Bridging Our Surface-Connector Gap

By General James F. Amos, U.S. Marine Corps

Marines and sailors today continue to search for ways to use the sea as an operational sanctuary from which they can stage forces, strike and maneuver, and support combat forces ashore. We understand the difficulties and challenges therein, and we welcome both internal debates and external ideas about how this should best be accomplished. We have made great strides in modernizing significant parts of our force for these missions, but we must focus on acquiring connectors, platforms, and other support necessary to execute these types of operations with our future force. Amphibious operations remain our signature specialty, and as such, they will continue to shape the way we operate going forward, just as they have throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries.

A Recent Approach

American naval forces have conducted sea-based operations and have projected power from the sea since Marines landed from converted merchant ships of the Continental Navy at New Providence in the Bahamas on 3 March 1776. One hundred and sixty-nine years later, the art of amphibious warfare seemed to have reached its peak with the massive late-war assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. However, nearly 75 years later, both technology and creative thought have continued to evolve, providing opportunities for noteworthy advancements in sea-basing capabilities. Concepts like Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and the future vision for how we design and develop our force, the recently signed and approved Expeditionary Force 21, are but two recent examples that represent the innovative and adaptive culture of Marines.

Today, Marines and sailors are a critical element of the nation’s efforts to remain a stabilizing global force. By providing constant, visible presence and unparalleled responsiveness, Marines protect and advance our nation’s maritime and economic interests. They, in tandem with other deployed naval and joint forces, enable the free flow of commerce and protect vital sea lines of communication on which the U.S. and global economic vitality depends. However, these essential arteries, which carry more than 90 percent of the world’s trade, remain vulnerable to disruption in the 21st century. The “new norm” of extremism, economic disruption, and social change generate new potential security threats at an accelerating pace. Faced with perpetual conflict, instability, and humanitarian disasters, amphibious forces must remain ready and capable of quickly and effectively projecting American influence, at any time and any place.

The unpredictability of tomorrow’s security challenges is clearly counterbalanced by the core competencies of a sea-based Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The MAGTF is the nation’s expeditionary force in readiness, and responding to crisis is its purpose. Marines are organized, trained, and equipped to operate at and from the sea as part of the naval team to “engage, respond, and project.” Consequently, amphibious task forces and embarked MAGTFs routinely conduct missions requiring them to engage with a wide set of partners, forge solid relationships across cultural barriers, and promote diplomatic access—all while remaining prepared to respond to crises and project power from the sea on a moment’s notice.

Given today’s environment, there is an increased emphasis on the geographic combatant commanders’ (GCC) requirements for security cooperation and crisis response. From 2007 to 2011, GCC demand for paired amphibious ready groups and Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) increased 86 percent, and the want for independent amphibious ships increased 53 percent. When steady-state requirements are factored in with the need for an assault echelon of lift, the aggregate requirement far exceeds the 33 ships agreed to several years ago. Additionally, budgetary constraints foresee the Fiscal Year 2014 programmed force level of 31 ships down to 30 by FY 15, forcing us to think differently about how we deploy and employ our forces.

We must remain flexible while still providing ready, rapidly deployable, task-organized air-ground forces. We also need to be able to composite from forward-deployed and/or rapidly deployable forces with the ability to operate in contested environments and project power ashore. As such, our old construct of “deploy as Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs), fight as a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF)” became obsolete. We had to become more efficient with our forces. Moving forward, we look to deployed MEUs, special-purpose (SP) MAGTFs, or other task-organized forces for the answer.

Sea-Based and Ready

As stated in Expeditionary Force 21, Marines will “deploy as SPMAGTFs and MEUs for steady-state engagement activities and crisis response, composite them into an MEB for more significant crises and contingencies, and expand the MEB into an MEF to fight major operations and campaigns.” 1 Critical to this notion is being able to aggregate and operate from a sea base. This is where we gain maximum efficiency and flexibility. Forces can be reconfigured for a wide array of missions and operations while retaining the ability to conduct sea control and power projection. The sea base minimizes the need to build up logistics assets ashore, reduces the operational demand for strategic sealift and airlift capabilities, and permits the forward positioning of joint forces for immediate employment.

Sea-based forces include numerous platforms, such as amphibious-warfare ships, prepositioning ships, and vertical and surface connectors. As the threat continues to develop, these forces will become even more relevant than today, but they must adapt to the changing environment. As most future crises will likely be conducted under the umbrella of a widely proliferated, accurate and integrated anti-access/area-denial threat, the sea base will be required to operate farther from shore. We know today that a combination of integrated acquisition systems, precision guidance, and coastal-defense cruise missiles can necessitate initial standoff distances as far out as 100 nautical miles. Ultimately, mission success foresees a requirement that enables the employment of contested, disaggregated, distributed, and dispersed forces maneuvering from the sea base to secure entry points. This allows an expeditious increase of combat power ashore while providing for the quick introduction of follow-on forces to maintain momentum and expand the area of operation. Accordingly, the need for connectors, landing craft, amphibious vehicles, and ships with the capability and capacity to operate in this environment becomes critical.

