Nothing Like a Good Maritime Raid

By Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Armstrong, U.S. Navy

Following the French Revolution the French navy, angered that American merchants were trading with its enemies in England, began seizing American vessels. France also began to license privateers who sailed the American seacoast and the Caribbean in search of undefended merchant ships. As the summer of 1800 approached, the Constitution sailed the Caribbean, under the command of Commodore Silas Talbot, in search of French ships.

The first week in May, the Constitution arrived off the Dominican Republic and received information that a notorious privateer named the Sandwich , a former British packet that had been taken by French privateers and armed with 14 guns, lay in the harbor refitting. On the 11th the American frigate fell in with a 58-ton American trading sloop named the Sally that had recently sailed from Puerto Plata and was scheduled to return before sailing for its homeport of Providence, Rhode Island. Master Thomas Sandford, captain of the Sally , confirmed that the Sandwich was in port, protected under the guns of the Spanish fortress there. 1

The Early Navy/Marine Corps Team

Talbot wanted to sail the Constitution into Puerto Plata and take on the three heavy cannon in the Spanish fortress and the Sandwich ’s broadside, but he feared the shallows and unmarked reefs at the approach to the harbor. Considering the deep draft of the 44-gun Constitution , Talbot instead decided to take advantage of the schedule of the merchant Sally . He commandeered the small ship from Sandford and ordered his first lieutenant, or executive officer, to take command of her. Lieutenant Isaac Hull, who would later command the Constitution with much acclaim in the War of 1812, was assigned a force of 90 sailors and Marines to sail the Sally into Puerto Plata and “cut out” the French privateer. The cutting-out expedition, where a raiding force used small boats and surprise to board and carry an enemy ship, was one of the many irregular operations carried out by the Navy and Marine Corps team during the Age of Sail.

Commodore Talbot ordered Hull and his force to “bring her out to sea, if practicable; otherwise to burn and destroy her in port.” Hull took with him the Constitution ’s two Marine Corps officers, Captain Daniel Carmick and Lieutenant William Amory, to help lead the expedition. They loaded the sailors and Marines aboard the Sally with muskets, pistols, and cutlasses and hid them in the ship’s hold. Captain Carmick later recalled feeling like Achilles and his Greek warriors, the sailors and Marines hidden in their own Trojan Horse. Hull and six sailors remained on deck to work the ship, setting off for the Dominican harbor on the morning of 10 May. 2

Hull, with Master Sandford along as a pilot, sailed the Sally past the reef and into the harbor. The raiding force discovered the Sandwich at anchor, all her guns hauled to the starboard side to bear on the channel. Riding a sea breeze that sprang up after noon, the Americans maneuvered through the sparsely populated harbor and brought the Sally alongside the privateer’s starboard bow.

‘Over the Rail’

On Hull’s signal, the men poured from the hold. Captain Carmick led them over the rail and aboard the privateer, cutlasses in hand. “The men went on board like devils,” he later wrote, “and it was as much as the first Lieutenant and myself could do to prevent blood being spilt.” 3 Six shots were fired as they crossed the rails, and the attack was so fast that the French privateers were overwhelmed by the Americans and scrambled to hide in the hold. The captain of the privateer realized the hopelessness of his situation and, hat in hand, surrendered the ship to Lieutenant Hull.

Hull took stock of the captured vessel and confirmed that it was in the middle of refit. The ship had been stripped, only its lower masts were standing, and the rigging and sails were coiled and stowed below. The sailors needed time to re-rig the ship in order to escape, but the Spanish fortress overlooked the anchorage with a constant threat from its heavy guns. Once the prisoners had been bound and placed under the watch of several sailors, Hull dispatched Captain Carmick and Lieutenant Amory with their Marines to take the fortress.

The Marines lowered the Sandwich ’s boat and embarked their small force, which rowed for the shore at the base of the fortress. As they approached the rocks the Marines climbed into the neck-deep water, holding their muskets above their heads, and waded ashore. They rapidly moved into the fortress before the Spanish realized what was happening. With surprise on his side, Carmick and his Marines took possession of the fortress and spiked the three heavy guns. They then moved back to the ship and manned the guns to protect the Sandwich and Sally while the sailors worked. By nightfall the crewmen raised the topmasts, rigged the ship, and bent on the sails. 4

