Away All . . . Hovercraft!

By Commander In H. Ha, U.S. Navy

An amphibious fighting vehicle is not the only means to that end, however. A hovercraft embarked with a land-fighting vehicle could deliver power projection ashore for the current and future threat environments. The fast hovercraft, a perfect amphibious delivery vehicle, has an extensive water range in the hundreds of miles. More important, it can deliver ashore a fighting vehicle specifically tailored for land combat and therefore engineering sacrifices are not made in protection, armament, or range. Ultimately, an amphibious force structure should align with national-security goals: addressing the hybrid threat and supporting partner capacity-building. Otherwise, precious resources are squandered in an already bleak and still uncertain fiscal environment. The proven hovercraft, if retrofitted with modern weaponry, is the amphibious capability needed to support Navy-Marine Corps missions across the expanse of conflict, and better address national-security strategy.

The Genesis of the EFV

In order to address the question, “what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios”—as posed by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in May 2010—it would be beneficial to understand the purpose of the EFV. The advantages of a tracked amphibious vehicle hark back to World War II, when the Marine Corps molded itself into a specialized amphibious assault force that, by necessity , would conduct frontal assaults on small islands in executing the framework of War Plan Orange against Imperial Japan. Critical to War Plan Orange was the capture of a chain of central Pacific islands and atolls—to be used as advance bases to support fleet operations moving toward Japan—as prophesized by Marine Major Earl H. “Pete” Ellis as early as 1919. 2

The assault on Tarawa atoll in November 1943 was the first American offensive action in the Central Pacific region executing War Plan Orange and the first time LVTs (Landing Vehicle Tracked) were used in a combat landing. Commonplace among Pacific islands are coral reefs, extending hundreds of yards concentrically out in the sea, which the standard landing craft could not negotiate. Troops carried in tracked LVTs crawled over the coral reef with relatively few casualties. But many of those carried in standard landing craft had to disembark several hundred yards from shore and wade in under fire, suffering egregiously.

In comparison, today’s operational Amphibious Assault Vehicle, introduced in the 1970s, is basically an updated version of a World War II tracked amphibious vehicle that can make speeds of 7 knots and generally debark 2 miles from shore. 3 However, with today’s advanced technology, seaward approaches could present high anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) threats consisting of mines, submarines, and long-range antiship cruise missiles, which mandate an over-the-horizon (OTH) approach to amphibious operations.

That OTH approach came to be known as Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS) as envisioned by Marine General Charles Krulak in the 1980s. In short, his idea is a concept for projection of naval power ashore employing multiple seaborne landing points on an extended front, facilitating maneuver warfare and deep penetrations to decisively defeat the enemy. 4 In blitzkrieg-like fashion, air and ground forces would advance to inland objectives. An amphibious assault debarked 25 miles from shore was adequately safe from the antiship cruise missile threat in the 1980s and became a design parameter for the EFV.

New Realities Going Ashore

Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work envisions a future “littoral maneuver” onto hostile shores as a joint theater-entry, a “deliberative undertaking with weeks of pre-landing shaping operations” where only after having successfully identified, isolated, and sanitized access areas would littoral maneuver begin. He deliberately uses the terminology of “littoral maneuver” to conceptually shift away from phrases such as “forcible entry” and “amphibious assault,” which arguably are tied to cognitive conceptions of storming a contested shoreline à la Tarawa and Saving Private Ryan . 5

However, such a set-piece attrition battle without regard to time restraints seemingly discounts effectual enemy counteractions during the weeks of pre-landing shaping operations. A set-piece battle negates the temporary advantages inherent with maneuver from the sea; operational dilemmas are diminished because the enemy is afforded time to readjust. Shaping operations taking weeks unrealistically assumes that there will be no external time restraints, i.e., political, for theater entry. Additionally, a lengthy deliberate approach does not capitalize on the vast capability advantages the U.S. military has in logistics, carrier aviation, and long-range strike that can be better leveraged in a more rapid littoral maneuver.

Secretary Work’s scenario is achievable, but policy- making is more effective if the military arm spans the entire range of conflict. Likewise, more military capability confers a broader range of policy options in an uncertain future environment. To further policy options, use the sea as a medium to dictate the time and place of landing to advantage, then maneuver to the objective since the enemy cannot defend in depth everywhere—OMFTS. For example, in General Douglas MacArthur’s lesser-known campaign on New Guinea, landing craft frequently were used to circumvent Japanese strongpoints and come ashore in undefended regions. Using land-based aviation and amphibious flexibility, he was able to “leapfrog” to great effect—with very few shaping operations—because he was dictating the time and place of landing.

