Special Landing force

America’s flashing sword

Background

Late in October 1914, two Ottoman warships (operating under the command of German officers) conducted a raid in the Black Sea.  They bombarded the Ukrainian port of Odessa and sank several ships.  Two days later, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany against Russia.  Before the end of the year, the central powers had badly mauled British and French forces on the Western Front and effectively cut off overland trade routes by blockading the entrance to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and cutting Russia off from resupply.

Winston Churchill, 1914

Although the idea to attack the Ottoman Empire originally came from French Minister Aristide Briand, the United Kingdom defeated the motion because the British hoped to convince the Turks to join the Allied effort.  Later, however, First Sea Lord Winston Churchill (who was then 41-years old) proposed a naval campaign to attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, a peninsula located in the southern portion of  East Thrace, east of the Aegean Sea and west of the Dardanelles.  Churchill’s plan intended to threaten Constantinople, protect the Suez Canal, and open up a warm-water supply route through the Black Sea.

All good plans fall apart sooner or later.  In this case, the First Sea Lord didn’t know much about military operations beyond the small unit level and virtually nothing about naval warfare.  Consequently, the intelligence used to formulate the Gallipoli campaign was flawed.  After eight months of fighting, each side lost a quarter of a million men.  It was a resounding defeat for the Entente Powers, Turkey gained international prestige, and Churchill nearly lost his political career.  However, the operation did help propel the Turks toward their war of independence eight years later and prompted Australia and New Zealand to reconsider their relationship with the British Empire.

Following the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign led many military theorists to conclude that amphibious warfare was folly.  These experts decided that given the weapons of modern warfare, there was no way that a seaborne organization could force its way ashore and defeat a well-entrenched enemy.  It was not a belief shared by intellectuals in the United States Navy and Marine Corps, who began a protracted study of amphibious warfare capability in the 1920s.  They became convinced that successful amphibious operations were possible and set about discovering how to do it.

Between 1921 and 1939, Navy-Marine Corps war planners created the capabilities necessary for success in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.  Through innovative thinking, trial, and error, the work accomplished by Navy and Marine Corps officers allowed the allied powers to project military power across vast oceans, wrest the continent of Europe away from the Axis powers, and seize Pacific bases on the long road to Japan.  Not only did the Navy-Marine Corps develop Amphibious Warfare Doctrine, but they also taught it to the armies of the United States and Great Britain for use in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the invasion of the Atlantic.

Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have continually evaluated and improved US amphibious doctrine.  Today, naval operations include pre-positioned logistics ships, carrier-borne close air support of amphibious forces, and vertical lift assault capabilities.  These competencies are what makes the Navy-Marine Corps team relevant to America’s national defense — even despite the ridiculous assertion of General of the Army Omar Bradley, who while serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 said, “I predict that large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  He could not have been more wrong.  General Bradley was apparently unaware of the observation by Karl von Clausewitz in 1832: “A swift and vigorous transition to attack — the flashing sword of vengeance — is the most brilliant point of the defense.”  Modern naval warfare capability is America’s flashing sword.  The only question is whether political leaders have the will to employ it in the nation’s defense.

Organizational Overview

The Navy and Marine Corps meet the challenges of a wide range of contingencies through task force organization.  All naval task forces are mission-centered, which is to say that both the Navy and Marine Corps organize their combat units for one or more specific missions.  All Marine Corps combat units are capable of becoming part of an air-ground task force, referred to as MAGTF, which consists of a ground combat element (GCE), air combat element (ACE), and a combat logistics element (CLE).

MAGTFs are organized under a single commander and structured to accomplish one or more specific missions.  According to official Marine Corps doctrine, “A Marine air-ground task force with separate air-ground headquarters is normally formed for combat operations and training exercises in which substantial combat forces of both Marine aviation and Marine ground units are part of the task organization of participating Marine forces.”

The basic organization of a MAGTF is the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) — generally organized as follows:

