Between 1800 and 1934, the Navy-Marine Corps Team conducted 180 landings in support of American foreign policy. These landings were primarily conducted by sailors and Marines assigned to the Navy’s surface combatants. After World War II (WWII), Marine detachments on most surface combatants were removed, remaining only on those surface vessels carrying nuclear weapons. The last Marine detachments were removed from the Navy’s vessels in the late 1990s, relegating the Navy-Marine Corps Team to the Navy’s amphibious vessels.
The best way to improve the Navy-Marine Corps Team’s capability as a crisis response force is to reintroduce Marine detachments onto surface combatants. The addition of Marine detachments to surface combatants would add a much-needed dimension to the Navy’s warships. Marine shipboard detachments are the logical extension of the enhanced MAGTF operations (EMO) concept to disaggregated amphibious operations. Additionally, Marine detachments aboard surface combatants would complement the existing amphibious ready group (ARG) construct, support the single naval battle concept, and benefit both Services and the Navy-Marine Corps Team as whole.
The Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, and frigates are designed to conduct antiair warfare, antisubmarine warfare, antisurface warfare, and naval surface fires support (NSFS) in support of their mission of sea control. However, while these vessels possess impressive capabilities, these capabilities are not applicable across the whole range of military operations (ROMO). Tomahawk missiles are useless for securing an embassy, naval gunfire is a poor tool to resolve a hostage crisis, and torpedoes cannot seize an oil platform. Our surface combatants, designed to conduct sea control against symmetric threats, struggle to meet the numerous low-intensity and asymmetric challenges we face now and for the foreseeable future.
To meet these asymmetric challenges, current practice in the Navy has been to use a ship’s company to fulfill tasks far beyond what their rate would imply, usually without the degree of training necessary for safety, let alone tactical proficiency. Concurrent with the increase in tasks, personnel constraints make it difficult to fully man surface combatants. The combination of chronic undermanning with the allocation of scarce training and maintenance time to a variety of additional tasks no doubt results in decreased performance of both sea control and the Navy’s current slate of low-intensity missions.
The addition of a platoon-sized Marine detachment to each of the Navy’s surface combatants would dramatically improve a ship’s capability in its traditional mission areas, as well as increase its utility across ROMO. A ship’s Navy crew would focus on maintaining their skills and their vessel in order to better perform the sea control mission, while the Marine detachment would enable the ship to conduct a wider variety of low-intensity missions with a greater degree of tactical proficiency. Three areas in which a Marine detachment would make an immediate impact would be defense against small craft, force protection, and the conduct of visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations.
A ship’s secondary weapons, the M2 and MK–38, provide a vessel’s best defense against the emerging threat posed by fast attack craft and fast inshore attack craft. Currently, a ship’s crew-served weapons are manned by whichever sailors complete a rudimentary training syllabus under a vessel’s single master-at-arms. This is not, however, the primary job of these sailors, as they may be of any rate, and sustainment training is superficial due to other demands on their time. The Marine detachment would take on the responsibility of manning these weapons as their primary post during battle stations. This would enable the sailors to focus on their primary mission, and ensure that the secondary weapons are manned by personnel who are trained on them to a high level of proficiency. Further, the Marines would man the ship’s armed rigid hulled inflatable boats, providing an additional layer of defense against the fast attack craft and fast inshore attack craft threats.
Force protection in port and in some congested waterways is currently augmented by arming members of a ship’s crew with small arms and crew-served weapons. Again, sailors are fortunate if they have received training on these weapons; the frequency of mishaps cannot be overstated. Surface warfare officers frequently attest that arming members of a ship’s crew is only slightly less frightening than the enemy threat. A Marine detachment would relieve the sailors of most, if not all, responsibility for providing armed sentries in such situations. Additionally, a Marine detachment would also have the ability to train selected sailors in weapons handling to a higher standard than the ship’s lone master-at-arms can, adding depth to a ship’s organic force protection capability by enabling sailors to effectively and safely contribute to the defense of their vessel against asymmetric threats.
