Sell It to the Marines

By Major Jonathan Hull, U.S. Marine Corps

The Commandant of the Marine Corps has laid the cornerstone of change, through the concept of operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS). Placed on the foundation of the naval documents ". . . From the Sea," and "Forward . . . from the Sea," which have set a course for future power projection on the littorals of the world, OMFTS couples maneuver warfare with recent and future technological advances in speed, mobility, firepower, communications, and navigation. It envisions a seamless transition from ship to objective and a rapid exploitation of enemy weakness.

Though the littorals represent a relatively small portion of the earth's surface, they contain 75% of the world's population, 80% of its capital cities, and nearly all major markets of international trade. By 1993, 17 of the 25 most populated cities were in Third World nations.' The inability of most of these states to handle the social, infrastructure, cultural, and other problems inherent in congested urban areas has made the world's littorals a growing site of potential unrest. These demographics and the unique capability of naval expeditionary forces to project power and influence rapidly across the seas onto foreign shores would appear to illustrate the Marine Corps' present and future vitality, as well as its unparalleled ability to execute the nation's Security Strategy. This being the case, the Marine Corps should embrace OMFTS eagerly, but, as always with change, there is resistance from within.

The skepticism of operationally focused Marines is easily understood. Perhaps in an attempt to prove vitality through change, the Marine Corps has at times been an eager passenger on the "fad" bus. Concepts such as total quality leadership and the New Sciences lead the Corps' trigger pullers to scorn such change, asking only, "So, how does this help me kill people and break things today?"

Though OMFTS is far from fully executable, it could be the catalyst that propels amphibious warfare into the 21st century, as a truly viable military option for the nation when facing a determined and capable foe. It has placed the Navy and Marine Corps in an unprecedented working relationship, as both strive to develop the concept. OMFTS, with its reliance on technological advancements and proposed organizational changes, such as the smaller killer teams, might appear contrary to traditional amphibious operations, but in reality it is very similar. The difference is that OMFTS will use previously unavailable tools and resources to make it a far more realistic and executable option.

A common concern regarding OMFTS is that it will eliminate the Marine Corps' ability to make opposed landings and forcible entry. Simply stated, an opposed amphibious landing is one that, regardless of purpose, originates at sea and projects forces into a country opposed to our presence on its soil. Any such opposed operation, where an enemy is determined to defend his nation militarily and to prevent the amphibious projection of forces, will result in the amphibious force making a forcible entry.

OMFTS does not spell an end to opposed landings or forcible entry, but the concept does require a philosophy toward amphibious operations far different from what traditionally comes to mind. The thought of an amphibious force appearing on the horizon and assaulting solely by surface means across a heavily defended beach, with the strength of force and firepower to gain the beach through attrition, must be abandoned. Under the OMFTS concept, amphibious forces avoid the strength of an enemy's defenses and apply the effects of mass at his weakness, but without the necessity of massing forces.

The doctrine governing amphibious operations has remained essentially unchanged for the past 50 years. The initial factor limiting amphibious forces is the availability of beaches conducive to the conduct of the operation. This factor also guides an enemy in the preparation of his defenses and the placement of his units. Because of the limitations of delivery means—amphibious assault vehicles and helicopters—the attacking amphibious force must then position its ships well within visible range of the shore to land the assaulting force. The assault is prefaced by naval surface fire support—a capability that has declined greatly over the years—air support from carrier aircraft within range of the objective area, and any advance-force or pre-assault missions.

Traditionally, the initial assault wave is to gain a beachhead and the immediate landing force objectives that will allow the buildup of forces, organic fire support, and sustainment ashore. These follow-on waves involve the use of utility-type lighter-age, which is susceptible to enemy defensive action if the assault wave fails to gain positive control of the beachhead. Once adequate forces are established ashore, the landing force initiates its movement toward the enemy objective, which is in actuality the objective of the offensive operation itself.

Clearly, current amphibious doctrine is a product of the limitations of assets in the inventory and requires an initial assault to gain a foothold, followed by an unavoidable operational pause for buildup ashore. Against a determined enemy such an undertaking stands to be a costly operation. The availability of defensive missiles and mines, both land and sea, to any government in the world today quickly can make any nation a powerful foe.

OMFTS, in concept, eliminates on-the-horizon assault and the need to gain a foothold for the buildup of forces, fire power, and sustainment ashore. As soon as the amphibious task force starts movement toward the objective area, it constitutes a maneuver element, which, based on near-time—and perhaps in the future, real-time—intelligence, will approach the hostile shore with the flexibility to insert the landing force over a wide area of coastline. Unlimited by hydrographics, it will possess multiple landing force delivery means capable of launching from ship platforms well over the horizon. Once launched, these delivery assets will be able to respond en route to changes in insertion points based on near-time—and potentially real-time—intelligence being gathered on enemy actions, as directed by the operational commander, embarked in shipping miles away.

