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Arguing for the Amphibious Assault

June 23, 2010

Landing craft utilities (LCU) unload vehicles at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., during Dawn Blitz 10.

A couple articles appearing in the news recently seems to cast doubt in the US Marine Corps primary mission at a crucial time in its history:

U.S. rethinks a Marine Corps specialty: storming beaches

Marines, Navy Scrap Over Future

Admittedly, the apparent “rusty” performance in these exercises failed to inspire confidence that the Gator Navy is back, appearing instead to be its swansong rather than a rebirth of old techniques. At least this is the impression from the articles.

New Wars continues to champion the core US Marine mission of amphibious assault from the sea, as opposed to its increasing status as a second land army. As such we are in opposition to the notion that beach landings are obsolete, in a new era teaming with asymmetrical adversaries, forcing even the mighty US Navy carriers away from the coastlines where they are needed.

It may be understandable how some may consider the Marines as irrelevant to current conflicts, if you look at it from the perspective of redundancy. The USMC hasn’t conducted a major amphibious assault against a contested beachhead since 1950, at least not against a well-trained enemy worthy of their huge experience, abilities, and expense. Also, the Corps leadership continues to invest in huge multimission landings ships, which increase enormously in cost while the service howls for increases. The price tag competes with the desire for expansion, as well as the USN’s own construction plans.

Neither are exquisite and very complicated vessels any greater guarantee than smaller, cheaper ships will survive to land their valuable cargo to influence events ashore. During the Gulf Wars of the 80s and 90s, American amphibious ships were hindered often enough by an old nautical foe, the naval mine. Old fashioned “dumb” bombs also made a wreak of the British Landing ships HMS Sir Galahad in the 1982 Falklands Conflict. Littoral waters now team with cheap but effective suicide boats and conventional submarines that threaten our most powerful warships with irrelevancy in such waters.

Speaking of the Falklands, during that period they British Royal Navy proved you did not need a large and costly Gator Fleet to deploy troops from the sea. Possessing only 2 specialized landing ships, the elderly Intrepid and Fearless, also several RAF vessels, sea lift ships, luxury liners, they performed one of the most brilliant and successful amphibious assaults of the Cold War. Proving also that an assault is not rocket science, also that Western fleets could still take losses which is the norm in every war, despite the myth that airpower is a guarantee against sinkings.

The Americans have yet to embrace new advances in littoral warfare emanating from the merchant navies and off the shelf weapons. This was not always the case, since it was private industry from the 30s and 40s that provided amphibious tractors like the DUKW which were the backbone of the titanic naval invasions of the Pacific and European theaters.

If the Royal Navy could achieve success with with just 2 specialized landing ships (3 such vessels in service today), the mighty US Navy and their Marine surrogates could subsist with 10 of the large Wasp type. Acting as both aircraft carrier and landing platform dock, these 40,000 ton multipurpose craft are unmatched for versatility. Possibly in the future the Wasps could be replaced with something less exquisite but equally versatile such as the French Mistral assault ship of around 20,000 tons, for less than $1 billion each. If the Marines are doing their part to economize, they need never fear the budget axe.

This new Blue Water Gator Navy would be backed by scores of smaller craft, more adaptive to the littorals and less a burden on the pocket-book. Off the shelf technology like Austal HSV ferries or transforming craft like the MV Susitna, partly manned with merchant seaman like the British RFA vessels, would add further savings. Even old-style landing craft as deployed by the Dutch Johan De Witt would be good enough for Third World operations in shallow seas.

For the USMC to survive in a new century, we insist they not wait on the politicians to save them, who are increasingly distracted by social concerns or land based threats. If the Corps would take measures in their own hands to prove their relevance and economy in a new era, specially trained as their legacy entails with ship-to-shore operations, they will not only survive but thrive by catching a fresh wind of purpose in this new century.


28 Comments leave one →
  1. leesea permalink
    June 29, 2010 10:53 pm

    IMHO the SSC will be LCAC Mk2. Reading some papers about that project has already yielded that the new craft will be longer but not wider since only that will fit in legacy wet well docs. The new craft must have better controlability than the Mk1.

    My major concern is WHY do the US Marines need a landing force lifted mainly by fully amphibious landing craft? The PASCAT or L-Cat designs both have good cargo lift, but are not amphibious. Hell the RN Mk 10 LCMs are good landing craft too. But…NIH~

    The old USN LCU 1600 type is long overdue for replacement but not in the near future SCN budget.

  2. June 29, 2010 11:19 am

    how about a modified on of these then?

