U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Wyatt Lehman
A Sailor assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) directs a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during flight operations on the first day of the ship's Dawn Blitz exercise.
The Marines have landed in a drill that could help shape the tactics of future warfare.
Brig. Gen. Rex McMillan watched proudly Friday from a scrubby bluff as hundreds of Marines in seafaring tanks hit a Southern California beach with helicopters buzzing overhead.
It was largest amphibious landing exercise on the West Coast since the Sept. 11 terror attacks sent troops to wars in landlocked regions.
Marines say the training that kicked off May 24 has reinvigorated them by bringing them back to their roots as "soldiers of the sea." They say heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade has relegated them to the status of a second land army.
The exercise came at a pivotal point for the Marines who are facing questions from Defense Secretary Robert Gates about whether major amphibious landings that made the Marine Corps so famous worldwide are becoming outdated in today's warfare.
Defense analysts accuse a cost-cutting Gates of trying to dismiss the value of beach landings and the needed equipment, like a $13.2 billion plan to buy large numbers of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle starting in 2012.
The amphibious vehicles, also known as EVFs, help get troops from ship to shore while under fire and mark a significant upgrade over current technology.
Gates is scrutinizing every aspect of the military in his search for roughly $10 billion in annual savings to sustain the combat force and invest in its modernization.
The current defense budget, not counting the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, is $535 billion; the administration is asking for $549 billion for 2011.
McMillan said he was impressed with the drill: The Marines landed exactly at 9:15 a.m. as planned -- 45 minutes after leaving the well deck of the USS Bonhomme Richard, an 844-foot-long amphibious assault ship.
"I think they executed this superbly," said McMillan, deputy commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
McMillan said the skills involved in the exercise were vital to keeping Marines a versatile, flexible force not only for their combat missions but also for humanitarian operations.
Called "Dawn Blitz," the exercise culminated when troops reach the Camp Pendleton beach on 60 seafaring tanks supported by 16 hovercrafts and seven ships.
It wrapped up two days before the 66th anniversary of D-Day -- the largest amphibious invasion of all time. More than 160,000 troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, paving the way for the Allied victory.