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01/07/18: Accelerating the Amphibious Assault Force Renaissance

By Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy (Retired)

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By way of background, my career path took me to naval aviation and I flew helicopters during the first two-thirds of my thirty years in uniform. I was part of the LAMPS community, which meant that I spent that part of my career on U.S. Navy cruisers, destroyers and frigates, flying first the SH-2F Seasprite, and later the SH-60B Seahawk. As everyone in the Surface Navy community knows, in those Cold War days, our primary mission (ship and helicopter team) was ASW.

After helicopter squadron command tours, I gravitated to the am- phibious assault navy, and wound up having three tours in the “Gators.” I remember this like it was yesterday when, during my first meeting with my commodore, Captain Pete Hedley, he gave me the inside-baseball scoop about the amphibious assault navy, telling me: “Here’s all you have to know about this business: its ships that sink, and tanks that float.” Talk about good gouge.

As most baby boomer and Gen X readers of Surface SITREP know, “back in the day,” the amphibious assault navy wasn’t blessed with the most modern or most capable ships. Sure, U.S. Navy Am- phibs had a storied history, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and other, smaller, “brushfire wars.” However, the reality of the Cold War threat, and concerns about 350 Warsaw Pact divisions crashing through the Fulda Gap and dominating Western Europe, meant that in the grand scheme of things, the amphibious assault navy wasn’t “the show.”

In some ways, the amphibious assault navy’s past success hindered its modernization as the Cold War drew to a close, and the United States emerged (for a time) as a uni-power. When amphibious ships were mentioned, the words conjured up visions of scores, perhaps hundreds, of ships, boats and craft moving toward a landing beach at an agonizingly slow speed reminiscent of the World War II-era assaults brought to the screen so vividly in movies such as Saving Private Ryan. It was an enduring image.

The Beginning of the Amphibious Assault Renaissance

Desert Storm was an inflection point for the amphibious assault navy. The U.S. Navy’s contributions during the Gulf War are generally well-chronicled, but what may be less well-known is how the Na- vy-Marine Corps team embarked in amphibious ships contributed to the coalition’s ultimate victory.

Historians have begun to write about the strategic advantage con- ferred by the amphibious task force’s presence in the Western Ara- bian Gulf, which tied up divisions of Iraqi troops who were ready to repel an amphibious assault by Marines embarked in those massed Amphibs. That diversion helped make the “left hook” through the des- ert as successful as it was. In fact, documents captured from retreat- ing Iraqi troops – as well as analysis conducted well after the war – show the extent to which the very real and very visible threat of an amphibious invasion from the sea tremendously complicated Iraqi defense strategy.

But it was other missions during the Gulf War that presaged the direction the amphibious assault navy would take at the turn of the millennium. The ARG/MEU team performed a wide range of missions from gas and oil platform takedowns, to amphibious raids and feints, to maritime interdiction operations, to specialized demolition ops, to a range of other missions.

It’s worth noting, however, that while amphibious ships such as the Wasp-Class LHD and Whidbey Island Class LSD were part of the U.S. Navy’s force in the Gulf during Desert Storm, the ARG/MEU team still operated from single-screw command ships (LPHs), unsta- ble tank landing ships (LSTs), limited-capacity dock landing ships (Anchorage-class LSDs), and single mission amphibious cargo ships (LKAs).

During the 1990s, these older ships were phased out, and newer “L-ships” began to enter the fleet, and still newer amphibious shipswere being designed and built: Wasp-Class LHDs, America-ClassLHAs, San Antonio-Class LPDs, and Harpers Ferry-Class LSDs – allmodern ships that bore little resemblance to the predecessor am-phibious assault ships. At the turn of the millennium, the Navy-Ma-rine Corps team was at sea, training and exercising in new ships,craft, aircraft and vehicles, and evolving new CONOPS, tactics,techniques and procedures. It appeared that the renaissance inexpeditionary assault operations was gaining momentum.

