Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Amphibious Inflection Point

In mathematics, the point at which everything changes is called the inflection point (that’s a very loose definition that I’m taking great liberties with).  Amphibious assault doctrine is struggling to find its inflection point – the point or distance from shore at which an assault has a reasonable chance of success but beyond which, or nearer than, the assault will fail.  Where is that optimum inflection point?

The Navy would place it 50+ miles from shore – perhaps hundreds of miles.

The Marines would place it 25 miles or closer – the closer, the better;  much, much closer being preferred.

Why would an assault fail if it is beyond the optimum inflection point?  It would fail because the amphibious fleet lacks a ship-to-shore connector that can transport sufficient quantities of personnel and equipment in fighting condition to sustain an assault.  The distance reduces the number of trips per day that the connector can make and, worse, renders the delivered Marines unfit for combat.  The distance also invalidates Navy gun support.  The standard 5” gun can’t even reach the shore from the distances the Navy wants to operate at. 

Why would an assault fail if it is closer than the optimum inflection point?  It would fail because the Navy’s ships can’t survive against land launched anti-ship cruise missiles at that range (that’s the Navy’s stated position not ComNavOps’ opinion).

The difference between the Navy and Marine inflection points is pretty substantial and appears to be irreconcilable.  The Marines are struggling to design an AAV replacement that can transport troops and equipment from beyond 25 miles in fighting shape.  The Navy, for their part, doesn’t really care.  The Navy is all about carriers (and, grudgingly, submarines).  Amphibious warfare is a largely unwanted sidelight that they’re forced to accept but they do so only to the bare minimum extent possible. 

As I’ve made clear in previous posts, we don’t currently have a credible heavy amphibious assault capability against a competent foe and it’s because of the inability to establish a workable inflection point.

So, what do we do?  How do we find a single point when the two versions differ so substantially and seem mutually exclusive?  Well, the rationale for one (or both) of the versions must change.

Let’s look at the Marine’s side.  The only possible change is to come up with a ship-to-shore connector that can transport large loads of equipment and personnel at speeds sufficiently high that the Marines are delivered in fighting shape (see, "Amphibious Connectors").  Unfortunately, many years of study have demonstrated that such a connector is technically and economically impossible.  It would require a radical rethink of connector and Marine combat capability to meet the long distance assault point and the neither the Marines nor the Navy has shown any sign of being willing or open to radically new concepts.

From the Navy’s perspective, moving the assault point shoreward is simply too dangerous.  In fact, the Navy conceived and sold an entire class of littoral combat ship based on that belief.

Too Close, Too Far, Or Just Right?

There you have it – two irreconcilable perspectives leading to an unsustainable amphibious assault model.  Is there truly no solution?  There is, actually, a solution and it’s simple and straightforward.  The Navy must move shoreward and by a significant amount. 

The Navy has moved seaward out of fear of land based anti-ship missiles.  If only we had a ship-based AAW system that could defend against anti-ship missiles.  Well, you know what?  As luck would have it, ComNavOps was doing some reading the other day and came across a fascinating article describing a ship-based AAW system with near magical properties.  It can shoot down planes and missiles with near infallible reliability, it utilizes long range radars of various types, can assemble perfect situational awareness displays from networked air, space, and ship sensors, and can employ co-operative engagement tactics which treat a group of ships and planes as a single fighting entity.  The system even has a cool name:  Aegis.

OK, I’m obviously being sarcastic and mocking the Navy but the point is that not only do we have a fielded and mature AAW system but it’s a system that was specifically designed to counter the swarms of anti-ship missiles that the Navy is now frightened of.  The combination of Aegis, networked sensors, Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC), electronic countermeasures, layers of close-in weapons (RAM, CIWS, ESSM, etc.), and passive decoys makes for a formidable defensive system.  If all that capability, designed specifically for defending against swarms of missiles, is insufficient to allow the Navy to stand close offshore than why are we buying more Aegis warships?  The Navy can’t have it both ways.  They can’t claim that we desperately need more Aegis warships while simultaneously claiming that they can’t defend against anti-ship missiles near land. 

But, but, but the reaction time!  It’s too short when we’re that close to shore!  Well, do the math.  Even at 10 miles distance, a high subsonic missile traveling at, say, 600 mph would require a minute to cover the distance and that’s neglecting the initial acceleration period which adds more time.  A minute is an eternity to an Aegis system operating in full auto.  The response would be nearly instantaneous.

The real reason the Navy won’t approach the shore is their fear of losses.  We’ve repeatedly discussed how the Navy has been so many years removed from actual combat that they’ve lost their warfighting mentality and have adopted a zero-loss, accounting mentality.  If an objective is worth fighting for then it’s worth some losses.  In fact, losses in combat are inevitable.  The problem is that the cost of the losses has become unacceptable.  Our ships have become so expensive that we are no longer willing to risk them and can no longer accept their loss.  We’ve painted ourselves into a corner and created a Catch-22 situation.  We can’t achieve our objectives without accepting losses but we can’t afford to accept losses.

