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Marines’ Beach Landing Exercise Keeps Amphibious Assaults Relevant

A Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle comes ashore during exercise, Oct. 27, 2017.

Photo by Beverly Woodworth

Above: A Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle comes ashore during exercise, Oct. 27, 2017.

The Marines are formulating a new plan for storming a beach, something they have not done in six decades.

After more than a decade of desert warfare, the Marines are trying to get back to the basics and are spending more time training with their traditional partner, the U.S. Navy. Every 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. The exercise initially 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 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 have not conducted an amphibious landing under firce since the Korean War.

Japanese Self-Defense Force

During 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. As their troop carriers approached the shore, they released a smoke screen to 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. Despite the fact Marines have not carried out an amphibious landing under fire in a few decades, the general believes the skill is essential for Marines.

“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 amphibious operations are typically associated with the use of military force, there are other reasons why Marines continue this type of training. 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.”

Anti-ship missiles have become cheap

At the time Marines began Dawn Blitz, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates questioned whether the Marines would ever stage another amphibious landing on the scale of those carried out during World War 2 or the Korean War.

One of the obstacles to these types of operations 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 land on 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 was not used much in Iraq beyond 2007, and because of survivability issues, it was not 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 staging in double rows along the beach after the second line of Marines came ashore.

Photo by Beverly Woodworth

A crew of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle waits on Red Beach during an exercise, Oct. 27, 2017.

Even if Marines keep the AAVs in working order, the vehicles are slow. They travel at about 45 mph on land. But in the water, they can only go 8 mph, 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.

Replacing the Amphibious Assault Vehicle

For years, Congress and the Pentagon have been debating how to replace the AAV. 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.

The military exercise Dawn Blitz is part of a larger attempt by the Marine Corps to preserve the military amphibious warfare techniques used in World War II at Normandy and in the Pacific.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.


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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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