Although much is written about the U.S. Special Forces and Navy Seals, these special operations forces are intended to be used mostly for asymmetrical, unconventional operations or to supplement the actions of larger military operations utilizing more conventional forces. The U.S. Marine Corps; however, is a large, independent, combined arms fighting force that can react to almost any military contingency at extremely short notice. Of all the branches of the U.S. military, it is without a doubt the most flexible, adaptable and effective fighting force that the U.S. can call upon in times of crises or all-out war.
Predating the founding of the nation that it serves, with the Continental Marines being established in 1775, the USMC has a long and storied history of discipline, honor, sacrifice and combat effectiveness. Having fought in every major conflict since the birth of the United States as a sovereign nation, the Marines have forged a reputation and battle prowess that is respected by both allies and adversaries the world over. While every other branch of the U.S. Armed Forces specializes at a specific form of warfare, the USMC excels at all manner of modern warfare. They exist to stand as the sharp end of the spear in any military or humanitarian crisis scenario. The U.S. Marine Corps are a jack of all trades, and a master of all trades as well.
Powerful, Flexible, Forward Deployed
The Corps numbers approximately 182,000 active duty Marines, with a further 38,500 in reserve status. Unlike other branches of the U.S. armed forces, the USMC is divided into a number of forward deployed units overseas and regionally deployed units within the United States that are meant to be blended together into various warfighting forces based on the task at hand. Tailored for flexibility and overall combat power, there are five main USMC operating forces structures.
The Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The Marine Corps usually operates as MAGTFs, which are self-sustained, combined arms forces comprised of air, ground, and logistics units under a single commander. Each MAGTF consists of a command element (CE), a ground combat element (GCE), an aviation combat element (ACE), and a logistics combat element (LCE). A MAGTF is an extremely potent and flexible combat force that is well suited to respond to a host of different contingencies at very short notice.
The Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). The MEF is the main Marine Corps fighting organization, and is capable of carrying out amphibious assaults and sustained military operations ashore. It is designed for fighting major theater war. There are three standing MEFs: I MEF based in the southwestern U.S., II MEF based in the southeastern U.S., and III MEF based in Japan and Hawaii. Although each MEF has its own established units, the size and makeup of an MEF can change greatly depending on mission requirements. Units from other MEFs, other military branches and special operations units (most often Navy Seals) may be attached to a deployed MEF. Marine Expeditionary Forces can be rapidly deployed to a target area via land, sea or air. MEFs make use of prepositioned ships from the U.S. Navy or Military Sealift Command to gain added equipment and ordinance for longer sustainability ashore.
Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB). An MEB is a subordinate command of the MEF, and is designed as a quick reaction force for smaller scale contingencies than the MEF. MEBs are the foundation establishments for power projection operations such as amphibious assaults and air assaults. They also link-up with maritime prepositioning vessels in order to gain additional equipment, arms and supplies in order to gain greater sustainability. There are three regionally oriented MEBs: 1st MEB seconded to I MEF which covers U.S. Pacific and Central Commands, 2ndMEB seconded to II MEF which covers U.S. European, Central and Africa Commands, and 3rd MEB seconded to III MEF which also covers U.S. Pacific Command.
Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). MEUs are forward deployed expeditionary units which are maintained in the Mediterranean Sea, western Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Each MEU is a self-contained, self-reliant, combined arms fighting force. Before deployment, every MEU must conduct a 26 week pre-deployment training regime and final certification test, where it must demonstrate the ability to plan and execute a multitude of simultaneously conducted missions within 6 hours of notification. There are seven MEUs. The 11th, 13th and 15thMEUs are subordinated to the I MEF, the 22nd, 24th and 26th MEUs and subordinated to the II MEF, and the 31st MEU is assigned to the III MEF.
Each MEU consists of a Command Element, and a GCE consisting of a marine infantry battalion reinforced with its own artillery, armor, amphibious assault, engineer and reconnaissance units; however, they can be supplemented with additional Marine and Special Warfare elements as the mission dictates. This reinforced marine infantry battalion is known as a Battalion Landing Team (BLT). Each MEU also has an ACE consisting of one medium tiltrotor squadron (V-22 Osprey),elements from one heavy helicopter squadron (CH-53 Super Stallion), one light helicopter attack squadron (AH-1Z Viper), a Marine attack squadron (AV-8B Harrier), one UAV squadron, Marine air traffic control detachment, Marine wing support squadron, and one Marine aviation logistics squadron. Also, an LCE consisting of one combat logistics battalion completes each MEU.
Deployed MEUs often represent the first option available to the U.S. executive branch in responding to a crisis overseas, as they are forward deployed and always immediately ready to respond to almost any contingency. When deployed, MEUs reside on the amphibious warfare ships of an Amphibious Ready Group. These large and flexible vessels, LPDs, LSDs, LHAs and LHDS, carry the Marines of the MEU and all of their heavy equipment, armored vehicles and aircraft into their area of deployment. These vessels are commanded and manned by personnel of the U.S. Navy. Additionally, all combat medics in the USMC are actually enlisted members of the U.S. Navy and are known as “Corpsmen”.
Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF). The core establishment of these special units are drawn from the standing MAGTFs, and are supplemented with additional units as dictated by the mission. They are normally considerably smaller than an MEU. These units are established to carry out specific special missions such as training exercises with foreign militaries, and humanitarian response efforts.
U.S. Marines, regardless of their specialized military occupation, are all trained first and foremost as infantry. For example, a combat pilot or logistics officer will both possess a detailed understanding of infantry small unit tactics and be proficient in their employment. The Corps maintains higher standards of physical fitness and rifle marksmanship than the other U.S. armed services. Historically embracing the idea that all Marines must be well-trained riflemen, the Corps was the last of the military branches to abandon the M16 rifle for the M4 carbine.
U.S. Marines must be ready for deployment and combat in any and all environments, and thus they maintain a strenuous and demanding training regimen that encompasses arctic, jungle, desert and mountainous environments. The U.S. Marine Corps excels at all manner of land warfare, amphibious assault, helicopter and tiltrotor air assault, large scale evacuation of U.S. nationals in times of conflict, and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations. In addition, all U.S. embassies maintain a small security of detail of U.S. Marines.
Adapt and Overcome
If it is one thing that the Marines are known for it is their ability to adapt to battlefield realities, change tactics rapidly, and overcome any difficulties encountered to win victories. The USMC has embraced this adaptability at all levels, maintaining old customs and weapons systems that have proven effective, while at the same time being willing to adopt very new ideas and weapons that are unconventional and unproven, but which promise advantages that the USMC deem beneficial. While being the most reluctant to approve the liberal policies of successive U.S. administrations, such as the inclusion of women in combat roles, once adopted, the USMC has refused to lower both physical and proficiency standards to the level of other branches of service. As a result, the women serving in the forward deployed units of the USMC are undoubtedly some of the toughest and most well trained female soldiers in the world.
While reluctant to abandon the M16 for the M4, and the last US service to do so (arguably a mistake in this particular case), and maintaining a number of older weapons systems that have proven reliable, such as the AAV7 amphibious assault vehicle and the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, the Corps has at the same time thrown their support behind very new and often controversial weapons systems. The USMC was an early proponent of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, which it utilizes far more than any other service, and was also the first U.S. military branch to declare the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter operational. While still using the AV-8B Harrier jump jet in frontline ACE units aboard amphibious assault vessels, the USMC realizes that a replacement VSTOL attack aircraft is long overdue. In hindsight, a USMC specific replacement for the Harrier would have probably come out much cheaper and better suited to the combat role envisioned by the Corps than the F-35B, which has so far proven to be a disappointment.
Forward Deployed, Always Ready but No Longer Alone
No other nation in the world has a power projection tool as large, flexible and capable as the U.S. Marine Corps. There are many nations that maintain marine forces modeled off the USMC, and that maintain a close relationship with the Corps through annual training exercises, as well as training programs specifically designed to enhance specific skills. A cursory look at the marines of many nations reveals at least a similarity in the weapons, equipment and methods employed by the USMC.
The Chinese leadership has seen the need to further develop the strength and reach of its own amphibious warfare arm, the Peoples’ Liberation Army Marine Corps, while also expanding the amphibious mechanized infantry divisions (AMIDs) of the Peoples’ Liberation Army. The standing AMIDs have been expanded from two divisions to four in recent years, while the PLAMC is currently being increased from 20,000 men to 100, 000. These amphibious forces are being provided with the new ZBD/LBT05 family of amphibious assault vehicles and light tanks. The ZBD is the fastest amphibious assault vehicle currently in service anywhere in the world with a speed in the water of 45kph (27mph).
Although the force structure of China’s amphibious warfare forces are strengthening and expanding, the need for greater sealift capability is a crucial weakness that must be remedied. China has made major progress in remedying this shortcoming over the past decade, building 6 large Type 071 LPDs, modernizing its large number of Type 072 LSTs, and is currently constructing the first of an unknown number of Type 075 LHDs. It is apparent that the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intends to establish Amphibious Ready Groups/ Marine Expeditionary Units (ARB/MEU) on a similar model as the US Navy and USMC. While the USMC maintains a large edge over any rivals, in the case of China, the edge is slowly shrinking.
In light of China’s expanding maritime territory and area of operations, a larger and more capable power projection force is seen as key to securing its national interests. These forces will be vital in securing Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, considering the contested nature of the region. China possesses a clear advantage over its regional rivals in this regard; however, the United States is reluctant to allow China to exert control over the South China Sea uncontested. The fighting forces of the USMC and the large and capable amphibious warfare vessels of the US Navy will play a key role in any theoretical conflict between the two nations in the South China Sea and in Southeast Asia in general. Hopefully, such a struggle between the world’s largest amphibious warfare forces, a struggle which would be a brutal and costly one for both sides, can be avoided through skilled, pragmatic leadership and a pursuit of common interests.
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*All posts on behalf of South Front are made by Gordon Duff