On 1 October 2016, a United Arab Emirates-flagged high-speed vessel, the HSV-2 Swift, was struck by a suspected C-802 antiship cruise missile off the coast of Yemen and nearly sunk. It was able to remain afloat and was towed to Eritrea despite significant damage and an unknown number of casualties. The attack was carried out by Houthi rebels who continue to strive for control of Yemen in a war against Saudi Arabia and their allies using equipment that the Iranians are suspected of providing.
The attack on the HSV-2 Swift demonstrated the devastation a small force could carry out against a naval ship with a simple and widely available weapon. The proliferation of antiaccess/area denial (A2AD) weapons, the increase in naval capabilities of peer competitors, and technological advances of peer aviation assets have limited the U.S. Marine Corps’s effectiveness as an amphibious force. In particular, the marine expeditionary unit (MEU) relies on the Navy amphibious readiness group (ARG) for transportation but provides little offensive or defensive support to ARGs during 24-hour operations in a contested environment. To conduct future amphibious operations, the Marine Corps must incorporate high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARSs) into the MEU and develop new capabilities to support the amphibious task force against both surface and air threats.
The South China Sea
Referred to as “the great wall of sand” by Admiral Harry B. Harris, the Chinese are leaning heavily into the development and militarization of islands in contested areas of the South China Sea. The Navy conducts regular freedom of navigation operations through these waters to ensure they remain open for international shipping. Should the Chinese close these shipping lanes, the United States would be required by the Law of the Conventions of the Sea to intervene, and the Navy likely would become involved. While the first step of a kinetic operation would be the use of shaping fires, a ground force would have to follow to seize the contested territory and gain control over the region. The loss of personnel and equipment would be devastating to the force and shock the U.S. people. The MEU can conduct the amphibious assault, but it currently is incapable of using a seized island to enhance offensive capabilities against surface or air forces or to bolster the defense of the ARG. In a contested maritime environment, the ability to conduct A2AD against surface vessels and aircraft is as important for the Marine Corps as it is for the adversary.
As the Marine Corps begins to shift focus to the Indo-Pacific region, it must take a hard look at the sophistication and capabilities of the threats in the region. China poses the most credible peer threat, with North Korea, Russia, Iran, and violent extremist organizations also of concern. Houthi forces have already shown the threat posed by technology less sophisticated than the arsenals of Chinese and North Korean forces. In Joint Forces Quarterly, Michael Gormley writes that “China has come to regard [antiship cruise missiles] as an increasingly potent means of shaping the outcome of military conflicts.” The Chinese are committed to defending their proclaimed territory against an enemy that must approach by sea, and the Marine Corps is not prepared to face the threat. More importantly, the MEU does not have a surface-fired weapon in its arsenal that can match the threat if given the opportunity.
The HIMARS Option
The best option for the Marine Corps to solve this problem is to develop additional weapons to be launched from the M-142 HIMARS. The HIMARS, a wheeled vehicle with a fire-control computer and launcher system integrated into its chassis, already is the ideal platform for a variety of missions. The Marine Corps previously demonstrated that it is capable of a successful HIMARS raid using a C-130 for transport. The HIMARS also can be transported on ARG shipping and brought ashore using a surface connector such as landing craft air cushioned (LCAC) vehicles if there is no functioning airfield available. Without any further development, the HIMARS can strike targets up to 300 kilometers away using the Army tactical missile system (ATACMS). That range will allow the MEU to use surface-based fires to strike targets within the contested island chain in support of a raid or conduct a precision strike against a high payoff target. Continuing to develop capabilities for the HIMARS will unlock even more possibilities against surface targets with larger implications for an enemy navy.
The Department of Defense has several antiship missiles in its arsenal but the Marine Corps does not have a surface-based, antiship capability. According the Navy website, at 15-feet-long the RGM-84 Harpoon is only two feet longer than the ATACMS and half the diameter with an operational range in excess of 124 kilometers. The Harpoon missile, modified to fit in a pod for the HIMARS, will provide an antiship capability and allow the MEU to bolster its ability to defend the ARG and follow-on naval forces. Previous testing has also demonstrated that the HIMARS is capable of acting as a surface-to-air defense platform.
In 2009, Lockheed Martin successfully tested two surface-launched advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (SLAMRAAM) using the HIMARS with a modified fire-control system and rocket pod. While not yet fully developed, research and testing has proven that it is a capability that exists. The SLAMRAAM can engage targets at more than 20 miles; this creates a significant buffer to defend not only forces ashore but also to the amphibious task force. These new capabilities will provide the foundation the Marine Corps needs to support the ideas presented in the Marine Operating Concept (MOC).
The MOC states that, “the Marine Corps must enhance its power projection capabilities and contributions to sea control as part of a Naval campaign.” Two HIMARS launchers, outfitted with antiair and antiship weaponry, will become the foundation of an expeditionary base or even several bases across a stretch of islands. The position will provide an offensive capability, against A2AD in a contested area, and not only protect the Marines and sailors ashore, but also provide defense to the force afloat. Prolonged occupation of an advanced base would require a defensive posture, and it is likely to require the use of the entire six-launcher battery with supporting personnel and equipment. The additional launchers may be spread across multiple locations on a large island or across several smaller islands to create a wider defensive perimeter.
The Marine Corps will continue to be unable to provide all-weather, uninterrupted offensive and defensive support to the ARG if it does not acquire additional assets. According to Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, “protection comprising both active and passive measures should be provided during all phases of the amphibious operation but particularly during the vulnerable period of ship-to-shore movement.” Despite the lack of capability, the Marine Corps is required to support the ARG and enable amphibious operations in a contested environment. The need to conduct ship-to-shore movement continues to grow more important across military operations and the threat to maritime shipping continues to increase. With the development and procurement of the SLAMRAAM and the Harpoon for the HIMARS, the Marine Corps once again will be a relevant force with the ability to conduct amphibious operations and defend the amphibious task force.