We’ve been discussing the MEU/ARG for a few posts and we’ve looked at the number of MEU/ARGs deployed at any given moment, the fact that ARGs are being split up and the ships are operating independently, the LSD is being replaced by a highly questionable LX(R) based on the LPD-17, and so on. The central issue, however, is whether the MEU/ARG concept represents a useful military force in today’s world. In order to answer that, we need to look at a few specific questions.
- Is the MEU sized and equipped to perform useful missions?
- Is an amphibious assault (whether airborne or waterborne) a viable operation?
- Can low end, peacetime operations be better and more cheaply performed by Army units?
- Can the MEU/MEB/MEF contribute to high end combat operations to a degree sufficient to justify their cost?
Let’s answer these one at a time.
Is the MEU sized and equipped to perform useful missions?
The Marines state that the MEU is the smallest unit capable of the full range of combat operations.
A MEU is certainly adequately sized for many peacetime missions such as hostage rescue, embassy protection or evacuation, or very small scale raids. That said, the MEU operates under one severe limitation. Marine tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment can’t get ashore other than by waterborne delivery over a beach or through a port. This limits the range of operations requiring that kind of combat power to those within a relatively very short distance from the beach or port. This also eliminates the possibility of quick reinforcement of an operation. Loading, transporting, unloading at the beach, assembling, and moving to the site of an operation takes far too much time to be a practical option in most scenarios. Inland aviation assaults, the current Marine trend, all but eliminates the use of armor/artillery or the possibility of heavy reinforcements. That raises the question, then, of whether the MEU is properly equipped for these missions as just a light infantry force. The specter of
looms over any light infantry operation - what seemed like overwhelming force to
arrest two men turned out to be woefully inadequate. Mogadishu
This suggests the following question. Given the types of missions commonly undertaken or anticipated, should the MEU be equipped not with tanks and artillery but rather with lighter gunned vehicles and more heavy mortars that can be air-transported? The answer would seem to be a resounding yes. Whether such a vehicle is practical is a question.
Alternatively, should the MEU retain its armor and heavy artillery but add the aforementioned lighter equipment? Of course, that leads to budgetary and ship storage issues (which might be solved by adding a fourth ship to the notional ARG?) that are not easily overcome.
Thus, the MEU seems to be inappropriately equipped for the common peacetime missions it might be called on to perform. However, a MEU is also tasked with high end combat as part of a larger MEB/MEF. Is the MEU adequately equipped for high end combat?
Every potential enemy is gearing up for high end, high explosive combat with new tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled guns, artillery, etc. This is the world the MEU will enter if it comes to high end combat against a peer or near-peer. The MEU is lightly armed and armored for such encounters. The magnitude and intensity of high end armored combat is beyond the scope of this post but it seems fairly evident that the MEU is under equipped for high end combat.
Thus, the overall conclusion is that the MEU is inappropriately equipped for both the low end peacetime missions and high end combat.
Is an amphibious assault (whether airborne or waterborne) a viable operation?
In past posts we’ve discussed and analyzed the ability of the MEU to conduct waterborne assaults and found that a lack of connectors leaves the MEU unable to get armor ashore in the initial waves and sustain combat operations. We’ve also noted that aviation assaults are extremely vulnerable to shoulder launched SAMs and guns, lack the ability to transport any heavy weapons, and do not have the transport capacity to sustain an operation. Thus, an aviation assault is viable only for the very low end of the combat spectrum and even that is risky (
, for example, though that was not a Marine
operation). Combine this with the Navy’s
complete absence of gun support and an assault doctrine that is total fantasy
and it’s clear that assaults are not viable under any but the most benign
Can low end, peacetime operations be better and more cheaply performed by Army units?
I don’t know enough about Army units to evaluate this. I simply pose the question in light of the immense cost of maintaining a 30+ ship amphibious fleet for relatively little return. There have been very, very few actual amphibious operations over the last several decades. Yes, Marines have been involved in a great deal of combat but as regular ground troops rather than amphibious assault forces. Given today’s global reach by the Air Force, Army units could probably handle any peacetime operation that a MEU might be tasked with. What are the economics of the two approaches? I don’t know. I suspect that the Army approach is much cheaper. Let’s face it, 30+ amphibious ships don’t come cheap!
Can the MEU/MEB/MEF contribute to high end combat operations to a degree sufficient to justify their cost?
The Corps, in general, is shedding tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment in favor of “lightness” and crisis response, which means low end operations. Again, this means that the MEU (for the rest of this discussion, MEU is understood to include MEB/MEF) is ill-suited for high end combat. That’s basically the Corps’ stated position.
The purpose of the Marine Corps, at the high end of the spectrum, is to seize landing spots, whether beach or port, for follow on forces. In addition, they may perform flanking or diversionary assaults. The key part of this, the part that sets the Marines apart from the other branches and represents their unique contribution to the
military is their ability to conduct amphibious
assaults. As WWII taught us, assaults
are violent affairs and require as much “explosive” power as possible. Unfortunately, this is almost opposite of the
direction the Marines are now headed. US
So, how does a lightly equipped MEU contribute to the violent and explosive world of high end combat? Well, since armor and heavy equipment can’t be transported inland that means that inland combat contributions can only be light infantry affairs. In high end, peer combat that’s a scenario for disaster. For the beach/port seizure scenario the MEU lacks connectors to get armor ashore in the initial waves, lacks naval gun support, can’t get AAVs ashore without violating the 50+ mile standoff that the Navy insists on, and has inadequate numbers of tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment even if they could get them ashore. The MEU lacks AAW and Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) protection. Further, port seizure is a specialized operation that will, undoubtedly, require specialized equipment, doctrine, and tactics which we don’t currently have.
Considering all this, it seems clear that the MEU is not well suited to high end combat and, worse, is steadily moving further away from that capability as it sheds tanks and artillery in addition to personnel.
To return to the main question of whether the MEU/ARG concept represents a useful military force in today’s world, the answer seems to be either no or a very limited, qualified maybe.
Now, some of you have already decided that ComNavOps is anti-Marine Corps. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am, is dead set against the path the Marines are currently on which is converting a potent fighting force to a light infantry, crisis response and humanitarian assistance organization.
I believe we do need the capability to seize beach/port landing spots and engage in high end, violent combat to do so. The lesser, peacetime missions are simply subsets of that. We need to analyze the requirements of beach/port seizure and begin rebuilding to that capability. We need to figure out how to get armor ashore in the initial waves, how to get AAVs ashore, how to provide AAW and C-RAM protection, completely revamp our assault doctrine to something we can actually do, and figure out how to provide large explosive naval gun support, among many other needs. Do that and the MEU will again be a useful military force. Right now, it is not.