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Calif. beach-storming drill returns Marines to roots

By Julie Watson
Associated Press / June 4, 2010

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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Thousands of Marines and sailors set out to sea yesterday for an exercise to storm a picturesque beach in Southern California in a training mission that is occurring amid a debate in the military about whether D-day-style amphibious landings are becoming obsolete in modern-day warfare.

The effort is the largest amphibious training exercise on the West Coast since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and involves more than 4,500 Marines and sailors.

It also is occurring at a pivotal time for the Marines, who have complained about how heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade has relegated them to the status of a kind of second land army. As such, some Marines have spent little time inside a ship, much less landing on a beach.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has raised questions about whether amphibious skills are becoming outdated in an era marked by landlocked conflict in places like Afghanistan and when enemy anti-ship technology has become increasingly sophisticated, making beach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 antiship 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 EVFs, help get troops from ship to shore while under fire and mark a significant upgrade over the current technology available to the military.

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.’’

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