Monday, January 11, 2021

Status Update: Marine Corps Ship Sinkers and Sub Killers,

We’ve discussed and dissected the Marine Commandant’s ill-conceived concept of small units of hidden,  missile-shooting, sub-sinking wonder-warriors winning a war with China single-handed and we’ve, rightly, scoffed at it.  Setting aside the mockery, let’s take a look at the status of the effort to establish that capability and see what kind of progress the Commandant is making.


To ever so briefly review, the concept calls for Marines to launch anti-ship missiles, with a range of several hundred miles, from island bases using modified ‘jeeps’ and light trucks.  Two missile systems have been commonly proposed:


Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) – The use of a land based Tomahawk cruise missile has been made possible by the termination of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.  Unfortunately, the Tomahawk is slow, non-stealthy, non-maneuvering, and likely has a very poor survival rate against a peer defender.  It’s essentially a subsonic target drone and can only succeed if fired in overwhelming numbers which the small unit concept cannot generate, so …  On the plus side, the missile has a range of several hundred miles and is designed to use mid-course guidance.  Where that initial targeting and subsequent mid-course guidance will come from in the Marine’s concept is unknown and, thus far, unexplained.  Given the two hour travel time at maximum range, some type of mid-course guidance will definitely be required.


The U.S. Navy’s subsonic Block Va (i.e. Block 5a) Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST) is capable of being reprogrammed and rerouted in flight to attack moving ships out to around 900 nautical miles (or 1,035 miles/1,666 km…the exact range has not been fully disclosed) with a 1,000-pound warhead. Maritime Strike Tomahawk is by far the longest-range ASCM option although it would take about two hours to fly 900nm miles at a speed of around 550mph. The MST is slated to become operational in 2023 with the probable preferred U.S.M.C. ground launcher being a quartet of MK41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells mounted on a towed semitrailer. (4)


A towed semitrailer is not exactly a small, nimble, easily transportable, easily hidden piece of equipment which renders the basic concept of small, hidden units somewhat suspect.  Such a vehicle requires roads or flat, open terrain which, again, renders the ‘hidden’ aspect questionable.


Also, a quartet of cells provides a ‘magazine’ capacity of 4 missiles.  That’s not enough to bother any peer defender warship.  Reloads are both problematic and useless for a single engagement since the reload delay time would preclude effective massing of missiles.


Of course, the small unit could always be provided with several, or a dozen or more, semi-trailers to increase the ‘magazine’ size but that would negate the small, hidden, rapidly relocatable attributes of the Marine’s platoon size units.

Test Firing of Tomahawk from Trailer

Naval Strike Missile - The Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) combines a Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires (ROGUE-Fires) drone vehicle, which is a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), and the Naval Strike Missile (NSM).(2)  Seriously, there must be an entire department that works exclusively on catchy acronyms, right?  The NSM, as you recall, is the Norwegian Kongsberg anti-ship missile intended for the LCS.  It is subsonic, moderately stealthy, and has a range of 200-300+ miles.


NMESIS uses the Marines’ High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) on the chassis of a remotely operated version of the Army’s Oshkosh-built Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, loaded with a Kongsberg/Raytheon Naval Strike Missile.(2)


USMC will likely integrate the NSM on unmanned Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) “ROGUE Fires” vehicles. (4)


Regarding the launcher,


The Remotely Operated Ground Unit Expeditionary-Fires (ROGUE-F) is the launcher vehicle for the NMESIS/GBASM [ed. GBASM stands for Ground Based Anti-Ship Missile] system.  … The GBASM project will procure a USMC system while leveraging other Service-developed missiles to provide a ground based anti-access/area denial, anti-ship capability.(3)


If we were shooting acronyms and abbreviations, we’d win the war in a few hours!


ROGUE Fires 


So, those are the two missile systems.  What’s missing from that?  Targeting, of course!




The glaring weakness in the Marine’s concept is, of course, targeting.  The Marines have not discussed this aspect, at all.  They’ve simply hand-waved away the issue and, just as every discussion of the overall concept begins with the Marines already firmly established on an island, hidden from view, fully equipped, and with the enemy absolutely clueless, so too, does every discussion of the missiles begin with the assumption that they already have targets sighted and locked. 






So, now that we understand what missile systems are being developed and what the glaring weakness of the concept is, what is the status of the equipment and funding for the various components?  Listed below is a summary of the equipment and funding status of the various components of the concept.  Items in red indicate gaps or shortcomings related to the anti-ship concept.  Funding information largely comes from the FY2021 Marine and Navy procurement documents (3) on the SecNav budget website.  Note that missile funding was stated in the documents as being classified at a higher level than could be shown in the public documents so information is fragmentary, at best.



Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (Maritime Strike Tomahawk)


Status – The missiles are currently non-existent and under development, however, TASMs previously existed so this shouldn’t be a drawn out development and the upgrades appear to be ready to implement.  The Marines originally requested 48 missiles in FY2021.  The Marines consider this a longer term option.


