Marines Are Rarely On Navy Ships
Marines are not normally embarked in U.S. Navy warships or Coast Guard cutters. Of course, amphibious ships, some of which have small Marine detachments as part of their ship’s company, normally embark Marines for assault operations. . . .
Since the colonial era Marines have been embarked in U.S. warships, primarily to form landing parties. In the era of steel ships Marines were assigned to cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers. On those ships they often were also employed to man secondary or anti-aircraft gun batteries as well as being used for landing operations. With the deployment of nuclear weapons aboard U.S. aircraft carriers in the early 1950s, Marines were given the principal duty of security for those weapons.
During the 1990s the last Marine detachments were withdrawn from warships. The last nuclear weapons were removed from U.S. surface ships in the early 1990s, and the last Marine detachment -- embarked in the nuclear-propelled carrier George Washington (CVN 73) -- went ashore on 3 April 1998. That detachment consisted of one officer and 25 enlisted Marines; previously Marine carrier detachments numbered two officers and 64 enlisted men.
In 1992 the Navy experimented with placing large Marine detachments aboard aircraft carriers. In January 1992 the carrier Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) embarked 538 Marines for a month of at-sea training and workup. This force consisted of a rifle company, command staff, and various detachments including a composite helicopter squadron. Subsequently, in March 1993 the Roosevelt battle group steamed for the Mediterranean for a six-month deployment with some 600 Marines and their helicopters. . . . However, the . . . concept was not continued.
So, Marines (other than the occasional Marine airplane pilot) have been absent from Navy warships for almost a decade. With the exception of the Theodore Roosevelt experiment fifteen years ago, never tested in wartime, it appears that Marines haven't been on Navy warhships other than aircraft carriers, and then, only to guard nuclear weapons, since the Korean War ended.
The Marine Corp's Dedicated Fleet
The Navy has about 39 ships devoted primarily to the Navy.
Twelve are small aircraft carriers that carry helicopters, Harrier short takeoff/vertical landing fighters, and Osprey plane-helicopter hybrid transports (5 of the 1976 vintage LHA-1 Tarawa design and 7 of the 1989 vintage LHD-1 Wasp design, with a replacement class in the works). They hold up to about 1,900 Marines and 22 helicopters.
The Marines have another 23 smaller troop transports (11 of the 1965 vintage LPD-4 Austin class (900 Marines, 6 helicopters and many landing craft, a mini-hospital and long range stores), 8 of the 1985 vintage LSD-51 Whidbey class (500 Marines, a helicopter deck with no carried helicopters and many landing craft), 4 of the 1994 vintage LSD-49 Harper's Ferry class (similar to the Whidbey), and 1 of the LPD-17 San Antiono class (800 Marines, 4 helicopters and many landing craft) with more in the works).
Finally, it has four "command ships" (commissioned 1964 to 1971, two of which were retrofitted from ships designed for other purposes). There are no current plans to replace them when they are retired with stand alone command ships.
The Navy also has two hospital ships often tasked to Navy missions, sealift ships, and anti-mine warfare ships relevant to Marine missions, as well as other ships that can escort Marine oriented Navy ships.
The two services have few major procurement projects in common. The Navy isn't playing to buy the V-22 Osprey. The two services within the Navy Department are even ordering different versions of the F-35. The Marines want the F-35B, a Harrier AV-8B replacement (also intended to replace their current supply of F-18s). The Navy wants the F-35C (which would replace the F-18). Obviously, the Navy has no interest in the various land based systems that the Marines want to buy (like the beleaguered Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program).
The Sparce History of Ambiphious Assaults
Also, as I've noted before, the post-World War II amphibious assault history of the United States Marines can be summed up as follows.
Before World War II, the last major amphibious assaults conducted by U.S. troops took place in the American Civil War.
While the Marines had major involvement in amphibious assaults in the Pacific Theater in World War II, contrary to popular belief, the regular Army to the near exclusion of the Marines conducted the World War II amphibious assaults in the European and North African theaters, and played a major role in many Pacific Theater amphibious assaults as well.
The Army, rather than the Marine Corps, was responsible in World War II for all U.S. involvement in the D-Day invasion, Operation Torch in North Africa, invasion of Sicily, invasion of Salerno, Italy, the invasion of Anzio, Italy, and the allied amphibious invasion of Southern France.
The Army was part of the Battle of Tarawa, part of the force in the Battle of Saipan (the Marine general relieved the Army commander of duty mid-battle as the services clashed with each other), and a majority of the force in the Battle of Okinawa.
There have been only two major amphibious assaults by U.S. forces since World War II, one which was relevant, in the Korean War, and one which proved irrelevant in the Persian Gulf War.
During the Korean War the U.S. Marine Corps landed at Inchon [in 1950] . . . this battle eventually resulted in intervention by Chinese forces on behalf of North Korea. . . .
During the Persian Gulf War, a large amphibious assault force, composed of US Marines and naval support, was positioned off the coast of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This force was composed of 40 amphibious assault ships, the largest such force to be assembled since the Battle of Inchon. The object was to fix the six Iraqi divisions deployed along the Kuwaiti coast. Due to early misadventure, the mission for this amphibious force turned into a feint[.]
While Marines certainly were involved in many amphibious assaults in World War II in the Pacific Theater, the point of this brief historical review is, first, that the Marines have never been the exclusive force in the U.S. military carrying out large amphibious operations, and second, that the Service's current heavy focus on this kind of operation is a bit odd considering the irrelevance of this mission in the past 57 years.
This is not to say that the Marines themselves are irrelevant. Their integrated land-sea-air approach and rapidly deployable elite force have alternated with the Army's paratroopers as forces of first resort for the United States military, and the Marines have played an active role in counterinsurgency and citizen rescue missions across the globe. But, the Navy and the Marines ties to each other have never been more arms length.
Before we work to re-integrate these two virtually completely segregated services, we should pause and see if it wouldn't make more sense to integrate the Marines and the Army's paratroopers into a single rapid deployment force outside the Navy Department, with an orientation less overbalanced towards amphibious assaults. Amphibious assaults, per se, are a low demand mission for the United States military, which history shows can be carried out by Army forces with success. But, the need for elite substantial forces capable of rapidly deploying to hot spots is an important and ongoing one, whose procurement and tactics could be developed more sensibly unburdened by historical baggage.
The Marines aren't the landing party oriented force that they were prior to World War II. We may need that capability now. But, it isn't obvious to me that the best way to meet that need is to put today's Marines back on ordinary Naval warships. The Navy might be better off in essence re-inventing a marine force for their original purpose of having small units of warship based sailors with staffing landing parties, ship board security and guarding warships at port as their main duties. This would avoid the issue of having military personnel on the same ship whose careers are ultimately accountable to different service masters in the Pentagon.