I love the Marine Corps but, I’m sorry, they’ve gone off the rails. What is their core mission? Well, actually, that’s a good question because I don’t think Marine leadership currently has a viable answer – they’ve forgotten their mission. Presumably, though, the answer ought to involve some form of amphibious operations (I won’t say assault because it doesn’t have to be although that would be the classic example). With that in mind, the Marines should be focusing on how to get as much firepower and armor ashore against peer opposition as possible, right? But, that’s not what the Marines are concentrating on. Instead, they’re concentrating on becoming a third air force, a light infantry force (for what reason, I can’t imagine since light infantry will get annihilated on the modern battlefield), a social/psychological warfare service (hearts and minds), a 3D printing force, and all kinds of other non-core activities. Their latest is an apparent desire to become a land based navy to conduct anti-surface ship operations using their high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS). The Marines want to get into the business of sea control from the land. I guess they’ve solved every other problem they face and are looking to expand.
We’ve talked about this recently in somewhat general terms but let’s get into the weeds and really look at this.
A Breaking Defense website article describes the Marine’s newly desired mission (1) thusly,
“It also means the Marines need a highly mobile system that can come ashore with the grunts and keep moving to evade retaliatory fire while staying connected to Navy fire control networks. That’s a much more demanding mission than static coastal defense, the role of most anti-ship missile batteries around the world …”
The article hints at some of the challenges.
“But buying the missile is just the start. You need to integrate it with a launcher, a fire control network and a supply chain.”
The launcher is the easy part, in the Marine’s eyes. They already have the HIMARS so they just need to find a missile that can fit it.
How is all this going to work? Here’s the Marine’s vision.
“The Marines would provide additional “distributed” firepower from Expeditionary Advance Bases. Carved out of hostile territory by landing forces, kept small and camouflaged to avoid enemy fire, EABs would support F-35B jump jets, V-22 tiltrotors, and drones, as well as anti-ship missiles for the fleet. It’s a high-tech version of Henderson Field on
Guadalcanal (part of the Solomons) in 1942.
Like Henderson Field, the EABs would provide a permanent presence ashore,
inside the contested zone, to support Navy ships as they move in and out to
raid and withdraw.”
The unspoken assumptions that go into this vision are staggering in their magnitude and fantasy. Let’s examine them.
That we’re going to be able to enter a “contested zone” with a big enough force to land heavy construction equipment, build a base, equip it with advanced computers, comm. gear, sensors, spare parts, fuel, and munitions without the enemy noticing is wishful thinking at its best – and we’re going to have several of these bases!
That we believe we’re going to be able to operate the highly temperamental F-35B which, under ideal and pristine conditions on a highly advanced and well equipped airbase, has only a 50% readiness rate is ludicrous.
That we’re going to be able to transport fuel, food, munitions, spare parts, etc. to these bases in the “contested zone” without being seen is pure fantasy.
It also occurs to me that another unspoken assumption in this concept is that the expeditionary base will either be on a previously unoccupied island or chunk of land or the Marines will have to seize it. If the Marines have to seize the land then there is no secrecy. The enemy, having had the location wrested away from them, will be fully aware of our presence and any base that we might construct there. That kind of defeats the fantasy of secret bases with missiles and aircraft appearing and disappearing as if by magic. That leaves the use of previously unoccupied land. Are there really that many unoccupied pieces of land in a “contested zone” and near enough to something of value that the enemy will have ships passing by but will not be monitoring the land for just such secret bases? I’ve got to believe that the number of such locations are exceedingly few.
I’ve got to stop here. We’re wandering off topic by discussing the fantasy of these disbursed, magically invisible bases. The topic is the use of HIMARS anti-ship missiles so let’s get back to that.
There’s a fundamental problem with launching a missile, any missile.
“Once you launch a rocket, however, the enemy can see your location on radar and infra-red, so the missile batteries must practice “shoot and scoot” tactics: move to a firing point, launch, and move again to a hiding place before enemy retaliation rains down.”
Shoot and scoot! Well that’s easy. The HIMARS will be able to move before any counterfire can arrive. Just out of curiosity, though, how does a 12 ton HIMARS scoot through the jungle, mountains, or whatever that the Marines have carved their forward expeditionary bases out of? And if we limit ourselves to only relatively flat, open areas that a HIMARS can easily travel, doesn’t that negate the “hidden” part of the expeditionary base concept? Plus, doesn’t the act of firing kind of call attention to the base itself? Presumably the enemy can reason out that an anti-ship missile didn’t just appear from land by magic. Once alerted, the enemy has only to conduct a cursory scan of the area and they’ll notice any base big enough to operate F-35B’s, MV-22s, drones, HIMARS. Plus, they’ll likely notice the buildings, warehouses, comm. facilities, sensors, etc. that even a “primitive” base requires. Henderson Field was not a secret to the Japanese!
Let’s consider the missile’s range. The Marine Request For Information to industry (2) cited a range of “80 miles or greater”. The problem, here, is that the longer the range, the bigger the missile must be and the bigger and less mobile the launcher must be – refer back to the “shoot and scoot” issue. Further, the larger the missile, the more expensive it is. This strongly suggests a fairly short range missile. Range leads us directly to the next problem which is sensor/targeting.
|HIMARS - Scooting Through The Jungle?|
An 80+ mile missile is useless if you don’t have 80+ mile sensors to provide targeting data. What are these sensors and where are they going to come from? The obvious sensor is radar. The problem is that a land based radar has a range of only the radar’s horizon, say, 20 miles or so. Of course, the radar could be mounted on top of a high hill or mountain (how do we get it there from a primitive expeditionary base without calling attention to the effort?) if one happens to be handy. Data transmission from a remote radar sensor presents another problem.
Also, if we have a powerful 80+ mile radar scanning the area, that will certainly call the enemy’s attention to it and our “secret” base won’t be secret anymore.
Well, why not use networked sensors from other assets in the region, like the Navy? The Navy has made an extensive investment in, and commitment to, distributed sensor networks so tapping into that should solve the problem, right? Of course, if the Navy has to be in the area to provide sensor coverage then that means that the Navy can’t leave the area and if the Navy is in the area, why do you need a land based anti-ship missile since every ship that floats will be armed with anti-ship missiles anyway, according to the Navy (remember the Navy’s oft-repeated, “If it floats, it fights.”?)?
This smacks of budget grabbing at its worst. With all the problems the Marines currently face, is trying to take on a new, non-core mission really the best use of their time and budget? The Marines are on an out-of-control power (meaning budget) grab and need to be reined in.
(1)Breaking Defense website, “Marines Seek Anti-Ship HIMARS: High Cost, Hard Mission”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.,