Calling Down the Sea Dragon Thunder

By Captain Scott Ukeiley, U.S. Marine Corps

The combined arms capability is the center of gravity from which the unit draws its combat power. Current doctrine stresses that firepower supports decisive infantry maneuver. A single infantry battalion, however, rarely can maneuver decisively when heavily outnumbered-unless it commands overwhelming fire support. Unfortunately, current doctrine is insufficient. A concept called Sea Dragon is the future of Marine Corps fire support, and expeditionary units await its promise of combined-arms strength to offset their lack of numbers.

Fire Support Concept of Operations . Sea Dragon's goal is to "provide decisive fires in support of small unit operations across an expanded, non-contiguous battlefield," by putting fire support in the hands of junior leaders and small units. Teams led by junior non-commissioned officers will provide forward observer (FO) and forward air controller (FAC) capabilities to the lowest levels of command; organic firepower will be limited to self-defense. These teams will provide the principal means of directing all supporting fires and will provide comprehensive and constant intelligence and targeting capabilities to the commander.

Fire support assets will be dispersed, and improved command-and-control procedures will be required to mass them. The effects of artillery, mortars, naval gunfire, and air will be enhanced through the ability to attack targets accurately and simultaneously with a variety of means; current deconfliction methods that parcel out the battlefield to particular supporting arms must no longer prevent commanders from bringing to bear all fires across the entire battlefield. Fire support will assume the critical role of achieving decision against the enemy and the infantry will provide the means by which fires are employed. This is a true revolution in military affairs.

Intermediate chains of command will be eliminated. Sensors, in the form of infantry squads, will burst-transmit information and requests for fire directly and simultaneously to the firing agency and the command element. As the command element approves and allocates fires, firing agencies will lay on target. Accurate and lethal, fire support will be more responsive and flexible than ever before.

Fire Support Assets . The Sea Dragon concept is more a revolution in tactics and procedures than technology, and the weapons to be employed are evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The new lightweight 155-mm towed howitzer will replace the older M198 155-mm howitzer as direct-support artillery. Automated digital fire control integral to the howitzer itself should increase the probability of achieving first round hits. Infantry requests for fire will be processed automatically and the guns laid as the request is being processed through the command element. Rounds will be fired upon clearance from the command element.

The new howitzer's reduced weight-9,000 pounds versus 16,000 pounds-will improve mobility by helicopter, truck, and even Hummers. Its 37-kilometer range and new munitions will provide more lethal and comprehensive coverage throughout a unit's battlespace. Fewer guns per battery four rather than six-will provide a 200% improvement in coverage, speed of engagement, and destruction capability while offering a 33% smaller footprint and logistical penalties.

Battalion mortars can provide faster indirect fire than artillery. The current four-minute Marine standard for mortar support can be cut in half, and the new M120 120-mm mortar can range out more than seven kilometers. Cutting response time for mortars promises a big payoff for maneuver elements. The U.S. Army's M23 Mortar Ballistic Computer and the Digital Communications Terminal, which rely on data as opposed to voice transmissions, are the keys. In addition, 10% of the mortar platoon's basic load will consist of precision-guided munitions, transforming the mortar from an area weapon into one with pinpoint accuracy.

Rockets provide more lethal and comprehensive coverage than artillery or mortars; only air is capable of dropping more munitions simultaneously on target, but aviation's relatively long response time, plus time-space, logistical, and air defense considerations, means that air power is not a panacea. Rockets can provide commanders heavy fires immediately "on-call."

The Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) of Desert Storm fame provides outstanding lethality and responsiveness, but its logistical footprint is too large for Marine Expeditionary Units embarked in three ships. Marines need their fires in a smaller package, and the Corps is considering the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) as well as the Scorpion System. HIMARS, based on a flatbed truck, and Scorpion, based on a light tracked vehicle, provide similar fires in a more mobile package. These systems feature automated loading, increased range (500 kilometers with Scorpion), reduced signature, and faster fire and maneuver capabilities than the current MLRS. One rocket platoon of three vehicles will be included in the Sea Dragon MEU.

Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers have supported MEUs. The battleships' 16-inch main battery, 60 Harpoon missiles, and 32 Tomahawk missiles ensured Marine fire superiority in any engagement from the sea. We miss them-and the rest of the big guns.

Naval fire support for Sea Dragon will be provided by two Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyers and the new Arsenal Ship. The destroyers mount a single 5-inch/62 caliber gun with automated fire control and ammunition handling; the gun can fire 30 rounds per minute-the equivalent of a six-gun artillery battery. Each destroyer will carry 150-200 rounds; rocket-assisted projectiles will be capable of engaging targets at 60 kilometers. Each destroyer also will carry a Fast Strike Missile Launcher with ten ready missiles that range to 150 kilometers. This system is the naval equivalent of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and provides the heavy fires required to shape the battlefield.  

