Saturday, February 1, 2014

Amphibious Assault Attrition

We’ve been discussing the various aspects of Marine/Navy amphibious assaults with various opinions expressed about types of landing craft and the ability to sustain an assault via air, sea, or a combination.  However, the one aspect that we haven’t touched on is the most important one for an opposed assault and that is attrition.  While we may not anticipate a full blown D-Day type invasion, the fact is that even a mildly opposed assault will result in significant attrition of the transport assets.

One of our readers, GAB, pointed out that a MEU needs several hundred tons of supplies per day to sustain an assault.  I have not independently verified that figure but it sounds plausible and I have no reason to doubt it so, for the sake of discussion, let’s accept it as, say, 600 tons and that’s undoubtedly optimistically low.

Now, I don’t think anyone believes that an assault by a MEU can be sustained purely through the air.  If you do think so, run the numbers and you’ll see that it’s not possible.  So, for this discussion, let’s look at a beach landing since the water borne transports at least have the possibility of transporting enough supplies to sustain an assault.

The amphibious group that supports the MEU would typically consist of an LHD (Wasp class, 3 LCAC), LPD (San Antonio class, 2 LCAC or 1 LCU), and an LSD (Whidbey Island class, 4 LCAC) which provides a total of 9 LCACs.  The group also has 10 MV-22s and 4 CH-53Es available for transport.  Here’s the transport capacities.

10 MV-22 at 10 tons = 100 tons
4 CH-53E at 15 tons = 60 tons

9 LCAC at 60 tons = 540 tons

Total lift = 700 tons

We instantly note that the airborne contribution is quite limited compared to the waterborne contribution.  Nonetheless, the total lift is, indeed, capable of meeting our lift requirement of 600 tons per day.  But for how long?

Let’s assume our resupply “lifts” occur in perfect waves and we can manage three lifts per day.  Let’s further assume that attrition costs us one transport per lift.  What?!  No way!  Actually, yes way!  Hey, it’s an opposed landing.  The enemy knows that resupply is the Achilles Heel of the assault.  They’ll make every effort to cut the resupply.  One lost transport per lift may, in fact, be optimistic.  Remember, it doesn’t require a catastrophic kill to attrite the transport.  Simple damage that is eventually repairable down the road but renders the transport unusable in the short term is the same as a kill.  Further, the LCAC is, by all accounts, a finicky maintenance nightmare.  We’ll lose transports to simple mechanical failures in addition to combat losses.  Anyway, here’s what the numbers show using an LCAC cargo capacity of 60 tons.

Day 1, Lift 1, 9 LCAC = 540 tons
Day 1, Lift 2, 8 LCAC = 480 tons
Day 1, Lift 3, 7 LCAC = 420 tons
Total = 1440 tons = 2.4 days worth of supplies

Day 2, Lift 1, 6 LCAC = 360 tons
Day 2, Lift 2, 5 LCAC = 300 tons
Day 2, Lift 3, 4 LCAC = 240 tons
Total = 900 tons = 1.5 days worth of supplies

Day 3, Lift 1, 3 LCAC = 180 tons
Day 3, Lift 2, 2 LCAC = 120 tons
Day 3, Lift 3, 1 LCAC = 60 tons
Total = 360 tons = 0.5 days worth of supplies

So, in 3 days we’ve managed to get a little over 4 days worth of supplies ashore and now we have no more functioning waterborne transports.

The same type of effect applies to the airborne lift component except that it starts with a much smaller lift capacity.  I leave it to you to work through the math for the airborne component.  Also, we should expect a much heavier loss for the air transports given the lethality of Stinger/ZSU type defenses against slow, low helos. 

While the airborne transports will help stretch out the supply situation, the reality is that the bulk of the air assets will probably be employed moving troops around and ferrying supplies from the beach to the forward troops and will, thus, have a fairly minimal contribution to the resupply effort.

