Riding the Dragon

By Major David Fuquea, U.S. Marine Corps

The individual weapons and artillery of Napoleon's time, for example, were vast improvements tactically over the crude hand-cannons and bombards of the 15th century. 1 At the operational and strategic levels, however, the relationship between offense and defense remained constant, with the former retaining parity and often superiority. This held until the late 18th century, when rifled and automatic weapons reestablished the superiority of defense. At sea, an inverse relationship existed. Horatio Nelson's application of distant blockade, screening techniques, and signaling raised the operational level of warfare to a higher plane. But the much more limited tactical improvements to ships-of-war meant Nelson would have been equally as comfortable on the deck of an English ship fighting the Spanish Armada in 1588 as he was fighting the Spanish at Trafalgar more than 200 years later.

Our preparations for the 21st century, therefore, must consider as many levels as practicable, blending advancements and evidence from different areas and avoiding narrow paradigms based on progress within a single field. On the tactical and operational levels of warfare, things are changing at phenomenal speed, and the Marine Corps is advancing rapidly. We are riding the dragon. At the strategic level—the most important level for the continued justified existence of the Corps—however, progress is not so clear, and to apply operational changes inappropriately to the strategic plane is to attempt—fool-heartedly—to control the dragon.


At the tactical level, technology offers the Marine Corps promising opportunities to change the way combat is conducted. With the austere financial prospects that loom ahead, however, the Corps must distinguish between items that must be acquired and those that would be nice to have. The areas on the tactical battlefield that deserve the most attention are indirect fire and individual training.

Artillery . It is time for a serious overhaul of Marine artillery. The M198 155-mm howitzer does not fit into the Corps of the 21st century. Its sheer size limits transportation options to either the CH-53E helicopter or a five-ton truck and slows deployment. Both the weapon and the transportation systems produce large target signatures, and their high logistical support requirements restrict tactical and operational mobility. A single six-gun M198 battery requires more than 450 tons of ammunition for a 30-day period of sustained combat. 2 This equates to approximately 55 CH-53E sorties or 90 five-ton truck loads for ammunition alone. 3

In terms of fuel, a battery requires in excess of 1,500 gallons to fill vehicle tanks. 4 Using one tank a week (approximately 300 miles range), a single battery requires four resupplies and 6,000 gallons of fuel per month. In addition, these units are manpower intensive, with eight to ten Marines on each gun team. This, of course, increases food and water consumption. The result is artillery with limited mobility, huge logistical demands, and a firing range that is little changed from that of the artillery employed 30 years ago in Vietnam. 5

A good alternative exists. Current technology can produce a 120-mm mortar system that reduces the weight of the mortar and 50 rounds of ammunition to approximately 900 pounds—ammunition required for a single battery in 30 days of sustained combat drops from 450 tons to about 90 tons. This system can be mounted in a HMMV multipurpose vehicle with no changes to the suspension system and requires a crew of just three Marines. Boostglide rounds and smart warheads can provide ranges in excess of 20 kilometers and lethality equivalent to current 155-mm rounds. 6

The mobility of a HMMV far exceeds that of a five-ton truck, so a battery of these mortars could move faster and to more places. This would increase fuel consumption, but total fuel requirements still would be lower. If combined with improvements in precision-guided cruise missile capability, this system could increase indirect-fire capability significantly while cutting costs.

Close Air Support . During the Gulf War, cruise missiles carried out surgical strikes deep in enemy territory. The addition of global positioning system (GPS) guidance, variable warheads, loiter capability, and ground terminal guidance will very nearly close the performance gap between manned and unmanned platforms in terms of ordnance delivery. And regardless of the threat, the need for large ordnance delivery by air—the likes of which a 15pound 120-mm shell or a 100-pound 155-mm shell cannot equal—will not go away.

