In his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, retired Navy Captain Wayne Hughes points out that almost all naval combat since 1945 has been fought in the littorals.1 Littoral warfare expert Milan Vego of the Naval War College argues that this trend only will increase because “some 60 percent of the world’s politically significant urban areas are located within sixty miles of the coast, and 70 percent within three hundred miles.”2
Yet, the U.S. Navy’s control of the sea is being increasingly contested in global littorals and narrow seas. As pressure grows on the Navy to meet this challenge without significant increases to the size of the fleet, the Marine Corps can help fill a widening gap between capability and requirements by providing land-based antiship weapon systems to support sea-control and sea-denial missions. To do so, the Corps needs to invest in long-range precision fires and supporting sensors.
In the December 2018 Marine Corps Gazette, a dozen articles discussed fires and artillery.3 Authors covered the capabilities and tactics of a wide range of nonlethal and lethal fires. Many ideas were superb, but the key innovation the service needs now—land-based antiship fires that can support naval operations—was absent. More recently, in the July 2019 Gazette, a group of Marines wrote that in simulating war in the western Pacific they found “mobile, conventional land-based, long-range missiles incredibly valuable, [but] multiple variables involved in their employment were also ‘fairy-dusted’ and need[ed] to be addressed before this became a real capability.”4
It is a sign of progress that professional discussion has begun to include antiship fires, but this debate still addresses only the general concept—not how these fires should be employed or what the specific capability will require. And yet senior leaders up to and including the Commandant himself have emphasized land-based antiship fires as a priority for the Marine Corps.5
Two years ago, 5th Battalion, 11th Marines successfully fired the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from the deck of a ship at a target ashore.6 This is the emerging capability on which the artillery community needs to focus—not tactics and techniques for firepower in limited war.7 Both the Marine Corps and the Army need to rapidly develop and deploy redundant land-based capabilities to strike ships in the littoral, as well as concepts for their employment.
Army and Marine Corps Lag Adversaries
At the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise, an Army unit fired the Naval Strike Missile from the back of a Palletized Load System, hitting a target at sea.8 In addition, the Army has designated long-range precision fires as its top modernization priority.9 Even though the Marine Corps has made clear it was watching the results closely, it has not maintained pace with the Army in experimenting with this type of fires.
In fact, both services are far behind U.S. adversaries as well as allies in land-based antiship fires. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Japan, and Poland, to name a few countries, all have deployed land-based antiship missiles capabilities in the past decade. China tested antiship missiles on aircraft carrier–shaped targets in the Gobi Desert, and Iran test-fired several new antiship missiles in response to the United States pulling out of the nuclear agreement last year.10 Even Pakistan and Ukraine have tested land-based antiship cruise missiles.11
Land-based antiship warfighting capability is not foreign to the U.S. military. Its use stretches back to before the nation’s founding, although it has not been a priority since shortly after World War II ended. Before then, both the Army and Marine Corps maintained coastal defense units, but “in 1950 the Army abolished the Coastal Artillery Corps and deactivated almost all of the nearly 200 coastal defense sites it had manned in the US.”12 Similarly, the Marine Corps reorganized, converted, or abolished all 19 Marine Defense Battalions in 1944. Initially organized with 5-inch naval guns, these battalions saw action almost everywhere in the Pacific but proved most critical in early defensive actions, such as the Battle of Wake Island. In that instance, Marine gunners sank a Japanese destroyer—the first Japanese ship sunk by U.S. forces during the war—and managed to hold off an invasion for 15 days. As the war progressed, however, the battalions increasingly shifted toward an antiaircraft role.13
The Two Services Must Work Together
The U.S. military needs a 21st-century version of the capability formerly provided by Marine Defense Battalions and the Army Coastal Defense Artillery Corps, but the two services need not have identical capabilities to contribute to this important mission. The Marines require a more mobile, expeditionary capability, whereas the Army can support a larger force structure and does not need to be as strategically mobile.
