Tag Archives: amphibious

Accelerating the Renaissance of the U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Assault Forces 

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By George Galdorisi


The United States has entered an era of great power competition against peer adversaries who are seeking to shape the world to their needs and upset the global international order.1 This challenge is addressed in the highest levels of U.S. policy documents, from Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, to the National Security Strategy, to the National Defense Strategy. Indeed, the National Defense Strategy explicitly calls for the United States to “Build a More Lethal Force” to deal with these threats.”2

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are critical components of this more lethal force. As the Navy’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) notes, “The U.S. Navy must be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.” Design 2.0 also calls for “Deepening integration with our natural partner, the U.S. Marine Corps.”3 As Brigadier General Christian Wortman, Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, noted at the recent USNI/AFCEA West Symposium “We are back and completely integrated with the Navy.”4

This call for enhanced Navy-Marine Corps integration comes at a time when, in the words of a former Marine Commandant, “The Marine Corps is returning to its amphibious roots,”5 and when the demand for amphibious forces is at a high level. As Ryan Hilger noted in his recent CIMSEC article, “Ground Component Commanders (GCCs) continue to signal a demand for amphibious forces, reaching high enough to justify 40 amphibious ships required to meet requested presence requirements.”6

This sea change in U.S. strategic focus comes at a time of accelerating technological change. As Michelle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, noted recently, “We are in the most intense technological revolution the world has ever seen.”7 Today, one of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption by the U.S. military involves unmanned systems. In the past several decades, the U.S. military’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has increased from only a handful to more than 10,000, while the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) has exploded from zero to more than 12,000.

The use of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) is also growing, as USVs and UUVs are proving to be increasingly useful for a wide array of military applications. The expanding use of military unmanned systems (UxS) is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago.

America’s Amphibious Assault Forces: Leading a Paradigm Shift

Last summer, the Smithsonian Channel featured a series, “The Pacific War in Color.” One part of this program told the story of amphibious assaults on Japanese-held islands, such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Tarawa, Peleliu, and others. These assaults involved armadas of amphibious ships and hundreds of landing craft that were part of each forcible entry operation. In each case, the attacking force faced significant opposition getting Marines onto the beach.

Aerial raw footage of the 1945 Iwo Jima landings (Romano Archives)

In the post-Cold War era, amphibious assault forces have not been the most capable part of the U.S. Navy. In the years after 9/11—while the Marine Corps was engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and not primarily embarked on amphibious ships—the amphibious assault fleet was, at best, an afterthought. Today, as the United States faces a plethora of threats across the globe, there is a new emphasis on amphibious warfare.

According to Lieutenant General David Berger, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and nominee to be the next Commandant of the Marine Corps, “We need to be prepared for large-scale amphibious operations. We might do it differently in the future, but we can’t ignore it.”8

For decades, when a crisis emerged anywhere on the globe, the first question a U.S. president often asked was, “Where are the carriers?” Today, that question is still asked, but increasingly, it has morphed into, “Where are the expeditionary strike groups?” The reason is clear. These naval expeditionary formations—built around a large-deck amphibious assault ship, an amphibious transport dock, and a dock landing ship—have been the ones used extensively for a wide array of missions short of war, from anti-piracy patrols, to personnel evacuation, to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And where tensions lead to hostilities, these forces are the only ones that give the U.S. military a forcible entry option.

U.S. naval expeditionary forces have remained relatively robust even as the size of the Navy has shrunk from a high of 594 ships in 1987 to 272 ships in 2018. Naval expeditionary strike groups comprise a substantial percentage of the current fleet. Indeed, the blueprint for the future fleet the Navy is building, as seen in a recent Congressional Research Service report, maintains—and even increases—that percentage.9

An article in Marine Corps Gazette highlighted Marine Corps thinking on future amphibious assault operations:

“While forcible entry operations are often thought of exclusively in terms of initiating a continental campaign, an application some analysts assume to be unlikely, it may be more probable in the 21st century that they are conducted as part of a joint campaign that is maritime in character. It ought to be self-evident from looking at a map that military competition in the near seas will involve an amphibious component—to include amphibious assault when and where required.”

The Gazette article goes on to note that “a film about a modern amphibious operation would likely be boring, as there would be no dramatic scenes of large units fighting their way across a heavily defended beach.”10

Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary forces have been proactive in looking to affordable new technology to add capability to their existing and future ships. One of the technologies that offers the most promise in this regard is unmanned systems. These unmanned systems can reduce the risk to human life in high-threat areas, deliver persistent surveillance over areas of interest, and provide options to warfighters—particularly given their ability to operate autonomously.

 The U.S. Navy’s commitment to unmanned systems is seen in the Navy’s Force Structure Assessment, as well as in a series of Future Fleet Architecture Studies. In each of these studies—one by the CNO staff, one by the MITRE Corporation, and one by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—the proposed future fleet architecture featured large numbers of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems.11 These reports highlight the fact that the attributes unmanned systems can bring to the U.S. Navy Fleet circa 2030 have the potential to be transformational.

One of the major challenges to the Navy and Marine Corps to making a substantial commitment to unmanned maritime systems is the fact that they are relatively new and their development has been under the radar for all but a few professionals in the research and development, requirements, and acquisition communities. That is now changing. The Department of Defense 2017-2037 Unmanned Systems Roadmap highlights a large number of Navy and Marine Corps unmanned systems, particularly unmanned maritime systems (USVs and UUVs).12

Design 2.0 has clearly articulated the importance of unmanned systems to the Navy and Marine Corps future warfighting effectiveness. The publication’s “Line of Effort Green: Achieve High Velocity Outcomes,” demonstrates the Navy’s commitment to making unmanned systems a key component of the future fleet, highlighting air, surface and subsurface unmanned systems.13 Additionally, this commitment to unmanned systems programs is reflected in program documents such as the 2018 Navy Program Guide and the 2018 Marine Corps Concepts and Programs.

The Navy and Marine Corps have taken the lead in orchestrating an unprecedented number of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations to introduce new, cutting edge technologies—especially unmanned maritime systems—into the Fleet and Fleet Marine Forces. Many of these technologies are mature commercial off-the-shelf systems that are currently being used for other military and commercial applications. These events have put new technology directly into the hands of Sailors and Marines and have accelerated the amphibious force renaissance.

Testing and Evaluating Unmanned Systems

During the recent USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson noted, “Our strategic Achilles Heel is our inability to get new technology into the hands of our warfighters fast enough.”14 This is especially true with emerging technologies that are revolutionary—not merely evolutionary.

As with many novel naval technologies: ironclads, submarines, aircraft, nuclear power, directed-energy weapons, as well as others, is it typically not the most prominent communities where this experimentation takes place, but rather, in those parts of the Navy and Marine Corps that have traditionally been out of the spotlight and who need a technology boost. Today, it is the amphibious assault Navy that has been notably proactive in experimenting with emerging unmanned systems.