A shift to cruise missiles as the platform for Marine Corps close air support offers many advantages. Cruise missiles offer significant savings with little, if any, reduction in capability. In a July 1991 article in Proceedings , Charles E. Myers estimated the peacetime cost of a 300-aircraft strike wing over a 30-year operational life to be approximately $60 billion. 7 Myers did not include pilot training, facility maintenance, or wartime ordnance and replacement costs, but these factors easily could drive that figure to $120 billion. At $3.5 million per copy—including all research and development and maintenance costs—for an advanced cruise missile, that $120 billion would provide more than 34,000 cruise-missile sorties. For comparison, the 3d Marine Aircraft Wing flew approximately 10,000 fixed-wing sorties during all of Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Steps to incorporate GPS into missile guidance are ongoing, and the ability for a ground forward air controller to establish a link to the missile and provide positive terminal guidance is within reach. Combined, these advances offer greater accuracy and lower threat of friendly fire mistakes, especially in a non-permissive environment. Variable warheads, already in planning, ensure that any ordnance that can be delivered from a manned platform will be deliverable from a cruise missile, as well. Loiter capability, within reach, means that Marines would have long-term, on-call mission capability only minutes away.

Cruise missiles would do away with the massive fuel, maintenance, and ordnance signatures that define fixed-wing facilities and would reduce vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction. In addition, cruise missiles would render moot the ongoing debate regarding the Marine Corps' need for fixed-wing assets. As long as the missiles were mobile enough to move quickly off shipping, to maintain them under Marine control, the Navy and Air Force could conduct the air war while Marines reaped the benefits of combined arms.

Training . No matter which form indirect fire support takes, training the individual Marine will be the key to its success. "Every Marine is a rifleman" must be expanded to "Every Marine is a rifleman and a forward observer." An essential step in that direction is to make forward observer qualification part of a Marine's cutting score for promotion, in the same way that rifle qualification is today. Every Marine must qualify annually. This undoubtedly will require a sophisticated "virtual reality" range because of ammunition and time constraints.


Technology also offers the possibility for radical change in the operational realm of warfare. In nearly every respect, the individual Marine or small unit will have greater capability to destroy the enemy than it did in Desert Storm. Sensor capability from the joint surveillance/target attack radar system, satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicles, and even ground sensors, when combined with digitized communications equipment and computer links, seems to hold the carrot of near-perfect situational battlefield awareness. Proponents of sensor systems claim that identification of 90% of the targets on the battlefield and updating each one every one or two minutes soon will be possible, and ordnance improvements seem to offer the possibility of destroying each target identified. 8

The current application of guidance systems—including fiber-optic guidance on ordnance from 2,000-pound bombs to 15-pound mortar shells—provides greater accuracy and therefore greater lethality. Range improvements, such as boost-glide for the 120-mm mortar, offer the ability to destroy the enemy from ever increasing distances.

This combination of target information, range, and lethality has considerable implications for the shape of the operational battlefield. Individuals and small units will have the ability to "reach out and touch someone" from greater distances, with a higher degree of assurance that the enemy will not be able to "touch" back. Theoretically, they will be able to prosecute a conflict over a much larger area than is possible today. The operational battlefield paradigm must include smaller units that are more widely dispersed. Incorporation of this philosophy is apparent in proposed changes to Corps organizational structures.

Organizational Hopes . A plan advanced by advisors to U.S. Central Command for a new expeditionary brigade structure features enhanced firepower and mobility and a reduced footprint. The brigade includes a battalion of light armored vehicles (LAVs), which function as tank killers; an indirect-fire battalion; and an infantry battalion mounted in LAVs. The 54 tank-killing LAVs feature the line-of-sight antitank weapon system that fires hypervelocity missiles. The indirect-fire battalion would contain the 120mm mortar system discussed earlier mounted in HMMVs. These three battalions would require approximately 3,000 tons of lift to get personnel and vehicles ashore, as compared to 4,900 tons for a battalion of M- tanks. Yet, because of the vehicles, lift by helicopter would be difficult, so a large part of this organization still would have to be delivered over the beach. 9

