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The US Marine Corps Is Trying to Get Smarter, Not More Expensive

Two developments over the past week signal a considerable expansion of the Marines' new amphibious capability without breaking the bank.

by Ryan Faith
Nov 21 2014, 9:42pm

Photo by Raul Moreno

Between budgetary pressures in Washington, crises throughout the Middle East and Asia, and the spread of cheap precision munitions, the United States Marine Corps has gone through a rough period. But two developments over the past week indicate how the Marines will be able to meet these challenges.

Last Saturday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the implementation of a so-called "Third Offset Strategy," which will supposedly help the US outmatch its foes with a sufficient level of ass-kicking capacity for decades to come by waving its arms and saying the word "innovation" a lot now. But amid the discussions of "revolutions in military affairs," warfare in the age of robotics, and general fanfare, two notable events updating the Corps' new amphibious capability happened to coincide: the future USNS Lewis B Puller was floated out from its San Diego shipyard and Textron began work on the first of the Navy's new Ship to Shore Connectors (SSC).

Whee! The Marines are building new stuff. Exciting, no?

Ok, I admit it, at first it sounds as boring as a refried yawn — but trust me, stuff's actually happening.

The Future of Amphibious Warfare: War Games. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

First off, the Lewis B. Puller is the first purpose built afloat forward staging base (AFSB). Originally intended as a mobile landing platform (MLP), this is the first purpose-built AFSB. Both the AFSB and the MLP basically serve the same purpose: they make another ship bigger, at least functionally, for a short while.

One of the most critical (and riskiest) phases of an amphibious assault is the part where they throw up on the beach. I mean, Marines might literally throw up on the beach if they get seasick enough, but in this context "throw up" refers to the amphibious assault force disgorging all combat power — infantry, Humvees, tanks, artillery, and so on — as quickly as it can, before the enemy gets a chance to reinforce, squish the forces on the beach, and squash the beachhead.

Managing this massive unloading efficiently involves managing complex operations on the well deck and the flight deck. The well deck is where troops and vehicles load onto vessels that take them ashore. The flight deck is where the landing force stages flight operations, including refueling, reloading, and rearming of helicopters and jets.

The trick is that physical limitations of shipbuilding design mean that the well deck and flight deck are tightly packed and congested. The rate at which all of the stuff gets off the ship and onto the beach is limited by this bottleneck, kind of like trying to get out of a crowded parking lot after abig concert or sporting event.

This is where the new ships come in. The mobile landing platform is effectively a poor man's well deck. It comes up alongside the amphibious assault ship and connects to the side of the ship, where it loads and unloads vehicles in port. The vehicles drive onto the MLP and then go down a ramp where they board ships waiting to take them to shore. This way, instead of trying to get the entire force off through a well deck that can accommodate only one or two landing craft, the MLP allows them to process an additional three landing craft at a time, which could effectively or quadruple the size of a ship's well deck.

The afloat forward staging base is similar, except instead of replicating a well deck, it's a sort of low-rent flight deck. It can support operations by aircraft and can also theoretically load landing craft. The nice bonus to this is that it can support some air operations even without an amphibious assault ship.

Between the two, it's the difference between sleeping on a couch and sleeping on a sofa bed. You can get the job done either way, but through some clever engineering and planning, the actual amount of real estate that you can use to do your thing can be increased significantly when push comes to shove.

The uncertain future of amphibious warfare. Read more here.

The other development is the manufacture of a new vehicle referred to as the ship to shore connector — also known as the SSC or LCAC-100. The entire class of vessels that are used to take people and gear from the amphibious assault ships, landing platforms, or staging bases are called connectors. Landing craft are the subset of amphibious connectors, which move between a ship and land on a beach to unload their cargo. One of the US military's mainstay connectors is a hovercraft called the LCAC, which stands for Landing Craft Air Cushion.

The LCAC certainly has its limitations. There's vulnerability to enemy fire and a lower cargo capacity than it's traditional counterparts, for starters, but the most important one right now is that they're old. So the Navy has been busily working on a replacement: the SSC.

Much to the surprise and delight of cynics everywhere, the new vehicle isn't a crazy outlandish collection of bleeding-edge technologies. It's mostly the same beast as the LCAC, just not one at the end of its 30-year lifespan. Sure, they tweaked the design, increased cargo capacity, and did some stuff to improve reliability and make it cheaper and easier to maintain, but the Marines didn't go nuts and completely gold-plate the thing.

Which is a good sign. If taken together, the MLP, the AFSB, and SSC are all parts of the Marine Corps' attempt to resolve the basic problems of amphibious assault in an age of cheap, long-range precision munitions, which would have easily made dogmeat of any old-school D-Day type operation. What's more, they're doing it in a way that suggests they're not going to just uselessly throw money at the problem to solve it.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via US Navy