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.
The second category focuses more on changes in operational concepts, tactics and organization that would allow the Navy and Marine Corps to undercut the strengths of an A2/AD environment. A 2016 study that focused specifically on ways of addressing the threats posed to naval combatants, amphibious forces and Marine units from long-range precision weapons recommended, inter alia, a combination of more agile and lethal forces. This would require the proliferation of long-range fires, both ship, and land-based expanded air and missile defenses, faster and longer range ship-to-shore connectors and lighter weight Marine ground vehicles.
Virtually all reports and studies on the future of amphibious operations and ways of countering the emerging threats recommend increasing the size of the fleet of amphibious warfare vessels. The minimum desired level is 38 ships, the number needed to lift 2.5 Marine Expeditionary Brigades, the number the Corps believes is required to conduct a major landing operation. Several analyses propose higher numbers, between forty to fifty “amphibs.” Calls for higher numbers are based partially on the belief that the Nation needs to deploy more Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG) with their Marine Expeditionary Unit than current fleet size permits and, in part, on the desirability of raising the number of ships in the ARG from three to four ships. A larger amphibious warfare fleet also offers possibilities for adapting some vessels for other missions. The size and capacity of modern amphibious vessels, particularly the USS San Antonio (LPD 17) class and the follow-on LX(R), all of them to serve as platforms for new capabilities such as long-range artillery, cruise missiles in vertical launching system tubes, missile defenses and directed energy weapons.
Whatever specific operational concepts, tactics or technologies are proposed to enhance the Navy and Marine Corps’ ability to operate and prevail in the contested littorals, none are likely to prove effective if the number of amphibious warfare ships is not substantially increased. The faster the Navy begins construction of the advanced LR(X) to replace its aging Landing Ship Dock, the sooner new tactics can be developed and means deployed to defeat the A2/AD threat.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.
This article originally appeared on Real Clear Defense.
Image: U.S. Navy