Now, this was absolutely not a combat simulation.  It was, much like the RAND air combat scenario, a simple exercise in numbers to demonstrate the potential impact of attrition on the sustainability of an assault.  You may argue about particular aspects but, unless you make ridiculous assumptions, it won’t change the results by very much.  Further, many of the assumptions were overly optimistic.  For instance, loss of the transport’s loads when they are “hit” was not factored in nor was any loss of supplies on the beach due to enemy artillery, mortars, missiles, or air attacks.  If you factor in a 10%-30% loss of supplies, the results just get that much worse, that much sooner.  Also, follow on transport of heavy equipment, as opposed to supplies, further eats into the resupply numbers.  Loss of an amphibious ship was not considered.

How many lifts per day can we get?  That depends on distance.  The farther off shore the amphibious force sits, the fewer daily lifts.  I estimated three per day.  Maybe it will only be two.  Maybe it will be four.  It won’t greatly affect the outcome.  The assault will stall out in a matter of a few to several days.

Every pre-conflict estimate of supply usage in history has been woefully underestimated.  I used GAB’s ballpark supply requirements but the reality is that much more would be needed.

The takeaway from this little exercise is that our concept of how an assault will go is ludicrously optimistic and basically assumes that the enemy will have no adverse affect on our assault.  For an unopposed landing that’s fine but even then we seem to have barely enough assets and cannot afford any mechanical losses.  For an opposed landing, our assumptions are badly flawed.  I don’t see how we can carry out even a moderately opposed landing with the resources and assets we currently have and the doctrine we currently use.

My contention, regardless of what the Marines might say or want to believe, is that the Marines are limited by lift and resupply constraints to being a low intensity, short duration, light infantry assault force.  While there’s certainly a use for that type of force, that’s a far cry from the traditional amphibious assault force and begs the question, what role will, or can, the Marines play in an all out, high end war?  The answer would seem to be, not much of a role.  The follow up question is, given the limited role the Marines seem able to play, can we continue to justify multi-billion dollar amphibious ships?

If you want to comment on this, do it with facts not general platitudes about how important Marines are.  Also, please note that this post is an observation about the current state of affairs rather than a statement of position on my part.  I’m neither supporting nor criticizing any particular amphibious philosophy.  I’m just trying to objectively assess the current capabilities.


  1. Or one could ask, why USN has not provided USMC with better ship-to-shore heavy-lift capacity ?

    Would the decades-long absence of a plausible USN 'ferry-boat' concept warrant discarding USMC's amphibious-assault-vital surface-borne heavy-lift transportation ?

    And amphibs may be only as expensive as some (USN-?) interests insist on. Inflation-adjusted and with standard self-defense suite, an early 1980s LSD-41 amphib would cost much much less than a $ 1 Billion today.

    Now there would be a good question to raise... Why ?

    1. On the 'ferry-boat' angle, that depends upon whom you hire to develop things internally and how you run respective competitions to attract outside-thinking.

      As a third option in terms of concept-development, LCU-F for instance emerged outside the system and seems in no way associated with any competition.

      In terms of developing advanced concepts, the challenge appears to be harnessing and tending to 'disruptive thinking' without immediate risks to all sorts of process-associated career-paths.
      So far, with LCU-1610 over 50 years old, it seems that there is not enough flexibility across decades now to foster realistic and fiscally-plausible innovation via the first two approaches to effectively match well-defined requirements; see also the late January Thread on LST and LPD-17 etc.

      On the ship-cost issue, RAND produced in 2006 a study which underscored, that inflation-rate do hold firm if no endless tinkering with the given class is indulged in. By that well-documented matrix, LSD-41 should today come in at between 6-700 million, buying much more expeditionary flexibility and plain well-deck length (440 feet) than the $ Billion+ LPD-17-centric approach with its underwhelming <200 feet well-deck geometry - oddly mismatching the USMC's need to deploy as many Connectors as possible.

      Of course, on ship-cost CNO ran a Thread not too long ago.

  2. My thought after reading this great article is this really explains why we haven't seen any opposed landings in decades. Even if the first waves of infantry and support hit the beach successfully, just losing a couple of lift transports will have a tremendous effect after a couple of days.

    Probably explains why it seems to me the Marine Corps is turning into some kind of naval air assault infantry and pretty much discarding the "traditional" hitting the beach, just look at the programs that are surviving the budget cuts and sequestration, pretty much all air assets.

    1. As things stand now - yes.
      But USN and USMC have publicly declared their recognition of certain assault-capability- and logistics-challenges at least over the last two years, starting with the Report of the Amphibious Capability Working Group, published late April 2012.