The Navy has to go back to their roots and remember that their job is to stand in harm’s way (see, "In Harm's Way").  By definition, the greatest danger and the greatest reward go hand-in-hand.  If we want to achieve worthwhile objectives then we have to be willing to accept losses.  Of course, this raises the issue of what constitutes worthwhile objectives.  Perhaps the days of jumping into every minor conflict that comes along are gone.  Perhaps we should be applying much more serious criteria, like compelling national strategic interests, to our often questionable involvements.  But, I digress …

Of course, I’m not saying that we should blindly and willingly accept losses.  There are measures that the Navy should be looking at to minimize the risk.  We should be placing a far greater emphasis on electronic countermeasures since combat data has demonstrated that ECM has a far greater success rate than hard kill systems.  We should be placing far more emphasis on short range and close-in weapons as opposed the Navy’s fixation on ever greater ranged AAW.  We should be incorporating more armor to mitigate the damage from the missiles that do get through our defenses.  We should be designing ships with greater redundancy and separation to further mitigate damage effects.  We should develop tactics to integrate aircraft and helos into short range AAW defense.

The point is that the Navy needs to remember what their job is and move the amphibious inflection point back to a useful distance (near horizon). 


  1. If you haven't read this you should take the time, it goes into some detail about the vulnerability of our current "warships" to shore fire. The aviation/aerospace mafia have been having their way since WWII and we may pay a horrible price for it.

  2. great blog post but i disagree....

  3. Ultimately to effect a change on the ground (which let’s face it is where we all live) you have to put troops in at some point.
    No matter what the Navy will tell you about tomahawk or the air force about precision strikes etc etc etc. nothing will hold ground and secure it until you put troops in.
    Now I’m sorry to break it to people but if your risk adverse, don’t go to war. Now I mean that as a people, not a specific poke at the brave men and women of the US Forces. Because it’s not them that’s risk adverse, because they after all took a job with a good chance of being shot at.
    It’s the political structure and, I’m afraid, the people.
    Let’s assume for a minute thought that we are, god forbid, at war. And an amphibious landing has been decided upon, now either the Navy gets in close to provide cover and risks some of its very expensive, very well equipped , armoured and amazingly defended ships,
    Quite literally 100’s of marines don’t even make it to the beach.
    Every minute your chugging across that ocean in you mildly armoured landing craft facing missiles, air strike , strafing, artillery, mortars oh and small arms, is a minute you’re not enjoying, even your ability to shoot back is limited.
    Doesn’t it just seem fair that the boys in the big ships get some action too ?
    Perhaps if you ask nicely this can be part of what you new LCSG ( oh god who came up with that name ) can be about, an armoured light frigate, with short range anti to air, 5 inch deck gun , some 30mm + GPMG.
    Here the bit you might not like.
    They are cheap, numerous and in big inverted commas “expendable”. Because to some extent they are there to draw fire.
    I hate to keep quoting this but.. see Falklands war, those ships didn’t sink by accident, or indeed incompetence, they sank because they put themselves very very much in harms way, Because it was either them of 1000 of troops in soft skinned landers.
    In short I’m going to have to agree with the article. But am interested in why there might be opposing views?

    1. CNO, Beno,

      You struck the heart of the issue: a ground campaign against a serious enemy is going to be very costly in terms of losses - will the Navy ante up and muck in?


  4. Risk sensitivity.

    The USN has a force composed of very large, very capable, very expensive warships. They are indeed equipped with very good (and getting better) anti missile defenses.

    The math doesn't favor these ships in an amphibious assault. Anti-Ship missiles are comparatively cheap, easily dispersed, and at the ranges in discussion relatively easy to aim. Our notional large warships defenses have to work 100% of the time, our notional attacking missiles only need to succeed a tiny fraction of that to be cost effective.

    None of this negates your central thesis, for an amphibious assault to succeed in the absence of flying tanks the supporting warships need to be closer to the shore than the USN would like.

    (Flying tanks would be awesome. We're looking at you DARPA.)

    Which brings up the much discussed LCS. A large part of the original argument for the class was to address this specific risk sensitivity.

    If we accept that the economics of attack favour the shore based defenders in this instance then to reduce the risk to an acceptable level a cheaper supporting warship is required. That's not the ship the LCS program turned into but that's now a separate discussion. The logic that drove the initial discussion of a cheaper warship is still sound.

    Everyone loves the Fletcher class, but possible their biggest strength as a class was the volume in which they were constructed.

    As long as new warship construction focuses on the large platform model, support for high risk activities as you've described will be weak. As a result they'll continue to push for the very far offshore model. Which unfortunately might mean that on the day that the USN decides there's no alternative to storming a beach they may find themselves using those high value assets to do the job.

    The big destroyers are very capable but I'd be very reluctant to suggest they'll be successful in a near shore conflict without extensive training along the lines of you discussed. A minute's flight time may be an eternity to the electronic heart of the AEGIS system but it's an all too brief interval for a crew in an unfamiliar situation to make a decision.

    1. wsp: "A minute's flight time may be an eternity to the electronic heart of the AEGIS system but it's an all too brief interval for a crew in an unfamiliar situation to make a decision."

      That's the whole point of Aegis. The system was designed to operate in a fully automatic mode. Once enabled, there is no human input and no decisions to be made.

    2. Indeed it is.

      And without the renewed emphasis on near shore operations you've recommended what are the chances of an ROE being issued that allows a destroyer captain to enable the fully automatic mode?

    3. If we've committed to an assault of that magnitude and importance against a determined peer enemy, it would be an absolute certainty. Anything else (meaning restrictions) would result in disaster. If we're not serious about an assault, we shouldn't attempt it.

  5. CNO,

    Without landing craft, and a modern LCM/LST it is all a paper exercise.