    I have to say I think for assaults the LCAC, especially thanks to its ability to take the stuff far in land is a very useful tool; but if you just want something faster and with better range than an LCU, and which can carry more gear, then the london river taxi’s are pretty good starting places…in fact the RN did consider them a while back, but decided more of the same would be an easier sell with the Treasury

    yours sincerely


  3. Heretic permalink
    June 29, 2010 10:24 am

    So the problem with the LCAC is not the service it provides, but with how it “delivers” that service. Specifically, the hovercraft concept for lighterage is not a problem … just the specific bit of kit that we’re using right now to perform this task. This means that some sort of LCAC Mk 2 ought to be possible which would overcome the logistical and maintenance shortcomings of LCAC Mk 1.

    At which point, the question then becomes one of … what should an LCAC Mk 2 *be*?

  4. leesea permalink
    June 28, 2010 1:01 am

    t6, thanks for saying what I forgot to. The critical qestions is how much tactical equipment needs to come ashore on fully amphibious hovercraft. After that is answered the proper size etc can be determined.

    I know that Giffon who joined with old BHC has some successfull hovercraft used by some navies and marines. Its just that their cargo capacities are not very large. That is why I like the PASCAT and in particular CNIM’s L-cat designs.

    Interesting llinks too. The problem with LASH barges is they need to be pushed around or be modified to be self propelled. Also unlaoding them once on the beach or at a pier means more MHE.

    WE solved that partially by putting 2 pusher boats on each of the prepo LASH ships alonng with MHE in some of the bargess carried. With a 500 ton gantry the ship can lift pretty large “objects”

  5. June 27, 2010 8:28 pm


    Heretic,as others have said,the current Landing Craft Air Cushion (L.C.A.C.) is very expensive to operate,largely due to it’s aircraft style construction and gas turbine engines.
    Other hovercraft manufacturers,such as Griffin Hoverwork,use marine standard materials and diesel engines,resulting in far cheaper and more practical craft:

    There are also a number of operational limitations with the current L.C.A.C.:

    Leesea,I think you may be interested in some technologies the Koreans are working on:


  6. June 27, 2010 3:11 pm

    I have wondered from time to time if there was any mileage in LASH.

  7. leesea permalink
    June 27, 2010 3:02 pm

    @Heretic (all good questions pointing to problems with current LCACs)

    Here is my reply. The LCACs of today are a 40 yr old design using aviation type construction techniques which leads to expensive and time consuming M&R. For instance, the craft needs complete fresh water washdowns between missions. Go look up all the LCAC specific contracts and mods to keep those old craft running and the dollars will astound you.

    Next the LCACs are limited by the size of the smallest wet well dock they are expectet to fit into. Those lengthy garages led to what I call the funnel limitation. Meaning the tactical vehicles and materials needed ashore are limited by the total amount that can be pushed out the amphib ships’ stern. And by the total number of LCAC “spots” in the ARG.

    The SSC apparently is going to be longer, that margin of improvement needs to be examined. IF the MLP coul/will carry a more diverse number of landing craft that would help the throughput equation some more.

    The speed of LCAC/SSC becomes significant depending on how far off shore one assumes the amphib ships will be. I have seen everything from 25 nmi to 250 nmi. BUT my experience tells me that in the end most amphibs will move closer to shore negating their speed advantage.

    The other aspect I look at is some more basic questions need to be asked about how the Marines plan their assaults, to wit:

    – Does ALL of the tactical equipment need to be delivered by fully amphibious landing craft as the LCACs are? After the first wave gets ashore to secure the beachead, what landing craft or lighter can deliver more cargo over time at least system expense? My opinion is the LCAC is not that and the jury is out on the SSC.

    – Can tactical equipment be lifted ashore using non-amphbious craft such as PASCAT or L-
    Cat as qucikly and at less system cost?

    – Why has the USN pushed out the LCU(R)?

    – What about the substantial breakbulk cargo needed to sustain an assualt? It does not lened itself to ro/ro operations such as the LCAC are set up for. AND why is there virtually NO cargo gear on most USN amphibs to perform lo/lo ops over the side into conventional landing craft? (there is NO pland B if the wet well dock breaks). The few cranes on current LPD/LSD are pitifully few and antiquated.

    So bottom line: There are not enough LCACs to be had, they are costly and may not even be needed IF an objective analysis was done? Its all in the AOA folks, ask the right questions and one may get a different short list?

    Those are just my logisitics concerns. There are operational questions also (but with a thunderstorm overhead I will have to send this much now!)

