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Why Military Sealift Command Needs Merchant Mariners at the Helm

By Dr. Salvatore R. Mercogliano

COVID and the Straining Merchant Marine

On July 29, 2020, the heads of three maritime unions – Marshall Ainley of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, Don Marcus from the International Organization of Masters, Mate & Pilots, and Michael Sacco, the long-time President of Seafarers International Union – jointly penned a letter to Rear Admiral Michael A. Wettlaufer, the Commander of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. In their one-page letter, they were blunt and to the point: “We are writing to you today to communicate our ongoing and increasingly grave concerns regarding the mental health and well-being of MSC’s CIVMARS [civilian mariners].”

The letter sent to the commander of Military Sealift Command by the three union heads (Click to expand)

They highlighted three specific issue. First, the March 21, 2020 “Gangway Up” order that restricted merchant mariners to their ships due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the act was prudent and ensured the readiness of the vessels to respond to missions, it was done with no warning and more importantly, did not apply to naval personnel assigned to the vessels or contractors. Therefore, the quarantine intended to be in place on board ship was broken daily, while crewmembers who reported on board for work that morning found themselves trapped and threatened with termination if they left the vessel, while others moved freely on and off the ship. This became apparent with a breakout on board USNS Leroy Grumman undergoing a yard availability in Boston.

The second issue involved the recent tragedy on board USNS Amelia Earhart. On July 22, third officer Jonathon J. Morris of San Mateo, CA fatally shot himself on board. The letter from the three union heads noted, “the ongoing and selective ‘Gangways Up’ restriction may have, in some part, contributed to the unnecessary and senseless act.”’ While there is no evidence to indicate this, my personal communications with crewmembers on board Amelia Earhart indicate that the event has not triggered any change in the operation of the vessel. While counselors were sent to the ship, its operations continue with no safety stand down, and not even a chaplain accompanied the vessel as it sailed to perform services for the fleet with some of the mariners not setting foot on ground for almost a half a year, except to remove the body of their shipmate. Mariners remained restricted to the ship in port, while active duty Navy personnel left the vessel.

The final issue is the delay in reliefs for crews, up to 90 days late in some cases. Many mariners have not been home since the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States or were permitted ashore in that time period. MSC’s leave policy for its mariners is well outside the norms of common maritime industry practice because mariners hired directly by MSC must conform to government employment rules, even though they operate in an environment completely different than the normal federal employee. Mariners earn a set number of hours of leave every two weeks.  The only addition is 14 days of annual shore leave. For new employees to MSC, this means 10 months onboard ship (tours are usually limited to four months, but delays are typical) and only two on land in a year.

While shore-side government workers enjoy flex work schedules, weekends at home, get holidays off, enjoy the occasional snow day, and can schedule vacations well in advance, MSC mariners are toiling at least eight hours a day, seven days a week for a minimum of four months at a time when wages are comparable to those ashore. They miss weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, events with children, and now they face prolonged wait for relief. Unlike Navy sailors, MSC mariners do not rotate to shore billets or have many of the opportunities for education and training afforded to naval personnel. Even worse, those waiting to get out to ships have used all their leave and are now ashore, considered absent without leave, and not being paid as they await a call to report back to work for a potential assignment out to the fleet.

This is the situation facing 5,383 MSC mariners who crew 20 percent of the 301 ships in the U.S. Navy.  Let that number sink in for a moment: one out of every five ships in the battle force of the U.S. Navy is crewed by merchant mariners and not U.S. Navy sailors. All 29 of the auxiliary supply ships, the dozen fast transport ships, and the fleet tugs and salvage ships are all operated and commanded by merchant mariners. Some ships, such as the submarine tenders, command ships, and expeditionary support bases, while commanded by a naval officer, have merchant mariners who operate the deck, engine, and steward departments on board. This does not include the fleet of contract operated vessels in the afloat prepositioning force, sonar surveillance, ocean survey or sealift vessels with another 1,400 contract merchant mariners.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Sept. 17, 2015) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82), right, receives fuel from the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE 6) during an underway replenishment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Corey T. Jones/Released)

Yet these recent issues facing the Merchant Marine are not simply the product of COVID or other recent events. They are simply yet another expression of the longstanding problems of status the Merchant Marine has faced within the U.S. Navy.

Inequality in the Merchant Marine

Throughout the U.S. Navy, specialized communities are commanded by one of their own – submariners command submarines, aviators command squadrons and carriers, SEALs command special operations, and so forth. Yet, when it comes to merchant mariners, they fall under the command of serving U.S. naval officers with little to no experience with merchant mariners.

Recently, MSC had two commanders – Mark Buzby and T. K. Shannon who graduated from merchant marine academies and were at least familiar with the U.S. merchant marine. The last two MSC commanders – Dee Mewbourne and Michael Wettlaufer – are both aviators. In the past, non-surface warfare commanders have done exceedingly well, particularly two submariners – Glynn Donaho and Lawson Ramage. They oversaw MSC’s forerunner – Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) – during the Vietnam era, when the service handled mainly passengers, cargo, and fuel and they were experts in disrupting those services due to their experience with sinking the Japanese merchant marine in the Second World War.

Today, MSC is integrated into the fleet structure and many of its previous sealift missions are shared with the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and the United States Transportation Command. With the end of naval manning of auxiliaries in 2010, all of them are operated by MSC mariners, with some hybrid crews. No longer do MSC tankers and supply ships shuttle up to U.S. Navy auxiliaries attached to battle groups, but mariner-crewed oilers and combat supply ships are both shuttle and station ships for the U.S. Navy. Yet these ships lack two critical assets from their grey hull counterparts.

First, they have no means of defense at all. MSC ships, except for small arms, are completely unarmed. Ships that are intended to provide the fuel, ammunition, and vital supplies to keep an entire carrier strike group or Marine amphibious assault task force at sea lack even point-defense weapons. In the world wars, the U.S. Navy assigned armed guard detachments to merchant vessels to defend the ships. While Kaiser-class oilers have the mounts for close-in weapons systems (CIWS), they lack the weapons. If an enemy nation wanted to eliminate the threat of the U.S. Navy, why would it go head-to-head with a Nimitz-class carrier when all it could to do is wait, shadow, and sink unarmed supply ships and then wait for the task force to run out of gas?

Additionally, those mariners who now find themselves not dead or killed in the initial attack, but afloat in a life raft, face another challenge – what is their status? Not whether they are dead or alive, but are they considered veterans? They face on a common day the same challenges and threats as that of U.S. Navy sailors, but they are not considered veterans. Even those mariners that experienced the Second World War had to wait over 40 years, until 1988, to get their service acknowledged as veteran through a lawsuit.

Some argue that merchant mariners are contractors and therefore do not deserve this. But how many contractors command assets in the Unified Command Structure of the military? No contractor commands a squadron in the Air Force, or a battalion in the Army or Marines, yet one-fifth of the Navy’s ships have a merchant mariner in command. The Navy gets all the benefits of a sailor without giving the mariner those same benefits. That is a deal, but for the Navy.

PHILIIPPINE SEA (May 8, 2020) – Civilian mariners assigned to the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE 7) attach supplies to Carl Brashear’s AS-332 Super Puma helicopter during a replenishment-at-sea with the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (U.S. Navy photo by Ordinary Seaman DJ Hinahon)

Some say the easiest solution is to replace mariners on the 60-plus ships with U.S. Navy sailors, but it has been tried before. This unique arrangement came into being at the founding of the Navy. The first ships brought into the Navy were merchant ships along the dock in Philadelphia. The two founding fathers of the Navy – John Paul Jones and John Barry – learned their trade as master mariners. In the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, private men of war (privateers) vastly outnumbered public men of war. In the Civil War, mariners kept the Union army supplied along the coasts and rivers. At the end of the Spanish-American War, with a global empire, the Navy needed to prioritize its personnel and decided to hire a civilian crew to man USS Alexander, a collier. By 1917, almost all the Navy fuel ships were civilian manned by elements of the Naval Auxiliary Service. With the outbreak of war, and concerns of foreign elements in some of the crews, and a massive increase in the size of the Navy personnel, the crews of the NAS were militarized, and later the commercial passenger ships in the Transport Force. The Navy resisted civilian crewing, and in 1942 President Roosevelt placed the building, crewing, and operating of the commercial merchant marine in the hands of one person – Emory S. Land.

