Home » News & Analysis » Marines’ Next High-End Fight Could Call for Larger Formations, Tougher Amphibs

Marines’ Next High-End Fight Could Call for Larger Formations, Tougher Amphibs

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jose Nieves, an infantryman with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division tests Step In Visor and Low Profile Mandible during Urban Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2018 (ANTX-18) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, March 21, 2018. US Marine Corps photo.

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Marine Corps is preparing for a high-end distributed fight inside island chains in the Pacific, and the service is pushing the Navy to invest in additional weapons and systems for amphibious ships to support this kind of battle in a contested environment.

The Marine Corps is further developing concepts like the Expeditionary Advance Base Operations and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, but there are some materiel changes the Navy will need to make, such as upgunning amphibious ships and connecting amphibs into the surface combatants’ and aircraft carriers’ tactical grid, leaders said last week at the Surface Navy Association’s annual national symposium.

Maj. Gen. David Coffman, director of expeditionary operations (OPNAV N95), set the scene, describing a large-scale formation Navy ships and Marine landing forces beyond what the services typically rehearse today.

“That level of integrated naval operations could be needed to take an island somewhere – natural or manmade. But it certainly will be required when a great power competition pits a whale against an elephant, or maybe two elephants – a global maritime power, that’s us, against a regional land power hegemon with home-field advantage. In that long war, maritime superiority is necessary but not sufficient for the whale to beat the elephant,” Coffman said, noting the Marines were readying themselves to conduct day-to-day competition, deterrence against malign actions, and, if necessary, major combat operations in this high-end environment.
“So what we need to do is reinvigorate naval maneuver warfare, linking sea control and power projection in order to win current and future fights.”

Marines with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, test night optics during Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2018 (ANTX-18) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. on March 20, 2018. US Marine Corps Photo

In this type of warfare, Coffman argued while speaking to reporters after his speech, a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group and the accompanying Marine Expeditionary Unit will not be sufficient. No longer can “three amphibious ships and a commodore and a colonel can move around and get it done.” Rather, he said, the Navy and Marine Corps need to become more proficient in operating larger Expeditionary Strike Groups with Marine Expeditionary Brigades that can sustain themselves for longer fights, and in fighting alongside carrier strike groups as part of a large Expeditionary Strike Force.

Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for plans, policies and operations, expressed a similar sentiment during his speech at the SNA event, noting that the ARG of today will not be sufficient for a future fight.

In his mind, the solution is either alternate ship formations that bring in destroyers or cruisers to help protect the amphibious ships and their embarked Marines, or upgrades to the amphibs themselves to allow for organic self-protection.

Two F-35B assigned to the ‘Salty Dogs’ of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 during testing aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. USNI News Photo

Beaudreault noted the recent Littoral Combat Group 1 deployment that paired a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock (LPD-17) with an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG-51) as one way of keeping Marines safe as they transit through island chains, setting up advance bases for small pockets of Marines to fight from in a dispersed manner.

But, he told USNI News during a question and answer session, what happens during a major conflict, when merchant ships need to be escorted through the theater to help resupply those Marines distributed over a wide area? How many Navy surface combatants will be tied up escorting supply ships, and how many will be left over to escort amphibious warships?

“That’s why every ship has to be a warship that can defend itself, have an offensive striking capability and be able to deal with the threats that are coming in, be it a cyber threat – so it needs a good network – or whether it’s a kinetic threat in the form of a missile that’s coming at it,” Beaudreault said.
“We’re not totally naked in that regard, but we need a lot of improvement. We need a whole lot of improvement. … Now, what can we do with undersea, unmanned undersea capability, that can also provide protection for an ARG that’s different than having a cruiser or destroyer on the surface accompanying that same ARG? Those are areas for exploration, I think.”

The general also called for upgrades to the amphibious ships the Navy fields today and will be building in the coming years.

“Our amphibious warships need to defend against air, surface, subsurface, cyber and information attack. In absence of organic ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore strike weapons, they must rely on support from other combatants. … To increase the lethality and readiness of our amphibious fleet, the naval force must upgrade [command and control] suites, introduce the vertical launch system for organic air defense.”

San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage (LPD-23) transits the Pacific Ocean during an amphibious squadron and Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) integration (PMINT) exercise on March 27, 2018. US Navy Photo

Capt. Brian Metcalf, LPD program manager within the Program Executive Office for Ships, said during the conference that the upcoming Flight II LPDs set to be built in the 2020s will not have VLS cells – though there’s still space to add them in if requirements change and if money is available to add the missile launchers – but he also noted that there are other ways to up-gun the amphibious ships.

