Ship-to-Objective Maneuver: Will This Dog Hunt?

By Major Jeffrey P. Davis, U.S. Marine Corps

According to the STOM concept paper, the old way of phasing landing forces ashore was dictated by necessity. Technologies then available to landing forces required the Navy to provide the means to move from ship to shore. In the future, Marines will operate the MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAAVs). These maneuver assets will enable the landing force to control its own destiny in moving combat power ashore, empowering it to penetrate the enemy shoreline at a point of its choosing and freeing it from the requirement to secure a large beachhead. This will allow the commander to focus on the enemy—exploiting his weaknesses—and to maintain the momentum of the assault operation, reducing the need for commanders to divert their attention toward the buildup and sustainment of the beachhead.

The STOM concept paper calls for the amphibious ready group (ARG) to remain over the horizon, defeating enemy attacks through maneuver that the expanded seaward battlespace allows. Ships at sea generally have more warning time to avoid or defeat attacks, and are harder to target. In restricted operating areas such as the Persian Gulf, however, where the average width of the water is 100 nautical miles or less, this is less likely to be the case. In STOM, the maneuver force will use both vertical assaults and surface assaults to move rapidly to inland objectives. This will require assault systems with the speed, range, precision navigation capabilities, protection, and firepower to launch from over the horizon into the littoral area. At present, only some of the newer technologies are available to conduct assaults of this nature—the air cushion landing craft (LCAC) and the CH-53E being prime examples. The Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle and the MV-22 have not been fielded, and will not begin arriving in the fleet for several years. The MV-22 is currently scheduled to have an initial operational capability in 2003; the AAAV in 2006.

Logistic Support for STOM

Sustaining vertical assault forces and fast-moving surface assault forces far inland from a seabase presents a formidable challenge, complicated by the size of the assault force, the size of enemy defensive force, and the time/distance analysis of movement from the seabase to shore. How will a tailored logistic-support package be identified and sent ashore in a responsive manner?

The LCAC can transport the preponderance of heavy lift to shore. It is designed to carry wheeled or tracked vehicles, artillery, or heavy support equipment. An amphibious ready group will have six to eight LCACs, which can lift up to 60 tons at better than 40 knots and have a range of 300 nautical miles. Speedy and agile, the LCAC also is large and unarmored. It would be difficult to use in the face of any opposition, and generally would have to come ashore after the AAAVs. The AAAV, or currently the AAV, remains the only vehicle that can swim ashore and then conduct maneuver to an inland objective. Consequently, vertical-lift assets will be tasked heavily. In addition to inserting the assault force, the aviation combat element will be required to conduct deception operations, resupply operations, and casualty evacuations. Because aviation also provides the most rapid means to build combat power ashore, it may quickly reach task saturation. A detailed quantitative analysis of support requirements appears in the fall 1997 issue of the Naval War College Review , and warrants careful examination by all STOM planners. The results of the analysis show that to realize the full value of Operational Maneuver from the Sea, there must be either a shift to more lethal landing forces with smaller logistics demands, or a sizable increase in airlift capability. Regardless of the asset—helicopter, tilt-rotor, LCAC, or AAAV—the climate, topography, and hydrography of the region dramatically affect their ability to conduct STOM. Such factors as high temperatures, humidity, and mountainous terrain are significant planning considerations and would affect the amount of lift, speed of the maneuver, and number of sorties generated under STOM.

Danger in the Littorals

The recent uses of mines and sea-skimming cruise missiles provide important lessons learned for amphibious assault planners. STOM advocates should study the lessons of the Falklands War in particular. During that conflict, the Argentine Air Force employed Super Etendard aircraft and Exocet antiship cruise missiles to sink two ships: HMS Sheffield and the container ship Atlantic Conveyor and to damage HMS Glamorgan . Argentina also used A-4 Skyhawks to deliver unguided iron bombs to sink an additional 12 ships during the British amphibious assault. At present, more than ten potential threat countries employ antiship cruise missiles. North Korea recently launched a new cruise missile variant (AG-1) based on the Chinese CSS-2. Pentagon officials believe this system is operational and has a "range of possibly as much as 75 miles."

