Technology is changing the character of conflict in ways that will profoundly affect the conduct of future amphibious operations. The proliferation of precision-strike weapons and increasingly capable intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) systems will fundamentally alter ground-combat fire and maneuver and, by extension, amphibious operations. In particular, an increasing ratio of precision indirect-fire weapons to direct-fire weapons supported by persistent ISR will make ground combat, in important respects, increasingly like war at sea.
First, though, we need to consider what’s involved in getting ashore in an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment. While the challenges of closing naval forces to allow the discharge of landing craft has been the subject of considerable study by the Navy, comparatively little attention has been paid to the impact of new technologies from the shallow-water mark (200 feet) through the beach zone and inland. In general, the assumption has been that improvements to existing capabilities and methods remain the best solution to challenges in that zone, rather than any fundamentally new approach or set of capabilities. However, upon examining the impact of guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles (G-RAMM) and naval-mine capabilities, our traditional approaches appear much less compelling, even with improvements in speed and dispersion.
In the littoral, influence, moored, and rising mines will present significant challenges to ships, craft, and connectors of all types, whether air-cushion, displacement, or swimming tractors. From near-shore to land, shoulder-fired, top attack-capable missiles such as the Javelin could decimate a wave of swimming tractors. Even the “fast” Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) was very slow in relative terms and offered very little protection against top-attack munitions. So the approaches will become increasingly dangerous places. Fortunately, though, technology cuts both ways, and there are many new opportunities to change the equation to the benefit of the assaulting force.
The Unmanned-Amphib Future
Perhaps the most promising technology area is unmanned systems. In the 2020s and beyond there will simply be no reason to place 20 Marines in a steel box and drive them through mined waters to land on an area-denied beach. An unmanned breacher vehicle (UBV), or family of unmanned systems, could clear and mark the assault lanes ahead of any manned surface movement. These UBVs could be launched from surface, subsurface, or airborne delivery means—overtly or covertly. UBVs could be given large magnetic and acoustic signatures to trigger influence mines and could be equipped with cameras, remote gun systems, plows, cutters, and/or line charges to clear beach obstacles. Additionally, it would be possible to transition the UBV to convoy reconnaissance and clearing missions once manned vehicles are ashore.
Introducing an unmanned system breaks the tyranny of the hybrid vehicle that we have found to be so costly and that inevitably results in compromises in both operating domains—afloat and ashore. Since current plans call for landing existing manned breacher vehicles roughly 30 minutes after the first amphibious tractor landing, the time frame requiring a vehicle that transitions seamlessly from sea to shore is roughly 30 minutes. If the joint force is able to achieve beach superiority for this brief period, there is no need for a hybrid vehicle at all. Introducing an unmanned initial assault wave completely eliminates the requirement.
Unmanned systems can provide improved operational capability and enhanced force-protection at significantly reduced cost. Unmanned breachers allow the introduction of ground-fighting vehicles to shore via surface-effect and displacement connectors. By thus avoiding the requirement for a hybrid vehicle, the Marine Corps can focus its limited resources on producing a new fighting vehicle optimized for operations ashore.
This combination of unmanned systems for the initial surface wave and non-hybrid wheeled fighting vehicles for ashore provides a real opportunity to lighten the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), while drawing a clear distinction between Marine Corps and heavy Army units. Additional savings might be realized by participating in a joint venture with the Army to produce a next-generation fighting vehicle (a Stryker successor) with riverine capability. The latest generation of light armored vehicle, or its commercially available equivalent, would provide operational flexibility, training, maintenance, sustainment, and affordability benefits. Determining the actual material solution should be facilitated by additional wargaming and analysis based on threat and operational-concept considerations.
Relevance in the Zone
Refinements to operating concepts are even more critical than the introduction of new technologies. The 7 January 1957 Report of the Fleet Marine Force Organization and Composition Board, better known as the Hogaboom Board, described a viable concept for future assault operations. Tactical nuclear weapons had a great impact on the thinking of the board, and while those concerns have receded, they have been replaced with a new G-RAMM threat. This threat, however, has the same fundamental influences on operational design: the importance of dispersion, the requirement for shaping to be conducted to allow the surface assault to land, and the need for vertical-assault forces to precede the surface assault. What the board did not foresee was the advent of unmanned systems. Given its prescience and willingness to leverage nascent technologies, it is not a stretch to imagine them recommending a rephrasing of the assault as described.
Considering both threats and potential capabilities, phasing for future amphibious assaults would, in its most generic sense, be as follows:
• Shaping fires/advance force operations (special ops, reconnaissance, mensuration, etc.)
• Vertical assault of distributed teams building to company teams
• Unmanned surface assault
• Surface assault
• General off-load as required.
As the Hogaboom Board recognized, and as the future threat will dictate, shaping operations are essential before the introduction of manned surface-assault waves. Today, we have the great benefit of technologies and capabilities that can make the board’s vision and foresight a reality. As its report states:
Reduced to its simplest terms the board visualizes an operation wherein the flexibility of the helicopter-borne assault forces would be exploited to uncover and secure the beaches and to seize critical areas which will be required to enable us to phase in the additional means to maintain the momentum of the assault and secure the objective area. The board considers that helicopters will be employed initially to displace the assault elements of the landing force from ships at sea to attack positions ashore from which they can seize the critical terrain features.
