war on the rocks

Put the Marines Back in Submarines

July 16, 2015

“Up from a sub sixty feet below, Hit the beach and I’m ready to go” is the opening line to a common physical training running cadence sung by marines for generations. For some 80 years, marines planned for and employed the techniques immortalized in the cadence to bring success to the Corps in the unique and demanding environment where surf crashes onto the shore. Marines, as the guardians of “amphibiousity” for our nation, embodied the motto of “any clime and place” by integrating submarines into amphibious operations by virtue of the unique access the platform offers regardless of maritime threats. Unfortunately, as the Marine Corps and our nation face major threats in the 21st century maritime environment, submarines have disappeared from the toolbox employed by the nation’s amphibious “experts.”

One would think that the strong history of the Marine Corps employing submarines to support amphibious operations, and the advocacy of multiple commandants to return to the amphibious roots of the Corps, would make marines in submarines a no brainer. But troublingly, no Marine Corps units are practicing or even considering the fundamentals of how marines and submarines can effectively integrate, denying themselves the most effective enabler there is for amphibious operations in an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) littoral environment.

Other parts of the U.S. military are not letting this opportunity go by. Special operations units are monopolizing the best amphibious operations submersible platform in history to great levels of accomplishment, and advancing tactics and equipment from submerged platforms, leaving the Marine Corps behind. As a result, various off-the-shelf technologies that could advance Marine Corps amphibious operations from anachronistic World War II capabilities languish without serious and sustained consideration.

The Marine Corps has a long history of employing submarines to support amphibious operations. Marines of 2d Raider Battalion, under Evans Carlson, embarked aboard the USS Argonaut in August 1942 to raid the Japanese-held island of Makin. The largest pre-nuclear age submarine built by the United States was able to billet over 100 marines due to conversions carried out at the Mare Island shipyard in the spring of 1942. The Argonaut avoided Japanese A2/AD capabilities in the form of the world’s most combat ready and proficient navy, and successfully delivered the marines deep into Japanese controlled waters without detection. Despite the less than impressive results of the operation (Carlson’s Raiders experienced a high rate of casualties for little gained in terms of tangible results), the event demonstrated conclusively the effectiveness of submarines as a platform for amphibious operations in the World War II equivalent of an A2/AD environment.

This critical capability continued through the Cold War and into the modern age. While fictional, the 1968 movie thriller “Ice Station Zebra” showed the utility of the Marine-submarine combination to carry out missions in the most harsh of maritime environments at the North Pole. Until 9/11, reconnaissance marines from both coasts maintained their proficiency by frequently embarking aboard submarines to practice delivery techniques onto potentially hostile shores. Tactics and techniques were closely honed to allow marines to exit submarines while submerged through a “lock out” chamber or trunk and swim to their landing beaches. A quicker alternative to get to the beach was for the submarine to surface and marines to move quickly on deck, inflate and assemble a “combat rubber raiding craft” (CRRC), to include an outboard engine, and have the submarine submerge below them. My discussions with former Force Reconnaissance Platoon Commander, and now FBI Special Agent, Christopher Peet confirmed that repetitive drills allowed Marine Force Reconnaissance teams to accomplish the entire evolution in two minutes or less.

These essential capabilities have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the Marine Corps. The last time any meaningful training took place between reconnaissance marines and submarines was before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senior reconnaissance unit leaders admit that marines from neither the East Coast nor the West Coast are doing any training with submarines and have not been for years. While there are still some marines on active duty who have experience with this training, to state the Corps is proficient at this mission essential task is a misnomer.

