Gulf War - Coalition Amphibious Operations

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The Coalition initially deployed a substantial amphibious force in the Gulf which provided their only forced entry capability (initially) and planning started for such an operation in mid-August with highly visible exercises in Oman (late October) and the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia (November and December). By mid-January (when Operation Desert Storm started), the amphibious force (2nd MEF) stood at some 31 amphibious ships carrying the assault echelons of both the 4th and 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigades and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Ops capable). The force also had five Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships and two Maritime Prepositioning Ships to carry the follow-on echelons. In total it had 17,095 personnel, 26 AV8B Harriers, 136 helicopters, 47 M60 main battle tanks, 112 amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), 86 light armoured vehicles (LAVs), 44 155mm howitzers, 8 105mm howitzers, 100 mobile TOW antitank systems, 80 Stinger air defence systems and 2,271 wheeled vehicles.

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:

  1. There was a lack of specialised amphibious support assets due to MPS ships deploying equipment for the 1st MEF ashore. This in many ways was similar to the problem above in that the 5 MSC ships used to house the follow-on echelons were not really suited to the task and had limited capabilities as regards off-loading equipment in an efficient manner and had no real capability to provide logistics over the shore support. Two required pier cranes as their cranes were inadequate and so these were eventually replaced with two suitable MSC ships in November, as it was clear that it might take some time to make the port usable.
  2. The concentration of intelligence assets on supporting the ground war became an increasing problem as there wasn't enough provided for the amphibious assault force.
  3. The specialised engineering equipment used by the US Marines was concentrated in the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions (1st MEF) on land so there was insufficient equipment available to ensure the adequate clearing of mines so that AAVs could safely reach the shore. This limited the size of the assault forces tasked with clearing the beach.
  4. The Marine Corps could not substitute enough heliborne assets for a direct assault as its aging CH-46 helicopters lacked the lift and range to enable the fleet to operate outside of the heavily mined coastal waters. The Corps had recognised this as a serious weakness a decade earlier but due to internal Department of Defense politics and the debate over the V-22 Osprey VSTOL aircraft no action had been taken.
  5. The Marine Corps considered conducting an over-the-horizon heliborne assault using the longer-range CH-53E helicopters and the 13th MEU, which had practised these sorts of operations before (and had been used to good effect by the 4th MEB, operating from the USS Trenton, to evacuate US citizens from Mogadishu in January 1991). Such an operation would have the advantage that the Iraqis would have no warning of the attack and no time to prepare. Unfortunately the Corps only had enough lift assets to lift one battalion, although the 17 LCACs could lift another battalion with its tanks and LAVs over many of the obstacles. Also, such a raid also required substantial air support to help destroy beach defences and it was unknown if enough would be available with the land battle in full swing. This again highlighted the need for additional medium and heavy lift assets.
  6. The force planners estimated any assault would need ten days of concentrated mine clearance to clear a path and three to five days of naval gunfire support to clear Iraqi beach defences. Air strikes and naval gunfire would also have to be used while the mines that were within range of Iraqi artillery were cleared. Before then, the amphibious force would have to stay over 70 miles from the coast.
  7. As time went on, the requirement for a landing to establish a sea-based logistic supply point declined as supplies built up on land, the amount of combat engineering and logistic equipment increased, and the US Navy Seebee and USMC support units made a major contribution to improving the road and supply network south of the Kuwaiti border.
  8. The pre-landing strikes would destroy a large amount of Kuwaiti housing and infrastructure and increase the risks to an amphibious assault than would occur for a land-based attack.
All this had an effect on USCENTCOM planning, which, after Exercise Sea Soldier IV off Oman in January started to emphasis the importance of the force for deception purposes. By the time USCINCENT, USNAVCENT and USMARCENT met on 2 Febraury 1991 to review options it was clear that Allied capabilities had increased to the point where an amphibious assault was not necessary. USCINCENT (General Schwarzkopf) decided to retain the option of using 2nd MEF, as an adjunct to the advance by 1st MEF (which was due to attack towards Kuwait City) at short notice. Planning therefore started to focus on using the force in raids and feints rather than a full-scale assault. Targets included the Faw Peninsula and Faylaka Island. Faylaka gradually became a priority and so planning moved ahead quickly with a rehearsal taking place on the 15 February. However, the USS Princeton and USS Tripoli struck mines and so it became clear that much of the planning rested on faulty intelligence about Iraqi minefields and so the operation was cancelled on 23 February.

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
11th Marine (Artillery) Regiment
2nd Marine Division

6th and 8th Marine Regiments
10th Marine (Artillery) Regiment
1st 'Tiger' Brigade, 2nd Armoured Division

2nd MEF (afloat)

4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade
5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade
13th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Blackwell, James. Thunder in the Desert, Bantam Books, London, 1991.
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Cordesman, Anthony and Wagner, Abraham. The Lessons of Modern War - Volume IV: The Gulf War, Westview Press, Oxford, 1996.
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Chadwick, Frank. Gulf War Factbook, Game Designers Workshop, Bloomington, IL, 1991.
Chadwick, Frank. Phase Line Smash: Historical Notes, CC0126/R2, Game Designers Workshop, Bloomington, IL, 1992.
How to cite this article: Antill, P. (26 February 2003), Gulf War - Coalition Amphibious Operations, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_gulf_amphibious.html

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