Our current contingent of amphibious warships consists of three basic classes: the large amphibious-assault ships (LHAs and LHDs), the amphibious transport docks (LPDs), and the dock landing ships (LSDs). All of these vessels are designed to provide command, employment, sustainment, and the ability to offload our force using a variety of connectors, both vertical and surface. Another critical element of the sea base is our Maritime Prepositioning Force and its ships. Within this category we have our mobile landing platforms (MLPs), large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) and dry-cargo and ammunition ships (T-AKs, T-AKRs, and T-AKEs). These prepositioning ships hold our equipment and supplies at sea such that they can be moved rapidly ashore. However, without adequate means to get our people and equipment ashore, the ability to accomplish our mission quickly diminishes. Today, there is a significant gap in the planned surface-connector fleet inventory from FY 17 to FY 26 that, in conjunction with our amphibious-ship shortfalls, will significantly limit the capacity for amphibious operations and must not be allowed to widen.

The Need for Change

The Joint Operational Access Concept acknowledges that “maintaining and expanding operational access may require entry of land forces into hostile territory for a number of reasons. These may range from limited-objective attacks, such as raids to eliminate land-based threats to friendly air and naval forces, to seizing a lodgment for a sustained land campaign.” 2 The future security environment will continue to demand a force that is naval in character and capable of conducting amphibious operations. At the core of this environment is a congested and diverse area where the sea and land merge—the littorals—where more than 80 percent of the world’s population currently resides. A significant littoral dimension to future joint operations is apparent, requiring an afloat, multi-capable, rapid-response force with the capability and capacity to respond across multiple domains and the full range of military operations.

In the last few decades, there have been significant advancements in the ways and means available to conduct amphibious operations. Capabilities realized due to modernizations in Marine aviation are prime examples and represent the type of innovation we must have in our surface fleet of connectors. In much the same way the MV-22B has greatly expanded the amphibious forces’ littoral maneuver options, so must our future surface connectors. Today, the MV-22B, coupled with LCACs operating from a modernized amphibious fleet, address some of the capability gaps, but not all. We notice an imbalance developing out of this growing capability gap that must be addressed, particularly as the future security environment foresees an increased requirement for greater speed, range, and littoral-maneuver capability from ship to shore. Simply put, our current and proposed surface-connector inventory does not meet the current or future requirement and ability to maneuver from increased range beyond the threat.

Future Requirements, Future Strategy

With our recent focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, necessary improvements in amphibious operations have lagged. Today, the naval services have a program for surface connectors, but its capability and capacity goals require updating. The fundamental operating concepts and utilization strategies for connector programs require a fresh look from a warfighting perspective. Emerging technologies and potential game-changing operational considerations might have a significant impact and must be considered.

Current connector-acquisition objectives and surface movement ashore are driven primarily by the number of well-deck spots in the amphibious-ship inventory. We need to change the paradigm here and not limit our thought to how we do business today. Expanded sea-based concepts would benefit from a connector fleet apart from those expected to be carried in amphibious shipping. For instance, connector elements husbanded and tethered to MLPs, or otherwise forward-deployed in key locations could augment those required directly for amphibious operations. These connectors or commercial alternative platforms could also augment the fleet during amphibious operations, greatly speeding throughput from the maritime assembly areas in the outer-sea echelons, while quickly closing the distances and building combat power ashore.

Surface connectors that are self-deployable and capable of long open-water transits are essential. While the existing landing craft utility (LCU) currently has this capability, other connector designs that combine the capacity/self-supportability of the LCU with the high speeds associated with the LCAC are readily available and affordable. Even though the looming connector shortfall and maturity of the LCAC ship-to-shore connector program suggest it should not be disrupted, the LCU-replacement (Sustainment & Surface Connector [X]-Recapitalization) program represents a key entry point for a larger operationally relevant connector capability.

Future concepts should increase the operational flexibility, at-sea survivability, capacity, and landing options of the amphibious force by providing the capability to commence amphibious operations from greater distances offshore than previously considered. Long-term development must be focused on maturing naval-connector technology while seeking sea-basing concepts that include alternative connectors and employment concepts (i.e., STOM and OMFTS) in order to support sea-based operations across the threat spectrum. We must also explore near-term fixes such as engineering changes to current programs of record that will help bridge the gap to the “connector after next.” In much the same way we have proposed a ramp modification for the ten joint high-speed vessels (JHSVs) in our current program of record—giving them a sea-state three ramp that will support the “splash” of self-deploying amphibious vehicles—we must similarly assess the feasibility for enhancement across all our existing programs. At the end of the day, we must take a renewed look at current and “leap-ahead” technologies to ensure we address both near- and long-term connector deficiencies.