The lessons of mine warfare also should be studied carefully. Naval mines have caused the preponderance of damage to ships since the end of World War II. Of the 17 U.S. warships that were damaged or sunk from the Korean War through Desert Storm, 14 were mine victims, two were attacked by aircraft/air-launched torpedoes, and one was struck by a missile. In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War, the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) nearly sank after detonating an Iranian contact mine of pre-World War I design. During Desert Storm, mine warfare significantly affected the naval expeditionary forces employed in the Persian Gulf. The Princeton (CG-59) and Tripoli (LPH10) both sustained major damage from Iraqi mines. Many of the mines laid by Iraq were improperly armed, so the small number detonated understates the threat. Since 1991, the world inventory of mines has increased by 50%. The STOM concept states that the Amphibious Task Force would counter the mine threat by remaining over the horizon, away from the littorals—but this discounts the AAAV and LCAC maneuver assets, which are required to move significant combat power ashore, and must transit the beach area. The very-shallow-water (VSW) zone (40 feet to 10 feet) and surf zone (10 feet to the high-water mark) are significant areas of concern for mine-clearing operations. Some progress in mine detection and sweeping has been made in the VSW zone, but the surf zone has seen little progress, if any. Estimates of up to 40 days were planned for in order to clear the mine belt facing the amphibious ready group during Desert Storm. This would be a complex task in waters under continual surveillance by a coastal defense system.

The assault force—inland or on the beach—is vulnerable to theater missile attack. This risk of exposure to attack by chemical or biological agents delivered by surface-to-surface missiles needs to be minimized. The concept of naval theater missile defense supporting the Marine airground task force ashore has been proposed as a solution. The Navy is working hard to field this technology, but even if it emerges, concerns will arise over the location of the vessels providing missile-defense support. Theater missile defense from the sea requires cruisers and destroyers to sail in predictable patrol areas, limited by theater missile engagement geometry. These areas would allow them to engage theater missiles at range, but would dangerously expose them to the subsurface threat.

Fire Support of STOM

STOM calls for rapid projection of combined arms teams ashore. It emphasizes sea-based command and control, logistics, and fire support. As stated in the concept paper, "fire support of STOM must provide immediate and responsive high-volume suppression and neutralization fires in support of all landing force elements." STOM requires fire-support systems capable of providing highly accurate and lethal long-range fires to satisfy simultaneously the needs of the vertical and the surface assaults. This is a difficult task for naval surface fire support (NSFS) assets available to the Marine Corps today, and for the future. At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on 8 July 1995, the committee concluded that "Battleships are the Navy's only remaining source of around-the-clock, accurate, high volume heavy fire support." This was further articulated in the 6 August 1997 General Accounting Office report to the Secretary of Defense that said "The Navy admits that it currently has no credible surface fire capability." The Navy proposes to counter this deficiency with extended-range guided munitions (ERGM).

But according to Lieutenant General P. K. Van Riper, ERGM will not provide high-explosive fires for the landing force. He noted that ERGM is needed, but warned that "we are so interested in precision that we forget that a lot of rounds on a relatively large area for a sustained period has utility for the commander." With ERGM, combatants could deliver submunitions up to 73 miles. This is better than the 13-mile range of the five inch gun currently employed on active combatants, but is without the high-explosive effect. Compare ERGM with the battleships' 16-inch guns, which can lay down the fire equivalent delivered by 25 B-52s and provide precision fires with Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAM).

Battleships should not be discounted as a potential solution to the need for fire support. The Navy states that battleships are too costly to man and operate. Granted, there are manpower and training concerns for gunner's mates that need to be addressed in order to ensure that proficiency in delivering NSFS is maintained. Nevertheless, a battleship requires one-fourth the personnel of a carrier and her air wing; costs less than one-sixth as much to operate and maintain; and requires half or fewer escorts. Reactivating a battleship costs one-tenth the full cost of a new destroyer. In today's world of shrinking defense dollars, this may be our best and most economical choice for fires from the sea in support of STOM.