    2. Some USMC-centric blogs tend to focus on big APCs or other issues at the expense of the core of amphibious capability - adequate numbers per MEU/ARG of fast heavy-lift LCU-types. Very odd that. How would one get those 70mph rides to the shore ?

  3. "What role will, or can, the Marines play in an all out, high end war? The answer would seem to be, not much of a role."


    I see the Marines role in a high-end war as focused largely on expeditionary air operations in support of a naval campaign - vice storming the beach to go 'toe-to-toe' with an enemy.

    If you look at USMC landings in WW2, most were centered over control of strategically located islands which either had airfields - or which could be used for airfields. See Solomons Campaign.

    I could see a MEU rapidly seizing a lightly defended island. Once ashore, the MEU provides air defense and local security, while attached engineering elements 'carve out' an airfield for F-35Cs. The F-35Cs can then deny the area within the bubble to enemy shipping.

    To be fair: there are MANY practical problems which need to be worked out or make this concept work better:

    1. F-35 probably needs an expeditionary tanker (V-22?).
    2. I'm not sure if USMC combat engineers equipped/trained to rapidly build/repair airfields (maybe use Navy SeaBees or USAF Red Horse?)
    3. Beefing up MEU with an anti-ship missile battery would be a good idea.

    However, I tend to think there is utility in the concept.


    1. In the abstract, your comment is valid and reasonable. However, considering likely enemies Iran and N.Korea, neither have islands that would fit the profile, as far as I know. China doesn't fit either in that the surrounding islands are already owned by friendly or neutral countries and wouldn't require amphibious assaults, just diplomacy. Africa is a generic area of future operations but, again, don't seem to really have islands that would fit the need and require assaulting.

      I may have missed a candidate island somewhere. Where do you foresee an assault along the lines you've described?

    2. I think you may have missed a few score candidates. But first let's be specific about where this concept might be applicable.

      North Korea. A second Korean War probably wouldn't require such advanced air basing. The NKs have a low-end coastal navy, and we've got lots of basing options in the ROK.

      Iran. Iran also doesn't have much of a navy either, and we have tons of allies and basing options in the Gulf. No real need to seize or build advanced air bases.

      Africa. No country in Africa currently or will likely pose much in the way of a high-end threat. Any US operations will probably be of the short-term, low-intensity variety. No need to seize air bases.

      China. Open a map and you'll see that there are scores of islands along the 1st island chain: the Ryukus, Kuriles, Philippines, Indonesia, etc. China really has been dealt a pretty miserable hand when it comes to maritime geography.

      Seizing and holding a small number of these islands, and using them as bases for VSTOL strike-fighters or ASCMs could cause the PLAN fairly significant problems.


    3. Matt, as I said, the islands that might be of benefit to us are already under friendly or neutral control and, therefore, wouldn't require an amphibious assault to establish bases, assuming we could get permission to do so. We might well have to defend such bases but there would be no need for an assault.

      So, by your own assessment, which mirrors mine, we have no need for amphibious assaults with Iran, N.Korea, or Africa and China has no assaultable islands. That leaves us right back with the post's question about the value and role of Marine amphibious assault in high end wars.

    4. Matt,

      In the end, I think that moving aircraft off ships (which are really mobile floating bases) to austere airfields where the infrastructure to sustain them, and the lack of capacity constrains the force mix, borders on lunacy. While I love the idea of a VSTOL aircraft, it appears to be one of those ephemeral concepts that never seems to come to fruition.

      The biggest issue is the simple fact while there are VSTOL fighters, there are no VSTOL early warning aircraft, no VSTOL tankers, or any of the other platforms required to support the air supremacy effort. I know that V-22 advocates are pushing that solution, but having worked with USAF planners and compared the throughput of aircraft (e.g. the C-130/ C-27 debate): you find that there are some realities that older tech/concepts addresses better than new.

      Perhaps worse is the idea that you are going to fly a few squadrons of F-35s off onto a Pacific Island. Off course you can, but where does the fuel come from, the bombs, all of the support vehicles, cranes and what not? Then you have hundreds of aviation maintenance personnel, logisticians, etc. - all those people have to eat, drink etc. and that means another massive logistics problem.