A Strategic Pause in the Renaissance

It isn’t a stretch to say that the deadly terrorist attacks of Septem-ber 11, 2001 changed everything for the United States – and forthe world. For the U.S. military, the lion’s share of the focus in thewake of those attacks was on Operation Enduring Freedom andOperation Iraqi Freedom. During these conflicts, the U.S. MarineCorps was used extensively as a land force, and did not deployfrequently aboard U.S. Navy amphibious ships. While new Navyand Marine Corps platforms, systems, sensors and weapons werestill being built and fielded, traditional ARG/MEU deployments,where the Navy-Marine Corps team trained together, were limit-ed in number.

Today, the Marine Corps is largely disengaged from those con-flicts and is, in the words of former commandant of the U.S. MarineCorps, General James Amos, is “Returning to its amphibious roots.”The importance of this emphasis is difficult to overstate, becausefielding new Navy and Marine Corps platforms, systems, sensorsand weapons, and having them enter service is one thing, but ac-tually utilizing them in expeditionary strike group operations isquite another.

This fifteen year hiatus in sustained ARG-MEU deployments ob-scured the fact that no new platforms and system are perfect, andnot using them in real operations or challenging exercises obscuresgaps in capabilities that still linger even as billion dollar ships arecommissioned and take to sea. Now that the Marine Corps is onceagain embarked in amphibious assault ships in force, and con-ducting real-world operations and increasingly complex exercises,new capability gaps that need to be addressed are surfacing.

An Impressive Lineup of Expeditionary Assault Ships

U.S. naval expeditionary forces have remained relatively robusteven as the size of the U.S. Navy has shrunk from 594 ships in1987 to 272 ships in early 2018. Naval expeditionary strikegroups comprise a substantial percentage of the U.S. Navy’s cur-rent fleet. And the blueprint for the future fleet the U.S. Navy isbuilding, as seen in Congressional Research Service Navy ForceStructure and Shipbuilding Plans, maintains, and even increases,that percentage of amphibious ships.

But as new, billion-dollar naval expeditionary force ships enter theFleet, Sailors and Marines have begun to identify capability gaps.Fortunately for the Navy and Marine Corps, few of these capa-bility gaps have resulted from deficiencies in the major platforms,systems, sensors and weapons currently being fielded. Rather,needs have been identified that can be met by lower cost, small-er systems and sensors that embark in these expeditionary forceships, including many commercial-off-the-shelf products.

Today, the Navy-Marine Corps team is looking to new technologyto complement the capabilities its amphibious ships bring to the fight. It should come as no surprise that the systems and sensors mostin demand are those that help the expeditionary strike group gatherintelligence prior to any amphibious assault or raid.

One of the technologies that offer the most promise in this regardis that of unmanned systems. The reason for embracing unmannedsystems to perform this mission is straightforward. Instead of having Marines, Sailors, or Special Operators gather intelligence – and putthemselves at high risk in doing so – unmanned systems have theability to reduce the risk to human life in high threat areas, to deliverpersistent surveillance over areas of interest, and to provide optionsto warfighters that derive from the inherent advantages of unmannedtechnologies.

Unmanned Systems as the New Critical Enabler

There is little question that unmanned systems are crucial to the futureof the Navy and Marine Corps. Indeed, each of three studies (NavyProject Team, Report to Congress: Alternative Future Fleet PlatformArchitecture Study, October 27, 2016, MITRE, Navy Future Fleet Plat-form Architecture Study, July 1, 2016, and CSBA, Restoring AmericanSeapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, Janu-ary 23, 2017) commissioned by the CNO staff recommend dramaticincreases in the number of unmanned systems in the Navy and Ma-rine Corps inventory.

The importance of unmanned systems to the Navy and Marine Corpswas highlighted in a January 2018 memorandum from Assistant Sec-retary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, Mr.James Geurts. In his cover letter, Mr. Geurts noted:

The United States Navy and Marine Corps have a strategic imperativeto exploit emergent and rapidly developing unmanned and autonomoustechnologies. In order to accelerate the development and fielding ofunmanned systems and to ensure an integrated and efficient effort,the Department of the Navy (DON) has established aggressive goalsfor the acceleration of the DON’s unmanned systems and to ensure theDON remains at the forefront of these emergent capabilities.

