June 15, 2023 | National Review

Marines Need to Move beyond Their Amphibious-Assault Past

Shifting the USMC's concept of operations will help confront China.
June 15, 2023 | National Review

Marines Need to Move beyond Their Amphibious-Assault Past

Shifting the USMC's concept of operations will help confront China.

As Congress begins to consider the FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), there is no greater debate regarding naval shipbuilding than the one that surrounds the future of the Navy’s amphibious force writ large and the San Antonio-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ships in particular. Some voices argue that the LPDs, due to increasing costs, must be cut down in terms of their complexity and size, or the time and money allocated to build them be stretched out to diminish their impact upon the shipbuilding budget. We disagree with both approaches and argue that, for a number of reasons, LPD construction needs to end altogether.

The first reason is that the United States Marine Corps has been locked into an amphibious-assault strategy as its raison d’etre for far too long and needs to move on if it is to survive and remain relevant as an institution and operational military force. The simple fact is that the Marine Corps has not performed an amphibious assault against an opposed beach since the landing at Inchon 73 years ago, and modern technology renders it doubtful that the Corps will ever do so again.

We know all the beaches where amphibious assaults are possible — not every beach has the correct bottom gradient or sea conditions — and so do our adversaries. Aspiring adversaries have spent a generation investing in anti-access/area denial weapons focused on holding our Navy and Marine Corps forces far from their shores with advanced sensors and a formidable array of highly lethal and long-range missiles.

Given that the standard operating procedure for LPDs has them unloading their smaller amphibious-assault vehicles either within visual range or just over the visible horizon of the beach, and that both the larger ships and the smaller vehicles are detectable by radar and infra-red sensors, both would be under not only continuous traditional gunfire but also continuous long-range missile barrages for hours or even days prior to coming within range of the beach.

If there is one thing that the war in Ukraine has proven, it is that nations with missiles will use them. Our argument isn’t about the heroism of the Marines and their willingness to sacrifice to achieve mission goals, but such is the state of modern anti-access sensors and weapons that future opposed amphibious assaults will meet with disaster.

The idea that these large amphibious ships will perform the missions they were designed to do — disgorging small amphibious-assault craft and launching helicopters — in a high-end fight is unrealistic. U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are already planning to operate outside the first island chain under combat conditions and may have to move outside the second island chain, and they have capable self-defense systems inherent in the air wing and surface-combatant escorts that the amphibious force lacks.

In war-gaming conflicts with the priority adversaries — China and Russia — the Marine Corps remains a critical player, but a large-scale amphibious assault is not a critical capability. In the conflict with China scenario, large-deck amphibs such as LPDs are liabilities that require multiple escorts (usually $1.8 billion Burke-class destroyers or new $950 million Constellation-class frigates) that will need to be pulled from other more important missions, and they play marginal roles once hostilities begin. However, Marine Corps units equipped with new anti-ship and land-attack missiles surged to relevant geographic positions, such as Taiwan, Japan’s southern Islands, and the Philippines, are critical game-changing assets — but they must be delivered ahead of combat operations in a more permissive environment.

“But,” the LPD’s defenders will shout, “we need them for other missions. Other so-called ‘military operations other than war’ missions such as humanitarian assistance and moving troops and supplies to other conflicts lower on the spectrum of conflict.” This may be true, but the U.S. Navy should not pay the premium price of nearly $2 billion per ship for the new LPD-17 Flight II platforms to only be used in “other than war” scenarios. Other platforms — designed to more commercial standards — can be and should be built to perform those missions. An annual outlay of $2 billion to build one new LPD per year ad infinitum is too much to pay for a ship that will never fulfill the mission it was designed to do.

If just half of the money allocated for the San Antonio-class LPDs was reallocated toward alternative designs better suited to the missions the Marine Corps is more likely to be called upon to perform, the other half could be shifted to other Navy shipbuilding programs such as submarines, destroyers, and unmanned vessels that need additional support and represents proven requirements in high-end fights.

There have been hints of such a shift in strategic direction from Marine Corps leadership, but alternative force-structure proposals from the retiring Commandant, General David Berger, have met with significant criticism. This sniping undermined Berger’s attempts at reform and threaten to derail required changes in the Navy’s force-structure investments necessary to ready both services for the competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region.