      The biggest logistic hurdle will be transferring fuel to the airfields. We know how to refuel ships at sea quickly and efficiently, transferring bulk fuel from ship to shore without modern commercial port infrastructure is not a trivial challenge.

      I find it difficult to believe that a USMC expeditionary air group based upon a VSTOL force is going to be particularly effective. The PLA certainly have cruise missiles alongside their formidable force of ballistic missiles with submunitions designed for airfield interdiction. Once you solve these issues, you no longer have the type of austere airfield that proponents are talking about, and it seems likely that keeping the aircraft aboard ship is the better idea.


    5. GAB,

      I certainly see significant logistics challenges! Logistics is perhaps the most significant aspect of the whole concept. Insurmountable? Not sure. It all depends on force packaging and how long you expect to operate self-sustained.

      I'm not picturing 'a few squadrons' of F-35Cs. I'm thinking something more like single squadrons or less. Certainly not something on the scale of an entire marine air group (MAG).

      I also tend to think that certain capabilites don't need to organic to any single unit. The V-22s could serve double duty as tankers. AEW could be provided by a nearby AEGIS cruiser or E-2.

      Taking a step back: I really see the whole concept as a modernized version of the Marine Defense Battalions of WW2. Aircraft are big part of the concept, but not everything.

      Small, rapidly transportable air-ground teams focused on defending forward bases until reinforcements can arrive. Relatively light on infantry strength, but heavy on anti-air and anti-ship capability.


    6. Matt, you're considering a small base operating a single squadron or less - so 8-12 aircraft, call it 10. What are these 10 aircraft going to accomplish to further the war effort? You'll be fortunate to have 2-4 flyable at any given moment and they would probably be dedicated to base defense which raises the specter of a base which exists to defend itself. It's got to do more than that. It's got to be offensive in some way.

      If the base were close enough to China to conduct strikes on the mainland that would be valid but it wouldn't be (plus a few planes can't constitute a meaningful strike!). If the base were near enough to an enemy harbor to disrupt shipping, that would be valid but, again, it wouldn't be. If a base were near a high traffic shipping lane, that would be valid and that's remotely possible though that would undoubtedly warrant major attention rather than a few planes.

      So, we're left with a lack of offensive purpose. What did you have in mind?

      Dedicating an Aegis cruiser to AEW for 10 planes seems an unlikely allocation of resources. Similarly, the only E-2s would come from a carrier and those will tied up on high priority missions.

      China doesn't own any of the islands you mentioned and probably wouldn't in any likely conflict scenario. Thus, there wouldn't be any reason to defend them unless we put a small base on one which, again, leads us back to the base which exists to defend itself.

      Plus, the logistical effort is about the same for one squadron as a few but the fewer the number of planes, the less "cost effective" the logistic effort becomes.

      I get that you love the idea of an expeditionary (or whatever term you want to use) Marine air force and that's fine but it needs to make sense in the context of an overall war effort and it seems questionable.

    7. Wow. So - you really didn't read my post at all did you? :)

      The point of the expeditionary aircraft is decidedly NOT to strike the Chinese mainland. It is to strike Chinese ships (PLAN) as they transit along geographic chokepoints. Again - please look at a map of the first island chain.

      I'd say the concept is operationally offensive, while the purpose of the base defense force itself is defensive. The historical analogy of the WW2 Marine Defense Battalions is apt. They didn't storm the beaches - they occupied strategic islands.

      You don't think China is preparing to seize islands along it's first island chain? Then please explain why is the PLAN expanding it's marine corps and amphibious forces. I'd hazard to guess it's probably not for humanitarian reasons.

      The logistical effort to support a small number of planes is simply not the same as a larger number. It is true you gain efficiencies with larger numbers of aircraft. However, the most efficient option is not always the most effective.


    8. Another issue is how well can the F-35B handle the kinds of airfields that one can expect in on a small island or other expeditionary warfare scenario. Consider the issues the Navy has been having trying to operate F-35B's from LHD's and LHA's because of thermal damage to the flight deck. Imagine the results of trying to take off in an F-35 from a dirt or grass airstrip, much less land. And most accounts that I have read suggest the F-35 is a rather delicate beast. FOD anyone? Even if the Marines use aluminum or steel matting, which is the traditional solution, would it be able to take the heat?