The detailed memorandum goes on to note that, “Unmanned andautonomous technologies are transforming the way countries conductmilitary operations…The use of unmanned and autonomous systemswill change the way we fight. Increased operational use of unmannedand autonomous systems promises to unleash a revolutionary capa-bility for our naval forces.”

As readers of Surface SITREP know, unmanned systems are a key el-ement of the Navy’s Surface Force Strategy. In articulating the waysthat the Surface Navy will contribute to a “Return to Sea Control,” thestrategy notes, “Distributed Lethality spreads the combat power ofthe Fleet, holds targets at risk from multiple attack axes, and forcesadversaries to defend a greater number of targets…In addition tocurrent ship construction plans, we will design, procure and build thefuture Fleet to raise the combat capability of surface ships.”

Unmanned systems are a key part – perhaps the linchpin – of raisingthis combat capability. It is clear that low-cost unmanned maritimesystems will be a key to achieving distributed lethality across all ofthe Navy’s surface platforms. This is especially true in the amphibiousassault navy, which suffers from both a lack of offensive and defen-sive weapons, as well as stand-off range with the weapons theseships do possess.

While unmanned maritime systems have not had the years, or some-times decades, of development that many unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have enjoyed, theirpotential rivals that of these air and ground systems. Under thestewardship of various Naval Sea Systems Command programoffices, these systems have enjoyed a renewed focus and devel-opmental imperative.

There is little disagreement regarding the promise of unmannedmaritime systems and their ability to deliver game-changing ca-pabilities for the Navy-after-Next. However, the pace of this in-sertion into future surface force ships will be directly linked to thefunding allocated to this development. This is the area whereunmanned maritime systems must “catch up” with their air andground counterparts.

A Focus on Unmanned Surface Vehicles

Operating as they do at the air-water interface on the surface ofthe oceans, unmanned surface vehicles not only have their own dis-crete—and growing—list of current and future naval missions, butthey can also provide the “connective tissue” between unmannedaerial vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles, as well as theirmanned counterparts.

Like all unmanned systems, unmanned surface vehicles are criticalassets in all scenarios across the spectrum of conflict. Unmannedsurface vehicles enable our warfighters to gain access to areaswhere the risk to manned platforms is unacceptably high due toa plethora of enemy systems designed to deny access: from inte-grated air defense systems, to surface ships and submarines, tolong-range ballistic and cruise missiles, to a wide range of othersystems. These unmanned surface vehicles can provide greaterrange and persistence on station, leading to enhanced situationalawareness of an objective area.

Unmanned surface vehicles are especially adept at conductingthe intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission, andare typically better suited for this mission than their unmannedaerial vehicle counterparts for a number of reasons, particularlytheir ability to remain undetected by enemy sensors, as well astheir dwell time on station. By performing near-shore intelligencepreparation of the battlespace (IPB), unmanned surface vehi-cles increase the standoff, reach, and distributed lethality of the manned platforms they support.

But it is one thing to state the aspiration for more unmanned systemsin the Fleet, and quite another to develop and deploy them. Thereare compelling reasons why naval expeditionary forces have beenproactive in experimenting with emerging unmanned systems.

Testing and Evaluating Unmanned Systems

While the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have embraced unmannedsystems of all types as part of their future force structures, and awide-range of studies looking at the makeup of the Sea Servicesin the future have endorsed this shift, it is the Navy-Marine Corpsexpeditionary forces that have been the most active in evaluating awide variety of unmanned systems in various exercises, experimentsand demonstrations.

Two of the most important events in 2017, based on the numberof new technologies introduced, were the Ship-to-Shore ManeuverExploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), as well as Bold Alligator 2017. These eventshighlighted the potential of unmanned naval systems to be force-multipliers for expeditionary strike groups.

There are few missions that are more hazardous to the NavyMarineCorps team than putting troops ashore in the face of a preparedenemy force. For this reasons, S2ME2 ANTX focused heavily on usingunmanned surface vehicles to conduct critical ISR and IPB missionsagainst enemy formations.

The S2ME2 ANTX demonstration focused on addressing gaps in ca-pabilities that advanced unmanned maritime systems might close forthe critical ISR and IPB missions needed before conducting the am-phibious ship-to-shore mission. Thus, S2ME2 ANTX had a specific fo-cus on unmanned systems—especially unmanned surface systems—that could provide real-time ISR and IPB of the battlespace.

