Littoral Combat Teams Need Light Infantry, Not Less | – USNI News

Schwartz PRO 4 22 Hero ProxyEgg Littoral Combat Teams Need Light Infantry, Not Less | - USNI News

The Marine Corps continues to evolve to deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese aggression in the Pacific. Force Design 2030 has placed a new emphasis on Marines as forward sensors for maritime and land-based fires. The service is creating littoral combat teams (LCTs) and the Marine littoral regiments (MLRs) to make this strategic step forward a reality. As these formations come to fruition, it is alarming to see arguments advocate for limiting the infantry presence in the LCT to a mere rifle company in favor of more “fires and FARP [forward arming-and-refueling point] operations.”1 Though the LCT must incorporate fires and FARP enablers, it needs to remain grounded in the three-company infantry battalion. Arguments to the contrary falter in the face of historical and contemporary scholarship. This does not mean the Marine Corps infantry does not need to change. On the contrary: Marine grunts must fully embrace a light infantry repertoire, mind-set, and tactical playbook to remain relevant and lethal in the future fight.

What Makes Infantry Light

Light infantry formations are distinguished from motorized or mechanized infantry by “possess[ing] no organic heavy equipment. They fight on foot, in close terrain.”2 Light infantry formations possess an attitude of self-reliance born from exceptional training and fieldcraft. Light infantry units do not “fear or resist the environment; they embrace it as shelter, protection, provider, and home.”3 They exhibit exceptional mobility on terrain that is often deemed impassable by other troops. This mobility, combined with fieldcraft and training to thrive on austere logistics, means that light infantry formations can continue to prosper even when executing operations with little to no access to resupply. Though they are trained in the use and coordination of supporting arms, light infantry formations do not rely on masses of artillery or air support.4 The compartmentalized terrain on which they fight, combined with the relatively short range of their organic weapons, means light infantry forces are masters of achieving a decisive advantage with their man-packed weapons alone. Their tactics in the offense and defense are tailored to the rough terrain that is their shelter and hunting ground.

Soviet naval infantry under Captain I. P. Barchenko (left) launched a surprise assault on Cape Krestovy in October 1944 that took an anti­aircraft and antiship artillery battery out of the fight. Credit: Wikipedia/Russian Ministry of Defense

Patrolling is the essence of light infantry combat. Outstanding mobility in compartmentalized terrain means relatively small light infantry patrols can use cover, concealment, and camouflage to defeat much larger enemy formations through surprise and shock. As suddenly as they appear, these patrols can disperse into rough terrain to preserve combat power or set the next trap. This mastery of patrolling translates into offensive action characterized by infiltration and raids and defenses based on concealed blocking positions and ambush. Though it is unlikely the Marine Corps infantry envisioned in Force Design 2030 would be the weapon of choice to single-handedly smash Chinese combined-arms brigades, an LCT could reasonably anticipate facing enemy (or proxy) conventional ground and naval forces. History suggests littoral combat teams will need to fight as light infantry to survive in the brutal terrain characteristic of many Pacific islands.

History as Guide

A strong example of the value of light infantry as part of a maritime campaign comes from the Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive, launched by the Soviet Union against German defenses on the Finnish border in October 1944. The geography, above the Arctic Circle, was characterized by swamps, fjords, and rivers draining into the Barents Sea. The terrain ranged from rocky tundra to “steep rock-strewn hills” rising “to elevations of up to 1,900 feet above sea level.”5 Fog often wreathed the gullies and valleys, and temperatures hovered between 23 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Rain, sleet, and snow were all common, reducing passable terrain to quagmires and limiting off-road mobility to foot traffic and reindeer. This terrain generally nullified the typical Soviet late-war advantage in armor and motorized forces. The Soviets were forced to turn to their naval light infantry to gain an advantage.

