Imagine a scenario in the not-too-distant future:
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, a Marine Corps infantry company offloads from amphibious ships onto a fleet of small combatants. Under cover of darkness, the assault force begins its 300 nautical mile (nm) over-the-horizon transit, at maximum speed and dispersed for protection. The objective is a once-insignificant cluster of islands in the South China Sea now teeming with enemy antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons. This specialized infantry is the joint force commander’s best option to counter an aggressive competitor while remaining below the threshold of major combat operations.
As enemy defenses extend the seaward portion of an amphibious operating area farther out, the Marine Corps is hampered by its reliance on antiquated heavy amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs) and assault-support aircraft to get ashore. On the beach, Marines cannot control or maneuver in the shallow seas or inland waterways.1 As a result, the Corps has become stale and predictable in its approach to littoral operations. To improve operations in these heavily contested maritime environments, the service must establish permanent coastal/riverine assault companies (C/RACs) within existing infantry battalions.
Precision-guided weapons and integrated A2/AD networks have made amphibious operations tactics and doctrine obsolescent. Today, more than 80 countries, as well as many nonstate militant groups, possess antiship missiles with ranges up to 300 nautical miles and capable of being launched from the air, land, or sea.2 Adversary sea-denial strategies employ these long-range weapon systems along key maritime chokepoints. According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the threats include “China’s missile batteries on islands in the South China Sea, Iran’s coastal defense antiship cruise missiles along the Strait of Hormuz, [and] Russia’s long-range surface-to-air missiles that reach across the Baltic Sea.”3 A RAND Corporation analysis says the lethality and range of these systems mean “adversaries can detect a large formation of ships and launch a large number of weapons over the horizon. The closer ships get to shore, the easier it is for adversaries to detect them and the shorter the ships’ reaction times.”4
A Bad Connection
These threats highlight critical vulnerabilities in the current approach to amphibious operations: Navy and Marine Corps surface connectors are deficient for transiting hostile waters and forcing entry to a contested beach. The aging AAV and the new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) both have significant amphibious limitations. They boast meager range (3 to 12 nm) and slow open-water speed (six knots, or less than seven miles per hour).5 Launching or recovering them requires amphibious ships to be well within range of missiles, shore batteries, and even many small arms.6 Undoubtedly a force multiplier for operations once ashore, they are a cumbersome liability getting there.
Landing craft utility (LCU) and landing craft air cushion (LCAC) vessels have over-the-horizon range—30 to 50 nm—but they are hard to maintain; lack adequate speed, sea-state operability, and armament; and are not at all stealthy.7 All this limits the commander’s options for force projection.
The maritime domain does not end at the beachhead. A vital resource to hundreds of millions of people, rivers and internal waterways comprise nearly 30 percent of the world’s land borders and provide critical maneuver space for inland operations.8 Inland waterways such as the Ganges River, the Congo Basin, and the Mekong Delta are crucial economic lines of communication and support for large populations.9 Rivers and riverine areas present considerable risk to the security and stability of populations throughout strategically relevant areas.10 Despite the significance of rivers, streams, and estuaries, the Marine Corps as presently constituted cannot take advantage of them in a fight.
Historically, the Corps has used riverine operations to deny enemies maneuver space, provide transportation and logistical support, and conduct offensive operations. But the specialized units emerged only on an ad hoc basis, after significant problems presented themselves. Once the mission was complete, riverine units were dissolved, taking with them vital procedures and lessons learned.11
For example, the Marine Corps Small Craft Company (SCC) was successful in training riverine units in South America and patrolling the Euphrates River in Iraq.12 Despite its operational achievements, the SCC was decommissioned in 2005 (only to see a similar Navy unit established one year later). While the Navy currently maintains a Coastal Riverine Force (CRF), its missions are protection of high-value assets and coastal defense. The Marine Corps’ need for this capability—and the lack of integration between the naval services—creates a dangerous gap in the ability to operate in and exploit inland waterways.
The Navy’s CRF boats are the “high-speed, long-range, low-signature combatant craft capable of projecting and recovering Marines” that the Commandant and Chief of Naval Operations called for in Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE).13 The Navy’s Mark VI patrol boats, Mark V special operation craft, riverine command boats, and rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) are capable of speeds of 40 knots with ranges up to 350 nm.14 Other navies have similar vessels. For example, Sweden’s CB90 armored fast-assault craft can transport half a fully equipped infantry platoon at speeds of 45 knots some 300 nm.15 Such long ranges allow the landing force to launch outside the arc of most A2/AD systems. Once inside the weapon engagement zone, the boats’ low radar and electromagnetic signatures, high speed, and maneuverability make them ideal for dispersed operations, presenting adversaries with a much harder target—small enough to use terrain and weather to mask their presence.
Small craft can provide forces with close surface fire support, a vital component missing from current surface connectors. AAVs and ACVs cannot deliver fires while crossing deep water, leaving the assaulting element vulnerable to direct fire from the shore. LCUs and LCACs, though capable of mounting limited weapon systems, are not designed to provide offensive support. Small combatants, however, are equipped with a wide array of weapons, from medium machine guns to stabilized 25-mm cannons.16 Enabling an amphibious assault force to deliver accurate, organic fires while maneuvering from the sea protects the force and increases its lethality.