  8. sid permalink
    June 25, 2010 6:09 pm

    (the Fletchers stayed combat effective as long as they did at Surigao Strait in large part because of armored cabling in their director systems)

    ooops…meant Samar…

    Also…you need to read this book:

    And gauge the amount of angst keenly felt by a commander saddled with an ad-hoc amphib force made up of ships not designed for the task…..

  9. June 25, 2010 2:18 pm

    Further to what sid said. Steel is cheap. Big hulls. Lots of watertight spaces. Double hulls/bulkheads. Spreading crew berthing through the ship. Localised fire fighting capability.

  10. sid permalink
    June 25, 2010 12:53 pm

    that was me BTW…

  11. Anonymous permalink
    June 25, 2010 12:52 pm

    “Neither are exquisite and very complicated vessels any greater guarantee than smaller, cheaper ships will survive to land their valuable cargo to influence events ashore.”

    You still misconstrue what entails “survivability” in warship design Mike.

    Its not about some (stupid expensive) wonder missile that will scare any enemy who sees the ads in the defense mags, or (stupid expensive) electronics, or solely based on (stupid expensive) exotic materials, or (stupid expensive) futurisitc hull designs; as the always hungry for ROI folks at Lockheed or Northrop Grumman would have us all believe.

    Its about careful redundancy, placement, and separation of critical components in systems such as fuel and hydraulics; armor where its needed (the Fletchers stayed combat effective as long as they did at Surigao Strait in large part because of armored cabling in their director systems); sufficient manning to absorb losses…The sum of “Survivability” rests greatly on these invisible and boring elements that many just ASSume are built in.

    Do such design details have a cost? Sure they do…But we are not talking about a ship that can call the Coasties at the first signs of trouble… with the aftermath taken care of by lawyers and insurance companies.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    June 24, 2010 3:40 pm

    leesea said : “before ScottB jumps on this statement I would tell him those are specific terms of art not so much my opinion”

    As explained previously, a couple of very fundamental problems with JHSV are :

    1) Price : an off-the-shelf commercial design would fit the bill in (at least) 80% of the cases when it comes to the kind of administrative lifts you’re talking about, and would cost half the price.

    2) Quantity : if it weren’t for some people trying to save face after the LCS fiasco, the Navy wouldn’t even try to buy more than 7 of these, because that’s what the original USMC requirement called for.

    IOW, what the current plan is calling for is a $8 billion investment (~ 40 units @ $200 million each) where $700 million would have been good enough (~ 7 units @ $100 million each).

    The extra $7.3 billion that’s going down the drain with the JHSV boondoggle represent the equivalent of 35 ABSALON or 20 Johann de Witt LPDs.

  13. Heretic permalink
    June 24, 2010 9:32 am

    re: leesea

    Further as I said before, the means i.e. landing craft and lighterage needed to conduct amphibious missions MUST be re-thought and LCAC’s successor SSC must not be another version of the LCAC.

    Let’s take this apart shall we?

    What’s the problem with LCAC that needs to be “fixed” in a successor? Is it the fact that the vehicle is an air cushioned hovercraft? Is it that the LCAC itself is “too big” or “not big enough” in some way? Is it that the LCAC of today is a maintenance hog and prone to breakdowns? Is it that the LCAC is “too slow” to transit from ship to shore? Is the LCAC “too noisy” or somehow “too obvious” and needs to have a reduced signature if it wants to survive runs from ship to shore?

    What’s the problem(s) with LCAC that you’d want to see fixed in a successor?

    Please be specific enough that those of us who don’t maintain these things for a living can understand where you’re coming from (and why).

  14. Distiller permalink
    June 24, 2010 8:38 am

    The question itself shows a problem: Amphib Assault. That’s WW2. Not an integrated aerial and amphib assault, because it’s a Marines show. And because the Army doesn’t have meaningful long-range air assault units any more, and the Air Force never had it. And why are there still no Army AirCav units on LHDs on a regular basis? Forcible entry has to be approached on a unified forces basis these days!

    Also is the USMC the spearhead for other, non-amphib land forces or itself a full-spectrum force? Isn’t the Corps’ direct assault on objective idea/doctrine just another excuse to transform the Corps into an own full-spectrum force within the armed forces?

    An then the question of forces coming ashore guns blazing in one big bunch vs sneaking in dispersed over a whole region. Do we trust in netcentrism and precision firepower that is the enabler for the dispersed option? Looking at the latest statements from the Corps – no.

    And finally where shall the Corps be positioned in the spectrum that goes from covert raiding all the way to D-Day sized continental conquering?