For instance, the landing catamaran (L-CAT) is an innovative, fast shore-connecting concept developed by the French and produced in the United States. It is currently operated from well-decks of French LPD/LHD vessels to meet over-the-horizon logistics and force-projecting requirements. The L-CAT is designed to fit within the minimized space provided in existing well-deck spaces, provides full roll-on/roll-off capacities, and opens sea door-to-door logistics. The L-CAT has a capacity similar to the LCAC, and can travel at 20-plus knots, but it features 20 hours of endurance and can be deployed up to 200 miles from shore.

Another new capability (in the experimentation phase) is the ultra heavy-lift amphibious connector (UHAC). The UHAC is a concept connector being designed to provide a heavy-lift capability that is able to transport large amounts of cargo and/or troops from sea to shore, or directly from the sea to an objective area. It is expected to provide an over-the-beach capability with three times the payload of the LCAC as well as three or more times the obstacle clearance of the LCAC. The UHAC is being designed to carry 210 short tons at a speed exceeding 20 knots.

An alternative conceptual craft with its pedigree in the LCU-1610 class is the LCU (F). This design was described in Proceedings in the summer of 2013 (see “A Landing Craft for the 21st Century,” by Susanne Altenburger; Commander Michael Bosworth, U.S. Navy (Retired); and Captain Michael Junge, U.S. Navy, July 2013, pp. 60–64) and currently only exists in PowerPoint, but appears worthy of further examination. It promises to provide the higher speed, larger payload capacity, greater fuel efficiency, and better beach-landing ability needed to fulfill today’s amphibious-force requirements, yet the LCU (F) could be hydraulically folded in a “transformer-like” manner to fit neatly into the standard well-decks of major amphibious transport ships. In theory, conceptual connectors like this could also be flexible enough to aggregate via nonconventional means, similar to how we bring lighterage into theater via container ships today. Additionally, the LCU (F) is envisioned to carry up to 200 tons of personnel and equipment at a speed of almost 20 knots—an improvement of more than 20 tons and 10 knots when comparing it to the LCU-1610 class.

Lastly, a craft in a different class that bears further analysis and consideration is the T-CRAFT being developed by Office of Naval Research. This is a larger vessel designed for intra-theater lift or as a sea-base connector, much like the JHSV, but with one key difference: It can land on a beach. This craft is projected to have 300–700 tons of lift capacity and travel at 40 knots. This capability coupled with the speed and versatility of the smaller connectors could be a significant force multiplier in a distributed littoral maneuver environment, especially in the movement of non-self-deploying combat vehicles.

Innovating to Win

In much the same way we have traveled in the past, our institutional course into the future will not be a straight line. There have been and will continue to be obstacles that require slight deviations. We can expect the same in our conceptual and programmatic environments. History is replete with examples of how our naval forces innovated operationally and technologically to win. The advent of sea-based aviation, expeditionary amphibious capabilities, undersea warfare, and irregular warfare in complex littoral environments were all disruptive innovations that took time, experimentation, and initiative to fully exploit. As the nation rebalances its military to new strategies and new levels of defense investment, the Navy–Marine Corps team will play an even greater role in forward presence, regional deterrence and building the foundations of collective security for the global maritime commons. Our ability to swiftly respond to the demands of major contingencies will continue to make us an indispensable capability of the joint force, and it is imperative to maintain that standard.

Today’s and tomorrow’s security environments require a reshaping of the Marine Corps with an emphasis on the growing demand for steady-state activities and crisis response. To be the right force in the right place at the right time, we must adjust our capability with focus on improving our ability to deploy, employ, and sustain as an expeditionary force. A critical component to this will be our ability to move and sustain people and equipment ashore. Therefore, ensuring the health and continued capability and capacity improvements of connector programs is an essential interest for both the Marine Corps and the Navy.

While the potential for the procurement of entirely new fleets of connectors is unlikely in today’s fiscal environment, there are compelling emerging technologies and capabilities that could prove to be game-changers and should be explored. Platforms such as the UHAC, LCU (F), and L-CAT are just a few examples that provide a glimpse of what the future holds. This is a dialogue I am devoted to and one in which I challenge industry, academia, and our naval service to further develop. We are in a period that demands innovation, and as such, we need to take a hard look at our connector strategy and ensure it is framed by sound warfighting analysis. We must step up our connectors’ game for the future while ensuring our minimum combat-capacity requirement for today is maintained.

1. Expeditionary Force 21,

2. Joint Operational Access Concept (Washington, DC: Department of Defense 2012), 6.

General Amos is Commandant of the Marine Corps.


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