The Arsenal Ship will provide heavier, deeper fires from a platform more cost-effective than a battleship. Essentially a floating magazine, each automated Arsenal Ship will require a crew of fewer than 50, and will rely on theater and national sensors and targeting agencies for target acquisition

Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, Army Tactical Missile Systems, Harpoon, and MLRS rockets are being considered as part of the weapon mix. The Arsenal Ship will provide battlefield dominance in general support of the MEU, engaging enemy second echelons. The intent is to isolate the battlefield and allow the MEU to concern itself solely with winning the close battle.

A MEU possesses its own aviation capability, augmented by carrier aviation. The commander controls directly six AV-8B Harrier II Plus aircraft with night-attack and automatic target handoff systems: six AH-IW Cobra attack helicopters with night targeting systems; and three UH-INs for command and control. In addition, the MEU can expect a carrier battle group to provide additional fighter, attack, and electronic warfare support.

The new Jaeger Air concept supports Sea Dragon by integrating carrier-based aviation more closely into the battle. Battlefield interdiction and close air support missions are critical to success and will be undertaken by all aviators, regardless of branch or prior specialization. There just is not enough organic air to do the job, and U.S. Navy squadrons can provide the critical numbers to achieve decisive results in the close battle; the Jaeger concept intends to fight the close and deep battle simultaneously. The new aviation community will be purple, with every crew capable of supporting ground troops in the air supremacy, battlefield interdiction, and close air support missions.

Munitions from aircraft and indirect fire assets will be flexible, capable of delivering effects across the spectrum from lethal fuel-air explosives to precision munitions to non-lethal incapacitating agents. Our ability to strike precisely while minimizing collateral damage is increasing, and commanders will have means ranging from non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse to black out communications to vapor agents that incapacitate vehicle engines.

Fire Support Sensors. In 1989, the Marine Corps formally adopted maneuver warfare as a doctrine. Based on the premise that only maneuver can be decisive on the battlefield, fires facilitated decisive maneuver. The Marine rifle squad, built around automatic weapons and tasked to destroy the enemy with direct and indirect fires, used supporting fires to maneuver to a decisive position in relation with the enemy.

The Sea Dragon fire support concept seems to be the polar opposite: rifle squads now will employ maneuver to facilitate fires. Sea Dragon rifle squads will be built around a target acquisition, identification, and designation system to permit the commander to acquire, identify, designate, and engage targets with precision and area supporting fires

Rifle squads will be the primary sensors for Sea Dragon units. Using infestation tactics, squads will deploy across the entire area of operations; they will fight in self-defense only, and supporting arms will carry the fight to the enemy. The 13-man squad will be reduced to six-two three-man teams equipped with automatic weapons and grenade launchers for self-defense. The smaller squad size means that many teams can employed on the battlefield. A battalion landing team will be able to employ no fewer than 54 individual teams, each with the ability to call for fires from every fire support agency.

The teams will use the Marine Corps' Leatherneck Tactical Digital Assistant (LTDA). Essentially an Apple Newton Device, each LTDA is a user-friendly device that enables team leaders to pass data to the command element by pushing a single button. Target range and bearing as well as observer location, typically one of the toughest jobs for small unit leaders, will be determined automatically by the built-in Global Positioning System (GPS); the Visual Target Acquisition System (VTAS) will provide target range and bearing. The team leader puts the VTAS cross-hairs on the target to acquire targeting information and uses call-for-fire or message icons to pass data. A secure Motorola SABRE radio will transmit the data-using digital burst-transmissions-to the command element and firing agencies simultaneously, saving time and providing passive protection against enemy direction finding teams; data bursts typically last 1/20th of a second. The LTDA also will provide improved navigation and communication-relay capability for the MEU. Communications are perennially weak aspects of U.S. military operations and the Sea Dragon concept depends on reliable communications.

A mobile assault company and a radio battalion detachment will employ other target-acquisition sensors. The mobile assault company will operate from light armored vehicles (LAVs) and Heavy-Gun Hummers to provide a heavy direct fire capability; its teams also will carry LTDAs. The mobile assault company provides the MEU a limited capability of fighting primarily with maneuver and organic direct-fire weapon systems.

The radio battalion detachment will provide the MEU with a communications-intercept and direction-finding capability to locate critical enemy command-and-control nodes-critical to engaging them with indirect fires while not committing Marines deep. The present 21-man detachment will grow considerably.

