A Republic of Korea amphibious assault vehicle enters the surf from a U.S. Navy landing craft utility during an exercise in Manripo, Republic of Korea, in 2006. The Marine Corps' current procurement strategy risks the service's ability to 'kick in the door' during a mid-intensity amphibious assault, according to two armored vehicle experts who served as career infantry officers. (JO2 Adam R. Cole/Navy)
The Marine Corps’ current procurement strategy risks the service’s ability to “kick in the door” during a mid-intensity amphibious assault, according to two armored vehicle experts who served as career infantry officers.
Service leaders appear intent on “procuring weapons systems more suitable to a land army, or aircraft assets more likely to be employed as ... an air force,” write retired Col. James G. Magee and Maj. Richard G. DuVall in their white paper, “Are the Marines Procuring Their Way to Irrelevance as a Sea-Based Threat?” Instead, Corps officials should be focused on developing assets that allow sea-based Marines to concentrate power ashore. If they fail to do so — and do it soon — “Marines will find themselves irrelevant to decision makers and out of the fight,” they warn.
The principal problem with mounting an amphibious assault, the authors say, is the Corps’ inability to bring sea-based Marines ashore from over the horizon in a high-threat environment.
The proliferation of advanced missile technology today means ships must maintain a minimum stand-off distance of 100 miles from shore to preserve an adequate strike warning system.. That stand-off distance presents a significant modernization hurdle for a Corps seeking to deliver amphibious forces ashore. The Marines have no suitable ship-to-shore connectors to carry heavy Marine vehicles that far in a timely way.
Development and procurement programs now underway — including the Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1, a replacement for the Amphibious Assault Vehicle-7 — only exacerbate the problem, the authors add. The only viable near-term fix is to purchase light armored vehicles that can be carried ashore by rotary wing aircraft, they say. The ACV , like the AAV-7, is too heavy for that.
“My co-author and I assert that Marines cannot be solely, even excessively, reliant on Navy connectors for getting Marine armored firepower ashore in an amphibious operation,” Magee told Marine Corps Times. “How can the Corps still expect to prevail in the ever-present Beltway argument that says: “Since anybody’s equipment — read as U.S. Army — can be put ashore by these Navy connectors, the Marines aren’t uniquely equipped anymore for amphibious operations, so why do we need them?”
Possibly as a response, Amos recently authored his own paper, published in the June issue of Proceedings magazine, outlining the service’s gaps in ship-to-shore capability. In it he says the service must bolster the number of connectors it has, particularly with the rollout of Expeditionary Force 21. EF-21 emphasizes sea basing gear near potential flashpoints so Marines can quickly access the equipment they need for an amphibious assault. The sea-basing plan also reduces the Corps’ reliance on the Navy’s amphibious ships — only 30 will be in operation by fiscal 2015. That could allow the Marine Corps to put more gear and men ashore when and where they are needed, but the service will need more connectors, Amos wrote.
Magee and DuVall say Amos has also placed an unreasonable emphasis on the procurement of additional joint strike fighters — particularly the F-35C carrier variant — and the development of the ACV 1.1, which Magee says is amphibious only in name because its weight makes it unable to swim from ship to shore, even from close-in distances.
Marine vehicle development officials responded during a June 11 interview to key assertions made by Magee and DuVall, although they had not yet been permitted to review the paper which was then-embargoed until its publication.
The ACV 1.1 is indeed suited for land where 90 percent of the Marine Corps operations occur, said Col. Christopher Woodbridge, the lead for the Corps’ Ground Combat/Tactical Vehicle Planning Team at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
He defended the ACV 1.1 as the best way ahead, saying that current vehicles like the AAV already rely on ship-to-shore connectors.
“Beyond about one nautical mile, everything is connector dependent,” Woodbridge said.
