Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger, in his 3 March Force Design 2030 document, expressed the need for “forces that . . . can operate inside an adversary’s long-range weapons engagement zone (WEZ).” General Berger further noted that he does not believe that “forcible entry operations are irrelevant or an anachronism . . . different approaches are required given the proliferation of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) threat capabilities in the mutually contested spaces.”
This essentially echoes Senate Armed Services Committee language proposed for the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which suggests that “technological progress by future adversaries has made amphibious assaults too hazardous.” Restoring the Marine Corps’ traditional key role of landing troops on hostile shores has, for some time, been difficult and risky because of inadequate Navy sealift capabilities.
Given the threat of antiship missiles, Navy amphibious ships are safe only when at least 100 miles from a contested or hostile shore—a precaution rarely mentioned, but which has been Navy doctrine for quite some time. This renders forcible entry from the sea impossible and also impedes Marine Corps plans for expeditionary advance base operations (EABO), which would often, perforce, include locating EABs in contested areas.
Since most contested areas would be within the range of antiship missiles, the threat could exclude current Navy amphibious ships. Expeditionary advance bases (EABs) will face combat, they will require logistical, medical, and naval surface fire support, but because current amphibious ships might face too much risk during such support missions, the Marines might look to use aviation assets, specifically MV-22 Ospreys and CH-53 helicopters, which have a limited capability to carry out support missions. F-35B fighters would be the prime source of fire support, which would hardly compare with the always ready and highly effective—but much shorter range—naval surface fire support. Moreover, as former Commandant General Michael Hagee once observed, “Aviation can always be weathered out.”
A Supertanker Solution
Fortunately, there is an affordable, survivable, relatively near-term solution to EAB support requirements that would also enable forcible entry—converting supertanker hulls to expeditionary ships (ESs).
An ES would give the Navy the much-needed ability to influence events ashore and elsewhere that require a visible show of force in threatening situations from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea. On 6 September, General Berger, commenting on the Naval Force Structure Assessment, recommended considering commercially available ships. The ES certainly fits this description.
The ES is the brainchild of Kenneth S. Brower, a highly experienced naval architect and weapons-effect expert. The concept, described in detail below, has met with approval from former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman and Marine General James Mattis before he became Secretary of Defense.
The ES would begin with a supertanker (VLCC) hull with a 250,000-ton full load displacement, 1,075 feet long, 170-foot beam and an 80 foot draft. When fully converted and armored, such a ship would be highly survivable. Because the empty displacement would be only 15 percent of maximum displacement, thousands of tons of state-of-the-art armor could be added to protect key areas of the ship from high-explosive warheads. It will have a smaller tonnage than a VLCC and thus a shallower draft, even after thousands of tons of armor are added.
The power for an integrated electric plant would be several gas turbine generators. Actual propulsion will be four maneuverable, electric-motor azipods (steerable propulsion units outside of the ship’s hull)—two forward and two aft, which would be less vulnerable than just one or two fixed screws aft. Moreover, they would increase the ship’s maneuverability. It needs more speed than a tanker because it will be a combat ship. The hull should not cost more than $200 million (exclusive of weapons and platforms) and the total cost should be less than the $1.8 billion estimated for new LPD amphibious ships that have fewer capabilities than an ES. Since the ES begins with a finished hull, it does not have to be built from scratch, thus it could be ready for service sooner than a new class of ship, designed and built from the keel up.
The deck area would be more than half that of the flight deck of the Gerald R. Ford–class carriers and thus could accommodate a variety of equipment and systems, including aircraft such as F-35Bs, MV-22 Ospreys, CH-53 Stallion series, and other helicopters, as well as a number of drones, antimissile and antiaircraft weapons, and an unmanned antimine craft. The ship also would have all the weapons now in the surface fleet, most of which will be in vertical launch system (VLS) cells. In addition, it would have a sizeable number of guns from 5-inch to 11-inch, which would be highly visible for show-of-force missions and provide highly effective surface-fire support for the Marine Corps. To move Marines ashore, there would be a number of landing craft mounted on side davits like the large lifeboats on ocean liners.
The ship would embark a marine expeditionary unit (MEU) of some 2,200 Marines—a prime example of Navy–Marine Corps teams General Berger has been promoting. The knowledge that the ES has a sizeable number of battle-ready Marines should add to its show of force missions, as the main role of the Navy in peacetime is to influence events ashore with a show of force when needed, such as to counter Russian threats to NATO allies, Iranian threats in the Strait of Hormuz, and Chinese threats in the South China Sea. For example, should the Chinese threaten Palawan, the ES could land Marines to assist Filipino troops there, consistent with the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. This could give China pause because it might be disinclined to fight U.S. forces.
Of prime importance would be the role the ES could play in supporting expeditionary advance bases (EABs) in contested littoral areas. Its armor protection will allow it to operate in contested areas where many EABs would be located, even under the threat of antiship fires. However, with the aid of drones, an ES could locate and destroy adversary antiship missiles with gunfire and air attacks. This would permit amphibious ships to bring vehicles to the EAB, if needed. Far less complicated and less costly, it would have amphibious ships landing a safe distance from the planned EAB location, perhaps by night, and later have them driven to the established EAB, or if this is not practical, have them moved to the shore nearest the EAB by connectors, landing craft utilities (LCUs,) and (sea-state permitting) landing craft, air cushions (LCACs). Before an EAB was established, ES Marines could examine the chosen site, most likely in aerial photos, to confirm its suitability. The ES would remain close to shore near the EAB to provide logistical and medical support that would, in case of combat, treat wounded Marines within the “golden hour” of trauma. It also would provide essential surface fire and air support when the EAB is attacked or plans to extend its influence within the contested zone.
An ES would be an affordable, survivable option for the to support EAB operations. Converting and arming existing hulls will be less expensive than building proposed LPDs. In addition, the armoring and large deck area of and ES would enable to get closer to operations than the proposed LPD at a much even provide logistical and medical support during combat. Its embarked MEU would also provide significant a show of force to influence on-show events and counter near-peer adversaries. The ES is an option the Marine Corps cannot afford to overlook.