Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Marines Insist Storming A Beach Is Still A Military Option

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Marines are executing a new plan for something they have not done in six decades - storm a beach under fire. Critics charge that traditional amphibious landings are out of step with the realities of modern warfare. Steve Walsh was recently at Camp Pendleton.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: On the beach at Camp Pendleton, Calif., a group of reporters watch as waves of Marines coming ashore as part of the annual exercise Dawn Blitz. After more than a decade of desert warfare, the Marines are trying to get back to basics. They're spending more time training with their traditional partner, the U.S. Navy. Dawn Blitz started as an exercise to ready Marines to deploy, but it's also become a laboratory to test new concepts and equipment.

We're on board the USS Essex right off the coast of California. Outside, you can hear one of the Osprey is getting ready to take off.

That's a tilt-rotor plane that can fly like a helicopter. The Essex looks like a tiny aircraft here designed to launch Marines by water and by air. For the first time this year, the Essex carried the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, another vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, part of new technology the Marines hope will keep the old idea of amphibious assaults alive in the coming years. The Marines actually haven't landed under fire since the Korean War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On the evening high tide at 1800, the remainder of the Fifth Marine Regiment and the First Marine Regiment would simultaneously attack the city of Inchon.

WALSH: The amphibious landing at Inchon put Marines behind enemy lines and changed the course of the war. That was 66 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOVERCRAFT ENGINE)

RICK URIBE: The noise you hear is the sound of freedom (laughter).

WALSH: Marine Brigadier General Rick Uribe is in charge of Dawn Blitz. I asked him why Marines even need this capability.

URIBE: Because it gives the president options. It allows him to have a force out there and then be able to go to a place at the time of his choosing and be able to go and forcibly, if necessary.

WALSH: Though it's been a long time since it's been used, the Marines argue that storming a beach is still an option. And there are a lot of other reasons to keep this skill set alive. While Marines prepare to train on the West Coast, the Navy was landing Marines and supplies into the hurricane-ravaged Caribbean.

URIBE: Look at out in Puerto Rico right now, Haiti a few years ago. All of those tragic situations, had the Navy and the Marine Corps team not had this amphibious capability, I think there have been a lot more loss and suffering of peoples.

WALSH: The year Dawn Blitz began in 2010, 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. Among the problems? Anti-ship missiles have become cheap and readily available. They forced the Navy to stay farther at sea. And the main watercraft the Marines use to storm a beach, the Amphibious Assault Vehicle or AAV, is out of date, and it's vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.

So this is the AAV. This technology has been around since the 1970s. It's a bit of a compromise. It's both a boat and a troop carrier on land. These things weren't used at all in Iraq past about 2007, and because of survivability issues, they weren't used at all in Afghanistan.

Chance Carlson is an AAV mechanic. His AAV was part of a unit of the big tracked vehicles staging in double rows along the beach. I asked him if he worried that his vehicle was older than him.

CHANCE CARLSON: No. We do a good job maintaining them. We get adequate parts and stuff we need, so.

WALSH: This year, the military released a new concept for amphibious landings. Instead of leading with the heavy armor like D-Day, the Marines want to stretch the enemy's defenses by landing in small forces by air slightly inland or on nearby islands, meaning, at least initially, future Marines could bypass the beach altogether if they do this at all. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF RELEASE THE LONG SHIPS' "SO MURMURED THE WIDE SEAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.