(Washington, D.C.) Launching a massive, fast-paced air assault from the sea, providing close-air support for amphibious assault forces and bringing forward-operating surveillance and networking technology to maritime warfare -- are all part of the changing operational calculus introduced by adding F-35s to maritime attack.
With the goal of refining and preparing for these kinds of emerging maritime combat tactics, a high-tech U.S. Navy Amphibious Assault ship recently completed a deployment mission while armed with as many as 13 F-35s, ushering in a new era in amphibious warfare operations.
The Navy’s USS America amphibious assault ship, a first-in-class new generation amphib, traveled the seas armed with 13 F-35s during a previous deployment, senior Navy officials said. This brings an unprecedented measure of air attack and surveillance possibilities, to include the option to provide stealth air attack support to amphibious assaults. Amphibs could offer a smaller, more mobile type of aircraft carrier power projection capability, Vice. Adm. Rich Brown, Command, Naval Surfaces Forces, told an audience Jan. 14 at the 32nd Annual Surface Navy Association Symposium..Brown explained.
"A big deck with that many F-35s is beginning to look like an aircraft carrier to me," Brown said.
Since potential adversaries now have longer-range weapons, better sensors, targeting technologies and computers with faster processing speeds, amphibious forces approaching the shore may need to disperse in order to make it harder for enemy forces to target them. Therefore, the notion of an air-powered, disaggregated, yet interwoven attack force, less vulnerable to enemy fire, could be launched to hit “multiple landing points” to exploit enemy defenses.
Execution of this new strategy is, depending upon the threat, heavily impacted by the arrival of 5th-generation aircraft, such as the F-35; the Corp F-35B, now operational as part of Marine Corps Air Ground Task Forces aboard the USS America, USS Wasp and USS Essex, is intended to provide close-air support to advancing attacks, use its sensors to perform forward reconnaissance and launch strikes itself.
The success of an amphibious attack needs, or even requires, air supremacy. Extending this logic, an F-35 would be positioned to address enemy air-to-air and airborne air-to-surface threats such as drones, fighter jets or even incoming anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles. The idea would be to use the F-35 in tandem with surveillance drones and other nodes to find and destroy land-based enemy defenses, clearing the way for a land assault. These kinds of synchronized attack tactics would naturally be heavily fortified by an F-35; the F-35s Distributed Aperture System, which places 360-degrees worth of cameras around the aircraft, and a high tech targeting sensor called EOTS, or Electro-Optical Targeting System. The aircraft’s computers also allow for something called “sensor fusion,” a technology which integrates information from a host of different sensors on-board a single screen for pilots to view.
Dispersed approaches, using air-ground coordination and forward positioned surveillance nodes, can increasingly use synchronized assault tactics, pinpointing advantageous areas of attack. Not only can this exploit enemy weakness, but it also brings the advantage of avoiding more condensed or closely-configured approaches far more vulnerable to long-range enemy sensors and weapons. Having an advanced air power such as an F-35B, which can bring a heavier load of attack firepower, helps enable this identified need to bring assault forces across a wide-range of attack locations. None of this, while intended to destroy technologically sophisticated enemies, removes major risks; Russian and Chinese weapons, including emerging 5th-generation fighters, DF-26 anti-ship missiles claimed to reach 900-miles and rapidly-emerging weapons such as drones, lasers and railguns are a variety of systems of concern.
In effect, future “ship-to-shore” amphibious attacks will look nothing like the more linear, aggregated Iwo Jima assault. A Naval War College essay on this topic both predicts and reinforces this thinking.
“The basic requirements of amphibious assault, long held to be vital to success, may no longer be attainable. Unlike the Pacific landings of World War II amphibious objective areas could prove impossible to isolate,” the paper, called “Blitzkrieg From the Sea: Maneuver Warfare and Amphibious Operations,” states. (Richard Moore, 1983)
The essay, written in the 80s during the height of the Cold War, seems to anticipate future threats from major-power adversaries. Interestingly, drawing from some elements of a Cold War mentality, the essay foreshadows current “great-power” competition strategy for the Navy as it transitions from more than a decade of counterinsurgency to a new threat environment. In fact, when discussing its now-underway “distributed lethality” strategy, Navy leaders often refer to this need to return its focus upon heavily fortified littoral defenses and open, blue-water warfare against a near-peer adversary - as having some roots in the Cold War era.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.