The Defensive Naval Campaign

by 1stLt Benson M. Stein

A 1982 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest Entry

The Marine Corps seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis. Modern weapons, limited amphibious lift, changing tactics, and differing contingencies all lead one to the belief that the era of the amphibious assault may be over. The Marine Corps must adapt to this new era; it must find its place in the modern order of battle.

A look at almost any copy of the GAZETTE or Proceedings issued in recent years leaves one feeling the future rests with something called maneuver warfare. Article after article recounts the exploits of the great German practitioners of the blitzkrieg and urges the Marine Corps to adopt their form of warfare. In contrast, articles contained in those same issues that describe the development of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) and advanced base force doctrine are written almost as historical anecdotes. Implicitly, one gets a feeling that our own history is considered irrelevant to our future. One could easily forgive an uninformed reader for forgetting that Marines developed a remarkable and highly successful doctrine for World War II.

This same amphibious doctrine that served so well until recently is the one now considered out of date. The key point, however, is not the particular doctrine, but the way men such as Lejeune and Ellis developed it. They did not simply ape the tactics of World War I’s more successful armies; instead they considered the potential threats to the United States and what the Marine Corps should do in light of these threats to help the Navy. Once this was established, appropriate tactics and doctrine followed.

Now, as it was then, the mission of the Marine Corps is to seize and defend advanced naval bases and to participate in naval campaigns. It seems reasonable that all doctrine, structure, and tactics must be directed to accomplishing this mission. I realize that the mission statement permits the President to use the Marine Corps for other missions, but seizing and defending is the heart of the Marine Corps. Anything else can generally be done just as well by the Army-and probably ought to be.

In light of this, much of the current furor over the assignment of Marines to the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), over possible operation in Norway, and over adoption of maneuver warfare techniques is mystifying to say the least. The articles go into great detail on how to perform these missions, but never establish how any of these actions will further the Marine Corps in carrying out its part of a naval campaign.

Certainly, it is fascinating to consider better ways of maneuvering in the Delta Corridor at Twentynine Palms on a combined arms exercise (CAX). Unfortunately, the connection between the volumes written on how to operate at Twentynine Palms and how we need to modify the Marine Corps to function properly in naval campaigns seems almost nonexistent.

Accordingly, I propose that rather than grasping indiscriminately for new missions (no matter how irrelevant) or new tactics (no matter how glamorous) that we should first consider how the Corps will perform its legally assigned job. If the amphibious assault (to seize) is not currently viable then, perhaps, the factors that have made seizure obsolete have made the other half of our mission (defense) important.

As students of Marine Corps history know, the advanced base force concept had two components from its very beginning until the Marine Corps went permanently on the offensive in late 1942. In those years doctrine dwelled as much or more on how to defend than it did on how to seize. Consequently, the Marine Corps entered World War II with much of the FMF organized into defense battalions, such as those on Midway and Wake Islands. Admittedly, the unsupported 1st Defense Battalion and VMF-211 proved unable to prevent the loss of Wake, but that was not a failure of the concept any more than it was a failure of the men. Against overwhelming odds and possessing inadequate equipment, they proved that well-trained, well-led men can defend against anything less than the most powerful forces.

History demonstrates that, unlike Germany or Israel, the United States tends to start most wars on the defensive. Most of the current contingencies for which the Marine Corps is preparing envision that Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs) will arrive prior to the commencement of hostilities, fall in to their pre-positioned equipment, and assume a defensive posture in hopes of deterring aggression. If the deterrence plan fails, the MAGTF, which will most certainly be outnumbered, will find it difficult to take the offense once diplomatic policy has compelled us to let the enemy make the first move. Certainly, a MAGTF with, at most, one or two tank battalions will not be cutting and slashing its way through many division-size forces that may react to its presence.

My purpose here is to suggest some changes in perspective and structure that would almost certainly result in the fielding of a far more realistic force than the one outlined above.

To start with, the objective of all our operations is to support the Navy. This means that the Marine Corps’ defensive job is to deny enemy forces access to ports, runways, and coastal positions from which they can hamper our naval forces. Anything else we do is peripheral and must be recognized as such.

Since our mission is one of denial rather than one of destroying the enemy, a force tailored to such a mission is needed. It is almost axiomatic that the defense wishes to engage the enemy as far out as possible with the greatest amount of firepower available. It is also generally true that on the defense firepower is more important than tactical mobility. After all, the object is not to take and hold territory but to deny its use to the enemy.

As a consequence the defensive MAGTF will have less armor, fewer transport helicopters, more indirect fire weapons and antiaircraft, and above all else more strike aircraft. The strike aircraft can engage the enemy at great distance and with great effect. The ground forces’ primary job is to defend the air-field and to provide raiding parties for use in limited actions to disrupt enemy lines of communications.

