Thursday, May 24, 2012

Marine Amphibious Lift - Who Needs Gators?

Sometimes it's fun to take a break from LCS-bashing although the Navy makes it so darn easy.  Anyway, let's take a look at Marine Corp amphibious lift, today.  Now, I know that amphibious assault is an article of faith with many people but try to consider the following discussion with an open mind.

What is the purpose of amphibious lift?  Why, to put Marines ashore, of course.  We did it repeatedly in WWII and several times since.  And what is the amphibious lift capacity, currently?  Here are the recent lift requirements (1).

1980 = 1.15 MEF (66,252 Marines + equipment)
1991 = 2.5 MEB AE (33,793 Marines + equipment)
2006 = 2.0 MEB AE (23,016 Marines + equipment)

MEF = Marine Expeditionary Force
MEB AE = Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Assault Echelon, usually shortened to MEB
Note - Marine totals include some Navy support elements

So, we see a steady decline in the lift capacity requirement.  Most of the decline is associated with the simple reality imposed by budget limitations over the last several decades rather than absolute strategic and operational necessity.  Nonetheless, we see a steady decrease.  The current lift requirement is met by a goal of 33 amphibious ships (LHA, LPD, and so on).

Amphibious Lift - How Much is Too Much?

That much lift, 33 ships, is a significant chunk of the naval fleet both in terms of numbers and, more importantly, cost.  New build amphibious ships are running $1B-$3.5B and heading up all the time.

Let's go back to the seemingly simple question - What is the purpose of amphibious lift? - and look a bit closer.  There are two general applications for amphibious lift:  not surprisingly, during war and during peace.  Wartime lift would be associated with China, Iran, N. Korea, or various small Third World countries.  Peacetime lift would be associated with hostage rescue, embassy evacuation, localized stabilization operations, surgical strikes associated with terrorism or piracy, raids, Special Ops, and so on.  What are the likelihood of each of these?

1. I don't see any possibility of a land invasion of China under any circumstance. We'd have to be insane.  Thus, massive amphibious capability is not needed.

2. I don't see the likelihood of large scale amphibious invasions of Iran/N. Korea since each has neighboring "friendly" countries that we would use as overland invasion portals. I do see the possibility of small scale amphibious flanking attacks which would require company to regiment size amphibious capability.

3. I see very likely and fairly frequent need for "peacetime", short term, small scale amphibious ops in third world countries - putting out fires, so to speak. As stated these ops would be hostage rescue, raids, surgical strikes on specific and limited targets, and so on. These would require company size (200 Marines) or less amphibious capability.

With the above in mind, suggest that we don't need nearly as much large scale amphibious capability as we have. I do, however, see the need for more (we don't really have any, currently) small scale, company size amphibious ships.  Thus, our cursory thought exercise suggests that rather than needing a large lift capacity what we really need is 10-15 small, company sized ships for the far more common peacetime ops and a relatively small handful of larger ships for the Iran/N. Korea scenario.  So, instead of 33 large amphibious ships that we have now, 10-15 small ships plus 6 larger ships would suffice. 

Hmm... A redesigned LCS or JHSV would almost fit the bill for a Company size amphibious ship, wouldn't it?  But, I digress.

Company Size?

In fact, I see in the Feb '12 Naval Institute Proceedings (pg. 44) that the Marines are, indeed, experimenting with Company size landing forces, dubbed Company Landing Teams. Presumably, it's a recognition that, short of total war, the most common type of amphibious activity involves raids, hostage rescues, embassy protection/evacuation, etc. as we discussed.  To be fair, the author does not propose using the LCS as a mini-gator or constructing purpose-built mini-gators but, instead, suggests basing the Company and MV-22s on carriers. He notes that current carrier air wings are well under the carrier's designed capacity and, therefore, he suggests that the carriers have room. Undersized air wings? Stop me if this sounds familiar - it should since we discussed it here

This analysis has been a simple thought exercise in matching anticipated operations and requirements to our force structure.  What I see as our likely needs doesn't match our current structure.

As I stated at the outset, amphibious lift is an article of faith for many and I'm perfectly willing to be persuaded that we need more than I've just called for.  Feel free to explain why you think we need more but do it with facts, not just a vague statement that we might someday need more.  Using that reasoning, we should build 400 carriers, 1000 amphibious ships, and so on, because you just never know what might happen. 

(1)  Congressional Research Services, Navy LPD-17 Amphibious Ship Procurement: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, 16-Mar-11


  1. Thought you might find this interesting...

  2. Tom, thanks for that reference. I hadn't seen it. Care to analyze it? What, if anything, does it have to offer to us in further analyzing our lift needs? Thanks!