“To be able to launch a missile, you do not have to have a vertical launching system,” he said.
“So we’ve encouraged [the Marine Corps] to find a requirement – what are we trying to defend against, or what kind of operational parameters or scenarios are we trying to build the ship to meet – and we’ll give them many options on how they can slice that. And vertical launch will be one of them, but it’s not the only option.”

Beaudreault in his speech noted that the Marine Corps and Defense Department don’t have a great track record of predicting exactly what their next battle will look like, but he said there are some threats the Marines are certain to face in the future and must be prepared for. The proliferation of missile technology, the impact of cyber warfare, operating in degraded communications and jammed environments, and the threat of space-based systems are “things we’re going to have to contend with regardless of who the adversary is,” he said.

The Marines will also have to operate in a disaggregated manner to complicate enemy targeting, but that will stress the Marines’ ability to command and control, provide air and surface lift, resupply the force, provide casualty evacuation and more.

Though in many ways this scenario – small pockets of Marines operating on different islands in a hostile environment, to help the Navy gain sea control and to take additional territory – is nothing like the recent ARG/MEU deployments that are focused on humanitarian assistance and partner-building activities, or like the post-9/11 land wars, Beaudreault said he’s confident today’s young officers are gaining skills that will be applicable in the future fight.

First, he said, over the past 18 years of land wars, the Marine Corps has never missed a planned ARG/MEU deployment, meaning the service as an institution has retained its amphibious skills, even if most of the force was focused ashore. He noted that he hopes to see the Navy and Marine Corps build on this knowledge by moving beyond ARG/MEU-based exercises and practicing ESG/MEB operations or even Expeditionary Strike Force operations during exercises like Trident Juncture and Talisman Saber.

A US Navy landing craft air cushion (LCAC) embarks the well deck of the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD-21). Marines assigned to Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26th MEU) conducted a raid during combined composite unit training exercise (COMPTUEX), the final stage of a comprehensive training cycle aimed at building cohesion between the Iwo Jima Amphibious Readiness Group. US Navy Photo

Second, Beaudreault said, the Marines who have been fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – who have been conducting signals intelligence, human intelligence, targeting and logistics work in small distributed pockets in the desert – “these are the kind of Marines we want as captains, majors, organizing and setting up those EABOs of the future. Taking lessons that they’re learning on land and applying it maybe to another chunk of land that’s a temporary lodgment to set up an EABO. But they’ll be comfortable operating in that environment with not a lot of supervision, using their ingenuity and creativity to put a hurtin’ on the enemy. Where they’re shooting artillery rounds today, we’ll be shooting long-range, we’ll be shooting loitering munitions, swarming technologies; that may be the difference. The tools at hand to go a distance will, I think, be the difference in the future.”

  • DaSaint

    The San Antonio class was originally designed for 2 8-cell Mk41 VLS forward, but they were never installed. With the threats expected particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, I’d rather have them installed in the new Flight II LPDs and backfitted in the Flight I series when they come in for mid-life overhauls. Active seekers don’t require illumination, and regardless they can be cooperatively launched from offboard assets as well as from their own command and control systems. Could be useful for TLAM or ESSM or maybe a land-attack variant of ESSM. The possibilities abound, but we’re not getting to 355 ships, so up-gun what we have as much as is reasonably possible, if we really believe in Distributed Lethality.

    • Ed L

      Is there one of those Ridiculous treaties that prevented the VLS installation on the San Antonio Class LPD? This would be nice a balanced load of ESSM’s for AAW along with a mix of Asroc, SM-2, NSM for formation defense

      • DaSaint

        No, just the bean counters eliminating the option prior to the ordering of the first-of-class. Now with near-peer competition, and not having enough combatants to provide protection to either the amphibs or the merchant ships which would be needed to carry most of the heavy gear, it makes sense to up-gun the LPDs where possible.

        To me it makes each ARG that much more capable, especially in disaggregated operations which are happening with more and more frequency. Otherwise (and unless you happen to have a couple F-35Bs on board – unlikely), all you’ve got is some EW and point defense systems like Phalanx and RAM.

        • RunningBear

          USMC 353 F-35B planned.
          USMC F-35B Squadrons with 16ea.

