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Amphibious Lift, Not Assault

January 8, 2010

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Sea Links Post (temporarily) for more from Capt Wayne Hughes, author of Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, who has posted online an important series of proposals titled The New Navy Fighting Machine. Today we discuss his thoughts on Amphibious Warfare, and regular readers will note some of the ideas he espouses are like our own:

The new fighting machine  gives primacy to the Marines with  single-minded naval gunfire support,  prepositioning ships, and strong air support of operations ashore, but not  to opposed assault. We emphasize amphibious lift, but not forcible entry…Since World War II, amphibious lift, rather than amphibious assault by forcible entry, has characterized U.S. operations as small and swift as Grenada and Panama and as large and  long lasting as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq…

Although since World War II, the Marines have rationalized their value to be for amphibious assault, the Marine Corps has not participated in an opposed landing since Inchon. That 1950 assault was as much an Army as a Marine operation.

This doesn’t mean the Marines have lost their value, just our ideas on how they must be used. My own thinking is we concentrate these naval infantry without peer into giant divisions, thus weakening much of their advantage. Just when we need then spread amongst the population of the sea, in cooperation with Navy Influence Squadrons, the leaders still want to pack them like sardines in fewer giant amphibious assault ships.

In history, opposed landings involved scores of ships and we expected to lose  ships and assault craft as well as troops. Today, the large-capacity, efficient amphibious  assault ships—LHAs, LHDs, LPDs, etc., are few in number compared to the LSTs,  APAs, and AKAs that were the backbone of  the opposed assaults in World War II and
Korea. Now, the loss of even one amphibious ship would probably terminate the operation in failure.

Not all bad news. Here are some interesting figures:

Robert O. Work has performed a great service by pointing out that as a national capability the size of our amphibious lift, and delivery and sustainment capability extends well beyond what the Navy counts in its 313-ship fleet, which is limited to 31 amphibious ships and 14 ships that preposition Marine equipment in a theater of expected overseas operations.37 Work demonstrates that when all ships of the Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration are counted (some, but not all, of which are paid for from Navy funds) the “national fleet” comprises more than 420 ships…The joint sealift component comprises over 70 ships, most of them large, medium speed roll-on/roll-off ships, container ships, and tankers, and also a few High Speed Vehicles (HSVs).

Work has shown (and separately, Ronald J. O’Rourke38) that the “national fleet” has a considerable capability for delivering ground forces overseas. We believe it might have to deliver as
many as 250,000 in a surge from among Army and Marine forces that total about 700,000 land combatants on active duty.

Thats very impressive, if I do say so myself! We have an enormous lift capacity, so why even possess giant assault ships meant to fight a conflict we no longer fight?

The amphibious force of 31 ships in the 313-ship Navy is neither fish nor fowl. It is too expensive, at $4.0B-plus for each new LHA or LHD, to serve merely as a lift force. For lift, an MSC (Military Sealift Command) RoRo (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship carries ten times or more rolling stock, costs about one-eighth as much as an LHD, and has a much lower operating cost. At the same time, for forcible entry, the amphibious ships are too large and there are too few in an Expeditionary Strike Group—only three or four—to be effective when an enemy counterattack is  possible.

We have pointed this out previously in a older post concerning the Gator Navy, and an article titled “Future Corps” that appeared in the National Journal previously:

The Navy, meanwhile, has gone from having enough amphibious assault ships to deploy three Marine brigades simultaneously–a fraction of the force at
Inchon or Iwo Jima–to not quite enough to carry two. Two brigades happened to be the size of the Marine feint during the Gulf War.”You could not stage an
amphibious invasion of Iran. You couldn’t stage an amphibious invasion of North Korea,” said Baker, the former naval intelligence analyst. “God knows, you can’t
invade China.”

Only 2 brigades, or about 5000 troops out of almost 200,000! I knew this all along but it is just now sinking in, that in no way could we stage a major amphibious assault on the scale of World War, which is what this magnificent fleet of warships was designed to perform.