A second example of a small-size/wide-dispersion unit is the Marine Corps' Sea Dragon battalion. A prototype of this unit is scheduled for deployment to Twenty-Nine Palms Desert Training Base for testing in the summer of 1997. With only 560 Marines, the Sea Dragon battalion includes five companies: a standard infantry company, a weapons company, and three "target-engagement" (TE) companies. 10 The TE companies retain the triangular structure of Marine units, deploying three six-man squads from each of the three platoons. Organic fire support—in the form of six 120-mm mortars and a similar number of TOW launchers and heavy machine gun squads—would provide fire support similar to that available to a current battalion. With a foot-mobile infantry company and HMMV-mounted TE companies, the Sea Dragon battalion would require approximately 85 HMMVs. This would require more than 20 round trips by the CH-53 assets available to a Marine expeditionary unit just to insert the vehicles into a landing zone or more than 350 tons of lift to bring them across a beach, about twice what it takes for a standard battalion landing team today.

Either structure, once on the ground, provides a mobile force that eschews closing with the enemy and relies on superior target acquisition capabilities, kill ratios, and stand-off ranges to destroy targets before being engaged. In the "perfect" tank country of the Central Command theater, these units seem to provide a potent, asymmetrical response to a conventional enemy mechanized threat. Their mobility and reduced footprint, when combined with the required targeting capability and advanced precision weapons, offer hope that a Desert Storm scenario could be handled more easily and at less expense. The fact that both of these units still have significant logistical—and thereby operational—signatures, however, is critical when evaluating the operational impact and utility of these organizational changes.

Operational Logistical Realities . The logistical factors calculated below are limited to water, food, fuel, and ammunition required for 30 days of sustained combat. Requirements such as medical supplies, spare parts, or engineering equipment would be in addition to these figures.

The greatly reduced brigade proposed by advisors to Central Command would require approximately 114 tons of resupply daily in a sustained combat environment (see table 1). Monthly, its logistical requirement comes to more than 3,400 tons. At only 53 tons per day, the Sea Dragon battalion seems to deliver an even more attractive logistical footprint, but if we calculate requirements for three battalions—to match the light brigade—the numbers spiral upward quickly. A Sea Dragon brigade would need 160 tons daily and more than 4,800 tons monthly, an actual increase over the light brigade but with less organic tank-killing capability. In either case, the logistical requirements are substantial, which begs the question of how to resupply these units.

The two or three C-17 sorties required to meet the logistical requirements of these units seem manageable at first glance. Yet, even assuming that a friendly airfield exists in close proximity to friendly units, this sortie rate requires that operational planners violate the basic logistical tenet of "pushing" support to the customer; the units would have to come to the aircraft, an illogical supposition in a combat environment. Using airlift for logistical support means providing the needed infrastructure on the ground—via tactical aircraft (helicopters) or vehicles—to push these supplies to either the light brigade or the Sea Dragon units. When airfield security, logistics vehicles, vehicle refueling, and maintenance requirements are factored in, logistical support factors increase exponentially. In terms of reducing the logistical footprint ashore, airlift quickly loses much of its attractiveness.

This is not a dramatic revelation. Desert Shield/Desert Storm demonstrated vividly the strengths and weaknesses of both airlift and sealift logistics. Airlift was essential for the time-sensitive resupply of critical items, but sealift carried 90-95% of all cargo to the Persian Gulf. 11 The logistical footprint of even the asymmetrical responses described above means that sealift will be required for any conflict in which we employ these units.

The ability of individuals and small units to inflict destruction on concentrated targets in an environment that supports their sensors, targeting equipment, and weapons is unprecedented. The logistical situation, however, has not changed nearly as quickly. Operational requirements for these smaller units still will be substantial and must be considered before wholesale organizational changes are made. When this uneven advance in the operational arena is viewed in the transition to the strategic level, it offers a clear model for the structure of the Marine Corps in the 21st century.


