The US Marine Corps (USMC) is the world’s premier amphibious light infantry force and the subject experts on seamlessly integrating air and ground forces and transporting both on ships to anywhere required. While others talk about joint operations, the USMC has been routinely practicing it down to the battalion level for well over half a century.
Not every infantry battalion committed to peace support or non-combat evacuation in some dusty corner can count on its own artillery and armoured support, let alone attack helicopters and fast jets – yet this is exactly what a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) has. The standard MEU consists of a reinforced infantry battalion grouped with a mixed aviation squadron that includes light, medium, heavy and attack helicopters and that can be augmented with AV8B Harrier II Plus attack jets, F18 fighters and KC130 aerial refuelers. Everything, except the last two aircraft types are then packed onto four US Navy-owned and operated amphibious assault ships grouped together as an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) that deploys, uninterrupted, for at least six months at a time. Supporting the ARG is often a carrier battle group – including a surface action force of frigates and destroyers – and providing a backstop to the MEU is often a parachute brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Tom Clancy`s Marine, A Guided Tour of a MEU, provides a detailed overview of these powerful units, including their organisation and the training each component receives before being certified fit and ready for deployment. A brief history of the USMC and some detail about Marine basic and initial training is also provided – particularly that all male Marines, cooks, clerks, mechanics and fighter pilots included, receive intensive infantry training – hence the slogan “Every Marine a Rifleman”. All Marines, male and female, are also expected to be fit and remain rifle range qualified on the M16A2 or M4 assault rifles throughout their careers.
There is a common perception that US Marines are thick. Clancy calls this a major misperception and credits three of the five major military innovations of the 20th Century to the USMC:
- Amphibious Assault: The landing craft and amphibious vehicles that made amphibious landings possible during and since World War Two were pioneered by the Marines.
- Close Air Support: The Stuka dive bomber, that quintessential part of the German Blitzkrieg was inspired, by the Marines` close air support doctrine, developed in the 1920s during the so-called Banana Wars in central America.
- Air Assault: Delivering infantry on the battlefield by helicopter was pioneered by the Marines to make amphibious assaults less vulnerable to nuclear attack.
The other two are Blitzkrieg itself and the use of paratroops.
Another striking thing you notice about the Marine Corps is the surprisingly low proportion of officers, compared with other services,” Clancy writes. “Traditionally the Corps has entrusted greater responsibility to enlisted personnel tan other services, and it shows in the telling “nose to tail” (officer-to-enlisted-personnel) ratio in each. While the Navy ratio is about 6 to 1, the Army about 5 to 1, and the Air Force a costly 4 to 1, the Marines have some 8.7 enlisted personnel for every officer.” Clancy continues: Beyond the benefits that such a ratio has on the morale and self-esteem of enlisted personnel, there are other noticeable effects. Person for person, the Marine Corps is remarkably inexpensive to operate and maintain, since enlisted personnel cost less in salary and benefits than an equivalent number of officers.”
“Marines also have a sense of their personal identity and position in the world. Ask any Marine, and he or she will be able to trace the chain of command all the way from himself or herself right up to the President of the United States. This is not simply a trick like dogs walking on their hind legs. It is an indication that every Marine is confident of his or her place in the world. And that shows in confident behaviour. More important, Marines learn that they are trusted to make good decisions, follow orders, and accomplish tasks in the best way available. If you have worked for a big corporation, with numbing layers of middle management over your head and no sense of personal empowerment, you can appreciate the refreshing clarity that Marines feel about their individual positions and missions.”
The Corps was founded in 1775 – the year before the US itself was created – to carry out tasks similar to those of the Royal Marines. During the War of Independence they helped George Washington cross the Delaware River and John Paul Jones capture the HMS Serapis. They also fought with credit during the US Civil War, against the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean and against Mexico in the war of 1847. During World War One the USMC saw action in France and Haiti. The Marines won enduring fame during the Pacific campaign of World War Two, particularly with the assaults on Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The Marines have since reinforced heir fame in Korea (Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir battles), Vietnam (Khe Sanh, Con Thien and Hue City) and several Reagan-era deployments in the Mediterranean (Beirut, 1983) and the Caribbean (Grenada, etc). The Marines also fought with distinction in the 1991 Gulf War and became something of a force of choice during the 2003 Iraq invasion and subsequent counterinsurgency campaign there. As an aside one can say former President Bill Clinton did not favour the use of Marines as he saw them as too warlike, an opinion the Marines took as a backhanded compliment.
