Articles

Here's who'd win if an Airborne brigade fought a MEU

Author's note: This is a very hypothetical look at how a fight between two of America's greatest expeditionary units could play out. Obviously, this battle would never actually happen since paratroopers and Marines rarely fight outside of bars. Both sides can only use their indigenous assets and their rides to the fight, no requesting Patriot missile support or a carrier strike group.


During the short War of Alaskan Secession in 2017, one brutal battle pitted an Army Airborne Brigade Combat Team against a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

The fight centered on Fort Glenn, an abandoned World War II airfield on Umnak Island in the center of Alaska's Aleutian Island Chain. The 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division attempted to take the fort for the Alaskan Independence Forces while the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit steamed north to capture it for the Federal Forces.

Map data: Google, DigitalGlobe, TerraMetrics, Data SIO, MOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO. Graphics: WATM Logan Nye

The Alaskans wanted the base to act as an early-warning installation and a platform for controlling Arctic traffic while the Federal Forces needed it as a marshaling and power projection platform for the invasion of Alaska.

The soldiers and Marines raced to the island, each unaware of the other's plans. 4th Brigade caught a ride from Alaskan Air National Guard C-17s while the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit rode in on their dedicated Navy ships, the USS Peleliu and the USS Germantown, from where they were already steaming in the northern Pacific.

The paratroopers arrived first, jumping into the grass and wildflowers covering Fort Glenn. After Army pathfinders walked the runway and declared it safe for airland operations, C-17s began ferrying the unit's heavy equipment onto the base.

Photo: US Army Sgt. Joseph Guenther

It was at this critical moment that the Army colonel learned from one of his UAV operators that the 31st MEU was south of the island and steaming towards Deer Bay, a natural beach that sat at the foot of Fort Glenn.

This was a crisis for the airborne unit. A surprise winter storm approaching mainland Alaska had grounded the F-22s and other fighters captured as the war began, but the commander knew the MEU would still be able to launch its eight Harriers and four attack helicopters with the Navy's ships safely out of the storm's path.

The Army had limited options. They could attempt to defend Fort Glenn with what static defenses could be emplaced quickly, hide and set up an ambush at the beaches for when the Marines landed, or withdraw to the nearby high ground at Mount Okmok, a volcano that rarely erupts.

The Army decided to make its stand at the beach. Soldiers from the two battalion weapons companies rushed their Humvees, complete with TOW missile launchers, Mk. 19s, and .50-cals, away from the airfield and down to areas of dead space on the shore.

Photo: US Army Staff Sgt. Micah VanDyke

Javelin missile teams jumped out and positioned their launchers to screen for aircraft flying low and slow. Riflemen grabbed their assault packs and began setting up their own positions.

The soldiers waited and watched as the Marines' amphibious assault vehicles crept into view. It wasn't until the first of the Ospreys and SuperCobras neared the beach and spotted the humvees that the Javelin crews began firing.

The first missiles streaked toward the aircraft, but they had only limited anti-air capabilities. Two SuperCobras and two Ospreys came down, but the rest of the aircraft began evasive maneuvers.

Photo: US Army Staff Sgt. Ashlee J. Lolkus Sherrill

The Humvees moved up from the dead space to give their gunners a shot at the Marines coming in. TOW missiles and 40mm grenades began striking the AAVs making their way to the beach while .50-cal gunners targeted the Marines Combat Rubber Raiding Crafts.

The Marines, though surprised to find the beach occupied, were masters of amphibious warfare. The command quickly ordered the landers to turn south where the terrain around Deer Bay would protect them from the missiles. The AAVs began suppressive fire to cover the movement.

A few TOWs were launched at the Navy ships, but the Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems destroyed them and the Navy pulled out of range.

Then the Marines began readying the Harriers. While the nearly 4,000 soldiers of an Airborne Brigade Combat Team vastly outnumber the 2,200 in a MEU, the MEU brings 7 acres of U.S. territory and 8 ground attack jets with them.

Photo: US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Claudia Palacios

The Marines knew that since the Army fired Javelins, an anti-tank missile that is a risky choice against helicopters, the Javelin was their only anti-air missile. So the Harriers were free to fly just a little too fast and a little too high for the Javelins, and therefore they were able to rain destruction.

Once the Harriers were airborne, it was over for the Army's heavy weapons platforms. After destroying the Humvees, they went after the Army howitzers and the few M1135 Strykers on the island.

The Army attempted an organized withdrawal to the mountain as the two remaining SuperCobras returned with the Harriers. The LCACs and Landing Craft Units offloaded the Marines' six Light-Armored Vehicles and 120 humvees. The surviving AAVs swam onto the shores.

Army mortar crews, riflemen, and the surviving Javelin firers fought a valiant delaying action, but the island provided little cover and concealment and they were destroyed.

By the time the storm had passed over the Alaskan mainland and the governor could send reinforcements, the resistance on Umnak Island had been essentially wiped out. There was simply too little cover and concealment for the paratroopers to defend themselves against the air and armored support of a MEU once the Marines knew that they were there.

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