After the successes of the Second World War, the use of civilian-crewed merchant ships was cemented with the creation of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). It was expanded in 1972 when the first underway replenishment oiler, Taluga, was transferred to civilian control. While some in the Navy may advocate for removing the civilian crews from the MSC ships today, the Navy already lacks the necessary personnel for its current assets, let alone an additional 60 ships, or the expertise in handling such assets.

Creating Paths to Command

This comes to the final point – how to address the issues raised by the heads of the unions based on the current situation facing the Military Sealift Command. The solution comes from the history of MSC’s forerunner, MSTS, and its counterpart across the seas, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) of Great Britain. Within MSC’s command structure are five Senior Executives – Legal Counsel, Director of Total Force Management, Director of Ship Management, Director of Maritime Operations, and Executive Director. They are all stellar and outstanding qualified people, and MSC is fortunate to have them. I know many of them and have worked with some of them in the past. They have impressive biographies and two of them graduated from merchant marine academies.

Yet nowhere in the chain of command for MSC is a Master or Chief Engineer from the fleet. They serve as Port Captains and Engineers and advise area commands, but there is no career path from the deckplate to the headquarters. That is a fundamental flaw in the organization and leads to the disconnect currently besetting the fleet.

In comparison, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is commanded by Commodore Duncan Lamb. He has been in the RFA for 38 years and commanded many vessels in the fleet. His announced successor, Capt. David Eagles, has served with the RFA for more than 30 years. Unlike MSC, the RFA integrates their personnel into the command structure of the Royal Navy and therefore they have the opportunity for billets ashore and work within the shore base Navy.

What works for the Royal Navy may not work for the U.S. Navy, such as how Prince Edward* is the Commodore-in-Chief of the RFA, and they are much more regimented than MSC. However, they do have Royal Navy detachments on board for self-defense. The Royal Navy has a better understanding of how RFA ships work as demonstrated by their integration into the fleet during the Falklands Conflict of 1982.

A model where MSC mariners, starting at the junior level – 2nd Mate or Engineer – have the option for a career path that would involve assignment ashore to MSC area commands and fleets may better inform naval personnel of the particular needs of merchant mariners. Additionally, the appointment of senior master or chief engineer as vice commander at both the area command and headquarters level could ease the transition of new commanders who have little to no experience with MSC and provide a conduit and perspective from the fleet to the headquarters.

PHILIPPINE SEA (June 12, 2020) – The Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Alan Shepard (T-AKE 3), right, and the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) steam together during a replenishment-at-sea as an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the “Flying Carabao” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 25 Det. 3 flies overhead. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Gabe Pogliano)

It is very doubtful that the Navy would allow any of its commands to be structured in a similar way. A small group of naval officers – 323 active Navy sailors – oversees MSC from its headquarters in Norfolk, to the five area commands and in dozens of offices around the world. This disconnect, with officers and civilians who have never served or commanded vessels with merchant marine crews or any of the types operated by MSC, explains why the issues raised by the union heads pervade the fleet. It appears that the role of merchant mariners in the role of national defense is reaching an inflection point.


Merchant mariners crew the fleet auxiliaries providing fuel, ammunition, and supplies to the U.S. Navy at sea. They operate the afloat prepositioning ships that would deploy the initial elements of Marine and Army brigades, along with materiel to a potential battlefield. They crew the 61 ships maintained by the Maritime Administration in the Ready Reserve Force and MSC’s sealift force, and they crew the 60 commercial ships of the Maritime Security Program. They are foundational to the nation’s ability to maintain, deploy, and sustain its armed forces abroad, and they cannot be easily replaced by naval personnel.

Yet despite this vital role, they lack representation within the command structure of the U.S. Navy. They are taken for granted by the Department of Defense and the public in general. They are overlooked in most strategic studies of American military policy and posture. And yet it is not clear whether in a future war the nation will be able to count on the U.S. merchant marine as it has in past conflicts.

This issue is not one caused by Admiral Wettlaufer, or any of the previous MSC commanders. It is a problem that has manifested itself as the command evolved from a primarily transport force of cargo, troops, and fuel, to one that is firmly integrated into the fleet structure in terms of ships. But the same cannot be said of its personnel.

MSC has undergone periodic transformations, alterations, and inflection points, and COVID-19 may be one of those moments. A group of former commanders, retired masters and chief engineers, and experts in the field should be formed to examine how to restructure MSC and present recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary and past civilian shipping entities can serve as models for how Military Sealift Command can proceed into its 72nd year of existence, and ease the issues facing the fleet and mariners today.

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is a former merchant mariner, having sailed and worked ashore for the Military Sealift Command. He is an associate professor of history at Campbell University and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He has written on U.S. Merchant Marine history and policy, including his book, Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War, and won 2nd Place in the 2019 Chief of Naval Operations History Essay Contest with his submission, “Suppose There Was a War and the Merchant Marine Did Not Come?”

*Editor’s Note: Prince Andrew was originally listed as being the Commodore-in-Chief of the RFA when it is Prince Edward.

Featured Image: SEA OF JAPAN (Nov. 16, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts an underway-replenishment with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) Dry Cargo and Ammunition Ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)

Marines and Mercenaries: Beware the Irregular Threat in the Littoral

By Walker D. Mills

The world is increasingly urban and littoral. This convergence between urbanization and the littoral, or littoralization, can lead to “the worst of both worlds” and may remake the littorals into hotspots of instability and conflict. At the same time, the U.S. Marine Corps is shifting its focus away from decades of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare in the Middle East. In 2017, the Marine Corps published a new operating concept focused on the littorals called Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE). LOCE emphasized “fighting for and gaining sea control, to include employing sea-based and land-based Marine Corps capabilities to support the sea control fight,” but at the same time cautioned that “major combat operations (MCO) and campaigns versus peer competitors are beyond the scope of this concept.” A more recent and still not publicly released operating concept, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), expanded on LOCE to cover major combat operations and campaigns against a peer competitor – most likely China.

EABO and a growing focus on great power competition promises to be the future of the Marine Corps and is the basis for the new Commandant’s Force Design 2030 effort. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has asserted that the Corps is “the preeminent littoral warfare and expeditionary warfare service.” And littorals are unquestioningly where the Marine Corps is most needed and can be the most effective. But this pivot to the littoral does not necessarily mean the Marine Corps can leave irregular warfare and lower-intensity conflicts behind. History and current trends make clear the global littorals are a haven of irregular warfare, and always have been for millennia.

In a recent interview the Marine Commandant expressed his view that a force optimized for major combat operations against a highly capable adversary can easily adapt to operate effectively across the range of military operations:

“We’re building a force that, in terms of capability, is matched up against a high-end capability. The premise is that if you do that, if you build that kind of a force, then you can use that force anywhere in the world, in any scenario; you can adapt it.”

He cautioned, “But the inverse is not true.” The Commandant is correct, a well-trained and highly capable force can adapt to new threats. But the question is how long does that take? The U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that adapting to a low-end fight can take years, including changes to strategy, acquiring the right equipment, and writing and training to the relevant doctrine. Clearly the Marine Corps needs to prioritize and adapt to meet the challenges posed by China, a highly capable competitor and potential adversary. However, as the Marine Corps looks beyond the irregular threats of the Middle East, it cannot afford to abandon those hard-won lessons. Irregular warfare and asymmetric threats can and likely will follow the Marine Corps to the littorals. In many cases, they are already there.

Irregular Warfare in the Littorals

The threat of non-state actors and irregular warfare in the littorals is not new. Even the rebellious 13 American colonies leveraged maritime irregular warfare to support their bid for independence, employing a mix of littoral raiding forces and state-sponsored privateers to target British shipping at sea and in their home waters. Criminal and entrepreneurial activity has deep roots at sea with a long history of pirates taking vessels and raiding lucrative targets ashore. This type of amphibious raiding has taken place in nearly every global littoral region at some time or other. Some of the earliest recorded history is accounts of “the Sea Peoples” attacking the Egyptian kingdom of Ramesses II in the Bronze Age. In 793 AD, Vikings from Scandinavia raided the monastery at Lindisfarne, kicking off the Viking Age. Piracy was rampant in the colonial Caribbean, both by pirates operating independently and by privateers, which were pirates operating as proxies with the official sanction of European kingdoms to raid vessels and settlements.

Today pirates continue to operate. They concentrate their operations in the littorals and near international chokepoints such as the Gulf of Guinea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, often taking advantage of the seams between different law enforcement regimes ashore and offshore. Pirates operating from bases in Somalia became famous after they hijacked the Maersk Alabama, and where the subsequent rescue operation by the U.S. Navy SEALs was made into the blockbuster Captain Phillips.

