On the morning of 3 April 1982, the Argentine commander off the coast of South Georgia Island asked the small British garrison at the Grytviken Whaling Station to surrender. Ashore were 22 Royal Marines under the command of 22-year-old Lieutenant Keith Mills, with orders to “resist an invasion using force,” and the scientists of the British Antarctic Survey.1 Mills refused to surrender, and his Marines opened fire on the Argentine landing party, pinning down dozens of Argentine commandos while also shooting down one of their helicopters.
The action fought that day has long been viewed as more of a symbolic gesture of defiance than a concerted attempt to defeat the invasion. It was clear that even if the Royal Marines fought to the last man, Grytviken would fall to the Argentine landing force. The nearest reinforcements, a British garrison of 69 Royal Marines and 11 Royal Navy sailors hundreds of miles away at Port Stanley in the Falklands, had surrendered 24 hours earlier. Further, the Marines with Lieutenant Mills were equipped with mix of infantry weapons—rifles, a machine gun, and a single 84-mm antitank recoilless rifle with five rounds.2
When the large Argentinian corvette ARA Guerrico sailed close to shore to unleash its 100-mm and twin 40-mm guns, and the Marines responded with machine gun and sniper fire—raking the ship’s bridge and suppressing the open twin 40-mm mount. The Marines also struck the Guerrico twice with their 84-mm recoilless rifle, breaching the hull around the waterline and neutralizing the important Exocet antiship missile launcher.3
The Royal Marines took only one casualty but exacted a much heavier toll on the Argentines who suffered several casualties including three dead, the loss of a helicopter, and a total mission kill to the Guerrico. One participant in the battled remembered the latter as “no more than a floating wreck,” with a 30-degree list.4 Lawrence Freedman’s official history called the damage to the Guerrico both “substantial” and “extensive.”5
This is the type of asymmetric exchange that, if scalable, could have major implications in shaping the calculus of modern-day combat in the littorals. Today, Marines armed with new and emerging weapons such as loitering munitions could replicate the threat to surface vessels posed by the Royal Marines at Grytviken and do so at longer ranges and with less risk to force. Equipping infantry Marines with loitering munitions to employ against adversary surface vessels can give Marines an important antisurface capability and help keep the infantry relevant in littoral combat.
The U.S. Marine Corps is in the middle of a radical force redesign to align the service with the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept. To enable this rudder shift, the Marine Corps has divested all of its tanks and is in the process of converting the bulk of its artillery from cannons to rocket launchers while expanding the number of unmanned aircraft squadrons, per the 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance and subsequent force design reports. Marine leaders envision a future in which small, distributed Marine units employ unmanned vehicles and antiship missiles to win the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight, deny enemies freedom of movement at sea and support the Navy in its efforts to achieve and maintain maritime dominance.
The Marine Corps’ ability to strike targets at sea is critical to this vision. Currently, the Marines do not have land-based units equipped and trained to fight ships. Because of this, the Marine Corps is pursuing two programs that should field large, capable coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCM) to be used against adversary surface ships; the Naval Strike Missile and a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk cruise missile. These heavy-hitting weapons will bring a significant new capability to U.S. forces operating in the littorals, creating the ability to establish formidable bastions that will change the way operational planners view the maritime battlespace.
Left unsaid in the Marine Corps plan, but as noted in commentary, is that this force redesign leaves an uncertain role for light forces and Marine infantry. What can a rifle platoon contribute to sea denial let alone sea control? The defense of South Georgia provides a template both in tactical planning and weaponeering.
Once the Marine Corps is fielding long-range CDCMs, the logistical and operational challenges associated with deploying them will be immense. High cost, frequent maintenance because of technical complexity, and the tactical advantages of large missile salvos likely will contribute to establishing multilauncher batteries with platoon- or even company-sized footprints needed to employ, defend, operate, and maintain them ashore. The cost and difficulty of deploying and sustaining such a force will tend to limit their use to regions in the littorals that are accessible, sustainable, and most worth defending. What then is the planner to do with the positions in the littorals worth defending but not suitable to CDCM deployment?
The defense of South Georgia Island shows that warships can be “mission killed,” or forced to withdraw, by relatively small caliber weapons employed effectively by small units of ground forces. While they certainly would have loved to have had them, the Marines ashore at Grytviken did not need CDCMs with hundreds of pounds of explosives to force back and seriously damage the ARA Guerrico. Two of the five rounds fired from the single recoilless rifle that day were critical hits—one penetrating the hull and another neutralizing the Exocet launcher (the other three rounds misfired). Ships today are equally vulnerable, if not more so, because modern warships lack serious armor protecting their communications gear, radars, antiship missile launchers, and gun systems. These systems are often exposed on the deck or superstructure, where even fragmentary or airburst munitions would likely force a warship temporarily out of action. Given the limited amount of repair parts typically on board, this could force a ship to head back to port for repairs, possibly taking it out of the fight for weeks, even if the crew is largely intact and there is little likelihood of the vessel sinking outright.
Weapons development in the areas of loitering munitions make them the ideal to supplement Marine Corps CDCM deployments in the littorals. Systems such as the Switchblade, Hero series, and Orbiter 1k are cheap enough to buy in large quantities and small enough to be easily transportable—they have proliferated around the world and are in use with at least 11 different militaries.
