Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Marine Corps in Desert Storm - The Great Diversion

In the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, the Marines threatened, but did not conduct, an amphibious assault.  Their efforts created a diversion that tied up large numbers of Iraqi troops (60,000 – 80,000 depending on the source) defending against an assault that never materialized.  This reduced the numbers that the Coalition faced during the actual ground assault.  Most people believe that the diversion was a brilliant example of the value of amphibious forces.  To some extent, that’s true, however, in this case, the diversion was never a serious, viable threat due to the presence of mines.

“At the inception of Operation Desert Storm, it was unlikely that amphibious operations would take place, because of the minefields that lay along the Kuwaiti and Iraqi coast, and the threat posed by Iraqi antiship-missile capabilities.” (1)

Coalition planners did, indeed, consider the possibility of an amphibious assault with the goal of seizing the port at Ash Shuaybah, on the Kuwaiti coast.  However, when the Tripoli (LPH-10) and the Princeton (CG-59) struck mines on 18 February 1991, any thought of an actual assault was abandoned.  The U.S. and Coalition lacked the capacity to clear mines in a combat assault scenario.

“The force planners estimated any assault would need ten days of concentrated mine clearance to clear a path and three to five days of naval gunfire support to clear Iraqi beach defences. Air strikes and naval gunfire would also have to be used while the mines that were within range of Iraqi artillery were cleared. Before then, the amphibious force would have to stay over 70 miles from the coast.” (2)

Ten days to clear a path for an amphibious assault – and this did not include clearance of the more widespread minefields that prevented the amphibious ships from even reaching the area – as Tripoli and Princeton found out.

Had Saddam Hussein realized this, and he should have, he could have dismissed the amphibious possibility as the non-existent threat that it was.  However, no one ever accused Hussein of being a strategic or operational genius and he treated the non-existent threat as real.  Of course, in the end, it made no difference either way.

The salient point from this is that the presence of mines completely removed the realistic possibility of amphibious assault from the operational table.  Not only has nothing changed today but our mine countermeasures (MCM) capability has atrophied even further.  We have no realistic possibility of conducting amphibious assaults or port seizures when mines are present.  Given the vast inventories of mines possessed by all our likely enemies, those enemies are effectively immune from amphibious assault. 

The Marines and Navy can talk all they want about amphibious assault but until they begin to acquire the basic, non-glamorous capabilities like MCM, naval fire support, C-RAM, functional first wave connectors, etc., amphibious assault will remain just talk.



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(1)United States Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, “Marine Amphibious Force Operations in the Persian Gulf War”, 2nd Lt. Michael Russ, USMC, July 1997, Vol 123/7

(2)History of War website,

36 comments:

  1. "The Marines and Navy can talk all they want about amphibious assault but until they begin to acquire the basic, non-glamorous capabilities like MCM, naval fire support, C-RAM, functional first wave connectors, etc., amphibious assault will remain just talk."

    Exactly.

    Ironically, I do not think anything will change until the Army pushes the requirement. After all, if the nation needs to conduct future amphibious assaults, the USA will vastly surpass the USMC as a consumer of landing craft and transport.

    Still, there are some isolated pockets of development in this area.

    GAB
    GAB

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    1. "if the nation needs to conduct future amphibious assaults, the USA will vastly surpass the USMC as a consumer of landing craft and transport."

      An astute observation especially since the Marines are slowly but steadily getting out of the high end combat business in favor of crisis intervention and other light infantry operations in addition to their push to become our third air force.

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  2. You forget that each country/island nation has a different shoreline!
    Think about it, in the case of Kuwait it was narrow and easily defensible by mines.
    However if you have to do amphibious assault against a opponent with a large shoreline or a island nation then things look different.

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    1. Come on. Do some strategic and operational thinking. Each mile in a thousand mile shoreline is not equal. Some are near something of military value and some are not. For example, we could invade the northern shoreline of Russia in Siberia but there's nothing there of any value or interest! It's not all that hard to predict where an enemy might invade and concentrate your mines there, especially when you have an inventory of hundreds of thousands of mines which all our enemies have.

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    2. Scenarios against China and Russia are one thing, real world conventional conflicts are another.

      What if 5-10 years form now the US shifts strategic focus on Africa and Central/South America, there are a lot of places out there where a landing is if well planned and supported is possible.

      BTW, the same arguments against amphibious assault are against airborne paratrooper formations.

      Point being the're won't be airborne landings like those in Normandy, yes there won't be but ive not see the US cut down its paratroopers.


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    3. A landing in 5-10 yrs time in Africa or C/SAmerica will be, essentially, an unopposed, logistical landing conducted at leisure. No African or C/SAmerican nation has or could possibly assemble a sufficiently powerful military to oppose a landing.

      Seriously, you ought to stop. You're not thinking this stuff through and there's a limit to how much of this nonsensical stuff I'm going to allow to appear.

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    4. The only opposed landing in the near future that might be attempted is in North Korea under certain scenarios.

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    5. "The only opposed landing in the near future that might be attempted is in North Korea under certain scenarios."