Essentially, the board recommended retaining traditional elements of the assault, while re-phasing the assault to lead with the vertical-assault, clear-in zone to create favorable conditions to allow an unopposed beach assault, and then follow with the surface assault.
Critically, since we now have additional means to assist in creating beach superiority and to land vehicles rapidly with surface-effects craft, a swimming tractor is no longer essential. Distributed operations, as called for in the Enhanced MAGTF Operations concept, clearly have a critical role to play in this new approach. Looking even further back than Hagaboom, General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith placed detachments of Marines on destroyers in World War II to distract the enemy or threaten his flank. If Howlin’ Mad had had the MV-22B Osprey, he certainly would have known how to take advantage of its ability to move forces to critical terrain in support of the assault.
In short, the assault is about projecting relevant combat power ashore to impose our will on an adversary. Relevant combat power need not be derived from a slow and vulnerable surface assault. We must look at the threat to determine which combat power is relevant and which is not. The analysis done in the early 1990s for the AAAV (the EFV in earlier form) posited the AAAV’s gun as providing a large portion of the surface assault’s combat power. This is an accurate assessment, but is it relevant combat power for the threats of 2020?
If the adversary is a motorized rifle regiment present in the beach zone and mounted in Soviet BMP and BTR fighting vehicles, a chain gun is highly relevant combat power. But what if we are confronted with a hybrid adversary invested predominantly in precision-indirect fire capabilities? How relevant is the direct-fire chain gun when confronted with this type of adversary? If the ratio of indirect to direct fire threat systems is increasing, then we must reassess what constitutes relevant combat power.
A Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle in direct support of a distributed-operations team might well provide significantly more relevant combat power than a wave of tractors mounting chain guns. As always, the adversary gets a vote, and for too long we have focused inward on familiar enemies and the capabilities we want rather than the capabilities future challenges demand.
The assault of the 2020s should be in all domains, including cyber. If aviation fires in direct support of distributed teams ashore provide the most relevant combat power, then there should be no compunction about organizing and equipping our force for this sort of operation. Our predecessors surely would not have hesitated—they knew the fundamentals well, they just lacked the technical means we possess today. We must take a page from our history and redefine the amphibious assault for a new era of persistent ISR, precision fires, and unmanned systems.
‘Naval Warfare Brought Ashore’
Once we’ve transitioned ashore, it’s very likely we’ll find that terrain isn’t what it used to be. Since the dawn of organized armed conflict, terrain has been an essential component of warfare. Terrain features—woods, jungles, mountains—always have provided cover and concealment, while high ground and various terrain combinations have provided significant tactical advantage to those who possessed them. All of this is changing. If adversaries are equipped with long-range ISR and precision weapons, the impact of terrain is altered.
In its most basic form, terrain has been used to conceal the movement and intentions of one adversary from the other and to provide a physical advantage once the decision is made to engage the enemy. Physically concealing a force confers great advantage, while establishing a position on prominent or highly defensible terrain gives the defender significant strength to withstand an attack—if for no other reason than it is easier to shoot down than run uphill.
However, if ISR makes the concealment of the forest transparent and if the predominant element of combat power is in precision, indirect fire means the attacker can be seen, but perhaps more significant, the hilltop defender can be targeted, possibly even easier than if he were in traditionally less advantageous terrain.
If in the future you can be hit once you are seen, largely independent of terrain or position in relation to opposing forces, then not being seen takes on tremendous importance, and positional advantage takes on a whole new meaning. This is naval warfare brought ashore. Just as the advent of the dreadnought and the battleship meant that navies sought to achieve concentration of fire as opposed to concentration of ships, so ground commanders will look to use low-signature distributed forces to find, flush, fix, and target adversaries for engagement with indirect fires rather than for assault. If you can be seen and targeted, then there are two imperatives—be unseen to the adversary for as long as possible, and endeavor to have increased reach with your fires comparatively to your opponent.
The advantages of terrain become quite different. Rather than maneuver to get one force into a position of advantage to allow for a direct attack by infantry, maneuver increasingly will be used to gain positional advantage for engagement with precision weapons rather than a disposition to facilitate an assault by infantry or mechanized forces.
The march of technology first made naval warfare into a battle of signatures and range in the early years of the last century. In this century, technology has progressed sufficiently to create a similar situation on land where the more complex topography has required significantly more sophisticated systems to achieve what simpler technology brought to the naval domain 100 years earlier.
It is an important caveat that this emerging paradigm is not exclusive. In many circumstances, destruction is not the objective. In such circumstances, traditional formations and concentrations remain necessary and preferred.
In conclusion, the seriousness of new threats does not in any way obviate the need for amphibious assault or make counter-A2/AD systems an intractable problem. These challenges are simply the latest in the ever-present move/countermove dialectic of military competition. Fortunately, as long as we remain flexible and innovative when developing our operational concepts and fielding new capabilities, the next assault wave will continue to assure access for our nation against any hostile shore.