Although antiship missiles may push the landing-force debarkation point farther out to sea, if that force can rapidly close the beachhead from afar, then the enemy’s dilemma of where to defend is exacerbated. Conceptually, the efficacy of a littoral maneuver’s operational dilemma imposed on the enemy is directly proportional to the range and water-speed capabilities of the landing forces. The determination of the debarkation point remains a fine balance between maintaining surprise, supporting operations ashore, and minimizing the enemy’s A2/AD threat.

Hovercraft Capabilities

Therefore, the desired capability is to rapidly deliver mobile land units from 80–160 nautical miles at sea to outmaneuver the enemy once ashore. Although no two tactical situations are identical, the range band is regulated by the ability of naval aviation to support the landing forces both at sea and deep within the land mass. Capabilities inferred are stealth, range, resilience to submarine and mine threats, and ability to land on almost any shoreline. These capabilities are found in the hovercraft.

Hovercraft create virtually no water displacement or acoustic or magnetic signature, and therefore are not threatened by mines and submarines—the perfect vehicle to penetrate an A2/AD environment. According to a U.K. Royal Marines commander, the hovercraft offers 80 percent more landing opportunities than conventional landing craft. 6 The Navy currently operates about 80 hovercraft, or LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushioned). Because initial fleet entry began in 1987, they have reached the end of their 20-year service life. The replacement is the SSC (Ship-to-Shore Connector), an upgraded LCAC that is specifically designed to transport the 74-ton M1A1 Abrams tank.

The SSC contract is estimated at $4 billion—roughly $50 million each for about 80 craft (having a range comparable to the LCAC’s 200 miles). Because the first SSCs will not be ready to deploy until Fiscal Year 2019, a service life extension program for the LCAC is ongoing. 7 That will add ten years of additional service life to the maintenance-intensive LCAC, which requires 25 hours of servicing for every 100 hours of operation. 8 The cost of the service-life program for the LCACs is roughly $8 million per unit. 9

The fact is, however, that neither of those Navy hovercraft has the range, the stealth, the fully composite construction, or the cost desired. Therefore, a commercial off-the-shelf hovercraft currently being manufactured by EPS Corporation—the EPS M10—will be used here as the ideal model. Only EPS manufactures a U.S.-built, all-composite fabricated hovercraft that will reduce radar profile, and the non-corrosive design is well suited for the harsh littoral environment. As manufactured, the EPS M10 attains speeds of 50 knots, has a range of 500 nautical miles, is operable up to sea state 4, can deliver 56 Marines or 8 tons disposable—and costs $5.5 million. 10

Two variants of the EPS M10 are proposed here as viable alternatives to further national strategy. The first will be referred to as the Marine Delivery Vehicle (MDV), which would be retrofitted with two machine-gun emplacements and chaff launcher. A second version’s retrofit would include two quad-box antiship-missile launchers, two machine-gun emplacements, chaff launcher, and crew-served, shoulder-launched antiair munitions. That version will be referred to as the Marine Expeditionary Reconnaissance Combatant (MERC). It would penetrate the close inshore and ashore zones to secure the area for follow-on transports. Existing antiship-missile systems could be installed in under 6 tons, such as the MARTE MK2/N medium-range lightweight antiship system, including two quad-box launchers and belowdecks fire-control system. 11 Another possible candidate is Raytheon’s Griffin non-line-of-sight antiship missile system, being developed for deployment on littoral combat ships (LCS). 12

The LCS or the MERC?

Hovercraft armed with missiles offer new capabilities to the defense strategy with respect to “deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments” as spelled out in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review . In the hybrid threat environment, an adversary will try to offset our strengths through nontraditional forms of combat as viewed through the lens of the American way of warfare. Such methods may be protracted, use proxy forces, or nonstate actors using high-end tactics and capabilities. In a word—irregular. The best means to adapt to and confront the threat, then, is irregularly. Facing the hybrid threat with nontraditional methods can confound and disrupt an enemy accustomed to the American way of warfare. In the littorals, the MERC could patrol, mitigate hybrid threats in advance, and conduct offensive irregular operations as a skirmisher. A similar vessel from the past is World War II’s motor torpedo boat, or PT—of John F. Kennedy and PT-109 fame. Kennedy later remarked that

Small though they were, the PT boats played a key role.. . . Naval strength must function from shore to shore and on inland waters where the mobility and flexibility provided by ships can be employed to support land operations. This need for small, fast, versatile, strongly armed vessels does not wane. 13

More than 500 PT boats were built during the war and they served primarily in MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command, seeing action at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and the Philippines.