In Norway, the most likely place to use such a force, such an organization is more apt to prove successful than one that attempts to take the battle to the enemy with the limited armor assets available to the Marine Corps. At any rate, if the purpose of fighting in Norway is a general offensive to drive into Russia, then the Army ought to be there, not the Marine Corps.

In addition to forming defensive MAGTFs to support naval campaigns, defensive forces are needed for the defense of specific naval bases. Two bases that could readily use such forces are Iceland and Diego Garcia. In both cases, modern technology has made the distant bases vulnerable to enemy attack. The use of Marines to upgrade their defenses is logical because both are naval bases.

A Marine defensive unit in either place would be air heavy. It would contain at least a fighter/attack squadron, an attack squadron, an air control squadron, and a Hawk battalion. These forces could not only protect the base itself from attack, but deny the enemy the use of the surrounding air and sea without tying up carriers needed elsewhere. If an enemy raider force managed to get ashore, Marines are well prepared to pick up rifles and defend themselves.

A further advantage of using Marine aircraft in this role is their compatibility with carriers. As the enemy threat to the base subsides or the forward-deployed carriers suffer losses, the Marine squadrons can move onto the carriers to maintain their combat power. Considering the carriers’ central role in the naval campaigns we exist to support, this is not an inconsequential consideration.

Restructuring the Marine Corps to defend naval bases does not necessarily mean that the Marine Corps must forsake the amphibious assault. It is possible that its day is not past and that the Marine Corps still needs to provide forward deployed amphibious units. Fortunately, the Marine Corps has the assets needed to maintain this offensive skill and at the same time to build the forces needed to defend naval bases and fight defensive naval campaigns.

Many of the assets used for the defense are just as easily used for the offense. For such units, training that is realistic is needed in both potential roles. Some changes, however, are called for. Certainly less infantry, armor, and transport helicopters are required on the defense. Some of these should be cut to free men and funds for items, such as additional Hawk battalions.

One way to do this would be to transform I Marine Amphibious Force (MAI7) into a defensive force. I MAF has only one real contingency, the Persian Gulf, and it is unclear if that is really a naval mission. Although there is a legal requirement that the Marine Corps contain three active divisions and wings, there is no requirement that all three must be offensively structured.

Some might say that IMAF is needed to provide a reserve force to back up the other two MAFs. If this is true, it does not present a problem since the Reserves in IV MAF can take over this job. There is much talk these days about the “total force” concept and giving the Reserves a real mission will prove this is more than lip service. This makes especially good sense since it is the Regulars who will need to be defensively organized to meet the enemy’s initial onslaught. Ideally, the Regulars will have stopped the enemy and cleared the way for an offensive by the time the Reserves are ready to enter battle.

Another possible objection is that it will eliminate the units needed to make the unit rotation program work. In fact, with defensive units forward based on Diego Garcia and Iceland, practically the entire FMF would be overseas. This will certainly cause some hardships, but combat readiness and carrying out the Corps’ mission must take priority.

The specific form of the defensive MAGTFs and base defense forces made here are suggestions only. It is certain that officers from the communities I have suggested cutting will object vigorously to protect their own career patterns and billets. It is also possible my belief that air is the key element of a defensive MAGTF is wrong. Cruise missile batteries, for example, may drastically change these units’ composition. The point is that, if the Marine Corps does reemphasize its proper naval role, it will have to innovate, reorganize, and cease to view itself strictly as an assault force.

It is not reasonable today to believe that forces practicing amphibious assaults and maneuver warfare in the high desert will find themselves with the right equipment, training, or mental attitude to fight off massive enemy assaults. Unfortunately, history indicates that is precisely what the Marine Corps should expect to do in the opening phase of any future conflict.

It is not the purpose of this article to state a preference for either the offense or the defense. Given a choice, Marines unquestionably would prefer the offense. Such preferences, however, are not always relevant. It is the Marine Corps’ duty today, just as it has always been, to prepare to serve to best advantage in the conduct of naval campaigns.

Maneuver warfare is exciting, but just how it ties into the conduct of naval campaigns this Nation can realistically expect to conduct in the foreseeable future is far from clear. Rather than turning our backs on our heritage and our legal obligations for the sake of a “trendy” mission, such as the RDF-rather than opting for glamorous tactics, for which we are ill equipped-it is time we once again picked up the lost art of the defense.

It is our job to defend exposed naval bases and to deny enemies the use of airfields, ports, and coastal positions that can endanger the fleet. It is time to take it seriously.