Navy surface vessels currently conduct VBSS operations all over the world. Much as with force protection, the sailors who conduct VBSS operations perform them as a collateral duty. Additionally, sailors are not permitted to conduct VBSS when the target vessel is noncompliant. In these situations, the Navy either requests special operations forces or a coalition partner to conduct the boarding. The addition of a Marine detachment would add a force to a ship’s crew which was dedicated to carrying out missions such as these, and could train extensively to it. This would allow a ship to conduct VBSS operations against a wider range of targets and reduce the need to call on special operations forces or other nations’ vessels.
In addition to improving the current performance of the Navy’s surface combatants, a Marine detachment would also substantially increase their flexibility. Marine Corps Order 3120.9C, Policy for Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) and MEU Special Operations Capable (MEU(SOC)) (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, August 2009) lists a MEU’s mission essential tasks. With the exception of “Conduct Aviation Operations from Expeditionary Shore-Based Sites,” a ship’s Marine detachment would be capable of conducting all of a MEU’s mission essential tasks at the lower end of ROMO, either on their own, aggregated with other ships’ detachments, or in support of a larger amphibious force. Examples would include reinforcing an Embassy’s security force, conducting small-scale noncombatant evacuation operations in remote areas, and even conducting amphibious assaults against pirate lairs on ungoverned coasts. This exemplifies the concept of EMO by using a small, well-trained force to conduct missions previously reserved for significantly larger units.
A surface combatant is an excellent platform for amphibious EMO. It has the ability to deliver Marines ashore either by rigid hulled inflatable boats or helicopter, it can provide NSFS with its main guns, and can provide casualty evacuation or even close air support if the embarked SH–60 is equipped with forward-firing or precision ordnance. The addition of a small, unmanned aircraft system such as a Raven B to the detachment would add intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and transform the Marine detachment into a true MAGTF. A Marine detachment would be a formidable force for its size, capable of taking on a variety of low-intensity missions.
The Navy-Marine Corps Team currently structures its amphibious crisis response capabilities around the ARG and its embarked MEU. While these forces have the ability to respond to crises throughout the world, the assignment of Marine detachments to surface warships would improve the current structure by addressing weaknesses related to timely crisis response, misallocation of resources, and limited coverage of a crisis region’s coastline.
There are usually only three ARGs on station at any one time, which means that each is responsible for crisis response over a tremendous area. Even if split ARG operations are being conducted, the most likely scenario is that it will take days before the ARG is able to address a crisis. An example of the challenge posed by disaggregated operations is the positioning of the ARG assigned to the Indian Ocean Basin. This ARG could be ordered to respond to crises in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, East Africa, and Western Oceania, an oceanic expanse of over 23,000,000 square miles. No matter where an ARG is, even if the ARG is split into three elements, many likely trouble spots will remain several days away. Further, many crises may not require the employment of a complete ARG or even a significant amount of one ship’s personnel or capabilities. Since a MEU is loaded on three vessels, any commitment of ARG resources to a crisis not only obligates those resources necessary to address the crisis, but also any other capabilities embarked with them. Thus, responding to the pirate seizure of the MV Maersk Alabama with the USS Boxer’s (LHD 4) medical facilities committed the majority of the 13th MEU’s air combat element, half of its ground combat element, and a portion of the combat support element to guarding a drifting lifeboat with five pirates and one hostage aboard. Additionally, a littoral region in crisis might be so extensive that the ARG, even if split up, cannot effectively cover it with its organic air and surface assets.
Marine shipboard detachments would address the preceding weaknesses. While there are less than 30 amphibious ships in commission, there are over 100 surface combatants that frequently conduct independent patrols around the world. The presence of Marine detachments on some of these vessels would dramatically increase the probability that at least a small force of Marines could rapidly respond to a crisis. Further, aggregating surface combatants’ Marine detachments to respond to a crisis at the low end of ROMO is likely a better use of resources than committing even one ARG vessel. This would enable the ARG/MEU to remain aggregated for commitment to a larger regional crisis. Moreover, with surface combatants providing additional crisis response in a region, the calculations involved in positioning the ARG would be simplified, as it would now only have to consider possible crisis scenarios requiring the bulk of its resources and capabilities. Finally, in the case of a crisis throughout a very large littoral region, the surface combatants and their detachments would conduct supporting operations to expand the reach of an ARG.