The Navy and Marine Corps have a number of ways to test and evaluate unmanned maritime systems. While some of this testing and evaluating—especially in the early stages of unmanned maritime systems development—occurs at industry facilities or at U.S. Navy laboratories, once these systems are more mature, they are fielded in a wide-array of Navy and Marine Corps events in the operational environment where they will ultimately be used. Brigadier General Wortman emphasized this point during the USNI/AFCEA Wes” Symposium where he noted, “We need to do more Fleet and MEF level exercises.”15

As the Department of the Navy has become increasingly interested in unmanned maritime systems, this testing and evaluating has accelerated in a number of exercises, experiments and demonstrations, such as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral Demonstration, and the Navy-Marine Corps Bold Alligator series of exercises.

The Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation Advanced Naval Technology Exercise is a prime example of the Department of the Navy’s push to test and evaluate unmanned maritime systems. S2ME2 ANTX was especially important to the Navy and Marine Corps as the amphibious ship-to-shore mission is one of the most challenging tasks the military must undertake.

Due to the enormous stakes involved in putting troops ashore in the face of a prepared enemy force, S2ME2 ANTX had a heavy focus on unmanned systems—especially unmanned surface systems—that could provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as well as intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). These are critical missions that have been traditionally been done by Sailors, Marines, and Special Operators, but ones that put these warfighters at extreme risk.

There is growing realization of the need to insert new technology to make the amphibious assault force more effective in the face of robust adversary defenses. In an address at the 2018 Surface Navy Association Symposium, Marine Corps Major General David Coffman, Director of Expeditionary Warfare (OPNAV N95), noted the need to make U.S. Navy amphibious ships, “More viable, lethal and survivable, with a focus on command, control, communications, computers, cyber and intelligence (C5I).”16 Clearly, the ISR and IPB missions depend on these capabilities, and it is unmanned systems that can provide this function without hazarding personnel.

During the S2ME2 ANTX the amphibious assault force proactively employed an unmanned surface vehicle to thwart enemy defenses. A MANTAS USV (an eight-foot version of a family of stealthy, low profile, USVs) swam into the “enemy” harbor (the Del Mar Boat Basin on the Southern California coast), and relayed information in real-time to the amphibious force command center using its TASKER C2 system. Subsequent to this ISR mission, the MANTAS USV was driven to the surf zone to provide IPB on water conditions, beach gradient, obstacle location and other information crucial to planners prior to a manned assault. 

Carly Jackson, Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific’s Director of Prototyping for Information Warfare and one of the organizers of S2ME2 ANTX, explained the key element of the exercise was to demonstrate new technology developed in rapid response to real world problems facing the fleet and noted that the exercise was focused on unmanned systems with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.17

In many ways, S2ME2 ANTX was a precursor to Bold Alligator, the Navy-Marine Corps exercise designed to enhance interoperability in the littorals. Bold Alligator was a live, scenario-driven exercise designed to demonstrate maritime and amphibious force capabilities. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) led the exercise and operated from dock landing ships USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44); amphibious transport dock USS Arlington (LPD-24).18

Bold Alligator took the concepts explored during S2ME2 ANTX to the next level, employing two different size (six-foot and twelve-foot) MANTAS USVs in the ISR and IPB roles to provide comprehensive reconnaissance of beaches and waterways. These systems were employed during the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance phase of the exercise.

The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade used the larger (twelve-foot) MANTAS USV, equipped with a Gyro Stabilized SeaFLIR230 EO/IR Camera and a BlueView M900 Forward Looking Imaging Sonar to provide ISR and IPB for the amphibious assault. This sonar was employed to provide bottom imaging and analysis within the surf zone of the amphibious landing area. This latter capability is crucial in amphibious operations in order to ensure that a landing craft can successfully enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects.

While S2ME2 was confined to a relatively constrained operating area off the coast of Southern California, Bold Alligator was played out over a wide geographic area. This included a Command Center at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and operating units employing forces in a wide area of the Atlantic Ocean, North and South Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as well as in the Intracoastal Waterway near Camp Lejeune.

During the Long Range Littoral Reconnaissance phase of Bold Alligator, Navy and Marine Corps operators at Naval Station Norfolk were able to remotely control both the six-foot and twelve-foot MANTAS USVs and drive them off North and South Onslow Beaches as well as in the Intracoastal Waterway. Once positioned, both MANTAS USVs streamed live, high-resolution video and sonar images to the command center at Naval Station Norfolk several hundred miles away.

The latter capability is crucial in amphibious operations in order to ensure that a landing or other craft could successfully navigate a waterway or enter the surf zone without encountering mines or other objects. Clearing a path for LCACs or LCUs to safely pass through the surf zone and onto the beach during an assault is a make-or-break factor for any amphibious operation. Having the ability to view these images in real-time enables decision makers not on-scene to make time-critical go/no go determinations. The value of providing commanders with real-time ISR and IPB is difficult to overstate, and it is likely that this capability will continue to be examined in other expeditionary exercises going forward.

Sustaining the Amphibious Assault Force Renaissance

The ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionary assault force was—and remains—the most hazardous mission for any navy.  The value of real-time ISR and IPB is difficult to overstate. It is this ability to sense the battlespace in real time that will spell the difference between victory and defeat.

For this reason, it seems clear that the types of unmanned systems the Department of the Navy should acquire are those systems that directly support naval expeditionary forces that conduct forcible entry operations. This suggests a need for unmanned surface systems to complement our expeditionary naval formations represented by the amphibious assault navy. These commercial off-the-shelf technologies are available today and the Department of the Navy would be well-served to put them into the hands of warfighters now.

Captain George Galdorisi (USN – retired) is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty service included four command tours and five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff. He began his writing career in 1978 with an article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He is the Director of Strategic Assessments and Technical Futures at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego, California. 

The views presented are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


[1] Global Trends: Paradox of Progress (Washington, D.C.: National Intelligence Council, 2017), accessed at: https://www.dni.gov/index.php/global-trends-home.

[2] The National Defense Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, January 2018)

[3] Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, December 2018) accessed at: https://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/Design_2.0.pdf.

[4] Brigadier General Christian Wortman, panel remarks, USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

[5] Otto Kreisher, U.S. Marine Corps Is Getting Back to Its Amphibious Roots, Defense Media Network, November 8, 2012, accessed at: https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/return-to-the-sea/.

[6] Ryan Hilger, Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy,” Center for International Maritime Security, April 8, 2019, accessed at: http://cimsec.org/cost-and-survivability-acquiring-the-gator-navy/39784

[7] Michelle Flournoy, keynote remarks, Second Front “Offset Symposium,” March 5, 2019.

[8] Lieutenant General David Berger, keynote remarks, National Defense Industrial Association Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Annapolis Maryland, October 16-18, 2018.

[9] Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, October 19, 2018).

[10] George Galdorisi and Scott Truver, The U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Assault Renaissance: It’s More than Ships and Aircraft,”  War on the Rocks, December 12, 2018.

[11] See Navy Project Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, October 27, 2016, MITRE, Navy Future Fleet Platform Architecture Study, July 1, 2016, and CSBA, Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, January 23, 2017.

