CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Hundreds of Marines and sailors set out to sea Thursday for an exercise to storm a picturesque beach in Southern California in a training mission that comes amid a debate in the military about whether D-Day-style amphibious landings are becoming obsolete in modern warfare.
The effort is the largest amphibious training exercise on the West Coast since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, involving more than 4,500 Marines and sailors.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has raised questions about whether amphibious skills are becoming outdated in an era marked by landlocked conflict in places like Afghanistan and when enemy antiship technology has become increasingly sophisticated, making beach invasions much more difficult to pull off.
"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 further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?" Gates asked military leaders in a speech last month at the Navy League.
Defense analysts accuse a cost-cutting Gates of trying to dismiss the value of beach landings and the needed equipment, like a $13.2 billion plan to buy large numbers of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle starting in 2012. The amphibious vehicles, also known as EFVs, help get troops from ship to shore while under fire and mark a significant upgrade over the current available technology.
Gates is scrutinizing every aspect of the military in his search for roughly $10 billion in annual savings to sustain the combat force and invest in its modernization.
"The United States Marine Corps has been conducting amphibious operations for 200 years. It's a unique capability, and there is no analytical basis for arguing that capability won't be needed in the future," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute. "Everyone we are likely to fight in the future is going to be close to the sea … like Iran, like North Korea, like Vietnam, like almost any place you can mention other than Afghanistan."
Called "Dawn Blitz," the exercise kicked off May 24 and will culminate today when troops reach the Camp Pendleton beach on 60 Amphibious Assault Vehicles — seafaring tanks supported by 16 hovercrafts and seven amphibious ships.
It will wrap up two days before the 66th anniversary of D-Day — the largest amphibious invasion of all time. More than 160,000 troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, paving the way for the Allied victory.
Many of the Marines participating in the exercise this week had not done a landing from sea before this drill, said Lt. Kyle Raines, a Navy spokesman. "It is a competency we need to maintain."