In both the defense and attack, Soviet naval infantry, combat engineers, and reconnaissance troops proved extremely adept at light infantry combat. At one point, the 126th Light Rifle Corps marched 40 kilometers around the southern flank of the German defensive line. The light riflemen exploited rough terrain to bypass and hide from German combat outposts. Within three days of stepping off, they sat astride their objective: a critical road intersection behind the German line of resistance. In a hallmark of capable light infantry, the Soviets rapidly transitioned to the defense. Armed with only their organic weapons and reindeer/horse-packed artillery, the 126th prevented the “passage of German reinforcements” while also ambushing and trapping retreating German units.6 With the heavy artillery dedicated to another axis of attack, the 126th evened the odds with close-air support and fought off multiple counterattacks by retreating and reinforcing German formations. A reinforced Soviet company under Captain I. P. Barchenko later launched a 30-km infiltration culminating in a surprise night raid on Cape Krestovy. The assault neutralized a combined antiaircraft and antiship artillery battery, enabling an amphibious assault at the key port of Liinakhamari to succeed.

The Pacific islands where the U.S. naval services are looking to win the next fight may be geographically distant from the fjords of the Barents Sea, but the intrinsic challenges are remarkably similar. Light infantry forces will be critical to gaining a decisive advantage in the vegetation-choked jungles and sharp elevations that dominate much of the terrain U.S. forces will need to move through to defeat their adversaries.

The winning essay in the 2021 U.S. Naval Institute Marine Corps Essay Contest argued that “LCT infantry units should be company-sized and trained to detach squads to platoon-sized elements to protect . . . multiple EABs.”7 This is troubling. For light infantry units to conduct a defense in complex terrain requires constant patrolling and relies on ambush “to draw the attacker in and destroy him at close range by surprise fires.”8 Fixed battle positions are vulnerable to envelopment and suppression by an adversary able to conduct capable reconnaissance and fires integration. A squad conducting a defense will be spread dangerously thin as Marines rotate through patrol after patrol. Even a modestly sized enemy force will be in a perfect position to rupture and overwhelm such a small defense.

Having enough light infantry also will enable the transition to offense. Attack by infiltration and penetration will be critical, to avoid prepared enemy engagement areas and bypass strong points. A squad or platoon can use rough terrain to infiltrate an enemy defense in depth and penetrate enemy battle positions, but follow-on forces will still be necessary to achieve decisive results. Initial gains will be difficult to exploit when the only available organic forces amount to a reduced company of Marines. Waiting on the Marine expeditionary unit or adjacent forces to support is unrealistic, as most penetrations will be relatively fleeting affairs achieved through temporary overmatch using surprise and firepower. Captain Barchenko achieved impressive results with 195 men against the Cape Krestovy garrison, but the shock from his assault eventually wore off, and he was left fighting against more than 200 local defenders and a company-sized counterattack. Barchenko’s unit only fully neutralized the enemy’s defense with the help of close-air support and eventual reinforcement.

Marines from 2d Battalion, 7th Marines, board a CH-53E Super Stallion during Jungle Warfare Exercise 22 on Okinawa, Japan, in February. No more than sporadic vehicle support on the ground and through the air will become the norm for littoral infantry. Credit: U.S. Marine (Jackson Dukes) 

Quantity and Quality

It is not just about numbers. Excelling in light infantry combat requires Marines train to the skills necessary to thrive in some of the most grueling terrain on Earth. Simple skills such as land navigation, animal packing, camouflage, and shelter construction kept the 126th Light Rifle Corps alive on its 40 kilometer envelopment in Finland. Other skills—such as breaching barbed wire silently, combat marksmanship, crew-served weapon employment, and small-boat handling—enabled the naval infantry on Cape Krestovy and in Liinakhamari to succeed.

These skills are hard enough for today’s dedicated infantry Marines to master. Suggesting, as the winning essay does, that we will train “non-infantry Marines assigned to LCTs . . . with a renewed emphasis on combat skills” will simply not be enough to bolster platoon/squad-sized defenses tied to EABs.9 FARP personnel and fires Marines will be too busy focusing on their primary duties to be much help in patrolling. By the time they are grabbing their weapons in a last-ditch effort to hold a perimeter from an enemy who has punched through the ambush sectors, it will be too late. As the defensive ambushes fight for time, the non-infantry Marines can break down the EAB and move it to a rally point hidden from the enemy attack. Once there, they can defend a small, concealed perimeter until the infantry links up and the EAB resumes operations.

