Force Design 2030: Marines Take Amphibious Warfare Up a Notch

Force Design 2030: Marines Take Amphibious Warfare Up a Notch

The growth of unmanned systems is shaping the future of amphibious combat.

Long-range precision strikes, fifth-generation aircraft, accurate shore-mounted guns and missiles, and dispersed sensor networks are among the technologies that will change the nature of amphibious warfare. Amphibious attacks will not look like a linear Iwo Jima or D-Day invasion. Instead, they will be more dispersed and networked, driven by air, surface, and undersea drones operating at various levels of autonomy. For instance, autonomous surveillance drones could patrol an enemy coastline, finding vulnerabilities in an enemy perimeter for attacks or landing operations.

Amphibious warfare will also be heavily supported by close air support from stealthy sea-launched F-35 fighters, giving attacks a surgical quality and making them less vulnerable to enemy fire. Air supremacy in the context of an amphibious attack would naturally be monumental, as it would enable attacking forces to destroy defensive shore positions. 

However, despite this shift in tactics, amphibious warfare is not going anywhere. It is only growing more important as large maritime areas, such as the Pacific, demand an integrated land-sea combat strategy. Ship-to-shore maneuvers, therefore, are arguably becoming even more critical in light of current threats, a dynamic highlighted in the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 report. The document calls for a focus on integrated island-hopping attacks, which will be enabled by a growing fleet of drones, mobile firepower, and new platforms such as the emerging Light Amphibious Warship (LAW). The LAW is specifically designed for multi-domain amphibious operations in which Marines and equipment will be delivered from ship to shore, while ship-launched weapons, such as the Naval Strike Missile, will fire from land to defend islands, support surface ships, or destroy enemy targets from strategically vital coastal areas.

Large deck amphibious assault ships will be just as critical as they have been for years, but they may be used differently, possibly even becoming command-and-control “mother ships” for a large fleet of unmanned systems. As part of this strategic approach, there is a growing focus on fortifying sea basing operations with large numbers of drones for surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, or even forward attacks. Longer-range air power and numerous upgrades to highly-valued systems such as the Osprey tiltrotor will increasingly support disaggregated operations. A more dispersed force is naturally less vulnerable to enemy fire, a possibility enabled by fast-emerging networking technologies.

The growth of unmanned systems will figure prominently in future amphibious combat. They can keep sailors and Marines at safer stand-off distances while still surveilling and attacking enemy positions with humans in decision-making roles. The Corps’ Force Design 2030 document heavily emphasized unmanned systems with this in mind, highlighting the growing importance of sea basing and the need for manned-unmanned teaming and networking. 

Much of this suggests that while the shape, character, and tactical focus of amphibious warfare may be changing substantially, amphibious warfare itself isn’t going anywhere. 

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Flickr/US Navy