But pirates are now more prevalent elsewhere, especially in the Asian littoral. A plurality of total piracy now occurs in the Straits of Malacca and near Singapore. The Bay of Bengal is another piracy hotspot. The threat of piracy has also fueled the rise of a dark economy of mercenaries for hire that live and work in the littorals on commercial ships and floating armories, a potential spark for even more instability.

Effective counterpiracy efforts require a naval force supplemented with the capability to conduct visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations as well as operations against pirate bases ashore. It requires a force comfortable operating on land, at sea, and in the spaces in between. It is exactly the type of operations that Marines need to be prepared for as they shift their focus to the littorals.


Mines have long been a critical weapon in irregular warfare, whether military-grade or improvised. Sea mines especially when deployed in maritime straits or chokepoints – are highly effective weapons and are inexpensive. During the Korean War, mines were deployed to block the approach to Wonsan Harbor by rolling them off the back of local fishing boats. Despite this crude method of employment, they were effective in sinking multiple U.S. warships. Sea mines have also notably accounted for 14 of the 18 U.S. warships damaged or sunk by hostile action since the end of the Second World War and “over the last 125 years mines have damaged or sunk more ships than all other weapon systems combined.” They were responsible for damaging three U.S. warships during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf despite American awareness of the mine threat.

Last year, a spate of limpet mine attacks proved that mines are not just weapons of the past. Video footage indicates these attacks were perpetrated by Iran, which has not admitted responsibility. In South America, authorities have found hidden packages of drugs attached to cargo ships or hidden in secret underwater compartments, indicating that the expertise needed to place a limpet mine is not limited to the Persian Gulf.

An image taken from video released by United States Central Command  in June 2019 shows a smaller boat near what appears to be the vessel Kokuka Courageous, in the Gulf of Oman. The military said the video shows the crew of an Iranian Gashti Class patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the tanker’s hull. (Photo Via U.S. Central Command)

Sea mines are yet another threat to the security of U.S. and allied vessels in the littorals that the Marine Corps may find itself dealing with. In his 2019 Planning Guidance, the Commandant of the Marine Corps mused whether or not it would be “prudent to absorb” some traditionally naval functions like mine countermeasures. It is even easier to imagine Marines being charged with raiding networks engaged in the manufacture and employment of sea mines, much like how they operated against insurgent bombmakers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Improvised Explosive Attacks

Improvised anti-ship weapons are also a threat to U.S. and allied naval vessels and merchant shipping. In the 1990s, the Tamil Sea Tigers, the naval arm of an insurgent group in Sri Lanka, made a staple out of vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks at sea. They attacked dozens of international vessels in the waters around Sri Lanka with a range of tactics. Not even warships are immune to this type of attack. In 2000, Al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in a suicide attack with a speedboat packed with explosives, killing 17 sailors. Captain Wayne Hughes (ret.) had also argued that ships in port are increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Ships and maritime infrastructure itself can even be repurposed as a weapon. While there is no evidence that the recent explosion in Beirut was intentional, it revealed a critical vulnerability in port security. In his 2006 novel, The Afghan, Frederick Forsyth imagined a crew of terrorists seizing a liquid natural gas (LNG) tanker to use as a massive suicide bomb. Used in such a way, a hijacked LNG tanker would have explosive power similar to a small nuclear warhead. But an oil tanker or even a stationary drilling platform could still unleash an environmental and economic catastrophe if it was damaged or sunk. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill released nearly 11 million barrels of oil and ultimately affected over a thousand miles of coastline. The disaster cost Exxon nearly $7 billion. Recent reports of dozens of full and stationary oil tankers anchored off the U.S. coast present a significant economic and environmental vulnerability to any group willing to take advantage of it. Today, a crippled tanker full of crude rides at anchor off the coast of rebel-controlled Yemen where it is a potential target and ecological disaster waiting to happen.

Marines have already helped to protect U.S. warships from VBIEDs by strapping light-armored vehicles with 25 millimeter cannons to the deck of the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship. This innovative yet extremely inefficient point defense solution may foreshadow how Marines may be forced to apply high-end capabilities like light armored reconnaissance assets to address irregular maritime threats. Marines may soon find themselves required to habitually defend fixed installations and ships at sea against attack with makeshift solutions.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Sept. 27, 2018) – Marines, assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), fire a Light Armored Vehicle’s M242 Bushmaster 25 mm chain gun at a target during a Defense of the Amphibious Task Force (DATF) drill aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Galbreath)

Maritime Infiltration

The perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed or injured several hundred people arrived by sea. The attackers traveled from Pakistan to Mumbai via container ship and a hijacked fishing trawler before infiltrating Mumbai on inflatable boats. The attackers demonstrated that the littoral zone could be used as a maneuver space to reach vulnerable targets

Semi-submersible vessels, often dubbed “narco submarines,”  have become a key means of transporting cocaine out of South America for drug cartels and pose a persistent problem for drug enforcement agencies. Most of the narcosubs leave from the Pacific coast of Colombia or Ecuador and are bound for Mexico, where their cargoes will often be transshipped to the U.S. overland. These vessels are often built deep in the jungle and once at sea can be incredibly difficult to locate. Analysts estimate that as much as 80 percent of Colombia’s cocaine leaves the country by sea. Fully submersible vessels have been found with dimensions up to 100-feet long and capable of carrying nine tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico in a single trip. Started in Colombia, the trend has now globalized and narco-submarines are now being used to infiltrate Europe. It should not be a surprise in the future if these improvised, but increasingly sophisticated and capable vessels are eventually used to smuggle terrorists, weapons, or explosives, or are employed as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.  


It is clear the littorals will continue to provide opportunities for terrorists and non-state actors to threaten the United States and its allies. Yet the post-9/11 fight against terrorism and other security initiatives have largely ignored the maritime space. A recent report by Stable Seas found that while “Global powers have spent billions over the last few decades in the fight against [violent non-state actors]…[they] have mostly overlooked their activities in the maritime domain” and argues that an effective approach to maritime security has to integrate onshore and offshore operations – an ideal role for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Simple yet effective weapons and tactics will continue to be a threat, and these groups may also acquire more advanced weaponry like the anti-ship missiles that have been employed by the Houthis and Hezbollah. Technological innovation and proliferation will allow land-based groups to continue threatening high-value targets at sea like cruise ships, tankers, offshore platforms, and naval vessels and especially in key straits, maritime chokepoints, and ports. At the same time, low-tech and improvised threats will remain, like narco-submarines and explosive-laden speedboats. Capt. Hughes argued in Fleet Tactics: “Often the second best weapon performs better because the enemy, at great cost in offensive effectiveness, takes extraordinary measures to survive the best weapon.”

As the Navy and Marine Corps increasingly focus on the threat from high-end weapons like Chinese supersonic anti-ship missiles and the DF-26 “Carrier Killer” ballistic missile they cannot forget about the low-end threats and “second best weapons.” The Marine Corps’ own concept for using small units, distributed among key maritime terrain to hold ocean-going targets at risk, is proof that non-state actors and rogue states may be able to do the same and achieve outsized effects because of the unique vulnerabilities and tactical geography presented by the littorals.

The Marine Corps needs to be fully cognizant of not just the potential for high-end, major combat operations in the littorals, but also of the irregular threats it may be called to address at any time. The Marine Corps needs to make sure that as it shifts its focus to major combat operations against a peer or near-peer adversary it maintains the capability to counter irregular and asymmetric threats against U.S. interests and allied in the littorals.

Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy in Cartagena.

Featured Image: STRAIT OF HORMUZ (Aug. 12, 2019) An AH-1Z Viper attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) prepares for take-off during a strait transit aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck/Released)

The Commandant Needs Our Help: Accelerating Marine Corps Force Development

By Chris “Junior” Cannon

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), General David H. Berger has recently updated his guidance with “Force Design 2030.” The plan calls for major changes, including a reduction of 12,000 active-duty Marines, significant reductions in manned aviation, and a suggested reallocation of $12 billion (presumably over 10 years) to implement force design changes. The impetus behind Force Design 2030 is the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which states “new concepts of warfare and competition that span the entire spectrum of conflict require a Joint Force structure to match this reality.” Figure 1 below shows the CMC’s planned reduction in force levels.