The reintroduction of Marines onto surface combatants also supports the single naval battle concept. Single naval battle states, “Naval commanders must have the spectrum of naval power projection capabilities available at their fingertips in a nimble and practiced force, ready to project power at sea and ashore.”1 Shipboard Marine detachments provide the necessary tools for all levels of naval commanders to meet this requirement. Further, single naval battle seeks to break the supported/supporting paradigm which encourages single domain thinking.2 By giving each surface combatant its own landing force, the line between supported and supporting, and between the landing force and the amphibious taskforce, is blurred, encouraging cross-domain thinking by all participants. Employing Marine detachments on surface combatants increases the integration of the Navy-Marine Corps Team, and provides linkage between the Services’ missions at the tactical and operational levels of war.
In addition to the immediate tactical and operational benefits that would accrue from assigning Marine detachments to surface combatants, the Navy-Marine Corps Team’s ability to conduct amphibious operations would increase. The Navy’s surface combatants and helicopter squadrons would become more familiar with amphibious operations and the role that they can play in support of them. This would also lead to improvements in NSFS proficiency and the integration of Navy aviation with amphibious operations. Likewise, the Marine Corps would quickly benefit from having a larger pool of company grade officers who have had command and amphibious experience. With more Navy units trained to support amphibious operations, and more Marines experienced in them, the Navy-Marine Corps Team’s amphibious crisis response capability would increase significantly.
The Navy-Marine Corps Team as an institution would greatly benefit from this concept. Currently, integration afloat between the Navy and the Marine Corps is limited to the crews of the Navy’s amphibious ships and the Marines comprising the MEUs. The rest of the Navy’s sailors, and the majority of Marines who do not deploy with a MEU, have few interactions with the other Service. By putting Marine detachments on surface combatants, the two Services will increase interaction and integration at the tactical level. A greater number of sailors and Marines, particularly junior leaders, would gain experience conducting amphibious operations. In the short term, the surface combatant’s commanders’ experiences with their Marine detachments would build a stronger bond of teamwork with the Marine Corps as they rise through the Navy’s senior ranks. In the longer term, the junior sailors’ and Marines’ experiences aboard ship would have a still greater impact as they too rise through the ranks and share their experiences with others. This can only further strengthen the Navy-Marine Corps Team and increase its future effectiveness in amphibious operations.
On the surface, assigning large numbers of Marines to Navy ships appears to weaken an already shrinking Marine Corps by removing hundreds of Marines from squadrons and battalions. If we measure our usefulness to the United States by the number of battalions and squadrons we field, than the previous statement is true. If, however, we measure our usefulness by the unique capability we provide—the capability of rapid, amphibious crisis response—than we will actually increase our usefulness to our Nation. As it did between WWII and Korea, fiscal austerity can force us to focus training on the skills necessary for success in amphibious operations and dispense with the materiel-oriented approach. The continued development of EMO implies that we are doing just that. Establishing Marine detachments aboard surface combatants would continue this trend and provide a larger arena for Marines to practice and perfect those skills. Though establishing shipboard Marine detachments would likely require little purchasing of new equipment, it would require much in the way of training. However, these resources would be well spent, as the interwar and immediate post-WWII period demonstrated that a focus on training can more than make up for materiel shortfalls.
Adding Marine detachments to surface combatants would improve and expand the capabilities of the Navy’s warships, support rapid crisis response, and improve the integration of the Navy-Marine Corps Team. Further, Marine detachments would extend the concept of EMO to crisis response in the littoral, support the single naval battle concept, and make the best use of reduced resources. While it may appear that the Marine Corps is giving desperately needed personnel to the Navy, by solving their problems, we also solve our own. What distinguishes Marines from the other Services is not the color of our uniforms, but our ability to perform rapid crisis response from the sea. ADM David G. Farragut once said, “A ship without Marines is like a coat without buttons.”3 It is time to put some buttons back on the Navy’s coat.
1. Mulvey, Maj Matthew K., “Sustaining the Single Naval Battle: Enhancing USMC Expeditionary Logistics with the Addition of the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) Auxiliar Dry Cargo/Ammunition Ships (T-TAKES),” Master of Military Studies Program, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, April 2012.
3. Farragut, ADM David G., accessed at www.usmarinesbirthplace.com/quotes.html.