  • The MEU command element (CE) includes a colonel (commanding officer) supported by a regular staff: S-1 (Manpower), S-2 (Intelligence), S-3 (Operations/Training), S-4 (Logistics), S-6 (Communications), naval gunfire liaison, and other special staff personnel.  The MEU CE includes about 200 Marines and sailors.
  • The GCE is a reinforced infantry battalion called a battalion landing team (BLT), commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  A BLT is a reinforced battalion consisting of three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company.  Depending on the MEU’s mission, reinforcements may include an artillery battery, armored vehicle platoons, reconnaissance platoons, attached U. S. Navy field corpsmen, and a detachment of combat engineers.  All members of the BLT are trained to conduct seaborne operations in several landing craft variants and tiltrotor vertical assault operations.  A BLT will contain between 950-1,200 Marines.
  • The ACE is usually a composite air squadron (reinforced) commanded by a lieutenant colonel.  The ACE includes a medium tiltrotor squadron augmented by detachments of heavy, light, and attack helicopters, one detachment of amphibious flight deck capable jet aircraft, and a Marine air control group detachment with tactical air, traffic control, direct air support, and anti-aircraft defense assets.  The ACE also includes headquarters, communications, and logistical support personnel.  The number of personnel in a typical MEU ACE is around 600 troops.
  • The CLE is Combat Logistics Battalion.  A major or lieutenant colonel commands the CLB, responsible for providing service support, intermediate maintenance, intermediate supply, transportation, explosive ordnance technology, utilities, and bulk fuel.  The CLB consists of approximately 400-500 Marines.

The size of a MAGTF may expand if its mission increases in scope.  A more extensive operation may demand a larger MAGTF organization, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB).  The MEB consists of a regimental combat team (RCT), a composite Marine Aircraft Group, and a Combat Logistics Regiment.  The officer commanding an MEB is usually a brigadier general.  The MEB can function as part of a joint task force, as the lead element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or alone.

Any mission that exceeds the capability of a brigade will involve a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).  A MEF commander is usually a lieutenant general who exercises operational authority over a reinforced Marine infantry division, reinforced Marine aircraft wing, and a Combat Logistics Group.

Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force

The Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group consists of an amphibious task force (ATF) and an amphibious landing force called Special Landing Force (SLF).  The ARG/SLF  was first established in 1960.  The SLF deployed to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as part of the first deployment of American ground forces.  The 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines (BLT 2/9) served as the SLF to support the Marine expeditionary landing at Da Nang in March 1965.  In mid-April, III MAF temporarily dissolved the SLF because its amphibious assets were required to support the 3rd Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rdMAB) landing at Chu Lai.

Subsequently, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) and the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific (CG FMFPac) outlined the advantages of maintaining an amphibious capability in support of the Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) — a dedicated force for conducting amphibious raids, assaults, and floating reserve.

President Lyndon Johnson’s formal commitment of US military forces to RVN in March 1965 presented General William C. Westmoreland (COMUSMACV) with a dilemma.  As a military assistance/advisory commander, Westmoreland lacked sufficient ground combat forces to meet threats imposed by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces operating in the central highlands.  Without adequate ground troops, General Westmoreland had no way of defending US military installations, particularly those in the area of Qui Nhon, where the threat of VC hostilities was most imminent.  US Army units and allied forces from South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand would not arrive in RVN until June.  Westmoreland didn’t like it, but he had no choice but to turn to the Marines for security.  Accordingly, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) directed the Commanding General, Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), to provide air/ground security operations until the arrival of the Army’s ground combat forces.

III MEF[1] headquarters was located in Okinawa.  Its ground combat subordinate was the 3rd Marine Division (3rdMarDiv), also located in Okinawa.  3rdMarDiv routinely provided two BLTs to the Commander, US Seventh Fleet (COMSEVENTHFLT), to satisfy the landing force requirement for two special landing forces (designated SLF(A) and SLF(B)).  Tasked to provide Marines to support COMUSMACV, III MAF requested the support of COMSEVENTHFLT), who promptly made the ARG/SLF available to Westmoreland.

Action in the Central Highlands

Qui Nhon was a densely populated agricultural region located along the coastal plain southwest of Da Nang.[2]  Population density and agricultural production were the magnets that attracted VC[3] and NVA forces in the area.  Within three days of the NMCC’s tasking, the Special Landing Force conducted combat operations in the central highlands.

Operations in and around Qui Nhơn could not have been better timed.  The Marine’s surprise assault threw the VC force structure into confusion and delayed their hostilities along the coastal plain, but the landing also helped facilitate the gathering of local intelligence and allowed the Marines to test hypotheses for the pacification of local civilians.  The actual operation was uneventful, but it did demonstrate the flexibility and responsiveness of the ARG and the SLF to achieve limited objectives within a more extensive operation. 

In mid-August 1965, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) intelligence officers communicated their belief that the 1st VC Regiment was preparing to attack the Marines at Chu Lai in Quảng Tri Province.  The basis for this assessment was an early July VC assault that overran ARVN units stationed at Ba Gia.  Accordingly, III MAF developed a plan to launch a preemptive assault against the enemy regiment, then located on the Van Tuong Peninsula, ten miles south of Chu Lai.  Its precursor was Operation Thunderbolt, conducted adjacent to the Trà Bồng River, a two-day area security/information collection mission jointly assigned to the 4th Marines and 51st ARVN Regiment.

