The Impact of Air Capable Amphibious Ships

By Dan Gouré

The Navy and Marine Corps are proposing radical changes to their force structures in line with new concepts for maritime and expeditionary operations. All eyes on what is new, such as the Navy’s desire for fleets of unmanned surface and subsurface vessels and, with respect to amphibious warfare, at least two new proposed ship classes.

What has gotten relatively less attention is the growing importance of airpower to the Sea Services’ ability to conduct agile, distributed operations across the vast distances of the Indo-Pacific theater. Proposals to reduce the number of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and aircraft-capable amphibious warships in favor of proliferating smaller, less capable vessels are extremely short-sighted.

For almost a decade, the Navy and Marine Corps have been working on a set of warfighting concepts that will radically change how the Sea Services fight in the future. What these concepts, Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) have in common is the conviction that future high-end warfare will involve the operation of widely-distributed, highly-networked land- and sea-based formations equipped with long-range strike capabilities and advanced aircraft, both manned and unmanned.

The Navy and Marine Corps are proposing new force structures and shipbuilding plans to provide capabilities that better match the requirements of their new warfighting concepts. The Secretary of Defense recently unveiled a radically new Navy force structure. The vision for Battle Force 2045 calls for up to 500 manned and unmanned surface and subsurface vessels, more submarines, and as few as eight large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, complemented by a half-dozen so-called light carriers.

The Marine Corps sees its future in small, relatively light land forces armed with long-range missiles and drones and prepared to operate forward from the start of hostilities. As part of this change, the Corps has divested itself of heavy armor and reduced its fixed and rotary wing aircraft fleets.

To realize the goal of a compact fleet of light amphibious ships that the enemy would find hard to detect and target, the Marine Corps is considering truncating its erstwhile plan to acquire a significant number of large amphibious ships.

Some of these larger ships include the highly capable LPD-17 Flight II and two new classes of smaller and cheaper but less capable ships: the Light Amphibious Warship and a beachable landing vessel.

While the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ vision of a new, integrated capability has some important positives, it has at least one major negative: its tendency to underplay or even diminish the role of airpower in future warfighting concepts.

This is odd since airpower extends the operational reach of Navy platforms and Marine Corps units and allows them to conduct a range of complex operations.

Advanced airpower, on ships and at sea, will be critical in the initial period of a future high-end conflict, particularly in the Indo-Pacific theater.

During this period, there will be an extremely high demand for continuous long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), airborne early warning (AEW), responsive logistics, agile force mobility and strike. This theater’s sheer size creates the need to distribute Navy and Marine Corps forces from Japan and South Korea, down through Southeast Asia and Australia and into the Indian Ocean.

The amount of territory Navy and Marine Corps forces need to cover demands even greater airpower investment than the Sea Services are currently contemplating.

There must be persistent, responsive tactical aviation available to forward-deployed forces throughout a conflict. Fortunately, both the Navy and Marine Corps have access to air platforms that can operate in new ways based on the principles of DMO, LOCE and EABO. The F-35B, which is operable from expedient airfields and large deck amphibs, has the unique combination of advanced sensors, secure comms, and stealthiness to make it the perfect forward positioned ISR platform.

Likewise, the Army’s recent Project Convergence experiment demonstrated the ability to pass data from Marine Corps F-35Bs and Gray Eagle drones to long-range fire systems.

Another Navy/Marine Corps aircraft that will provide critical support for the new warfighting concepts is the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. The Osprey has proven itself to be a premier, agile mobility and logistics platform, one capable of being operated from Navy aircraft carriers, large deck amphibs, and even the LPD-17s as well as expedient airfields. Along with the CH-53 heavy lift Sea Stallion helicopter, and particularly the new, more capable K model, the V-22 can move men, equipment and supplies between ships and from ships to the shore.

The V-22’s ability to rapidly ground refuel other platforms is well-suited to the Marine Corps concept for operating small, distributed land forces. Also, reconsideration should be given to providing the Osprey with an aerial fueling capability, which would provide an organic means of increasing the combat radius of F-35Bs based on large-deck amphibs.

Other upgrades to the V-22 could provide the Marine Corps with a high-performance airborne sensor platform. With appropriate proper sensors, the Osprey could provide an organic, shipboard ISR/AEW capability for both Navy and Marine Corps forces operating in a distributed manner at sea and in expeditionary forward base operations.

In high-end warfare, speed is of the essence. For units operating inside an adversary’s anti-access/area-denial envelope, direct control of assets for responding to a dynamic targeting environment is required. With the appropriate digital interoperability and networking upgrades, the V-22 could serve as a critical node in a distributed sensor and communications architecture.

Exploitation of the potential for the F-35B, V-22 and CH-53 to extend the range and agility of Navy and Marine Corps operations will significantly depend on how the Sea Services choose to shape their future amphibious warfare fleet.

Small amphibs may be harder to find and target, but they will not be able to operate either fixed or rotary wing platforms. Larger amphibs, such as those currently in production, can achieve survivability, reach, and responsiveness through their complements of fixed- and/or rotary-wing aircraft.

This was published by our partner Real Clear Defense on October 20, 2020.