Funding – The Marines requested $125M for FY2021.  Reports suggest that amount was cut but it is unclear by how much.


Naval Strike Missile


Status – The NSM exists and is currently being procured by the Navy for the LCS although production rates and, therefore, acquisition rates are very low, at the moment.  There is no indication in the FY2021 budget document that any NSM will be procured for the Marines.  So, the missiles are available but either not being procured or not in any significant quantity.


Funding – There is no line item listed in the budget document for the NSM


JLTV ROGUE Fires Launcher


Status – While JLTVs are currently operational and plentiful, modified versions to carry a HIMARS launcher are developmental.


Funding – The FY2021 budget shows a quantity of 7 HIMARS for $30M.  The JLTV vehicle is being procured at a quantity of 752 for $382M but that is for all of the Marine Corps, not just the anti-ship concept.  It is unclear whether any of the HIMARS or JLTV are modified for the anti-ship role and the budget language suggests that they are not which, in turn, suggests that there is no funding for any actual launch-modified vehicles.



Tomahawk-MST Launcher


Status – Likely a modified semi-trailer.  Currently non-existent. 


Funding - Unfunded




Status – No sensor currently exists that has been linked to this concept.


Funding - Unfunded





Regarding FY2021 funding, here’s a general statement that is lacking in specifics but conveys a certain reluctance by Congress to fully fund the Marine’s request.


The Marines had requested $125 million for Tomahawks and $64 million for GBASM as well as $75 million for long-range fires. The final bill essentially cuts the GBASM budget in half and trims almost $20 million for LRPF research and development — roughly a 25 percent cut. (1)


Note that the Marines have, at various times and by various people, mentioned Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missiles, Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF), Ground Based Anti-Ship Missiles (GBASM), Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), Maritime Strike Tomahawk, and Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires (ROGUE-Fires), all, apparently, describing the same or different aspects of the overall concept.  It’s difficult to know exactly what refers to what.


Acronyms aside, the takeaway is that Congress is funding less than the Marines requested and by a significant amount.


Noting the status of equipment existence, or lack thereof, and funding, the anti-ship concept appears to be currently severely underequipped and underfunded.  Admittedly, much of the anti-ship concept remains conceptual and under development so this is not, alone, worrisome, at this time.  Of greater concern is the fact that Congress has cut funding for the concept to some significant degree and the Commandant’s time in office is becoming limited.  A Commandant serves for 4 years with an option for a single additional term, however, there has not been a two-term Commandant since Gen. Lejeune in the 1920’s.  Commandant Berger has a bit over two years left in office.  Therefore, it is reasonable to question whether significant progress can be made on the concept before the Commandant’s term expires and someone else, with possibly a different or more Congress-friendly agenda, takes over.  The inescapable conclusion is that this entire anti-ship concept may die before it can be implemented.  When other items such as the Light Amphibious Warfare ship which is critical to the implementation of the concept and is barely even in the early developmental stage, are factored in, the future of the anti-ship concept becomes even more suspect.


Regarding implementation timing,


The Marine Corps had planned to move quickly on GBASM and wanted to field an operational battery by FY23.(1)


This would appear to be optimistic based on reduced funding and possible changes in concept and priorities.  It would also be somewhat disappointing that simply mounting an existing HIMARS on an existing JLTV and launching an existing NSM would require two years of development.






(1)Defense News website, “Lawmakers slash funding for Marine Corps’ long-range fires development”, Jen Judson, 23-Dec-2020,


(2)Defense News website, “To combat the China threat, US Marine Corps declares ship-killing missile systems its top priority”, David B. Larter, 5-Mar-2020,


(3)FY2021 Budget Justification Book, “Procurement, Marine Corp”, Feb 2020,


(4)Naval News website, “Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles and the U.S. Marine Corps: Options Available”, Peter Ong, 27-Sep-2020,


  1. Does anyone ever wonder that if these people spent as much time figuring out whether these were sensible programs as they spend trying to dream up catchy acronyms, we'd all be far better off?

    1. Do not make criticize the work of the Advanced Committee for Research of Original Names, Youthful Memes, Multi-word Acronyms, Key Expressions and Ridiculous Sentences (ACRONYM-MAKERS), please.

      At least they're working hard!

    2. Wow … You have a career in the highest levels of the military ahead of you!

  2. How effective can a JTLV negotiate the rough terrain found on these remote islands? Conceivably, there will be thick jungles and forests to contend with, plus hills and mountains where the Marines will presumably set up observation posts. Fortunately, there's a lot of rough terrain in Hawaii to use as a test site.

    And, the Tomahawk, being much bigger than the NSM, will likely require a larger vehicle for transportation. In the 1980's, the Air Force used MAN 8x8 trucks to move the ground launched Tomahawks around England.

    1. Lots of terrain in Hawaii to test? Why not the Northern Training Area in Okinawa? Or some of the very islands that the Corps is currently talking about launching these missiles from?

