Amphibious Ops in the 21st Century
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“Going forward, we will also remember the lessons of history….we will ensure our military is agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies…”
For over 2000 years, amphibious operations have been a critical tool for any military with ties to the sea. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta cited 10 specific missions for the military in his “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century.” Four the missions cannot be accomplished without amphibious operations. An additional three are enhanced by amphibious capability. Secretary Panetta’s orientation of security interests towards the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and South and East Asia demand amphibious operations in order to avoid the “unwise divestment of the capability to conduct any mission.” Employing U.S. military forces in the 21st Century will require introducing combat forces across unimproved beaches or terrain on a potentially hostile shore. A strategic imperative for the United States in the 21st Century remains not “if” amphibious operations will be employed but “how,” “when,” and “where.”
“Land the Landing Force” is the command given when forces are to move from ship-to-shore in an amphibious operation. Anyone with knowledge of air combat in World War II will admit that the F4U Corsair and P51 Mustang are amongst, if not the best, propeller-driven combat aircraft in history. However, no one in their right mind today would advocate a return to these platforms today. Yet, discussions around conducting amphibious operations today and developing concepts for tomorrow wallow in this specious “back to the future” debate. Unfortunately, the foundation upon which naval services conduct amphibious operations are based date back to World War II, and need to be scrapped. The ship-to-shore-movement (STSM) capability of the United States mirrors operational capabilities dating back to 1943. More importantly, future concepts for the remainder of this century advocate the landing force be delivered by families of craft whose capabilities will soon be nearly a century old.
Amphibious forces move from ship-to-shore on four different platforms: the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV), Landing Craft Utility (LCU), Landing Craft Air-Cushioned (LCAC), and MV-22/CH-53 rotary-winged aircraft. AAVs landing on a beach in 2013 move at the same speed as their 1943 predecessors. In succeeding waves, LCUs, if the beach gradient allows, drop a ramp to spit out huge motorized and mechanized cargo into six-to-ten feet of water. While MV-22s offer speed, the combat power they carry and deliver is little better than that borne by airborne forces landing by parachute in Operation Market Garden in 1944. Only the LCAC offers capability worthy of the 21st century, but is undermined by the gargantuan equipment procured over the last 30 years.
In 1943, AAVs matched the revolutionary performance of the Mustang and Corsair. Tracked-vehicles “swimming” to shore provided armored protection to its occupants as compared to wooden boats. The AMTRACs travelled to nearly any shoreline at a steady six-to-eight knots, equal to any boat used at the time for landing forces. Various versions provided organic firepower—mounting weapons of large and small caliber. Once done landing initial assault waves, the craft conducted multiple other missions such as logistical resupply and medical evacuation of the wounded to ships offshore.
Today’s AAV is little changed, thus deeming it archaic instead of revolutionary. Large amphibious ships still launch from a doctrinal distance of 3000-to-4000 yards. The same speed of six-to-eight knots prohibits realistic launches from any farther offshore due to transit time and the fitness of occupants after extended times in a dark, enclosed box rocking at sea. A pair of machine guns provides limited firepower. The aluminum construction used to save weight lacks protection to the point that the vehicle is ineffective for combat. The size of the vehicle as a target and the thin armor makes it vulnerable to IEDs. This threat in Iraq caused Marine commanders to prohibit the vehicles from combat operations as early as 2006. When the Marine Corps returned to Afghanistan in 2009, the AAV did not go. Unfortunately, the AAV has become the proverbial “one-trick pony,” only suitable for moving personnel at close range from ship-to-shore, slowly.
The replacement for the current AAV will be no better. The Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) will run to shore at the same speed. Weight limitations required to make the vehicle float mean limited armor and continued vulnerability to IEDs. Future commanders will also reconsider the commitment of AAVs to combat as their predecessors did. Results of recent wargames recommended doctrinal improvements for AAV employment to better protect the large amphibious ships. Launch ranges will increase from two miles out to 12 miles, despite no improvement or increase in transit speeds. Unfortunately, launching from 12 miles will still place ships within visual and weapons range of the beaches while subjecting the occupants of the AAVs to hours of debilitating transit time, ship-to-shore.
The LCU suffers from the same challenges. As an operations officer for large-scale amphibious operations, I often considered the LCU as the “work horse.” With size to carry two M1A1 tanks or 170 tons of cargo in a permissive environment close to the beach, Marines can move a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, moving LCUs with full loads mean drafts of ten-to-12 feet. Beach gradients and bottoms must be “just right” to make their use practical. The limited number of beaches on which LCUs can land improves any enemy’s (insurgent or conventional military) predictive ability to counter any landing. Additionally, the LCU is not a platform that can realistically operate from over-the-horizon (OTH). The AAV-like speeds make transits from less vulnerable ranges offshore unrealistic. The large helicopter carriers (amphibious assault ships, LHDs) will not come close to the beaches, preferring to stay at least 12 miles offshore to provide maneuver room for the deep-draft ships in order for winds to launch aircraft. Both Navy and Marine shipboard planners always try to place LCUs in the well decks of LPDs and LSDs, yet positioning them in the LHD well deck means unsupportable off-load times for ground equipment. The well decks of LHDs need to be reserved for the higher speed LCACs.
The Landing Craft Air Cushioned is one platform suited for operations in the 21st century. The high speed and range allow STSM in acceptable times from OTH, providing greater security for the amphibious ships. The planned successor to the LCAC, the Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC) will have more powerful engines, perpetuating this OTH capability. Yet, highly complex engines, expensive maintenance, and vulnerability to even small arms fire mean the LCAC cannot be the primary means of delivery in an A2/AD environment. Additionally, the continued growth of Marine Corps equipment threatens even this platform’s mission capability.
