Friday, October 11, 2019

Amphibious Assault Perspective

We often discuss the Marine Corps and amphibious assaults while noting that the Navy/Marines are currently unable to even implement an assault that would adhere to their own doctrine.  This is true enough, however, I suspect that part of our dismay about the Marine’s assault shortcomings lies in unrealistic expectations.  Too many of us, I think, envision the Normandy D-Day assault and use it as the basis of comparison.

Recall, though, that D-Day involved the best efforts of multiple nations, required years to build up the forces and equipment, and required the invention of multiple, specialized equipment (Hobart’s Funnies, for example, and the Landing Ship Tank, LST).  The ability to conduct D-Day was not a capability that we entered the war with.  We may have, debatably, had the germ of the concept prior to the war but it took wartime experience to refine and much effort to assemble and develop the necessary force.

We also need to firmly keep in mind that D-Day was the ultimate amphibious assault of all time in terms of scope.  We should not be comparing the Marine’s current capabilities to the D-Day assault and expecting the Marines to be able to conduct another D-Day at a moment’s notice.

Rather than looking at the D-Day assault, let’s look at a much smaller assault, Tarawa (Gilbert Islands), which occurred early in the Pacific Island campaign.  Despite being a smaller assault, the assembly of forces was still substantial.

The American invasion force to the Gilberts was the largest yet assembled for a single operation in the Pacific, consisting of 17 aircraft carriers(6 CVs, 5 CVLs, and 6 CVEs), 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 36 transport ships. On board the transports was the 2nd Marine Division and a part of the Army's 27th Infantry Division, for a total of about 35,000 troops. (1)

A small portion of the forces were assigned to seize Makin Atoll.  The naval force directly assigned to Tarawa included, (2)

Fleet Carriers             6
Light Carriers             5
Escort Carriers            5
Battleships                8
Heavy Cruisers             5
Light Cruisers             2
AA Cruisers                3
Destroyers                43
Minesweepers               2
Transports/Landing Ships  18

The ground force counted 35,000 troops.  By comparison, a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) consists of a Ground Combat Element of 18,000 troops and an Air Combat Element. (3)

While it is more appropriate to ask whether the Marines can, currently, conduct a Tarawa size assault we should note that the pre-WWII Marine Corps and Navy were not capable of that either.  They needed time to build up to that level.

Okay, so if we can’t fairly expect the Marines to be capable of even a Tarawa size assault on day one of a war, what is it that we do expect the Marines to be capable of?  Honestly, I don’t expect the Marines to be capable of anything on day one.  What I do expect is for the Marines to develop and maintain the institutional memory and knowledge of two main tasks:

Amphibious Core

Arguably, the Marine’s main responsibility is to keep the institutional memory of how to conduct amphibious assaults alive.  Unfortunately, a decade or more of land combat has largely allowed that memory to fade from existence.  Indeed, in recent years the Marines have begun conducting amphibious assault training exercises, to some limited degree, and have publicly expressed the need to “re-learn” how to conduct such assaults which, of course, means that they have forgotten how.  The institutional memory is gone.  This is tragic and will cost lives somewhere down the road when we have to re-learn the lessons in combat.  Allowing the institutional memory to be lost is unforgivable and many Marine leaders, current and recently retired, should live with the shame of that failing.

Setting aside blame, what is required from the Marines is to maintain and exercise a core of amphibious capability and knowledge which can be used to build a much more extensive wartime capability if/when needed.

This also suggests that maintaining a peacetime amphibious fleet of 33 ships or so is unnecessary.  If all the Marines need to do is to maintain the institutional memory, that can be accomplished with just 6-9 amphibious ships – basically, just a few ships conducting training exercises (institutional memory) or undergoing maintenance.  When war comes, we can build more amphibious ships, if needed.  This, in turn, suggests that we need a far more basic, cheaper amphibious ship design that we can build quickly during war.  A modified commercial ship is adequate for troop and cargo transport.  Our current big deck aviation/amphibious ships are far too large and far too expensive for rapid wartime construction.

Port Seizure

A subset of general amphibious capability is port seizure and it is this which I consider to be the Marine Corps’ main mission.  We’ve discussed the challenges presented by an over-the-beach amphibious assault and noted that the logistics, in particular, are currently unlikely, bordering on impossible.  With that in mind, the only way to currently insert a large force into a hostile area is via a port.  Only ships can transport the required mass of materiel and ships must have a functioning port.  The fantasy of moving an entire invasion force and all its follow on materiel through Mobile Landing Platform (MLP or whatever the Navy’s label of the day is) ‘sea bases’ is just that, a fantasy.  We’ll need a port and if a nearby, friendly port is not available then we’ll have to seize one.  That, after all, was the immediate objective of the Normandy D-Day assault – to seize the ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre through which would pour the millions of tons of subsequent supplies for the assault on Germany.

