Tag Archives: amphibious

Distributed Leathernecks

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By LCDR Chris O’Connor 

This year, the Navy plans to send out a surface action group (SAG) comprised of three DDGs in order to test distributed lethality CONOPS. This is an important first step, but the next SAG deployed should include a completely different unit. A San Antonio-class LPD. One LPD-17 class ship in the mix will considerably change the capabilities of a SAG across the warfare spectrum, making it a true Adaptive Force Package (AFP) that is more lethal in a number of different ways.

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Why an LPD? It is a large littoral combat ship. The LCS classes were designed to have mission bay space so that capabilities could be swapped out as the mission required. LPD-17 class ships, if loaded with a specialized set of MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) equipment, have room for equipment that no DDG or CG could dream of carrying, at a greater volume than an LCS. While serving on the USS BUNKER HILL (CG-52), the author recognized that the guided missile cruisers in the US Navy have been built for specific weapon systems, sensors, and engineering equipment. A modification to add more systems that are significant departures from the original design will be at the expense of the baked-in warfare capabilities. More unmanned systems or connectors can be put on a surface combatant, but they will be limited to the constraints of the torpedo magazine, hangar, or boat deck space, and will take away from the important uses those shipboard locations currently have.

LPD 22 Sea Trials
LPD 22 Sea Trials, Huntington Ingalls photo. 

On top of the “open concept” interior (so in vogue these days), the LPD also has a flight deck that dwarfs that of any surface combatant; it can launch or recover two V-22s simultaneously. It has massive potential to carry more aviation systems due to the aircraft storage space in the large hangars and deck tie-downs. Not to mention that if a DDG wants to put something in the water, it has to lower it with the boat davits or other limited means. A LPD has a well deck that can splash LCACs, LCUs, and unmanned systems that use the sea interface.

During a recent distributed lethality wargame (of which the author was part of), game participants were given objectives and a choice of AFPs to use towards those aims. The choices included a mix of DDGs, LCSs, America-class LHAs, and “Hughesian” (the author is taking liberties with that word) small missile combatants a la “streetfighter.” We then employed these mixed forces against a red force that was trying to reach an objective, break a blockade, or put troops ashore on an island. The decision-making process was constrained to a surface picture, speed/capability/weapons employment solution set. This was the explicit purpose of this game, being early in the distributed lethality wargame process.

Early in the game a different way of meeting the same goals came to the author, and they involved using Marines with surface or aviation connectors. For example, we can deter an island invasion with the proper positioning of surface ships, but what if that island already had US forces on it? If a red force landing craft was able to get through, it would have to contend with defenders on the island. It is much less politically tenable for red forces to land on an occupied island than to occupy an island that is not populated (or at least has no security or military forces on it) with the guise that it is helping or providing unasked-for security assistance. Blue landing forces would enhance the maritime security exclusion zone around an island or completely obviate it. V-22s can get to the objective a lot faster than surface ships. In the recent DL wargame, if the blue forces chose to use America-class LHAs as part of their a la carte AFPs, V-22s were not an option, they and landing forces from the LCSs were adjudicated from the game for aforementioned reasons.

Flight deck loaded with V-22 Ospreys, defenselink.mil photo.
Active flight deck , defenselink.mil photo.

An LPD can be part of a disaggregated ARG and be used as part of a DL task force. An LPD loaded with MEU equipment that can be quickly employed and join up with an LHA and LSD would be especially useful if needed to create a larger landing force. A red force that wants to land troops to provide “security assistance” or “fight terrorists” would have to contend with LCAC delivered and V-22 delivered vehicles with TOWs, Marines with Javelins and Stingers, and in a longer time period, LAVs, AAVs, and MPCs that have swum ashore from the LPD’s well deck. At the least, the LPD will be a sea base lily pad for long-range V-22 missions, such as non-combatant evacuations or special operations strikes. All three ARG ships do not have to be present for this capability to be delivered.

The future brings even more options. A DL MAGTAF assigned to a LPD could be specifically modified to perform specialized deterrent landings at short notice, or bring ashore capabilities we do not currently use. TOW and Javelin missiles would make landing craft think twice, but there are truck mounted Naval Strike Missiles and other antiship and surface-to-surface missiles. A lot of those systems, including HIMARs, are too large to be delivered by an LCAC as they are currently fielded. These weapons, or other systems such as Hellfire or JAGM, could be modified and put on smaller vehicles that are purpose built to provide anti-access/area denial capabilities. On top of this, the flight deck of the LPD can launch and recover even larger UAVs than the surface combatants can employ. The hangars can support USMC aircraft such as the AH-1Z and UH-1Y that can carry out different mission sets than the H-60 variants that deploy on current surface combatants. New capabilities could use up some of this non-skid real estate, such as strike missile box launchers, additional communications and EW equipment. Not to be forgotten, the well deck could be used to put UUVs and USVs in the water, creating defensive swarms around contested geographic points or high-value units. Being a Supply Corps officer, the author is obliged to point out the additional logistics capability that an LPD brings to the fight; more storage for supplies, mothership capability for smaller units, and space for new capabilities that can be bolted on such as additive manufacturing.

Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launched from a truck, Kongsberg photo.
Norweigan Strike Missile (NSM) launched from a truck, Kongsberg photo.

The new E-series ships such as the EPF, ESB, and ESD can all do parts of these missions, but would not survive as well in a contested environment as an LPD-17. That class has EW, communications, self-defense, and logistics endurance capabilities that the newly minted expeditionary classes do not have. This is not discounting them, but they just cannot play in the same environment as the other members of the DL SAGs can; there is a place for them in other parts of the littoral arena.

This is not an original idea. If you have heard this all before, it is because many people saw the potential from the very beginning of the LPD-17 class. James H. Cobb wrote a series four novels from 1997-2002 that were the closest thing for the Navy to Dale Brown was for the Air Force. In his books, then-experimental technology was used to fight battles in new ways. The third novel Seafighter (2002) exhibited the gonzo awesome idea of armored LCACs armed with chain guns, hellfire missiles and even SLAM missiles (as a “streetfighter” concept). The linchpin of the Navy task force that employed these systems was an amphibious warship used to the fullest extent of its capabilities- supporting the battle hovercraft, launching helicopter strikes, and the like. When the author was a member of the CNO Strategic Studies Group, one of the areas of investigation was new uses for current classes of ships, and there were already think pieces out on the LPD-17. These ideas should be used in the distributed lethality concept to bring Marines to that fight.

The Navy-Marine Corps team is at its most lethal when each naval service uses its unique capabilities to the utmost. And the best way to cohesively bring them together for the good of distributed lethality is with an LPD in the fight, part of a Surface Action Group. This will certainly make our potential adversaries sit up and pay attention.

LCDR Chris O’Connor is a supply corps officer in the United States Navy and a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

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Sea Control 90 – An Australian Marine Corps?

seacontrol2Should Australia develop its own Marine Corps?

In this podcast, Natalie Sambhi interviews Peter Dean, Senior Fellow at ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and Associate Dean Education at the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, on the development of Australia’s amphibious capability. Why is Australia developing an amphibious capability? Where would it deploy this force? Also in this episode, they discuss what amphibious capability enables Australia to do with partners like the US, and Peter shares his strong sentiment on whether LHDs could be used as mini aircraft carriers.

For more on this topic, check out Peter’s recently co-authored report with PACOM’s Lieutenant Colonel Ken Gleiman, Beyond 2017: the Australian Defence Force and amphibious warfare.

DOWNLOAD: Australian Marine Corps?

Music: Sam LaGrone

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Unbreaking Amphibious Ship Readiness

This is the first of a three article mini-series focusing on Amphibious Ship readiness by Alpha sub Oscar…

Spend any time researching Marine Corps leadership concerns regarding naval readiness and you will see a familiar refrain of lamentations: Not enough ships (down to 31 this year with a USN-USMC agreed requirement of 38); Insufficient C2 / C5I capability and capacity; Threat pushing amphibious standoff ranges further and further out.  The problem set is compounded by an unprecedented fiscal crisis affecting everything from new ship procurement to maintenance / modernization and no relief in Geographic Combatant Commander (GCC) demands for naval amphibious forces.  Decades of lower amphibious prioritization have helped to create this readiness predicament; solving the conundrum will require significant investment and coordinated decisions across the Navy / Marine Corps to restore readiness while meeting the most critical of GCC requirements.

To improve materiel readiness of the in-service amphibious fleet and balance the books, US Naval leadership offered a straw-man course of action (COA) to Congress: place three amphibious landing docks (LSD) into “phased modernization:”

“Similar to the CG ‘phased modernization’ plan, the LSD plan avoids approximately $128 million across the FYDP in operating and maintenance and an end strength increase of approximately 300 people (approximately $110 million over the FYDP) for the one LSD that will be in this category during the PB-15 FYDP. This plan adds 35 operational “ship years” and sustains the presence of the Whidbey Island class in the Battle Force through 2038.[1]

At first blush, the COA is a throw-away.  As stated by III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lieutenant General John Wissler, the GCC requirement for amphibious ships is actually 50,[2] not 38. How could Congress justify laying up a ship—decommissioning it in all but name only—for an extended period of time when a gap of 12 amphibious ships already exists? Major General Robert Walsh, director of the Chief of Naval Operations Expeditionary Warfare Division stated in a National Defense interview that the inventory shortage is not the only issue at hand.

