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Historical Note: The US Marine Corps deploys three types of unit: a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU - a reinforced battalion, equivalent to a Royal Marine Commando; a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB - equivalent to 3 Commando Brigade RM - which is essentially a reinforced regimental landing team, that is, two or more MEUs plus supporting assets); and a Marine Expeditionary Force (which while technically a Corps level command, rarely handles more than the equivalent of a division, but can do so, and did for the Marines part of the ground campaign where 1st MEF controlled both 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions and the attached 1st Brigade, 2nd Armoured Division (the 'Tiger' Brigade)).
Iraq reacted by building large-scale coastal defence fortifications manned by as many as six infantry divisions - 2nd, 11th, 18th and 19th with two unidentified formations and either the 5th or 51st Mechanised Divisions acting as a reserve, depending on where the assault took place. The hardening of the coastal defences caused a shift in Coalition planning to emphasise the use of the afloat force (2nd MEF) as a deception measure to mislead the Iraqis into concentrating on the Kuwaiti coast and Kuwaiti-Saudi border and act as a disguise to the westward movement of Coalition forces, a decision that was confirmed at a conference on the 30 - 31 December 1990. Despite this, USNAVCENT ordered the amphibious force to plan for an assault north of Ash Shuaybah that would seize the port facilities in the town, destroy the Iraqi forces in the immediate area and pin down the remainder of the Iraqi forces on the coast. The plan unfortunately had two major obstacles - the first was that a natural liquid gas plant existed near the port (major Coalition action could damage it and seriously disrupt the Kuwaiti infrastructure) and secondly, there was a row of high-rise apartments and condominiums that the Iraqis had partially fortified near to the landing area and the Coalition command did not want to attack civilian apartments.
Additional problems were revealed by Coalition exercises in that there were difficulties in coordinating the amphibious operations into the air campaign plan (the landing was to take place four days after the start of the ground war), in ensuring adequate air support, in defining the objective area to provide a useful link-up with advancing land forces and in coordinating artillery fire. This lead to the creation of a joint US Navy-USMC planning staff on the USNAVCENT command ship, USS Blue Ridge.
Added to this, there were difficulties due to the fact that the United States lacked sufficient amphibious lift assets to load all the assault echelons of both MEBs (while the US had the necessary capability overall, some amphibious assets had to be kept in other parts of the world) and so some of 5th MEB's assault equipment had to be loaded on a number of MSC ships which were not ideally suited to undertake amphibious operations and the US had to violate normal loading practice which calls for assets to be spread over a number of ships to reduce vulnerability and concentrate most of the helicopters on a single ship. While it reduced the administrative and loading activity, it increased the chances of a single hit to this ship affecting the landing and increased the dangers from Iraqi mines.
Other difficulties arose that were anchored in the past limitations on funding for amphibious and vertical lift capabilities in the US Marine Corps, as well as circumstances peculiar to Desert Storm:
After that point, planning concentrated around the deception effort. As the ground war started, a number of feints (for example, on the 24 February the 13th MEU made a conspicuous feint off the coast near Al Fintas accompanied by naval gunfire) were conducted to keep Iraqi forces pinned down near the coast. After this point, it became clear that the amphibious force had lost much of its contingency value as Iraqi forces were already retreating and so the 5th MEB began landing to act as the 1st MEF reserve at Al Mishab and Al Jubayl.
In conclusion, the Coalition made good use of amphibious capabilities to achieve strategic ends and to influence Iraqi deployments and reactions - it proved the value of having amphibious forces acting in a contingency role and in supporting deception. Desert Storm did not provide a comprehensive test of US amphibious capabilities in a large-scale landing. The Marines faced an enemy that was able to predict where the most likely areas were for landing and mine and fortify them appropriately. It highlighted the need for improved US Navy mine countermeasures and US Marine air and sealift as well as the importance of control of the battle space, the importance of amphibious operations in the post-Cold War environment and the importance of proper Navy / Marine planning and facilitated the creation of a new littoral warfare strategy. The Coalition was also able to rapidly build up the strength of the ground forces so that they were unwilling to risk the amphibious forces in an operation they might have contemplated just a few months before.
United States Marine Corps Order of Battle:
|1st MEF (on land)
1st Marine Division
1st, 3rd, 4th and 7th Marine Regiments
6th and 8th Marine Regiments
|2nd MEF (afloat)
4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade
Blackwell, James. Thunder in the Desert, Bantam Books, London, 1991.
Cordesman, Anthony and Wagner, Abraham. The Lessons of Modern War - Volume IV: The Gulf War, Westview Press, Oxford, 1996.
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