Marines: Marines Flee To Sea

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December 11, 2011: After nearly a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. Marine Corps wants to get away from being a U.S. Army auxiliary and back to being an amphibious strike force. Talk in Congress about "what do we need two ground combat forces for?" adds to the urgency. The marines have always been sensitive about criticism that they are a second army, a second ground combat force that simply duplicates what the U.S. Army does. In terms of active duty forces the marines are about 40 percent the size of the army. Add in organized reserves and the marines are closer to 30 percent the size of the army.

The marines can perform the same jobs as the army but consider themselves mainly an amphibious force trained for assaults and other difficult special operations. These are things the army has also done but the marines invented modern amphibious operations during the 1930s and 40s and continue to specialize in it. The marines noted how the British Royal Marines went on to help develop the modern concept of commandos and went in that direction as well.

With all this in mind, in the last decade, the navy and marines have sought to reorganize into 12 ESGs (Expeditionary Strike Groups; i.e., a reinforced battalion of marines and their amphibious ships, including a smaller amphibious aircraft carrier). While not a new concept, the ESG was meant to add some new twists to an old idea. This has been difficult because of the need to send marines to Iraq and Afghanistan. September 11, 2001 came as a surprise to the marines as well and they had to adapt. The marines like to consider themselves good at adapting.

The main fighting element of the ESG is a battalion of Marines. In support are a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron and a Service Support Group. All of these travel on three amphibious ships (an LHA, LPD, and LSD). The rest of the ESG consists of warships (usually a cruiser, a destroyer, a frigate, and an attack submarine.) Supporting firepower will come from cruise missiles and some 127mm (five inch) guns on the cruiser and destroyer, plus attack helicopters. The ESG is also supported by land based P-3 patrol aircraft. The first ESG went to sea in 2003. But because of the need for marines in Iraq and Afghanistan there were not enough marines to keep all twelve ESGs going. To keep the ESGs operational marines follow a cycle with infantry battalions spending nine months ashore, with six months devoted to training, followed by six months at sea with an ESG.

There are 27 marine infantry battalion and each ESG is built around a battalion landing team. This consists of one marine infantry battalion, an artillery battery (six guns), an armored car company, a platoon of M-1 tanks, an amphibious assault platoon (operating armored amphibious vehicles), an engineer platoon, and a recon platoon. In all, over 1,200 troops plus helicopters and landing craft from the amphibious ships, along with their troops.

With so many marines needed in Iraq and Afghanistan there were not enough trained (in amphibious operations) battalions for ESGs. Now, with fewer marines needed for land operations (Afghanistan), the marines want to train all their infantry battalions to handle amphibious assault and special operations chores. This would allow more ESGs to be at sea. The marines see the Pacific as their main area of concentration. China, and smaller crises in Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Africa, is now the future of the marines. This will kill all that talk of a "second, unneeded, army."

 


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