      Which begs the question, why do we have 33 big deck amphibious ships for a single, very unlikely scenario?

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    6. "Do some strategic and operational thinking."

      This is one of the themes of this blog. For too long, people (including the professional military) have operated in the theoretical realm and ignored the real world. The military's choice to focus on countering technology rather than countries is, possibly, the prime example of that and it has led us to an ill-prepared military.

      There's nothing wrong with theoretical thinking as long as it doesn't obscure real world considerations. A military strategy should be all about the real world but ours are not (to the extent that we have any!).

      If, as I have laid out in this blog, it is unlikely that we will need to conduct major amphibious landings in the foreseeable future, then why are we maintaining a 33-ship amphibious fleet and a large Marine Corps? This is an example of the kind of real world thinking that can often completely contradict theoretical thinking.

      I'm going to keep pushing this theme!

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    7. If we theorize for a second. Say,
      -China does not intervene
      -No nukes are used on both sides

      Then after a period of intense aereal bombardment witch would hit they're radars, airfields, naval bases ammo/fuel depots essentially doing what's been done in Desert Storm.

      Why would a large landing not be feasible? There forces would be enough depleted by that time, and stretching them further is only logical.
      North Korea has a large shoreline on two seas, also South Korea has a Marine corps of around 30.000 in peacetime that alone is a big advantage that would aid US amphibious operations.

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    8. "Why would a large landing not be feasible? "

      Mines.

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    9. "Why would a large landing not be feasible? "

      Again, you're not thinking operationally. If, as you posit, we've got control of the air, have hit all the worthwhile targets, and their forces are depleted, what would be the point of risking mines to conduct a landing? In that scenario, we can simply and safely route all ground forces through SKorea.

      NKorea has many tens of thousands of mines. We simply don't have the capability of clearing them in any useful time frame. Refer back to the Middle East mine episodes and how much time it took to clear the minefields.

      Think operationally!

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    10. Even in a North Korea scenario where you try the Iraqi "we are going to land but not", seems kind of a lot of resources to just conduct a feint.I mean, when you think about USMC, is that really their mission, to be used as a decoy?

      Something I was thinking about while I was shopping at Costco, Inchon, if I recall from my history and books, was a very tough location, had the element of surprise, US military had to dig around to find all the gear needed BUT, and it's big one, US military was only a few years removed from WW2 and having conducted lots of amphibious landings....so US military felt they could pull it off and even then realized it was very risky....anybody wonder if AFTER DECADES since then and pretty much not having to conduct a REAL landing with opposing force since, other than tripping over some CNN cameraman but real bad guys shooting back, now in 2017/2018!, is it possible that USMC and especially Pentagon, really don't want to ever conduct an amphibious landing? It's super risky, hasn't been done in decades, so many things can go wrong and we aren't nearly ready for (mines, just being one of them), really, does the military have the guts to do it? If we are never going to use it or properly fund it, why have a half ass capability?

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    11. You've brought up a couple of very serious issues.

      "USMC, is that really their mission, to be used as a decoy?"

      In an all out, peer war, we can't afford to have a division worth of Marines floating around on ships, doing nothing. Of course, the enemy might not know whether there were troops on board although I give Russian and Chinese intel sources enough credit to believe that they'll know. The point is, we'll need every available troop actually engaged in combat.

      "It's super risky"

      Forget the risky part. We've completely forgotten the cost of peer war in terms of lives. Even in WWII when the Pacific island invasions were a foregone conclusion, they were still very costly in terms of casualties. We've come to believe that war can be fought with precision, with delicacy, and that casualties are unacceptable. We are mentally not prepared for the wholesale slaughter that will characterize modern combat.

      Even if everything went perfectly in an assault, it would still be very costly in terms of lives.

      We need to get mentally prepared before we can begin preparing equipment-wise.

      Great comment, great points.

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    12. "Something I was thinking about while I was shopping at Costco, Inchon"

      I didn't know Inchon had a Costco?! :)

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  3. Great article, love the historical reference and the capabilaties you recommended the Navy/USMC should aqquire. My question is do you think the Navy is especially prone to these "far from reality" scenarios like opposed amphibious assaults in comparison to the other military branches? From what I have read especially here on your blog it seems the Navy far underestimates the capabilities of close peer enemies ( mostly China )
    FW

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    1. I'm not sure exactly what you're asking but, no, the Navy/Marines are no worse than the Army or Air Force in terms of underestimating our enemies. Consider, for example, the Army's frantic attempts to up-gun the Strykers. Idiotically, they believed that thin-skinned, underarmed Strykers would rule the battlefield. The Russian's performance in Ukraine has disabused them of that notion and now they are frantic to up-gun. Similarly, the Air Force seems to believe that our air bases are invulnerable when the reality is that ballistic missiles and cruise missiles make base survival a very questionable proposition and yet the Air Force is making no attempt to harden bases or deploy serious defenses. And so on with example after example.

      I focus on the Navy because, well, that's the name of the blog!

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    2. Great, that was precisely what I was asking for. Sorry, I am not a native speaker.
      FW

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    3. Don't worry, your English writing is excellent! Glad to have your comments.