[12] Department of Defense Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2017-2042 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, August. 28, 2018).

[13] Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0.

[14] Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, keynote address, USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

[15] Brigadier General Christian Wortman USMC, Commanding Officer Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Panel remarks, USNI/AFCEA “West” Symposium, February 13-15, 2019.

[16] Meagan Eckstein, “Navy, Marines Eyeing Ship Capability Upgrade Plans that Focus on Weapons, C5I,” USNI News, January 17, 2018, accessed at: https://news.usni.org/2018/01/17/navy-marines-eyeing-ship-capability-upgrade-plans-focus-weapons-c5i?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=3de4951649-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-3de4951649-230420609&mc_cid=3de4951649&mc_eid=157ead4942.

[17] Patric Petrie, “Navy Lab Demonstrates High-Tech Solutions in Response to Real-World Challenges at ANTX17,” CHIPS Magazine Online, May 5, 2017, accessed at http://www.doncio.navy.mil/CHIPS/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=8989.

[18] Information on Bold Alligator 2017 is available on the U.S. Navy website at: http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=102852.

Featured Image: MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII, Hawaii (April 9, 20190) A U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle assigned to Combat Assault Company, 3d Marine Regiment, crashes into the tides as it enters the water during an amphibious assault exercise at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Apr. 9, 2019. The unit conducted a simulated beach assault to improve their lethality and cooperation, as a mechanized unit and force in readiness. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alex Kouns)

Cost and Survivability: Acquiring the Gator Navy

By LCDR Ryan Hilger, USN

The president recently reiterated his call, echoed by many in the Department of Defense, for a larger Navy to meet the world’s threats. That call, however, is meeting the harsh reality of spiraling ship costs over the last 20 years. Indeed, over a decade ago then-Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Vern Clark told Congress, “[w]hen adjusted for inflation, for example, the real cost increase in every class of ship and aircraft that we have bought since I was an Ensign…has been truly incredible.”1

While much of the news surrounding ships and their growing price tags focuses on aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines, there is another class of ship that likewise threatens to break the Navy’s bank – amphibious ships. Despite a historical track record of damage-free employment and a reputation for straightforward “truck-like” delivery of Marines and their gear, the Navy continues to saddle these ships with greater defensive requirements and a level of sophistication out of touch with the mission they are meant to support. Using history and a clear assessment of expeditionary warfare as guides, the Navy needs to reexamine just how much it wants to put into these platforms and consider a return to a more stripped-down, cost-effective platform that can be built in greater numbers for the same price.

The Demand for Amphibs

Marines provide combatant commanders with a variety of options to fulfill the president’s National Security Strategy around the world, ranging from theater security cooperation to forcible entry. The Navy is obligated by public law to embark Marines for “service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”2 The current requirement for amphibious ships stands at 38, enough to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades for an amphibious assault. The Navy has not met this requirement since 2003.3 The current fleet inventory of 33 ships implicitly accepts the risk that the Marine Corps may not be able to simultaneously meet its presence and force generation requirements.The projected cost of the LX(R) replacement, set at $1.643 billion per ship, means that the Navy will likely continue accepting this risk, despite the CNO stating that the industrial base could produce at least five more ships in the next six years.5

Ground Component Commanders (GCCs) continue to signal a demand for amphibious forces, reaching high enough to justify 40 amphibious ships required to meet requested presence requirements.6 The CNO, Admiral John Richardson, articulated in The Future Navy that the Navy knows it needs the “inherent flexibility of a larger amphibious fleet.”7 Throughout Expeditionary Force 21, the Marine Corps acknowledges that the operational environment has changed significantly since the last amphibious ships were built. Amphibious landings, once conducted within sight of the beach, have been pushed further out because of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The Marine Corps now sets the benchmark distance at 65 nautical miles from shore. Survivability seems to be the primary concern, but is the fundamental assumption that an amphibious ship must be built to naval vessel construction standards actually valid?

Battle Damage and Amphibious Operations

In 1921, Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Pete” Ellis published Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, the Marine Corps’ contribution to War Plan Orange and the foundation of modern amphibious doctrine.8 The United States conducted dozens of amphibious assaults in World War II and several more during Korea and Vietnam. The vast majority of the amphibious ships were passenger ships retrofitted as troop transports, not organic warships. At no time did amphibious assault forces conduct a landing unescorted. Indeed, a survey of the available battle damage records for World War II and the Korean War indicates that large amphibious ships did not receive battle damage and none were lost. The escorts and landing craft bore the brunt of the enemy attempts to repulse the attack, despite the larger ships offloading within sight of the beach. In 1982, the British conducted the last major amphibious assault to recapture the Falkland Islands. Despite an acute ASCM threat from Argentinian air power, no amphibious ships were lost. The British lost the Atlantic Conveyor, a relatively small merchant ship taken up from trade, and a handful of escorts. History shows the United States will almost always provide an extensive escort to conduct forcible entry operations.  

The threat of ASCMs to ships in the littoral regions has grown significantly in the last half century. The proliferation of highly capable missiles, such as the Exocet and the C-802, places U.S. Navy deployed forces at risk daily. USS Mason (DDG-87) was forced to defend itself in October 2016 when Houthi rebels in Yemen launched two missiles at the destroyer, who was escorting USS Ponce (LPD-15) at the time. This attack came soon after the successful attack on the United Arab Emirates-operated HSV Swift by Houthi rebels with a C-802 the week prior.9 ASCMs have proven successful at causing significant damage or sinking warships in the past, as the attacks on HMS Sheffield (D80) in 1982 and USS Stark (FFG-31) in 1987 so aptly demonstrate. But these were small combatants, each around 4,500 tons, and Atlantic Conveyor was not much bigger at 14,900 tons.

These data points seem conclusive, but the 1980s provided an exceptional data set of ASCM attacks on much larger ships. During the Iran-Iraq War, the attacks from both sides expanded to merchant shipping and, eventually, U.S. forces began escorting them as part of Operation EARNEST WILL. The Iraqis began attacking shipping in 1984 and Iran responded in kind in 1986, resulting in the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers under U.S. flag and direct U.S. escort and convoy operations.10 Iran and Iraq cumulatively launched 487 attacks against merchant shipping, mostly with Exocets (62.5 percent). Only a handful missed, resulting in 19 sunk. Of these 19, seven were under 1200 deadweight tons (dwt), seven were between 1,200-30,000 dwt, three were between 60,000-90,000 dwt, one unknown, and one tipped the scales at 224,850 dwt.11 Overall, the percentage of merchant ships sunk in all air attacks, not just ASCM attacks, peaked at 10.34 percent in 1984, remained below 4 percent until 1987, and fell to 1 percent in 1988.12  Navias and Hooten report that only 115 of the ships attacked, or 27.9 percent, were considered constructive total losses, half of which were tankers. They conclude:

“The Tanker War certainly demonstrated that the robust construction of merchantman made them far less vulnerable to modern weapons systems than might have been expected. The most vulnerable vessels were the bulk carriers, with their vast holds, and the traditional freighter whose high freeboard and central superstructure attracted missile seekers like a moth to flame.”13

Retired Captain Wayne Hughes, a professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the landmark work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, looked at all ASCM attacks and concluded that it took more than one ASCM hit to place a ship out of action, and nearly two hits to sink it. The vast majority of the attacks were against smaller ships. Escort ships reduced the probability of hit by more than 60 percent.14 Thus, larger ships are far more survivable due to sheer size, especially when escorted. This all begs the question: why are we paying for warship standards and systems when the ships, especially larger ones, are likely to survive alone and would be escorted in higher-threat environments? Do other navies do the same?

