A traditional necessity in amphibious warfare is the need to defeat land-based opposition to dominate the theater of battle. Given that, the military has long focused on projecting power ashore. Now, however, with the development of anti-access/area-denial systems (A2/AD), potential adversaries building strong navies, and the advent of drones, it’s pushing the military to consider a flip of the script. There is competition for control of the seas now, and that’s putting amphibious ships in great danger.
America’s amphibious warships will need upgrades to leverage the power of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, boost connectivity, and increase their lethality and survivability. The Navy wants to invest in upgrading the ships, but the funding and timing of upgrades is still unclear says Megan Eckstein of USNI news. She writes (abridged):
Brig. Gen. Stephen Liszewski, the director of operations at Marine Corps headquarters, said during the panel that implementing the EABO concept is “fundamentally flipping the script, if you will, on a potential adversary. So now rather than trying to figure out how we might bring a cruiser or destroyer in close to be able to provide surface fire support for a landing force, we now, through the development of some of these capabilities, what we seek to be able to do is for the Marines ashore to be able to establish a firing capability that would then look outward and be able to strike targets in support of those cruisers and destroyers and those carrier strike groups as they work to achieve sea control. And that sort of fundamental change in capability and what we bring to the fight is all aimed at increasing our ability in different parts of the world, but also aimed at deterring in the mind of a potential aggressor his decision-making calculus on whether or not he may do something that would undermine the larger strategic objectives of the United States. So it really is all about how do we employ existing capability, how do we modernize it in order to be able to generate new effects in the environment we face.”
Despite the general acknowledgement that Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) are moving the services in the right direction, it is unclear when more money will start flowing for modernization and upgrades to support these concepts. The Marine Corps is trying to field a long-range anti-ship missile as fast as possible and is working with Raytheon to integrate the Naval Strike Missile with its existing infrastructure. A long list of remaining spending needs, though, are “a high priority,” Kilby said, but “I can’t answer that specifically now” as to when those spending items will be funded.
Frank DiGiovanni, deputy director for expeditionary warfare on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N95B), said during the panel that Distributed Maritime Operations requires ships to be more lethal and more survivable, and so driving the development of concepts and strategy is the question, “how can we improve our ability to be more lethal and survivable?” That is also driving requirements for ship and connector improvements. […]
At the top of the list, though, is boosting the command and control capabilities of the amphibious assault ships to best leverage the massive amount of data the F-35B will soak up as it flies its missions. In particular, the Wasp-class LHDs cannot take in all the data the jets are collecting and share them with Marines aboard and with other ships in the fleet – something the amphibious community wants to fix.
“There’s a lot of threats that come from land, so working that connectivity between the [situational awareness] on the ground and also on the surface and in the air is an important part, we think, of the F-35B and our connectivity to the Marine Corps’ command and control system,” DiGiovanni said.
An amphibious warship capabilities evolution plan outlines the upgrades the Navy and Marine Corps want to invest in to boost connectivity, lethality and survivability of the amphibs to succeed in EABO and DMO in a high-end environment. Director of Expeditionary Warfare Maj. Gen. David Coffman last fall outlined his vision for amphib ship upgrades, which would include a mid-life overhaul period for amphibious assault ships — akin to the mid-life refueling and complex overhaul that aircraft carriers undergo — to give these ships the computers, the communications gear and more they need to fully leverage the F-35B.
“I don’t want to bring Marine Aviation down to third- and fourth-gen; I want to bring the rest of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) up to fifth-gen and exploit that technical expertise and have a fifth-gen MAGTF. The problem is, we’re having to embark a fifth-gen MAGTF on a third-gen ship, and we have to fix that. Time, now,” Coffman said in November 2018.
Marines have for several years been calling for vertical launch systems and other weapons to give them a fighting chance while operating close to shore. One of the Marine Corps’ mottos is to “Adapt, Improvise and Overcome.,” and until they receive that new equipment, that’s just what they are doing. Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD4) are seen in the photo above sailing through the Strait of Hormuz with a Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) strapped to the deck. The vehicle has better sensors for identifying small boats than the Boxer does. Faced with challenges their ships aren’t prepared for, the Navy and Marines are coming up with innovative ways to defend ships in contested waters, says Maj Gen. David Coffman. This isn’t the first time the Marines have turned to land vehicles to defend the Boxer. Gina Harkins of Military.com writes (abridged):
In July, the 11th MEU jammed one Iranian drone — and possibly two — that flew within 1,000 yards of the Boxer. Iranians also seized a British tanker in the strait last month. And in June, two oil tankers were attacked in the nearby Gulf of Oman.
“I can tell you I watched a MEU commander strap an LAV to the front of a flight deck because it had better sensors than the ship did to find small boats,” Coffman said during an event hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., last fall. “… The LAV guys will sit up there.”
Marines have put an LAV on an amphib flight deck in another disputed waterway. In September, members of the 31st MEU parked an LAV on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship Wasp during a training exercise in the South China Sea, Marine Corps Times reported last year. The MEU’s weapons company fired the LAV’s M242 chain guns and coaxial M240C medium machine guns at simulated targets in the ocean during the exercise, the paper reported, which was meant to prep sailors and Marines for transiting through dangerous waters.
Marines were able to take down the Iranian drone last month by using a weapon system that fits onto a pair of small MRZR all-terrain vehicles. The system is equipped with high-power sensors and jamming technology, which the Marines used when the drone got too close to the ship.