This flexibility will allow the landing force to strike with speed directly into the enemy's weakness, which will change as he responds, and directly to the operational objective, while realizing the greatest dividend in relation to the capability being inserted. By avoiding the enemy's defenses and strengths, a smaller assaulting force, not subjected to the attrition associated with gaining a beachhead for the buildup of power ashore and supported by highly accurate and lethal naval surface and air fires, can move directly from the ship to the objective. Upon realizing success, the landing force can use the same means to return to sea.

Clearly, the technology and equipment available today do not facilitate application of the full range of maneuver options associated with OMFTS. Current amphibious shipping with enhanced command, control, and intelligence processing capability lends itself to OMFTS, but the number of platforms are limited and in turn will limit the size landing force that can be used. The concept itself, however, will facilitate the use of a smaller landing force just as capable as—if not more capable than—a larger force employing traditional amphibious operation means.

The key shortfalls lie with the over-the-horizon, ship-to-objective delivery means. The air-cushion landing craft (LCAC) presently deployed in the fleet provides the needed surface range and capability to support OMFTS, but—thin-skinned—it cannot be used for delivery across a defended beach where an enemy's defensive response is strong. The LCAC counters this limitation with speed, over-the-horizon launch, and payload. The advanced amphibious assault vehicle (AAAV), which will replace the AAV, provides the ability to hit a defended beach and has the greatly increased speed and launch range to support OMFTS. Once ashore, it further provides the landing force with a mechanized asset for employment.

The keystone delivery means is the air asset that will replace the short-ranged and aged CH-46 helicopter. At present, the MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey is under production for this role. The speed and over-the-horizon range it will bring to the landing force will be the most critical to the success of OMFTS. As CH-46s enter their third decade of service, however, the full operational integration of the Osprey appears to be nearly a full decade away. Absent a potent air delivery means of this nature, OMFTS will remain a concept rather than a true offensive option. Though the determination of the Marine Corps to acquire the Osprey has prevailed, it would appear that it has been accomplished with the sacrifice of one, if not two, generations of interim period assault helicopters.

In addition to these items, several technological advances are required:

  • Throughout the amphibious force, a responsive, reliable, and long-range communications means will need to be developed and employed. OMFTS is built on the ability to immediately influence the movement and actions of several units spread across a wide area, in the air and on the surface. Without the capability to make the landing force more responsive and flexible in its maneuver, the concept will fail.
  • Intelligence gathering and reporting also will need to be more accurate, timely, and processible toward a usable state for the operational commander.
  • OMFTS relies on naval surface fires that are responsive and accurate; the landing force will be without much of its significant organic fire support. These naval fires will not gain effectiveness through sheer volume but by pinpoint lethality delivered when and where it is needed. Today, target-acquisition capabilities and naval surface fire delivery platforms are inadequate.
  • In lieu of a buildup ashore, OMFTS will require the logistical capability to sustain the landing force from a sea-based platform. Present platforms provide this capability, limited as it maybe, but OMFTS success will rely on the availability of the same delivery means critical to the insertion of the assault force.
  • Though the assaulting OMFTS force delivery means will be able to avoid mines to some extent, there will be at least a minimal requirement to locate and identify mines and neutralize their effectiveness.

OMFTS does not spell the end of opposed landings or forcible entry by amphibious forces. Rather, it will enhance the capability of an amphibious force to get ashore in the face of such opposition, with far less cost to the force. This is realized by a concept of maneuver that is not limited by natural obstacles and is responsive to change along the entire avenue of approach, up to the point of actual engagement with an enemy force.

OMFTS is conducted swiftly, relying on the element of over-the-horizon surprise, high mobility toward engaging an enemy's weakness, superior intelligence, and responsive and accurate nonorganic supporting fires for the landing force. These elements combine to facilitate movement from shipping directly to the operational objective, providing the effects of mass while eliminating the operational pause for the buildup at the beachhead.

These elements of assault are not revolutionary; enemy weaknesses and the most expeditious routes to the objective always have been sought. Traditional amphibious forces, however, never have possessed the capable and sustainable resources to conduct such maneuver, and they always have expected attrition to be a significant part of such an operation.

True OMFTS is years away, and undeniably linked both to technological advances that loom on the horizon—far more elusive as a result of budgetary limitations than because of any inability on industry's part to design and produce such equipment and assets—and to the testing and development of doctrine, tactics, and training to support its full potential. All Marines must recognize the need for change and the potential that OMFTS offers the Marine Corps, as it finds itself positioned by world demographics and its inherent expeditionary character to serve the nation on the world's littorals on an unprecedented scale. OMFTS must be given the full measure to succeed or fail as we look ahead.

Major Hull , a 1997 graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, is executive officer of 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, at Camp Pendleton, California.


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