MAGTFs and the Tactical Defense

by Maj Edward J. Robeson, IV

Maj Burke, in his article, “Maneuver Warfare & the MAGTF” (MCG, Sep82) apparently ruffled some feathers, but more importantly, perhaps he instilled some genuine doubt into the minds of Marines who have been bombarded for the past few years with the virtues of “letting the battle flow” maneuver warfare. He stated:

The MAGTF will be committed as a limited defensive response to the Threat and since the MAGTF builds its combat power from zero, it is logical to look to the tactical defense as a probable solution.

This statement has generated many responses, both pro and con. The most lengthy of the negative responses was the recent article “Thinking Beyond the Beachhead” (MCG, Jan83). This essay condemned the solution proposed by Maj Burke, and strongly endorsed a maneuver warfare concept that would find the MAGTF in extended positions forward of the beachhead.

Tactics are driven by the scenario, and there are scenarios where, initially, the MAGTF could maneuver freely with little regard for rear security of vital areas. This could prove to be the case in a “banana” scenario like El Salvador or in a NATO reinforcement role, perhaps in Denmark. In either circumstance Marine intervention would probably have the support of almost all the local population, and local defensive forces could free the MAGTF to maneuver alone or in conjunction with other allied formations.

If, however, the scenario requires an amphibious assault, which, by definition, is across a hostile beach, a completely new set of circumstances becomes apparent. For instance, introduction of Marine forces by amphibious assault into Southwest Asia (Maj Burke’s scenario) would probably encounter a hostile population and a sophisticated enemy that could make sea-based logistics too vulnerable to be practical. Certainly the creation of the “benign environment” required to marry up with NTPS equipment would demand that vital areas be established ashore, and then defended.

If this scenario is accepted, simple mathematics can be used to demonstrate the futility of discussing maneuver warfare beyond the beachhead. In order to protect the vital areas, the FEBA for the MAGTF must be at least 10,000 meters forward of these areas to provide reasonable assurance that artillery could not be employed effectively against them. Assuming a 180° defensive sector, a semicircular FEBA would be 31,400 meters long. Marine Corps doctrine states that one battalion, on ideal terrain, can defend up to 3,000 meters. Therefore, there is a requirement for over 11 battalions, just to defend the vital area. This should not be overlooked by the maneuverists. And how does one propose to move all of those battalions quickly in today’s Marine Corps? Not until the entire 82d Airborne Division and the entire 7th MAB are ashore will maneuver warfare even be a remote possibility in the most likely USCentCom scenario.

This fixation on maneuver has even been defended in recent GAZETTE articles by recalling Iwo Jima and Okinawa as positive examples of maneuver warfare, and Anzio as a nonmaneuver negative example. Maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps cannot be validated by comparing the Marine Corps of today with our record in the Pacific in World War II. We no longer have the luxury of six divisions, unlimited strategic lift, and isolated, fixed enemy forces on relatively small pieces of real estate. Recalling Anzio as an historical example is just as irrelevant. The Anzio operation exceeded the size of our entire Corps. Today, we would have difficulty just establishing 33,000 Marines ashore in 4 months, much less holding a beachhead or conducting maneuver warfare while suffering the 33,000 casualties that the Allies did in a 4-month period at Anzio.

Those who espouse the tactical defense do not eschew the sound principles of offense, mass, and surprise. When the size of the MAGTF vis-a-vis the enemy permits, rapid and flexible indirect tactics should characterize all Marine operations. The danger is in becoming enamored with “maneuver warfare” until we begin to believe that our greatest potential adversary will be defeated by “dislocation” rather than destruction. The performance of the Soviet Army in the long withdrawal to Leningrad and Stalingrad in the Great Patriotic War should have debunked that nonsense long ago. This idea of “dislocating” the Soviet soldier is the first fatal flaw of maneuver strategy.

The second flaw is that our maneuverists generally think “heavy” and their heroes invariably include Rommel and Patton. In fact, one recent writer asked, “How can we possibly ignore Patton’s unique combination of the 3d Army and the XIX Tactical Air Command?” That question reminds one of the hungry traveler who said to his companion, “If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs . . . if we had some eggs!” In these days when we are stretched to deploy a genuine MAB at short notice and discussing such expediencies as a “composite MAF,” we need to remember that Patton commanded huge forces. He had an ARMY and an AIR FORCE. We have neither, and unless we can convince some featherweight adversaries to pick on us, I recommend that we think METT (Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops), fire support, and logistics with a little more emphasis on the “T’s” and consider the advantages that accrue to a commander who has learned to live within his means and to conduct a skillful tactical defense in these days when the defense is, once again, in the ascendancy, and the liftable MAGTF is, thankfully, potent, but regrettably, small.