The future of amphibious warfare is airborne

How’s the United States Marine Corps, which bills itself as an amphibious force, going to fight in a world where potential U.S. enemies are stockpiling radars and missiles to keep ships that carry Marines far from their shores? They’re going to come in from the sky, according to Maj. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Corps’ representative ...

U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marine Corps

How's the United States Marine Corps, which bills itself as an amphibious force, going to fight in a world where potential U.S. enemies are stockpiling radars and missiles to keep ships that carry Marines far from their shores? They're going to come in from the sky, according to Maj. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Corps' representative to the Quadrennial Defense Review.

"I think the best example of what being amphibious means to the Marine Corps is Task Force 58. I think it's Brigadier General Jim Mattis launching off the Pakistan coast, striking deep into southern Afghanistan. No amphibious vehicles crossed a beach in that operation," said McKenzie during a breakfast with reporters in Washington this morning.

The Marines of Task Force 58 conducted the longest-distance helicopter raid in history to establish one of the first American bases in Afghanistan in November 2001.

How’s the United States Marine Corps, which bills itself as an amphibious force, going to fight in a world where potential U.S. enemies are stockpiling radars and missiles to keep ships that carry Marines far from their shores? They’re going to come in from the sky, according to Maj. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Corps’ representative to the Quadrennial Defense Review.

"I think the best example of what being amphibious means to the Marine Corps is Task Force 58. I think it’s Brigadier General Jim Mattis launching off the Pakistan coast, striking deep into southern Afghanistan. No amphibious vehicles crossed a beach in that operation," said McKenzie during a breakfast with reporters in Washington this morning.

The Marines of Task Force 58 conducted the longest-distance helicopter raid in history to establish one of the first American bases in Afghanistan in November 2001.

"You strike at a time and place of your choosing with overwhelming force, from a sea base. That is an example of a modern amphibious operation," said the two-star. "You find a weakness in your enemy’s defenses, and you go where they’re not expecting you, and you go deep and you strike strategically."

He noted that the Corps didn’t have the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft in 2001, a weapon that expands the service’s ability to perform long-distance raids. "With the V-22 those capabilities would be even more pronounced," said McKenzie.

Not quite what most people have in mind when they think of amphibious warfare. Remember, the Corps still has tons of amphibious armored vehicles, hovercraft, and landing craft designed to bring Marines from their ships to the shore (something McKenzie called an important capability). Still, the 2011 cancellation of the Corps’ decades-long effort to buy a new armored vehicle — the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which could transport troops ashore from ships that are beyond the range of enemy weapons — shows how difficult the notion of a traditional amphibious assault has become. (The service is still looking at ways to field a 21st Century amphibious assault vehicle.)

"Nobody thinks of the Pacific battles of World War II as a model for the way we want to do business today," McKenzie added.

Throughout the breakfast he maintained that the Corps will promote its role as a lightweight force capable of rapidly deploying around the globe to do everything from providing disaster relief to establishing a foothold in combat zones for the "nation’s strategic decisive force" — the Army — to move into.

(Click here to see what he told FP’s Situation Report in January about the future of the Corps as a light fighting force.)

For example, when asked about his service’s role in the Pentagon’s air-sea battle concept, McKenzie said it was as an expeditionary raider force.

"Air sea battle looks very hard at the kill chain, technical answers to technical problems. We think you probably need to look beyond that and to think about other operational approaches that don’t supplant the technical issues but you want to have tactical answers too. If you take away a base, for example, then you take away the ability to launch a missile," said McKenzie. "That talks about expeditionary operations, that talks about raids and seizures of different places. You want to get the discussion on more than just a technology level."

McKenzie pointed out that the service isn’t abandoning coastlines; it will still "play in the littorals." But these missions will likely be oriented toward training other militaries and responding to humanitarian emergencies more than major combat operations.

Click here to read the FP article by McKenzie’s fellow Marine, Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, on the types of coastal missions the amphibious service is likely to be tasked with in the future.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.