    9. Matt,

      I like some of the missions you have provided for the USMC, I still just cannot buy off on the feasibility, particularly when compared with the obvious option, which is to leave the squadrons on ships, rather than putting them ashore.

      This is a topic worthy of further analysis, and wargamming.


    10. GAB,

      No disagreement that further analysis would be required!


  4. I imagine the same analysis was done in Nov 1942 by the German General Staff, and then Jodl deleted the attrition rate and Hitler told Von Paulas to stand fast, he would be supplied by the Air. We all know how that turned out for 250,000 Germans.

    We could also only use the threat of an amphibious landing during the First Gulf War because we couldn't clear the mines. Although that threat helped freeze Iraqi Forces in Kuwait, do we want to only be able to bluff to win?

    What is that saying? Amateurs study tactics, Generals study Logisitics

    1. The German General Staff declared that it was impossible to logistically support Operation Barborossa, *before* the invassion of the Soviet Union.

      They proved to be correct, and the German rail and tucking were never able to move enough munitions and other supplies to properly support the eastern front.


  5. CNO stated..."That leaves us right back with the post's question about the value and role of Marine amphibious assault in high end wars."

    The overall thrust of this question seems plain enough but is substantively elusive:

    If you want to raise the question of the overall legitimacy of a given element of US Sea Services, the current PROCEEDINGS article on the stated lack of adequate Anti-Surface Warfare Capability (Vol. 140, issue 1, pp.34-38) does not sound so good either.
    With a fleet of near 90 cruisers and destroyers with, according to the authors, apparently none equipped with medium-range 21st-century surface-warfare systems (silo/tube/pod/barrel-based), the massive investment in that many hulls would be justified by air-defense capability ?
    Or by their challenges of detecting and defending against modern air-independent modest-sized submarines ?
    Land-attack-duty with those modest 5"guns is increasingly improbable as even with top-end munitions we are talking of a range of around 50nm, which is well within reach of even lower-end shore-defenses (hence the need to move the ARG/MEU further out). DDG-1000 will offer nearer 80 nm, but would any of the three be anywhere near where they'd be needed ?

    And when was the last time that boomers actually fought ?

    Obviously, all this effort and expense/investment is then all about deterrence - not likely routine physical engagements. And making the only sizable amphibious assault force in the world progressively more effective after decades of conceptually underdeveloped ship-to-shore capability should be the focus of discussion - not why those particular past failures on the part of the vessel-developers and -owners (USN) would define the fundamental 'implausibility' of the amphibious USMC.

    And starting with China and then running through each time-zone, there are plenty of potential scenarios where a rapid amphibious intervention force with a stout heavy-lift capability would be unarguably essential.

    USMC with a plausible and then potent amphibious rapid-response capability will become an even more relevant tool of deterrence.

    How to boost the effectiveness of that capability should be as high on anybody's list, as whether 90 CG and DDG vessels can plausibly have a surface shoot-out with at least a near-peer foe.

    1. “USMC with a plausible and then potent amphibious rapid-response capability will become an even more relevant tool of deterrence.”


      The agrarian Chinese in 1950 were not deterred by a much larger, modern UN force (with plenty of U.S. Marines), right on their doorstep, and backed by nuclear weapons.

      Fast forward to the twentieth century, and the Chinese are now the industrial powerhouse, have nuclear weapons, and are arming and training for decisive ground/sea/air combat.

      It is hard to imagine China concerned about even a division sized USMC force operating in the first island chain. If China is willing to sustain the casualties, and indications are that they are not afraid of frightful casualties if they are able to achieve their objectives, the will prevail in a force on force contest.

      On the other hand, a submarine campaign targeted at disrupting the flow of raw material from Africa and the Middle East would be a serious threat to the Chinese economy (and potentially Chinas political structure).


  6. Late to the discussion on this one but if anyone fancies it, have published a 27 part series on Ship to Shore Logistics

    Start here

  7. This scenario lays out an amphibious assault...but a MEU is not capable of an assault. They are capable of an amphibious raid, in and out. But to attempt an opposed amphibious assault with 25-2700 Marines and the equipment they have organically abaord the ships? We are in a world of hurt if that scenario plays out.

