The Marines have always had a love-hate relationship with armor and its close cousin, firepower – embracing it when combat occurred and then rejecting it when combat was over. Recently, over the last couple of decades, the Marines have been engaged in a steady movement away from heavy combat power and toward “lightness”. The number of tanks in inventory has been reduced as two of the four tank battalions in the 2nd Tank Battalion have been dropped in the last few years (1, 2) and MEUs have recently deployed without any tanks. The 120 mm mortar was dropped. The number of 81 mm mortars was reduced.
Artillery has also been reduced. From Col. Clifford Weinstein, Commanding Officer, 10th Marine Regiment,
“You have to look back first, because Marine Corps artillery has always been in a state of flux. There have been times when we’ve had an awful lot of artillery, and there have been times when we’ve had almost none. The point we’re at now with the budget constraints, as well as coming off of several contingencies throughout the world, is we’ve reduced the amount of artillery, to a degree.” (3)
Disturbingly, Col. Weinstein also had this to say about artillery,
“… we have moved artillery out of the “area-fire” fires category.” (3)
The abandonment of area fire is disturbing enough but the mentality it reveals, that combat can be made into a neat, tidy, precision fire event is even more disturbing.
Not only has heavy combat firepower been reduced but lightness has been promoted. The Marines are aggressively pursuing drones, information “warfare”, public relations, light “jeep” vehicles, tiny squad level quadcopters, etc.
Let’s take a look back in history and see whence this came.
Prior to WWII, the Marines had considered the amphibious assault and concluded that they only needed a light “tankette”.
“The Corps’ unique pursuit of a tankette of minimal size and capability in the 1930s stemmed from the limited view of beach defenses and the restricted capacity that ships and craft of the period displayed. In effect, the Marine Corps only needed enough of a tank to land and knock out the opposing machine guns, and then accompany the infantry inland to support a short-term operation. One discerns the beginnings of “lightness” as a Marine Corps dogma …” (4)
Thus, the Marines began WWII with little armor and even less interest in it.
Guadalcanal reinforced this perception as the
terrain limited effective tank employment and, in the event, few tanks were
landed with the troops and those that were, were used as mobile artillery and
reserve firepower and, in the view of Corps leadership, did not materially
impact the outcome of the battle.
The turning point in the Marine’s attitude towards armor came at
“But the brutal fight for
Tarawa caused a major turning point in armored vehicle use by the Marine
Corps, as in practically every other aspect of the amphibious landing art. … The
larger medium tank now became essential, along with a flamethrower tank, and
the Marine Corps pressed the amtrac into service as an armored personnel
carrier, at least as far as the water’s edge.
The armored amphibian, already under development, now became an
essential component of the assault formation.” (4)
|Marine M4A2 Tank at Tarawa|
The terrain of Vietnam, during that war, and the infantry and aviation centric nature of the warfare worked against the employment of armor and a generation of Marine officers came to believe that armor was not needed and, often, was a burden.
As the first Gulf War became imminent, the Marines, once again recognizing the need for armor, upgraded one and a half tank battalions from the old M60 series to the new M1 Abrams from excess Army stocks. Unfortunately, this did not translate into doctrinal or tactical acceptance of armor.
In fact, during the period of time around the first Gulf War, the Corps adopted a defensive view of armor rather than offensive.
“In the late 1990’s many officers continued to believe that the antitank missile would kill all the tanks, hence removing any need for tanks in the Corps. USMC doctrine never provided for the tank as the basis of offensive power, as leaders learned and acknowledged frequently in the Great Pacific War, but instead continued to treat it as a key antiarmor weapon system.” (4)
“The Corps leadership perhaps lost its sense of need for modern armor. The Commandant retiring in 1999, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, stated that he “would eliminate the tank fleet found in the Marine Corps today if I could.” (4)
A look at the Corps’ main battle tank inventory over the period from 1985-1999 is revealing. In 1985, the Corps had 716 main battle tanks. By 1999, the number had dropped to 403. (4)
Even today, Marine usage of armor is limited and focused on small units.
“The continuing Marine Corps tendency to use armored vehicles in small numbers, another version of “lightness” in practice, probably had its origin in the Korean War.” (4)
“… the long term association of tank platoons with infanty battalions as a normal assignment, reinforced by peacetime deployments of BLT and MEU-type units, caused an institutional rejection of mass as a principle of armored fighting vehicle employment.” (4)
This last point is key. Tanks are best employed en masse, on the offensive whereas the Marines traditionally deploy tanks in small units as almost squad level defensive support.
We see, then, that the Marine’s reluctance to embrace armored warfare has long, historical roots. Contrarily, these roots are invariably recognized as flawed when serious combat arises. The Marine’s institutional ability to forget the lessons of combat so quickly after its cessation and, once again, reject armor is actually quite amazing.
Worse, the pendulum has now swung so far to the lightness side that the Marines have effectively removed themselves from consideration as a middle to high end combat force, leaving only low end combat and humanitarian missions as being within their capability. Of course, this leads to questioning why we need a 30+ large deck amphibious fleet but that’s an issue for another time.
As we close, we need to acknowledge one of the driving forces in the Marine’s reluctance to embrace armor and that is the issue of transportability. While the Army can emphasize heaviness (recent ‘lightness’ and ‘mobility’ trends not withstanding) because it transports its armor via cargo ships to functional ports (a potential weakness in our thinking and planning because we may not always have friendly, functional ports available and we have no port seizure capability), the Marines must depend on transport via landing craft, over the beach. However, while this transportability issue must be acknowledged and addressed, it does not preclude or excuse abandonment of armor and firepower. Instead, it simply mandates alternative thinking about the transport issue and the form that the armor and firepower should take – again, a topic for another post.
|LVT(A)-5 Amphibious 'Tank' at Iwo Jima|
The closing thought on the transportability issue is that while the issue is real, Marines have always found a way around it in the past when combat occurred so it is clearly not an inherently limiting factor. The real limiting factor is the Corps’ institutional mindset favoring lightness – a mindset completely unsupported by real world combat experience.
(4)”Marines Under Armor”, Kenneth W. Estes, Naval Institute Press, 2000