  3. Any analysis would have to wait a week due to pressing work requirements.

    However, a brief side-note: I am intrigued by the possibility of combining 2 LCSs (carrying currently non-existant amphibious modules - perhaps additional berthing modules, on-board training/simulation container, short-range land attack missiles, full compliment of Helos and additional RHIBs) plus the USMC COLT/ECO for use conducting specified raids in the littorals. Using the LCSs inherent speed to 'dash' into a location close ashore to launch a raid (in a non-AA/AD region) could be very useful.

    For information on the COLT see: Rifle Company Experiment.pdf

    I am a fan of the WWII developed APDs which were used very successfully in WWI and the Korean War - where they were used to launch SF raids along the North Korean coast. Note: The APD successfully launched small raids without the use of a well deck using 4 LCVPs while carrying up to 150 Marines or UDT team members. Worthy of discussion in a modern context - where the LCVPs are replaced by Helos and CB-90s (hanging on davits {as on the RDN Johann de Witt} or launched from the rear of an LCS)! :-)

  4. I'm familiar with the CoLT concept and the experiment but I've never seen any report about the result. Do you know of anything?

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Tom, I removed your previous comment becaused it contained your email address and spambots can detect that. The comment was a personal note to me rather than a generalized comment so it probably doesn't need to be restored but I can repost it if you wish or you can restate it without the email address now that I've seen it. Thanks!

  7. No Problem. I appreciate your consideration!

  8. Some have observed that "amphibious lift" should include MANY more ship types than amphib warships. CFFC pointed to the need to include MSC sealift ships in an ARG (doctrinaly heresy)but pragmatic.

    Others have said that ALL ships which lift ANY cargo for assault to include TEO should be considered IN amphibious lift

  9. Interesting take.
    I'm of quite the opposing view, in that I would limit the UKs land forces, army and marine, to 3x what the Navy can land on the beach.

    The US could never try to occupy China long term, but a MEB attacking Hainan, or Shanghai, in retaliation to Chinese ground troops landing on Taiwan seems reasonable.
    As for Iran, well, Iran could be invaded from the sea, or from seven neighboring countries.

    Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan all provide increasing logistical challenges and rely on a permission chain.
    Iraq relies on a gulf transit, Turkey a long logistics line, Armenia and Azerbaiian, a long one, and permission.

    Marines in to Chabahar, requires none.

    1. TrT, as you consider this issue, remember that I'm not proposing that we eliminate all big deck amphib ships, only that we have more than any reasonable analysis of needs requires.

      Before you postulate an amphib invasion of China (retaliation in your scenario) be sure to consider and take into account the definition of victory. That may well alter your thinking about any amphib assault.

      Finally, there is no way we could conduct a successful assault on mainland China in retaliation for Taiwan. We would either have to penetrate the 1000 nm A2/AD zone which would be impossible or we would have to conduct an entire war to knock down the A2/AD scenario before we could hope to conduct a successful assault in which case the assault itself would be a moot point.

      This is the crux of my thinking: there is no reasonable scenario in the foreseeable future that requires large scale amphib assault. If there's no reasonable scenario then we don't need 30+ amphib ships.


    2. So, I have to ask, do you need an army at all?
      The US has differing military needs from the UK of course, but like us, it faces no chance of land invasion, so its army must be expecting to sail where ever its going to go and kick arse.
      If you only have shipping for 26,000 men, what purpose does a million strong army serve?

    3. TrT, you pose two questions.

      First, you ask if we need an army. Given the US' desire to be the world's policeman the answer is an emphatic yes. Consider just the very recent past. We've gotten involved in Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan to name a few. Our current force levels are strained to the max, as is. Had we had to deal another regional conflict, say Iran or N. Korea, at the same time as one of the others, we would have been unable to do so. So, not only do we need our current ground force levels, we may well need more! Of course, this discussion ignores the wisdom of some of the choices we've made and simply looks at the levels required to carry them out.

      Second, in a roundabout fashion you ask why we have so many more ground forces than we have amphibious lift to carry them. At least, I think that's what you're asking. The answer is that we fly our ground forces to the region of battle on C-XX transports or even commercial airliners. The heavy equipment is transported by cargo ship. This, of course, begs the question why we need any amphibious troop transport capability and that, of course, is what this post was all about.

      Did that answer your questions?

    4. I often wonder how the first gulf war would have gone if Sadam didn't give peace a chance and just steam rollered straight in to Saudi. Commercial airliners and cargo ships wouldnt help much then.

      You cant seize a port without Amphibious Shipping (or regional allies to seize it for you), and you cant invade without without seizing a port.
      I frequently point out that, although being able to credibly claim to be one of the best armored armies in the world, The British First Armoured Division was completely useless during the Falklands War