Marine Amphibious Force Operations in the Persian Gulf War

By Second Lieutenant Michael Russ, U.S. Marine Corps

On 23 February 1991, "the 5th MEB was ordered ashore . .to serve as the I MEF (Marine expeditionary force) reserves." The Iraqis quickly responded by deploying "six of approximately eleven Iraqi divisions" to the coast of Kuwait and Iraq to "guard against the threat from the sea." 5

This deployment along the shore limited Iraq's ability to use their troops for inland operations as coalition forces began to concentrate around Iraq's frontal defensive positions. 6 The amphibious forces along the Kuwaiti and Iraqi coast drove Iraqi forces to maneuver in protection of the coastline allowing General Schwarzkopf to envelop Iraq's defense from the Northwestern sector of the battlefield (Schwarzkopf's "left hook").

Clausewitz also discussed the principle of gaining "possession of the . . . elements of aggression and of other sources of existence of the hostile army." 7 His thesis was best demonstrated by the coalition's strategy for removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, acquisition of potential danger points in the battlefield in support of ground troops, and control of the coastal areas to set up sea-based logistical positions to secure the ports. 8

In the planning phases of the Persian Gulf War, "MarCent (Marine Forces Central Command) continued to express concern . . . that if the ground campaign became extended, then a secure port on the Kuwaiti coast would be needed to supply logistical support." MarCent's finalized plans were called Operation Desert Saber. The plans called for "an amphibious assault" on the northern coastline of Ash Shuaybah. The primary objectives entailed concentrating and conquering enemy forces along the Kuwaiti coastline and securing the port facilities at Ash Shuaybah to provide a "link up with MarCent" and logistical support. 9

Throughout the planning phases of the conflict, coalition commanders included amphibious forces in their battle plans in conjunction with two principles of war-maneuver, and objective. Amphibious forces throughout the ground campaign performed a number of feints to keep Iraqi forces from leaving the coastal areas of Kuwait. Amphibious assault feints were conducted during the period of the ground campaign, from 29 January to 26 February 1991.

On 29 January, the 13th MEU(SOC) [Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)] raided the island of Umm Al-Maradim in support of ground troops with the mission for removal of Iraqi troops, equipment, and intelligence sources. To their dismay they found the island abandoned. This raid was not a total loss, however, because the amphibious forces destroyed some "Iraqi heavy equipment . . . captured documents [that] provided intelligence for amphibious operations," and showed Marine amphibious capabilities to the Iraqis. 10

Plans for the amphibious assault on the island of Faylaka included an amphibious raid that would "destroy communication facilities, radar sites, and a command post . . . as well as capture Iraqi troops." The plans were thwarted when the Tripoli (LPH-10) and the Princeton (CG-59) struck mines on 18 February. Left with the decision to risk force well-being, Gulf commanders used this raid to deceive Iraqi intelligence "into believing a full-scale amphibious assault was imminent." 11

As ground forces neared Kuwait City, Naval Forces Central Command (NavCent) recognized the need for amphibious feints to hold Iraqi forces along the shorelines. On 24 February, the amphibious task force was ordered to perform an amphibious "demonstration or feint before dawn near Ash Shuaybah." Advances of helicopters of the 13th MEU(SOC) "confused Iraqi antiaircraft batteries" and caused the launch of two silkworm missiles toward coalition forces. 12 This feint was imperative to the advance to Kuwait City by I MEF because it successfully held Iraqi forces along the southern coastline of Kuwait preventing them from forming a blockade of coalition forces or "reinforcing other Iraqi forces further inland." 13

Although many amphibious operations were raids or feints, the landing of the 5th MEB on Saudi Arabian soil proved to be the "largest direct contribution to the ground offensive" by amphibious forces. They were to serve as the I MEF reserve and equipped the MEF commander with two fully committed Marine divisions. They were used to assist in "mopping up operations, [enemy prisoner of war] EPW control, and security duties." Most important, they strengthened the missions of readiness and preparedness for ground troops." 14

Clausewitz generalized when he said that gaining public opinion was done by achieving "great victories, and by [gaining] the possession of the enemy's capital." 15 During the buildup and battles of the Gulf War, U.S. and world public opinion shared views of limited war, concerns about Saddam Hussein's intentions, and demands for an overwhelming victory. It was the job of the United States to convince not only the U.S. public, but the world community that battle might be required to solve this crisis. In rallying support, the coalition gave Saddam time to rethink his intentions and to withdraw from Kuwait before military force would have to be used. 16

The response to the invasion of Kuwait by the rest of the world was overwhelming. With the United States taking the lead, nearly 50 countries contributed to the buildup of forces in the Gulf region, while others contributed financially to aid the United States. 17 It seemed that the whole world was taking a stand against aggression, and that all countries involved felt obliged to contribute in some way to the effort.

Marine amphibious forces gained public acclaim through their readiness for potential assaults. As early as mid-September, "preparations for offensive amphibious operations" began as forces arrived. In mission planning, commanders realized that the amphibious forces were "seaborne [threats] to the flank of Iraqi forces." From September and through Operation Desert Storm, amphibious forces continued rehearsing for an imminent amphibious assault into the beachhead of Kuwait, providing the flank that would support advancing Coalition troops. 18

Support from families of amphibious force members, training, and battle readiness gave the coalition forces a distinct advantage over Iraq throughout the conflict. The Gulf War was a proving ground for Marine amphibious task forces that contained modernized abilities for moving ashore. It also tested the Navy/Marine Corps newly doctrine "From the Sea...." These forces showed the world that U.S. deterrence was not solely based on nuclear capabilities, but also in the presence of Marines that lined the shores of Kuwait, and wherever else they may be needed.

Amphibious forces in the Persian Gulf contributed immensely to the mission of the ground campaign. Through presence, amphibious forces helped defeat Iraqi forces and remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The United States knew that "in the future" they would "have to choose between relatively short-run, all-American, hit-and-run operations (ranging from presence to air raids to Marine landings)." 19

Clausewitz concluded that "in war we always seek to have the probability of success on our side." 20 He emphasized that the ability for diversion is a "value . . . that will induce the enemy to send troops for its protection." 21 With Saddam committing nearly 80,000 troops to the shorelines of Kuwait to counter U.S. amphibious forces, the coalition was able to complete its mission and claim success in the Persian Gulf War. 22

1 General Carl Vo Clausewitz, On War, vol. 3 (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd.: 1911) 209.

2 The Eagle in the Desert, William Head and Earl H. Tilford, Jr. (Eds.) (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996) 244.

3 Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd.: 1911) 190.

4 Head and Tilford, 210.

5 Ibid., 216-17.

6 Conduct of the Persian Gulf War. (Washingtn, D.C.: Department of Defense, April 1992) 212-13.

7 Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd.: 1911) 209.

8 Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, April 1992) 214.

9 Ibid., 214.

10 Ibid., 219.

11 Ibid., 219-20.

12 Ibid., 220.

13 Ibid., 220.

14 Ibid., 220-21.

15 Clausewitz, 210.

16 Head and Tilford, 275-77.

17 "Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, April 1992) 20-21.

18 Ibid., 213-14.

19 Head and Tilford, 260.

20 Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. 183.

21 Ibid., 58.

22 Head and Tilford, 242.

A native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Second Lieutenant Russ will report to Quantico, Virginia, for training at The Basic School before reporting to Pensacola, Florida for flight training. He will be a Marine naval flight officer.



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