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Getting their boots wet

Marines hold massive beach assault even as defense secretary questions need for amphibious capability

They were sent to storm the beaches of Camp Pendleton from amphibious assault ships floating offshore in the morning fog. But most of the Marines who hustled into position early Friday inside the hull of the Bonhomme Richard had never been to sea.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 12:05 a.m

Shouts of: “Get some, Marines! Get some!” rang over the decks as a new generation of troops — their boots dry after a decade of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — tried to find its sea legs.

The beach landing was the culmination of a two-week operation called Dawn Blitz, the largest amphibious landing exercise that the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, and the Navy’s 3rd Fleet have staged since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks.

Dawn Blitz unfolded at a time when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested scaling back the Marines’ amphibious assault ambitions as the Pentagon hunts for $100 billion in equipment and programs to cut over the next five years.

More than 5,000 sailors and Marines practiced the complex synchronization of land, air and sea forces involved in projecting combat power from ships to shore.

The infantrymen, in full battle gear, gripped their rifles and piled into the open-ramped mouths of amphibious assault vehicles, wondering what awaited them ashore. Then wave after wave of landing craft, more than 100 in all, splashed into the water from seven ships, charging onto Red Beach as helicopters swarmed the skies.

After one of those seafaring tanks spat him ashore, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Morein, 20, plopped on his belly in the wet sand, waves lapping at his feet, rifle pointed down the beach. It was quite different from anything he experienced in Iraq, he said.

“It feels good to follow in the footsteps of the Marines who came before me,” Morein said. “The Marine Corps is an amphibious organization, but it’s been a long time since our unit has gotten to do this.”

Gates has said this nation “will always have a Marine Corps,” but he also questioned the necessity of assaulting a beach and asked candidates vying to become the next Marine commandant to define the Corps’ vision for the future.

Although the war in Afghanistan remains their No. 1 priority, the exercise at Camp Pendleton was another sign that the Marines consider their amphibious roots as “soldiers of the sea” to be their defining feature.

“We pride ourselves on being flexible and versatile,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and its 44,000 troops arrayed at Southern California bases. “The nation does not expect us to be one-trick ponies. Anything that requires you to come from the sea, to draw the sword in that way, Marines need to be able to do that.”

It might be an amphibious assault into a hostile area, or a humanitarian mission in a region devastated by a tsunami or earthquake, or even training foreign security forces, he said while standing on a bluff above Red Beach.

After nearly a decade with much of the Marines busy inland, they need more practice working at the brigade level at sea, he said.

“We are doing some learning,” Dunford said. “There’s no question about it: what we’re doing here in part is busting some rust.”

Brig. Gen. Rex McMillian, deputy commander of the force based at Camp Pendleton, admitted sheepishly that he hadn’t embarked on a ship since the 1980s, aboard the aircraft carrier Midway before it was a museum. He spent much of the past two weeks on the Bonhomme Richard for Dawn Blitz.

“It felt pretty good to be out there,” McMillian said.

The sailors had to help him and other Marines find their way at first, after they got a bit lost on board, he said. “We are tied at the hip with the Navy; that’s what we do as Marines. The commandant wanted us to get back to that core competency.”

That commandant, James T. Conway, also has made it a top goal to replace the 1970s-era amphibious assault vehicles used Friday with the expeditionary fighting vehicle under development.

But Gates has questioned whether the new landing vehicle is worth the cost — $17 million apiece. He went further during a recent Sea-Air-Space conference in Washington, D.C., saying, “We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again, especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point farther from shore.”

Retired Marine Dakota Wood, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the Marines’ amphibious capability and unique culture as an expeditionary force set it apart from the Army. But expensive equipment like the expeditionary fighting vehicle could drag the Corps down and call its existence into question, he said.

“They have to push against a rising tide of other demands being placed on the federal treasury,” Wood said. “If the Marine Corps gets so heavy and loses its competency in amphibious operations, whether it is because of time available to exercise or the type of equipment it is buying, then it becomes indistinguishable from the Army.”

That would be a mistake, in Wood’s view. “Sea capability with an amphibious force gives you an option not available to almost anyone else in the world,” he said.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, said that when it comes to the budget fight, the Marines should dig in.

“The Marine Corps leadership needs to establish a defensive perimeter on the nearest hill, which happens to be Capitol Hill. Probably they would be impregnable,” he said. “The notion that amphibious warfare is suddenly obsolete is simply crazy. Most of the world’s population lives near oceans.”

While the scope of the Marines’ mission and its amphibious equipment program remain in doubt in the United States, nations such as Australia are expanding those capabilities. Australia has no aircraft carriers, but it recently bought two of America’s largest class of amphibious assault ships and sent an army officer to observe Dawn Blitz aboard the Bonhomme Richard.

“The scale of this platform and the number of different people working toward the desired outcome is impressive,” said Lt. Col. Jake Ellwood, the Australian officer. “We are learning from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps a very complicated style of combat operations, working from the sea.”

In broad daylight, Red Beach isn’t quite storming the beach at Normandy. But the skills involved in beach landings of all stripes, including those into hostile territory, are ones the Marine Corps needs to maintain, Dunford said.

“Many places where we want to go are not going to want us to come. Our nation has a need to overcome that in a wide range of places,” he said.

Below the bluffs, Sgt. Scott Olson, 23, knelt with one leg bent on the sand, scanning the beach for enemy forces while his squad remained fanned across the shore.

After being attacked by nothing more than hordes of journalists traipsing through the Marines’ firing positions, Olson finally hollered: “Let’s go! Bring it in!”

The infantrymen scrambled to their feet and ran back to the amphibious assault vehicles, sand flying with every step. Artillery from a distant range thumped as the ramp closed. Then the Marines pushed on, their boots wet with brine.

Gretel C. Kovach: (619) 293-1293; [email protected]