    These are dominantly questions that not the Marines should answer, but the political leadership.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 24, 2010 6:58 am

    x wrote “when this blog talks of JHSV being an alternative to LPD, LHA etc. some of us shake our heads.”

    I would have to go with leesea’s assessment, that the JHSV should be seen as a supplement and not a replacement for the forcible entry ships. The LPD and LHA’s should be seen in the light of all legacy weapons, that because they are so capable you can do more with less. But the cost of JHSV gives it an advantage, at about $200 million each, you can by 10 for 1 LPD giving the anti-access weapons a lot to worry about.

    You may not get heavy armor and sparrow missiles with these aluminum wonders, but you do get numbers and dispersal, a proven survivability tactic on land and sea.

  16. Al L. permalink
    June 24, 2010 12:21 am

    Alex said:

    “why is it USMC policy to always try and combine a Cou d’main with Cou d’grace? The argentines had been taught to do this by the USMC/USN and expected the British forces to do the same, rather than what they did which was land somewhere else and blow in the back door.”

    Perhaps you confuse the Marines policy of public perception, for a policy of action.

    The history says you are mistaken.

    Inchon. Enemy distracted with land forces. Land from the sea. Result is a back door blow out.

    Desert Storm. Fake landing of Marines. Marines and Army on land deliver back door ass kicking.

    OIF. Marines assault up river valleys to Baghdad using amphibious skills. They position for a frontal assault of Baghdad. While Iraqi military is focused on Marines and attached Army units, U.S Army moves up the flank and jabs a dagger into the heart of Baghdad. Back door ass kicking ensues.

  17. June 23, 2010 5:37 pm

    Cmdr Ward also speculated whether a CATOBAR carrier would have performed any better….

    But it is probably one of the four top books on the war along with,

    March to the South Atlantic
    Amphibious Assault Falklands
    Red and Green Life Machine

    with a special mention for Call for Fire.

  18. leesea permalink
    June 23, 2010 5:33 pm

    There are two parts to the questions about what to do with US amphibious force. Such operations must be thought of in two components.

    Capt Hughes has frequently pointed out that “Amphibious Lift” is the key to conducting successful operations overseas. Amphibious lift is composed of both amphib warships and sealift ships. The later is historical facts and modern events have repeatedly proven them.

    The desire to support successful Forcible Entry operations is what is driving most of the US Marine desires for amphib warships which turn out to be expensive and exquisite due to over-specialization. That results in less hulls being in available marine use in more dispersed operations (the prediction of many).

    The logical conclusion which I think SECDEF Gates has arrived at when commenting on the sheer numbers of amphib warships in the USN is for the USMC and USN to have less amphib warships and to be more dependent on sealift ships at least for the lift part of amphib operations. I am sure that is partially because Mr Gates sees a need for joint use of sealift assets not service unique warships.

    I note that the US Marines are ALREADY shifting cargo from Navy amphibs to the MPF sealift ships in a manner heretofore NOT done.

    Once again I am not saying that Forcible Entry needs to be abandoned, BUT rather how the US Marines get to the LOD should be questioned and revised.

    Further as I said before, the means i.e. landing craft and lighterage needed to conduct amphibious missions MUST be re-thought and LCAC’s successor SSC must not be another version of the LCAC. Other existing landing craft designs not necessarily US should be considered. Again it the means not motive which are my concerns.

    The JHSV is a successful (to date) inter-theater sealift ship for joint use which may be adapted to support USMC service-unique lift rqmts. (before ScottB jumps on this statement I would tell him those are specific terms of art not so much my opinion). The JHSV can supplement amphib lift, but surely NOT replace the unique capabilites of warships such as LPD/LSD. I have seen recent comments on how the JHSV can be used in OMFTS. And also how smaller marine unit operations may be more made more flexible in the future. HSV Westpac Express has been used successfully for about 8 years performing administrative lifts which were formerly done by amphib warships. The HSFs will follow in that sealift service.

    The T-Craft and X-Craft are what they are ONR R&D projects NOT dedicated to USMC lift rqmts and therefore not likely assets in any amphib op.

  19. Hokie_1997 permalink
    June 23, 2010 4:30 pm

    “Old fashioned “dumb” bombs also made a wreak of the British Landing ships HMS Sir Galahad in the 1982 Falklands Conflict.”


    I realize this is a bit off thread but…

    Old fashioned dumb bombs made a wreck of the HMS Sir Galahad — yet small V/STOL carriers are still deemed good enough to defend an amphibious task force from air threats.

    I think a lot of Falkland vets – both British Army and RN/RM – would disagree.

