If the Marines are ever again called upon to hit the beach, it's a good bet that some of them and a great deal of their heavy firepower will arrive on high-tech hovercraft now stationed at Camp Pendleton.
First publicly unveiled in 1985, the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) program remains the pride of the Navy and Marine amphibious forces despite design problems that could have scuttled production, a 21% cost increase, and criticism by military analysts who called the craft an impractical and unneeded "wonder weapon."
The military has been so bullish on the LCAC that when the prototype rolled out in the mid-1980s, top brass praised it as an innovation in amphibious warfare rivaled only by the advent of the helicopter.
Riding on an inflated air bag and powered by four gas-turbine engines, the craft is five times as fast (top speed: 50 knots) as its World War II-era predecessor, which is still the workhorse of the fleet.
Can Carry Big Load
The Landing Craft Air Cushion can carry 70 tons of equipment and 26 Marines, land on rocky or steep shores or in high-surf conditions that would thwart other landing craft, and then continue inland for up to 20 miles.
Its purpose is twofold: allowing assaults to be launched from further out at sea to avoid detection, and opening up more beach area for possible assaults, thus keeping an adversary off guard.
By 1995, the Navy, which operates the craft, plans to have 45 at Camp Pendleton and 45 at Little Creek, Va. At an estimated cost of $28 million each, the 90 craft have a price tag, including money spent on research and development, of about $2.5 billion.
The LCAC program is an indication of how the Marine Corps--as compared to the other branches of the armed services--is increasingly geared toward possible conflicts in the Third World rather than sustained warfare with the Soviet Union.
Friends and critics of the LCAC alike agree that with its speed and stealth, it is more likely to be vital in skirmishes against a Third World adversary or Soviet surrogate.
The Soviets, along with being buffered by a land mass, possess the detection devices and ability to strike back immediately that would make an assault by sea far less likely to succeed, analysts say.
"The LCAC is definitely a Third World-style vehicle," said retired Marine Lt. Col. John Buchanan, senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information.
"If we use an LCAC to invade the Soviet Union through Norway, Turkey, Greece or the Baltic, the nuclear weapons will be flying before the Marines hit the beach," he added. "But a Third World force won't have that kind of capability and could still be surprised and immobilized by an LCAC-assisted landing."
The official Marine Corps position is that Marines are prepared to fight in any conflict where U.S. interests are at stake--including as a part of NATO forces in Europe.
But Navy and Marine officers trained for amphibious warfare--which by federal law is the major mission given to the Marine Corps--acknowledged that there are far more theoretical "scenarios" where the craft would respond to a "low-intensity conflict" rather than a direct confrontation with the Soviets.
"There is a much greater chance we'll be needed in a Grenada or something like that," said Lt. Col. Burton C. Quist, commanding officer of a 1,100-man battalion that returned to Camp Pendleton last week from six months of training in the Western Pacific.
One of the major goals of the six-month "float" was to test the landing craft in mock landings in Korea, Guam, the island of Tinian, and Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was only the second sustained test at sea for the craft.
Not surprisingly, Quist said, an LCAC-assisted amphibious Marine force is the ideal U.S. military response to brush-fire wars, compared to having bases and troops on foreign soil.
"You put amphibious forces out there and you don't have to worry about basing rights or overfly rights or demonstrators at the main gate of the base," Quist said. "If you are out there with enough men and equipment, you can land quickly and nip something in the bud that might otherwise get bigger."
'Weight and Muscle'
"Someone has to have enough weight and muscle to kick in the door," agreed Marine Capt. Jerome M. Lynes, the battalion's assistant operations officer.
The Landing Craft Air Cushion, Lynes noted, will also enhance the ability of the Marines to launch "special operations"--that is, small raiding parties either to capture a specific target or as a precursor to a larger assault.
"The LCAC will allow the introduction of a raiding force even more clandestinely than in the past," Lynes said. "An LCAC can start from an amphibious force 100 to 150 miles out at sea and quickly close to within 15 or 20 miles of the beach, where the rubber boats can be launched silently and under cover of darkness."