Foreign Amphibious Ships

Spanish shipbuilder Navantia shocked the modern Navy when it announced that it was teaming up with Bath Iron Works to design the U.S. Navy’s next generation frigate.15 Many commentators balked at the hint of outsourcing an American warship design to a foreign company. However, as Navantia was quick to point out, the Navy has a history of doing that—Bath Iron Works and Navantia cooperated in designing the Oliver Hazard Perry (U.S.) and Santa Maria (SP) class of frigates in the 1980s.16 Other nations likely design their warships to similar standards as the U.S. Navy does, meaning the comparisons should be valid.

The comparison considers the amphibious assault ships (LHA/LHD classes), amphibious transport docks (LPDs), and dock landing ships (LSDs), which are all common across several of the world’s navies. The chart below provides relevant statistics about these ships for analysis.

Amphibious Assault Ships (LHA/LHD)17
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots Air Spots
Australia Canberra 27,100 358 1046-1400 $1.04B 4 LCVP 9-18
France Mistral 21,300 140 450-900 $644M 2 LCAC 16-35
South Korea Dokdo 18,800 330 720 $355M 2 LCAC 10
Spain Juan Carlos 26,000 261 913 $644M 4 LCVP 25
USA America 45,693 1060 1687 $3.54B 2 LCAC 31
USA Wasp 40,500 1208 1894 $2.3B 3 LCAC 20

At first glance, the comparison seems invalid since the U.S. ships are nearly twice the size of the next foreign ship, the Canberra class. However, the Canberra is a scant 100 feet shorter than the U.S. ships, meaning the density of the equipment onboard the US LHA/LHDs is far greater than the Australian class. RAND identified the root cause of this disparity as the U.S. propensity for more technologically complex ships. These ships will perform the exact same missions, but the Canberra-class is a third the cost. The Spanish Juan Carlos class has the same specifications as the Australian Canberra-class, but with fewer crew and embarked troops. The Mistral and Dokdo, a full 200 feet shorter than the equivalent U.S. classes, are still about half the tonnage of the U.S. ships. RAND identified light ship weight (LSW)18 and power density as most closely correlated with ship cost. In this case, LSW and power density for the U.S. ships is significantly higher in our analysis, and the RAND researchers calculate this at an 80-90 percent increase across the ship classes they evaluated.19 The U.S. ships simply have more stuff than their foreign counterparts. We continue the analysis with LPDs and LSDs.

Amphibious Transport Dock and Dock Landing Ships (LPD and LSD)
Country Class Tonnage Crew
Troop Compliment Cost (FY17) Well Deck Spots
China Yuzhao LPD 25,000 120 500-800 $630M (est) 4 LCAC
Singapore Endurance LSD 8,500 65 350-500 Unk. 2 LCVP
Britain Bay LSD 16,160 228 355-700 $205M 2 LCVP
Indonesia Makassar LSD 8,400 126 218-518 $58M 2 LCVP
Italy San Giorgio LSD 8,000 180 350 $303M 3 LCVP
USA San Antonio LPD 25,300 360 700 $1.72B 2 LCAC
USA Whidbey Island LSD 16,100 330 504 $653M 6 LCAC
USA Harpers Ferry LSD 15,939 410 500 $524M 2 LCAC

The conclusions are similar. The Chinese Yuzhao-class, a newer class of amphibious ship that looks similar to the San Antonio-class, is more than 60 percent cheaper and likely has comparable capabilities. Interestingly, several navies have built much smaller amphibious ships of nearly half the tonnage of their American counterparts, yet carry nearly the same number of troops. Those ships are about two-thirds the length and 10-20 feet narrower, meaning the LSW ratio is lower on those ships than the U.S. LSDs. Yet the U.S. Navy consistently pays significantly more for its amphibious ships than foreign navies. RAND found that labor rates and other economic factors did not significantly drive ship costs, meaning their conclusion of LSW, power density, and requirements is likely true. What to do?

Crew Size

The analysis thus far yields several interesting areas that the Navy can exploit for future cost savings without a major loss of capabilities. Crew size, arguably, would have the most outsized impact not only on sticker price but, more importantly, total ownership cost for new classes of ships. The charts above show that U.S. ships routinely have 2-3 times the number of sailors onboard. Indeed, of the 1000-plus sailors onboard a U.S. LHD, a scant 75-100 of them are on watch at any given time. Leaning the crews, already in the test phase with both the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the Zumwalt-class DDGs, provides substantial savings across the life of the ship, especially when taking advantage of automation and other features prevalent in the modern shipbuilding industry for damage control, cargo handling, and other tasks. Retired Captain George Galdorisi proved this point recently, citing the Government Accountability Office, which noted, “The cost of a ship’s crew is the single largest cost incurred over the ship’s lifecycle.” The report, he continues, “suggested the Navy has not moved out quickly enough to reduce manpower on all types of ships.”20

Alternative Options

Beyond looking to foreign navies for inspiration for more affordable ships, the Navy can also look internally to re-purpose some platforms already in the inventory and a civilian equivalent, which now fit within the Marine Corps’ Operating Concept of offloading the ground element further out to sea. The chart below provides the relevant information.

Other Viable Ships
Ship Type Tonnage Berths Cost (FY17) Cargo Capacity Vehicle Capacity
Large, Medium-Speed, Roll On/Off (LMSR) 62,069 0 $452M 380,000 sq ft 1000
Roll On/Off & Passenger Ship
(ex: M/V Ulysses)
50,938 228 $188M Unk 1500
Roll On/Off & Container Ship
(ex: M/V Kanaloa)
44,200 0 $256M 3,500 TEU 800

Expeditionary Transfer Docks provide the necessary deck space to offload an LMSR at sea, meaning that any other large cargo or passenger ship, such as the two merchant ships listed, would also, if designed to support, be able to offload Marines and their equipment, or the unmanned systems of the first wave, to connectors like LCACs. Their sheer size makes them significantly more survivable against ASCM threats than their smaller LPD and LSD cousins, especially when escorted. The costs would increase slightly as the necessary basic military requirements get added on, such as limited defensive capabilities, communications equipment, and redundant damage control systems, but the LSW ratio proves that the cost would remain significantly lower than the price points of our current amphibious ships.