But the focus of Clancy` excellent book is the MEU (Special Operations Capable), America`s SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team. (The Marines are often called America`s 911 force.) One of the interesting characteristics of MEUs is that they are not composed of the same units every time they go out on a cruise. The MEU (SOC) is not Special Forces organisation – nor is the Marines – but is well-trained infantry given additional equipment and instruction on a range of special missions they are then certified to carry out if need be. These include:
- Limited Amphibious Assaults
- Amphibious Raids
- Limited Objective Attacks/Deception Raids
- Maritime Inspections/Anti-Piracy Operations
- Show of Force
- Tactical Recovery of Downed Aircraft and Aircrew
- Clandestine Recovery Operations
- Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations
- In-extremis Hostage Rescue
- Security Operations/Reinforcing an Embassy Guard
- Humanitarian Relief Operations
- Civil Support/Medical Support to Poor Communities
- Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT)
- Terminal Guidance to Smart Weapons or Follow-On Forces
- Signal Intelligence/Electronic Warfare Collection
- Clandestine Reconnaissance and Surveillance/Counter Intelligence
- Seizure and or Destruction of Offshore Platform Facilities
- Specialised Demolitions
- Fire Support Coordination
MEUs work on a fifteen month cycle. The first three sees it refitting and personnel undergoing basic refresher training. The next six are spent working up and the last six are spent deployed. The first 10 weeks of the six-month workup is spent on staff workshops, special skills courses (for the SOC missions), initial at-sea training and a fire-support coordination exercise. The next phase, of eight weeks, sees Marines receiving Maritime Special Purpose Force (MPSS) Interoperability Training. A MPSS is a specially formed team of Marine Force Reconnaissance personnel trained “in the more extreme forms of special operations.” Next comes MOUT in a real – and unfamiliar urban environment such as New Orleans or San Francisco, then a MEU exercise, then Gas/Oil Platform and Maritime Interdiction Operational Training as well as Long Range Night Training and an at-sea training phase.
The final eight weeks start with a full embarkation exercise followed by ARG advanced amphibious training, a fleet and SOC exercise consisting of a series of no-notice missions over a number of days. Then follows some pre-overseas movement movements, a table-top wargame called an “crisis interaction requirements exercise. Lastly, there is an area commander`s brief from a variety of government departments and agencies and then it is off to sea…
Since the book is a guided tour of an actual MEU (SOC), how was it organized for its 1995 cruise – the one witnessed by Clancy and his co-writer John D Gresham?
26th MEU (SOC)
- Command Element
- S1 – Adjutant
- S2 – Intelligence
- Attached elements:
- Interrogator/Translator Team
- Force Imagery Interpreter Unit
- Counterintelligence Team
- Topographic Detachment
- EW Detachment
- S3 – Operations
- Attached elements:
- Force Reconnaissance Detachment
- Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Detachment
- Air Control Group Detachment including a Low Level Air Defence Detachment
- S4 – Logistics
- S6 – Communications
· Ground Component (2nd Bn, 6th Marine Regiment)
o Battalion Landing Team Headquarters & Service Company
o Rifle Companies x 3
o Heavy Weapons Company
o Artillery Battery (6 x 155mm guns)
o Light Armoured Reconnaissance Platoon (6 x Light Armoured Vehicles)
o Assault Amphibian Platoon (13 x Tractors)
o Tank Platoon (4 x M1A1 main battle tanks)
o Combat Engineer Platoon
o Reconnaissance Platoon
o Shore Fire Control Party
· Air Component (Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 264 – Reinforced)
o CH46E Sea Knight Medium Helicopters x 12
o CH53E Super Stallion Heavy Helicopter x 8
o AH1W Cobra Attack Helicopters x 8
o UH1N Iroquois Light Utility Helicopters x 3
o AV8B Harrier II x 6
o KC130 Hercules aerial fuelers x 2
· MEU Service Support Group-26
o Headquarters Platoon
o Communications Platoon
o Landing Support Platoon
o Engineer Support Platoon
o Supply Platoon
o Motor Transport Platoon
o Maintenance Platoon
o Medical Platoon
Not part of the MEU (SOC), but vital to its transport was its ARG, US Navy Amphibious Squadron 4 (PHIBRON 4). This was composed of USS Wasp (LHD1), USS Whidbey Island (LSD41) and USS Shreveport (LPD12). Attached to PHIBRON 4 was a full SEAL team (platoon), an UAV detachment, a beach control party, a CH46 detachment with two Sea Knights for vertical replenishment and two assault craft units – one controlling three hover landing craft and the other two conventional landing barges.
Supporting PHIBRON 4 was the USS America and her carrier battle group. Further back was a maritime preposition squadron, capable of lifting the equipment of a full Marine brigade, a ready brigade from the 82nd Airborne Brigade and Marine land-based air support in the form of F/A18 Super Hornets, tankers, airborne early warning aircraft. Reconnaissance support is provided by the National Imaging Agency, intelligence support by the National Security Agency, US Space Command, the US Department of Justice (FBI, DEA, ATF and the Marshall`s Service), the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and Cable News Network.
The 26th MEU (SOC) deployed to the Mediterranean in August 1995 and returned home in February 1996. While there it carried out a number of exercises with the armed forces of Albania, Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Israel and Tunisia. In May 1996 the cycle began again…
Marine is one of a series of “Guided Tours” to US units Clancy and Gresham have written in the last decade. Others include Submarine, Airborne, Fighter Wing, Carrier and Special Forces. Everyone should be in the professional officer`s library. A more invaluable guide to how the US organizes, trains and fights its forces is hard to find.
Tom Clancy, written with John D Gresham
Marine, A Guided Tour of a Marine Expeditionary Unit