The ACV 1.1 will be about comparable to the current up-armored AAV in terms of size and weight. Advances in technology, he said, mean that blast survivability no longer solely relies on heavy armor. Hull shape, spall liners, the location of fuel tanks, seat construction and other engineering features can greatly increase survivability, informing the Marine Corps requirement that the ACV 1.1 have MRAP-level or better protection. That can be achieved while still allowing the vehicle to swim “shore-to-shore” meaning across lakes, rivers or short littoral distances.
ACV 1.1 requirements do not call for the next-generation vehicle to “self-deploy” from Navy amphibious assault ships. It will move to shore on connectors, so its size is more important than its weight, Woodridge said.
Magee and DuVall remain skeptical, saying the insistence by lawmakers and service leaders on MRAP-type protection ensures the vehicle will be too heavy to swim or be lifted by helicopter. Coupled with gaps in viable ship-to-shore connectors, they say these problems make the ACV irrelevant to the Marine mission and a waste of resources.
Ben FitzGerald, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security and an expert on the evolving role of the Marine Corps, says the paper’s criticism of the ACV is on point, but devoid of the larger context — large scale amphibious assault is unlikely.
“Where are we planning on using this stuff,” he said. “There are an increasingly small number of contingencies where we would be able to deploy a traditional amphibious assault force.”
As a result, he said, the Marine Corps should be willing to take risk in its procurement of amphibious vehicles and ship-to-shore connectors for assaulting contested beaches in favor of the ability to carry out crisis response missions. In a climate of shrinking budgets, that is an area where the Marine Corps can have the most influence.
“The U.S. does not intend to undertake long-term expeditionary operations in the near term,” FitzGerald said. “Crisis response and conflict mitigation — that is where the Marine Corps has a huge advantage as the first to fight, but also able to do it with a small footprint.”
He also disagrees with Magee and DuVall’s belief that helicopters are the answer to the connector problem.
“As we start dealing with urban littoral areas, it is going to be increasingly easy to deny U.S. forces air power, especially rotary access,” he said. “You don’t need an air force to deny rotary assets. Inexpensive [drones and] all sorts of stuff can be used to make it difficult to have guaranteed access with rotary wing assets.”
The same threat that inspired Magee to write the paper — proliferation of next-gen missile technology — can also destroy helicopters.
Magee says the solution is to simply “land where the enemy is not.” To prevent helicopters from being shot out of the sky, he says Marines and their vehicles can be quickly lifted to an uncontested area ashore and then attack enemy forces, rather than landing on a beach in a D-day style invasion.
Ultimately, to preserve the Corps amphibious assault capability, Magee and DuVall offer a four point fix.
■Plan to deliver assaulting Marines by MV-22 Osprey, which can traverse the 100-mile stand-off distance in 30 minutes.
■Cancel ACV 1.1 development and procurement because the vehicle is too heavy to swim across anything other than a small river or be transported by helicopter.
■Develop a new armored personnel carrier using the Light Armored Vehicle-Logistics variant as a platform to define and develop capabilities for a next-generation armored amphibious vehicle that is light enough to be lifted by helicopter. This vehicle could also be outfitted with an array of crew-served weapons like M2 .50-caliber machine guns without adding too much weight for temporary use as a stop-gap assault vehicle.
■Develop a “very heavy lift” CH-53Kcrane variant, which would not have an enclosed cabin, giving it the ability to lift thousands more pounds when moving armored vehicles ashore during an assault.
They anticipate critics will say that is not possible, given current fiscal constraints. But the two former Marine officers argue that the new procurement strategy could be paid for by cutting into the F-35 program.
They would re-purpose the $1 billion the Corps wants to buy six additional F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing variants, in addition to the 340 already on order. They would also eliminate 40 of the 80 catapult-launched, tail-hook equipped F-35Cs on order. With the cancellation of those additional F-35s, the service could purchase hundreds of very heavy lift helicopters, enough to quickly mass forces during an assault, Magee and DuVall say.
“We believe that Marines must be equipped with assets, aircraft and helicopter liftable armored combat vehicles, so when Marine forces are ordered to deploy ashore to close with and destroy an enemy force, they can do so,” they write.