Let’s take a look at our current amphibious assault landing craft capability and then compare it to what we had and how we executed assaults in WWII and see what the trends are and what lessons we’ve learned or forgotten.
Broadly speaking, today’s amphibious assault calls for an initial wave of infantry delivered via Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV). The initial wave consists of infantry with no firepower beyond machine guns. Once the initial wave has secured a “safe” beachhead, a follow on wave of troops, vehicles, artillery, tanks, and supplies will be delivered via high speed, air cushioned landing craft (LCAC) and LCU’s.
One of the significant differences between WWII and now is that the military commanders of WWII understood the importance of firepower in the initial wave and constantly sought better means of delivering it. Today, we’ve abandoned any pretense of attempting to deliver firepower with the initial wave. Thus, the initial assault will likely wind up pitting our light infantry, with no significant firepower, against enemy armor and artillery, possibly supported by fortifications and larger guns, and backed up by long range rockets and cruise/ballistic missiles. This will be a significant mismatch.
The initial wave will have no firepower and no rocket, artillery, mortar, and missile defense (C-RAM).
In WWII, the main source of firepower during the assault was naval gunfire. The initial assault force was supported by massive battleship, cruiser, and destroyer gunfire. Naval gunfire provided days of pre-assault bombardment, suppressive fire as the initial assault waves were landing, and post-assault fire support as additional targets were identified. Today, our naval gunfire is limited to a single 5” gun per Burke and, worse, even that meager level of gunfire has been rendered moot by our amphibious assault doctrine which calls for ships to stand 25-50+ miles off shore, well beyond the range of our 5” guns. Thus, today’s initial assault force will not only have no heavy weapons or armor, they will have no naval gunfire support. That means no pre-assault bombardment, no suppressive fire on landing, and no post-assault fire support. This simply makes a bad situation worse and is a recipe for defeat.
Close Air Support (CAS - using the term generically) will only be sporadically available against a peer opponent that will likely either own the skies or contest the skies, making for an aerial no-man’s-land in which neither side can muster any useful or sustained CAS. Helicopters will die a quick death from ubiquitous man-portable surface to air missiles.
Setting aside aerial and naval gun support issues, the main weakness of the overall assault concept is that the follow on wave is only viable and survivable in a low/no threat environment. Marine/Navy doctrine recognizes that the LCAC’s and LCU’s are large, slow, vulnerable targets that cannot survive a contested landing. The implied doctrinal assumption is that the initial wave will be sufficient to secure a “safe” landing area for the LCAC’s and LCU’s. If this does not happen, and happen with sufficient speed, the assault commander will be faced with the no-win choice of not reinforcing and resupplying the initial wave or attempting to reinforce and resupply using landing craft that are unsuited for contested landings and are likely to incur massive losses which would incapacitate our follow on supply efforts.
Let’s return to consideration of the initial wave landing craft, the AAV. The major problem with the AAV is that it is incapable of executing the Navy/Marine’s doctrinal assault concept of starting the assault from 25-50+ nm offshore. The AAV is only capable of swimming around two or three miles. Beyond that, the troops will become incapacitated due to seasickness. This, however, is a mismatch between doctrine and equipment and, for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll largely ignore the issue (just as the Marines/Navy have been doing!!!).
On the plus side, today’s AAV is actually adequate, as far as dispersal of risk, in getting troops ashore. The AAV carries around 20 troops. The problem with the AAV is that it is a one-use vehicle. It swims ashore and stays ashore where it transitions to a kind of poor man’s Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). There is no option for it to return to the amphibious ships for more troops or supplies. Thus, the follow on waves are strictly dependent on LCAC’s and LCU’s. If the beach has been secured, this is fine. However, if the beach is not secured then the LCAC/LCU will be entering a contested combat zone for which they are not survivable, according to the Marines/Navy themselves.
So, we seem to be at an impasse. An initial assault wave of AAVs simply lacks the firepower to definitively secure the beachhead which means the follow on firepower can’t be delivered. We have a classic Catch-22, here. We can’t secure the beachhead without firepower but the only way to get firepower is to secure the beachhead.
How can we get the firepower we need in the initial wave? There are two ways to go about it.
- Develop small, reusable landing craft capable of delivering a single tank, artillery piece, or heavy equipment/vehicle.
- Develop an amphibious tank.
Tank Landing Craft
For the initial wave, we need to bring tanks and heavy vehicles/artillery ashore in individual landing craft as opposed to, say, a large LST. The initial risk is too great for an LST and we would risk too many tank losses from a disabled LST.
There are some landing/transport craft available that somewhat meet the need to transport a single tank but they don’t really meet all the requirements.
Here are some characteristics of an ideal tank landing craft:
- Sized for a single tank or heavy vehicle/artillery and no more
- Two-way, reusable. The assumption that we’ll be able to use LCACs and LCUs after the first wave is likely to be incorrect. The beach will, quite likely, still be contested and inappropriate for the LCACs and LCUs.
- Should ride low in the water and present as flat a topside as possible with as much armor as possible (think Russian Hind helo in the water). Such an arrangement would present little target area and what there is would be so slanted, relative to the incoming round’s trajectory, as to greatly negate incoming rounds. The craft should be able to rise for unloading as it beaches, of course.
- As high a speed as reasonably possible.
- Active protection similar to the Israeli tank mounted Trophy system
|We Need A Tank Version Of The Higgins Boat|
WWII demonstrated conclusively that tanks or some form of heavy gun must go ashore with the initial wave. The history of WWII landings in the Pacific was a steady movement towards ways to get heavier firepower (tanks) ashore in the initial wave. It was found that getting actual tanks ashore was a very difficult task and, as a stopgap measure, the amphibious Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT) was developed and armed with heavy firepower. Specifically, the armored versions, the LVT(A), were fitted with various guns and weapons including a 75mm howitzer (the M8 Gun Motor Carriage turret), 0.30 and 0.50 machine guns, a turret mounted 37mm M6 anti-tank gun, and Ronson flamethrowers.
|LVT(A) Amphibious Light Tank|
Thus, an amphibious light tank, the LVT(A) was created that, while lacking in armor, provided the immediate heavy firepower needed to defeat infantry, obstacles, and fortifications. Being tracked, it was able to climb over the ubiquitous coral reefs that sometimes stymied other landing craft.
Conceptually, as discussed, we need a landing craft that can carry a single tank to shore. Failing that, we need a modern fire support LVT(A). The Marine’s AAVs could possibly be modified to mount heavy guns, howitzers, and mortars. I don’t know if it can be done but it’s a straightforward engineering exercise and ought to be doable – we did it in WWII so surely we can do it today.
Beyond that, we also need an amphibious anti-air defense vehicle and, again, a suitably modified AAV could provide AAW and C-RAM variants.
Of course, all of this discussion is pointless given the nonsensical 25-50+ mile standoff doctrine. The maximum time troops can be in a landing craft is an hour, and that’s pushing it. Any longer and the troops will be rendered combat incapable. So, unless we can develop a first wave, infantry landing craft that can travel at 30-50 kts, the starting point must be moved back in to the horizon or closer. The Marines have tried for decades to develop a high speed landing craft and failed miserably. The conclusion is that the requisite technology is simply unattainable, at this time although, notably, the Chinese have developed a 15-17 knot amphibious light tank very similar to the WWII LVT(A).