When the rigging was completed the Americans faced a new challenge. There was no wind. The sailors manned the ship’s guns, and the Marines took up positions as sharpshooters while the Spanish garrison mustered on shore to face them. Their cannon rendered useless by the Marines’ raid ashore, the Spaniards had no way to challenge the Americans other than their muskets. As night set in, the local commander sent several flags of truce by boat to determine the intentions of the Americans. Hull and Carmick simply replied that they were under orders and they would be sailing the Sandwich clear of the harbor. When morning approached, a land breeze sprang up and the Americans set the sails on board the captured vessels. Without any interference from the Spanish troops, they sailed clear and joined the Constitution . 5

Commodore Talbot submitted his report to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert and praised his officers, writing that “no enterprise of the same moment was ever better executed. The operation was completed without a single casualty.” The copper-bottomed Sandwich had been preying on American merchants for three years and was one of the fastest and most notorious privateers in the Caribbean. She now belonged to the Americans. In America’s first armed conflict, facing a non-state opponent in a third nation’s port, the Navy/Marine Corps team demonstrated its capability for maritime raiding.

Maritime Raiding and the Blue/Green Team

The hybird warfare and asymmetric threats faced by the United States in the 21st century require a new look at naval operations. How ships are deployed, with what capabilities, and in what formations, requires creativity and innovation to adapt to the threats we face as a Navy/Marine Corps team. In the Age of Sail, the cutting out of the privateer Sandwich demonstrated the value of maritime raiding capabilities when dealing with challenges such as piracy and other non-state threats. The Naval Operating Concept 2010 (NOC 10) discusses the irregular challenges faced by today’s Navy/Marine Corps team and calls for the development of a “tailorable ‘maritime raid capability’ to address the diverse target sets that characterize irregular challenges.” 6

Initial deployment of the concept has already proved effective. In 2010 the USS Peleliu (LHA-5) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployed, having trained and designated a Maritime Raid Force. Made up of Marines from the 15th MEU and the sailors of the USS Dubuque (LPD-8), that force demonstrated the responsiveness and effectiveness of the concept during the operation to recover the M/V Magellan Star from Somali pirates in September 2010. 7

The continued development of this capability is important to the future. It doesn’t necessarily mean the return of the Maritime Special Purpose Force (MSPF) that used to make MEUs “special-operations capable,” but it does mean that the selective return of some of the former MSPF’s capabilities and training is important to the relevance of the Navy/Marine Corps team of tomorrow.

Though it is tempting because of the longstanding relationship between Marines and gator sailors and the already proven success, the capability to conduct maritime raids shouldn’t be relegated to the amphibious fleet alone. NOC 10 states that “confronting irregular challenges require general purpose forces to apply their capabilities in innovative ways.” 8 Development must continue within the amphibious fleet, but it is time to move beyond the MEU and ARG.

Bring on the Carriers

The carrier strike group (CSG) has changed little in the way it deploys over the past six decades. It may be time to re-evaluate the flattop. Sea-basing has been a buzzword of the Navy for years, and the carrier has been a part of that. Most operational testing of the “sea-base” using nuclear-powered carriers, however, has been an all-or-nothing affair.

The use of the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) during Operation Unified Assistance (the 2005 Indonesia tsunami-relief effort) demonstrated the value of having multiple helicopter squadrons as part of the carrier air wing, but the tactical air assets had little to contribute. In 1994 the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) served as a dedicated sea-base to deploy the 10th Mountain Division and its helicopters to Haiti. Both of these are excellent examples of the diverse missions that carriers can take on, but neither really helps develop new ways of looking at the flattop to counter today’s asymmetric and hybrid threats during regular deployments.

Three recent developments offer an opportunity. First, the experimentation by the Marine Corps with the concept of the Company Landing Team (CoLT) lends itself well to the concept of maritime raiding forces. These units, smaller than the traditional MEU’s Battalion Landing Team, offer a way for the Marine Corps to deploy purpose-trained and tailored units with a smaller footprint. 9

Second, the successful combat deployments of the MV-22 Osprey as well as successful full ARG/MEU integration of the airframe have demonstrated the strengths and capabilities of the aircraft. Finally, the current size of a carrier air wing leaves an opportunity to use the aircraft carrier more efficiently, while expanding the capabilities inherent in a carrier strike group. Let’s fit the pieces of the puzzle together in reverse order.

