Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Marines' Beach Landing Exercise Keeps Amphibious Assaults Relevant

Nov 6, 2017

The Marines are formulating a new plan for storming a beach, something they haven't done in six decades.

After more than a decade of desert warfare, the Marines are trying to get back to basics. They spend more time training with their traditional partner, the US Navy. Each year since 2010, the

Marines have conducted Dawn Blitz a major West Coast exercise centered in the waters around Camp Pendleton. The most recent exercise wrapped up in October. Called Dawn Blitz, it started as a way to prepare Marines to deploy, but it has grown into a laboratory to test new concepts and equipment.

For the first time during this year's exercise, the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, carried the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Marines also test-fired a new rocket system both on land and -- for the first time -- from the deck of a ship. The rocket system is part of new technology the Marines hope will revive the old idea of amphibious assaults in the coming years.

The Marines haven't actually landed under fire since the Korean War. The amphibious landing at Inchon broke a stalemate for Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces. But that was 66 years ago.

Japanese Self-Defense Force

On the last Friday of the Dawn Blitz exercise, 100 members of the Japanese Self-Defense Force were in the first wave of troops to make their way from the USS Anchorage to Red Beach at Camp Pendleton. Their floating troop carriers released a smoke screen to help cover their landing.

RELATED: Marine, Navy Exercise Off San Diego Coast Debuts F-35

Marine Brig Gen. Rick Uribe is the deputy commanding general for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Though an amphibious landing hasn't happened under fire in decades. The general didn't hesitate when asked whether the Marines still need this skill.

"It gives the president options," Uribe said. "It allows him to go to a time and place of his choosing and go in forcibly if necessary."

Storming a beach is still an option

Though it has been a long time since an amphibious landing has been used, the Marines argue storming a beach is still an option, and there are a lot of other reasons to keep this skill set alive. While troops prepared to train on the West Coast, the Navy was landing Marines and supplies in the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean.

"Look at all the humanitarian operations. Look at Puerto Rico, Haiti a few years ago," Uribe said. "All of those tragic situations, had the Navy and the Marines not had this amphibious capability, I think there would be a lot more loss and suffering of peoples."

Dawn Blitz began in 2010, and at the time, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates questioned whether the Marines would ever stage another amphibious landing on the scale of D-Day, Iwo Jima or Inchon.

Anti-ship missiles have become cheap

One of the obstacles to this kind of operation is the fact that anti-ship missiles have become cheap and readily available. They force the Navy to stay farther at sea. And the main watercraft the Marines use to storm a beach is the Amphibious Assault Vehicle, which is out of date and vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.

The AAV has been around since the early 1970s. The design is a necessary compromise. It is both a boat and a troop carrier on land. The craft wasn't used much in Iraq beyond 2007, and because of survivability issues, it wasn't used at all in Afghanistan.

"We do a good job of maintaining them, and they give us the right parts," said Chance Carlson, an AAV mechanic.

Carlson's AAV was part of a unit of the big-tracked vehicles staging in double rows along the beach after a second line of Marines camp ashore.

Even if Marines keep the AAVs in working order, the vehicles are slow. They travel at about 45 miles an hour on land. But in the water they can only go 8 miles an hour, so they take a long time to get to the beach. The farther missiles push the Navy from shore, the longer it takes the Marines to make landfall in their AAVs.

Replacing the Amphibious Assault Vehicle

For years, Congress and the Pentagon have been debating how to replace the Amphibious Assault Vehicle. One program was canceled after critics questioned the cost as well as whether the Marines would be better off with a troop carrier that served them mainly on land.

This year, the military released a new concept for amphibious landings, called Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. Instead of leading with the heavy armor used on D-Day, the Marines are talking about spreading enemy defenses by landing small forces by air slightly inland or on nearby islands.