As with general amphibious assault, I don’t expect the Marines to have everything they need to conduct a major port seizure on day one of a war.  What I do expect is for the Marines to have the institutional knowledge about how to conduct a port seizure along with detailed plans and equipment lists that can be realistically and readily implemented when war comes.


Unfortunately, the Marines have lost the institutional memory of how to conduct general amphibious assaults and they never had any knowledge about port seizure.  Peacetime is the golden opportunity to practice these capabilities and develop the required institutional knowledge.  Unfortunately, the Marines are practicing neither capability.  The occasional, extremely limited, small amphibious exercises the Marines do conduct are so unrealistic as to be worse than worthless – worse, because they develop bad habits and false confidence.

In summary, I don’t fault the Marines for not being able to conduct a D-Day or Tarawa assault on day one of a war but I do fault them for not knowing how and not having detailed plans and equipment acquisition lists ready to go.  With this in mind, we can see that day one capabilities are a red herring.  What’s more important is ‘day two’ capabilities after you’ve had a chance to build up.


(1)Wikipedia, “Battle of Tarawa”,  retrieved 28-Aug-2018,

(2)Wikipedia, “Gilbert Islands Naval Order of Battle”,  retrieved 28-Aug-2018,

(3)Global Security website, note – the table of data is not completely current but serves as an indicator,


  1. Sorry for not replying, life got in the way, this is the guy who said in a total war, China would only be defeated by landings (port seizures ofc included) and a military victory on land. The part we left off on was, how could an invasion, and after commenting through use of auxillary Chinese forces, you said it doesn't work elsewhere. Well, here's my response.

    Well, you're certainly correct, the US usage of auxillaries has failed to win to win many wars recently, but rather than address that here and now (there's been a lot said and you've probably heard it all), I'd rather address historically how invading armies have conquered China.

    You might ask, is it comparable, invasions historically and invasions now, but I believe due to the constants of large areas of land to be taken, a large population and a a comparatively small population from which to conquer it.

    First off, Japan employed 600,000 to 900,000 Chinese collaborators alone, not including the many laborers and workers who participated in war aims towards the benefit of the IJA.

    "But wait, Japan lost in WW2!"

    Yes in WW2, but in China? In 1944 Japan launched an offensive, Ichi-Go, that essentially destroyed the NRA as an effective force and put Japanese soldiers on the peripheries of Sichuan, the capital province of China. Had Roosevelt not removed Stilwell (an example of why America is bad at making friends) from his office, it's very likely that Chiang Kai-Shek would have thrown in the towel and accepted a ceasefire then and there.

    I will continue with another example at a later time, I do have one (the Jurchen's Han banner armies), but I have things to do.

  2. (Don McCollor)...some historical comments. The reason for Mulberry was that Dieppe indicated that the allies could not seize a port (Cherbourg was pretty much useless even after finally being captured)..After Mulberry A was destroyed in a storm, amphibious DUKWs and landing craft put ashore more cargo than the Mulberry A design capacity (supplies in the Pacific were the same, because there were no ports). Everything had to be brought with (there is a picture of a section of a massive floating drydock able to take a battleship transiting the Panama Canal on edge floating on one sidewall)...I think the model for would be the (most recent real assault landings) by the Brits in the Falklands ..a very long way from home, strength at or below the defenders, and having to fight with what they had...

    1. Don, I think we're talking about two different things here. The purpose of the Normandy landing was to seize ports FOR THE SUBSEQUENT CAMPAIGN AND DRIVE ACROSS EUROPE. The Mulberry harbors were intended only for the immediate beach assault and a short time after. In the event, the one harbor served for several months longer than intended but it was never intended to support the campaign nor was it a viable option for doing so, as the fate of the other harbor demonstrated.

      I, personally, think it may have been a mistake to try to seize the ports indirectly instead of making the direct assault on the ports the primary D-Day effort. At the very least, I'd like to see someone write a book about the analysis and rationale for the indirect approach.

      "I think the model for would be the (most recent real assault landings) by the Brits in the Falklands"

      I'm not quite sure what you mean by this as the British assault was a very minor effort compared to WWII or Korean assaults. The Falklands was also a good example of fighting a battle/war that you're unprepared for and the British very nearly lost to a decidedly inferior opponent, as a result.

    2. Argentine was a peer opponent not inferior.

    3. "Argentine was a peer opponent not inferior."

      Oh come on, now. That's not even remotely true. Argentina was markedly inferior in every context and category imaginable. Argentina was hugely deficient in numbers, type, quality, leadership, training, morale, and any other category you care to name.

      Can you offer even a single category that Argentina was on par or superior to the UK?

      Some things are debatable. This one isn't!