The MERC could be viewed as actually fulfilling the role of the LCS as outlined in a 2003 study, in which the ship was highlighted as a key in counter-anti-denial plans to challenge “submarines operating close to the coast, small fast attack craft armed with missiles, and mines.” In the future networked battle fleet, the LCS would “shoulder the burden of in-shore counter-area denial tasks and screen” the fleet. Its envisioned small size and small crew would allow the Navy a low-risk naval presence in high-risk areas. 14

Arguably, at $437 million each, a crew of 75, and stretching nearly 400 feet in length, the LCS failed in concept implementation, whereas the low-cost MERC would add true scalability for littoral maneuver success. In the distributed naval network battlefield, the strength and endurance of the network lies in the numbers of nodes. Adding a true littoral combatant capability to the U.S. military portfolio is one step in rebalancing to meet the future threat.

Commonality for Partner Capacity-Building

President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy called for investing in the capacity of strong and capable partners to meet an uncertain future, where the most likely and lethal threats will emanate from failed or fractured states. Qualitatively, most littoral countries have neither the depth of trained personnel to effectively man and fight large, expensive combatant vessels, nor the shore infrastructure and logistical systems for end-to-end support. The hovercraft’s simplicity of operation precludes advanced maritime ship-handling training, and the MERC’s all-composite construction would require little maintenance in corrosive littoral environments. The U.S. military’s procurement of MERCs and MDVs might influence foreign decision-makers to do likewise and lower the barrier for partner capacity-building in the maritime domain by facilitating foreign military sales at an affordable price.

A commonality of platforms used by our partners would go a long way to an envisioned “1,000-ship Navy” in the global commons. The modularity of the MERC would be practical to combined operations. Foreign MERCs could plug and play into the battlefield network as skirmishers, making advanced, integrated fleet-operations training comparable to U.S. Navy standards unnecessary. The Global Maritime Partnership stated in A Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century Seapower seeks a cooperative approach to maritime security, promoting the rule of law by countering piracy, terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug-trafficking, and other illicit activities. Those activities can be best handled by using hovercraft dispersed in quantity. Summarily, a U.S. exported version of an armed hovercraft would offer commonality for the common good of collective security.

Additionally, the five-man crew of each MERC, its low maintenance, and operational range would make it a perfect asset for permanent strategic forward-basing to further military-to-military engagement and increased forward presence. As security analyst Brian Burton observed in these pages earlier this year, “The political signal sent by U.S. engagement with partner militaries may be more important than any improvement in host-nation capabilities it may produce by showing American commitment to security and stability in key regions of the world.” 15

To that end, the first proposed Marine Corps flotillas, comprising one squadron of ten MERCs and one squadron of ten MDVs, would be homeported in: Muscat, Oman; Danang, Vietnam; Palawan, Philippines; Bahrain; and Nigeria (less a MERC squadron). Homeported U.S. flotillas in Vietnam and the Philippines would provide critical balancers to a rising China and possible conflict over South China Sea resources. They would counter China’s budding antiship ballistic-missile program and assist in sea control in this near-future hotspot where unrealized hydrocarbon resources are claimed by seven maritime countries. Forward basing of Marine Corps flotillas would be a clarion defensive signal of American commitment to long-term stability in the region, while the low military footprint would minimize any negative aspects of a U.S. military presence in a host country. Moreover, the MDV could be fully utilized in host-nation assistance, whereas LCACs are under-utilized in the well-deck of a ship. Using rough estimates, for the cost of two LCS, 40 MERCs and 50 MDVs could be acquired—each of them a node in foreign relations.

The Marine Corps is well suited to a foreign-relations role. It excels in public affairs—a legacy set in place by Major General John Lejeune when he reinvented the Corps during the inter-world war years. No service is more attuned to impress a positive American image on military-to-military relations, especially at the junior level where most such contact occurs. This is not an exercise to find the Marines a new job, but rather an attempt to match the best quality to the capability desired—Marines having set the highest standard of combat leadership.

Conceptually, the MERC would be a close-in fighter for harassing and weakening the enemy. The MERC would use its speed to aggressively engage the enemy and cause disruption in order to get within the enemy’s observe-orient-direct-action cycle. In the chaotic littorals, initiative, courage, and aggressiveness will be required—all qualities found in young Marines. The Marine Corps has honed those attributes over ten years of recent conflict. Similarly, the contemporary operating environment and counterinsurgencies have imparted patience, agility, and engagement skills. As General Krulak noted in The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War , the modern battlefield requires quick decision-making skills and independent action in complex, ambiguous situations.