    Try picking up a copy of Sharky Ward’s book “Sea Harriers over the Falkland” if you can get it. The top FAA Sea Harrier jock repeatedly laments the lack of organic long-range AEW.

  20. June 23, 2010 4:22 pm

    The RN/RM would have loved more specialist ships down South. Though it easy to champion the use of merchant men (and I do Merchant Ships at War is one of favourite books) you have to remember it was really touch and go. If the ARA had been successful with their SSKs a lot of troops and stores would have been lost; remember merchant men then weren’t built to today’s SOLAS standards. What enabled the RN to use STUFT was having a degree of air superiority, which was touch and go too, from the two carriers. And it should be pointed out that HMS Invincible was a COMAW asset at first.

    To exploit the sea flank to its fullest extent requires specialist ships. Amphibious warfare isn’t trooping. That is why when this blog talks of JHSV being an alternative to LPD, LHA etc. some of us shake our heads.

  21. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2010 3:40 pm

    As far as the future of amphibious capabilities is concerned, the best starting point is to ask the right questions instead of trying to come up with *miraculous* answers (*wunderwaffe*) like E(xquisite)-Craft or Just another Highly Silly Vessel.

  22. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2010 3:14 pm

    As for the *transformational* (be worried whenever someone uses this word) M/V Susitna, rather than repeating myself again, I’ll post some quotes from distinguished professionals that pretty much tells the whole story :

    From our old friend Tim Colton :

    “At $70 million – about $100 for every resident of Alaska – it has to be the world’s most expensive ferry on a $/ton basis: now, who’s going to subsidize its operation? And at more than four years in construction, it has probably taken longer to build than the Ark. But then it’s a Lockheed Martin design, funded by the Office of Naval Research, so what can you expect?”

    From our resident HSV expert Bill :

    “Somebody explain how a ferry that cost 8 to 10 times what any other ferry design with similar capacity and speed would cost..explain how that is in any way shape or form going to be viable economically? Rapid ‘commercialization’ of research investments my arse…”

    “Ferries are built every day with similar capacities for 10 million and less. I know that I’ve been involved personally in building well over a hundred such..and I don’t care if they built 100 exact copies of that E-craft thing, they are not going to reduce the cost from 70 million to 10 million. Flat impossible to reduce it by anything close to half even.”

    And our sealift man Leesea to conclude :

    “This E-Craft is another expensive design exercise built because some congressional type earmarked it IMHO! You did notice it is being built in Alaska that hotbed of advanced naval engineering?”

  23. Chuck Hill permalink
    June 23, 2010 2:47 pm

    Inchon was only possible because the North Koreans had not yet deployed their mines. In a subsequent attempt, the entire landing had to be delayed so long to clear mines that the UN forces on land had already swept past the intended landing area and made the effort useless.

  24. Scott B. permalink
    June 23, 2010 2:46 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Off the shelf technology like Austal HSV ferries or transforming craft like the MV Susitna,”

    As explained at length not so long ago :

    “JHSV is nothing more than a glorified fast-ferry, with useless gold-plating that more than doubles its price when compared with similar commercial designs. Yet another waste of taxpayer’s $$$ !!!”

    “In short, JHSV is yet another failed program, and what suggestions to the effect that JHSV could replace gators and/or act as a patrol vessel show is that, as most failed programs, JHSV has become a solution looking for a problem to justify its existence.”

  25. June 23, 2010 2:06 pm

    MatR thats what I don’t understand, because in World War II and at an Inchon they did not act so, so why now the obsession?

    yours sincerely


  26. MatR permalink
    June 23, 2010 2:03 pm

    Because the US military liked WWII so much, it decided to re-fight it in every subsequent conflict, just with newer weapons. Sadly, I don’t mean that as a joke.

  27. June 23, 2010 1:45 pm


    I hate to be picky but did you mean RFA as in Royal Fleet Auxilary, or RAF as in Royal Air Force? as the latter does not have ships; but the former owned both the Round Table Class LSL’s and now the Bay class LSL(a)’s.

    in other information, the Royal Marines, would prefer an LHD to replace HMS Ocean, so that they can prettymuch always have two docks available to land the heavy equipment that they supports them more easily.

    but here is a question; why is it USMC policy to always try and combine a Cou d’main with Cou d’grace? The argentines had been taught to do this by the USMC/USN and expected the British forces to do the same, rather than what they did which was land somewhere else and blow in the back door. Surely the whole point of amphibious warfare is that you can land where you want to when you want to; why therefore land where the enemy is strongest?

    yours sincerely



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