Distributed warfare is emerging as a key focus for the modernisation efforts of US Marine Commandant, General David Berger. At the core of these efforts is developing a new, lighter, more cost-effective amphibious warfare ship – the catch is, the Marines have to work out what it will be.
Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another.
These powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of hard and soft power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence.
Nevertheless, modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
Now, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by its unprecedented military build-up, namely the development of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region, is serving to shake-up the thinking of the US and Australia.
The geographic makeup of the region, combined with the precedent of amphibious warfare operations established throughout the Second World War campaign against Imperial Japan provides the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia with a basis from which to develop and overhaul force structures long-focused on responding to humanitarian or asymmetric contingencies.
The US Marine Corps and its globally deployed MEUs and MAGTFs provide the US with an unrivalled rapid response to contingencies ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and counterinsurgency to sea control and high-intensity power projection combat operations against a peer competitor.
Both the MEU and MAGTF concepts utilise US Navy LHDs and landing platform docks (LPD) supported by surface combatants to rapidly deploy integrated, “combined arms” forces, including amphibious landing, infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, rotary and fixed-wing air support (both lift and attack), logistics, medical and supply chain services.
As a combined arms force, both the MEU and MAGTF models incorporate four key elements:
- Command Element (CE): Providing command and control, including management and planning for manpower, intelligence, reconnaissance, operations and training, and logistics functions;
- Ground Combat Element (GCE): Composed primarily of infantry units, the GCE also includes reconnaissance (scout/sniper units); forward air controller; nuclear, biological and chemical defence; communications; logistics support and service; artillery; armour (including amphibious armoured vehicles and armoured reconnaissance); and combat engineer capabilities;
- Aviation Combat Element (ACE): Contributes to the airpower component, including fixed-wing aircraft (ranging from strike to airlift and aerial refuelling), helicopters (both attack and airlift), tiltrotor (airlift) and UAV capabilities; and
- Logistics Combat Element (LCE): Provides the majority of combat service support including heavy motor transport, ground supply, heavy engineer support, ground equipment maintenance, and advanced medical and dental support roles.
The heart of these formidable the large-deck amphibious warfare ships have grown increasingly complex, costly and vulnerable to the increasing capability of China’s growing network of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles (ASCM/ASBM) systems like the DF-16 and DF-21 series, combined with their own fleet of aircraft carriers and under construction large-deck amphibious warfare ship. The Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General David Berger, has emerged as a major advocate for implementing a concept of distributed lethality across the 'Gator Navy'.
This vulnerability has prompted a shift in the operational, tactical and strategic planning for the Marines and their amphibious warfare capabilities, while platforms like the big-deck, amphibious warfare ships, bristling with fixed-wing, fifth-generation fighters will play a role, Gen Berger is looking to adapt to the growing challenges and increase the survivability of the Marines in a contested environment.
We need a more flexible amphibious warfare ship and quick!
In response the Marines and Navy are moving quickly to meet the growing need, particularly as the Navy struggles to meet its global responsibilities with a diminishing number of ships, at the core of this is a new, flexible and relatively cheap amphibious warfare ship to provide the Corps with a distributed, survivable amphibious warfare capability.
David Larter, writing for DefenseNews, has shed some light on the Marines' thinking and methodology behind the pursuit of a new amphibious warfare ship capability, stating, "The US Marine Corps is moving as fast as it can to field a new class of light amphibious warship, but it remains unclear what it will do, where it will be based or what capabilities it will bring to the fight.
"The idea behind the ship is to take a commercial design or adapt a historic design to make a vessel capable of accommodating up to 40 sailors and at least 75 Marines to transport Marine kit over a range of about 3,500 nautical miles, according to a recent industry day presentation.
"While the presentation noted that the ship should have few tailored Navy requirements, that also creates a problem: If the Navy is going to pay tens of millions to develop, build, crew and operate them, should it not provide some additional value to the fleet?"
While Commandant, Gen Berger has long been an advocate of the 'Lightning Carrier' as a means of directly supporting deployed Marines ashore, separate to any airpower provided by the Navy or Air Force. The concept of a new, lighter amphibious warfare ship appears to also be the brainchild of Gen Berger as he continues to reshape the Marines in response to mounting A2/AD pressures.
Larter explains, "The idea of the warship arrived on the scene in 2019 with the ascension of Gen. David Berger as commandant of the Marine Corps. His planning guidance called for a smaller, more agile amphibious force that could operate inside the Chinese anti-access, area denial window in the South China Sea.
"In a recent virtual meeting of the Surface Navy Association, the chief of naval operations' director of expeditionary warfare, Major General Tracy King, emphasised that above all, the platform must be cheap and come online quickly."
"I see the efficacy of this [light amphibious warship] is really to help us in the phases and stages we’re in right now. We need to start doing things differently, as an extension of the fleet, under the watchful eye of our Navy, engaging with our partners and allies and building partner capacity: We ought to be doing that right now. I think we’re late to need with building the light amphibious warship, which is why we’re trying to go so quickly," MajGen King said on 27 August.
A core component of this evolution is integrating the proposed vessel into a distributed lethality network across the fleet, enabling the Marines to more directly and adequately respond, without putting manpower and larger, expensive ships and their embarked forces at risk.
MajGen King explained to Larter, "[But] I really see it benefiting from [that architecture] more. We need to build an affordable ship that can get after the ability to do maritime campaigning in the littorals."
Food for thought and supporting the Australia-US alliance
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities and competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, place the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Further compounding Australia’s precarious position is an acceptance that “Pax Americana”, or the post-Second World War “American Peace”, is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Today, strategic sea lines of communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy, including Australia, which has become vulnerable, as events in both the Middle East and south-east Asia show.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic, economic, diplomatic and military capabilities, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
In the second part of this detailed analysis, Defence Connect will take a closer look at the force structure development, acquisition and capability development responses outlined in the Marine Corps ‘Force Design 2030’ and what they mean for the future of both the Marine Corps and potentially Australia's own burgeoning amphibious operations forces.
Both fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the regional balance of power, as the world's premier amphibious operations and maritime-based power projection force, the restructure of US Marines to better respond to 'great power competition' presents interesting concepts for Australian consideration.