There have been opportunities to put marines back on subs, but they have been missed. The Navy and Marine Corps have recently reoriented back towards amphibious operations after the land-locked conflicts of the last 13 years. Gen. James Conway, during his tenure as commandant, advocated a “return to the amphibious roots of the Corps.” One manifestation of this advocacy was the return to large-scale training events on both the East and West Coasts. The “Bold Alligator” series of exercises on the East Coast began slowly in 2010 with staff-level discussions and culminated in 2012 with the largest peace-time exercise amphibious landings since Exercise Purple Star in 1996. In 2014, United States Navy and Marine forces, along with forces from several nations, executed a second large-scale Bold Alligator exercise off the coast of North Carolina. In 2011, I served as the lead planner within 2d Marine Expeditionary Force for Bold Alligator and recommended strongly that, given the A2/AD threat, a submarine be integrated into the exercise. My discussions with other planners involved with Bold Alligator 2014 indicated that a submarine was once again recommended for inclusion in the large-scale amphibious exercise. Yet, despite the notoriety and scale of these two exercises, not a single submarine was integrated into the amphibious planning for either. With these as the first large amphibious exercises since the late 1990s, and given the complicated nature of water-space management and amphibious operations, the Marine Corps has a generation of planners and senior leaders responsible for amphibious doctrine who have never even contemplated how submarines can execute ship-to-objective maneuver (STOM), ship-to-shore movement (STSM), and over-the-horizon (OTH) operations, and be employed as critical platforms to enable success in an A2/AD environment.

That the platform most capable of surviving the greatest threat facing Marine Corps amphibious operations in the 21st century is not being trained with or planned for means marines may die needlessly. The cornerstone document for how the Marine Corps will conduct modern amphibious operations, Expeditionary Force 21, is less than a year old. With “assuring littoral access” as “the main mission,” the document is rife with examples of the danger to mission accomplishment in the amphibious realm that Anti-Access/Area Denial poses. These A2/AD capabilities “threaten freedom of action at sea.” The document established that the Marine Corps must become proficient at using “alternative seabased platforms” and operating in smaller task-organized forces. The threat from widely proliferated A2/AD systems is so pervasive, Expeditionary Force 21 calls for amphibious forces to stand off from landing sites and objectives at least 65 nautical miles until threats are mitigated. Doctrine requires amphibious vehicles launch from at least 12 miles off shore, despite their anachronistically slow ship-to-shore movement speeds brought from World War II. Even the most modernized versions of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) still move to shore at the same speed of their predecessors from the assault on Tarawa in November 1943. The current planned replacement for the AAV will be a wheeled vehicle with even more limited capability to move autonomously from ship to shore. Unfortunately, submarines, the only platforms with the ability to stealthily penetrate the A2/AD screens to be faced, are not even mentioned as an “alternative platform” to be considered for this purpose within Expeditionary Force 21. This conceptual oversight must be addressed and remedied.

The introduction to the fleet of the “guided missile” class of submarines is the perfect tool for amphibious operations in the 21st century, yet is being ignored by the Marine Corps. In 1999, the U.S. Congress funded the conversion of four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines into guided missile submarines, or SSGNs. At 560 feet long and over 18,000 tons (submerged) in displacement, these “boats” are like their predecessor the Argonaut with far greater capability. The SSGNs have long-term billeting for 66 personnel and, with “hot-racking,” have managed 100 or more embarked personnel for short-term transits. Missile tubes that previously protected our nation through nuclear deterrence now hold a mixture of Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles (TLAMS) and gear for amphibious operations. Two of the former missile tubes have sprinkler systems to afford considerable space for ammunition storage. Remaining storage areas can hold up to 39 inflatable boats (CRRCs), enough for over 200 marines to move from ship-to-shore by this World War II-era conveyance. The SSGNs also have an operations center for embarked troops that rivals those aboard any of the amphibious ships currently at sea in any navy, giving an embarked commander the ability to command and control forces ashore effectively. “Through-deck” connectors allow access while submerged to two Dry-Deck Shelters (DDS) mounted to the exterior deck of the SSGN behind the “sail.”

