In a sleepy corner of Oahu just south of Kaneohe Bay lies the shuttered Bellows Air Force Station with its gorgeous blue-green water and beige sand. Early on the morning of July 11, just two miles offshore, the landing ship USS Rushmore slowly steamed in circles. The U.S. Marines were about to invade.
Five Amphibious Assault Vehicles appeared low on the horizon, each carrying more than a dozen Marine infantrymen. The AAVs zig-zagged to shore, spewing smoke and—with a lurch—heaved themselves onto dry land. The Marines quickly secured the beach and rolled deeper into the base.
Minutes later two LCAC hovercraft arrived, kicking up tall plumes of seawater and pretending to deliver rocket-artillery trucks. High offshore winds postponed a second Marine platoon’s arrival.
It was like World War II’s D-Day … in miniature.
As part of the Rim of the Pacific naval war game, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is trying to determine if it can conduct amphibious warfare on a small scale, with hundreds of troops instead of thousands.
Back to the beach
With the Iraq war over for the U.S., Afghanistan ending and the Pentagon “pivoting” to the Asia-Pacific, the Marines are getting back to their amphibious roots.
The Corps keeps two or more Marine Air-Ground Task Forces at sea at all times. Each MAGTF includes an 800-strong Battalion Landing Team with rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, anti-tank missiles, mortars and Humvees. AAVs, LAV-25 armored reconnaissance vehicles and M-1 Abrams tanks usually reinforce the MAGTFs.
Here’s the problem. The Battalion Landing Team is too big for some battlefields. Several disputed island chains in the Western Pacific—the Senkakus, Paracels and Spratlys, to name a few—consist of small, often inhospitable islands miles apart from one another. A BLT wouldn’t have enough space to spread out.
The Warfighting Lab is betting that a smaller Company Landing Team with just two or three hundred people … might be just right.
Small & dangerous
For RIMPAC, the Marines restructured a MAGTF to include three or more Company Landing Teams. Together, the teams possess the same manpower as a BLT—they’re just organized differently. Instead of having all of its intelligence, supply and artillery guys in the battalion headquarters, these specialists spread out among the companies.
More to the point, the Company Landing Team is a command experiment.
Can a captain in his mid-20s handle the responsibilities of fighting his own little self-contained war, without a whole lot of support from battalion with its much more experienced officers?
The Corps think it’s worth the risk. Each Company Landing Team could operate independently—and the Marines could sprinkle many CLTs across a chain of small islands, physically occupying a wider area.
MV-22 tiltrotors and CH-53 helicopters could haul a Company Landing Team from ships like Rushmore and place it anywhere a helicopter can land. Landing craft would bring ashore the heavier vehicles.
Despite the huge distances between them, Company Landing Teams will still be able to call in Navy and Marine Corps firepower, including helicopter gunships, Harrier jump jets and warships firing five-inch naval guns. Plus the CLTs can pack their own mortars, howitzers and rockets.
In the future, Company Landing Teams might also get long-range anti-ship missiles or Patriot or THAAD air-defense missiles. A CLT could not only control an island, but the air and sea more than hundred miles in all directions.
At RIMPAC, the Warfighting Lab deployed three Company Landing Teams across the Hawaiian islands. The Company Landing Team that stormed ashore at Bellows was a small one, amounting to just a couple hundred Marines and two HIMARS rocket launchers. The HIMARS were close enough to companies on neighboring islands to support them, too.
The concept isn’t without risk. A Company Landing Team could get cut off by enemy attack. Companies can take fewer casualties than battalions before becoming ineffective. And again, there’s the leadership thing.
But if the concept works, expect to see Company Landing Teams all over the Pacific. Nobody plans anymore for massive, D-Day-style invasions involving hundreds of thousands of troops. Smaller, smarter and faster—that’s the way to go. The question is, how small is too small?