployment, sometime in 2017, the F-35B will provide air cover like an F/A-18, but without the need for well-developed airfields or carrier decks.
“It will be hard to hold long runways from somebody who’s going to be able to get at you with a high number of relatively cheap missiles,” McKenzie says.
The Taliban harass air bases in Afghanistan with suicide vehicles and mortars, but more advanced enemies can target them from thousands of kilometres away. Because the F-35B can take off and land vertically, it can transform tight patches of land into clandestine airfields, and troop ships into aircraft carriers.
One key piece of equipment in service now that will enable Marines to bypass beaches is the MV-22 Osprey. The tiltrotor can take off and land like a helicopter, then rotate its rotors to fly like an aeroplane. Despite a lethal development and high maintenance costs, the Osprey can carry cargo farther and faster than any helicopter (“Fixing the World’s Most Complicated Plane,” July 2012).
The MV-22 can ferry Marine infantry, aviation fuel, or vehicles to landing zones deep inland. At ITX, Ospreys ferried a company of Marines to assault positions in the far northwest of Gays Pass, demonstrating the aircraft’s reach.
The first day’s advance of the final exercise of ITX is coming to a halt. The Marines have pushed northwest as far as they can go and now must defend against a day and two nights of counterattacks. A half-dozen entrenched M1A1s and three companies of Marines in freshly dug foxholes face the enemy. Marine utility vehicles roll forward to create defensive berms.
The battle is simulated, but the dangers of high-fidelity training are real and can come from unexpected sources. The first day ends in tragedy when a bulldozer crushes 20-year-old Private Casey Holmes to death as he guards the line. ITX halts as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service begins its preliminary investigation. The desert is silent for hours before the mock battle resumes.
The final push
By the morning of ITX’s third and final day, the Marines of the 3/3 are haggard. They’ve been in the desert for more than two weeks, sleeping dirty in vehicles, on folding cots, or in rocky pits. Enemy attacks disrupted the night, causing a response of machine-gun tracers, frantic radio chatter, drifting flares, and shell bursts.
At sunrise, the tank crews and two companies of 3/3 Marine infantry are loading into LAVs to finally push the enemy out of Gays Pass. The ground attack’s objectives – GP-3, GP-2, and GP-9 – are just 7 kilometres away. Black smears from artillery and airstrikes darken the horizon.
Captain Pat O’Shea, one of the Coyotes embedded with the tanks, is waiting in a Humvee for the advance to resume. Marines prize efficiency because they are never sure of resupply. But in recent years that ethos has eroded, and most Marines are aware of it. “I’m a veteran of Afghanistan,” O’Shea says wryly. “Just keep it running – we’ll never run out of gas.”
Radio reports about GP-9 trickle in: BMPs destroyed, defending infantry in disarray, only one surviving T-72 tank. Right now, when the enemy struggles to react to the bombardment, is the best time for the ground advance to begin. Over the radio the company commanders plead to take the position, despite the presence of the remaining T-72 tanks. But the 3/3’s battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Wood, decides to crush resistance at GP-9 before moving. The assault force stews for an hour as air and artillery strikes ensue. The initiative has been sapped before the enemy even shoots.
The M1A1s finally receive orders to take the position, but receive fire from enemy anti-tank units as soon as they move. With all the firepower focused on GP-9, the imaginary defenders in another position climb out of shelters and ready antitank rockets. The Marine attackers will be pinned down until those rockets are destroyed or disrupted by artillery. “They moved without suppression,” O’Shea says. “There’s an old saying: Shooting without manoeuvre is a waste of ammo. Manoeuvre without shooting is suicide.”
A fresh bombardment of the anti-tank forces ceases, and the battalion commander is finally ready to unleash his Marines on GP-9. Tanks and LAVs advance, with O’Shea’s Humvee trailing close behind.
Half of the armoured vehicles halt and rip into the objective with 25 mm machine guns while the others approach from another direction. The gunfire stops as the forward LAVs come to
a halt; the rear ramp opens and infantry dash forward. All the technology and artistry of modern combat comes down to this – armed men running through the heat, boots kicking up dust. PM
Next-gen ship-to-shore tactics
Amphibious invasions won’t need beachheads to serve as staging areas; aircraft and weapons will enable Marines to strike deep inland directly from nearby bases or ships. In this scenario, the Corps follows its founding doctrine of expeditionary warfare, but uses modern gear to leapfrog the beach to take Objective X.
1. Clear the air
An F-35B Lightning II aircraft targets defensive command centres and mobile, radar-guided anti-aircraft guns. This enables other aircraft to operate safely over the area during the coming attack. The jump jet needs no aircraft carrier; it takes off and lands from a smaller amphibious assault ship.
2. Secure the landing zone
Amphibious vehicles deploy from the assault ship, land, and travel off-road to preserve the element of surprise. Infantry dismount from the vehicles and secure a landing zone with a defensive perimeter. The Corps’ highest current priority is a new landing craft that can travel faster and farther over water.
3. Land the artillery
MV-22 Ospreys, hauling M777 lightweight howitzers, arrive at the landing zone. The Marines set up the guns in minutes. The M777, more than 40 per cent lighter than the gun it replaced in 2005, is one of the first pieces of Marine equipment that re-embraced the Corps’ lapsed expeditionary model.
4. Suppress the enemy
The howitzers bombard Objective X, forcing the defenders to take cover inside bunkers and underground shelters. The shelling is done to protect an approaching air assault from small arms and shoulder-fired missiles.
5. Assault the objective
Another group of Ospreys, laden with dozens of Marines, flies toward Objective X. The M777s stop firing as the tiltrotors set down outside the target, disgorging infantry who secure the buildings and bunkers.
Gear of the future Marine
1. Cargo drones
Unmanned helicopters proved themselves by supplying Marines in Afghanistan since 2011. This March, the Corps extended their tours of duty indefinitely. By that time the Lockheed Martin aircraft, called K-Max, had hauled 1,5 million kilograms of cargo. More resupply and attack drones are expected in the future.
2. Robotic pack mules
The Legged Squad Support System (LS3) is a robot mule designed to navigate rugged terrain with nearly 200 kilograms on its back. To scope the best route, the robot uses a suite of sensors, including laser radar. Later this year the Marines will test the LS3 prototype’s performance at Marine desert and mountain bases.
3. Laser defences
The Marines are researching a defensive laser that can be installed on a 4WD vehicle. “We’re looking at a counter-unmanned-aerial-system capability right now, but in the future we’ll look at rockets, mortars, and artillery,” says Major-General Robert Walsh, deputy commanding general of the Marine Corps combat development command. “We’ve left a gap (in these defences) over the past 11 years. But we have to be able to counter them.”
4. Portable power
The Office of Naval Research is creating a hybrid solar, thermal, diesel, and JP-8 fuel system that can replace large, loud trailers that provide electricity to Marines in the field. The project’s managers hope the system will consume 40 per cent less fuel than current systems, operate much more quietly, and run on biofuels.