Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Is this the French Foriegn Legion come 'round again?

Navy considers sailors trained for close-quarters assault
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN,
The Virginian-Pilot
© October 18, 2005
Last updated: 1:15 AM

The initiative would transform the sailors in the new unit from primarily ship-bound forces to a role long reserved for foot soldiers. Above: Training at Quantico Marine Base. CALEB JONES / ASSOCIATED PRESS

WHAT IT MEANS

The plan calls for the creation of an expeditionary combat force. It initially was to number 600 to 800 sailors, but the final number might be much different. The force could be used in missions that call for close contact with hostile coastlines.

WHAT'S NEXT

Final plans are expected to be released this month.

QUANTICO — With the squeeze of an index finger, the machine gun jerked to life – a metallic, menacing growl that chattered in the bone marrow: rat-a-tat … rat-a-tat-tat … rat-a-tat-tat-tat …

An acrid halo of steely smoke rose from the 84-pound gun. Spent shell casings bubbled from an opening in its side. Three football fields away, thumb-size bullets – as many as 550 per minute – sparked off a battered tank parked on the hillside of a gun range.

These are the sights, sounds and smells of the “Dirt Navy,” the buzz words for a new initiative that, if put into play, could thrust sailors into a domain long reserved for foot soldiers.

The Navy has been pondering the idea since at least July, when the service outlined plans aimed at making it more effective in the small-skirmish, close-quarter arenas of a drawn-out war on terrorism.

Among the proposals: creating an expeditionary combat force. The move would produce, according to one Navy official who spoke at the summer briefing: “A sailor with a bayonet in his teeth, ready to go ashore and mix it up.”

Less formidable than SEAL commandos but more fierce than average swabbies, the hybrid sailor-soldiers would not elbow out Marines, said Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations. Marines are the Navy’s traditional combat troops, and blurring roles can be a touchy business in the rivalry-prone military.

Last week at a Pentagon news conference, Mullen told reporters that the expeditionary force is still just a “concept ” but that his counterpart with the Marines – Gen. Michael W. Hagee – has questioned him repeatedly about its purpose.

“Gen. Hagee tells me he gets asked about it everywhere he goes by his Marines,” Mullen said.

Mullen stressed that the new force would not compete with the Marines but complement them.

“The Marines need not be overly concerned about the Navy displacing the Marine Corps mission,” Mullen said. “That is not the intent.”

But demands in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the Marines thin, even as the Navy’s “brown water” operations are expected to increase – missions that call for close contact with hostile coastlines.

Under the blueprint announced in July, a number of sailors would “harden up” to fill the Marine void. The original concept called for a battalion-size force, or 600 to 800 sailors, but planners have been hammering out the nuts and bolts for months, and the reality could be much different. Final plans are expected to be released this month. No one at Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk would speak on the record about combat sailors.

Training, however, is already being developed. Right now, Navy boot camp includes little in the way of personal warfare tactics, which means the service lacks experts of its own. At least some help has been sought from private industry – such as Special Tactical Services, a Virginia Beach outfit run by two former SEALs.

Special Tactical Services has landed a contract to help teach more sailors how to handle a machine gun.

On a recent autumn day at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Northern Virginia, Special Tactical Services demonstrated some of the weapons that might be found in the sailor-soldier’s arsenal: a 40 mm grenade launcher, an MK43 “Rambo” gun and a mainstay of the machine-gun nest – the thick-barrelled .50 caliber.

Pulling the trigger on a big gun is surprisingly easy; hitting a target is not. Recoil and vibration rapidly reduce even a full-size tank to a bouncing blur inside the tiny sights.

“Straighten your stance,” Special Tactical Services ’ Dale McClellan shouted over the boom-boom-boom as guns gobbled ammo belts. “Short burst. Short burst. Now long.”

McClellan has been in the training business since 1997, when he and partner Al Clark helped found Blackwater Security Consulting – the Moyock, N.C.-based outfit now best known for dispatching tough-guy security contractors to the world’s trouble zones.

In 2000, McClellan and Clark broke away to start their own company. In the skittish years since Sept. 11, 2001, they’ve seen their industry explode, with private firms stepping up to plug security shortfalls and fill roles that once belonged solely to those in uniform.

Special Tactical Services has designed ballistic shields for aircraft carriers and taught weapons skills to Army, Marine and Navy units, the U.S. Border Patrol, a Canadian counter terrorism unit and a number of local and federal law enforcement agencies.

“We’ve got the most highly trained military in the world, and they’re very effective at what they do,” McClellan said. “But they’re in a hurry to get the numbers through. They need bodies in Iraq.”

Private-sector sessions deliver more one-on-one, McClellan said, and more hands-on: “And we can do it cheaper and faster than the military can.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, fired a final round at a tank, stepped back from the smoking metal and eased off his helmet and flak vest.

As a commander in the Naval Reserve, Kirk has a special interest in military concerns. He came to Quantico to test-shoot to make sure U.S. troops “don’t have a piece of crap ,” he said, “but something that delivers when you need it most.”

Kirk thinks private industry can offer the military a “higher standard” of training. He’s not comfortable, however, with the vision of civilians directly drilling troops.

“They won’t be the ones going to war with them,” Kirk said. “They should stick to training the trainers.”

McClellan said Special Tactical Services ’ machine gun contract with the Navy calls for exactly that – to help the service design its own program. He wonders, however, how long such set ups can work.

“The trainers are getting shipped to Iraq as fast as everybody else,” McClellan said.

Kirk acknowledged that many Army and Marine personnel are already on their third deployment. That’s a major reason, he said, why the Navy wants to shoulder more of the load.

The sailors of history were armed men who swarmed enemy ships and beaches. During World War II, that job became the specialty of the Marines. No one suggests a return to the old days; there are other ways to “bring it to the enemy,” as Kirk put it.

Among the proposals:

- A “riverine” component that will take over operations of a now-disbanded Marine company.

- A force trained to overcome opposition on tricky ship boardings – currently the role of the over-tasked SEALs.

- Teams who accompany the boarding force to quickly gather intelligence about crew and cargo.

- Detachments with officers specially trained in foreign cultures and regions.

If the expeditionary force materializes, candidates will probably be sailors who didn’t quite make the cut for the elite SEALs.

“You have to be really good to even try out for that,” said Andrew Feickert, a defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service. “It makes sense to put those sort of people together in this sort of unit to see what they can contribute.”

Another military analyst said it also makes good money sense to switch more sailors from long-range weapons to a more personal type of warfare.

“We’re fighting a different type of war now,” said Bob Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This one has lots of boots on the ground. So if the Navy wants its cut of the budget pie – and that’s always a concern – it’s got to get in there. This one can’t be fought from a mile or two offshore.”

Staff writer Dale Eisman contributed to this report.

Reach Joanne Kimberlin at (757) 446-2338 or joanne.kimberlin@pilotonline.com.



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