The Marine Corps/Navy team of the 1920s and ‘30s recognized that it would need vehicles that could move from ship to shore independently and built 1,225 from 1940 to 1943. These LVT(1)s could carry more than two tons (4,500 pounds) of cargo and served in myriad combat and combat service support roles.
Today, planning has been restricted and the Marine Corps’ vehicles and equipment have become so specialized they have limited usefulness. This affects training, evaluation, and core competencies. It creates Marine expeditionary unit certification exercises where objectives are built into cookie-cutter specialized missions/raids that—as U.S. history in the Pacific teaches—will not be specialized or obvious in conflict. Marine Corps strategy and the amphibious connectors used to execute it are wholly inadequate.
The Current Challenge
Currently, Marine Corps forces on board amphibious ships rely on landing craft utility (LCU, 1960s), landing craft air cushion (LCAC, 1980s), other connectors on board maritime prepositioning ships, and armored amphibious vehicles (AAVs, 1970s) to get ashore. These piecemeal connectors do not equate to a whole-force amphibious concept. This concept will be necessary to meet several key requirements in a future conflict against a peer force:
1) Ability to logistically sustain combat forces ashore in a Wake Island– or Guadalcanal-like scenario (why does the Corps assume amphibious raids will always have a successful planned withdrawal? It must plan and take action for the worst-case scenario, not the best)
2) Flexibility to move both combat and combat service support assets ashore amphibiously, without external asset assistance
3) Training the force to embrace, understand, and practice amphibious operations (perhaps the most important point for the future of the organization)
4) Dispersing/distributing operations and infusing independence and the “right kind of burden” to junior leaders across the Indo-Pacific.
To meet these requirements, the United States must “amphibize,” decentralize, and automate (where possible) the Marine Corps. This means transition Oshkosh seven-ton trucks to vehicles that can traverse currents as well as (or better) AAVs in the open ocean; embracing automated/remote driving for some, if not all, convoy movements; and converting the force from one currently burning money doing something different from the Army—without doing it amphibiously.
Finally, it means giving lower-level tactical units (companies and below) the independence to operate under the Marine expeditionary force construct (specifically in the Indo-Pacific, but also across the world) to accomplish real-world missions.
What Could Be: Transformed and “Amphibized”
The following is a hypothetical scenario using a new-look “wholly amphibious” concept for the Marine Corps:
Corporal Ramirez is one of ten supply chain engineers serving with a new task-organized mini-Marine air ground task force (MAGTF–company-sized, no more than 200 personnel) sometimes on board rotating high-speed vessels, sometimes on board amphibious ships, sometimes ashore on a nearby archipelago, sometimes attached to friendly cargo vessels, but absolutely geographically modular and dispersed.
He is using a mobile laptop-like terminal and is responsible for and controls five separate retrofitted and reconstructed trucks that have been “rigged for sea (amphibious)” and “made smart” with 12 separate cameras affixed 360 degrees around them provided by an agreement with Tesla through the Defense Innovation Unit. He controls five separate screens with complex user-interfaces that he is now trained in (for the past 20 years of his life on a phone or otherwise). He has done this all before. His great responsibility has attuned him to mission parameters and his direct impact as the flesh-and-blood lead for his automated trucks keeps him tied to mission success.
His orders have come electronically down the chain and then have been briefed to him by his captain in a small-unit format to himself and his nine compatriots on their terminals. His captain has had at least one year of “amphib/sea time” in one of the 36-plus “mini-MAGTFs” that now dot the Pacific rim in 12 countries, and is now in command of his own contingent—working with local host-nation partners on everything from theater security cooperation, horizontal/vertical construction, and as a small, but potent, humanitarian-assistance-and-disaster-relief cell. The responsiveness of these units are next-minute and their dispersal makes them hard targets.
Ramirez will be taking the “in-person trip” this time, the forward-area refueling point (FARP) team will launch in the next hour. His captain has his own dashboard reflecting visual representations of all logistical stats and a knee-board-affixed tablet that has the task-organized unit’s route, planned overlaid on real-time satellite imagery from the Orbital Logistics Drop System (OLDS) that can also give on-demand orbital supply and equipment to Marines on the ground anywhere on Earth in minutes.This is enabled by an Anduril Industries Lattice artificial intelligence (AI) system that combines multiple sensors and fuses them into a single decision-making dashboard.
Within an hour, the FARP team has launched on board the amphibious vehicles, some 30 minutes after the elderly (but retrofitted, potent, and amphibious) AAVs rolled out. The entire FARP is only 50 Marines total—the logistics contingent has been minimized the most. Everything can lift itself—“geographically modular.”
In another hour, the Marines are on the beach and moving toward the objective, an old semi-asphalt airfield that will serve as the location for their FARP. Ramirez’s captain has not needed to pass their position report through SATCOM, as the Lattice AI has automatically relayed his position into the Amazon Web Systems cloud and blockchain, securing his location and movements to the cloud as a massive communications node visible to all “blue” forces.
Before Corporal Ramirez hears a “bzzzzz” above him, the Lattice AI has already identified the drone threat and, without prompting, initiated the organic jamming system. Simultaneously, the first and second aircraft land for refueling and rearming and quickly take off for more sorties. The FARP has just completed when the first ballistic missiles strike the airfield, resulting in no casualties and one damaged retrofitted seven-ton. It is, however, able to limp back under its own power back to sea.
Two-and-a-half hours after mission receipt, the Marines are heading back to a 40-year-old retrofitted black-bottom ship—with a deceptive, third-country flag, having completed their mission.
The Marine Corps is looking for ways to solve this problem. Former Marine Corps Commandant General James F. Amos said it best: “We need to change the paradigm here and not limit our thought to how we do business today.” Current Commandant General James H. Berger has jump-started this new paradigm, but the idea needs structure.
That new paradigm, and General Berger’s guidance, can be executed through the “amphibization” and decentralization of Marine Corps forces:
1) Amplify the amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) program to include logistics variants or retrofit/replace or revamp the medium tactical vehicle replacement (MTVR, seven-ton), logistic vehicle system replacement (LVSR), and joint light tactical vehicle (JLTV) for amphibious purposes. The latest planning guidance calls for “an inexpensive, self-deploying connector capable of delivering rolling stock on or near-shore in a contested littoral.” Give the Marines full control and execution of this connector/logistics asset.
2) Build “mini-MAGTFs” across the Pacific Rim and place Marine O-3 or O-4s (of any specialty) in charge of them with multirole, independent missions that include the overall operational plan for the Pacific, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, theater security cooperation, contingency contracting capabilities, and 24/7/365 partnerships with friendly host-nation forces.
3) Rotate and require all Marines serve tours in amphibious/shipboard/mini-MAGTF postings (to include all Navy vessels, such as refueling tankers, aircraft carriers, and destroyers—not just amphibious ships).
4) Leverage the Defense Innovation Unit to immediately test, source, integrate, and introduce self-driving, AI, ground drone technology from civilian corporations to Marine Corps pilot projects under a new section of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (and move them to the fleet at the smallest unit level, not in Quantico).
5) “Free” the MPF ships from their current structure—enable their use directly at the fleet level. They should not “appear” only for certain exercises; they should be a constant fixture of Marine Corps training, exercises, and operations. Test their use in deception, task-organized forces, and dispersion across combatant commands.
The above will amplify the Marine Corps’ speed to sustainment, allied/coalition partnerships, outsized flexibility, and infuse Marines with the understanding of their primary capability and purpose while differentiating their systems and applicability from the Army.
With the right application of current technology, foresight, and understanding of current problems, there will be no doubt Marines can get to where they need to be—from ship to shore to prosecute the enemy.