Figure 1: Suggested personnel change from Force Design 2030 update, figures from MCRP 5-12. VMFA personnel reductions are the author’s estimate, based on a reduction of 16 to 10 aircraft per squadron. (Author’s graphic)

Col. T. X. Hammes (USMC, ret.) and LtCol. Frank Hoffman (USMC, ret.) offer different versions of this chart, but their analysis is incomplete without arriving at the reduction of 12,000 Marines that CMC suggests. The proposed changes remove about 30 percent of infantry billets, but there appears to have been an absence of analysis to this divestment because the number was not well-known or understood. Hoffman states: “Ultimately, this is not a radical shift of force capabilities or capacity.” Limiting some F-35 squadrons to 10 aircraft (in transitioning from F/A-18 squadrons with 16 aircraft) was baked in already, but the numbers also suggest divesting roughly 22 percent of all Marine manned aviation. Dropping a quarter of Marine infantry and manned aviation capability is a radical shift. As CMC states in his planning guidance, “Significant change is required to ensure we are aligned with the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).” A reduction of 12,000 Marines may underestimate the total force structure changes since we do not yet know what changes come with new Marine Littoral Regiments other additions such as coastal/riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces.”

General Berger had a good head start thinking about NDS requirements before becoming Commandant. CMC’s ascension is reminiscent of another service chief who entered the job with a head start for effecting significant change, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. Admiral Zumwalt anticipated severe criticism from Congress, from other services, and even from within the Navy for the changes he planned to make. The new CNO’s Navy redesign, Project Sixty, started with rapid, yet deliberate analysis. Zumwalt briefed that analysis to the Secretary of Defense only 72 days after taking over as CNO, and to all Navy flag officers and Marine generals a week later.

When Zumwalt stepped into the job as the youngest CNO ever, major decisions were made in the shadow of Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy. Rickover had been on active duty since before Zumwalt was born, had personal influence in the Navy, the Senate, and the Atomic Energy Commission, and would serve for eight more years after Zumwalt retired. While General Berger has no modern equivalent of Admiral Rickover to scrutinize his every move, unfortunately, the mechanisms for change within the Department of Defense churn more slowly than they did for Admiral Zumwalt and Force Design 2030.

There are three ways that Marines can help the Commandant reduce the inevitable friction associated with changing the Marine Corps to match emerging operational realities: creativity, concepts, and communications.


The Commandant needs our help in developing creative solutions to the shortfalls in the analysis and existing capability gaps. From the outset he has asked for input, stating in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG): “I expect Marines to be prepared to provide their leaders – me included – with critical feedback, ideas, and perspective.” There are multiple online forums where Marines have developed serious feedback for the Commandant. Additionally, the Marine Corps Gazette established a Call to Action section dedicated to Force Design 2030. However, these articles and the discussion forums tend to focus on strategy, concepts, and other commentary instead of the more specific actionable recommendations the Commandant needs. Still, some actionable items already exist within these forums. Some focus on the exact gaps that the Commandant has listed, such as how to absorb new expeditionary capabilities, how to fight in a degraded command and control environment, and field affordable and plentiful capabilities for the future amphibious portion of the fleet.

But to properly harness this creative feedback, the Marine Corps needs an official forum to capture, review, board, and take action on this input. The Commandant needs a forum where – after rigorous analysis and appropriate staffing – short, single-issue position papers can reach him and his staff directly. Force Design 2030 lists 12 Integrated Planning Teams (IPTs) established to assess changes in the future force. But General Berger is still unconvinced that these IPTs are meeting the need for output. Single issue position papers from the force can help the IPTs focus on the most relevant issues in these gaps: logistics, infantry battalion reorganization, ARG/MEU redesign, and light armored reconnaissance analysis. These papers should include recommended solutions in terms of the design levers suggested in Force Design 2030. Standing and future IPTs should be able to consolidate the best submissions, conduct a meta-study of the reviews, and determine which ideas deserve a formal approval board or the Commandant’s attention.

This idea is based on recent history. General Robert B. Neller, the previous Commandant, actively solicited such ideas through quarterly innovation challenges in FY18 and FY19. An open forum would support a broad review process, which Marines and civilians would provide. Once a forum was established, General Berger could ensure rapid engagement by requiring Marines to submit papers as part of professional military education (PME) or training requirements. Past Commandants have taken somewhat similar actions, such as General James T. Conway when he required all Marines (twice) to read Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak’s First to Fight. A more extreme precedent comes from the 1930s when Brigadier General James C. Breckinridge suspended some courses at what is now known as Marine Corps War College, “… so that staff and students could devote their full attention to developing …” new amphibious doctrine. Another recent example of soliciting such input comes from the founding of the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center in 2018. It took a year, but DoD also established an independent commission (four working groups and three special projects) to help the government determine requirements for AI. To help move the conversation forward, the commission’s co-chairs, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and former Google and Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt, immediately put out a call for articles.

These types of position papers could come from observations during exercises, from experiments, from wargames, and from detailed budgetary planning. Some of this input will need to be resubmitted or rediscovered. Input should come from analysts and operators, civilians and Marines, operations officers and chief warrant officers, and from students at all six schools under Marine Corps University. It should be objective, evidence-based, and brief; analysis  not advocacy.


The Force Design 2030 update goes into some depth explaining how wargames have impacted strategic thinking. The consensus is that many if not most Indo-Pacific wargame results do not bode well for U.S. forces in the current environment, e.g. “Some end in a rapid Chinese fait accompli, such as the seizure of a disputed island with minimal cost, while U.S. and allied leaders dither.” The Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept describes the Marine Corps’ contributions to prevent such fait accompli victories by peer adversaries. As one recent study suggests: “Without a strategy designed to prevent a fait accompli, the United States might lose a war before alternative approaches have time to be effective.” The hallmark of EABO has been F-35Bs operating from expeditionary bases, primarily as a broad area sensor, not a shooter. But according to former Deputy Defense Secretary Work, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”  Concept development remains the responsibility of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL). But as the Commandant’s order on concept development states, Training and Education Command should “encourage the generation of unofficial concepts.”

The Commandant needs our help in completing the new concepts called for in Force Design 2030. With the EABO concept as of yet unsigned and further specifics behind  “Stand-in Forces” as of yet unwritten, a lot of analysis remains to validate future Marine Corps employment.

As CMC continuously emphasizes, this concept requires an understanding of how Marine forces fit within the Joint Force. The Army has its Multi-Domain Operations concept designed to succeed in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. However, MDO is at odds with EABO: “MDO primarily seeks to defeat A2/AD networks to enable joint freedom of maneuver and roll back an adversary’s gains after the fact,” whereas EABO aims to deny an adversary access to areas in the first place. The Air Force already has the budget approval to field an Advanced Battle Management System, the Joint All-Domain Command & Control system (JADC2). For a variety of reasons, most notably shipbuilding, the Navy is behind the other services in pivoting doctrine and strategy. But the commander of INDOPACOM is still a Navy admiral, like all of his predecessors. Fighting under competing doctrines (MDO versus EABO), with an Air Force command and control system, under a Navy-dominated combatant command, and well within an adversary’s weapon engagement zone, will be a daunting task.

The concepts supporting Force Design 2030 must be complete before they can be explained to Congress in order to get budgeting approved. These concepts must be complete before we can explain USMC force integration to other services and component commanders. Most critically, the functional concepts must be complete before we can develop concepts of operation and employment for Marines to execute and train for. When Zumwalt redesigned the Navy, he had “the assistance of a number of commanders to do some of the spadework and research involved” to complete the concepts. The bar has been raised for modern concept development. To complete the concepts, first, we need a successful strategy built on an “independently verifiable analytic foundation.” Based on CMC’s recent comments about the results of recent wargames, and recent intervention by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment, we are not there yet.

Above all, Marines writing official (and unofficial) concepts need to help the Commandant explain the numbers. The CPG makes note of only one weapon range: “We must possess the ability to turn maritime spaces into barriers…This goal requires ground-based [long range precision fires] LRPF with no less than 350NM ranges – with greater ranges desired.”  When the CPG was published in July 2019, this would have been illegal, as the U.S. still adhered to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Two weeks later, the U.S. formally withdrew from the INF, and now for the first time in over 30 years, American long-range land-based cruise missiles are permitted. This one development alone has opening up a significant array of tactical and operational possibilities.

In order to aid the Commandant in maintaining momentum, we need to better understand, generate, and communicate emerging concepts, capabilities, and conditions.


