The centerpiece of the
amphibious assault force is the
aviation capable, big deck LHA/LHD ship such as the America (LHA) and Wasp
(LHD) classes. Even the smaller
amphibious ships such as the now standard San Antonio (LPD) class have a significant
aviation capability. US
The USS America (LHA-6), for example, is a monument to aerial flexibility and power. The aviation component can vary according to mission needs but a typical mix of aircraft might be 12 MV-22 transports, 6 F-35B strike aircraft, 4 CH-53K heavy transport helicopters, 7 AH-1Z/UH-1Y attack helicopters, and 2 MH-60S helos for search and rescue, according to Wiki (2). The ship can also be configured to operate as a mini-carrier by dropping the helos and MV-22s and embarking 20 F-35Bs instead.
Even the smaller
(LPD-17) can operate a mix of several helos and MV-22s. San Antonio
Collectively, this impressive aviation capability leads me to refer to these imposing vessels as … useless.
How can that much aviation capability be useless?
For starters, I’ve repeatedly stated that there is no strategic need for amphibious assaults in any war against
, NKorea, and Russia (with the possible but unlikely
exception of retaking China ).
There is a slight chance of an amphibious assault against Taiwan but that would be more along the
lines of an unopposed unloading rather than an assault. With that said, our amphibious fleet offers
no useful capability because it simply will never be needed. Iran
For the sake of continued discussion, let’s assume that there is some undefined, non-specific need for amphibious assault. Let’s take a closer look at the large deck, amphibious fleet of 30+ ships. What do these aviation amphibious assault ships offer?
The Marines seem to desperately want to become an aviation vertical assault force. By definition, that means that they can only be a light infantry force since they can’t transport tanks, heavy vehicles, etc. by air. Worse, such a force can only be a very, very short duration force since it is not possible to sustain an assault by MV-22/helo resupply especially when the likely attrition rates are factored in.
So, what kind of action does this translate to? At most, it would be a low intensity, short duration raid or rescue type scenario. This low level of combat power is simply not useful in peer combat and certainly does not justify the construction and maintenance of a 30+ ship amphibious fleet. Really, 30+ amphibious ships to service light infantry? Does that make sense?
Let’s look now at close air support. Supposedly, the Marines want their “own” carriers so that they can always be assured of air support. Okay, how much firepower does that air support provide? A standard Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) consists of three amphibious ships: an LHA/LHD, an LPD, and an LSD. The typical attack aircraft totals are 6 F-35Bs and 7 attack helos. So, what kind of firepower does that represent?
An F-35B can carry a total of 6 air-to-ground weapons (2 internal + 4 external with 2 additional near-wingtip hardpoints for smaller, air to air weapons only). Therefore, 6 F-35s can deliver a theoretical maximum of 36 weapons per attack “wave”. Also, note that the F-35B model is limited to 2x 1000 lb bombs internally (the remaining internal mounting points are for smaller, air to air weapons). So, assuming a maximum 2000 lb bomb on the external hardpoints (I don’t know if this is even a permissible arrangement) plus two 1000 lb bombs internally, the maximum munitions load for a single aircraft would be 10,000 lbs. Thus, 6 F-35Bs can deliver a theoretical maximum of 60,000 lbs of munitions.
An AH-1Z can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles or 76 unguided 2.75 inch rockets or 28 guided rockets. This is a nice “sniper” capability to have in a low end scenario but is almost insignificant in terms of firepower in high end combat.
So, the aviation element can deliver 36 munitions (10,000 lbs) once every few to several hours. Assuming no aircraft combat losses and minimal maintenance (an invalid assumption since all modern military jets require extensive maintenance for every flight hour), we could, theoretically, generate an aviation attack wave once every, say, six hours, at best. Doing the math, that’s an average of 6 munitions per hour. Does that sound like it would have the slightest effect on a Marine assault/battle?
Of course, the numbers cited are for a Marine Expeditionary Unit and they values would scale up as we move to a MEB/MEF but the relative contributions would remain unchanged.
Now, just for fun, let’s look at a Burke class destroyer providing fire support with its single 5”/54 or 5”/62 gun. The gun can fire 68 lb shells at a rate of 20 rounds per minute with a magazine of 680 shells (1). Thus, a single Burke with a single 5” gun can provide 46,240 lbs of munitions and can deliver that amount in 34 minutes, firing at a rate of 20 rpm. Further, the naval gunfire is always on call, cannot be jammed or decoyed, is impervious to weather conditions, and puts no pilot’s lives at risk. Of course, this assumes that the Navy is courageous enough to risk a Burke within a few miles of shore and that the targets are within range of the ship’s guns!
At this point, the astute military analyst should be asking, why do we even bother with amphibious aviation ships given the very marginal firepower support they can provide? Wouldn’t all that aviation money be better spent on naval gun support?
To be fair, we should note that amphibious aircraft can offer weapons delivery further inland than current naval gun support. Of course, the further inland, the fewer the number of attack waves (sorties) we can generate so that’s a double-edged sword. Again, the astute military analyst should be asking, wouldn’t all that aviation money be better spent on long range, amphibious, self-propelled artillery that the Marines can bring ashore with them?
|Wasp Class LHD|
We should also note that much of the amphibious aviation element is geared towards transport rather than weapons delivery. However, given that current aircraft can’t lift/transport tanks, engineering vehicles, artillery, or any other heavy equipment, the Marines are, by definition, limited to being light infantry when using aviation as the ship-to-shore transport mode. The astute military analyst should be asking, is it worth the incredible expenditure to build and maintain a 30+ large deck, amphibious fleet just to provide light infantry combat capability? Couldn’t the Army/Air Force combination provide light infantry anywhere in the world for a lot less money?
So where does that leave us and what can/should we do?
There are several possibilities.
- In recognition of the Marine’s (now) light infantry capability combined with the unlikelihood of major amphibious assaults in the foreseeable future, eliminate the bulk of the amphibious fleet. We can retain around 9 ships (3 ARGs) for training and core competency retention or for use in low end scenarios. Turn the rapid response light infantry role over to the Army/Air Force.
- Greatly increase our naval gun support capability. As we have no effective naval gun support, currently, this would entail designing and building a new class of naval gun support ship.
- Greatly increase the Marine’s organic self-propelled artillery capability. The challenge with this approach is to get the equipment ashore quickly and early in an assault.
- Figure out a way to get the current heavy equipment, armor, and firepower from ship to shore in a faster, more survivable way that can put the equipment ashore from outset of an assault. Since it’s highly unlikely that aircraft could be developed that could provide the necessary lift, this means designing landing craft that are small (sized for individual tanks as the maximum size requirement), fast, and reasonably survivable as part of the initial assault wave.
- Eliminate aviation-capable amphibious ships and transfer the aviation responsibility to the regular aircraft carriers. This would greatly streamline aviation maintenance and efficiency. It would also eliminate the need for the F-35B since the carriers can operate the “C” model. This would also have the effect of increasing air wing size and employing the wing more effectively until that rare moment, if ever, when we need amphibious air support. Hand in hand with this would be the relocation of the ground element to smaller, cheaper, pure transport vessels (Attack Transports – APAs, to use the WWII terminology).
Considering that we’re maintaining a fleet of 30+ multi-billion dollar aviation-based amphibious ships for a marginal aviation capability, one has to wonder if the expense is worth it. Our big deck amphibious ships simply don’t offer high end combat capability sufficient to justify their existence.
(2)Wiki, “USS America (LHA-6)”, retrieved