          There should be a full complement on the planned “12?” big deck amphibs. in each ARG.

          Currently there have been 65+ F-35B delivered to the USMC with 2 struck.
          Fly Navy

        • Duane

          It’s necessary to count – or rather, “manage” – beans when you have a finite number of beans to use for all the various threats and opportunities we have for our military.

          Every bean spent adding firepower to amphibs is a bean not available to build surface warships, SSNs, and buy attack aircraft, and upgrade missiles, and upgrade missile defenses for the fleet.

          Everybody in the comments peanut gallery seems to cheer making every surface warship into a Arleigh Burke Flight III, and every amphib into an Arleigh Burke Ftight III.

          The beans simply aren’t there to do that, and to increase the size of the fleet too.

      • Bubblehead

        What they need besides a few ESSM are a version of the soon to come Long Range Precision Fires to support the Marines. The Marines are seriously lacking in Fire Support and it is about time the USN gave them some.

        Especially with the demise of the 155 on Zums.

        • RunningBear

          Might you consider air support precision bombing as a reasonable alternative to 155 on Zummies and as support for mobile precision fires in the field?
          Fly Navy

          • Donald Carey


          • RunningBear

            Well, in that case I suspect it will be a cold day in “H*ll” before you will see any rounds for the AGS. In truth the extraction and removal would be more expected with the replacement with a 75+MW direct energy weapon; laser, microwave, radar or railgun (Mach5+). The limited range of naval cannons (limited magazines) vs. the cost of versatile missiles is significant in other than close in defense.
            Fly Navy

    • 355 ships is certainly unlikely, but 38 amphibious ships is within reach. That 38-boat plateau, however, won’t be reached by making LPDs more expensive with more missiles beyond the small RAM system.

      The symposium speakers in this article offered quite a puzzling smorgasbord for everyone following the USN’s expeditionary and projection forces. One speaker confirms VLS won’t be included in the Flight-II LPD’s while another says “we need to think about it.”

      Oh, if I had a nickel for every general or admiral who uttered “we need to think about (X).” Some want the adversary guessing. Some don’t want to bet on the wrong horse. Still others want to impress defense contractors to line up a post-career consulting or lobbying gig. Cue the MIC theorists.

  • RunningBear

    OOPs, we forgot the guns!

    Naval Infantry (step-child) will be running the show??? Embarrassing!

    “to operate in a disaggregated manner to complicate enemy targeting”, perhaps the Marines will have to re-discover how to operate without a fleet, …..again!

    Ok, enough “I told you so’s”; a start will be to upgrade all amphibs with CEC net so they can feed the SA data-stream from the F-35B to the Navy ships, unless the command demands to “peg-leg” it with Link16.
    Fly Navy

    • DaSaint

      Say it again!

      • RunningBear


  • We need to focus on vastly increasing the capacity of the amphibious fleet and getting the Army involved again. The future is the Pacific and we need to be thinking about moving large numbers of troops by sea again.

    Even aside from the possible need for forcible entry and taking/retaking islands, our Pacific allies simply don’t have the strategic depth to rely on a REFORGER-style airlift and prepositioned equipment – especially in the era of PGM’s when every airstrip and harbor in the Western Pacific is at risk of missile attack. We have to be ready to stage from bases in the Eastern Pacific and land large, fully combat-ready units over unprepared beaches while under attack.

    • Duane

      The modest add-ons for the amphibs that the Navy is actually doing now – as opposed to what the peanut gallery demands – are reasonable and not terribly high cost. RAM installations, deck mounted canister launchers for ASCM, EASR radars and COMBATTS-21 and networking infrastructure to integrate the amphib fleet’s self-defense with other warships and aircraft is one thing … but adding VLS and long range land attack missiles and ballistic missile defense missiles is simply going overboard, and adding capabilities for roles that the amphibs will never actually serve, which is littoral combat.

      Adding much greater lift is not a role of the amphibs either – that is the function of the naval auxiliaries and the Army marine fleet. That needs to grow too as you suggest. However, it makes even greater sense to stage supplies equipment and manpower to the IndoPac now, and not try to respond to a Chinese attack from the East Pacific Coast. Because once the shooting starts, the first thing the PLAN is going to do is to try and cut off the seagoing flow of supplies across the Pacific. That is the threat posed by both their growing submarine fleet and their growing long range bomber fleet. We may eventually knock out their anti-shipping capability, but not before a huge number of our hulls get sent to the bottom, and by then we may find ourselves knocked out of the war and our allies’ land occupied by the PLA.

