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09/05/19: Providing secure logistics for amphibious assault with unmanned surface vehicles

What is coming down the pipe in naval and maritime technology?



Introduction

After almost two decades of languishing in near-obscurity while U.S. Marine Corps forces were engaged in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps amphibious assault force is experiencing a revival. The reason is clear: this warfighting formation is the one that is most vital in a wide-array of missions across the globe and across the spectrum of conflict. This has been true throughout this history of the Navy-Marine Corps team, and is perhaps more true today as the United States faces a new spectrum of threats from peer-competitors, to unstable rogue states, to the threat of global terrorism.

While today’s Navy-Marine Corps amphibious assault force is unlikely to conduct a major, brigade-level amphibious offensive involving thousands of troops, the ability to put a substantial number of Marines and gear ashore in response to terrorist activity, a natural disaster, or to deliver credible combat power for a higher-end fight is something the U.S. military must be prepared to do. Indeed, as the Director of National Intelligence capstone publication, Global Trends: Paradox of Progress, notes, “The chance of conflict in the next five years has never been higher.”1 U.S. Marines will likely be in any conflict engaged in by this nation.

Most people – and even many naval professionals – have only a rudimentary understanding of the complexities of amphibious operations. Unlike armies that move supplies over land with an armada of trucks and other vehicles, everything that Marines need when they land on the beach must travel with them in a variety of amphibious assault vehicles and landing craft, often in the face of well-entrenched enemy fire.

But that is only half the story. Once the Marines – who are equipped with only what they can carry in their pack – are on the beach and in the fight, everything they need to keep fighting must be delivered to them from the amphibious assault ships standing offshore. This includes ammunition (and lots of it), food, water, medical support, fuel for vehicles, and every other item imaginable.

The name for this resupply effort is logistics. This military art has been a mainstay of warfare for millennia. As Alexander the Great famously said, “My logisticians are a humorless lot…they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.” Over 2,300 years later, logistics is still vital to any military operation, and of all the U.S. military services, the U.S. Marine Corps is the one that is defining and refining this art.


The Navy-Marine Corps Team: Leading the Way in the Military Art of Logistics

Almost four decades ago, General Robert Barrow, USMC, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, coined a phrase that is still a staple of U.S. War College curricula, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” Today, that emphasis on logistics is ingrained in U.S. Marine Corps DNA. As Brigadier General Arthur Pasagian, USMC, Commander, Marine Corps Systems Command, noted at a recent symposium, “Logistics is a key enabler for all we do.”2 The Marine Corps has refined this logistics ability to a fine art and is seeking new technology to enable it to better perform this mission.

Partnering with the U.S. Marine Corps in delivering capability from the sea, the U.S. Navy provides the ships and the craft to bring logistics supplies ashore to support Marines on the beach. This teamwork was emphasized in the U.S. Navy’s strategic guidance, Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) which calls for, “Deepening integration with our natural partner, the U.S. Marine Corps.”3

The Navy-Marine Corps team has risen to this challenge by being proactive in exploring new technologies to increase the lethality of the nation’s amphibious assault forces in a series of exercises, experiments, and demonstrations. During the author’s years on a numbered fleet warfighter’s staff, he had the opportunity to observe a number of carrier strike group and expeditionary strike group exercises. These included a recent exercise, the INDOPACOM Joint Exercise Valiant Shield 2018, overseen by Commander Marine Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC) and conducted on the Marianas Island Range Complex as well as on the island of Guam, where new logistics concepts were explored.


Valiant Shield: Leveraging New Technology to Support Marines on the Beach

While recent exercises such as Bold Alligator and a series of Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) events have looked at a wide range of technologies that could make expeditionary assault forces more lethal, agile, and survivable, others have looked at more discrete missions conducted by the Navy-Marine Corps team. Valiant Shield 2018 looked to use emerging technology – often off-the-shelf equipment – to support Marines on the beachhead during this critical juncture of any amphibious assault. To this end, a significant part of this exercise focused on logistics.

While many functions are important in an amphibious assault, once the assault is underway and Marines are on the beach, logistics is the critical factor in ensuring their success. The operation will often only succeed if the Marines are able to have rapid, reliable, and continuous resupply. Using manned naval craft to do this puts operators and vessels at unnecessary risk. Furthermore, using scarce manned craft to perform this mission takes them away from more vital roles. That is why this major Navy-Marine Corps amphibious exercise evaluated the ability of unmanned surface vehicles to conduct this resupply mission.