The Commandant needs our help in communicating Force Design 2030. He is already an able communicator – since the day he took the job, the Commandant has made frequent, public statements that Force Design 2030 is his top priority. On day one he published his planning guidance. In October 2019, he spoke at length with the Heritage Foundation at their signature annual lecture. In December, he shared his notes in War on the Rocks and chatted with the publication’s founder in the following April. In March 2020, the Commandant published his update to Phase I and Phase II of Force Design 2030. In mid-May, he published the aforementioned update in the Marine Corps Gazette. CMC also appears to be taking pages out of Zumwalt’s playbook, laying out a list of items for immediate action.

But the Commandant can’t communicate every critical aspect of EABO and   Stand-in Forces until the concepts are finished, and some of his latest communications still have room for improvement. His June Gazette article cites only one source, a regrettable quote from Alfred Thayer Mahan: “Much is written of courage in the fleet or in the field; but there is a courage of the closet that is no less praiseworthy and fully as rare, and this is the courage to do battle for a new or unpopular idea.” In yet another similarity to Zumwalt, CMC’s closet courage is indeed praiseworthy. In regard to contemporary strategy, however, invoking Mahan is problematic. Mahan advocated for large surface fleets, focusing on capital ships that would win decisive surface battles and establish persistent “control of the seas.” The construction of large fleets of capital ships is diametrically opposed to the principle of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE), and EABO. Mahan and his adherents focused on War fleets, bases, concentration of force, and decisive battle.” Our modern concepts suggest that these old focal points are our new liabilities. Mahan’s strategies have been attributed by some historians as contributing directly to World War I and the rise of Europe and America as imperial powers during the period characterized by the Chinese as a century of humiliation (1839-1949). 

In order to deter current Chinese military ambition, if there is one name that we should avoid repeating, it is Mahan. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who Zumwalt directed to “write a strategy for the Navy” for Project Sixty, would later deliberately contradict Mahan when he invoked the new term, “sea control” to “connote more realistic control in limited areas and for limited periods of time.” 50 years later, the concept of sea control continues to be “the essence of seapower and is a necessary ingredient in the successful accomplishment of all naval missions.” Our ability to deny adversaries access to the sea from expeditionary advance bases will also be of limited scope in time and space, rather than the more longstanding and unassailable command of the seas Mahan envisioned.

When CMC states that we require “an independently verifiable analytic foundation to our program” he means being able to explain and justify the foundation of our concepts to other services, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and Congress. When CMC explains the analytic foundations for his reasoning, such as when he lays out the results of 18-months of recent wargames, it is easier to build consensus and provide feedback. But when he does not discuss the experimentation and simulation taking place, it makes it much harder to understand the force design process, much less communicate the changes to external audiences.

The Commandant could have easily quoted Haddick, Hammes, or Hoffman (who worked on the 2018 NDS), who have laid the intellectual foundation for Force Design 2030’s reasoning. Perhaps CMC was opting for simpler, more direct message appealing to all Marine audiences. But we need to offer a more in-depth explanation, if not the concept of employment, for asking Marines to live and operate within a peer adversary’s weapon engagement zone.

Early criticism, most of which has been highly constructive, is already incorporated into Force Design 2030. Col. Mark Cancian (USMCR, ret.) whose critique of the product already states that the Commandant’s insistence on building a “single purpose-built future force will be applied against other challenges across the globe,”  is misplaced. Active-duty Marines have pointed out that the omission of “maneuver warfare” from Force Design 2030 invites criticism of the process or the Marine Corps’ understanding of its own warfighting principles. The most critical response to date has come from former Secretary of the Navy (and Senator) James Webb. Secretary Webb has a negative impression so far but especially took great exception to the choice of the introductory quote to Force Design 2030. “The giants of the past…were passed over, in favor of a quote from a professor at the Harvard Business School who never served. Many Marines, past and present, view this gesture as a symbolic putdown…” Given the rancor reflected in some remarks like Secretary Webb’s, we should not always expect the Commandant to dignify criticism with comment. However, we should be prepared to publicly address fair criticism that has a negative perspective on the current process.

CMC must be clearer in his communication going forward. The Force Design 2030 update states that the Marine Corps will conduct a Divestment of Marine Wing Support Groups. This single sentence could imply a reduction of 8,000 MWSG Marines – a divestment likely designed to create space for these undetermined additions. Or it could mean only the headquarters of these groups, a significantly smaller manpower offset. Right now, it is unclear.

CMC should communicate more about modern threat environments by updating the professional reading list. The list should have many more article-length entries, readings that Marines can read in minutes, not days or weeks. Quarterly updates to the list may be more appropriate than annual changes to keep current and relevant subjects in Marines’ thoughts. The reading list should also be partiality populated by the very best of the previously suggested position papers, after IPT review and CMC approval. And some of these readings should be recommended with an eye toward the average Marine’s role in future fights. It is much more critical and accessible for most Marines to understand China’s and Russia’s operational capabilities and tactics than it is for them to internalize (or defend) broader organizational reforms.


Creativity is required to provide CMC with the input he has requested to complete the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030. This creativity needs to be crowd-sourced throughout the Marine Corps, such as with a call for focused, single-issue position papers. The papers need to be published in a dedicated forum, where CMC’s IPTs can easily digest and analyze the merits of each. This will capitalize on current experiments, ongoing exercises, and the past 20 years of hard-earned Marine Corps operational experience. The concepts must be integrated with the Navy and built on an independently verifiable analytic foundation. While MCCDC and MCWL have the lead on concepts, their foundational work should be expanded by Marines and activities able to contribute to wargaming and analysis, or else the concepts are likely to resemble the “advocacy” that CMC has warned against and not be independently verifiable.”

The message needs to be clearer. This includes setting the agenda to address expected political and budgetary opposition. This includes properly preparing Marines by educating them on ever more threatening operating environments and adversary capabilities. We should be thankful for the Commandant’s leadership on this and other issues. But it will take more than just a top-down approach to implement the change we need to become ready for the new operational environment. The Commandant needs our help.

LtCol Cannon is a reservist with the MAGTF Staff Training Program and as a contractor supports AI/Machine Learning (ML) projects sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. government and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines with Kilo Company, Marine Combat Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire M240 medium machine guns during live-fire training at Range 218A on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Aug. 18, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels)

Lifting the Veil on the Lightly Manned Surface Combatant

By Ben DiDonato


As the U.S. Navy moves into the unmanned age and implements Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), there is a need for small, lightly manned warships to streamline that transition and fill roles which require a human crew. Congress has expressed concerns about unmanned vessels on a number of fronts and highlighted the need for a class of ships to bridge the gap. The Naval Postgraduate School’s Lightly Manned Autonomous Combat Capability program (LMACC) has designed a warship to meet this need.

The need for these small, heavily armed warships has also been well established, and is based on extensive analysis and wargaming across the Navy’s innovation centers. These ships will provide distributed forward forces capable of conducting surface warfare and striking missile sites from within the weapons engagement zone of a hostile A2/AD system. They will be commanded by human tactical experts and operate in packs with supporting unmanned vessels, like the Sea Hunter MDUSV, to distribute capabilities and minimize the impact of combat losses.

Our intent with this article is to publicly lay out the engineering dimension of the LMACC program. Since the United States does not have a small warship to use as a baseline, it is necessary to first establish what our requirements should be based on our unique needs. Fortunately, this can be accomplished in a relatively straightforward manner by broadly analyzing how foreign ships are designed to meet their nation’s needs, and using that understanding to establish our own requirements. As such, we will start by examining the choices faced by other nations, use that to develop a core of minimum requirements for an American warship, examine its shortcomings when compared with other budget options, and finally discuss how to affordably expand on that to deliver a capability set the Navy will be happy with. Once we have established our requirements and overall configuration, we will conclude with a discussion of our approach to automation, manning, concepts of operations, future special mission variants, and current status.

(The scope of this article has been deliberately limited to the engineering side of the LMACC program. Our acquisition approach will be discussed in an upcoming issue of the Naval Engineers Journal. Fleet and budget integration was discussed in a previous article on USNI blog, “Beyond High-Low: The Lethal and Affordable Three-Tier Fleet.”)

Examination of Foreign Designs

Due to our relative lack of practical domestic experience in the field of small warship development, we will start with an examination of foreign designs to build a transferable understanding of their capabilities, limitations, and design tradeoffs. Since there are many ship classes used worldwide, it is impractical to discuss every example individually. We will instead discuss mission areas and compromises in generic terms and leave it to the reader to consider how specific foreign designs were built to meet their nation’s needs. Areas of design interest include anti-ship missiles, survivability, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and launch facilities. The first three subsections divide the discussion between large and small nations, while the final subsection is split by type of launch facility. Each subsection then concludes with a discussion of how this translates to the United States’ unique situation. This will then set us up for the subsequent discussion of the basic preliminary requirements for a generic small American warship.