Now for some alternative amphibs. Hughes likes vertical lift, as do I:

The notional aircraft  load of an LHD or LHA is impressive at 29, but if the new CVL is built, for green water operations it should be able to carry 15 or 20 helicopters and UAVs. We favor the smaller load because we think for small wars the CVLs allow for easier sizing to the mission and for positioning two or more of the small carriers at two or more different locations…

The fleet of LHDs and LHAs are highly popular for humanitarian relief, medical treatment, and command and service facilities. They serve as versatile, but expensive, global fleet stations. The existing amphibious  force should be retained until the end of service life. This will offer time to reappraise the most cost-effective way to provide for a sufficient capacity to continue, without  interruption, the great pay-off of overseas delivery of Army, Marine, and Special Forces. We favor a ten-year construction holiday on new amphibious ships after America LHA-6 and Makin LHD-8 are commissioned.

More alternatives, which have also been proposed here:

For $1.0B of annual SCN, a fleet composed of between 100 and 150 ships can be maintained for amphibious lift, delivery and sustainment. Many sealift ships will be large, high-capacity RoRos, container ships, and tankers, constructed or purchased at an average cost of about $500M. Others will be small, simple “HSVs,” to quickly move ground forces to a scene of action demanding swift response. Some will be amphibious ships of 15,000 to 25,000 tons for unopposed delivery across a beach or at an undeveloped landing site. In Table 2, we show a sealift fleet of 125 ships,
including propositioning ships. This capability will suffice for any likely conflict involving ground combat  overseas. The current numbers are between 80 and 90 reasonably modern,  large-capacity vessels, plus 31 large ships for amphibious lift.  If  a large regional war ensues, the U.S. merchant fleet can be requisitioned, but  it is relatively small, so leasing from neutrals around the world might be necessary, as was done for Desert Shield.

Finally the last word on future amphibious lift, and what is really important:

The urgent need is not sealift, but a green water fleet to safeguard delivery and sustainment. The threat of small missile craft, coastal submarines, mines, and land-launched ASCMs requires attention. The Navy also has an obligation to all ground forces to provide more naval gunfire support than now exists.

I think the key comment here, as noted in the title was “We emphasize amphibious lift, but not forcible entry“, which I think interesting since this is what we have advocated lately. With specialized amphibious ships now mostly relegated to the world’s most expensive troop transports, and no major amphibious assault in a generation by the USMC, we think it safe to retire these wonders of another era. In their place would be multiple types of sealift vessels, but especially High Speed Vessels we often espoused. No, amphibious warfare is far from a dead concept, just our current amphibious techniques require a major upgrade.



13 Comments leave one →
  1. leesea permalink
    January 11, 2010 1:22 pm

    Its kind of a chicken and egg thing. Even though most sealift ships have cranes to discharge their cargo, the lastest “naval idiots” are locked onto ONE facet of two types. The LMSRs have sideports and “they” want to connect those side ramps to amphib warships which have none of the above via ANOTHER ship. Well IF ship a has a poor design feature and ship B has No cargo gear, I would fix those problem rather than cobble together something on another ship type. This is an example of exquisite ship design for which the SDM at NAVSEA should be FIRED!

    The fact that and the Navy has been using RRDFs for years to conduct intership cargo transfer seems lost on NAVSEA or is it that they just bought enough INLS to outfit the MPS?

    Sure ships bumbing in a seaway is a problem, the T-ACS have large pnematic fenders which seemed to have worked? I think LMSRs have the big fenders also. Sure the relative motion is a problem, that is what heave compensating cranes are for! Couldn’t those features be retrofitted on the ships that need them?

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    January 10, 2010 10:01 am


    Is the Eiffel tower rig necessary to enable higher sea state transfers? Or are they worried about bending their ships with skin-to-skin?

  3. leesea permalink
    January 9, 2010 11:59 pm

    The sealift ships such as MPF provide the sustainment materials needed for amphib operations. But the US Navy has done very little to make the amphibs inter-operable with sealift ships. The latest stupid attempt is to put a huge Eifel tower type rig on the MLP so it can ro/ro to a LMSR. The RVAST test model is costing over $21 mil. Why not spend that $900 million bucks for ONE MLP and spend it on more cargo gear on LPD/LSDs?