“A low inventory is only part of the problem.  Amphibious ships stay forward-deployed longer because of high demand, leading to missed or shortened maintenance period where only a portion of scheduled work is completed.  The ships have been run hard, and as you run them hard, you see the availability, the readiness rates start to go down…it’s a vicious cycle.”[3]

Breaking the cycle requires relaxing the near term amphibious ship requirement enough to restore the materiel readiness of the ships. Even with the maintenance / training / deployment predictability that we hope to achieve in the optimization of the Fleet Response Plan, can we realistically expect different operational availability / capability?  We have 31 amphibious ships to meet the requirements of five GCCs.  These ships are trapped in the aforementioned vicious cycle and need major maintenance and modernization that can only be accomplished by taking them off-line for protracted periods of time. But doing just that is out of the question with today’s GCC requirements. Changing them is something that the GCC’s cannot do on their own, as they flow down from the missions assigned by the National Command Authority (NCA) and the National Security / National Military Strategies.  The largest requirement on amphibious forces is “presence”—a ubiquitous term which captures everything from Theater Security Cooperation (TSC), Maritime Security Operations (MSO) to deterrence of aggressors and potential aggressors.  Captain Jerry Hendrix articulated the decision making calculus of scheduling platforms to presence requirements in his seminal article At What Cost a Carrier:

“When considering the demands by presidents, allies and combatant commanders for forward-deployed naval presence, wise spenders must question the cost and method of meeting these demands[4].”

Not every mission requiring sea-based Marines requires an Amphibious Ready Group, or even a single disaggregated[5] amphibious ship.  Civilian crewed ships such as Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV), Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP) / Mobile Landing Platform Afloat Staging Bases (MLP-AFSB) and Dry Combat Cargo ships (T-AKE) have the capacity and capability to embark company sized elements and facilitate operations such as permissive non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), TSC, limited MSO and special operations.  What a civilian crewed ship cannot do is defend itself against a credible threat such as an anti-surface cruise missile or aircraft, or project power in a combined-arms battalion sized amphibious assault.  A civilian crewed ship is not a replacement for an amphibious ship; it is a gap-filler for specific mission sets which have been traditionally assigned to amphibious ships.

Accomplishing the required maintenance and modernization to restore physical readiness and required capability to the Amphibious Fleet may require placing the ships into much maligned ‘phased modernizations’.  The conversely heralded ‘mid-life maintenance availabilities’—such as those being completed for the Whidbey Island class amphibious landing docks—have been truncated and de-scoped throughout the years in order to meet budget and combatant commander requirements.  As the Wasp class amphibious assault ships prepare for their mid-life availabilities and an unprecedented plethora of required hull / mechanical / electrical (HM&E), Joint Strike Fighter and C2 / C5I upgrades, it is inevitable given the fiscal environment that items on the laundry list to improve operational availability and capability will not make the cut.  Pentagon leaders will have to choose between Joint Strike Fighter interoperability, self-defense capability, command and control capability / capacity, and the ship’s hull / mechanical / electrical reliability.  Operational availability vs capability—either way you can’t make up for decades of lower prioritization in 10 month maintenance availabilities. Readiness will ultimately suffer.

In the current fiscal environment, we cannot simply add ships and Sailors to fix the problem.  The operational deficit of amphibious ships is 12—if we are to honor today’s GCC requirements with those added ships, it would require more than 15 amphibious ships before we would start seeing an increase in operational availability / readiness[6].  SSBN(X), SSC and DDG-51 Flt III would all potentially be threatened to pay that bill.  Leadership at the OSD level needs to evaluate the situation and determine where we can afford to take risk—the continued vicious cycle attacking the materiel readiness of our amphibious ships (operational availability, C2/C5I capability and capacity, self-defense capability), or our amphibious shipping presence.

Alpha sub Oscar (AO) is a former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer and current student of the US Naval War College hailing from the great fighting city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[1] Greenert, Admiral Jonathan. “Statement of Admiral Jonathan Greenert USN Chief of Naval Operations Before the House Armed Services Committee on FY 2015 Department of the Navy Posture.”

[2] Insinna, Valerie.  “Marine Forces Japan Commander Raises Concerns on Amphibious Ship Numbers, Readiness.”  National Defense, April 11, 2014 www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/lists/posts/post.aspx?ID=1477

[3] Insinna, Valerie.  “Low Inventory, Low Readiness Plague Amphibious Ship Fleet.”  National Defense, August 2014 http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2014/August/Pages/LowInventoryLowReadinessPlagueAmphibiousShipFleet.aspx

[4] Hendrix, Captain Henry J (Ph.D).  “At What Cost a Carrier?”  Center for a New American Security, Disruptive Defense Papers, March 2013.

[5] Disaggregated operations are defined in EF-21 “…requiring elements of the ARg/MEU to function separately and independently, regardless of time and distance…”

[6] Assuming an amphibious shipping buy across each major class of ships: 1 additional each of LHA/D, LPD, LSD

Sea Control from Ashore

The following, written by guest author Niel Kaneshiro, is an abstract from a US Naval War College Directed Research Project of the same name submitted in response to our call for Amphibious Warfare articles. Please direct response articles to nextwar(at)cimsec.org.

