The crux of the Marine’s amphibious assault capability is the connector – the vehicle, whether surface or air, that transports the Marines and their equipment from their ships to the shore. As you know, doctrine calls for the assault ships and their escorts to remain 25-100 nm offshore due to fears of land based anti-ship missiles. However, this creates a problem since there are no initial wave connectors that are capable of transporting Marines 25-100 nm to the shore. Let’s see if we can sum up the state of affairs for the amphibious connectors.
There are no surface connectors capable of transporting initial assault waves from 25-100 nm. The Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) and its planned follow ons are limited to around 3-5 nm travel. Beyond that, the troops will be incapacitated from seasickness due to the extended travel time. The LCAC and LCU are doctrinally considered non-survivable in a contested environment and are reserved for follow on waves after the landing area has been secured.
“… Marines now want their connectors to drop amphibious vehicles off five miles from land. That keeps the connectors out of range of ground troops with anti-tank missiles, for one thing. In fact, the fastest current connector, the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft, is so lightly protected the Navy refuses to land it on anydefended beach.” (1)
Aviation connectors (helos and MV-22s) have the range but are incapable of transporting tanks, artillery, and heavy vehicles. They are also incapable of logistically sustaining an assault. Additionally, their numbers are limited and attrition of helos and MV-22s will be significant, further weakening any resupply and support efforts.
We see, then, that the current state of affairs is unworkable. That being the case, what does the Navy/Marine Corps envision as the future of amphibious assault connectors?
The Marines vision for the moderately near future is for high speed (relative to the AAV) connectors such as the LCAC and LCU to transport AAVs to within 3-5 nm or so of the shore and drop them into the water for the final, short leg of the trip. The thinking is that this will keep the non-survivable LCACs and LCUs safely out of range (they’re still going to be in range of a
of weapons!) while keeping the AAV travel time acceptable. This will require modifying the LCAC and LCU
ramp systems – not a particularly challenging engineering feat.
The major problem with both the LCAC and LCU as regards initial assault waves is that even limiting the approach to 3-5 miles exposes the craft to lots of weapons (artillery, Hellfire type small missiles, rockets, helos, drones, etc.) and if one of these connectors is sunk, they’ll take a lot of troops and equipment down with them as well as cripple the follow on waves. That is the flip side of having high volume/capacity connectors – if you lose one, you lose a lot of people and materiel. This makes the Navy’s move to smaller well decks which carry even fewer LCACs/LCUs even more inexplicable. But, I digress …
Another option popular in the commentary world and that has received Marine Corps attention is the ultra heavy lift amphibious connector (UHLAC). The full scale version would be 84 ft long with a capacity of three M1 tanks or 200 tons of cargo and a speed of 25 mph in the water although the prototype was only capable of around 5 mph. How, exactly, the UHLAC, at the same size as an LCAC and much slower, would be any more survivable than an LCAC is a mystery. It seems likely that this would be relegated to the same follow on role as the LCAC.
We see, then, that the future vision for connectors is still suspect and depends on cobbled together solutions that are highly dependent on the enemy cooperating by not sinking any of our LCACs or LCUs. This seems like a plan based mostly on wishful thinking. That being the case, what do we need to actually solve the problem?
What’s needed is a long range, high speed, small connector. The Marines tried for many years to develop such a vehicle, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) and failed to reconcile the conflicting requirements of both a high water speed transport and a land based fighting vehicle. The EFV was symptomatic of the military’s obsession with trying to make every platform a “do everything” asset. What’s needed is a dedicated water-only landing craft – a Higgins boat with speed, in essence – that can transport troops, tanks, artillery, heavy vehicles, and supplies to the shore quickly, unload, and return to the amphibious ship for more loads. The fighting vehicle – AAV, ACV, IFV, or whatever that might be – can then be a separate, dedicated, specialized vehicle optimized for land combat and transported ashore via one of these notional Higgins boats.
The need for speed is obvious. Speed increases the distance that troops can be transported before succumbing to debilitating seasickness. Speed minimizes the exposure time to enemy weapons. Speed increases the delivery rate by increasing the number of trips per unit time.
Given the requirement to limit the troop’s time afloat to a maximum of one hour and a desire to stand 25 nm off shore, we get a notional speed requirement of around 25-30 kts.
What’s less obvious is the need to be small although we’ve already touched on the rationale. The smaller the landing craft, the less we lose when one is destroyed. Smaller also minimizes the targeting size of the landing craft. Conceptually, we’d like a landing craft that is so small that it transports a single soldier. Of course, we don’t have that technology and there is a marked lack of efficiency in such a system. What’s needed is a balance between risk (loss) and efficiency. The WWII Higgins boat hit that balance fairly well and had a capacity of around 30 troops. I would suggest that a modern Higgins boat with a capacity of around two squads (24 or so troops) is about right.
We also need the ability to transport tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment ashore in the initial assault wave. Keeping in mind the requirement to remain small and minimize risk (loss), a landing craft with a capacity to transport one tank is needed.
The key to this is separation of the two functions: transport of the initial assault wave and combat ashore. The Marines have combined those functions and produced an AAV that is good at neither, and EFV that failed miserably at both, and a doctrine that is unexecutable. Separating the functions allows for the design of an optimized connector and an optimized combat vehicle while keeping the costs of both down since neither will have any unnecessary functions added on.
Speaking of costs, the conceptual Higgins boat must be cheap. They will be lost during an assault and cannot be so expensive that attrition will be a problem. There is nothing wrong with wooden construction, for example. We’re not building them to last 50 years! These need to be cheap to the point of being free by modern acquisition standards.
|Model For The Future|
We should also re-examine the well deck concept. In WWII, Higgins boats were mounted externally about the ship’s decks and superstructure and lowered into the water. A typical attack transport carried a couple dozen landing craft. They occupied no internal ship’s volume. The well deck, on the other hand, is a huge penalty in internal ship’s volume – volume that could be used for additional storage of troops and equipment (wouldn’t it be nice to not have to leave the tanks behind when the ship loads?) or to simply make the ship smaller and cheaper if additional storage is not needed. Some thought would have to be given to how to load tanks, artillery, and heavy equipment into the landing craft, of course – perhaps a RO/RO type ramp at the waterline?
For too many decades we’ve leapt immediately to the far, complicated end of the technology spectrum for every solution and requirement. The time has more than come to begin thinking of simpler, affordable solutions even they aren’t elegant. I know the thought of a wooden landing craft would give a modern naval officer apoplexy but, in combat, the KISS principle reigns supreme and we would do well to remember that and begin applying it. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the simplest solution that meets the requirements is, invariably, the correct one.
“Away all boats!”
(1)Breaking Defense, “Marines Seek New Tech To Get Ashore Vs. Missiles; Reinventing Amphib Assault”, Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr.,