The newer Expeditionary Staging Bases, designed to provide command and control capabilities, remove the need for large command suites on amphibious transports.21 Larger, cheaper amphibious transports provide the additional benefit of allowing the Marine Corps to reconsider the seaborne structure of the Marine Expeditionary Unit, which it wants to do, enabling it to leverage smaller platforms like the LCS or Joint High Speed Vessel to further disaggregate the force or employ smaller unmanned systems.22


The ships we procure today will likely see major advances in hypersonic missile technology, persistent and ubiquitous sensing, and artificial intelligence during their long service lives. The Marine Corps is already acknowledging the need to push well deck operations further off shore because of longer-range threats. The Navy to date has not recognized that the past and future employment constructs and incidents do not seem to justify the cost of the amphibious ships we are procuring. Larger, cheaper platforms provide inherent survivability through physical size and allow the Navy to procure more ships, simultaneously fulfilling the CNO’s and the Marine Corps’ desire for a larger amphibious force to help reach a 355-ship navy. It is past time for the Navy to seriously reconsider some of its most fundamental attributes and assumptions of warship acquisition. We cannot afford to continue otherwise.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington, DC. He writes frequently on topics across the maritime domain. His views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.


1. “Statement of Admiral Vernon Clark, U. S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations, Posture Statement, 10 March 2005,” Defense Subcommittee on Defense of the House Appropriations Committee, p. 22.

2. 10 United States Code §5063, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/10/5063

3. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Amphibious Warfare Ships for Deploying Marines Overseas,” Congressional Budget Office, November 2011, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/11-18-AmphibiousShips.pdf.

“US Ship Force Levels: 1886-Present,” Navy History and Heritage Command, November 17, 2017, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html#2000

4. “Expeditionary Force 21,” United States Marine Corps, March 2014, p. 18.

5. “Future Navy,” United States Navy, p. 7.

6. Ibid.

7. “The Future Navy,” p. 7.

Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, November 30, 2017, p. 5.

8. B. A. Friedman, “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” 21st Century Ellis (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 86-139.

9. Sam LaGrone, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend from Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack,” USNI News, October 11, 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/10/11/uss-mason-fired-3-missiles-to-defend-from-yemen-cruise-missiles-attack

10. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.

11. [1] M/V Song Bong, a North Korean tanker of 224,850 dwt, was sunk while loading at Kharg.

12. M. Navias and E. Hooten, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping during the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York, NY: Tauris Academic Publishers, 1996.

13. Ibid, p. 187.

14. Wayne Hughes, “The Record of Missile Attacks on Ships” (Presentation, Naval Postgraduate School, May 1, 2007).

15. “GDBIW joins forces with Navantia for US Navy FFG(X) frigate bid,” NavalToday.com, November 23, 2017, https://navaltoday.com/2017/11/23/gdbiw-joins-forces-with-navantia-for-us-navy-ffgx-frigate-bid/

16. Ibid.

17. All information in the charts is derived from open sources.

18. The weight of the ship without fuel, stores, or personnel onboard.

19. Arena et al, p. xv

20. George Galdorisi, “The Navy Cannot Afford Large Crews,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Volume 145, Issue 1.

21. “Expeditionary Transfer Dock/Expeditionary Mobile Base,” United States Navy Fact File, 26 January 2018, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4600&tid=675&ct=4

22. “Expeditionary Force 21,” p. 43.

Featured Image: English: SAN DIEGO (Jan. 20, 2009) The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Green Bay (LPD 20) moors at a pier in Long Beach Harbor. (U.S. Navy photo by Gregg Smith/Released)

British Amphibious Operations in Egypt, 1801: A JP 3-02 Perspective, Pt. 1

By Jason Lancaster


“Amphibious Warfare requires the closest practicable cooperation by all the combatant services both in planning and execution, and a command organization which definitely assigns responsibility for major decisions throughout all stages of the operation.”– Admiral Henry K. Hewitt, USN1

By late 1800, the French Revolution was going poorly for the British. Britain’s economy was in distress, her allies had been driven from the war, Russia was shifting to support France, and neutral Baltic nations were arming to enforce their maritime rights and neutrality. Yet despite all this Britain fought on alone against France.

British armed forces were a tale of two branches. The Royal Navy had cleared the seas of French warships, blockaded the coasts of France, and was well respected. By way of contrast, the British Army had performed poorly ashore in northern Europe, had suffered catastrophic casualties while campaigning in the West Indies, and was universally derided by other European armies.2 Britain needed a military victory to solidify the government’s political position at home and abroad as well as to demonstrate the capability of the newly reformed British Army. The British amphibious operation in Egypt was what the nation needed.

Since July 1798, French forces had occupied Egypt. In August 1798, Nelson’s fleet obliterated the French fleet, cutting the French army off from France. After a year of campaigning in Egypt and Syria, Napoleon returned to France. Yet, the French army remained in Egypt, a permanent threat to British India. Britain needed a victory on land to secure room for negotiations at the expected peace conference.

The British joint campaign in Egypt has languished in relative obscurity, overshadowed by Admiral Nelson’s epic naval battle in 1798. When viewed through U.S. Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, this campaign provides several lessons on the successful conduct of an amphibious operation.  

Despite the successful execution of the landing and British victory in the campaign, mistakes made by the national command authority, in intelligence, logistics, planning, and the relationship between the commanding general and admiral caused problems throughout the operation. Even though U.S. amphibious doctrine was developed and refined in the Second World War era and Joint Publication 3-02 is the evolution of those experiences, this essay argues that the principles of a successful amphibious campaign as defined by JP 3-02 are applicable regardless of time period and this historic case study can be analyzed through this doctrine.


“The planning phase normally denotes the period extending from the issuance of an initiating directive that triggers planning for a specific operation and ends with the embarkation of landing forces. However, planning is continuous throughout the operation.” – JP 3-02 3

British politicians agreed that they needed a victory, but where Britain should strike was a matter of debate. The Prime Minister and cabinet debated whether to support another royalist uprising in France, another landing in Holland, Egypt, or somewhere else.4 Surprisingly, despite Britain’s recent support of failed French royalist uprisings and landings in Holland both options were initially more popular than Egypt.

Secretary of State for War Sir Henry Dundas spent years improving Britain’s position in India, and did not want French interference to threaten his work. Secretary Dundas and Napoleon agreed Egypt was the key to India. The French Consul in Egypt stated 10,000 French troops could proceed down the Red Sea to India and take Bengal from the British in one campaign. In London, intelligence on French force levels in Egypt were scarce, but estimates were 13,000 French troops demoralized and crippled by the plague. Intelligence Reports stated the garrison of Alexandria numbered 3,000, and scattered through Upper Egypt and Syria were 10,000 more French troops. 5 In reality, the French army in Egypt was closer to 25,000 soldiers, and despite sacrifices and hardship, their morale was high.6 Britain planned to send an army of 15,000 to Egypt.7 Britain also planned to send an additional 3,000 troops from India, but there was little likelihood of coordination between the two forces, and a failed landing would have enabled the French to defeat both forces piecemeal. This faulty intelligence could have proved disastrous to the landing force. British diplomats in Constantinople also believed they had coordinated Ottoman logistical support for horses and gunboats.  

