In this joint era, when all services must "do more with less," it is time for us to rethink our application of technology in the context of a joint doctrine and its potential tactical implications. For amphibious warfare and the Navy-Marine Corps team, this means being able to employ ground systems tactically at sea from survivable waterborne platforms, and designing multiple mission-specific packets that can be rapidly emplaced on a generic, survivable craft.
With few exceptions, the military develops weapon systems to fight in specific physical environments: land, air, or sea. Initially, deficiencies in technology and cost were the limiting factors, as was the natural tendency of each service to focus in isolation on its primary physical domain. The implementation of joint doctrine, however, has resulted in the services' integrating their capabilities to support mission requirements. Why not take the next logical step and integrate equipment platforms in those areas where it will compound our tactical advantage? Advances in technology, specifically in the application of computers to targeting and fire control, offer us the potential to employ our land-based systems on sea-based platforms.
The opening illustration depicts this concept as it applies to the next generation of military air-cushion vehicles. Future hovercraft would be designed as multimission platforms, capable of surviving land, air, and sea threats. Select weapon systems—unlike our current ground weapons, which are ineffective until they come ashore—could be employed at sea on multimission air-cushion landing craft (MCAC), as well as on land. The ground weapon and sea-based platform would be interoperative.
Firing from the MCAC is a futuristic tank. In essence, it achieves the capability of an amphibious tank, but at a fraction of the cost of developing a mission-specific item. In addition, the tank's defensive systems could be integrated with those of the craft. Small, low-cost interceptor devices (SLIDs) that protect the tank from incoming artillery and missiles, if properly designed, also could provide a protective umbrella over the sea-based platform. The fire-control systems and threat warning receivers of the two platforms would be plugged in at sea or could operate independently. The MCAC's "shadow" would hide the ground equipment from infrared and radar detection.
On the aft end of the craft is an indirect fire weapon or antiair or antiship capability. It would be an integral part of the platform at sea, capable of performing a sea-based mission and immediately rolling ashore for ground operations.
This concept offers exceptional tactical potential, and all of its technologies are within our reach. The Russians are on their second generation of SLID, and two American versions are planned to be tested shortly. The success of the Navy's Sea Shadow program demonstrates the capability to build stealthy sea-based survivable platforms. Infrared/radar threat receivers and reduction techniques have been around for years and are commonly employed in aviation. Lightweight ceramic armor and extremely accurate fire-control systems are common to our ground equipment. The technology needed to integrate sea-based and land platforms is within our current capability.
In addition to the integration of equipment, we also may want to consider a modular approach to equipment development, on a weapon-system level. Industry has employed a modular approach to equipment design and repair for years. It was not too many years ago, for example, that you had to purchase a new computer when your needs or technology changed. Today, computers are standardized platforms, and you merely swap out cards for repair, technology changes, or to suit your specific "mission" requirements. This modular approach simplifies repairs; increases operational availability, maximizing the use of existing hardware; cuts down on footprint; and reduces operational costs. It may be time to apply the concept to entire systems. A variety of mission-specific packages could be mounted selectively on generic mobile platforms based on the immediate tactical requirements.
Modular mission packets that could be placed on board the MCAC—in addition to the roll-on/roll-off ground weapons—also are shown in the opening illustration. These systems are more sea-based specific and do not require land application. High-volume mine dispensers, electronic decoys, minesweeping equipment, and mobile forward arming and refueling packages (MFARPs) are a few of the numerous options available.
The module concept is an economical solution that offers a quick-response capability for a variety of mission requirements. The use of assets for multiple purposes provides the commander with enhanced combat capability and a litany of new tactical options.
Transit . The proliferation of sea-skimming antiship missiles poses a significant problem to our fleet. If an enemy overwhelms our systems with multiple launches from a variety of land, air, or sea-based platforms, and only 1 in 20 missiles gets through, a billion-dollar asset could be taken out of commission. It would appear prudent to use less costly assets as a tripwire in an overall integrated fleet defense. Some of the principles of land warfare may have application at sea.