The rapid growth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) already has started to put the U.S. Navy at a disadvantage in the western Pacific. The PLAN fleet is now larger in number of hulls than the entire U.S. fleet and still growing in size and capability.14 If the U.S. Navy can hand off missions in the littorals to the Marine Corps or Army, more Navy ships and submarines can focus on blue-water operations and fleet maneuver.
Naval leaders have said they need more lethality and greater range and distribution of forces. Unless the Marine Corps can fill roles previously handled by ships, it is difficult to imagine a way to increase the distribution and lethality of the fleet without either investing in more ships or adding more capability to existing ships.
Prepare for War in the Littorals
Marine officers writing recently in War on the Rocks imagined a future in which small, lethal teams of Marines set conditions in the littorals for operations such as seizing key maritime terrain.15 This is an example of traditional expeditionary warfare and power projection. We need to take this vision further, imagining those same Marines bringing with them HIMARS or a similar capability to control chokepoints or other key terrain without naval support. Better yet, Marines with long-range fires could project power from current bases in the Pacific as a deterrent in a concept that has been called “Archipelagic Defense.”16
In his seminal work, Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas, Vego argued that “coastal defense forces can be used to obtain absolute local, though often temporary, control of straits and river estuaries.” He emphasized the current and future value of mobile land-based systems: “Strikes have already replaced naval battles as the main method of employment of coastal navies.”17 In 2018, Marines at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, conducted a HIMARS raid against land targets with an Air Force C-130 aircraft.18 Could HIMARS or a similar system be used to strike a fleet at anchor? Could it be used to raid a fleet as it traveled through a chokepoint such as the Strait of Malacca?
The need for littoral fires is not unique to the western Pacific. Poland has acquired antiship missiles, and the Baltic and Scandinavian countries have operated them for decades. They also are increasingly prevalent in the Black Sea region. Marines armed with potent antiship missiles would be an asset in the Baltic, Bering, Barents, or Black Sea regions—and many other areas around the world.
The recent announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty provides a further imperative for the Army and Marine Corps to aggressively expand the range of land-based fires. Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of Indo-Pacific Command, wrote in testimony to the Senate that fielding land-based systems previously banned under the INF would “provide additional options to counter China’s existing missile capabilities, complicate adversary decision making, and impose costs by forcing adversaries to spend money on expensive missile defense systems.”19 Past analysis called mostly for modifying HIMARS and the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System to fire at maritime targets, but withdrawal from the INF Treaty opens the door to developing new systems or adapting air and naval weapons such as the Tomahawk cruise missile for land-based employment against maritime targets.
In the near term, the Marine Corps needs to convert more artillery battalions to HIMARS and work closely with the Army in rapidly developing and fielding a joint system for mobile long-range antiship fires. In May, the Marine Corps awarded a $47 million contract for antiship missiles, but it is unclear how they will be integrated into the existing force structure. They may be intended for jets and not ground-based systems.20 Even if the missiles are intended for integration with HIMARS, the contract is a token investment compared with legacy acquisition programs such as the new heavy-lift helicopters and amphibious combat vehicles, both of dubious survivability in a littoral fight.
Land-based fires are a cheap alternative to buying more frigates, destroyers, and aircraft. They can be more easily hidden and distributed than sea-based fires but pack the same punch. They also are more survivable—you cannot sink the parking lot or the motor pool. Furthermore, as the Marines have demonstrated, the sensors can be disaggregated from the shooter. For example, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or the still-under-development MUX drone, can relay targets to ground-based launchers.21 The Navy–Marine Corps team needs to rethink how it defines and evaluates fleet capability to conduct operations in the littorals. In 2000, Hughes wrote: “For littoral operations, it is no longer possible to define a fleet merely as a set of warships, because land-based systems play a prominent part.”22
Land-based antiship missile systems are an effective tool in countering maritime aggression, and this is being increasingly recognized inside and outside the force. In his planning guidance, Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger wrote, “One possible future [of the Unit Deployment Program] would be the forward deployment of multiple High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) batteries armed with long-range anti-ship missiles.”23 Employing these systems in the littorals of the western Pacific would disrupt current adversary investments and strategy.
