The Marine Corps’ New Way of Operating Will Still Require the LCAC and SSC
The Marine Corps is looking to transform itself. In his Planning Guidance, Commandant General David Berger lays out a vision for his Service to make it more relevant to meeting the military challenges associated with great power competition. Making this vision a reality will require changing how the Marine Corps and its supporting naval forces are trained, equipped and organized.
Much of the public discussion of the new plan has focused on the desire to acquire new classes of amphibious warfare ships, which are intended to make it easier to deploy and operate small, agile Marine units within the umbrella of enemy long-range fire systems. Less well appreciated is the fact that, however, organized and equipped, the Marines will still have to get ashore and be resupplied once there. This means that there will be a continuing and even growing role for the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) and its replacement, the Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC).
The Planning Guidance states explicitly that the Marine Corps will no longer be sized or equipped to conduct large-scale opposed landings. Instead, the centerpiece of future amphibious operations will be to employ dispersed and highly mobile forces to create a theater-wide capability for distributed lethality in cooperation with the Navy. New units will conduct rapid, temporary landings to create firebases or expedient forward airbases from which to strike at opposing forces. By reducing the size and signatures of deployed forces, Marine force designers hope to operate in the natural clutter across the Western Pacific.
This new force, built around smaller, lighter formations, will shed much of its equipment associated with intensive, protracted land operations such as main battle tanks and tube artillery. Instead, it will expand its use of tactical wheeled platforms like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, unmanned aerial vehicles, and long-range precision strike systems, particularly anti-ship missiles.
The new operational concept and force construct are expected to significantly impact the size and composition of the Navy’s fleet of amphibious warfare ships. Under the emerging construct, there is a need to expand the amphibious warfare fleet to reduce dependence on a relatively small number of high-value assets and be able to move the new, smaller Marine ground units to and from landing areas with less chance of detection. A great deal of attention has been focused on a possible new class of amphibious ships called the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW). The LAW is described by Marine Corps sources as “a smaller version of a traditional amphib but much more able to hide in plain sight, much more affordable, much more numerous because of its cost.”
Even if the Navy invests in the LAW or another smaller and lighter ship, the amphibious warfare fleet will continue to operate some three dozen large vessels, primarily a mix of Amphibious Assault Ships, Landing Platform Docks and Expeditionary Transfer Docks. These have the capacity to move lots of equipment, personnel and supplies long distances and, with the proper connectors, get them ashore. They are likely also to act as “mother ships” for the new vessels that the Marine Corps wants to deploy for littoral operations.
Getting forces ashore has long been a challenge for the Marine Corps. Typically, amphibious ships had to approach to within a few miles of shore. The smaller craft that could bring men and supplies to the beach was limited to speed, carrying capacity and vulnerability to obstacles. Getting heavy equipment ashore in the absence of significant infrastructure remains a challenge even today.
For the foreseeable future, in order to get significant forces and heavy equipment from ships to a location beyond the beach, the Marine Corps will rely on the Navy’s fleet of specialized vessels, the LCAC and its successor, the SSC. First deployed in 1984, the LCAC revolutionized amphibious operations. The LCAC is a high-speed (40 nautical miles per hour) air cushion platform that floats just above the water. Air cushion technology makes some 70 percent of the world's shoreline accessible to landing forces versus 15 percent with traditional amphibious ships.
The LCAC is designed to be carried and operate from all Navy amphibious ships that possess a well deck, the large, enclosed space located in the stern of many amphibious warfare ships, which allows LCACs, amphibious vehicles, and boats to load men, vehicles and supplies directly from the ship's interior. It is capable of carrying 70 tons of equipment or 140 fully equipped Marines from an amphibious ship stationed 100 miles at sea, not just to the water’s edge, but over the beach. Because of its unique air cushion system, the LCAC can traverse inshore waters regardless of depth, tides or obstacles as well as on-shore terrain that would hamper the mobility of most military vehicles. LCACs also can conduct evacuation support, lane breaching, mine countermeasure operations, and Marine and Special Warfare equipment delivery.
Because the LCAC was reaching the end of its projected service life, the Sea Services decided to replace this fleet with a new air cushion platform, the SSC. The SSC is an evolutionary advance over the venerable LCAC. The SSC will have an increased payload, greater reliability, higher availability and reduced operating costs. In addition, the SSC will be equipped with Rolls Royce engines that provide power beyond that available in the LCAC. It will also have a new command, control, communications, computers, and navigation suite, which will improve navigation and tactical responsiveness while reducing manning requirements. The current plan is to acquire 73 SSCs.
While General Berger is planning to lighten the Marne Corps by retiring systems such as the M-1 Abrams, the new force will still operate lots of heavy platforms. The new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle weighs some 10,000 pounds without a payload. The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, the likely launcher of advanced anti-ship missiles, weighs 24,000 lbs. Getting these systems ashore rapidly and safely and providing reliable resupply will require a powerful, agile, and reliable system as the LCAC or its evolutionary successor, the SSC.