Aviation also will provide critical intelligence as to enemy movement, but will emphasize reconnaissance more and strike missions less as HIMARS, Scorpion, naval gunfire, and the Arsenal Ship will engage heavily defended targets. This will save crews and ensure the proper application of air when it can be used with decisive effect.

Command and Control. With more than 50 separate teams, each with the ability to call for all fires from mortars to aircraft ordnance, command-and-control assumes a critical role in ensuring that fires are applied where and when required. The limited self-defense capability of the rifle squad requires that fires remain flexible and capable of massing effects quickly and accurately.

An engagement coordination center (ECC) will combine the functions of various existing support agencies and flatten the command-and-control network so that requests for fire can be processed by one agency. The supporting arms coordination center (SACC) of the MEU, the fire support coordination center (FSCC) of the battalion landing team, and the direct air support center (DASC) will be integrated into a single ECC under the cognizance of the engagement coordinator-who will be responsible for supervising the planning and execution of all fires and ensuring that fires are properly coordinated in order to avoid fratricide and collateral damage.  

A fires center will control the acquisition, coordination, and delivery of fires. Under the direction of the fires coordinator, it will monitor all calls for fire, validate attack guidance, assign assets, coordinate deconfliction, and coordinate tasking of fires. Digital communications with direct data link from sensor to shooter and command element should assist in making fire-solution computations.

Retaining its name and many of its present functions, the DASC will coordinate and control all air missions in direct support of the MEU. Navy and Marine aviation each Will provide a field-grade liaison officer.

A new target information center with direct access to the engagement coordinator will keep him informed on the status and availability of enemy high-payoff and high-value targets. A new command-and-control warfare center will coordinate with the fires center to expedite attack of targets with nonlethal means. It also will ensure that certain targets that are being exploited for signals intelligence are excluded from lethal attack. The EA-6B Prowler and the radio battalion detachment must coordinate closely with this agency to ensure that enemy targets providing valuable intelligence are not attacked and that effective enemy command-and control-nodes are attacked by nonlethal as well as lethal means.

A planning cell will refine attack criteria and precedence and recommend specific engagement priorities. Separate from the engagement coordination center, but with direct access to the coordinator as well as the commander, the planning cell will include at a minimum a senior ECC officer and air, naval fire support, artillery, target intelligence, and command-and-control warfare representatives.

Among its many duties, the planning cell will deconflict as many fire support assets as possible. Traditional methods of deconfliction to include battlespace segmentation, airspace coordination areas, and fire boundaries are antiquated; they prevent commanders from applying all fire assets to maximum effect. The planning cell members will take all measures necessary to ensure that they will be able to apply fires anyplace on the battlefield as dictated by the enemy situation and not constrained by internal friction. Digital recognition of combatants and improved situational awareness in the command element are bringing us closer to this goal.

Deconfliction of fires, air, and ground elements can be established by computer, but manual oversight will be required-at least initially-to ensure that human decision making remains in the targeting process. The tremendous lethality of today's ordnance requires that the ECC take all possible precautions and weigh the risks and rewards of increased speed of fires and less margin for error. The realm of war is fog and chaos. No system will be foolproof and doubt will always be present. Such doubt can paralyze all fires and lead to disaster. The ECC has a big job.

Execution is the critical requirement for any combat unit, and Sea Dragon Marines on the ground will rely to a much greater extent on fire support for mission success-and even survival. It is therefore critical that engagement execution be the command element's first and foremost priority.

"The logic of the dispersed battlefield, however, also implies that devastating infiltrations by small units may still be eminently possible for an attacker. Given the right type of laser designator and rear link transmitter, it may need only one observer lurking 50 kilometers behind enemy lines to bring down instant pinpoint fire against a key headquarters or ammunition dump. Two or three raiding helicopters or armored cars may be able to slip through narrow gaps in the front, to take out the supply echelon for a brigade."

For many years, the infantry has been responsible for defeating an enemy by decisive maneuver. No longer.

Sea Dragon will put the fire power of an entire Marine Expeditionary Unit in the hands of our most junior leaders and our smallest units. These young men on the front line will possess the power and authority to unleash devastating fire on any and all enemy positions. The small size of these units means that enemy forces will have difficulty locating, targeting, and engaging these squads, because of their rapid operational tempo and ability to remain invisible on the battlefield.

Many issues remain to be addressed: communications, small unit leader training and development, and vulnerability of the infantry squad manning them. The concept, however, is sound. Target the enemy without giving him a target at which to strike back. Sea Dragon provides questions to ponder, solutions to implement, and success to achieve. The future of the Marine Expeditionary Unit depends on it.


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