An amphibious assault? We all have the mental image of hulking amphibious ships lurking on the horizon and Marines storming the beach. But how did the Marines get from the ship to the beach? Well, a variety of ways, I guess, from the futuristic (though they’re actually getting quite dated!) looking Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft to the ubiquitous Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV) to helos and now MV-22 Ospreys among other means. All of these vehicles can be collectively referred to as connectors. Simply put, the connector is the transport between the ship and shore.
The connector has the potential to be both a potent enabler of the amphibious assault force as well as a bottleneck and vulnerability.
As an enabler, the connector should be able to transport Marines and their gear quickly, safely, and, ideally, with a little bit of inherent firepower to provide some support at the point of landing. The Marines should land in good physical shape and intimately integrated with their gear. In other words, they should be landed in peak physical readiness for battle.
As a weakness, the connector represents a potential bottleneck if there are too few connectors to transport sufficient numbers of Marines and weight of gear in a given time frame. Marines and gear sitting piled up on ship waiting around for connector transport are a recipe for disaster.
Similarly, the connector represents a possible vulnerability. Just as naval tacticians recognize that it’s far better to shoot archers than arrows, so too would any enemy recognize that it’s far more efficient to kill loaded connectors rather than deal with landed Marines. Unfortunately, current connectors are slow and unarmored for practical purposes relative to the modern missile age.
The current connectors are aging rapidly and most are only marginally suited for the modern battlefield. The AAV has been serving since the early 1970’s. The AAV’s long anticipated replacement, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) is now a dead program with no other replacement in sight. The LCAC entered service in the mid 1980’s and only 91 were built. In addition, they’re large, slow (relative to missiles), attractive targets. MV-22s are great for rapid transport of troops but can’t carry heavy gear. The CH-53E heavy lift helo entered service in 1981 and airframes are being used up rapidly. And so on …
All right, so the existing connectors are aging and ill-suited. Can’t we just design new ones? Well, therein lies the initial problem and the crux of this discussion. What basic conceptual design is needed? Do we need a traditional short range amphibious vehicle or do we need a very long range, way-over-the-horizon vehicle? Are we doing traditional beachfront assaults or airborne, inland, maneuver warfare assaults?
You see the problem? I don’t think the Navy and Marines currently have a clear consensus on what type of assault operations they want to conduct in the future. Of course, they could just opt to try and cover all possible scenarios but the cost of that would be staggering.
The Navy and Marines need to agree on how amphibious assaults will be conducted in the future and then start designing new connectors that complement that vision.
On a related note, here are some capacity/range figures for aerial connectors as cited in an NPS thesis (1).
5 ton external, 50 nm range
10 ton internal, 100 nm range
18 ton external, 215 nm range
15 ton internal, 230 nm range
, Thesis: Cost Benefit and Capability Analysis of Sea-Base Connectors, Justin Dowd, Sep 2009, p. 17-18 Postgraduate School