Loitering munitions range in size from small enough to fit in a backpack or others that could be carried on a small truck or all-terrain vehicle, or air lifted or dropped directly to forward positions. Their warheads are small—typically less than 10 pounds of explosives—but a mixture of fragmentary and shaped charges would be sufficient to destroy or critically damage many essential systems on a warship. Equally important to their small size and weight is their striking range—the Switchblade has an employment range approximately equal to that of most corvette-sized guns, the models such as the Hero-70 and Hero-120 have ranges up to 20 nautical miles (nm). Harop, a larger, vehicle-mounted loitering munition, has a range of more than 100 nm—roughly equal to the Naval Strike Missile.
Another important attribute of loitering munitions is their ability to potentially overcome adversary self-defense capabilities because of their small radar signatures, ability to fly at high altitudes (some more than 15,000 feet) and then dive vertically down on their targets, and potential for employment in swarms. These qualities combine to exploit fundamental weaknesses of many modern combat systems, most of which are oriented toward detecting and defeating large, high-speed, and highly maneuverable missiles flying just above the sea level. Loitering munitions also can carry nonkinetic payloads to jam, neutralize, or even reconnoiter and map enemy systems and defenses in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Introducing loitering munitions that the Marine Corps can use to strike warships creates combined-arms opportunities—a flight of loitering munitions autonomously launched from a small rocky outcropping could knock some of an enemy ship’s self-defense weapons offline, sending that ship home for repairs or setting conditions for a strike by larger CDCMs that deliver the coup de grace. Loitering munitions also can strike ships at close range—inside the minimum-engagement range for larger missiles. With smaller, cheaper, and more mobile loitering munitions, small units and teams operating as “stand-in forces” can contribute to sea denial and expand the threats the Marines pose to an enemy. The case for employing these weapons goes beyond speculation—loitering munitions have already been used with great effect in recent history and have proved their worth on the future battlefield.
For example, the Russian S-300 air-defense system, and its successor the S-400 are regarded as some of the world’s most effective air defense systems. A naval variant of the S-300 system is used on the Russian Federation battle cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, slated to return to sea by 2022.The China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has fielded a similar variant of the S-300, known as the HQ-9, for its Type-055 destroyers.
Despite the accolades and wide implementation, however, the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan demonstrates just how vulnerable long-vaunted air-defense systems such as the S-300 are from loitering munitions. Azerbaijan claims to have destroyed 372 motorized targets with loitering munitions, including six S-300 air-defense systems with the Harop it employs. While ships with multilayered defense systems may provide a more challenging target, the effectiveness of loitering munitions like Harop against the S-300 cannot be ignored.
Critics of loitering munitions might be right to point out that the Marine Corps needs robust weaponry capable of crippling and sinking large warships if it is going to maintain maritime relevance, and that loitering munitions do not compare to CDCMs for sending ships to the bottom. But the Marine Corps has already demonstrated its intent to acquire loitering munitions for operations inland—why not acquire systems that could be used against ships as well supplement the CDCM mission area? Loitering munitions can give Marines flexibility and redundancy to further shape the battlespace and establish maritime defense-in-depth to further complicate enemy decision-making. After all, what if the enemy achieves adequate defensive systems to defeat CDCMs fielded? The late naval theorist Captain Wayne Hughes long maintained that “Often the second-best weapon performs better because the enemy, at great cost in offensive effectiveness, takes extraordinary measures to survive the best weapon.”6 What if the manufacturing base cannot keep up with the orders, or if the Army or the Navy decides to switch programs and the contract is killed? From their first days of training, Marines are taught that “two is one and one is none”—a saying that emphasizes the importance of redundancy for key equipment and capabilities. In light of Congress’ decision last year to “slash” funding for other CDCM acquisitions, building redundancy into the Marine Corps plan to shift to the littorals is critical.
Whether the Marine Corps adopts loitering munitions for use at sea or not, it needs to be wary of how real the threat can be against U.S. forces as well. Small adversary units armed with such loitering munitions and modern targeting technology could conduct line-of-sight and even over-the-horizon engagements that would disrupt and even deny adversary use of the littorals. Ships also are vulnerable in port, where they cannot maneuver and may not be operating all their defensive systems and during transits of straits and chokepoints. Even routine freedom-of-navigation operations would be seriously complicated by such varied and widely dispersed threats. With the ability to control these munitions remotely or even to set them up for autonomous employment, small units could receive, deploy, and provide command and control, maintenance, and security for large batteries of these munitions that would be sustained by innovative logistics concepts. Unlike most cruise missiles, these weapons would need little to no modification for use against ground targets, making them even more disruptive to defensive planning.
Equipping infantry with loitering munitions at the small-unit level gives a military another way to target enemy warships and contribute to sea denial with that “second-best weapon.” Though the Marine Corps is already underway in their acquisition of large CDCMs, those weapons will not be able to make it to every battlefield the Marine Corps is called on to enter. While there is no doubt that in a time of need Marines would turn their rifles and mortars toward the sea to engage enemy warships, just as their Royal Commando brethren did on South Georgia Island and their forefathers did on Wake Island well before that, they should not be asked to do so until they have had a chance to even the odds with more effective weapons. The Marine Corps needs to continue to search for lethality and equip Marines with redundant options for attacking enemy vessels like loitering munitions.
1. Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: Volume II, revised edition (London, UK: Routledge, 2007) 13.
2. George Thomsen, Too Few, Too Far: The True Story of a Royal Marine Commando (Gloucestershire, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2012) 141.
3. Thomsen, Too Few, Too Far, 140–45.
4. Thomsen, 146.
5. Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, 14.
6. Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics ad Coastal Combat, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 190.