PENTAGON: “You ever seen what an attack helicopter does to a small boat? That’s a Cuisinart.”
The Navy’s long been nervous about the survival of its high-cost high-seas warships in coastal knife fights. (That anxiety drove the development of the controversial Littoral Combat Ship). Iran, in particular, is notorious for its shallow water mini-submarines and its light-weight but heavily armed attack boats. But as Marines come back aboard ship after a decade spent deep inland in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Navy is rediscovering America’s own littoral brawlers. Just as the Marine Corps’ recent Expeditionary Force-21 doctrine reemphasizes the value to Marine operations of ships and the sea, the Navy is refocusing on what Marines can do for the fleet.
A ship-based attack helicopter like the Marine AH-1Z Viper is “the best sea control asset in small boat-infested waters,” Rear Adm. Peter Fanta told reporters at a morning roundtable on amphibious forces today. “They’re built to kill tanks: What do you think it does to a Boston Whaler?” That’s where the Cuisinart metaphor comes in.
Marine Corps helicopters of all kinds — not just AH-1 gunships but transports as well — can help protect warships from enemy submarines as well. “The best spotting mechanism for a submarine is a pair of eyeballs and a rotary wing asset,” Fanta said. “All right, the Marines fly a lot of rotary wing assets off those amphibious ships. Teaching a Marine to look down at the water is something we’re working on.”
Modernized Marine Corps helicopters like the AH-1Z and UH-1Y have better range, payload, and reliability than their Cobra and Huey predecessors, Fanta said. As the Chief of Naval Operations’ lead for surface ship weapons systems, he wants to integrate those Marine aircraft into the naval force as weapons for the ships they’re on. But helicopters are just the beginning.
The Marines will also be the first service to field the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, although when their F-35B first goes to sea in 2018, Fanta noted, it won’t boast all of its capabilities. Add ongoing upgrades to the amphibious ships themselves, especially self-defense systems, sensors, networks, and other command-and-control. Finally, add escorting Aegis destroyers for wide-area air and missile defense, and the amphibious squadron goes from a method for delivering Marines to a means of dominating sea- and airspace. Such an enhanced amphibious task force won’t have the reach of an aircraft carrier battle group, Fanta said, but it will be much more capable of operating close to shore.
In such littoral areas, it’s artificial to divide operations at sea from operations on land, said Rear Adm. Cynthia Thebaud, commander of East Coast-based amphibious forces, who oversaw last fall’s Bold Alligator wargames. In one recently revised field manual, for example, she said, “it’s a Marine general that’s in there saying, ‘my concerns are mines, missiles, and subs'” — all traditionally seen as the Navy’s problem. The Marines can’t get ashore if their Navy ships get sunk en route, and the Navy’s best way to destroy an anti-ship missile battery may be to launch Marine raiders in V-22s.
“We are joined at the hip,” Thebaud said. “We’re realizing that it is not either ‘land’ or sea’ [and] looking at it as a single integrated naval battle.”
“That is a slow process,” Fanta said, “a reeducation process” for the officers of both services. (There’s a very old joke that the Marine Corps and the Navy are like brothers — specifically Cain and Abel). “Marines naturally tend to save their bullets to protect Marines on the beach and Navy guys tend to not worry about something once it hits the shoreline….but in a high end fight you don’t survive without each other.”
Fixing Up The Fleet
The Navy’s amphibious warships need significant upgrades to execute these concepts fully. Those modifications range from improved command-and-control networks to reinforced flight decks to handle V-22 Ospreys and F-35B jump jets.
“A lot of it is structural flight deck work,” said Rear Adm. David Gale, the Navy’s program executive officer for ships. Based on F-35B testing aboard the USS Wasp, the Navy will spend 40 weeks modifying its newly commissioned USS America (LHA-6) by, for example, removing recently installed piping, lighting, and so on in order to weld reinforcements underneath the flight deck. As inefficient as this sounds, interrupting production of America in the shipyard would have been worse, Gale said. The future USS Tripoli (LHA-7) will have the necessary accommodations for F-35B built in from the start.
Amphibs also need new electronics to accommodate the F-35, which can fly farther from the ship and send back vastly more data than the AV-8 Harriers it will replace. The F-35 itself has years to go before its software is fully capable. So in the F-35B’s first deployments in 2018, “we will not be able to bring that data fully aboard,” Fanta cautioned. In fact, when the F-35B and other aircraft are sending back the amount of intelligence the military envisions, he said, there’s a danger with some older classes of “driving the ship to its knees.”
That’s not so much an issue with the Navy’s newest amphibious ships, the San Antonio (LPD-17) class: Their command-and-control capabilities are “equivalent” to current aircraft carriers, Fanta said. But the smaller, older LSD ships are electronically inadequate to the kind of complex operations by widely scattered warships that are becoming the norm. That class “doesn’t give you the capability to command and control to the level of the capabilities you need in the modern environment anywhere along the range of military operations,” Thebaud said.
The Navy decided late last year that the LSD replacement, the LX(R), would be a stripped-down version of the more expensive San Antonio LPDs. The service plans to start buying these ships in the 2020 at a target price of about $1.5 billion apiece.
Meanwhile, between now and 2020, the Navy is spending a bit over $1.5 billion to upgrade the defenses on existing amphibious ships. That includes more powerful versions of the SeaRAM and Sea Sparrow anti-missile missiles, which shoot down incoming threats, and the necessary combat system software to handle supersonic attacks.
For now, said Rear Adm. Fanta, the Navy does not plan to upgrade its offensive firepower to support Marines ashore. The Navy has studied firing the HIMARS multiple-launch rocket system off ships and loading its standard 5-inch cannon with long-range, precision-guided shells, but — so far — the costs remain prohibitive for weapons that would have to be fired in large numbers. “I’m extraordinarily interested as soon as the cost comes down,” Fanta said.