Arguing for the Amphibious Assault
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:
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.