    4. Their advantage was that Argentina was a very long long way from Britain (the strike at Stanley Airport by two Vulcan bombers took (I believe out of Ascension Island) eleven mid air refueling (with tankers refueling tanker aircraft). The Argie troops were bad, but their air force was pretty good..and the use of antiship missies. My conclusion is that this was the most recent "opposed landing"...where the most lessons can be learned.

    5. "My conclusion is that this was the most recent "opposed landing"

      There are lessons to be learned from this landing, certainly, but the landing itself was hardly an opposed landing. After a couple of minor skirmishes, the two thousand or so troops landed unopposed whereupon they moved overland to Stanley.

      The opposition, such as it was, came from aerial attacks against the British ships and those do offer lessons.

  3. What are the scenarios with a peer adversary where port seizure is more than a SWAT operation? It's not the 50s. Either you have total air supremacy, or the boats get incinerated by cheap missiles.

  4. The future buy of current Marine amphib ships, LPD, LHA, LXR, looking uncertain, instead new gen of smaller ships envisaged, presume new thinking/vision plan will be incorporated in the new Navy Force Structure Assessment (also with high numbers of USVs, so as Navy able to say will meet target of 355 ship fleet, which recent CBO Analyis of the FY2020 Shipbuiding Plan based on current FSA showed is unaffordable), due before this year end. Ingalls build the current classes of amphibs have strong backing in Congress and might encounter resistance. Leave CNO to comment on new Marines vision:).

    TheHill 10/07/2019
    "The Marine Corps’ new commandant, Gen. David Berger has an entirely different vision for Marine missions. Berger’s plan is to emphasize the Marines’ role in the Indo-Pacific theater and to develop forces that could effectively confront an increasingly capable Chinese military. To that end, Berger has made it clear that the Marines cannot simply rely on being transported in large amphibious ships, as has been the case for more than a half-century. Instead, he anticipates acquiring a larger number of smaller ships that would complicate Chinese targeting algorithms."

    "Berger also envisages the Marines operating from what he terms “Expeditionary Advance Bases.” The Marines would establish these bases essentially under the noses of Chinese weapons ranges. The expeditionary bases would thereby facilitate operations, especially naval operations, closer to Chinese territory while complementing those with drones (the Marines have operated drones since the early 1980s) and longer-range missile systems that both they and the other services plan to acquire. Moreover, unlike fixed bases, which especially in the Pacific are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese long-range strikes, expeditionary bases would enable American forces to operate without long, vulnerable supply chains."

    1. "The Marines would establish these bases essentially under the noses of Chinese weapons ranges."

      That's a whole lot of hand waving away of real world problems by Berger, don't you think? Are the Chinese so blind that they won't detect cargo ships pulling up to an island somewhere and unloading all the equipment needed to set up even an 'austere' base? Are the Chinese so cooperative in their own destruction that they won't bother lobbing some missiles at an essentially defenseless base? How do we propose to continually resupply a forward base with the huge volume of fuel, munitions, food, spare parts, etc. that an air base of modern jets needs without the Chinese noticing?

      The Marine's plan is very heavy on wishful thinking and very light on actual, realistic viability.

    2. I would love to see a more detailed plan on how these “Expeditionary Advance Bases” are going to work.

      On the surface it seems foolish in the extreme when the Chinese have space-based recon assets.

    3. There's also the part where if those islands are so important, who says Chinese Marines don't get there first? I mean, if they are so strategic, wouldn't China want to occupy them first? If there not important, why does USMC need to occupy it first? 2 cents. Plus,as mentioned, China not going to notice US forces? I think disbursal for disbursal sake isnt the obvious answer, yes, you are spreading out BUT at the same, thinning out the force protection too. Could China use US dispersal to just pick off smaller uncoordinated unsupported forces one by one???

    4. "The Marines would establish these bases essentially under the noses of Chinese weapons ranges."

      Turn the situation around. Do you think China could set up bases on islands throughout the Caribbean without us noticing or responding? Does it seem likely that they could sail regular resupply vessels to these islands without us noticing? Does the reverse situation seem even remotely realistic? If not, then why would we think we can do that to China without them noticing or responding?

      This is the pinnacle of wishful thinking on the Marine's part.

  5. I think we have a catch-22 with the transport of Marines. While many feel that our amphib fleet is too large, I dont feel that we can "build more if needed during war"... I think any Chinese confrontation will be relatively brief and savage, with a winner and a loser emerging very quickly, and having a year or two to institute a crash building program for even simple designs just isnt going to happen. WWII being the obvious example, we already had ship designs, and the industrial expansion to support shipbuilding was already starting... I feel that at the least, we should have designs tucked away and waiting, and builders already tapped and put on notice at the first sign on impending conflict. But even then, I dont see us turning out a useful number of ships, of any kind, in weeks or even months as we did back then. Even better, we should be building those ships now and creating a new mothball fleet, ready on a few days notice. But that probably has a snowballs chance... Im afraid that we are going to have to fight with what we have on day one...


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