During the assault phase of S2ME2 ANTX, the blue force used a USVto frustrate enemy defenses. The expeditionary commander select-ed an eight-foot man-portable MANTAS USV (one of a family ofstealthy, low profile, USVs). The USV swam undetected into the ene-my port (the Del Mar Boat Basin on the Southern California coast),and relayed information to the amphibious force command centerusing its TASKER C2 system. Once this larger-scale ISR mission wascomplete, the MANTAS USV was driven to the surf zone to provideIPB information crucial to planners. This included obstacle location(especially mine-like objects) and beach gradient.

Carly Jackson, SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific’s director of pro-totyping for Information Warfare and one of the organizers ofS2ME2, explained how unmanned systems supported ISR and IPBmissions, noting:

We use the Navy’s organic labs and warfare centers to bring togetheremerging technologies and innovation to solve a specific problem. It’sfocused on unmanned systems, with a big emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

S2ME2 ANTX was a precursor to a major Navy Marine Corps expeditionary exercise, Bold Alligator 2017. This live exercise was specifically designed to demonstrate maritime and amphibious force capabilities, and was focused on planning and conducting amphibiousoperations, as well as evaluating new technologies that support theexpeditionary force.

Due to the need to sortie amphibious ships to provide disaster assistance in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, theexercise featured a smaller number of amphibious forces, but didinclude a carrier strike group. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Bri-gade (MEB) directed events, and was embarked in USS Arlington(LPD-24), USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43), and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44).

The 2nd MEB used a large (12-foot) MANTAS USV, equipped witha Gyro Stabilized SeaFLIR230 EO/IR Camera and a BlueViewM900 Forward Looking Imaging Sonar, to provide ISR and IPBprior to the ship-to-shore amphibious assault. The sonar providedbottom imaging of the surf zone, looking for objects – especiallymines – and other obstacles that could pose a hazard to the land-ing craft.

The early phases of Bold Alligator 2017 were dedicated to long-range reconnaissance. Operators at the exercise command centerat Naval Station Norfolk drove the six-foot and 12-foot MANTASUSVs off North and South Onslow Beaches, as well as up the In-ter-Coastal Waterway. Both USVs streamed live, high-resolutionvideo and sonar images to the command center. The video imagesshowed vehicles, personnel, and other objects on the beaches andin the Inter-Coastal Waterway. The sonar images provided surf-zone bottom analysis and located objects and obstacles that couldpresent a hazard during the assault phase.

Bold Alligator 2017 underscored the ability of surface unmannedsystems to provide real-time ISR and IPB. This allowed plannersto orchestrate the amphibious assault to ensure that the landingcraft passing through the surf zone didn’t encounter objects thatcould disable—or even destroy—these assault craft. This linkageenabled decision-makers not on-scene to direct the assault with ahigh degree of confidence.

The Navy’s Commitment to Unmanned Maritime Systems

One of the major challenges to the Navy making a substantialcommitment to unmanned maritime systems is the fact that they arerelatively new and their development has been “under the radar”for all but a few professionals in the science and technology (S&T),research and development (R&D), requirements, and acquisitioncommunities.

That is now changing. Late last year, the program manager of theNavy program office (PMS-406) with stewardship over unmannedsurface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles, discussed hisprograms with USNI News. The title of the article, “Navy Racingto Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” cap-tured the essence of where unmanned maritime systems will fit intomorrow’s Navy. As the program manager noted, “In addition toprograms of record, the Navy and Marine Corps have been test-ing as many unmanned vehicle prototypes as they can. Many ofthese systems are small surface and underwater vehicles.”

If my three tours in the amphibious assault navy taught me any-thing, it is that the ship-to-shore movement of an expeditionaryassault force remains the most hazardous mission for any navy.Real-time ISR and IPB will spell the difference between successand failure – and failure means the loss of life. For this reason, theNavy and Marine Corps team is “racing” to field unmanned mari-time systems, and especially unmanned surface systems, to directlysupport our expeditionary forces. Clearly, this initiative will makethe U.S. Navy’s surface force even more lethal.

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