Secretary Dundas, turned to his fellow Scot, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, to lead the expedition and turn the tide of the war. General Abercromby was an experienced general who had successfully conducted several amphibious operations in the West Indies earlier in the war. At 65, he was an innovative soldier despite his age who mixed the best of the American light infantry and Prussian close order drill schools of British military thought. His protégé, another Scot, General Sir John Moore, pioneered British light infantry tactics, and had served with General Abercromby throughout the West Indian campaigns seizing sugar islands from the French. He served as a division commander throughout this campaign and represented the army’s interests in planning the ship-to-shore movements of the campaign.8

The naval leadership was no less capable and distinguished. Admiral George Elphinstone, 1st Viscount Keith, successfully negotiated with the mutineers at the Nore in 1798. He served as deputy Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean under Admiral Lord St Vincent before himself assuming the command in November 1799. Lord Keith experienced amphibious operations during the siege of Charleston in the American Revolution and in 1795, an expedition that captured the Dutch Cape Colony. Lord Keith’s deputy for planning the ship to shore movement was Captain Alexander Cochrane, uncle of Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane and a distinguished future admiral in his own right. He had served on the American station during the Revolutionary War and was commanding officer of HMS Ajax, a 74-gun ship of the line.

“The focus of the planning process is to link the employment of the amphibious force to the attainment of operational and strategic objectives.”9  Initially clear direction for operational and strategic objectives was not given. Campaigns in the Netherlands, France, and Egypt were proposed. Finally, Secretary Dundas tasked General Abercromby and Lord Keith to conduct a landing in Egypt. Secretary Dundas gave the commanders four objectives: eject French forces, restore Ottoman rule in Egypt, protect British interests in India, and secure a better negotiating position for a future peace conference. Secretary Dundas directed the joint force to attempt to seize the Spanish Fleet at anchor in Cadiz before proceeding to Marmorice Bay to receive promised logistical support from the Ottoman Empire and then to defeat the French forces in Egypt accomplish British objectives.

Operational planning for the expedition began when General Abercromby arrived in Gibraltar. According to JP 3-02, top down planning, unity of effort, and integrated planning are the key components of the planning phase. General Abercromby’s presence in the planning was keenly felt, however Lord Keith displayed little interest in the planning. General Abercromby spoke with naval officers who had served on the Egyptian coast. These conversations helped shape the campaign and narrow the landing sites to the Aboukir Peninsula or Rosetta. Aboukir would enable the British fleet to provide logistical support and the army’s flanks would be protected by water during the advance on Alexandria. A landing at Rosetta would enable the British army to link up with the Ottoman army and advance together toward the French.10  

Initial reports led General Abercromby to believe that his army would find potable water on the Aboukir Peninsula. Eventually, General Abercromby learned through captured letters that all water would have to come from the amphibious shipping. During a council of war aboard HMS Foudroyant naval officers familiar with the coast explained, “when anchored in Aboukir Bay, [the fleet] would be able to land a sufficient quantity of water and provisions for the army.” As the army advanced, “it would always be within a mile of [the coast], boats with water and provisions might attend.”11 If the fleet was destroyed in battle or forced off station by gales, “the army would die of thirst.” While the force was anchored in Marmorice Bay, General Moore was sent to Syria to speak with Captain Sir Sydney Smith RN, serving with the Ottoman forces fighting the French. General Moore assessed the Ottoman forces as disorganized, poorly trained, and disease-ridden. General Abercromby selected Aboukir for the landing site. The condition of the Ottoman army played a major role in that decision. Despite the water supply risk, Aboukir Peninsula was closer to Alexandria, and the waters of the bay and lake protected the army’s flanks from French cavalry.12


“The embarkation phase is the period during which the landing force with its equipment and supplies embark in assigned shipping.” – JP 3-02

Despite almost a decade of war, in 1801, the British army remained small. To create an expedition of 15,000 troops involved redeploying  from British deployments around Great Britain, Ireland, and Europe. Not all regiments in the British Army were designated for service outside Europe. Some regiments, particularly militia regiments, were able to volunteer for active service, but only in Europe. High casualty rates in the West Indies meant that few militia regiments volunteered to serve outside Europe. British troops embarked from Ireland and Britain, including units who would not participate in the campaign, but would relieve units in Gibraltar and Minorca that would participate in the campaign.13 The complex embarkation plan shuffled soldiers across Europe, resulted in some soldiers spending months cramped inside troopships waiting to get ashore.     

The expeditionary force also lacked cavalry mounts. British forces often deployed without horses and purchased them locally since horses take up a large amount of space aboard ships and there was a great difficulty keeping horses healthy for long voyages. The Ottoman Empire promised the British army an ample supply of horses. In reality, British diplomats and supply officers were unable to procure a sufficient number of quality mounts for the cavalry, artillery, and wagon train. The horses provided proved to be subpar, and the strongest horses were given to the artillery to pull cannons. The poor quality mounts meant that the French cavalry would outclass the British cavalry in Egypt.14


“The rehearsal phase is the period during which the prospective operation is rehearsed to: test the adequacy of plans, timing of detailed operations, and combat readiness of participating forces; provide time for all echelons to become familiar with plans; and test all communications and information systems.” – JP 3-02

The British attempt to land a force to seize the Spanish Fleet at Cadiz was a fiasco. A large portion of that was because there had been no time for a rehearsal. Boats went to the wrong transport, it took hours for soldiers to embark the boats, and then they did not form up properly. The landing was called off and the following day a storm scattered the fleet, and the invasion of Cadiz was over. When the fleet arrived in Marmorice, they planned to spend just a few days to rendezvous with Ottoman naval forces and supplies before proceeding to Egypt. Instead, the expected logistical support from the Ottomans never materialized and the expedition spent almost two months waiting.15 General Abercromby used this time to good effect drilling his troops. This time enabled the force to learn and rehearse their ship-to-shore movement to great effect. For seven weeks, the troops practiced ship-to-shore movements, boats going to the right transport, soldiers embarking the boats, boats forming waves, and soldiers forming line of battle from the boats.

A detail of a plan of the Operations of the British Forces in Egypt from the landing in Aboukir Bay on th 8th of March to the Battle of Alexandria March 21st inclusive. (William Fadden, Geographer to His Majesty & to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales/Wikimedia Commons)

The boats were organized into three waves. The first wave comprised 58 flatboats. Each flatboat carried 50 soldiers. The second wave encompassed 81 cutters and the third wave comprised 37 launches. Artillery in boats followed in the fourth wave, the cannons would be disembarked and crewed by sailors.16  The troops practiced disembarking from ships into the landing craft and forming into line of battle on the beach. The soldiers were instructed to enter the flatboats as expeditiously as possible, sit down, and keep their muskets unloaded until formed into line on the beach. Officers’ servants were instructed to bear arms in the ranks and to carry no more than their own equipage.17 The boat crews practiced maintaining the assault boat spacing of 50 feet and the movement from ship-to-shore.18


“The movement phase is the period during which various elements of the amphibious force move from the points of embarkation or from a forward deployed position to the operational area.” – JP 3-02

The expedition’s movement phase consisted of three phases. Phase 1 consisted of the movement from Great Britain and Ireland to Gibraltar and Minorca where the forces were gathering. This phase included the failed attempt to seize the Spanish fleet at Cadiz.

