The U.S. Marine Corps a few years ago started saying it needed to get serious about sinking enemy warships. Now the amphibious branch is putting its money where its mouth is.
The Corps is asking Congress for money to start buying two powerful new anti-ship missile types. One is a new version of the venerable Tomahawk cruise missile. The other, an adaptation of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy Naval Strike Missile.
During the height of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines beefed up its infantry units at the expense of other capabilities. The rise of China as a naval power compelled the Corps to reconsider its mix of forces.
Now anti-ship units are the Marines’ top priority, the service told the U.S. Senate in written testimony associated with the budgeting process for 2021.
“A ground-based anti-ship missile capability will provide anti-ship fires from land as part of an integrated naval anti-surface warfare campaign,” the March 2020 testimony explained. “This forward-deployed and survivable capability will enhance the lethality of our naval forces and will help to deny our adversaries the use of key maritime terrain.”
The idea is for fast-moving Marine battalions, traveling in a new fleet of small, flexible amphibious landing ships, to scoot around the Western Pacific, quickly setting up heavily-armed island bases that can shoot at passing enemy warships.
The Marines call it their “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations” concept. These expeditionary bases soon could boast at least two new ship-sinking missiles.
For 2021 the Corps wants to spend $125 million buying, from missile-maker Raytheon, 48 copies of the new Tomahawk Block Va cruise missile. The Block Va is a new version of a missile that first entered service back in the early 1980s. It boasts a sophisticated guidance system that combines GPS, radio-frequency homing and infrared.
“This is potentially game-changing capability for not a lot of cost,” former deputy defense secretary Bob Work said of the new Tomahawk variant back in 2015. “It's a 1,000-mile anti-ship cruise missile."
It’s unclear how Marine units will deploy the Tomahawks. The Navy usually fires them from vertically-mounted Mark 41 launchers.
The Corps, in theory, could mount the launchers to vehicles in the same way the U.S. Air Force did with its long-retired, nuclear-tipped “Gryphon” Tomahawks. But we haven’t yet seen a design for the Marines’ launch system.
We have however seen the design for the Corps’ other anti-ship missile system. Where the Tomahawk can sink ships as far away as 1,000 miles, the Naval Strike Missile with its 100-mile range is meant for closer engagements.
The NSM is a popular weapon. Its sea-skimming flight profile and stealthy airframe make it difficult to intercept. When the U.S. Navy in 2019 began adding NSMs to some of its once-lightly-armed Littoral Combat Ships, one admiral declared the addition “a game-changer” for the LCS.
The Marines as far back as 2018 decided to mount their NSMs on the same chassis as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the service’s replacement for the decades-old Humvee. The Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires, or Rogue Fires, looks like a JLTV with a six-cell launcher in place of the cab.
The Marines want to use 2021 funds to build a prototype Rogue Fires vehicle. The NSM isn’t the only missile type the Corps wants to launch from the new vehicle. The launcher will be “capable of mounting a wide range of missile systems for dynamic force employment,” the Department of the Navy explained in budget documents.
Observers long have expected the Marines to cut back on heavy combat forces in order to free up money and manpower for new anti-ship units. Sure enough, the 2021 budget proposal also asks to reduce the services ranks from 186,200 active-duty personnel to 184,100.
It’s not clear yet which units the Marines have targeted for reductions, but one expert floated a proposal. “There is not a clear role for the infantry in [Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations],” Walker Mills argued at the Center for International Maritime Security.
The Corps has 24 infantry battalions with 22,000 riflemen. Eliminating a couple of battalions could achieve the 2,100-person reduction the service is aiming for.