Tag Archives: amphibious

Contested Ship-to-Shore Movement, Pt. 1: The Role of Quantity

By Josh Abbey

Few navies are disposed to undertake ship-to-shore movement in a contested environment.1 With the exception of very powerful nations such as the U.S., few nations have the number of troops and equipment necessary for success against moderate opposition. Contested ship-to-shore movement presupposes that landing craft and aircraft will be engaged while moving to and at the landing location. Achieving air and naval superiority is a significant factor in this calculus, however, so does the size and firepower of the landing force and those who may oppose them.2 The role of quantity in contested ship-to-shore movement undertaken by surface craft is especially key.

No amphibious force is likely to survive a contested assault without significant losses.3 Yet few can deliver the volume of troops to generate force overmatch against a foe while accounting for potential casualties. The majority of amphibious fleets are too small to generate overmatch by quantity alone. Such a task requires vast amphibious fleets. In the Gulf War, it took 31 amphibious ships to muster an assault force of 17,800 marines, 39 tanks, 96 mobile TOW antitank missile systems, 112 amphibious assault vehicles, 52 light armored vehicles, 52 artillery pieces, 63 attack aircraft, and six infantry battalions.4 Excluding the U.S., for nations with amphibious capabilities, the average amphibious fleet size is just two ships (refer to table 1).5 An amphibious fleet such as Australia’s can only embark 2,600 troops in two Canberra-class landing helicopter docks and one dock landing ship, HMAS Choules.6 An unsupported landing force of this size would face a serious struggle if opposed by even a few battalions.

The number of troops and vehicles that can be delivered per wave severely worsens the problem of successful ship-to-shore movement. Again, Australia’s amphibious capacity shall serve as the example as its three-ship Amphibious Ready Group is representative of many first-rate nations’ amphibious fleets. A Canberra-class warship can embark four LCM-1Es, whilst HMAS Choules can carry one LCM-1E.7 With each LCM-1E able to carry 170 troops, the nine LCM-1Es can deploy approximately 1500 troops in one wave.8 However, it is unlikely they would be utilized in this way. Carrying vehicles and equipment in waves while deploying troops in tactical formations would likely decrease the rate of troops delivered. Defenders can likely bring a greater proportion of their force to bear compared to amphibious troops that are limited by their rate of delivery. And, while vehicles such as an Abrams tank or even a Stryker can deliver considerable firepower, they must be able to get off the beach to make way for follow-on assets. Beaches can condense landing troops into denser formations and where targeting buildup locations will be a priority for any defender. Unless the landing location is suitable to allow vehicles to quickly get off the beach, they present attractive stationary targets that are less able to influence affairs much beyond the shoreline.

MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII (July 30, 2016) A Royal Australian Navy LHD Landing Craft, transports Australian, New Zealand, Tongan, and U.S. armed forces to Marine Corps Training Area Bellows during Rim of the Pacific 2016 in Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. William L. Holdaway/Released)

Infantry will play a major role in the initial ship-to-shore movement because of greater freedom of movement and ability to disperse. However, embarked troops do not equate to immediate combat manpower on the beach.  It is problematic that troops must disembark and find a favorable tactical disposition before they can bring their full influence to bear, a process that is unlikely to be as rapid as desired. Further, utilizing landing craft with high capacities such as LCMs, with a capacity of 170, or an LCU 1700 which can carry 350 troops, presents a small number of highly dense targets.9 If it only deployed from embarked landing craft Australia’s entire amphibious landing force could present just nine targets. An opponent could counter this force before it lands with a handful of guided missiles or several accurate barrages of cluster or airburst artillery.

Key: Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) Landing Platform Dock (LPD) Landing Ship Dock (LSD) Landing Ship Logistics (LSL) Landing Ship Tank (LST) Landing Ship Medium (LSM) Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) (Source: The Military Balance, 118, 1 (2018): 49-396.)

While landing craft and amphibious fleets can deploy a reasonable number of troops from the surface they can be effectively opposed by far fewer troops using modern weapons. Utilizing smaller landing craft in greater numbers would increase the number of targets an enemy must account for, and dilute a defender’s efforts. Increasing the number of landing craft also decreases the time it takes for troops to influence combat by speeding up debarkation. In effect, increasing the number of exits can increase the space through which troops can disembark and achieve greater flow of deployment. These changes would increase the effectiveness of the force embarked by deploying them into combat faster and likely with less casualties.


Quite simply to generate overmatch via the quantity of troops amphibious fleets must go big or go home. They also, by way of contradiction in terms of landing craft, must go little if they wish to quickly generate a reasonable number of combat-ready troops at the landing location rapidly. Small numbers of slow-deploying troops can easily be victim to defeat in detail. Generating overmatch at the landing location will then be more a matter of greater firepower and less the the quantity of assets for navies with small amphibious fleets. However, credibly confronting reasonably-sized adversaries in a contested ship-to-shore context will be limited to coalition operations or large nations such as the U.S. for the foreseeable future.

Part 2 of this series will focus on firepower overmatch.

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. See Table 1.1

2. Michael Hanlon, “Why China Cannot Conquer Taiwan,” International Security 25, 2 (2000): 4.

3. B. Martin, Amphibious Operations in Contested Environments: Insights from Analytic Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), 9.

4. Michael F. Applegate, Naval Forces: Valuable Beyond the Sum of Their Parts (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1993), 5.

5. See Table 1.1

6. Ken Gleiman and Peter Dean, Beyond 2017: the Australian Defence Force and amphibious warfare (Canberra: APSI, 2015), 24.

7. “Amphibious Assault Ship (LHD),” Navy, accessed July 25, 2018, http://www.navy.gov.au/fleet/ships-boats-craft/lhd. “HMAS Choules,Navy, accessed July 24, 2018, http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-choules.

8. “Lanchas de desembarco LCM-1E” Navantia, accessed July 24, 2018, https://www.navantia.es/ckfinder/userfiles/files/lineas_act/Fichas_antiguas%20espa%C3%B1ol/lanchas.pdf.

9. “Landing Craft, Mechanized and Utility – LCM / LCU,” America’s Navy, accessed July 25, 2018, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=1600&ct=4.

Featured Image: 180729-M-FA245-1234 MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII (July 29, 2018) U.S. Marines push toward an objective on Pyramid Rock Beach during an amphibious landing demonstration as part of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise on Marine Corps Base Hawaii July 29, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Adam Montera)

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.

Donate to CIMSEC!

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.

Donate to CIMSEC!

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

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.
Select a Donation Option (USD)

Enter Donation Amount (USD)

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