Going Vertical

Going Vertical

Friday, December 20, 2019

Naval Infantry?

 Infantry drill. U.S. Naval Training Camp, Charleston, South Carolina. December 4, 1918

One hobby horse of my Midrats co-host, CDR Salalmander, (you can hear him discuss it here at 4:35) is bringing back "naval infantry."

As it happens, there is a very thorough history of the history of "Sailors as Infantry" here at the Naval History and Heritage Command website. Written in 2005 by retired Captain Patrick H. Roth, it's an interesting read:
Up until the 1970s, competency as naval infantry—sailors performing as infantry, and sometimes providing land based artillery support—was an integral part of the Navy’s operations and mission.

· The use of sailors as infantry (and as artillerymen ashore) was common during the 19th century. At sea boarding was a recognized tactic. Likewise, landings and operations ashore were normal. Marines were a minority and landings were generally a ships company evolution, i.e., involving both marines and sailors.

· Use of sailors as infantry was part of the late 19th century great debate by naval reformers over the direction of the Navy. The debate centered on how to best use “our officers and men as efficient infantry and artillerymen,” not around the desirability or utility of use of sailors as infantry. Everyone in the Navy accepted that the use of sailors as infantry was a required Navy’s competency.

· Sailors performed as infantry a lot: at least 66 landings and operations ashore on distant stations during the 19th century; 136 instances in the Caribbean and Central America during the first three decades of the 20th century; numerous times on China Station and elsewhere. Using sailors as infantry ashore was what the Navy’s primarily did during the Seminole Wars and the War with Mexico. It was the Navy’s most valuable contribution during the Philippine Insurrection. Operations ranged from election security, pacification, peacekeeping, land convoy escort, protection of roads and railroads, occupation, and guard duty to large-scale major combat operations against regular Army forces.

· The Navy promulgated infantry tactical doctrine in 1891and continuously refined and updated it until 1965. During the Cold War period naval infantry schools existed. Navy infantry tactics followed U.S. Army, not Marine, tactical doctrine during its formative period reflecting a desire for inter-service interoperability. All fleet units were required to maintain, and train, landing parties.

· It was not until establishment of the Fleet Marine Force in 1933 that the use of Navy landing parties declined. Even then, organized infantry capabilities continued to be required both afloat and ashore until the 1970s.
There's a lot more which I commend to you for the historical perspective. Keep in mind what Captain Roth points out:
· Sustainability has been the Achilles heel of the use of Navy forces as infantry. Logistics and support poor, naval infantry could not sustain itself very long. Future consideration of sailors as infantry must consider combat support services.
More highlights:
The largest operation during the early years of the 20th century involved the occupation of Vera Cruz Mexico in 1914. A seaman brigade of some 2,500 bluejackets conducted the landing and infantry assault alongside a 1,300 man marine brigade.37 Vera Cruz highlighted two problems associated with naval infantry: tactics and sustainability. The Mexicans, using machine guns, repulsed the assault by the Second Seaman Regiment on the Mexican Navy Academy when the regiment, used the massed infantry tactics of 1891 and earlier. The bluejackets quickly had to adopt improvised small unit tactics to cope with the street fighting.

Tactics could be changed. The second problem—sustainability—would be more difficult. Even during the age of sail, there was recognition that landing party sustainability was limited. At Vera Cruz, the sustainability problem was finessed when US Army formations quickly relieved the sailor brigade. Introduction of steam and complex gun systems also made the problem more difficult. Sailors were really required aboard ship in order to work and maintain it. In the sail navy, sailors were largely interchangeable and there were few specialists. The new steel, steam, navy was a different organization. Sailors were specialists and ships operation was more complex. Some specialists were just too valuable to send ashore—gun pointer and turret captains could not be included in landing forces. Sufficient men, with the right skills, were necessary to remain on board in order to maintain and fight the ship.38 After Vera Cruz very large-scale fleet bluejacket landings did not occur. Effectively use of the landing party was constrained, but not eliminated.
While most ships can manage small VBSS teams, it is hard to imagine assembling a force large enough from the smaller ship crews of today to put together a "seaman brigade" of the 2,500 man Vera Cruz from our fleet today. That might constitute the entire crews of almost a dozen ships. Even if we put "extras" on, say, an LCS, as, Jimmy Drennen (@11:26 in the above Midrats) suggests "A naval infantry mission package" it is difficult to see why Marines would not make up most of that package- though Captain Roth and CDR Salamander both point to Admiral Vern Clark's 2005 call for a "Navy Expeditionary Sailor Battalion Concept” - the problem today, unlike the heady days (of planning for) a 600 ship navy - is finding the bodies and absorbing the cost of training and equipping this "force in being."

Interesting topic though, and certainly one of interest in times when a small force, well applied on short duration operations might be just the thing.

UPDATE: Also worth reading is a look at some of the older operations of the U.S. Navy in the littorals or engagements ashore with pirates is B.J. Armstrong's book, Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy

Photo from the Naval History and Heritage Command

Update2: Fixed some self-inflicted errors. 

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