Phase 2 consisted of the movement from Gibraltar and Minorca to Marmorice Bay. Following the Cadiz debacle, the expedition watered and victualed in Africa, and proceeded to Marmorice Bay, Turkey. During this phase a terrible storm scattered the fleet and several days were spent bringing the transports back to the fleet.19 After several weeks, the fleet arrived in Marmorice Bay, whose deep waters and high cliffs proved an excellent anchorage.

Phase 3 was the movement from Marmorice Bay to Egypt. The expedition encountered a storm that frightened the Turkish gunboats, which left the expedition. On 1 March, the expedition arrived off Alexandria – sailing in so close that the masts of the French ships in harbor were visible – and proceeded down the coast to Aboukir; however, weather conditions prevented the landings until the 8th of March.20 This alerted the French, gave General Menou eight days to concentrate troops and entrench them on Aboukir Peninsula. While French troops were rushed to the scene, including 2,000 soldiers to Aboukir Peninsula, there was confusion in the French army as Captain Moiret described, “various movements so numerous as to be impossible – as well as pointless.”21

Now that the expedition was off the coast, the Royal Engineers conducted a beach reconnaissance. Unfortunately, the good works of Majors Fletcher and Mackerras was to no avail. Major Fletcher was captured and Major Mackerras was killed by artillery during their reconnaissance. When the fleet arrived, General Abercromby undertook the reconnaissance himself.22 

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.


[1] Joint Publication 3-02: Amphibious Operations, 18 July 2014, pg II-1

[2] Michael Glover, Peninsular Preparations, (Cambridge, 1963),pg  3.

[3] Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, (2014), I-7

[4] (Mackesy 2010, 5)

[5] John Fortescue, A History of the British Army Vol. IV, (MacMillan, 1915), pg 800.

[6] Joseph –Marie Moiret, Memoirs of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801, (Green Hill, 2001), pg 160.

[7] Piers Mackesy British Victory in Egypt, (TPP 2010), pg 13.

[8] Piers Mackesy British Victory in Egypt, (TPP 2010), pg 14.

[9] JP 3-02, pg III-2.

[10] John Moore, The Diary of Sir John Moore, (Arnold, 1904), pp 397-398.

[11] Moore, 397.

[12] Fortescue, pg 809.

[13] Fortescue pg 804.

[14] Mackesy, pg 100.

[15] James Lowry, Fiddlers and Whores, (Chatham, 2006), pg 59.

[16] John Creswell, Generals and Admirals, (Longman’s, 1952), pg 101

[17] Aeneas Anderson, Journal Of the Forces, ( Debrett, 1802), pg 201.

[18] Moore, pg 399.

[19] Lowry, pg 59.

[20] Lowry, pp 70-71.

[21] Moiret, pg 161.

[22] Anderson, pp 213-215.

Featured Image: British Troops Landing at Aboukir by Philip James de Loutherbourg (Wikimedia Commons)

Contested Ship-to-Shore Movement, Pt. 2: Firepower Overmatch

Part One of this series focused on the role of quantity in contested ship-to-shore movement. Read it here.

By Josh Abbey

The age of battleships laying broadsides into beaches may have been over when the USS Iowa was decommissioned, but the increasing threat of anti-ship missiles and A2/AD may draw a curtain on the modern surface combatant doing likewise. For a contested ship-to-shore movement to be successful at the shore overmatch is required at the landing zone both in terms of quantity of troops and firepower. Unable to conjure enough firepower out on the beach due to obvious constraints, extensive supporting firepower must come from the air and the sea.

Contesting the Beach in the Modern Age

Anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles are a constant and pervasive complication to ship-to-shore movement against a well-equipped foe. Prior to the creation of precision weapons amphibious fleets could often stage just over the horizon or even closer. Now amphibious fleets can be challenged from land more than 100 miles out to sea.1 The increasing range and speed of anti-ship missiles necessitate over-the-horizon capabilities for amphibious fleets to operate safely.2 Increasingly capable integrated air defense systems also greatly threaten the viability of fire support from the air.3 A2/AD strategies can situate long-range artillery and rocket batteries within air defense bubbles, forming extensive threat zones while using unmanned vehicles for ISR. The proliferation of ASMs and SAMs means even some non-state actors can hold amphibious fleets at risk further out to sea. For example, Hezbollah posses Noor anti-ship missiles with a range of 75 miles,4 and for state actors the range is even greater.5

Modern missile systems present a major problem to ship-to-shore movement in that they can also force out of range what little exists of gun-based fire support from ships. Given how anti-ship missiles may be fielded in fewer numbers than anti-air missiles, ships may find themselves providing fire support when aircraft cannot. Even so, the land attack cruise missiles they may contribute could also be held at risk by anti-air systems, and where closing the range to use guns more effectively could put ships at risk from smaller, anti-armor guided weapons.6

In any case accurate fire support is vital and in high demand. Naval gunfire support played a considerable role in Vietnam and particularly in the Falklands, enabling small British units to combat larger Argentine forces.7 However, the transition from gunfire to missiles as the default weapon of modern ships decreases the availability of fire support. Navies are unlikely to fire expensive munitions such as a Tomahawk missile to destroy a machine gun emplacement or a vehicle, whereas gunfire can be brought to bear on numerous targets of opportunity. Ships also carry limited numbers of land attack missiles due to the need to maintain a diverse inventory of missiles for a variety of multi-domain threats. In a contested theater one would also be loath to expend many Tomahawks on minor land targets a short distance away. Land attack missiles may be able to carry some of the burden for amphibious troops, but if fired at a great distance out to sea the long flight time for subsonic missiles is hardly ideal for troops in contact.11 These cruise missiles would also likely need some form of in-flight retargeting support to ensure their precision.  

The sea denial aspect of certain precision weapons can be mitigated to an extent by extending the range of gun-based fire support. These capabilities can include the Advanced Gun System firing the Long-Range Land-Attack Projectile (LRLAP) which can reach out to over 70 nautical miles.8 However, the cost of the LRLAP makes this exception prohibitively expensive. One LRAP at approximately $800,000 is around half the cost of a Tomahawk missile.9 One could purchase 11 guided Excalibur shells for that price able to hit targets over 30 miles away or 266 precision guidance kits for M549 shells and reach out to over 15 miles away.10

Spent shell casings from a naval gunfire support mission by HMS Cardiff (D108) on the night of 5 June, 1982, as part of the Falklands War. Photograph was taken the morning after on 6 June, also the top of her charred Sea Dart launcher can be seen bottom right. She fired 277 rounds that night and also shot down AAC 656 Squadron Gazelle XX377 in ‘Blue on Blue’ friendly fire incident killing four British servicemen. (Wikimedia Commons)

Airpower to an extent has filled the vacuum gunfire or cruise missiles cannot. In the Falklands campaign for example, airstrikes from Harrier jets helped make up for the lack of gunfire support.11 However, air defense systems have become increasingly sophisticated and potent. As they will continue to grow in capability and proliferate amongst state and non-state actors, aircraft operating in A2/AD environments will be restricted to more advanced platforms.12 Rotary wing aircraft could be of little value if their ships have been forced out to sea by anti-ship missiles since the combat radius of many rotary wing attack aircraft is around 120 nautical miles.13 Instead, viable firepower support will be best provided via tube artillery, rockets, or cheaper missile systems that can operate closer to shore.

