The Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) cannot conduct forced-entry operations from afloat in today's threat environment. While it currently is structured to enter into an area of operations with helicopters, assault amphibious vehicles (AAV), combat rubber raiding crafts (CRRC), landing craft utility (LCUs), and landing craft air cushion (LCACs), only helicopters can execute with speed, surprise, and focus. The MEU must modify its organization to facilitate a greater capability to conduct vertical envelopments and reduce the significance of surface connectors.
Helos Have Range
All major threats to the United States have the capability to either purchase or employ antiship missiles. They also all can detect ships and surface connectors several miles out at sea. This will keep ships from dozens of miles to hundreds of miles from coastal access points. CRRC and AAV ranges over sea are dictated by limited fuel capacity and sea state. LCACs and LCUs can travel much farther because of a larger fuel capacity and propellant system made to specifically move goods across the ocean, but will not debark if there is a remote threat of enemy weapons. Assault support helicopters organic to the MEU are the only platforms that can transit hundreds of miles over the ocean and around enemy threat rings.
Prior to the launch of assault support aircraft, the MEU has an ability to reconnoiter approach routes, and an ability to neutralize threats along the way with fixed-wing attack aircraft. Once the assault support helicopters take off, the MEU also has escort aircraft that can provide security for assault support aircraft. This capability allows helicoptors to be the only MEU force that consistently can enter into a nonpermissive environment.
Another argument to support a new structure is that the Navy currently is developing amphibious ships with no well decks. The America-class amphibious helicopter dock ship (LHAs) only have a flight deck. The new littoral combat ships (LCSs), designed to fight in the littorals and support the Marine ground combat elements, also have no well decks, but they do have flight decks. To facilitate more helicopters and a vertical force the construct of the ARG may change as well—rather than one LHD per ARG, two may be required.
Combined Arms Efforts Fall Short
A counter to any argument to reduce the significance of surface connectors is that a wide array of MEU capabilities can facilitate different entry platforms’ success—a combined arms effort for a forced entry. For example, a CRRC-enabled boat company reconnoiters and marks a beach-landing site, and an AAV-enabled mechanized company then seizes the site. While these companies maneuver, they are supported with shaping fire from surface ships and aircraft. All these efforts working in harmony facilitate the ship-to-shore maneuver with existing platforms.
The combined arms approach, however, is vulnerable to failure because of an overreliance on the individual elements that support the maneuver. In addition, combined arms maneuver cannot build up more than two reinforced companies ashore at a time and only one standing MEU has a boat company (31st MEU). If shaping fires fail to neutralize all threats in vicinity of a beach-landing site, a boat company either can be turned prior to the site or defeated in the open ocean because it lacks armaments or cover. If the boat company fails to mark the beach-landing site, the mechanized company will have difficulty landing. It is a surmountable task for a mechanized company to land with no marking, but shaping fires must attrite a significant amount of beach defenses for the landing to occur. One individual with a crew-served weapon can turn an AAV in the open ocean.
A helicopter-borne force can fly around suspected enemy threats and to a litany of tenable landing zones. With the ability of helicopters to mass more troops, the MEU can focus redundant means of shaping fires at locations where enemy activity is considered low and have a higher chance of success.
Technology Misses the Mark
Some also argue that improved technology associated with targeting will keep surface landing craft relevant. With the ability to locate, target, and destroy enemy networks prior to the arrival of a MEU, there should be no issue landing at any geographically tenable beach-landing site.
This technology, however, will never facilitate a situation where the MEU can count on a beach-landing zone being sanitized to the point where it becomes permissive. Autonomous intelligence weapon system failure rates are too high for naval commanders to be comfortable enough to move close enough to a coastal site for AAVs or CRRCs to launch.
Helicopters Are the Way Forward
Helicopter-borne forces are most capable of effecting a quick buildup of combat power, flying great distances, circumventing enemy threat rings, and even being employed from Navy ships currently being designed and developed. An organization shift to embrace more aircraft capable of moving a battalion landing team will allow a rapid buildup of combat power ashore, and a means to conduct a forced-entry operation. If the MEU fails to reorganize, it will only be able to employ one to two companies at a time and only one company will be able to conduct a forced-entry operation into a semi- or nonpermissive environment.
Captain Phillips is the headquarters and service company commander for 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.