  3. These concepts seem more appropriate for MTVR, FMTV, or even the 8x8 Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT).


  4. You have harped on this a good bit (understandably). But I'm still trying to figure out what the point is of shooting the missiles off remote islands is instead of just shooting them off of a ship. It can't be stealth; the islands in question are little more than sandbars.

    1. I really don't think this is about tactical effectiveness. Instead, it's about the Marines protecting their budget slice by inventing a mission that keeps them relevant - at least, that's their hope.

      The Marines kind of painted themselves into a corner when they publicly stated that they were out of the amphibious assault business. Since that was their main mission, it would only be a matter of time until Congress started to ask why they should fund a service that could not, and did not want to, execute their main mission. So, to prevent that, the Marines had to invent a new mission. This is very similar to the Navy's invention of the 'littoral' mission in order to protect their budget slice.

    2. It is funny how the Corps has dismissed the idea of Amphibious Assault but all our contemporaries and peers seem to be embracing it.
      I think it is a case of gun shyness. Frontal assaults are bloody business. Having television screens filled with beaches covered in blood and bodies does not make good P.R.

  5. Finally some really good news! Tje Navy has decided to build future systems around fielded capabilities first and foremost. We maybe are seeing the end of of the tunnel for transformationalism.

    1. "We’ve decoupled new technology development from building ships."

      Now IF this is true, amen!

  6. Most difficult part of anti sub warfare is to find and locate them. Marine doesn't have any capability to do. Once you find and locate a sub, weapons can be fired from any platforms, marine is not the best.

    1. Marines could emplace sea bed arrays similar to a mini-SOSUS. The concept is technically feasible but it's not practical.

      "weapons can be fired from any platforms"

      Of course, the platforms have to be in the immediate vicinity. None of our ASW weapons are long ranged.

    2. "None of our ASW weapons are long ranged"

      No problem :) the Marines could buy the Indian Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo (SMART) with its LWT payload, range claim of ~350 nm

      Inside Defense reporting "The Marine Corps is likely to test-fire a missile from a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock within the next year, Maj. Gen. Tracy King, the service's director of expeditionary warfare, told reporters Friday. King said the LPDs need to be more lethal in the event of a fight with an adversary. "I think the LPDs need the ability to reach out and defend themselves and sink another ship," King said."

      LPDs big ships, ~25,000t, and just their size makes them big targets with limited defensive capabilities, would be able to use Ospreys and helos for targeting but think their large air signatures would make them easily detectable for enemy AAM

    3. "I think the LPDs need the ability to reach out and defend themselves and sink another ship," King said."

      Shouldn't high-ranking Marines have some idea about naval warfare, historical surface group composition, support and escort doctrine, etc?? Since when do the Marines determine what ships are built and how they're armed?? Now if they were screaming for some 8in cruisers or an Iowa restart, at least that would have some merit. But trying to turn amphibs into front line combatants?? NO....

  7. There is no need to build dedicate anti submarine unit in marine. Marine can do something doesn't mean that it is best to play the role.

    Better to concentrate anti submarine functions in Navy than spread out in many. I saw business to split one function into many departments end up in disaster. We are human and each fight to justify his role.

    1. " I saw business to split one function into many departments end up in disaster."

      That is a great comparison. I, too, witnessed many occasions of industry trying to distribute dedicated functions among many other groups and it never worked. While theoretical arguments can be made for supposed gains in inefficiency, they never materialized and, in fact, the opposite occurred: scientists trying to be their own purchasing agents, for example.

      Unless completely devoted to ASW on a 24/7 basis, the Marines simply can't be good at occasional ASW. It requires total dedication and non-stop practice. It can't be an add-on task for Marines.

      Great comment!

  8. 10 years after the CAC2S was ready to field, it has not been fielded. But magically this new networked light truck strike missile and drone radar system will just appear, along with the brand new still on the drawing board LCIs with a back ramp?

    The only thing the Corps has actually done the last decade was take away squad automatic weapons and renovate the Commandant's house, again.

  9. The current current Naval Commandant, I mean Marine commandant, has something in common with his predecessors: "The We can do that to" attitude. None have wanted to focuses on what the Marines do: Amphibious Warfare, Killing people and breaking things.
    Instead his predecessors said "we can do special operations" or "oooh, we can do aerial stealth warfare".
    Now he wants to be first marine to be a Navy Admiral.
    "ooh ASuW? We can do that" "ASW? We can do that"
    The only reason he is getting away with it all is the Navy leadership isn't taking ASW seriously either.
    The anti-ship battalions at least have some precedence in WW2 when a few lucky shots slowed--but by no means stopped--the Japanese invasion at Midway. For ASW the precedent is for the COAST GUARD not the Marines help with ASW.
    There are many in the CG would love to start re-introducing ASW equipment and training but can't get the Navy to put out the DOD to put out the funds and mission.


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