    1. Anon (Solomon?), you're correct, of course. The use of a MEU was to illustrate the concept of the effects of attrition with relatively smaller numbers and easier to grasp concepts. The problems identified in the post scale up to MEB or whatever size force you wish to consider.

      The conjectured assault is illustrative rather than doctrinally correct.


  8. hey this is Solomon. let me be clear. i didn't post the article about Marine Corps capabilities to slam your work.

    let me state loudly. i respect what you do. i read your blog daily. and i enjoy it immensely.

    my fire was aimed at the USMC. we have not laid out the capabilities of the MEU clearly. its widely believed that the force is designed for assaults. its a perception that the Marine Corps has encouraged. i believe thats wrong.

    so consider the post a reflection of certain frustrations i'm experiencing with a service that i've devoted much time, and much body and soul to.

    1. Solomon, thanks for stopping by. No problem at all. I read your SNAFU post exactly as you intended it and you're quite correct.

      I, too, am frustrated with the Corps, at the present time. They're conflicted about what they want to be. Expeditionary air force? Light infantry raiders? Heavy assault force? Procurement trends suggest expeditionary air force (sacrificing multiple ground programs for JSF). Public statements suggest light infantry raiders (public statements that frontal assaults are a thing of the past). Policy suggests heavy assault (push for more major amphibious ships).

      It's discouraging because the Corps has always been the bedrock and compass of the armed forces. We share a frustration.

      I'm a daily SNAFU reader and I thank you for the effort you put into it and your willingness to share your thoughts through your blog. Well done and keep writing!

  9. Adding F35's and turning the islands into air bases would be the rarity probably reserved for the larger rear islands for noted reasons of supply, maintenance, protection, etc.. above. Why put them on islands rather than ships very simply Islands don't sink.

    In a China/PACOM war those anphibs with their marines deployed off LCAC and helo will be worked hard. Personally I see the Marines being deposited onto the myriad of small islands regardless of ownership. I imagine the Chinese will be playing the same game so some will have to be seized after softening. A small detachment of marines with some drones, radar, or even other outside systems as eyes firing off ASM and/or maybe even tagging with a Army patriot/thadd system to magnify the threat, deadly. ASM missiles and small drones could be easily hidden in the jungle cover with a small marine detachment for protection and be deadly for Chinese ships movement. I am thinking on the old coastal watchers of WW2 but juiced up with some teeth. The goal would be to spread out and make targets and angles of strike to numerous for the Chinese to shut down.

    Note the Army is getting back into its deployable mindset with their airborne also, with a eye to the pacific.

    N korea probably not much use.

    Iran, Abu Musa and few others I think when things were really hot awhile back had marines even practicing to hit those. Eitherway they cannot be left even as neutered targeting bases in Iranian hands if we intend to try to secure the gulf.

    Africa, I can see quite a few potential raid locations and I don't really see any real opposition the whole of Africa pretty much would be a open oyster.

    Just because a nation has some ASM, SAM, or artillery doesn't mean they will be able to effectively use it against us. I think the navy and marines long ago resigned themselves to not go head long into armed beaches ala Normandy. My guess is any landings will have been heavily worked over and the forces landing will go were the enemy is not to land or use air insertion to make such a place.

    The Navy should not be so quick to throw away their marine bretheren. If China got to those islands first with their anphibs dispersing their marines armed with ASM and small drones giving our surface ships a string of unsinkable blockers. The marines and their antiquated ways will be the only way back in to the game.

    1. Islands don't sink but islands also don't move making targetting them much easier.

  10. In a Information Dissemination article on Coastal Defense, I suggested that the ATACMS with an anti-ship guidance would be very nasty. Basically a smaller, more mobile, and shorter ranged DF-21.

    1. Yes. Small footprint hard to target, portable, resupplied by air drop or the occasional ship, and above all deadly to anything that dares the surrounding. I was thinking harpoon bigger circle leveraging the drones and keeps the mystery alive. The ATCAMS anti ship version will be a tell that the other side will then know they got a island problem. Harpoon will keep the mystery, are they facing subs, small ship, aircraft, or marines?


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