The Marine assault against the 1st VC Regiment, designated Operation Starlight, occurred between 18-24 August 1965.  It was the first major offensive campaign conducted by the US military in South Vietnam.  Colonel Oscar Peatross commanded the RLT.  His subordinate commanders and their battalions included Lieutenant Colonel Joseph R. Fisher, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4), Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Muir, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines (3/3), and Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Bodley, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (3/7), which operated as the SLF reserve force.

The combined arms assault of three battalions of Marines on the 1,500-man 1st VC Regiment, located in and around the village of Van Tuong, was overwhelmingly effective; the Marines reduced the communist regiment to half of its effective strength.

Meanwhile, in late July, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), approved Operations Dagger Thrust and Harvest Moon.  Dagger Thrust was a series of amphibious raids on suspected enemy concentrations along the coastal regions of South Vietnam.  Of the five raids, only two produced significant contact with communist forces, but three uncovered notable stores of arms and munitions.  The raids were so effective that the enemy never knew when the Marines would come — only that they eventually would come, and the result of their visitations would not be pleasant.  As a consequence, some VC soldiers began floating their resumes for a new line of work.

In December 1965, Operation Harvest Moon was a reaction to the 1st VC Regiment’s attack on the Regional Force garrison at Hiệp Đức near the entrance to the Quế Son Valley.  Initially serving as a reserve force, heavy fighting prompted the operational commander to commit the SLF, quickly turning the tide against the Viet Cong regiment.  The staggering losses imposed on VC forces by the Marines caused General Võ Nguyên Giáp to increase the NVA’s footprint in South Vietnam, and this redirection of the American’s attention would enable new VC cadres to infiltrate population centers.  Apparently, Giáp assumed that the U. S. Marine Corps was a one-trick pony.  He was wrong.

By 1969, the ARG/SLF had conducted sixty-two amphibious landings against VC/NVA elements operating inside the Republic of Vietnam.  The SLFs made significant contributions to MACV’s operational mobility and flexibility by offering a timely striking power.

Among the significant benefits of the two SLFs were their flexibility, the element of surprise from “over-the-horizon” assaults, and their on-shore maneuverability.  Once ashore, operational control of the SLF passed from the ARG Commander to the senior ground combat commander.  Another plus was the SLF’s self-sustaining character, which stood in contrast to regular force ground units that relied on static functional organizations for airlift, logistics/resupply, fire support, and medical triage capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the Navy-Marine Corps planners began a re-examination of the ARG/SLF concept and developed an innovation they termed Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG).[4]  Currently, there are nine ESGs, ten Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs), and several Surface Warfare Action Groups (SWAGs).  ESGs allow the Navy to provide highly mobile/self-sustaining naval forces for missions in all parts of the world.  The ESG incorporates the capabilities of CSGs, SWAGs, ARGs, and MEUs to enhance the capabilities of combat commanders within six geographical regions.

Currently, there are seven Marine Expeditionary Units — three under the I Marine Expeditionary Force (US West Coast), three operating under the II Marine Expeditionary Force (US East Coast), and one operating under the III Marine Expeditionary Unit (Japan).

No one in the Navy and Marine Corps wants to go to war, but they know how to go to war.  They are America’s flashing sword.  Quite frankly, only an idiot would like to see these forces come knocking on their door, but we will need the Navy-Marine Corps combat team until the world has finally rid itself of idiots.

Sources:

  1. Bean, C.  The Story of ANZAC from 4 May 1915 to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  Canberra: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, 1921 (11 editions).
  2. Broadbent, H.  Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore.  Camberwell: Viking Press, 2005.
  3. Cassar, G. H.  Kitchener’s War: British Strategy from 1914-1916.  Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2004.
  4. Halpern, P. G.  A Naval History of World War I.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
  5. Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] Temporarily changed to III MAF because the government of RVN objected to the word “expeditionary.”

[2] My reference to places in Vietnam, used in past tense, speaks to events in locations that then existed.  Since the end of the Vietnam War, the government of Vietnam has renamed many of the hamlets, villages, and districts of the former South Vietnamese republic.  Qui Nhơn is now known as Quy Nhơn.

[3] Short name for the National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam, an armed communist revolutionary organization that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  The VC organized both regular and guerrilla forces to combat the South Vietnamese and United States military forces.

[4] ESGs are part of the Navy’s Expeditionary Task Force concept.


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “Special Landing force”

  1. In view of our present situation and our so-called Commander in Chief, I find it hard to post a thoughtful comment without devolving into an obscene rant.
    Thank you, Mustang. I always enjoy your posts and your historical perspective is second to none.

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