war on the rocks

Why the Navy Needs a Fighting Connector: Distributed Maritime Operations and the Modern Littoral Environment

November 10, 2017

When a “proxy” hybrid force overthrew the local government, the security situation quickly deteriorated. The Marine advisors on the ground withdrew to the back to the amphibious assault ships, but due to the threat of shore-based missiles the amphibious assault ships had to stay too far offshore to be able to launch amphibious combat vehicles and the Navy’s hovercraft.    

The deployed units were then combined into a single Littoral Combat Group. The amphibious assault ships were supplemented by new small combatant craft, able to embark combinations of Marines, unmanned systems, and weapon systems. The naval task force was initially tasked to secure an Expeditionary Advanced Base on a nearby island.

The initial assault to secure the island was conducted by a rifle company, inserted from over the horizon via small boats and fighting connectors and toward multiple small landing sites.

Once ashore, the company rapidly penetrated rugged terrain to positions close to the objective area. More troops in electric all-terrain vehicles deployed from fighting connectors moved quietly to observe and support the infantry maneuver. Fire support and armed, swarming drones launched from loitering fighting connecters suppressed enemy positions. The rifle company secured the objective by midmorning.

As additional forces arrived, the advance base supported a more deliberate assault of the mainland.  Unmanned systems paved the way by conducting beach and deep reconnaissance, enabling the Marine Air Ground Task Force to select multiple landing sites for air and surface insertions.

The task force then launched a series of raids and strikes against the shore-based missile sites themselves, eliminating the threat to large surface combatants and allowing the amphibious assault ships to move into the coastal waters. By the time the Joint Task Force was formed and ready to take control of operations in the region, the Navy and Marine Corps had secured an offshore base, a lodgment ashore, and the coastal waters surrounding them, allowing the larger joint effort to focus on future operations.

The above vignette describes how the Marine Corps envisions future littoral operations. In the 21st century, American naval forces will have to contend with a number of new and different threats. Large ships are especially vulnerable to precision-guided munitions, long-range bombers, and submarines. Modern surveillance technology makes it easier for enemy missiles, aircraft, and submarines to find their targets. Maritime operations, especially in coastal regions, will thus be contested and dangerous, compelling American forces to operate in an increasingly dispersed fashion. The modern operating environment raises the question of whether the Navy and the Marine Corps are properly equipped to protect and project force.

The Navy is already addressing this reality through its effort to distribute lethality across the fleet by enhancing the offensive capabilities of existing platforms. But naval platforms themselves will have to be distributed as well, especially in littoral waters. We view distributed maritime operations as the ability to distribute both lethality and platforms throughout an area of operations while retaining the ability to concentrate the effects of weapon systems and maneuver forces. To support each other over the course of a naval campaign, the Navy-Marine Corps team will have to control coastal waters. This requires both services to work in concert — fighting at sea and ashore simultaneously.

As the Navy looks to the future of distributed maritime operations, while also seeking to expand, it should consider developing a fighting connector vessel, a small ship designed to operate within and despite the threat of shore-based weapon systems focused on larger naval vessels. A fighting connector will expand the Navy’s ability to control coastal regions, allowing it to distribute platforms in an increasingly contested environment.

The Ghosts of Amphibious Operations Past

The Navy and Marine Corps of World War II had to solve a central problem: how to protect the landing and storm the beach.  In other words, they had to figure out how to get troops from ships to the beach while under fire from modern machine guns and indirect fire artillery while simultaneously isolating the landing areas from enemy air and naval forces.  They initially did so by concentrating combat power just offshore and designing armored ship-to-shore connectors. Iwo Jima exemplified the method. By that time, it was so effective that Japanese forces declined to contest the beach itself, depending instead on a defense-in-depth that led to massive casualties. They could not, however, stop the actual landing.

The conventional understanding of an amphibious operation continues to erroneously envision troops wading across open beaches. In truth, a direct assault from the sea against a prepared defense has not been the preferred method for many decades. Such concentrated efforts that depend on sheer mass to overcome shore defenses, are no longer viable. Rather, Marine forces seek to bypass enemy positions and land where the enemy is not prepared to defend. By the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, amphibious landings featured more feints and demonstrations, used nearby islands to support the main assaults, and used a family of versatile ship-to-shore systems that provided fire support and logistics as well as troop transport. In the 21st century, the four other types of amphibious operations — raids, demonstrations, withdrawals, and amphibious support to other operations — will be far more common.

The Modern Littoral Environment

Modern Navy ships are highly capable, but the shift from Iwo Jima to Okinawa to the present day shows how threats have magnified in recent decades. This evolution was occasioned by the five drivers of change, outlined in the Marine Corps Operating Concept . First, the terrain in which tactical actions occur is more complex and crowded. Second, technology proliferation has given state and non-state adversaries more access to advanced weapon systems, such as precision guided munitions, especially anti-ship missiles. Third, information warfare is now a pervasive aspect of military operations in both war and peace. Fourth, the maturation of electronic warfare capabilities means adversaries can more easily locate and identify any military asset, ships included. Lastly, the maritime domain in which Navy and Marine Corps forces must operate is increasingly fraught with state and non-state adversaries.

Future naval missions will increasingly resemble so-called “gray zone” conflicts and those that Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis has described as maritime hybrid warfare, rather than the massive naval conflicts of World War II. However, the trends identified above will hold true for more conventional naval warfare as well. The proliferation of precision-guided munitions especially means that any concentration of American combat power — whether on land or at sea — is a high-payoff target for adversaries and a critical vulnerability for the U.S. military. Anchoring amphibious assault ships just offshore to support force projection inland will only be possible after significant attrition of shore-based threats. There will be no clear division of labor in coastal operations where the Navy fights for sea control and Marine forces exploit that control. The Marine Corps will have to fight to ensure access for the Navy in order to protect and project force ashore. To do so, Marines will have to fight from a wider variety of Navy platforms, not just from amphibious warships.

