U.S. Needs a Robust, Lethal Amphibious Fleet for Global Operations
In late September 2018, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS Essex, carried out America’s first combat strike with the F-35B stealth fighter, using laser-guided GBU-12 bombs to hit ground targets in Afghanistan. The F-35B performed just as the Marine Corps expected it to.
“The F-35B is a significant enhancement in theater amphibious and air warfighting capability, operational flexibility, and tactical supremacy,” said Vice Admiral Scott Stearney, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. “As part of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group, this platform supports operations on the ground from international waters, all while enabling maritime superiority that enhances stability and security.”
The operational employment of the F-35B is just one sign that the amphibious warfare fleet and their embarked Marine Corps air-ground expeditionary units (MEU) are no longer a force limited to a niche role in low-intensity warfare. The amphibs are part of the frontline forces for the ground commander, air commander and maritime commander in global conflicts. Expect joint force commanders to call on Marine assets from day one of a scuffle with China or anybody else.
Recent operations by the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) underscore the reality that these forces will be forward in any future conflict. Consequently, the ARG/MEU will be able to play a unique role in the first days of any conflict, large or small. They have the assets to influence the initial period of a future conflict, setting the conditions for larger joint and combined arms operations by theater commanders.
The return to major power competition and the new focus on multi-domain operations has altered the role of the Marine Corps and amphibious ships. It’s a change in the way Washington views Marine Corps Expeditionary Warfare, and it has ramifications for amphibious ship construction and modernization. These amphibious ships aren’t the commandant’s fleet. They belong to the Combined Force Maritime Component Commander. Alternatively, in the example above, their capabilities belong to the Combined Force Air Component Commander. New scenarios with China, Russia and others demand that U.S. policymakers count on the amphibious fleet as a joint asset.
It’s been a long time since the Navy and Marine Corps required this level of integration with all theater forces. Past concepts carved out specific amphibious scenarios – taking the beach in Kuwait – as metrics for shaping Marine expeditionary warfare forces. Not so any longer. Both the Navy and Marine Corps provide integrated fires, communications and battle management to generate survivability and lethality needed in future multi-domain operations.
In multi-domain operations, every amphib will be a potential forward node for tactical data fusion. A combination of onboard sensors, the F-35B and future unmanned surface and aerial systems will allow the amphibs to provide wide area intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, possibly from within an adversary’s anti-access/area denial envelope.
In addition to its role as an information collection, fusion and dissemination node, the amphib force is increasingly a lethal instrument of U.S. national power. The Marine Corps is experimenting with ways of adding long-range fires to the amphibs. In the future, directed energy weapons on board amphibious vessels can attack unmanned aerial systems, small boats, helicopters, aircraft and other threats. Before that, the amphibs with upgraded communications and data fusion can join the naval tactical grid, fighting in cyberspace as well as at sea.
Influence operations from the sea will be a big task for the amphibious fleet. Owning the sea lines of communication is crucial to deterrence and operations to shape the local environment. In wartime, each amphibious ship brings firepower and other capabilities. For example, an amphib is a potential command and control node – with upgrades to keep pace with modern secure communications.
Then there is the role of the MEU in influencing the land environment. The combination of the V-22 Osprey, CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter, the Armored Combat Vehicle, upgraded Landing Craft Air Cushions, lightweight and mobile artillery and rocket systems, armored wheeled tactical vehicles and Abrams tanks provide a potent force for rapid landings ashore to support raids and strike operations, even deep inland.
Overall, U.S. amphibious warfare capabilities, embodied in the ARG/MEUs, represent the most flexible and complete combat capability this country possesses. According to Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller: “The multi-domain world demands a new look at tasks and capabilities for the amphibious fleet. It’s going to be a land, air, sea operation, but it’s going to involve space, it’s going to involve information, it’s going to involve the electromagnetic spectrum; all things that we haven’t had to think about in the past 15 to 20 years.”
The current requirement for 38 amphibious ships covers the fleet size needed to deploy the assault echelons of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades. That requirement stands, but today the Marine Corps is operating with 34 ships. This creates risk. Add to the deficit in amphibious ships the lack of a sufficient Merchant Marine fleet to provide the necessary logistical support for U.S. worldwide military operations.
A combination of 12 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships or Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ships, 13 landing port/dock (LPD) ships, and 13 landing ship/dock (LSD) ships or LPD Flight II meets the minimum requirement. The frugal way to reach the 38-ship goal is to accelerate production of America-class LHAs. Speeding up LPD-17 Flight II ships would also help. Going forward, the LSD class is not a ship for the future fleet. LPD FLT II has a proven hull design that could decrease risk and increase delivery speed in replacing the LSD class.
The major war scenarios of the Pacific put amphibs inside the threat ring. Commanders debate how to get to a survivable, operationally-relevant posture as fast as possible. The ARG/MEU is a mobile, capable and lethal part of the solution.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.