A Versatile, Cost-Effective Resource

The future sea base will include Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP) and rely on hovercraft to a greater extent. 16 Each MLP is based on the Alaska-class crude oil carrier to be a “pier in the ocean” with first ship delivery expected in Fiscal Year 2013. As the sea base’s distribution hub, each MLP will have three internal hovercraft “lanes” for rapid onload/offload transfer. 17 Each MLP will be able to transport six LCACs. Forward-based Marine Corps flotillas can assist in lift capability, while littoral partner nations with a common MDV platform can provide operational assistance in the less provocative transportation role.

Marine Corps flotillas in strategic locations could also help littoral maneuver operations within their 500 nautical- mile range and rapidly support mission-tailored maritime forces surged in times of crisis. Similar to the Marine Expeditionary Brigade pairing with its Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron, a Marine flotilla could combine with an at-sea Amphibious Ready Group to scale up its operational potential.

In the words of national security analyst Mackubin Owens, “strategy conceptualizes resources as a means in support of policy.” 18 Otherwise, capabilities are incoherent and impractical. Amphibious capabilities need to be analyzed with the same lens, especially when lean budgets portend tough choices to procure means to ends. Hovercraft delivering fighting vehicles can effectively use the sea as maneuver space to implement the maritime strategy as stated in Naval Operations Concept 2010 .

Thus, the EPS M10 hovercraft derivatives present themselves as a versatile, cost-efficient force structure addition, providing credible littoral maneuver deterrence, full mission capabilities for the threats of today and tomorrow, and the ideal partner-nation naval-capacity-building platform. Marine Corps flotillas offer an amphibious capability more aligned with the National Security Strategy , and QDR . Furthermore, they are in alignment with the manner in which we intend to implement those strategies delineated in Naval Operations Concept 2010 : Forward presence, maritime security, HA/DR, sea control, power projection, and deterrence—a balanced fleet for peace and war, designed to go in harm’s way—not a harbored fleet in being.

1. GEN James Amos, USMC, statement, 6 January 2011, on cancellation of EFV program, .

2. Russell F. Weigley, The American War of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973), pp. 254–258.

3. Andrew Feickert, “The Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle: Background and Issues for Congress,” CRS Report RS22947, 1 Sep 2010, p. 1, .

4. See Carter A. Malkasian, Charting the Pathway to OMFTS: A Historical Assessment of Amphibious Operations From 1941 to the Present , Center for Naval Analyses, July 2002.

5. The Honorable Robert O. Work and LTC F.G. Hoffman, USMCR. “Hitting the Beach in the 21st Century,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , November 2010, pp. 16–21.

6. Griffon Hovercraft Ltd., “Griffin Hovercraft—A Unique Military Solution for Areas Difficult or Impossible for Conventional Boats.” .

7. Roxana Tiron, “Going Ship to Shore,” Sea Power 53, no.5, p. 62.

8. “U.S. Navy Upgrades LCACs, Adds 10 Years’ Service,” Gidget Fuentes, Defense News , 15 March 2010, p. 34.

9. “L-3 Titan Wins LCAC SLEP Contract”, 22 August 2006,

10. EPS Corp source data from EPS Corp CEO Francesco A. Musorrafiti, [email protected] . and at .

11. MBDA website, .

12. “Mission module changes eyed for LCS,” Sam Fellman, Navy Times , 31 January 2011, p. 24.

13. Robert J. Bulkley, At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962) p. vii.

14. Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts and Robert Work, Meeting the Anti-Access and Area Denial Challenge (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2003), p. 45.

15. Brian M. Burton, “Looking Beyond the EFV,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , January 2011, pp. 58–62.

16. Milan Vego, “Getting Marine Forces Ashore,” Naval Forces , Vol. 31, Issue VI, 2010, p. 17.

17. “Navy Awards $115M Mobile Landing Platform Advanced,”, 27 August 2010, .

18. Mackubin Thomas Owens, “A Balanced Force Structure to Achieve a Liberal World Order,” Orbis , Foreign Policy Research Institute, (Spring 2006): p. 311.

Commander Ha is a resident student at the Naval War College. He has served on three fast-attack submarines through four deployments in the Pacific, was pilot for Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle-1, and operations officer for Submarine Squadron 15 on Guam. In Iraq he handled strategic communications duties.


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