The Army and Marine Corps must continue to invest in and prioritize long-range antiship fires for littoral operations so they can support the Navy in sea-control and sea-denial missions. The services need to work together—the Marine Corps has extensive experience in naval operations, but the Army has a much larger and more robust fires complex, as well as more resources for acquisition and development. Concurrently, Marines and soldiers need to drive forward the discussion on how these new systems should be employed. Land-based antiship fires are exactly the type of cross-domain capability the joint force needs to fight and win a high-end conflict in a littoral environment.
1. Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 151.
2. Milan Vego, “On Littoral Warfare,” Naval War College Review 68, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 31.
3. Marine Corps Gazette 102, no. 12 (December 2018).
4. TECOM Warfighting Club, “National Security: Tackling Our Nation’s Most Pressing Challenges,” Marine Corps Gazette 103, no. 7 (July 2019), 82.
5. Sydney J. Freedberg, “Marine Missile Strategy: Buy Some ASAP, Then Develop with the Army,” Breaking Defense, 4 June 2018; Megan Eckstein, “Marines Want to Field a Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile ‘As Fast As Possible,’” USNI News, 19 February 2019.
6. Gidget Fuentes, “Marines Fire HIMARS from Ship in Sea Control Experiment with Navy,” USNI News, 24 October 2017.
7. Robert H. Scales, Firepower in Limited War (New York: Presidio Press, 1997).
8. Rachael Jeffcoat, “U.S. Army Conducts First RIMPAC Joint Live-Fire Sinking Exercise as Multi-Domain Task Force,” Navy News Service, 23 July 2018.
9. David Vergun, “Long-Range, Precision Fires Modernization a Joint Effort, Army Tech Leader Says,” Army News Service, 22 August 2018.
10. Daniel DeFraia, “China Tests DF-21D Missile on Mock U.S. Aircraft Carrier in Gobi Desert,” Agence France-Presse, 30 January 2013; Phil Stewart, “Iran Test-Fired Anti-Ship Missile During Drills Last Week: U.S. Source,” Reuters, 10 August 2018.
11. “Ukraine Reveals Details of Newest Cruise Missile,” Defence Blog, 27 August 2018; “Pakistan Successfully Test-Fires Land-Based Antiship Missile,” Economic Times, 14 July 2018.
12. Joel Eastman, Bolling Smith, and Mark Berhow, “U.S. Coastal Defense Sites after 1950,” Coastal Defense Study Group.
13. Charles D. Melson, Condition Red: Marine Defense Battalions in World War II, Marine Corps Commemorative Series, 23.
14. Stan Lee Myers, “With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific,” New York Times, 29 August 2018.
15. Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, Noah Spataro, and Jeff Cummings, “Not Yet Openly at War, But Still Mostly at Peace: The Marine Corps’ Roles and Missions around Key Maritime Terrain,” War on the Rocks, 23 October 2018.
16. Andrew Krepinevich, “How to Deter China: The Case for the Archipelagic Defense,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 2 (March/April 2015).
17. Milan Vego, Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2003), 239.
18. Niles Lee, “Marines with 2/14 Conduct HIMARS Raid,” Marine Corps Forces Reserve, 5 April 2018.
19. ADM Philip Davidson, USN, “Advance Policy Questions for Admiral Philip Davidson, USN: Expected Nominee for Commander, U.S. Pacific Command,” Senate Armed Services Committee.
20. Sam LaGrone, “Raytheon to Arm Marine Corps with Anti-Ship Missiles in $47M Deal,” USNI News, 8 May 2019.
21. Shawn Snow, “Marines Connect F-35 to HIMARS Rocket Shot for the First Time,” Marine Corps Times, 5 October 2018.
22. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 169.
23. U.S. Marine Corps, “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps,” July 2019, 3.