Courses already taught throughout the Marine Corps could be expanded to train and certify the C/RACs. The Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific infantry company training program prepares units in the “techniques and procedures required to conduct small boat, over-the-horizon amphibious raids and the skills to operate, maintain, and employ small boats.”17 It is limited in scope but lays a foundation for future training.
Simple and effective additions would incorporate surface combatant familiarization, weapon employment from the water, and training for the full range of amphibious operations. Furthermore, the decommissioned SCC’s doctrine and training documents can form the basis of instruction and training for C/RAC operations. Using updated SCC courses, Marines would become proficient in brown-water mobility, security, command and control, and assault/assault support.18
One Team, One Fight
Because operations on inland waterways tend to blur the line between surface warfare and ground combat, naval service integration is critical to implementing C/RACs in the Fleet Marine Force. The Marine Corps must integrate more fully into the “surface force combatant team to provide a persistent presence that can influence and control events at sea and in the littorals.”19 Integrating Navy seamanship with Marine Corps ground combat prowess will maximize the key strengths of both organizations. This will give combatant commanders a self-deploying, combined-arms amphibious force capable of conducting the full range of military operations.
It may be objected that the coastal riverine mission, dedicated to amphibious landings and shallow-water protection, is too niche for the Marine Corps. But this fails to recognize the importance of such operations in the past, however ad hoc. Highly trained small-boat Marine companies have seen service in Vietnam, Central and South America, and along Iraqi waterways.20 Marine units operating out of small craft have been force multipliers in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations and full-scale combat. Furthermore, the Commandant’s Planning Guidance emphasizes the Marine Corps’ mandate to support fleet operations and naval campaigns.21 The Fleet Marine Forces’ fundamental role in operations on and from the sea demands a properly trained, manned, and equipped shallow-water force.
Others might worry, in the words of a Marine Corps University thesis, that units will “spend an exorbitant amount of time training to conduct a mission that they will likely never execute.”22 The current program for training infantry small boat companies takes seven weeks, most of it concurrent with individual skills training.23 Even with C/RAC additions to the curriculum, a company can still gain basic proficiency during the initial stages of the predeployment training cycle. Once armed with the requisite tactics, techniques, and procedures for coastal and riverine operations, infantry companies can focus on naval integration throughout the standard Marine expeditionary unit 26-week baseline training plan—complementing rather than competing with current predeployment programs.
With clear marching orders from Commandant General David H. Berger, the Marine Corps is focusing on the future fight. Reinvigorated naval roots and integration across the Department of the Navy have catapulted amphibious operations to the forefront for military planners. However, without better ways to project power ashore and maximize inland water maneuver space, the Navy and Marine Corps worry that “commanders can be expected—rightly—to approach littoral operations with a tactically defensive orientation.”24 The Navy–Marine Corps team must complement traditional ship-to-shore connectors with small boats for more dynamic and lethal platforms, and the Marine Corps must revisit its coastal riverine history to cope with long-range A2/AD weapons and exploit vital waterways once ashore.
1. CAPT Walker Mills, USMC, “Small Boats: Marines and the Future of Littoral Warfare,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 2019, 24.
2. Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, Advancing Beyond the Beach: Amphibious Operations in an Era of Precision Weapons (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2016), 33.
3. Clark and Sloman, Advancing Beyond the Beach, 3.
4. Bradley Martin, Amphibious Operations in Contested Environments: Insights for Analytical Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017), 3.
5. “Amphibious Combat Vehicle,” baesystems.com, September 2019.
6. Martin, Amphibious Operations in Contested Environments, 4.
7. Department of Defense, Amphibious Operations, Joint Publication 3-02 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2019), IV-17.
8. Kevin Rowlands, “Riverine Warfare,” Naval War College Review 71, no. 1 (2018): 3.
9. Matthew Noland, “The Global Necessity of a Riverine Force,” Small Wars Journal, smallwarsjournal.com.
10. Rowlands, “Riverine Warfare,” 57.
11. Noland, “The Global Necessity of a Riverine Force.”
12. Maria A. McMillen, “Rethinking Amphibious Operations,” Marine Corps Gazette, April 2010.
13. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Navy, 2017), 12.
14. “U.S. Navy Fact File—Mk V Special Operations Craft,” www.navy.mil.
15. “Naval Technology: Combat Boat 90,” naval-technology.com.
16. “U.S. Navy Fact File—Mk VI Patrol Boat,” www.navy.mil.
17. Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific, 2020 Course Catalog (San Diego, CA: Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific, 2019), 124.
18. John R. Shafer, “What the Heck Is ‘Small Craft Company’ Anyway?” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2001.
19. Navy and Marine Corps, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, 8.
20. Schafer, “What the Heck is ‘Small Craft Company’ Anyway?”
21. GEN David H. Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, July 2019), 2.
22. MAJ P. B. Byrne, USMC, “No Time for Boats” (capstone thesis, Marine Corps University, 2006), 4.
23. Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific, 2020 Course Catalog, 124
24. Navy and Marine Corps, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, 8.