The U.S. Navy May Not Be Ready for Future Fights (Think Russia and China)
For more than seventy-five years, amphibious assaults against hostile shores have had a successful record. Even when subjected to intense and protracted naval and air defenses and the nominal forerunner of today’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threat, these landings were never turned back. During the Okinawa Campaign, Japan launched nearly two thousand sorties by kamikaze suicide planes, sinking 20 Allied ships, damaging almost 200 more and inflicting the highest number of U.S. naval casualties in any battle of World War Two. Once ashore, land forces often faced protracted struggles to complete the seizure of the Pacific island or break out of their beachheads in Italy and Northern France. However, no combination of air, sea and land defenses were able to prevent amphibious forces from coming ashore.
Following the remarkable amphibious assault by United Nation’s forces at Inchon during the Korean War in 1950, there have been only a few large-scale amphibious operations against a contested shore. The U.K.’s successful campaign in 1982 to liberate the Falkland Islands from Argentina involved relatively small forces on both sides, neither well organized nor equipped for their respective missions. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Central Command prepared for the possibility of conducting a large scale opposed landing against Iraqi forces stationed along Kuwait’s coast. However, according to the Pentagon’s formal report to Congress, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, an amphibious assault was forgone due to concerns about the intensity of Iraqi beach defenses, gaps in critical amphibious assault capabilities, particular demining assets, and a desire to avoid damage to Kuwaiti infrastructure.
A quarter-century later, the rise of near-peer and regional state adversaries foreshadows the possibility that the Navy and Marine Corps will have to plan not just for a large-scale assault against a hostile shore but for an amphibious campaign to seize/liberate multiple strategic land objectives. Not only would the scale and intensity of this mission dwarf any amphibious operations the Sea Services have conducted in more than two decades, but it is likely that the contested littorals would be better defended than any that U.S. amphibious forces have faced since the end of World War Two. Even in the absence of state-on-state conflict, the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities will allow non-state actors to pose an increased threat to the ability of amphibious forces. According to the Navy-Marine Corps’ concept for Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment:
the increasingly contested operating environment marks a return to the historic norm, with the added challenge posed by 21st-century sensors and weapons. Friendly naval forces now routinely face land-based and sea-based threats employed by state and non-state actors who are implementing sea denial strategies. Armed with increasingly formidable sea denial capabilities, future adversaries may be capable of controlling choke points, holding key maritime terrain, or denying freedom of action and maneuver within the littorals by imposing unacceptable risk to forces at ever increasing ranges. Additionally, some potential adversaries are attempting to expand their sea denial capabilities into the ability to achieve sea control.
Once ashore, Marine land forces may face numerically-superior adversaries but without a doubt will have to contend with hostile forces equipped with a range of armored fighting vehicles, advanced precision anti-vehicle weapons, long-range fire systems, manned and unmanned aerial systems, high performance air defenses, electronic warfare capabilities and a wealth of mines, booby traps and improvised explosive devices. Hence, Marine units must expect to be engaged in high-end combat from the moment they cross the beach.
Multiple studies and efforts by independent analysts have produced a host of recommendations to improve the Sea Services’ abilities to deal with the emerging A2/AD environment and to ameliorate capability gaps that limit their ability to assault hostile shores. These recommendations tend to fall into one of two basic categories. The first category is quantitative and qualitative enhancements to existing capabilities. One recent study proposed procurement of additional surface ships, advanced carrier-based aviation and long-range munitions for the Navy and additional short takeoff and vertical landing F-35Bs, MV-22 Ospreys and KC-130Js, adding artillery fires units and accelerating the Amphibious Combat Vehicle for the Marine Corps.