The Future of Power Projection: Déjà Vu—All Over Again

By Hon. Ed Timperlake

10/08/2010 – As the United States Marines go through one of the cyclic challenges to their mission, it is interesting to look at the Navy/Marine team’s recent performance of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Navy/Marines forces in the Indian Ocean (IO) projected power from the sea using inherent “ready now” capabilities, in taking back a pirate-held ship. This audacious effort made global headlines. However, there was much more to that one exploit and the entire story really captures some USMC unique capabilities.

The opening narrative of this exploit by Captain Alexander Martin – “The Magellan Star: Pirate Takedown Force Recon Style” –  was recently published by the US Naval Institute and says it all:

Over a 48 hour period, the 15th MEU/PELARG team conducted offensive air operations in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 5 confirmed enemy fighters, provided disaster relief in Pakistan to 120 victims who had been without aid since July, and seized a pirated vessel, rescuing a crew of 11 hostages and detaining 9 suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia. A busy couple of days and an impressive battle-rhythm by any standard for this dynamic Navy-Marine Corps team.

This IO series of operations is just another successful operation in a long tradition of projecting power from the Sea. Battle hardened and ready to fight on a moment’s notice—as the Marine Hymn says– it is proven again and again as not just words but deeds:

We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea

And let there be no mistake about geography…

We have fought in every clime
And place where we could take a gun

(Credit photo:

Credit photo: The Magellan Star, http://blog.usni.org

Compare the success being reported in Captain Martin’s write up with other authors who recently said in Newsweek that the Marines have to justify themselves to Secretary Gates, and then state:

The Marines launched their last amphibious invasion in Korea in 1950.

First, before any discussion of the future of the Navy/Marine team can be addressed, it has to be said that the ignorance of that statement is astonishing.

  • After the Korean War Inchon landing in 1950, the Marines landed a brigade-sized amphibious force into Lebanon in 1958, which brought almost a decade of stability to a very hot part of the world.
  • Then the Marines went ashore in force at Da Nang, South Vietnam, in March 1965 to begin fighting in some of the Corps most historic battles.
  • Finally, in endgame Vietnam, a Marine amphibious force had to evacuate South Vietnam citizens to off shore Naval forces in April 1975. In the tragic fall of Vietnam the Navy/Marine team using Marine helicopters saved countless lives. In fact, the last two American killed in the Vietnam War were two members of that force in April 1975, trying to save lives. One note from a historical perspective, “The Mayaguez Incident” did not turn out to be the last battle of the Vietnam War, but rather the first battle and a harbinger of today’s irregular conflicts that can break out at a moments notice.
  • Finally, still focusing on large scale Marine amphibious capabilities, a very sizeable Marine amphibious force was afloat and used as a diversion in Desert Storm to allow General Schwarzkopf to make his brilliant and legendary left hook and win the “100-hour war.” Even though Newsweek doesn’t get it, Sun Tsu, the genius writer on “The Art of War,” would understand completely when a faint is as good as an attack.
In endgame Vietnam, a Marine amphibious force had to evacuate South Vietnam citizens to off shore Naval forces in April 1975. In the tragic fall of Vietnam the Navy/Marine team using Marine helicopters saved countless lives. In fact, the last two American killed in the Vietnam War were two members of that force in April 1975, trying to save lives. One note from a historical perspective, “The Mayaguez Incident” did not turn out to be the last battle of the Vietnam War, but rather the first battle and a harbinger of today’s irregular conflicts that can break out at a moments notice.

Make no mistake: Marines, if not degraded, can continue to concentrate significant forces to strike anywhere anytime. However now it will get even better at the smaller MEU level because of innovative 21st century capabilities. The Second Line of Defense interview with USMC Captain Dwyer, a V-22 pilot, captures the innovative thinking in the Marines about coming “bottoms up” from an operator. Captain Dwyer makes some very interesting and thoughtful points, which indeed foreshadow a significant strategic transition.The ability of a fighting force to emphasize and encourage both top down strategic innovations and also allow the operators to express their tactical views is a hallmark of the Marine way of war.

Flight deck crew members prepare an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, for take off during flight operations aboard USS Kearsarge, April 23, 2010 (Credit photo: USMC)Flight deck crew members prepare an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266,
26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, for take off during flight operations aboard USS Kearsarge,
April 23, 2010 (Credit photo: USMC)

There is revolutionary aviation technology coming to the decks of Navy amphib ships which includes the emerging F-35, a V/STOL 5th Generation Fighter, and the remarkable MV-22 Osprey. A Marine force afloat will have the most modern concentrated air/ground units in the world to meet all requirements for 21st Century missions. Innovative thinking and long term planning by Marine leadership will now allow contingencies to be met across a spectrum of simultaneous challenges. From direct amphibious assaults, to flying hundreds of miles inland to project power, to providing relief in times of natural disasters the Marine Expeditionary Unit is ready.

There is revolutionary aviation technology coming to the decks of Navy amphib ships which includes the emerging F-35, a V/STOL 5th Generation Fighter, and the remarkable MV-22 Osprey. A Marine force afloat will have the most modern concentrated air/ground units in the world to meet all requirements for 21st Century missions. Innovative thinking and long term planning by Marine leadership will now allow contingencies to be met across a spectrum of simultaneous challenges. From direct amphibious assaults, to flying hundreds of miles inland to project power, to providing relief in times of natural disasters the Marine Expeditionary Unit is ready.

In fact, the disaster relief in Pakistan mentioned by Captain Martin is following remarkable relief efforts in the recent Haitian earthquake and also earlier efforts in the tsunami relief with the Navy/Marine team providing aid from off-shore ships to Indonesians.

Harriers aboard HMS Illustrious, 2007 (Credit photo: SLD)

Harriers aboard HMS Illustrious, 2007 (Credit photo: SLD)

Over time Marines afloat have been pioneering the correct mix of air/ground assets, training and tactics to handle many contingencies. A look at the history of the 22nd Marine Amphibious—now renamed Expeditionary – Unit will show “from the Sea” capabilities to America. The 22nd is but one of several Marine MEUs either afloat or training to relieve a rotating unit

A composite narrative taken from historical reporting:

  • On Oct. 18, 1983, the 22nd MAU (name changed to MEU later) left for a deployment to the Med. Several days after embarkation, it was diverted for the Caribbean of Grenada. Following several days of fighting, the victorious Marines re-embarked and set sail for Lebanon. During Operation Urgent Fury the MAU participated with a number of helicopter and surface landings on the island of Grenada and eventually occupied over 75% of the island.
  • After 9/11 the 22nd MEU took part in several anti-terrorist missions in Central Command Theater. Combat mission included Afghanistan and Pakistan border and yet again Marines also launched life-saving humanitarian efforts in the African nation of Djibouti.
  • Finally. as mentioned earlier, significant Marine amphibious forces (elements of both 22nd and 24th MEU) with Navy ships in support became part of Operation Unified Response to the earthquake in Haiti.

A melding of the “three dimensional capabilities” of the F-35 with the range and speed of the MV-22 will revolutionize an MEU’s ability to attack from the sea. The vector of an insertion from a Navy/Marine combat force afloat can now cover huge distances. The ability to strike from a distance on many vectors combined with pre-insertion support from AF and Navy strategic strike capability along with UAS and emerging robots may for a very significant time, tilt the battle to the Marines favor.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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