Anti-Ship Missiles

Small warships are frequently given labels like “missile boat” or “corvette” based on their primary armament of anti-ship missiles with little further thought. However, not all missiles are created equal. The choice of missile is driven by the platform’s intended use.

Small nations (e.g. Norway) attempting to defend themselves on a limited budget typically prioritize lethality with a highly capable missile designed for sinking major warships. However, because they often face limitations in offboard sensors, strategic depth, and force structure to absorb combat losses, they tend to sacrifice range and networking capability to control missile cost and weight.

Large nations prioritizing coastal defense against a more powerful opponent (e.g. Russia and China’s A2/AD systems) tend to view their small warships as part of a larger system. These ships are intended as much to complicate enemy targeting and defensive formations as they are to sink ships. As a consequence of this, they are more likely to invest in range and networking since they can reasonably expect to take advantage of it, but may be willing to save money by arming these ships with less expensive, and therefore typically less lethal, weapons.

Due to the nature of the U.S. Navy’s highly networked, forward deployed forces, we cannot accept these compromises and must arm our small warships with highly lethal, long-range, networked weapons.


A major concern with all warships is survivability. One of the key distinguishing features of small warships is how they address this problem. Rather than rely on a large, expensive missile system to destroy threats at long range, these small warships instead rely primarily on avoiding attack and feature only limited point defense weapons. This is achieved through a combination of small size, signature reduction, electronic warfare, and tactics.

It is important to remember other nations are frequently focused primarily on pre-launch survivability rather than a counterattack based on the missiles’ signature. This lack of focus on post-launch survivability is generally based on the assumption that the cost ratio of the exchange will generally be in their favor even if they lose the ship. Another important consideration, especially for smaller nations, is that their ports are usually very vulnerable to a standoff strike, so surviving ships may not be able to rearm or refuel and are therefore effectively out of action even if they do survive. For large nations with sophisticated A2/AD systems, protecting these ships is usually primarily the responsibility of other platforms, allowing significant savings by reducing survivability-related costs.

Smaller nations usually invest more in survivability features and trade endurance for extremely high speed to improve their odds of getting into attack position before they are sunk. They also commonly employ tactics to make their ships difficult to track in peacetime by exploiting maritime geography and blending into commercial traffic to avoid a preemptive strike.

The United States can count on having a safe port to rearm somewhere, even if it requires withdrawing all the way to CONUS, so we would need to further emphasize evasion since these ships would have to persist within hostile A2/AD networks even after launching missiles. This means it would be essential for a small American warship to use a stealthy, networked missile capable of flying deceptive routes to mask the launch point, as well as the best electronic warfare equipment, passive sensors, and acoustic signature reduction we can afford. Other forms of signature reduction are an interesting question because there is a risk of standing out from civilian traffic if the warship’s signature is significantly different from those around it. After all, a Chinese maritime patrol aircraft could easily recognize that a “buoy” making an open-ocean transit is actually a small warship. On the flipside, we have no need for the high speed favored by many foreign nations, especially since blending in with slow-moving civilian traffic will be a critical aspect of survivability. Therefore, we should trade speed for range to control cost and project power from our generally safe but distant ports.

One final U.S.-specific feature which could greatly enhance survivability inside A2/AD networks, reduce range requirements, and reduce the logistical burden is the exclusion of gas turbines in favor of diesel engines. This will allow these ships to stop at any commercial port to take on diesel fuel, and possibly food, while further enhancing the illusion that they are small commercial vessels. With some imaginative leadership, this will provide virtually unlimited in-theater range and loiter time with minimal logistical support, simplifying our operations and complicating the situation for the enemy.


While many small warships include ASW capability, they are usually intended to operate as coastal area denial platforms rather than oceangoing escorts or sub-hunters. For nations worried about hostile submarines, this area denial provides essential protection to ports and other coastal facilities which would otherwise be extremely vulnerable. In contrast, performing the latter high-end missions requires the large aviation facilities and expensive sonars of a frigate or destroyer.

Thanks to our large nuclear-powered attack submarine fleet and the remoteness of hostile submarine forces, we don’t need a small surface ship to defend our ports from submarines, so this ASW equipment is generally best omitted. The U.S. only needs the ship to have a reasonable chance of surviving in a theater with hostile submarines, and this can be most economically provided by acoustic signature reduction and appropriate tactics. In fact, the active sonar systems used for area denial by other nations would be detrimental in American service since they let hostile submarines detect the ship from much further away.

Launch Facilities

Many small warships include launch facilities of some form for boats, helicopters, small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and underwater vehicles (UUV).

A boat launch facility is very important for a variety of maritime security operations and general utility tasks including allowing access to unimproved coastlines. Thanks to this utility and their modest space and weight impact, they are found on many small warships. It is also important to note that a boat launch facility can generally launch USVs of similar size if desired to perform a variety of functions including acting as offboard sensors and decoys.

While the utility of naval helicopters is well established, they are relatively uncommon on small warships. Adding full aviation facilities requires a major increase in ship size, crew, and cost. Even a simple helipad for vertical replenishment has a major impact on topside configuration. Furthermore, helicopters are relatively visible and can thus make it much easier for an adversary to distinguish the warship from civilian traffic.

A much more common way of providing aerial surveillance for small warships is small UAVs. Because they can easily be added to existing ships, they have become common additions to small military and coast guard vessels worldwide. These aircraft provide many of the benefits of a helicopter with a much lower signature and little to no design impact on the ship. Furthermore, considering their proliferation in the civil sector, launching a small UAV is no longer a recognizably military activity. It is reasonable to assume all future designs will at least consider the operation of hand-launched drones, and it is highly likely many will also integrate launch systems for larger assets as well.

While UUV launch facilities are currently relatively rare outside dedicated MCM platforms, the maturation of this technology makes it worthy of more general consideration. UUVs could perform a range of other missions including undersea search and interacting with undersea cables without the need to specialize the ship itself. Furthermore, the launch facilities could also be used to transport additional MCM UUVs for use by other ships. As such, it seems likely this capability will proliferate since the launch facilities aren’t especially large, although it is still too early to say for certain exactly how useful it will actually be.

For the U.S. Navy, the only truly critical launch capability is small UAVs to enable over-the-horizon surveillance and targeting. Our enduring presence requirement means we will almost certainly want some form of boat launch capability to support those missions. We may want UUV launch capability as well, but it likely does not meet the bar to be a minimum requirement. 

Minimum Requirements for a Small American Warship

Based on the above discussion and a few common practices, the list below provides a reasonable set of approximate minimum requirements for any small American warship. Note that this is not our final design, but a simplified interpretation using current technology and standard design practices:

  • Eight LRASMs
  • SeaRAM
  • Latest generation full-sized AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite
  • Standard decoy launchers
  • Excellent optical sensor suite:
    • Visible Distributed Aperture System (DAS)
    • IR DAS
    • Visible/IR camera turret
  • Maximum affordable acoustic signature reduction
  • Appropriate reduction of other signatures to blend into civilian traffic
    • COTS navigation radar
  • Low probability of detection/intercept datalinks
  • 30-knot speed (approx.)
  • 7500+ nautical mile range
  • One 7m RHIB
  • Small UAV storage and launch accommodations
  • Traditional light gun armament
    • One 30mm autocannon
    • Two M2 Browning heavy machine guns

It has been assumed that the likely boat launch facility is included while the more tentative UUV launch facility has been omitted. The range was selected to allow the ship to sortie from one island chain to the next and back (e.g. Guam to the Philippines) on internal fuel, and it also makes it relatively easy to operate over even longer distances using extra fuel bladders and/or limited refueling. Speed is not exact since small changes wouldn’t have a major impact, and no attempt was made to identify a displacement or crew complement because it is not immediately relevant to this example.

Ambassador Mk III missile boat (

While the above requirements are obviously distinct from any current design, they should be immediately recognizable as the rough outline for a fairly conventional small warship tailored to the needs of the United States Navy. More work would obviously need to be done to refine this into a finalized set of requirements, but it is close enough to analyze how this conventional design compares to other hypothetical budget priorities and show why we did not simply settle for this minimum configuration.

