The most vulnerable phase of an amphibious assault is the landing of the initial waves and the subsequent initial defense until follow on troops and equipment can land. This vulnerability is due to the initial waves being mainly infantry with little or no armor or heavy weapons support.
During this initial beachhead and buildup period, the assault force will be trying to get more troops, heavy weapons and equipment, and supplies ashore. This will, inevitably, result in the proverbial mountain of supplies, much as everyone wants to avoid it. Conversely, the enemy defending force will be raining artillery, mortars, rockets, and cruise/ballistic missiles on the beach area. Enemy helos and fixed wing aircraft will be attempting to hit the area, as well. The stacked up supplies will be a prime target as will the LCACs and whatever other logistics landing craft we use –take out the logistics landing craft and the assault withers. The enemy knows this. Really, the presence of Marines on the ground is almost irrelevant to the enemy. I would expect most enemy defensive efforts to be focused on the amphibious fleet (the MLP is an exceptionally critical target) and the supply shuttle to the beach.
Naval gunfire support is lacking, to put it mildly and, against a peer, aerial support will be lacking or non-existent as the available aircraft are tied up trying to defend the fleet and establish local air superiority.
So, who’s going to defend the ground forces from aircraft, helos, mortars, artillery, and cruise/ballistic missiles since they won’t have any significant weapons of their own?
Specific support needs for the ground forces during the initial phase includes:
- Cruise missile defense
- Ballistic missile defense
- AAW against enemy strike aircraft
- C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery, Mortar)
- Heavy gun support
None of these capabilities will be available initially and most are simply not Marine capabilities at all.
How do we defend the beach, initially, until sufficient heavy weapons can be brought ashore?
A few of you will, undoubtedly, suggest that surprise will compensate for the lack of these capabilities – the enemy will be unable to muster a significant response before we get sufficient follow on forces ashore. This is just wishful thinking against a peer. Today’s plethora of cyber surveillance, satellites, UAVs, submarines, and all manner of land, sea, and airborne radars preclude the element of surprise.
So, who will provide these initial capabilities and how will they do it? The “who” is easy. There is, of course, only one conceivable answer and that is the Navy. The “how” is the challenge.
For example, the Navy has no useful gunfire support. A handful of 5” guns are woefully insufficient and the Navy has stated that they will not risk major ships such as Burkes and Ticos within 50+ miles of an enemy beach. Thus, the 5” guns with a range of 15 miles or so are useless as they can’t even reach the shoreline.
The Navy has no counterbattery capability. Aegis is theoretically capable of performing the function but it is not a currently supported capability. Major Hammond discusses the subject, poorly, in a Proceedings article (1).
Aerial support against a peer will be severely lacking and is only marginally useful as a protective, defensive capability anyway. Assault force fixed wing aircraft will be fully occupied attempting to establish and maintain local air superiority and will not be available for close air support or local air defense. Even if available, aircraft are not effective at anti-cruise or anti-ballistic missile defense and have no C-RAM capability.
What’s needed is a two-tier capability consisting of longer range anti-missile defense and a very short range AAW, counterbattery, and C-RAM defense.
We need the ability to reach out and intercept incoming cruise/ballistic missiles, preferably far from the beach. Fortunately, we have that capability. Aegis ships can stand off 50+ miles from the beach and still provide cruise/ballistic missile protection although the closer they are to the target area, the easier the geometry of the intercept and, thus, the higher the kill probability.
With long range missile protection available, that leaves the need for short range defensive fires (C-RAM, counterbattery, AAW) and offensive firepower. As stated, none of this is available in the initial assault. What’s needed is a specialized Assault Support Ship (ASS – an unfortunate acronym but I’m sure the Navy can come up with something better) that encompasses all these capabilities on an inexpensive hull.
An LCS sized ship with two dual 8” gun mounts, two dual 5” gun mounts, 64 quad packed ESSM in two 8-cell VLS modules, and two SeaRAM mounts would provide the needed capability along with a yet-to-be-developed C-RAM gun or missile mount. In addition, a counterbattery radar and a medium range AAW radar would provide the needed sensors. Helos, flight decks, and hangars are specifically not needed for this ship type. The Ship would have only a minimal superstructure (think WWII style/size superstructures) in order to reduce costs and radar signature.
- The 8”/5” guns would provide both the offensive firepower support for the ground forces and the counterbattery fire. A navalized version of the Army’s TPQ-37 Firefinder radar ought to suffice to provide the counterbattery fire control.
- The ESSM would provide ship self-defense, beach cruise missile defense, and beach/inland AAW coverage.
- SeaRAM would provide ship self-defense.
- C-RAM is the missing capability. Existing C-RAM weapons, like the Phalanx (2), are too short ranged to be based off the beach and still provide effective inland coverage. The Phalanx C-RAM, for example, is reported to be able to defend a 0.5 sq. mile area which is nowhere near enough range. What’s needed is a C-RAM with around a 10 mile range. If an assault force has managed to establish a 10 mile deep beachhead, then we can probably safely bring land based C-RAM units ashore.
CONOPS. The concept of operations for this vessel is simple. It would accompany the initial assault wave and take station as close to the beach as feasible so as to extend its C-RAM coverage as far inshore as possible. An assault would require one to two dozen or so vessels, depending on the size of the assault, to allow for the expected attrition and to be able to mass enough firepower to have a significant impact on the ground combat.
An Assault Support Ship is needed to provide the initial firepower and defense that an amphibious assault lacks due to equipment gaps and doctrinal limitations. All the components for such a ship already exist except the extended range C-RAM so developmental costs should be minimal. Due to expected attrition rates, the ship must be as cheap as possible which means no functions beyond those stated. If we’re serious about amphibious assaults – and I have severe doubts that we are – we need to provide the assets to enable and support them.
(1)USNI Proceedings, “Counterbattery From The Sea”, Maj. James W.
, III, Apr, 1998, Hammond