CSG Maritime Raid Force

Today’s Nimitz -class aircraft carriers are not being used for maximum efficiency. While the “fighter gap” is not projected to hit the Navy for another couple of years, the reality is that today’s carrier air wing is smaller than the Nimitz class was designed to deploy. The Gerald R. Ford class will have even more room. The power of today’s super carriers comes from the precision fires that can be delivered more than the sheer number of airframes on the flight deck. This leaves room available for a few more airframes and a few more people, and the potential to increase the capability of the modern carrier strike group.

The greatest strengths of the Osprey are its speed and range. The ability to get to targets over 1,000 miles away, while maintaining the element of surprise through speed far above that of an assault helicopter, can prove decisive when used for the right mission. One of the weaknesses identified of using the MV-22 in an ARG/MEU is the inability of current escort helicopters such as the AH-1 Cobra to keep up with the assault force. That isn’t a problem with the dozens of fixed-wing jet aircraft available from the deck of a carrier.

Recent interoperability training between Marines and Navy MH-60S helicopter detachments on board amphibious ships has demonstrated the ability of Navy helicopters to deliver Marine assault elements. For short distances, and missions that are better suited to assault helicopters than tilt-rotors, the helicopter sea combat and maritime strike squadrons that are part of today’s carrier air wings provide an established capability. Operating as a Navy/Marine Corps team, smaller assaults for missions to include non-compliant or opposed visit, board, search, and seize missions (such as the Magellan Star takedown) would be possible from the deck of the carrier.

The Marine Corps is already hard at work on developing smaller and more mobile combat units, as demonstrated by the exercises for Enhanced Company Operations, and the Company Landing Team. A great deal of experimentation has already been done, and exercises completed to develop the concept. A notional CSG Maritime Raid Force would be roughly the size of an embarked squadron, taking up the same number of racks and the same amount of space for equipment and aircraft.

Organized as a Marine Air-Ground Task Force in miniature, it would be made up of a CoLT, an MV-22 detachment, and a small logistical element. When not conducting raiding operations, the CSG MAGTF could provide expanded capabilities for theater security cooperation missions by the strike group. The size and shape of each element would require development by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and Navy Warfare Development Command and could be tailored for the maritime raiding capability desired and the space available.

Irregular Blue/Green Team

In The U.S. Navy’s Vision for Confronting Irregular Challenges , then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead called for the Navy to identify and develop the doctrine, tactics, and equipment required to face the asymmetric challenges of the 21st century. He stated that in order to develop our irregular-warfare capability “this effort demands changes in our thinking, our force, and its preparation.” 10 Developing a CSG Maritime Raiding Force certainly challenges the conventional deployment of naval forces, but in doing so it would greatly expand the organic capability of a carrier strike group.

In 1800 the USS Constitution was one of the nation’s newest warships, and was its largest and most powerful. It was built for the traditional naval warfare of squadron engagements and ship-versus-ship battles with the heavy guns. However, it carried a detachment of United States Marines. Because of this the ship and its crew were able to launch a successful maritime raid against a non-state enemy to counter an asymmetric threat in a third nation’s port. It’s a mission that does not sound all that unusual in the 21st century, and it’s a capability that we should look toward developing in the future just as we have in the past.

1. Deposition of Thomas Sandford, 19 May 1800, in Dudley W. Knox, ed., Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France: Naval Operations from January 1800 to May 1800 , Volume 5 [hereafter Naval Documents] (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937), p. 501.

2. CAPT Silas Talbot to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, 12 May 1800, in Naval Documents, p. 503.

3. Letter of Daniel Carmick to a friend in Philadelphia, 12 May 1800, in Naval Documents, p. 500.

4. Charles R. Smith, Marines in the Frigate Navy (Washington, DC: History Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 2006), p. 9.

5. Letter of Daniel Carmick to a friend in Philadephia, 12 May 1800, in Naval Documents, p. 501.

6. U.S. Department of the Navy, “Naval Operations Concept 2010,”

7. CAPT Alexander Martin, USMC, “Evolution of a Ship Takedown,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , November 2010, pp. 38-41.

8. U.S. Department of the Navy, “Naval Operations Concept 2010.”

9. COL Vince Goulding, USMC (Ret.), “Enhancing Company Operations for Real,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , April 2010, pp. 76-7.

10. U.S. Department of the Navy, “The U.S. Navy’s Vision for Confronting Irregular Challenges,” January 2010, .

Lieutenant Commander Armstrong is officer-in-charge of an MH-60S armed helicopter detachment and is an occasional contributor to Proceedings and Naval History .


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