A ground commander conducting a tactical movement through a hostile area strategically places smaller security elements at various positions—point, flanks, and rear—around his column. Their mission is to appraise the commander of any activity within their sector and, if necessary, to provide an immediate response until additional firepower can be mobilized or the threat bypassed. MCACs could perform a similar mission during transit in a high-threat area. They would be configured based on the threat and deployed at strategic locations in front and on the flanks of the fleet. They could be used for mine sweeping, antiair or antisubmarine warfare, high-speed boat defense, or deception. The modular concept would afford rapid reconfiguration as required. Ground equipment, as well as sea-specific mission packets, could be employed on board. The SLID could be designed and programmed to respond to broader areas, to protect not only the MCAC but also a portion of the fleet. The cruiser would no longer be the first and last line of defense against the antiship cruise missile but could be integrated into a layered defense. The main and auxiliary guns on the MCAC-borne tank also would be potent weapons against surface craft and shore emplacements.
Amphibious Assault . Between leaving the well deck and landing on the beach, today's amphibious tactics are only marginally different from those employed during World War II. Once we commit to a beach, the approach is still straight in and full speed ahead, at eight knots. Advances in shore-based weapon accuracy and the resultant increased vulnerability of our shipping dictated that we revise our tactics and position our ships as far off the coast as possible, and the result was operational maneuver from the sea and the intent to initiate the attack from over the horizon. The V-22 Osprey/advanced amphibious assault vehicle (AAAV)/air-cushion landing craft (LCAC) triad was designed to deal with the greater distances. What we actually have done is to create a new operational area that extends from the high-water mark to 25 to 50 miles offshore and the length of the coastline. We can employ our new technologies in the context of existing tactics and come straight in—albeit at greater speeds and distances—or we can alter our tactical application and use the area and our technology to our advantage.
Teaming MCAC direct and indirect fire gunships with close air support and AAAVs results in a powerful and rapid brown-water maneuver element. Dual use of ground systems at sea and on land maximizes their utility throughout the operation and provides increased firepower during the most vulnerable time frames.
MCAC-based fire support could augment naval gunfire, follow the initial assault inland, or maneuver along the coastline to provide supporting fires at other landing points or blocking positions. The roll-on/roll-off capability would allow for a truly seamless transition between land and sea. The MCAC mobile forward arming and refueling packages in trace would provide the first logistical resupply on land or while still at sea. MCACs would revert to their logistics mission once the assault was completed. Add the speed and range of the V-22, and our capacity to project power into the littoral will increase exponentially. The commander would have at his disposal a brown-water fire/logistical maneuver element that could work the coastline and seamlessly transverse the high-water mark.
Sea Dragon . Under Sea Dragon, the Commandant's Warfighting Laboratory is evaluating concepts that would disperse small teams throughout broad areas of land, with the intent of engaging larger forces through accurate fires, maneuver, and surprise. The tactical approach is extremely fluid, and far less importance is placed on maintaining real estate than on defeating an enemy's will to fight. Insertion, extraction, command and control, and logistical support all pose significant challenges.
MCAC direct-fire gunships could support insertion and extraction of teams. Indirect MCAC fire support transversing the coast could provide on-call fires, and MFARPs working in conjunction with helos or V-22s could provide logistical support. Special operations or command-and-control suites also could be built to operate off the craft.
Current Efforts . As initially envisioned, the LCAC was designed for multiple missions; however, they—along with their associated tactics—have not yet been developed. As we continue to work with the craft, it is apparent that we barely have begun to tap its potential. In addition to logistics mission, we currently are projecting to employ the craft as a shallow-water breacher, a medevac platform, and a troop hauler. We can go further. By actively employing our existing combat systems on board the LCAC, we can enhance the assault force's firepower, mobility, and maneuverability in the near term. Potential applications include: fleet security, direct/indirect fire, mobile resupply, and special operations.
Two near-term approaches are feasible:
- Develop LCAC mission-specific packout kits that would be prestaged and flown into the theater as required.
- Directly employ the amphibious task force organic systems on board the LCAC.
Both approaches take into consideration the limited space on board amphibious shipping. Each also would allow for rapid reconfiguration of the craft based on the mission, and, by using existing systems, would require minimal development time and cost. The additional missions would be conducted at the discretion of the commander and need not interfere with the landing schedule. Once the ancillary missions are completed, the craft would revert to its traditional role.
Gun Packout Prototype
The prototype shown to the left is an example of the first approach: a fly-in direct fire weapon packout kit. The weapon is an Air Force 30-mm Gatling gun, the GAU-13, self-contained in the GPU-5 pod. The gun originally was designed to mount under fixed-wing aircraft and would be employed in antitank and close air support missions. The package (weapon system, ammunition, fire control, and rack) is housed in a standard 8' x 8' x 20' conex box. Following airlift to the theater of operations, the package would be assembled rapidly and strapped on the LCAC or mounted on a vehicle for roll-on/roll-off capability. Once the amphibious use was completed, the system could be employed for rear area, beach, or airfield security.