The strategic aspect has not moved nearly as rapidly as the tactical and operational levels. Since at least the Persian invasion of Greece nearly 2,500 years ago, the amphibious expedition has maintained a critical role in military operations, although there have been intermittent periods of skepticism regarding the strategic utility of operations from the sea. The bloodbath around Sevastopol in the Crimean War and the British failure at Gallipoli in World War I led most in the military to believe these operations impossible. Despite Allied success in World War II, military common wisdom again turned its back on operations from the sea. General Omar Bradley commented, "I predict that large-scale amphibious operations will never occur again." 12

Although the Navy and Marine Corps have endorsed " . . . From the Sea" and "Forward. . . from the Sea," an undercurrent still exists that mirrors General Bradley's beliefs. The fact that a Marine amphibious assault was not carried out during Desert Storm points toward strategic impotence in the face of a prepared enemy. Vice Admiral J. B. LaPlante, commander of Amphibious Group Two during Desert Storm, echoed Bradley when he recently stated that "the World War II/Korean-style forcible-entry amphibious assaults will be eclipsed by their maneuver warfare counterparts." 13

The maneuver Admiral LaPlante refers to is embodied in the operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS) doctrine endorsed by the Marine Corps. Using over-the-horizon delivery systems, friendly forces can avoid the enemy to strike deadly blows at relatively little cost. The manpower organizations discussed earlier blend into this doctrine, providing relatively light, mobile forces with high destructive capability. New doctrine, new technology, and new organizations provide merit to the skeptical view of traditional amphibious operations. Indeed, the Marine Corps seems to be "riding the dragon" into the 21st century as it did in the 1920s and 30s. A more detailed look at various aspects of OMFTS and the strategic utility of amphibious assaults, however, calls into question whether the Marine Corps is really "riding" or just trying to "control" the dragon.

Modern Misconceptions . In the OMFTS concept paper published in December 1995, the Marine Corps cites the landing at Inchon as "a classic example of Operational Maneuver from the Sea." 14 The success of that operation is indisputable. The blow to the North Koreans reinforced the historical importance of the amphibious assault, while undermining Bradley's and others' attempts to take amphibious assault out of the strategic picture of warfare.

The paper's authors, however, did not discuss the protracted urban campaign for Seoul needed to attain the strategic objectives of the operation. A North Korean division whittled Marine rifle companies from the 1st Marine Division to platoon size while being pushed back the IS miles from Inchon to Seoul. Providing a secure port for follow-on forces and the development of the logistical infrastructure to support forces ashore meant the North Korean forces had to be pushed back. The struggle for Seoul that guaranteed the success of the Inchon landings required Marines to fight a bloody, house-to-house, manpower-intensive campaign.

Fortunately, a parallel scenario did not occur in the Persian Gulf. The numerous, well-developed Saudi ports were undamaged, undefended, and in close proximity to the operational area. The result was the unhindered introduction of prepositioned, airlifted, and logistical support forces. Future operational plans premised on an equally permissive environment will be courting disaster.

OMFTS Logistical Problems . Supporting OMFTS from sea-based logistics will be extremely difficult. Even with vastly reduced operational force structures, logistics requirements will keep the port facilities and logistical support ashore a strategic necessity. With a five-ton maximum external load for the new MV-22 Osprey aircraft, the 160 tons required daily for three Sea Dragon battalions ashore will demand three round trips from every aircraft of a 12-plane squadron. The radius of action for loads of this magnitude drops to approximately 50 miles. 15 The suburbs of Seoul were more than 50 miles from the blue water necessary for air operations. During Desert Storm units were three and four times that far inland.

For MV-22s to provide logistical support from the sea for three Sea Dragon battalions in such scenarios would be a massive burden. Increased demands in intense combat situations would exacerbate the problem. The use of heavy-lift helicopters would help somewhat, but the logistical tail of the smaller units currently being contemplated will continue to demand some shore-based logistical support for any type of combat except limited raids.

The Resultant Center of Gravity . The limitations of sea-based logistics and the concomitant need for ports create a strategic "node" for the United States. Even in the best OMFTS scenario, an enemy will be able to identify with some degree of precision what ports will be needed to prosecute a campaign ashore—and then eliminate them using weapons of mass destruction or occupy these nodes with manpower-intensive units. As was the case with Seoul, successful use of the port then would hinge on getting rid of the enemy in that port city.

The smaller organizations discussed earlier have vastly improved capabilities, but these capabilities would be severely limited in an urban situation. Smaller numbers of casualties would have a more detrimental effect on unit cohesion. Weapons whose effectiveness is based on long range and high kill ratios would lose their superiority. The effectiveness of precision-guided munitions would be greatly reduced in the three-dimensional fortress environment inherent in a modern city. The light, high-tech units designed to be an unconventional response to a conventional enemy will find themselves so unconventional as to be impotent.