The two shelters of an SSGN provide over 3000 cubic feet of dry storage for ship-to-shore movement systems for marines. The inflatable CRRC, the most prominent conveyance when marines last conducted submarine training, is an antiquated, anachronistic World War II system — not to mention highly vulnerable in a firefight ― and needs to be discarded. While not the vehicle deck of a landing platform dock, the purchase of current off-the-shelf technology can give marines legitimate over-the-horizon delivery capability at high speeds across water, and then transition to a land vehicle with equally impressive performance from the DDS. Mr. David March, who works through Fountain Valley Bodyworks based in Fountain Valley, California, designed and builds the fast amphibian known as the “Panther.” The Panther looks like a jeep but combines a V6 engine with a conventional water-jet to give highway-speeds on land and over 40 miles per hour on water. On a single tank of fuel, builders of the Panther have documented ranges of 60 or more miles on water, followed by equal ranges on shore. A second off-the-shelf platform for use ― equally innovative and viable ― is the Gibbs Quadski. This vehicle resembles a standard 4-wheeled all-terrain vehicle (ATV). The Quadski, however, can transition from land to water mode in approximately five seconds. Capable of 45 miles per hour on land and water, the Quadski is designed for one passenger but can accommodate two and sells for approximately $40,000. Marines launching from an SSGN with these types of vehicles would have speed and range to get to the shore from OTH, mobility once they arrive, and fire power inherent in being able to carry crew-served weapons on a vehicle. Employing the critical technique of “maneuver warfare” and landing where the enemy is not, small-mobile-fast Marine units with substantial firepower would have legitimate combat capability to a scale and scope exceeding the size of the unit by an order of magnitude. Additionally, the ability to drive out of a DDS directly into the water equates to much greater safety for the submarine, as compared to marines toiling on the deck inflating CRRCs while the sub waits to submerge again. The DDS would provide space for at least two, perhaps four, “Panthers,” allowing the insertion of up to 16 marines simultaneously. Unfortunately, this type of innovative thinking is not being considered in the operational Marine Corps.

Yet, special operations forces (SOF) are taking full advantage of the SSGNs and monopolizing these platforms. The SSGNs are making routine deployments with contingents of SOF embarked. These forces have taken the lead for any development of “amphibious doctrine, tactics, techniques, and equipment” in order to advance operational capabilities in the face of 21st-century A2/AD threats. New procedures for the employment of drones while submerged have enabled SSGNs to see operations ashore from safety in an access-challenged operational area. SEALs, based upon operational employment, have modified the SEAL delivery vehicle and developed the Shallow Water Combat Submersible (SWCS) in efforts to be more viable in the A2/AD environment of the 21st century. In the same environment, the Marine Corps is figuratively and literally absent. In a recent interview with the former captain of one of the SSGNs, he relayed that in his two and a half years in command, he had worked with a plethora of SOF personnel but never seen a marine aboard his ship. No doubt SOF has a definite role to play in utilizing these platforms, but the Marine Corps has responsibility to develop the full range of amphibious capabilities from this versatile maritime domain platform. The Marine Corps’ responsibility for developing amphibious equipment is being abdicated, and its ability to employ submarines to enable amphibious operations in the 21st century erased.

The ability to conduct amphibious operations in the 21st century is critical to the success of the United States defense strategy. The greatest threat to operations is the proliferation of missile systems that give great credence to the term Anti-Access/Area Denial and force the Marine Corps farther and farther off shore. The Marine Corps must return to the innovative attitudes of the 1920s and ‘30s that enabled the Corps to triumph in the face of a truly daunting A2/AD environment emplaced and continually refined by the Japanese forces in the Pacific during World War II. This means marines must force their way back aboard submarines as a critical enabler for the successful execution of amphibious operations. Senior leaders of the Marine Corps must “leap forward” to the past and resuscitate concepts and skills that went dormant during years of hard campaigning elsewhere by the Corps, and get submarines back into the training regimes of marines ― both individual marines for recurrent training and operational planners in our amphibious exercises. Marines must reclaim the mantle of responsibility for all aspects of developing amphibious doctrine, tactics, techniques and equipment. The spirit of Higgins and his landing craft and Roebling and his “alligator” of World War II must be reinvigorated by synergistically investigating and integrating off-the-shelf technology that will enable marines to be successful in the modern day A2/AD environment ― and once reclaimed, guarded jealously. In this day of sequestration and budget battles, perhaps there should be no greater advocate for more submarines than the commandant of the Marine Corps and the marines he must get back aboard those very platforms.


Professor David Fuquea teaches within the College of Operational and Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He served nearly 30 years on active duty as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a number of other contingencies around the world.