An infantry battalion–based LCT also can enable sensing and fires. Patrolling goes hand in hand with “scouting.”10 Infantry patrols coupled with fires-enablers can get observers into the right place at the right time to achieve decisive effects. Barchenko’s assault force included a team of artillery observers and radio operators who were vital in arranging fires that supported the assault on Krestovy and Liinakhamari. Today, light infantry Marines trained as observers and enabled with technology such as unmanned aerial systems and loitering munitions could tip the scales in a way Captain Barchenko probably never could have dreamed. Engineers protected by and patrolling alongside infantry Marines also would be crucial to proofing routes and enabling mobility for Navy and Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) fires vehicles. Engineers will be necessary to build concealed defensive positions, lay obstacles, and run communications wire. A token company-sized, task-saturated infantry force would simply lack the bandwidth to maximize the sensor range, survivability, and flexibility of an EAB, either through patrolling with supporting enablers or through organic observer capabilities.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

Keeping the LCT infantry-centric is only part of the solution for making EABs survivable. Marine Corps infantry must fully embrace becoming the light infantry force the Commandant’s Planning Guidance needs it to be—but there is much ground to cover before the infantry gets there. The legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—with relatively uncontested logistics on conveniently local forward operating bases, extreme firepower overmatch through near-instantaneous access to supporting arms, and no real need for signature management—continues to haunt today’s grunts. Fortunately, programs such as the Infantry Marine Course (IMC) at the School of Infantry are a step in the right direction.

This course takes boot camp graduates and trains them into infantry Marines. In a departure from past iterations, today’s IMC focuses extensively on the skills and behaviors necessary for light infantry to thrive in combat. During the 14-week course, students learn how to sustain themselves through fieldcraft, use long-range high-frequency radio communications, execute water survival, camouflage themselves, conduct surveillance, and navigate over land by GPS, map/compass, and other means (celestial and improvised compasses, for example). The students master all the organic weapons in an infantry battalion (including demolitions, pyrotechnic signals, and Claymore directional mines) minus heavy machine guns and mortars. Before graduating, they execute squad-supported day and night live-fire attacks. The students are also evaluated in a series of force-on-force offensive and defensive scenarios that require them to brief orders, conduct patrols to find the enemy in rough terrain, attack, defend, and rapidly transition to follow-on operations through grueling foot movements.11

It is encouraging to see Marine Corps schools do their part to make the infantry lighter and more lethal, but the fleet needs to follow suit. Units should be developing and testing fieldcraft standard operating procedures, which must be rigorously enforced and constantly refined. Training should increase the focus on night operations, scouting and patrolling, small-unit force-on-force field operations, supporting arms coordination, and close- and long-range infiltration. Field operations must incorporate cache site logistics and sustained operations beyond the typical “Monday to Friday” field training event.

Foot-mobile operations with only sporadic vehicle support must become the norm. Commanders must be encouraged to experiment with ways to make their Marines as light, lethal, and survivable as possible. This may mean accepting risk by shedding body armor on patrols or increasing the use of ultralight tactical vehicles and dirt bikes for cross-country mobility. An infantry battalion’s “lightness” must then be evaluated before deployment in a modified Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation (MCCRE). This event should span multiple weeks of field time and, alongside the company- and battalion-level live-fire events typical of many MCCREs, must incorporate a force-on-force scenario modeled on the distributed operations expected of an LCT. In this scenario, a dedicated opposition force must contest the battalion across all domains. Through it all, an exercise control cadre should be compiling notes for the battalion commander on “sustains” and “improves” for his or her unit going forward.

In today’s bid for high-tech solutions and fires-centric deterrence, highly trained and motivated Marine Corps light infantry with the grit to succeed in the face of terrible hardship will be essential to success. History has shown that victory is often on the side of the soldier who can best endure, adapt, and thrive against not only the enemy, but also the environment. These lessons will again be essential as the Marine Corps returns to Pacific jungles in which the decisive advantage will rest with Marines and their rifles.

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