The much more limited effect of technology on the strategic level of war is apparent. Given the requirements of even technologically progressive units, logistics will continue to demand the placement of forces ashore to support operations against the enemy. Sea-based logistics cannot do it alone. In a future conflict, we must be prepared to take the vital nodes necessary for this support, and high-tech, reduced-manpower units will be hard pressed to attain objectives of this type.

At the strategic level, changes in warfare are not as rapid as the pace of technological change would lead one to believe. The U.S. military of the 21st century must have a forcible-entry/amphibious assault capability similar to that of World War II and Korea. "Riding the dragon" into the future must not ignore this. To do so risks being eaten.

This is not to say that the development of Sea Dragon battalions and units of that ilk is wrong. Such units are highly dependent on technology, however, and when it comes to money and high-tech equipment, the Army has always had an edge over the Marine Corps. Mirror image units would not help stem the debate over interservice duplication of capabilities. The Corps must provide a unique service to the nation to ensure its continued existence.

To this end, the Marine Corps must look to the strategic level, where warfare has not been so drastically affected. Technological limitations mean that the logistical tail will remain a reality for U.S. forces through at least the first half of the 21st century. Prosecution of war will require a port to support sealift, and the port will be a center of gravity that a prepared enemy will not provide freely. Hence, a forcible entry/amphibious assault capability will continue as a strategic must for the United States.

The Marine Corps is uniquely qualified to fulfill the strategic need for amphibious assault into the 21st century. The close Navy-Marine Corps relationship-which is essential to the seizure of advance base facilities for the introduction of logistics support and follow-on forces-is the dragon that must be ridden. All efforts must be made to continue to build on the corporate knowledge in forcible entry maintained only by the Marine Corps. To forget what has been the foundation of the Corps for the last 75 years is to dismiss the historical and contemporary evidence and do something the Corps and the nation can ill afford: get it wrong.

1 The Mons Meg, a bombard cast in the 1440s, weighed more than eight tons and required 100 men and special teams of oxen to move it. A Napoleonic 12pounder weighed only one and a half tons, including the ammunition chest with more than 60 rounds, and required just 12 horses and a crew of 7-15. Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 9; and Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), pp. 74-80.

2 All figures for ammunition expenditure were taken from Marine Corps Order 8030. 1, Class V Supply Rates for Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations.

3 Based on a CH-53E lifting a 16,000-pound load for every sortie.

4 Based on a battery with 16 five-ton trucks and 12 HMMVs.

5 The range of the M198 is 30,000+ meters, but only a small portion of the propellant supply for each gun will deliver a round that far. For operational planning, depending on the M198 beyond 20,000 meters is a poor idea. In contrast, the M107 175-mm gun had a range of 32,700 meters when first deployed in 1962.

6 All performance information for this family of mortars obtained from Mr Earl Rubright, scientific advisor to U.S. Central Command, Tampa, Florida.

7 Charles E. Myers, "Time to Fold 'em," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1991, pp. 37-41.

8 Results of discussions at Strategic Concept Wargame, Naval War College, Newport, RI, 23-27 October 1995.

9 Both vehicles can be lifted by the CH-53E, but the MV-22 will not lift an LAV. The vehicles must be externally suspended beneath the air platform for transportation, a complicated and time-consuming process that severely limits the capabilities of the aircraft in flight and the safety of a tactical insertion.

10 The "target engagement" designation is the author's.

11 Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, Final Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 1992).

12 Merrill L. Bartlett, ed., Assault from the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983) p. 337.

13 J. B. LaPlante, "It's Time for Gators," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1993, p. 52.

14 Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS) Concept (Washington: U.S. Marine Corps, 1 December 1995), p. 7.

15 Plans Division, PP&O, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, V-22, MultiMission/Multi-Service Aircraft, Undated Informational Handout.

Major Fuquea , a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is executive officer of Battalion Landing Team 1/2 and is deployed as part of 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit.



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