During Valiant Shield 2018, MARFORPAC demonstrated the ability to have unmanned surface vehicles resupply the landing force. The amphibious force commander used a 12-foot MANTAS USV to provide rapid ship-to-shore logistics resupply. While this small, remotely operated, USV carried only one hundred and twenty pounds of cargo; the proof-of-concept worked and successfully demonstrated that unmanned surface vehicles could safely and effectively resupply Marines ashore.

Using unmanned vehicles, either controlled by operators or programmed to follow a prescribed course, could be a game-changer for amphibious assault forces. Beyond taking operators out of harm’s way, using USVs for this mission frees manned craft for other missions. Additionally, having a continuous, preprogrammed, logistics resupply process to perform one of the dull, dirty, and dangerous functions important in an amphibious assault enables the commander to focus on other warfighting tasks in the heat of battle.

While the proof-of-concept with a 12-foot MANTAS USV was successful and received positive reviews from Commander Marine Forces Pacific logistics staff personnel, resupply in 120-pound increments is not the total solution to the enormous logistics requirements of even a squad of Marines ashore. Much more is needed. For this reason, the maker of the MANTAS family of USVs was asked by the Navy and Marine Corps to scale-up the 12-foot USV and develop a larger proof-of-concept unmanned surface vehicle for this mission.

Plans for larger MANTAS unmanned surface vehicles, ranging from 38-foot to 50-foot long, are on the drawing board for further review by Navy and Marine Corps officials. While this may not be the ultimate size for the USV the expeditionary assault force needs as a long-term solution, it will go a long way to advancing the state-of-the-art in providing for the substantial logistics needs of Marines on the beach.


Developing a Robust Unmanned Logistics Resupply Capability

The promising unmanned logistics resupply results demonstrated during Joint Exercise Valiant Shield can open up new possibilities to support Marines on the beach with continuous, reliable resupply using unmanned surface vehicles. While there are numerous designs for unmanned surface vehicles, for the amphibious resupply mission, a shallow-draft USV would best fit the mission profile. Additionally, since the near-shore surf zone is an inherently unstable environment, the stability conferred by a catamaran hull is beneficial to ensure that the resupply craft can safely reach the beach.

One such shallow-draft catamaran hull vessel is the 38-foot MANTAS (T38) USV. This craft is the next step up to provide a steady, continuous stream of logistics support to Marines on the beach. The T38 USV can travel at a cruise speed of 25 knots with a burst speed of 80 knots, weighs 6,500 pounds, and draws just 18 inches of draft. The T38 has the ability to carry a payload up to 4,500 pounds. Given the speed and carrying capacity of the T38-sized USV, it is readily apparent how it can fulfill logistics functions in amphibious operations.

Plans for larger MANTAS unmanned surface vehicles, ranging from 38-foot to 50-foot long, are on the drawing board for further review by Navy and Marine Corps officials. While this may not be the ultimate size for the USV the expeditionary assault force needs as a long-term solution, it will go a long way to advancing the state-of-the-art in providing for the substantial logistics needs of Marines on the beach.


Developing a Robust Unmanned Logistics Resupply Capability

The promising unmanned logistics resupply results demonstrated during Joint Exercise Valiant Shield can open up new possibilities to support Marines on the beach with continuous, reliable resupply using unmanned surface vehicles. While there are numerous designs for unmanned surface vehicles, for the amphibious resupply mission, a shallow-draft USV would best fit the mission profile. Additionally, since the near-shore surf zone is an inherently unstable environment, the stability conferred by a catamaran hull is beneficial to ensure that the resupply craft can safely reach the beach.

One such shallow-draft catamaran hull vessel is the 38-foot MANTAS (T38) USV. This craft is the next step up to provide a steady, continuous stream of logistics support to Marines on the beach. The T38 USV can travel at a cruise speed of 25 knots with a burst speed of 80 knots, weighs 6,500 pounds, and draws just 18 inches of draft. The T38 has the ability to carry a payload up to 4,500 pounds. Given the speed and carrying capacity of the T38-sized USV, it is readily apparent how it can fulfill logistics functions in amphibious operations.



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