The modern character of maritime operations is already evident in any Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment. Increasingly, Marine units afloat are conducting simultaneous missions thousands of nautical miles away from their closest friendly unit, often on different continents and supporting different Combatant Commands, including Special Operations Command. These deployments are not an aberration; they are the new normal based on the trends identified above, as well as the Navy’s  insufficient capacity in relation to Combatant Commander needs. However, the amphibious ready group can only support so much dispersion given that it is neither designed nor equipped to do so. Tactical factors and enemy threat systems will only exacerbate the problem.

Both the Navy and the Marine Corps will need to deploy many, dispersed small units, and that requires small vessels in enough numbers to do so. The Navy does not currently have a ship able to fill a wide variety of smaller but no less vital maritime tasks. The maritime services also need a platform that can embark troops and supplies while depending on speed and its smaller size to avoid detection by adversary forces. The required vessel will allow maritime forces to disperse geographically to distribute the increased risk of maritime operations, allowing the task force as a whole to remain mission even after some platforms are destroyed. Lastly, such a vessel should be designed with low cost in mind to allow the acquisition of numerous hulls.

The Fighting Connector

The required vessel is a fighting connector. The connector would use sea lines of communication to fill the gap between amphibious assault ships, sea-based assets, and Expeditionary Advance Bases (EABs) until shore-based threats are reduced. The size of the fighting connector would be in the range of sloop or small corvette class ships, displacing roughly 500 to 2,000 tons — a step or two smaller than the littoral combat ship. Many such ships are already available and could accomplish a range of missions. Four major mission sets are proposed here:

Embark Marines

The first mission set is an expeditionary one. A small combatant could embark a Marine unit of roughly platoon size and carry small boats or other connectors. This variant would enable more distributed maneuvers such as small-scale landings and raids, especially to destroy shore-based anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and anti-air defense systems and conduct reconnaissance. It would also perform maritime security tasks such as patrolling, boarding, and anti-piracy missions, Freedom of Navigation Operations, and fleet defense. As adversaries increasingly seek to mask their vessels as civilian or coast guard vessels to avoid detection, these missions will be critical. Some connectors can be used to float Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicles from amphibious ships outside the range of shore-based threats close enough to shore to allow the vehicles to launch under their own power. Lastly, this would expand the Navy and Marine Corps’ capabilities to support special operations units, providing afloat staging platforms, expanding insertion and extraction options, and allowing for a quick reaction force not dependent on aviation or host nation support ashore.

Embark Unmanned Systems

A second mission would be an unmanned system platform that would embark a suite of unmanned systems and operators. (The vessel itself would require a crew but would act as a “mothership” for the unmanned systems.) Currently, the only at-sea platforms that can store and deploy unmanned systems are aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and cruisers/destroyers. Not only must these large combatants stay out of the range of shore-based weapons, but using them as platforms for unmanned systems is also overkill. A small combatant craft would offer a more appropriate platform for the multitude of unmanned systems now in development to reconnoiter landing sites or reduced enemy fortifications ahead of troops.

Embark Weapon Systems

A third mission set is simply to embark a variety of weapon systems. A small combatant would offer the Navy more options in its effort to distribute offensive capability by providing more, and less detectable, platforms for a variety of existing weapon systems.

Embark Supplies

Operating in a dispersed fashion can only be accomplished if the units can be supplied.  The vessel could perform logistics and sustainment missions transporting fuel in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 gallons as well as other supplies. Such a logistics vessel could also provide on-the-spot refueling and rearming at sea, extending the range of other vessels of its class.

This proposition is not as bold as it may seem. The Navy is already examining small surface combatants as part of its Future Surface Combatant program. The Navy does operate a number of small vessels, such as the Expeditionary Fast Transport and CB90 Fast Assault Craft. But both of these vessels are of limited utility. By replacing them with a more flexible hull designed to embark current capabilities, the Navy can increase its overall utility without pulling investment from larger vessels. As the Navy seeks to enhance its offensive capabilities through distributed lethality, fighting connectors would enable the Marine Corps to enhance the mobility and survivability of their forces through distributed maneuver. This would not only begin to balance the existing fleet with small combatants but also increase opportunities for naval security cooperation. Since many of our allies and partners do not have large navies, a fighting connector would enable more engagements with partnered navies and coast guard units that employ much smaller vessels than the U.S. Navy does.

Conclusion

Successive commandants of the Marine Corps have called for a return to the naval character of the service , such as through Expeditionary Force 21 and the Marine Corps Operating Concept. Acquiring a fighting connector would expand the utility of Marines at sea and thus allow the service to better fulfill its task as part of the Navy/Marine Corps team. Distributed maritime operations is the method by which the Navy and Marine Corps can succeed at amphibious and coastal operations in the modern operating environment.

There has been no revolution in naval warfare. The changes evident in the maritime operating environment are the results of decades-long trends. Even so, steady evolution can be just as dangerous as sudden revolution if it remains unaddressed. As the Navy seeks to expand, it would do well to consider a vessel designed to be flexible and utilitarian in the modern maritime environment to restore the service’s competitive advantage in littoral regions.

 

Colonel Douglas King (USMC, Ret.) is the Director of The Ellis Group and Major Brett Friedman (USMCR) is a Plans Officer at The Ellis Group. The Ellis Group, part of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Virginia, is tasked with examining the future of amphibious and maritime operations through analysis, wargames, exercises, and experiments.  

Image: U.S. Marines/Jose A. Mendez Jr.