    I think the USN is just totally againsts skin to skin transfer ignoring that the Russians have done it for decades – KISS. Oh I guess some will say that it is more dangerous and operation, but no more so than any littoral op.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 9, 2010 7:14 pm

    Good point Lee. These larger, apparently more capable vessels should be empowering the less capable transports. The proposal to use these inflexible craft as make-shift motherships is baffling considering this.

  5. leesea permalink
    January 9, 2010 3:41 pm

    What I have criticised in amphib warship design for a long time is poor inter-operability with sealift ships. Even though we spend billions on ships like the LPD17 they can’t discharge cargo to a sealift ship alongside. The lack of cargo cranes on LPD?LSD type is a major flaw. If their wet well docks systems fail as they often do there is NO alternate means of cargo discharge – its all bottled up inside.

    Looking at big deck amphibs shows NO means to take any ship alongside for cargo transfer. Thus those type ships are wholely dependent on airflit to move their men and materials ashore (if the wet well docks can’t be used for whatever reason).

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 9, 2010 5:14 am

    Distiller wrote “But I wouldn’t say that the overall size/tonnage of the amphib forcible entry force, which is “invasion sized”, is too large.”

    Neither do I. What I criticize is how this force is concentrated in a few giant vulnerable hulls that wastes their unique abilities. This can also go for large warships which we have fewer yet more capable platforms. All the advances in warfare in the last few decades are wasted at sea because we insist on “pouring new wine in old bottles”.

  7. Distiller permalink
    January 9, 2010 4:40 am

    What I criticize for a good time already is the total lack of “jointness” between the airborne (Army, USAF) and the seaborne (Navy, Marines) elements when it comes to forcible entry, esp the lack of coordination in doctrines and equipment. Even within the USN/USMC the assault – reinforce – sustain sequence seems ill balanced and *way* too slow, and I’m not even talking about the question of escort, fire support, and MIW here, or the question of how to unite pre-pos equipment with the troops in a timely fashion on a hostile shore (can you hear me KC-X ???). At the current state of things the Marines’ dream of temporal compression of the whole landing and push to objective thing will simply not fulfill.

    But I wouldn’t say that the overall size/tonnage of the amphib forcible entry force, which is “invasion sized”, is too large. Anything less would degrade into a raiding force, which *could* be doable with more cooperation from the Air Force (more C-17 amongst others), and the Army (providing a number of airmobile cavalry units).

    And what is really a unique capability of the U.S., but has to maintained even though it’s not sexy, is support vessels like crane ships, barge carriers, &c, as they are crucial to sustain an invasion. Another important point would be ship-to-ship transfer on the high seas, and generally making the cargo transfer between the assault groups, the LMSR ships, and the commerical-hull based cargo (container, Ro/Ro, tanker) carriers more compatible and easier.

    Ok, gotta run …

  8. leesea permalink
    January 8, 2010 3:38 pm

    I think I have said before (CRS) that the US Marines utilize a two tiered system of transport. There is combat loading used on amphib assualt ships and administrative loading which is used on AFOE and MPF ships. The quadry comes when they do NOT distinquish which cargo loading type is needed for which ship. IF you look at most of the USMC rqmts briefs they address the TOTAL amount of men and materials needed for MEFs and MEBs but do not necesarily break that down into combat or admin types. The equation is further muddles because the Marines want the MPF(F) ships to mirror images of amphib assault warships – WHY? The Marines seem to want to ignore naval history in which merchant ships i.e. sealift ships have carried the vast majority of their men and material for centuries.

    JHSV *will* be part of amphib TGs of the future, but their use is tactical in nature i.e. intra-theater lifts NOT inter-theater strategic like the large MPF ships. The later being necessary for the absolute tonnage and space to lift large sustainment loads.
    Again a specturm of ships both assault warships and sealift transports is what is needed.

  9. January 8, 2010 9:21 am

    With that type thinking how do you justify ballistic missile subs? And as far as Inchon you’re half right, the Marines conducted an assault, the Army conducted an administrative landing.


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