‘Adequate’ is Not Enough

In any discussion of hypothetical designs, it is critical to keep key alternatives and counterarguments in mind. In the case of small warships, the most relevant argument that might be presented is that aircraft can do the job better. This can take many forms of varying strength, but attacking a weaker form undermines the discussion. Thus, a hypothetical, purpose-built, bomber-like anti-ship aircraft will be considered here. The comparison with the aircraft described in this section will be used to demonstrate the shortcomings of the ‘adequate’ warship described above and set up a discussion of how to make it worthwhile.

This hypothetical aircraft would be a large, stealthy flying wing built using technology from the F-35. Using these electronics eliminates much of the cost of new development and eases maintenance by sharing logistics between this hypothetical anti-ship aircraft and the F-35. In addition, the new low-maintenance stealth coatings will eliminate the headaches of older designs like the B-2, and the design would be further simplified since its mission doesn’t require extreme stealth. It only needs to be able to attack hostile warships before they can detect it, which is not particularly challenging given the range of LRASM and the sensor performance inherited from the F-35. Thus, the cost should be relatively low.

For the sake of argument, it will be assumed this aircraft costs $300 million and carries 24 LRASMs, although better numbers may be possible. This compares cleanly with the small warship which would cost a little under $100 million and carry 8 LRASMs, so the cost per missile carried is approximately the same and we can focus on other performance parameters.

The ship has three key advantages: persistence, presence, and attritability. The first two stem from the obvious fact that a ship can loiter much longer than an aircraft, which makes it better for keeping weapons on-station in wartime or demonstrating American interest by performing a variety of low-end missions in peacetime. The third stems from the fact that we can afford three ships for the price of one aircraft, so an equal investment will provide more ships and losing one costs less, assuming the crew is recovered. While attritability is a benefit in a high-end war, the peacetime flexibility provided by the enhanced persistence and presence is less of a concern in the current geopolitical environment. Finally, this ship may be able to provide some amphibious lift for small USMC units operating under their Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept, although its inability to provide meaningful fire support will limit its utility if an island is contested.

In contrast, the aircraft has numerous wartime advantages. The obvious speed advantage means the aircraft can respond to a developing situation and rearm much faster than ships. This further combines with its altitude to allow a single aircraft to survey a much wider area than the three ships can in spite of their persistence advantage. Furthermore, its combination of long detection range and stealthy airframe means the aircraft is more likely to see hostile warships before they see it, providing a major advantage over ships with respect to survivability and firing effectively first. Finally, thanks to its F-35 architecture, the aircraft will be compatible with a wide range of standard ordinance like the AGM-158 JASSM, AIM-120 AMRAAM, AGM-88 HARM, GBU-39 SDB, and so on, allowing it to perform other missions.

From this comparison, it is clear that those deciding which program to fund will not choose the ‘adequate’ small warship because other programs like the aircraft described above offer a greater return on investment. More capability is clearly needed to make the ship worthwhile.

Going From Viable to Worthwhile

The challenge with solving this problem is that it must be done without compromising the cost and size of these ships. The addition of desirable features led to the size and cost growth of LCS out of the original Streetfighter concept. Subsequent additions to fit into the traditional concept of a frigate with the FFG(X) program have produced a vessel with capabilities, and by extension costs, approaching that of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

To retain the advantages of a small warship and keep it from growing into another Burke, two fundamental options are available: enhanced launch/support facilities, and secondary armament reconfigurations.

This section will explain how the LMACC program addresses this problem and provide the full design details for our baseline configuration. We have made significant enhancements to our launch and support facilities to improve overall utility, and have detailed plans for providing sealift support to the USMC during distributed operations. For the secondary armament, we took advantage of the interactions between technologies to provide much greater lethality against smaller surface threats and to restore the ability to provide robust fire support for Marines ashore at comparable cost.

Launch and Support Facilities

Before diving into how this ship will integrate with the Marines’ EABO concept, we will briefly circle back to the previously discussed launch facilities. UUV launch facilities, while not essential, have been included to provide additional flexibility at low cost, and are designed to benefit from the stern launch ramp required to support EABO. Furthermore, thanks to the small crew and wide beam, we were also able to fit an 11m RHIB to provide additional utility and transport capacity. Helicopter accommodations on the other hand have a major design impact even for a relatively minimal landing pad, especially in terms of manning for maintenance and support, so it has been omitted in favor of a topside UAV locker.

While the Marines are correct to pursue dedicated transports to implement EABO, the surface combatant fleet can also provide limited sealift support. A DDG-51destroyer would have to provide this support on a not-to-interfere basis, but our ship will be an integral part of the mission. The normal wartime employment of these ships will see pairs sortie into the same contested littorals the Marines intend to operate in, so they will supplement the dedicated transport fleet by carrying light units and supplies. LMACC has two empty six-person cabins, plus four extra beds in the crew cabins, so a tactical pair can easily carry a Marine platoon between them with hot racking. These cabins will also provide space for detachments, and one will be equipped to serve as a brig in support of peacetime patrol and partnership missions.

The other half of providing sealift support is delivering the embarked Marines ashore. Features such as shallow draft, pumpjet propulsion, and COTS navigation sonars will allow these ships to get very close to shore to facilitate rapid transfer, possibly even including swimming. Readily accessible stowage spaces at the forward end of the launch bay support rapid transfer of equipment and support use of the inflatable Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC), while oversized lower-deck cargo bays provide ample storage space. Finally, small boat operations have been greatly enhanced by combining a fully enclosed bay with a stern launch ramp to facilitate rapid Marine deployment, especially in inclement weather or at night.

It should also be noted that the attributes which make it well-suited to supporting the Marines also make it well-suited to supporting Special Forces.

Rethinking the Secondary Armament

For secondary armament, we took the overall configuration back to its fundamental requirements: short-range small boat defense, long-range small boat defense, area land attack, precision land attack, and limited air defense. This allowed us to rethink our approach to those requirements and take advantage of the interactions between modern weapon systems to get better results than a traditional deck gun.

The key technology that enables our layout is the unassuming Javelin Launch Tray. This adds a Javelin missile launcher to a standard pintle mounted weapon, and allows a loader/gunner team to outperform a 30mm autocannon with greater range and comparable engagement rate at greatly reduced weight and installation cost. While this is a useful supplementary defense on existing ships, the large number of installations makes LMACC an excellent escort against small swarming threats and, more importantly, amply satisfies the short-range small boat defense requirement without a deck gun. This may seem less important at first glance since these types of threats are typically associated with Iran, but China has already developed a small USV to perform a similar mission, making this threat relevant to the high-end fight. Javelin also provides a limited anti-aircraft capability since it was designed to destroy helicopters as well as tanks.

Since there is no need for a traditional multi-million dollar deck gun, LMACC instead mounts a 105mm howitzer. The cased ammunition of this weapon makes it suitable for sea service, unlike the larger, separately-loaded 155mm version. As a traditionally towed artillery piece, it is a lightweight, low cost weapon ideally suited to land attack. This of course addresses longstanding concerns about naval gunfire, and is directly relevant to supporting the Marines.

These two weapons fill the short-range small boat defense, area land attack, and limited air defense requirements, leaving long-range small boat defense and precision land attack. These two remaining requirements are both addressed through the addition of Spike NLOS missiles. This allows small surface threats to be safely engaged from over the horizon, and allows armored vehicles and other point targets to be precisely eliminated as well. This complements the howitzer and Javelin to provide excellent anti-boat capabilities and robust fire support for Marines ashore.

Spike-NLOS being fired from a Plasan Sand Cat (Republic of Korea Armed Forces/Wikimedia Commons)

The final weapon system is the Miniature Hit-To-Kill (MHTK) missile, which provides additional defense against low-end aerial threats like small UAVs and rockets. This further improves survivability, especially against swarming threats, and ensures the air defense capabilities of a deck gun are fully replicated.

The result of this is a much more flexible and lethal armament with relatively low installation weight and cost. This makes our armament unequivocally superior to the conventional autocannon configuration established previously without significant design growth, and even provides major advantages over a larger deck gun.