The United States faces an increasingly complex security environment in the Indo-Pacific. In the event of a crisis, China’s growing Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities will allow it to challenge U.S. military access to the region, as well as raise the risks and costs to the U.S. should it intervene on behalf of a regional ally or partner.

By leveraging security treaties and access agreements, the United States can employ ground forces in cooperation with partners to secure maritime choke points and littoral areas, denying their use to an adversary during a crisis or hostilities. These land forces can also create protected areas from A2AD capabilities for combined and joint military operations, ensuring continued access into the region. Furthermore, ground forces can allow naval and air forces to concentrate on operations in areas outside the reach of land based weapon systems. Ground forces can help address the problem of sea control in the Western Pacific in the context of A2AD challenges in several ways. First, ground forces can provide persistent control of choke points and littoral areas using anti-ship missiles, helicopters, and drones. Second, ground forces can conduct maritime intercept operations by employing heliborne troops who can board and capture merchant shipping. Third, ground forces can create protected areas for friendly forces, keeping them clear of adversary air, missile, and surface ship threats.

Ground forces also provide reassurance to allies and partners – indicating U.S. commitment to the region and to its treaty obligations. “Boots on the ground” have significant symbolic and practical importance. For many countries in Asia, the most important military service is their army. Ground forces, specifically the U.S. Army and Marines, can develop important and enduring partnerships with those services, even assisting them with building their own military capability.

U.S. military planners and theorists have proposed strategies and operational concepts that take into account China’s A2AD capability, thus allowing U.S. forces to perform their missions despite an increasingly hostile environment. “Air Sea Battle” (ASB) is an operational concept that proposes to employ closely coordinated air and naval power to defeat A2AD threats. A primary tenet of ASB is the habitual coordination of U.S. Air Force and Navy assets to mount joint attacks on various A2AD systems, which include anti-ship ballistic missiles, over the horizon sensors, long-range bombers, and cruise missile equipped surface ships and submarines while defending U.S. naval forces and bases from attack. The actions inherent in the ASB concept would be one part of a larger strategy to address a crisis. [i]

An alternative to conducting ASB operations is “Offshore Control”, a proposed strategy wherein U.S. forces conduct a “distant blockade” against China, avoiding the A2AD problem by remaining out of the range of ballistic missiles and bombers. Offshore Control emphasizes sea control outside of what China refers to as the “first island chain” – the islands that consist of Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo – with the objective of interdicting China’s maritime commerce. This concept would result in a more protracted conflict that would use largely militarily induced pressure on China’s economy to de-escalate a crisis, and would avoid destabilizing attacks on the Chinese mainland; such attacks could lead to escalation, a serious problem when dealing with a nuclear power.[ii]

Neither of the concepts involves significant use of ground forces. The roles for ground forces typically are limited to supporting activities, mainly the defense of ports and airfields from missile attack. Other U.S. military writings suggest joint forcible entry operations, which could consist of air or amphibious raids and assaults against A2AD capabilities or to seize key terrain.[iii] However, a forcible entry operation in the face of A2AD capabilities and the strength of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is likely a risky and costly proposition. U.S. forces operating in close proximity to the Asian mainland will have to face the same A2AD capabilities that they propose to defeat.

Land power defined is “the ability – by threat, force, or occupation – to gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and people.”[iv] By extension, land power means the ability to exploit land areas for other purposes. U.S. military thinkers largely conceive of the Pacific as primarily a U.S. Air Force and Navy theatre; however, there are key islands that make land power relevant to any military campaign in the region. The Second World War in the Pacific was fought for and around islands. Geographically important islands became bases for continuing naval operations and served as unsinkable aircraft carriers for long-range bombers.

The geography of the Western Pacific has not changed. Modern missiles, sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and helicopters allow ground forces to project combat power out to sea in a way that was not possible before. American ground combat forces – Army or Marine, have the potential to conduct sea control operations and contribute substantively to an offshore control strategy or an ASB type campaign. In other words, land power can be exploited to gain sea control.

Niel Kaneshiro is a former United States Navy and current United States Army analyst as well as a student of the US Naval War College.

[i] Air-Sea Battle Office, “Air-Sea Battle: Service Collaboration to Address Anti-Access & Area Denial Challenges”, May 2013: 4.

[ii] Hammes, T.X. “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict”, Institute for National Strategic Studies . June 2012: 4-5.

[iii] U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, “Gaining and Maintaining Access: An Army-Marine Corps Concept”, March 2012: 6.

[iv] U.S. Department of the Army, “ADRP 3-0 – Unified Land Operations” 2012: Glossary-4