The prototype was built to evaluate the GAU-13's 30-mm round effectiveness against hardened beach obstacles. Preliminary results were positive—four-foot concrete cubes, Jersey barriers, and hedgehogs were destroyed in seconds—but there is far greater potential in using the weapon for direct fire support during an amphibious operation. The speed and mobility of the LCAC and the firepower of the GAU-13 are a potent combination. As a platform, the LCAC also offers greater payload and time on station than an aircraft, and an in-stride reload capability.
With additional testing, there are existing weapon systems that can be employed on board LCAC that will enhance combat capability, and aircraft systems seem particularly adaptable. For this prototype, the weapon racks used were standard aircraft wing mounts, which implies that any weapon system that can be mounted on an aircraft could be employed off an LCAC. But aircraft systems must either be flown in or occupy critical space on board ship. The second approach mitigates this problem by using ground weapon systems already organic to the amphibious task force. Ideally, the weapons selected would have a day/night fire-control system capable of operation off the LCAC and roll-on/roll-off capability. They would provide firepower as part of a waterborne maneuver element during the initial phases of the operation and then proceed ashore to continue support of the land battle.
A variety of proven direct- and indirect-fire weapon systems could be employed on board the LCAC. Some may be easier to adapt to fire from the platform than others, but the initial question is not feasibility but tactical merit. We need to evaluate all direct/indirect fire weapons in relation to a projected coastal threat, to determine what sea-based employment gains us tactically—and then determine the technological and economic feasibility of adapting them to a waterborne platform. Sea-based "shoot and scoot" fire support, on call and transversing the coastline, will enable the commander to direct fires rapidly, where and when needed.
The aircraft wing has been employing forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) for years. A small aviation ground contingent is deployed in close proximity to the battle area, to resupplying helos or Harriers with fuel, ordnance, and water, allowing them to stay on station longer. A similar concept could be employed on board the LCAC for a sea-based MFARP. Working in conjunction with helicopters, this offers the opportunity to cover extended coastal areas. It could be used for aircraft resupply, small unit resupply, or riverine operations.
There is concern within the Marine Corps that employing the LCAC for multiple missions will detract from its primary mission: to haul equipment and supplies. In fact, many of the multiple uses proposed here occur in a manner or time frame that will not take the LCAC from its logistical role, but, as the saying goes, there is no free lunch. Losses to maintenance and enemy fire must be anticipated and evaluated in relation to the overall operational impact. We also can minimize the extent of degradation by designing in rapid reconfiguration; optimizing when and how the craft is used; and, most important, enhancing the craft's survivability.
When the Navy elected to use the LCAC for shallow-water mine and obstacle breaching, it opened the door to placing the craft in harm's way. Although difficult to sink, the LCAC produces signatures susceptible to infrared- and radar-guided threats and has limited capability to withstand direct and indirect fire. If we intend to expand the mission of the craft, we must analyze the total threat environment—above and below the water—and develop a package to enhance its survivability.
Existing technology can reduce signatures significantly, as well as harden critical points. Threat reduction could be accomplished by combining both active and passive systems and carefully considering tactical employment. Again, many systems designed to enhance aircraft survivability have application.
The Next Step
If we are to make a brown-water maneuver element a reality, the overall effort must be coordinated and the pieces integrated with a Navy/Marine Corps vision. Once a joint service consensus is established, turning concept to hardware need not be costly or time-consuming.
The basic ideas can be broken into five areas: direct fire, indirect fire, MFARP, aircraft weapon application, and survivability. Integrated product teams composed of threat analysts and LCAC operators and specialists in each area could identify the optimum mix of equipment, as well as propose tactics. The tactics and equipment mix would be modeled in a computerized synthetic environment for further refinement and selection. Individual prototypes would be built and evaluated, and the entire process could be completed in less than two years at a nominal cost.
These prototypes will lay the foundation for the next generation of military hovercraft, which needs to be in the planning stages now. By the time the AAAV and V-22 are active in the fleet, the LCAC will be in the latter third of its life expectancy. The gap in capability created as the LCACs are phased out could be filled by MCACs, designed from the ground up as survivable multimission platforms.
Lieutenant Colonel Verzera is the Marine Corps liaison officer, Coastal Systems Station Dahlgren, Virginia, Naval Surface Warfare Center.