      Delete
  4. Ten days sounds like if everything goes according to plan. Saddam might not had the assets, but a peer or near-peer would have had the assets to lay additional mines and interfere with the mine clearing operation with ships or aircraft.

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    1. "assets to ... interfere with the mine clearing operation"

      What we're really talking about here is mine clearing while under fire! Currently, we have no capability and no doctrine that I'm aware of to conduct combat mine clearance operations.

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    2. "Ten days"

      If some planner thinks ten days, you can bet the reality will be more like ten months.

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  5. CNO, do mines work well against LCACs? I'm thinking about the Taiwan strait.

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  6. Mine warfare doesn't get much attention because it's boring and not glamorous. But it is one of the best values in naval warfare (not counting ethical issues). Just make your enemy think you mined an area and he'll either avoid it or use time and resources to detect and clear mines which may not even exist. We need to go back to having dedicated mine warfare ships, even just a few in order to maintain the ability. Could commercial ships be easily converted to this purpose during war time?

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    1. Historically, mine layers have mostly been converted commercial ships. I did a post on this come time ago.

      "Just make your enemy think you mined an area and he'll either avoid it or use time and resources to detect and clear mines which may not even exist."

      Here's a scary thought that a colleague of mine raised: if an enemy of the U.S. laid even a few mines in even a few of our mainland harbors, they could just sit back and watch the Navy convulse trying to protect and clear all of our harbors with our pitifully few MCM assets. Meanwhile, we would have no forward mine clearance capability whatsoever and our Navy would be completely stymied anywhere there was even a theoretical threat of mines. You've got to believe that China and Russia are well aware of this weakness and will take advantage of it. We have no home harbor MCM capability.

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    2. Very scary scenario with not a lot of difficulty involved. I think if you can shut down LA/Long Beach port and Seattle, you shut down most of West Coast economy....

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    3. A couple of submarines to covertly lay some mines would be undetectable and unstoppable.

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    4. Submarines and mines are very dangerous weapon systems to contend with off our coasts. So proper MCM and ASW assets would be needed. So we have allowed our MCM capabilities to atrophy and not sure if our ASW capabilities are up to par. So will the navy address shortfalls ?

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    5. "So will the navy address shortfalls ?"

      Well, they attempted to with the failed LCS. Beyond that, they're not doing anything significant.

      The MH-53E MCM helos are at the end of their lives and there is no replacement planned.

      The Avenger MCM ships are past the end of their lives and there is no replacement planned.

      That should pretty well answer your question.

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    6. Well, technological wise, there is a lot of new stuff out there that could revolutionize MCM.

      One thing that comes to my mind is a dedicated UUV equipped with similar weapons to the Countermeasure Anti-Torpedo only to be used against mines, once it detects the mines it just shoots them.

      This kind of UUV can be used to clear a path in front of the landing force.

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    7. The Navy has been promising to revolutionize MCM since the LCS was first conceived and where are we? Nowhere. Promises and a lot of failures.

      The main problem with any kind of unmanned mine clearance scheme is clearance rate. UUVs are just too slow for any kind of useful time frame.

      Even your idea of an anti-mine torpedo carrying UUV is incredibly slow. The carrier won't have any sensors so it will require a minimum of two passes through a minefield: one to localize and the second to destroy. The reality is that it will require three or more passes. The first would localize suspicious objects, the second would positively identify the objects, and the third would destroy them. This is basically what the LCS module does and that's why it is so slow.

      Read up on the LCS MCM failures and components and you'll see that UUV mine clearance is a non-starter for combat-useful clearance rates.

      There is nothing out there that will revolutionize mine clearing.

      By the way, your idea essentially already exists in the form of AQS-235 Airborne Mine Neutralization System. It works - it's just incredibly slow.

      Read up on the LCS MCM module.

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  7. Well here is another idea then (and a very cheap one to realize) take some obsolete merchant vessels, wire them for remote control and make them sail in front of the landing force, that way they will activate all kinds of mines in front of them, sort of a "battering ram".

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    1. The Navy more or less used that idea in the Middle East many years ago when they used the tankers they were "escorting" as the lead ships in the convoy to soak up any mines.

      The problem with doing that in a combat scenario is that modern mines can be programmed to only activate for specific acoustic signatures or other attributes. Mines can also be programmed to allow the first ship (or couple/few ships) to pass and then attack subsequent ships.

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  8. We need cheap mcm ships and ASW corvettes. But these are nit "sexy" assets. The only way to get them through congress is to have a peice in tons of congressional districts. But then they aren't cheap. We are running low on patriotic public servants.

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  9. 1. If Saddam had been a strategic and operational genius, he would have pushed beyond Kuwait to Dhahran and occupied the Saudi oilfields. Then he would have had something to negotiate with.
    2. Someone mentioned the continued existence of paratroopers as proof the concept of airborne assault is still valid. While there may be some small scale special operations airfield seizures, the primary purpose of Army Airborne is to screen for an elite light infantry willing to risk their lives routinely. It's a volunteer esprit thing.

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