      We nearly got knocked out of World War Two in the opening six months of the war by the German U-boat fleet, consisting of but a handful of submarines, because we were not prepared to conduct an ASW war along our own shores in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

      • It’s a lot easier to destroy prepositioning stocks than it is to interdict naval convoys. Especially since China already has hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles but its entire blue water submarine fleet consists of 9 boats.

        Further, prepositioning relies on having solid allies and a clear understanding of how a war will unfold. That really isn’t the case in the Pacific as there are numerous flashpoints and different ones could easily result in very different coalitions. You don’t want to build up stocks in Korea and then have them declare neutrality in a war where the fighting is in Vietnam (or vice versa).

        • Duane

          Pick your poison.

          But it’s a lot easier protecting dirt than protecting ship bottoms. Dirt doesn’t sink. Ships do. And protecting a limited area of dirt with concentrated air defenses is a heckuva lot easier than protecting sea lanes 5,000 to 6,000+ miles long. No submarines hide under the dirt.

          We learned this lesson the hard way back in WW Two, back when there were no nuke submarines and no long range bombers or long range sat sensors and long range anti-ship missiles to harass our supply lines, as we face today.

          In just the first six months of the war, a mere handful of very low capability German U-boats (far fewer in operation at any one time than the 9 bluewater subs today in PLAN) managed to sink 609 allied supply ships, totaling 3.1 million tons, and caused the deaths of over 5,000 merchant seamen. And nearly knocked the US out of the European war.

          We don’t own 3.1 million tons of shipping today, nor do we have 5,000 merchant seamen that we can afford to lose.

          • Donald Carey

            Dirt isn’t a moving target…

  • Jack D Ripper

    Guadalcanal 2

  • b2

    “…and the service is pushing the Navy to invest”

    I mean, really? In this critical, resource-limited, re-tool period of our militaries core capabilities and the rise of PRC/Russia to challenge us, we should enhance a niche role (amphibious capability) at the expense of a larger more lethal US Navy force? This is just another PR strategy gimmickry developed by the USMC to take care of their own rice bowl… I the USMC should stick to their core missions and work with the US Navy under your historic role…

    Thanks USNI for another off topic USMC PR story about “roles and missions” within DoD and not really US Navy oriented. “Off the chart” for the “Naval” Institute.

    • Duane

      News flash to b2 – the US Marines have always been part of the US Navy.

      Second news flash – “niche” does not describe the role of expeditionary warfare in the IndoPac – it is the center of any possible naval war.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Here we go again. There’s nothing wrong at all with beefing up the point defenses of amphibs and naval supply ships. That includes ECM and protection against cyber threats. BUT, to think that adding a capability to launch cruise missiles or other weapons, be they for land attack or for anti-ship missions or anti-air or whatever, requires much more than just adding VLS cells or deck launchers. For starters, those ship are no doubt gong to be busy enough with their primary jobs! The amphibs will be tasked with putting Marines or troops and their equipment ashore. That will be a full time, 24/7 mission. To conduct some of the other missions envisioned in this article might very well require MANEUVER, as in placing the ship in a position to carry out said other missions and/or to be able to best utilize those new weapons and any other required equipment they are to be given. Consideration will have to be given as to what those ships will be giving up to have those weapons.

    Amphibs are specialty ships. They specialize in delivering forces ashore and supporting them while they are ashore, at least until they run out of supplies to send ashore. It’s nice to have some “Jacks of all trades” but the amphibs should not be candidates for experimenting along those lines. Gee, maybe in time the Navy can evolve to vessels that can submerge when desired, can surface and launch weapons and aircraft and drones and troops, and if need be can fly. Maybe they will have ‘shields’ and ‘phasers’ and photon torpedoes and all that. But right now common sense has to rule. There are better ways to get more firepower than tasking existing amphibs which very well might be overworked as it is.

  • Poor Richard

    The solution would be to buy a used merchie and build an arsenal ship, as described in Proceedings three or four years ago. We shouldn’t waste the time or money demolishing the superstructure as proposed in the article, but an arsenal ship with modular launchers able to switch between or mix TLAMs, vertical firing artillery, SM-1s or other antiair/missile missiles, MLRS, and whatever comes down the pike next, with its own targeting capability (the author didn’t contemplate network failure or interference) and self-defense would seem to fit the bill, quickly and cheaply.