While surface combatants can undertake the task of providing fire support the range of most current gun systems places them well within the range of ASMs as well as tube and rocket artillery.14 It is unlikely one would take an Arleigh Burke or Type 45 destroyer into such an environment. Instead, cheaper and more expendable gun or missile boats carrying missiles like the Spike NLOS or ALAS, rocket artillery systems, or advanced naval guns will need to provide the firepower required. GMLRS equipped boats, capable of firing the ground-launched Small Diameter Bomb, the Deep Strike Missile, the Alternative Warhead, and other munitions could provide a powerful mix of close-in fire support and deeper interdiction fires. However, the key vulnerability of missile or rocket artillery boats will be logistical sustainment. These indirect fire systems could be used from the flight decks of larger ships as an intermediate measure.15

Such craft will also require point defense systems for survivability. This is a necessity to provide survivability for ship-to-shore connector because one can expect increasingly precise artillery and rocket systems. Laser-guided munitions capable of striking moving targets and top attack munitions such as the BAE Bofors 155 BONUS or SMArt 155 will be capable of significant devastation. It is conceivable that counter-battery fire can be swapped between defending land-based artillery and ships providing fire support for an invading force as artillery grows more precise.

Once visible on the horizon direct fire systems like anti-tank guided missiles can target landing craft and their fire support assets. Thus, hard and soft counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) systems, air defense, and active protection systems like Trophy will need to be equipped by both connectors and the vessels providing their fire support. Transit times to the shore will place both under fire for considerable lengths of time and sustaining close fire support for an amphibious force will be highly risky.


In an A2/AD environment ship-based fire support may often be limited to the unattractive option of cruise missiles given current capabilities and threats. Cheaper long-range missile and artillery systems will need to become more available in order to provide the requisite fire support to develop overmatch. One potential solution is the utilization of cheaper gun and missile boats that can be risked close in to shore to provide fire support and to project an area of point-based air defense around the approaching landing craft to increase survivability. In any case amphibious flotillas will require plenty of firepower and protection so as not to be disabled before arriving on the beach, but providing fire support against modern threats involves complicated and frequently unfavorable tradeoffs.

Josh Abbey is a research intern at the Royal United Services Institute of Victoria. He is studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, majoring in history and philosophy. He is interested in military history and strategy, international security and analyzing future trends in strategy, capabilities and conflict.


[1] Andrew Feickert, Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) and Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC): Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2018), 6.

[2] Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, Advancing Beyond the Beach: Amphibious Operations in an Era of Precision Weapons (Washington, D.C: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2016), I.

[3] Carlo Kopp, “Proliferation of Advanced Air Defence Systems,” Defence Today (2010): 27. “Surviving the Modern Integrated Air Defence System”, Carlo Kopp, Air Power Australia, 2009, accessed, July 1, 2018,  http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2009-02.html#mozTocId418713. Jeff Harrigan and Max Marosko, “Fifth Generation Air Combat Maintaining the Joint Force Advantage”, JAPCC Journal 24, spring/summer (2017): 54.

[4] “Hezbollah” Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, accessed June 30, 2018, http://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/missile-threat-and-proliferation/todays-missile-threat/non-state-actors/hezbollah/.

[5] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2015), 10.

[6] “For Want of a Broadside: Why The Marines Need More Naval Fire Support,” Vince DePinto, CIMSEC, accessed July 3, 2018, http://cimsec.org/want-broadside-marines-need-naval-fire-support/31347.

[7] Carter A. Malkasian, Charting the Pathway to OMFTS A Historical Assessment of Amphibious Operations From 1941 to the Present (Virginia: CNA, 2002), 41.

[8] “The 155mm Advanced Gun System-Lite (AGS-L) for DDG-51 Flight III,” Brent Weyer and Al Panek, BAE Systems, accessed July 10, 2018, https://ndiastorage.blob.core.usgovcloudapi.net/ndia/2012/armaments/Tuesday14034weyer.pdf

[9] “Navy Planning on Not Buying More LRLAP Rounds for Zumwalt Class,” Sam LaGrone, USNI News, accessed July 14, 2018, https://news.usni.org/2016/11/07/navy-planning-not-buying-lrlap-rounds. Chief Technical Officer, Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System (Washington, D.C: Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense, 2017), 63.

[10] Michael Craig Harris, Is Tube Artillery a Viable Fire Support Platform for the United States Military on the Battlefields of the Future? (Alabama: Air War College, 2017), 22. “XM 982/Excalibur,” BAE Systems, accessed July 16, 2018, https://www.baesystems.com/en/download-en/20151124114142/1434555562238.pdf. Peter J., “XM1156 Precision Guidance Kit (PGK) Overview,” Burke and Anthony Pergolizzi, Fuze Conference, accessed July 19, 2018, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[11] Earl H. Tilford, “Air Power Lessons,” in Military Lessons of the Falkland Islands War: Views from the United States, eds. Bruce Watson and Peter Dunn (Colorado: Westview Press, 1984), 45.

[12] Carlo Kopp, “Proliferation of Advanced Air Defence Systems,” Defence Today (2010): 27. “Surviving the Modern Integrated Air Defence System”, Carlo Kopp, Air Power Australia, 2009, accessed, July 1, 2018,  http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2009-02.html#mozTocId418713. Harrigan and Marosko, “Fifth Generation Air Combat Maintaining the Joint Force Advantage,” 54.

[13] “For Want of a Broadside: Why The Marines Need More Naval Fire Support,” Vince DePinto, CIMSEC, accessed July 3, 2018, http://cimsec.org/want-broadside-marines-need-naval-fire-support/31347.

[14] “Mk 45 Mod 4 Naval Gun System,” BAE Systems, accessed July 20, 2018, https://www.baesystems.com/en/product/mk-45-mod-4-naval-gun-system. John Matsumura, Randall Steeb, and John Gordon IV, Assessment of Crusader: The Army’s Next Self-Propelled Howitzer and Resupply Vehicle (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1998), 10.

[15] “For Want of a Broadside: Why The Marines Need More Naval Fire Support,” Vince DePinto, CIMSEC, accessed July 3, 2018, http://cimsec.org/want-broadside-marines-need-naval-fire-support/31347.

Featured Image: 180729-M-QH615-0222 MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII (July 29, 2018) AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicles assigned to Combat Assault Company, 3rd Marine Regiment, unload service members during an amphibious landing demonstration as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise at Pyramid Rock Beach on Marine Corps Base Hawaii July 29, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Aaron S. Patterson/Released)