WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Since the beginning of World War II, the Marine Corps hallmark has been its ability to conduct attacks from the sea on a hostile shore. The Corps has mastered this most difficult of combat operations as has no other force in the world, and it is this that most distinguishes it from the Army.
Not since General Douglas MacArthur's famous Korean War landing at Inchon in 1950, however, have the Marines been called in for a major amphibious assault. No landing was attempted even during last year's Persian Gulf war, which absorbed the attention of more than 80 percent of the Marines' combat forces. Marine commanders on the spot as well as Corps headquarters back in Washington reportedly exerted great pressure on General H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell to add an amphibious attack to the Desert Storm plan. But Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell, both Army officers, demurred.
General Schwarzkopf apparently believed that, though the Marines could prevail against Iraqi-held beaches, such an operation would be unnecessarily costly in American lives and landing craft. (The one major White House intrusion upon the planning and execution of Desert Storm had been an instruction to minimize U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties.) The Iraqis had placed more than 1,000 sea mines in the coastal waters through which the Marines would have to move. The dangers posed were graphically underscored by those mines' damaging collision with the $1-billion U.S. cruiser Princeton and the helicopter assault ship Tripoli.
As it turned out, an amphibious assault proved unnecessary. General Schwarzkopf, taking a page from ''Stonewall'' Jackson's brilliant move around the Union right flank at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, decided to put the main weight of the coalition ground offensive well to the west of the heavily defended Kuwaiti-Saudi border. His famous ''Hail Mary'' play completely snookered the Iraqis, who believed the Americans would be stupid enough to place all their eggs in a World War I-style frontal assault on Iraqi prepared positions in Kuwait.
The rest, as they say, is history: the most lopsided military victory in modern times, gained at a stunningly low cost in coalition lives.
What did and did not happen in Desert Storm has, however, emboldened long-standing critics of the Marine Corps to revisit an argument that has been gaining currency since the early 1970s: namely, that the amphibious assault mission, and by extension the Marine Corps itself, have become anachronistic. The absence of a major ship-to-shore attack for more than four decades is cited as ''proof'' that the capacity to conduct such a landing is becoming as irrelevant as horse cavalry during World War II.
Especially in times of sharpening budgetary scarcity, so critics argue, it makes little sense to keep forces justified primarily by a mission that may no longer be relevant or even operationally feasible. Such forces include a large Marine Corps and such supporting Navy elements as amphibious shipping, naval gunfire support and new technologies, like the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, designed to facilitate the rapid movement of forces from ship to shore.
Unfortunately, the case against amphibious assault ignores two unavoidable realities. First, though forced landings were eschewed during Desert Storm, the very presence of a brigade-size Marine Corps force, hovering threateningly off the Kuwaiti coast, tied down up to 11 of the 42 Iraqi divisions in the Kuwaiti theater of operations, including four powerful armored and mechanized infantry divisions.
Captured Iraqi documents reveal that Baghdad believed a U.S. amphibious landing was certain, thanks in large measure to a masterly program of deceptive declarations and actions, and the allocation of so many Iraqi divisions to coastal defense significantly weakened the Iraqis' ability to meet coalition ground attacks elsewhere. Thus, without launching a single landing craft, a small Marine force effectively removed from combat up to a quarter of the Iraqi forces defending Kuwait.
As Argentine forces discovered during the Falkland Islands War, nothing keeps a defender within reach of the sea guessing more than an amphibious assault force lurking about that might -- or might not -- land on his flank. Moreover, we will never know how many times over the past 30 years America's very capacity to take a hostile beachhead may have deterred would-be aggressors from starting a war.
Second, the Gulf war was unique in many respects, including U.S. access to Saudi Arabia's huge infrastructure of ports, air bases and storage depots. That infrastructure would not have been available but for Saddam Hussein's stupidity in attacking Kuwait in a manner that scared Saudi Arabia into America's military embrace.