General Berger has tried to usher in a new paradigm for the Corps, which would distribute his Marines into smaller, lighter, more technologically advanced, and agile units that could operate independently in archipelagic waters and remote land bases to counter China’s significant investments in anti-access/area denial weapons. The Commandant’s broad vision addressed the exact scenario that war games predict.

These reforms met stiff resistance, if not outright revolt, from retired Marine general officers and former government officials. Such reactionary pushback is not new to the Corps, traditionally hidebound to a near Arthurian belief in the “old Corps.” The history of the United States Marine Corps has included multiple episodes in which “old Corps” Marines have perceived efforts to reform the service as threats to its very existence.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Navy and Marine Corps reformers suggested that Marines be removed from Navy ships where they provided security and transitioned to a new mission of providing defense for overseas bases. This reform found support from navalist president Theodore Roosevelt, but older, reactionary Marines of that day charged that Roosevelt was trying to do away with the force. However, the idea of providing defense ashore found traction a generation later in Major Pete Ellis’s then-iconoclastic paper on advanced-base operations, which became the kernel of the Marine’s amphibious-assault strategy during World War II.

Berger’s reforms and his proposed shift in strategic focus toward configuring the Marines to work inside anti-access/area denial zones by preemptively placing forces in theater and rapidly rotating them throughout the region while conducting long-range-fire missions against enemy positions and shipping meet the nation’s needs at this moment of great power competition. Our defense requires a lighter, more agile Corps distributed throughout the archipelagic islands of the Pacific via many light amphibious warships rather than a heavier force, more concentrated in fewer and heavier landing-platform dock ships. Such a force would provide prompt strike capabilities with less risk and a much higher likelihood of success. However, Berger’s reform efforts have been rejected by many influential retired three-star and four-star Marine generals whose experiences reach back to the Vietnam War or were shaped by combat with significantly less sophisticated adversaries in the Middle East over the past two decades. Lacking a clear, informed understanding of the current operational and tactical maritime environments, these voices have reverted to a defense of past practices that have no appropriate application today.

Unfortunately, these criticisms have had an effect. Berger, who initially supported cutting back on the number of larger, more traditional, amphibious-assault ships to free up funds for the development and procurement of the light amphibious warship (LAW) now known as Navy Medium Landing Ship (LSM), has reversed course and now states that he wants an “all of the above” approach to Navy shipbuilding in support of the Corps. Such an approach, at a time when the Navy is under pressure to build its new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, ramp up its production of Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, continue to produce two Burke-class destroyers per year and begin production of its new Constellation-class frigate, creates a situation where it is impossible to meet Berger’s two competing demands — especially since the Navy’s other shipbuilding requirements actually address the challenge posed by China while half of the Corps’ demands do not.

Shifts in shipbuilding must be made to prepare the Navy for combat in the Western Pacific, and care must be taken to preserve the industrial base in Mississippi and Alabama currently assigned to the construction of LPDs. New programs are on the horizon that could go to these shipyards; LSMs for the Marine Corps, destroyers for the Navy, and other ships under consideration can be in place, and transitions accomplished with no gaps. No vital shipyard workers should be laid off and left to find work elsewhere. These skilled tradesmen are simply too strategically important to be needlessly discarded, even if the intention is for the interval of unemployment to be a short one.

That said, the nation cannot allow the argument that “we have to keep building specific ship X in order to keep our workers” to be made. The threat of war with China is proximate and real, and the nation needs more ships, but they must be the right ships for the fight. The Navy, the industrial bases, and their supporters in Congress owe the taxpayer an honest, forthright accounting of the use of their dollars.

General Berger has, or at least had, a clear vision for the Marine Corps of the future that would dramatically change its strategic role, ensuring its relevance across the 21st century. His original vision should be supported for what it seeks to create but also for what it seeks to cut, leaving the past where it belongs, in the past. The Navy should support the building of numerous new LAW/LSM platforms, but it must also be willing to bring the construction of older designs, such as the LPD, to an end to free up funds for new submarines and frigates.

Berger’s service should be extended by sending him to be the next Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, where he could take action on his initiatives, while his bold initial vision should be adopted by his successor, General Eric Smith, and supported by Congress, and the reactionary voices of the past should be ignored.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired Navy captain and a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute.

Mark Montgomery is a retired Navy surface warfare officer who commanded a destroyer, a destroyer squadron, and a carrier strike group. He is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCMontgomeryFDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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