Aviation fires in support of STOM may prove to be as difficult a problem as NSFS. If the ARG remains over the horizon, its location does not facilitate around-the-clock, all-weather aviation fires. AH-1s could not provide support for an inland objective when the ARG is 100 nautical miles offshore, without a forward arming and refueling point. This logistics site ashore—with its associated footprint to provide communications, ground defense, and fuel/ordnance—would be a tempting target for any adversary. Having this logistics footprint ashore violates the concept and principles of STOM, and would not be considered as an option. Aviation fires in support of the inland assault force could be provided by AV-Bs. Using the example of the amphibious ready group, Harriers armed with six Mk-83s would have an on-station time of only ten minutes using a 3,000-foot egress, or 20 minutes using a 10,000-foot egress. This lack of fire support, both from the sea and from the air, for an assault force with no organic heavy direct-fire weapons, could become critical if the assault force is engaged by a sizable threat.

Command and Control of STOM

Command and control (C 2 ) will provide the mechanism by which a commander recognizes what needs to be accomplished, and communicates the actions required to ensure their accomplishment. This requirement exists during the movement-ashore phase—building the commander's situational awareness—as well as in the objective area. The challenge will be for a sea-based C 2 to maintain connectivity and provide responsive action to requests from the assault force at the objective. This was attempted in past operations. After-action reports from Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada identified a requirement for Marine amphibious units (now Marine expeditionary units) to deploy with an aviation command-and-control capability in the landward sector of the amphibious objective area. This capability was found to be both necessary and lacking whenever the ready group remained over the horizon during amphibious operations. This led to the formal incorporation of a Marine air control group (MACG) detachment on all subsequent deployments. In contrast to the STOM concept, some form of C 2 must go ashore with the assault force. The C 2 node provides the commander with situational awareness displays of all aspects of the battlefield and the conduit to ensure needs are met. It allows the commander to focus on the threat, and delegates to the C 2 liaison element the authority of being his cell to request, coordinate, and deconflict fires, assault support, and logistics.

Extended communications ranges will be the most challenging aspect of C 2 support of STOM. Reliance on current communications assets such as high-frequency radio probably will not be the best option. Reliance on an airborne radio relay or autocat assets, as found on the E-2C aircraft, assumes that the carrier battle group will be nearby, and will dedicate that finite resource to the Marine air-ground task force operation. Assuming that satellite communications alone will provide the necessary links is dangerous. The large demand on satellites, together with our limited ability to access satellite time because of higher competing priorities, makes this option unreliable. Because of the nature of satellite communications from moving platforms, high-frequency connectivity may prove more reliable. Perhaps a possible answer lies in developing a command-and-control package for the MV-22 aircraft. Because the MV-22 is not pressurized, a direct air support center (airborne)-like capability at altitude (in order to avoid the antiaircraft artillery threat) is not possible. This airborne C 2 package would have to have some standoff range in order to counter the surface-to-air threat and not give away the position of the assault force ashore.


The STOM concept has many virtues. It is good to force the enemy into the dilemma of defending a wide coastal area, thinning his defense system. This enables us to choose the littoral penetration point and insert the assault force with a high probability of surprise. These offensive methodologies need to be exploited at every opportunity, but they must never be executed without the means to provide responsive fire support; sustained, prompt logistic support; and flexible, redundant command and control.

Before we can conclude that "this dog will hunt," then, we need to consider several things. First, lessons learned from combat must never be taken lightly. The "rule of twos" is a good planning tool. It states that "you should count on twice as many enemy forces in the objective area, and on needing twice as much equipment and people as you initially planned for." This rule of thumb, along with "Murphy's laws of combat" (such as, "the key piece of equipment needed will always break first" and "immediate fire support won't be") would serve STOM planners well as they continue to investigate and attempt to validate future concepts. Second, under its present concept, STOM would be executed better with unrestricted terrain, and terrain that allows for optimal air reconnaissance and targeting. We also must consider how Ship-to-Objective Maneuver would work in areas where topography, hydrography, and weather become technology neutralizers. We should avoid the easy pitfall of believing that technology or a new piece of equipment will answer all our problems. As we march toward the 21st century and the threats in the littoral regions expand, we must be most ready when our nation is least ready. This charge should be our lodestar.

Major Davis is assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One, where he serves as a command, control, and communications instructor.  A graduate of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course and the Command and Control Systems Course, he has served as an antiaircraft missile battery commander and unmanned aerial vehicle squadron operations officer.



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