The Navy is contemplating changes to its strategic and tactical use of connectors such as the Landing Craft Air Cushion and Landing Craft Utility vessel in response to the fast-growing number of countries and non-state actors that are developing high-tech, surface and land-launched missiles.
As a key part of the Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary warfare and amphibious assault strategy, connectors are engineered to move equipment, weapons and personnel from ship to shore over the ocean.
The rapid international development and proliferation of long- range missiles with increasingly sophisticated and accurate precision-guidance systems is leading the Navy and Marine Corps to closely examine its concept of operations, Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, director of the Navy’s expeditionary warfare division, told Military.com in an interview.
“We used to go right up on the beach and go from close in to the beach. Now we are starting to see things like surface to surface missiles that are not just in the hands of nation-states. They could be in the hands of some non-state actors,” Walsh said.
The Navy and Marine Corps currently operate 32 Landing Craft Utility vessels, or LCUs, which are large over-sea troop and equipment amphibious transporters able to transit as much as 125 tons worth of gear from ship to shore. The current fleet of LCUs, which have an average age of about 43-years, can travel as far at 1,200 nautical miles over periods up to 10 days, Navy officials said.
The Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs, are smaller, newer, faster and higher tech than the LCUs. The Navy’s 72 LCACs can transport up to 60-tons, reach speed of 36-knots and travel ranges up to 200 nautical miles, Navy officials explained. The LCACs were first produced in the 80s.
These discussions about connectors are taking place as part of a newly formed Navy-Marine Corps Connector Council, a body stood up to analyze LCAC and LCU development and strategy. The council includes Marine Corps and Navy elements with personnel and input from Naval Sea Systems Command and Naval Air Systems Command, among others.
The new council was stood up about three months ago, Walsh said. Much of the work on strategy and conops is being done in conjunction with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City, Fla.
“The council has directed the key stakeholders to go after these ideas and report back to the next council meeting in September,” he added. “We’re bringing stakeholders in to talk about conops. We’re considering taking our current LCACs and LCUs and making some modifications to be able to allow Marines to operate differently in the future. As the threat changes, how do we operate differently?” Walsh explained.
The often discussed anti-access-area-denial, or A2/AD, threats such as ballistic missiles and long-range anti-ship guided missiles, are designed to prevent assets and platforms, such as carrier groups and amphibious ready groups, from operating closer to the coastline of a given strategic area.
There have been a large number of public reports citing the number of countries which have and are developing these weapons such as Iran, China and North Korea. There continues to be much discussion of how the A2/AD calculus impacts military strategic planning and weapons development because the existence of these weapons changes how the Navy and Marine Corps need to operate both large ships and connectors.
For instance, a new threat environment may mean connectors have to travel further distances carrying weapons and personnel from ship to shore – or simply lower their ramps further out at sea to allow amphibious vehicles to disperse before approaching shore, Walsh said.
Spreading out amphibious vessels further from shore, while-on-the-move, makes targeting and detection much more difficult for potential adversaries looking to fire surface and shore- based missiles. A dispersed threat is much less vulnerable to large-caliber machine guns or surface-to-surface weapons, Walsh said.
“We want to maneuver from beyond the horizon and be able to go wherever we want. It is trying to stay away from the threat. If you take all of your capability into the threat on a single craft, you are putting yourself more at risk than what we have traditionally have done,” he added.
Walsh explained that the modern threat environment when it comes to expeditionary warfare, by contrast, is vastly different than recent decades or the famous World War II-era amphibious assaults such as Iwo Jima.
“It used to be that ships would stay at sea and the initial assault amphibious vehicles would go ashore with the armored protection and weapons. They would gain a foothold on the beach, move inland and defeat that threat– like Iwo Jima. The connectors would come in after,” he explained.
The current threat environment, among other things, means ships and large surface vessels need to stay much further away from shore, underscoring the need for connectors to travel longer distances, Walsh said. Also, the continued existence of long-range missile threats to connectors during an operation could change the tactics and distances regarding how they are used.
“We need to look at cases where we would want to take our connectors – and instead of going up onto the beach you would let vehicles off at sea and let them swim in from there,” Walsh explained.
Also these days, unlike the frontal beach assault taken by U.S. Marines directly into fortified Japanese positions and bunkers on Iwo Jima -- coming on the heels of massive artillery and aerial bombardment – the Navy’s expeditionary strategy can rely much more heavily on newer methods of intelligence gathering, AAVs (amphibious assault vehicles) and high-tech, fast-moving LCACs, Walsh explained.
“We now can come from much higher speeds over the horizon to try to go where the enemy is not. Our intelligence today with satellite imagery and Humint (human intelligence) is so much better than we had in the past. In the future we want to go longer distances and keep increasing our range up and down the enemy’s coastline and pick and choose where we want to go,” Walsh added.