The LMACC Design

Now that we have walked through the requirements and logic of our design, we will take a moment to provide a design summary of our baseline configuration:

  • Name: USS Shrike
  • Type: Patrol Ship, Guided missile (PCG)
  • Cost: $96.6 million
  • Displacement: 600 tons
  • Length: 214 feet
  • Beam: 29 feet (waterline)
  • Draft: 6.5 feet
  • Range: 7500+ nautical miles
  • Speed: 30 knots
    • two steerable, reversible pumpjets with intake screen
    • Integrated electric propulsion
    • Diesel engines
  • Crew: 15 (31 beds)
  • Armament:
    • Eight LRASMs
    • SeaRAM
    • Seven Javelin pintle mounts
      • One Javelin launch tray per mount
      • Ten stored missiles per mount
      • Either a M2 Browning or Mk 47 AGL per mount
    • 105mm howitzer
    • 36 Spike NLOS missiles
    • 64 Miniature Hit-To-Kill Missiles
  • COMBATSS-21 combat management system
  • Latest generation full-sized AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite
  • Standard decoy launchers
  • Excellent optical sensor suite:
    • Visible Distributed Aperture System (DAS)
    • IR DAS
    • Visible/IR camera turret
  • COTS navigation sonar
  • Maximum affordable acoustic signature reduction
  • Appropriate reduction of other signatures to blend into civilian traffic
    • COTS navigation radar
  • L3Harris Falcon III® RF-7800W non-line of sight radio
  • Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL)
  • Aft launch bay
    • One 11m RHIB
    • One 11m long UUV slot (multiple UUV transportation possible)
    • Bay door doubles as launch ramp
  • Small topside UAV storage and launch accommodations

This maintains the previously established minimum requirements while integrating the additional features discussed.

Circling back to the comparison with the hypothetical anti-ship aircraft, these low cost enhancements have added numerous advantages over the ‘adequate’ design. In addition to the previous advantages of persistence, presence, and attritability, it can now operate UUVs, transport Marines, provide surface fire support, and destroy small boat swarms. This makes the ship a much more useful platform with the flexibility to adapt to an uncertain future, and gives procurement officials a good reason to select it over the aircraft. This clear utility and economic viability is the hallmark of well-thought-out requirements, and makes this design, in our opinion, viable for American service.

LMACC – Shrike aft quarter view (Author screenshot)

It should be remembered that this information is only applicable to the baseline configuration. The other variants add a ten-foot hull segment to add special mission capabilities and will have increased costs as a result.

Automation and Manning

From a systems perspective, the core concept for this ship is that it will be built like a large USV. Since the automated systems can notify the crew when action is needed, traditional watches are unnecessary and significant crew reductions are possible. Furthermore, since the ship’s systems will be designed to operate with minimal intervention as expected of a USV, there will, in theory, be very little need for maintenance. However, there will be people on hand to correct any problems that do occur, unlike a full USV. Thus, from a systems perspective, this will allow LMACC to bridge the gap to autonomy because it keeps people on board while operating like an autonomous vessel. As such, a fleet of these ships will allow us to safely build a large body of operational knowledge and inform our approach to future USVs and human-machine teaming.

We intend to man these ships with a 15-person crew lead by a Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). These tactical experts will be ideally suited to lead their ships and attendant packs of unmanned vessels to victory in the most challenging circumstances, and take the initiative when cut off from external command. They will lay traps, strike targets ashore, and hunt down hostile warships while confounding the enemy’s ability to respond by vanishing into civilian traffic.

While our work indicates a crew of 15 is appropriate to manage the weapons, sensors, and drones, we are acutely aware of the uncertainty associated with this novel manning concept and the need to bring aboard additional personnel for special missions. As such, the ship has been designed with five, six-person cabins, plus a single cabin for the commanding officer, to provide ample berthing. Two of those cabins are notionally intended to be used for non-crew personnel such as Marines conducting EABO deployments, Coast Guard law enforcement detachments, or brig space. That leaves free beds for four more crewmembers with no meaningful impact, and the crew could be further enlarged by using one or both of those cabins if needed. Even in the worst-case scenario, 31 beds allow for three more crew than the existing Cyclone-class patrol ship, without hot racking. This effectively eliminates the risks associated with a smaller crew by allowing the ship to comfortably carry a traditional full complement if required.

Concepts of Operation

These ships are intended to fight forward to defend or retake island chains. The design emphasizes fighting in complex environments by disappearing into civilian traffic and littoral clutter. These ships will rely on passive sensors to complicate the enemy’s target identification problem and maximize the chance of achieving tactical surprise. The basic wartime operational unit will be a tactical pair, consisting of either two of the basic short-hull ships, or one basic design and one specialized variant. These pairs will work closely with unmanned vessels and Marines ashore to deny the area to the enemy, degrade hostile defenses, and clear the way for heavier units. They will also provide light sealift and logistics support to small, lightly equipped Marine units. Note that while we have done extensive work on tactics, deployment strategies, and cooperation with the existing leviathan navy, much of that material is not publicly releasable and will not be further discussed here. That said, much of this is built on the work of our colleague, the late Capt. Wayne Hughes, so members of the public interested in learning more are encouraged to read his work.

In peacetime, these ships will provide a cost effective asset for patrol, partnership, and deterrence missions. Since these ships are much cheaper than even frigates, they will be a better choice for countering piracy, smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing, and other illicit activity, allowing more expensive ships to focus on missions and training which fully exploit their capabilities. They will also enable more effective joint training with our smaller partners whose fleets are closely matched to these ships. This is particularly relevant in the South China Sea and Western Pacific where there is a need to carry foreign coast guard detachments for joint patrols and visit many small, primitive ports to reassure our friends and deter China. This will also substantially improve the readiness and performance of our fleet by reducing the workload on high-end assets, and offering early command billets to help develop young officers.

Finally, fleet integration is greatly simplified by the operational similarity of this PCG to the Cyclone-class PC. LMACC can serve as a drop-in replacement for the Cyclone at similar cost, so there is no operational risk. We could hand one of these ships to the fleet today and they’d be able to put it to work immediately by treating it like a Cyclone while the Surface Development Squadron refines the more advanced tactics developed by the Naval Postgraduate School. This makes it possible to jump immediately to serial production if desired, although building a prototype first would reduce risk at the cost of delaying its entry into service.

Ship Variants

We have plans for several special mission variants. In keeping with the Navy’s historical tradition of naming small ships after birds, they have all been given bird names. The baseline LMACC variant, the Shrike, has already been discussed, and two additional variants have been fleshed out, the anti-aircraft Falcon and the anti-submarine Osprey, both of which add new capabilities with a ten-foot hull extension.

It is difficult to discuss the details of the Falcon’s operation publicly, but it adds a new sensor and a tactical-length Mk 41 VLS module to destroy hostile maritime patrol aircraft before they can distinguish it from civilian traffic. This will protect these ships from the single greatest threat to them, hostile aircraft, and substantially improve their ability to operate within hostile A2/AD systems.

The Osprey variant, on the other hand, is relatively simple and is built to maximize the impact of USV-mounted sensors. The primary addition is eight new angled launch cells for Tomahawk cruise missiles modified to carry a lightweight torpedo. This allows a very small number of these ships to greatly improve our ability to deter and defeat submarines, since they can quickly strike targets detected by offboard sensors from hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, since Tomahawk is a well-established weapon fielded across the fleet, this will allow us to add this capability across our surface combatant fleet, and provide a way to recycle obsolete Tomahawks when we inevitably move on to other weapons. Finally, this variant is rounded out by a hull-mounted passive sonar and four fixed torpedo tubes for self-defense, since it is expected to operate in areas with elevated submarine risk.

Two additional variants have been considered. The first is a drone mothership which adds a UUV handling module to field large numbers of UUVs, and may also modify the aft launch bay to carry two boats or USVs. The second is a coast guard variant which replaces most of the missiles with a dedicated sickbay, brig, and secure contraband storage to turn it into a bigger, more capable version of the Sentinel-class cutter, although these capabilities could also be added in a hull segment if an export customer wants to retain the missiles.

Program Status

Our requirements and top-level engineering are complete. The only major task remaining is to finalize our hullform, and we can do that in parallel with shipyard and supplier selection. Almost all the technology we have selected is fielded. The remaining technologies are closely based on fielded systems, and the baseline Shrike will still be combat effective if delays force it to deploy before these technologies are ready. Since the Naval Postgraduate School is outside the traditional shipbuilding bureaucracy, we have significant flexibility in our path forward to production. We could do anything from traditional acquisition to building this under the umbrella of a research project outside all existing acquisition structures, as was done with TACPOD, so we can take whatever approach is most acceptable to Congress and the Navy.

Mr. DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces.

Featured Image: LMACC design screenshot courtesy of Ben DiDonato