In the last 30 years, every piece of Marine Corps equipment has increased in weight and size. The current families of tanks and trucks dwarf their predecessors. The Marine Corps plans to spend $5 billion on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), which will outweigh the current armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) by a factor of three. Engineering studies determined Navy amphibious and maritime prepositioned ships suffer changes to center-of-gravity stability and require reinforcement of vehicles decks due to greater weights. Greater square and cubic foot storage requirements mean large percentages of equipment sets for Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) and Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs) remain at home base, requiring time and additional lift assets to move the gear forward in the event of a contingency. The Marine Corps cannot refute former Secretary of Defense Gates’ remarks referring to the Marine Corps as a “second land army.”
Equipment weights undermined the operational capability of “vertical envelopment.” General Roy Geiger’s vision established large-scale, Marine-combat forces delivered by helicopter from ship-to-shore. By the 1980s, battalions of Marines could be delivered with all of their organic vehicles and firepower by helicopter, limited only by the range of the aircraft. The inability to lift the larger HMMWV internally in any helicopter caused this capability to disappear. The revolutionary range and speed of the MV-22 is similarly undermined by combat formations that it cannot carry internally. The Osprey can carry two dozen Marines from hundreds of miles offshore and avoid the greatest threats from an A2/AD environment. Once delivered, however, they lack any organic mobility, logistics, or heavy weapons. Despite the presence of a 21st century delivery means, Marines delivered to the ground are little better than parachute-delivered soldiers overrun by German mechanized units in 1944 at Arnhem.
To “Land the Landing Force” effectively the U.S. military should focus on three steps, all possible even in the fiscally restrained environment facing the Naval services. First, procure Air-Supported Vessel (ASV) landing craft to conduct STSM for ground forces. Effects Ships International, a Norwegian builder, has plans for an LCU replacement that will “scream” to the beach at 50 knots, fully loaded, from hundreds of miles offshore. The Russians already employ an LCU-equivalent ASV. The Dyugon carries two main battle tanks at 50 knots. Amphibious ships can carry smaller ASV craft in davits, as many European navies still do, increasing the combat power a ship can deliver simultaneously from well over the horizon. Singapore’s Navy LPD, Endurance, carries six landing craft in davits as well as two LCUs in the well deck. This kind of package would allow the delivery of an entire Marine rifle company from 100 miles off the coast in less time than AAVs require to land from 12 miles off the beach. Costs for small ASVs should approximate the cost of the Swedish CB-90, procured by the Navy for approximately $2 million per copy. To equip the entire Navy amphibious fleet with ASV landing craft, both davit-mounted and LCU replacements, would cost approximately $300 million, less than 20% of what is currently spent for a single amphibious ship. ASVs have drafts of less than two feet, opening hundreds of miles of shoreline presently inaccessible to LCUs.
Second, take advantage of the capabilities of the LCAC by having the Marine Corps build combat formations around the LAV-25 or similar mobile, armored combat vehicle instead of AAVs. Unlike the AAV, the LAV fought extensively in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The AAV was removed from combat due to concerns about vulnerability and survivability. The LAV continued to operate in large numbers, providing speed and protection to Marines in any environment. At 16 tons, a single LCAC can lift four LAV-25s simultaneously. Both large and small ASV designs could lift one or more LAVs at speeds equivalent to the LCAC from well OTH. The Marine Corps is preparing to spend $14 billion on replacements to the AAV and the HMMW that will move to shore at World War II speeds and prohibit vertical envelopment, continuing to undermine the Corps’ ability to conduct amphibious operations in an A2/AD environment. For less than $1 billion, the Corps could equip one-third of the Marine Corps with “off-the-shelf” LAV technology for the 21st century. These LAV combat formations, delivered by LCACs and ASV landing craft from OTH, could land on nearly any beach in the world. Once ashore, Marines would have sufficient firepower, protection and mobility to combat any threat or be equally effective in a noncombatant humanitarian assistance/disaster relief role.
Finally, the naval services must reestablish the “vertical envelopment” capability that disappeared decades ago. The remaining two-thirds of the Corps should be equipped with vehicles that can be transported internally by the MV-22. American businesses already offer these highly capable vehicles “off-the-shelf.” Procuring the 100 vehicles required to support a 900-Marine infantry battalion would cost approximately $20 million. A composite squadron of an MEU could deliver the entire battalion, with all of its vehicles, from 100 miles away in about eight hours. The ability to maneuver a force of this size, with organic vehicles and heavy weapons, to a position of advantage relative to the enemy from hundreds of miles away—the epitome of Maneuver Warfare and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver (STOM)—has not been possible for decades. The ASV landing craft could also deliver these formations to the beach from OTH. The smaller equipment size would transmogrify every Navy ship with davits and a flight deck into an amphibious platform. The total cost for re-equipping two-thirds of the Marine Corps in this manner would be approximately $300 million.
Despite the imperative nature for the United States military to maintain amphibious capability in order to be successful in the 21st Century, the primary means by which we execute the mission are stymied by anachronistic equipment and once effective concepts now undermined by ineffective equipment procurement programs. Fortunately, there are means available immediately to rectify this challenge, even in the fiscally constrained environment that faces the Department of Defense. The naval services need only shift to a high-speed, shallow-draft landing craft; reorient combat formations to LAVs, and take advantage of the revolutionary capability of the MV-22 to provide a 21st century amphibious force. These three steps together, would total only approximately $1.6 billion. The naval services can “Land the Landing Force” in the A2/AD environment of the 21st century for less than the cost of a single amphibious ship.
David C. Fuquea is a professor at the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership of the U.S. Naval War College. Fuquea retired from the United States Marine Corps in 2010 with over 29 years of active-duty service as an infantry officer. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.