There have been opportunities to put marines back on subs, but they have been missed. The Navy and Marine Corps have recently reoriented back towards amphibious operations after the land-locked conflicts of the last 13 years. Gen. James Conway, during his tenure as commandant, advocated a “return to the amphibious roots of the Corps.” One manifestation of this advocacy was the return to large-scale training events on both the East and West Coasts. The “Bold Alligator” series of exercises on the East Coast began slowly in 2010 with staff-level discussions and culminated in 2012 with the largest peace-time exercise amphibious landings since Exercise Purple Star in 1996. In 2014, United States Navy and Marine forces, along with forces from several nations, executed a second large-scale Bold Alligator exercise off the coast of North Carolina. In 2011, I served as the lead planner within 2d Marine Expeditionary Force for Bold Alligator and recommended strongly that, given the A2/AD threat, a submarine be integrated into the exercise. My discussions with other planners involved with Bold Alligator 2014 indicated that a submarine was once again recommended for inclusion in the large-scale amphibious exercise. Yet, despite the notoriety and scale of these two exercises, not a single submarine was integrated into the amphibious planning for either. With these as the first large amphibious exercises since the late 1990s, and given the complicated nature of water-space management and amphibious operations, the Marine Corps has a generation of planners and senior leaders responsible for amphibious doctrine who have never even contemplated how submarines can execute ship-to-objective maneuver (STOM), ship-to-shore movement (STSM), and over-the-horizon (OTH) operations, and be employed as critical platforms to enable success in an A2/AD environment.
That the platform most capable of surviving the greatest threat facing Marine Corps amphibious operations in the 21st century is not being trained with or planned for means marines may die needlessly. The cornerstone document for how the Marine Corps will conduct modern amphibious operations, Expeditionary Force 21, is less than a year old. With “assuring littoral access” as “the main mission,” the document is rife with examples of the danger to mission accomplishment in the amphibious realm that Anti-Access/Area Denial poses. These A2/AD capabilities “threaten freedom of action at sea.” The document established that the Marine Corps must become proficient at using “alternative seabased platforms” and operating in smaller task-organized forces. The threat from widely proliferated A2/AD systems is so pervasive, Expeditionary Force 21 calls for amphibious forces to stand off from landing sites and objectives at least 65 nautical miles until threats are mitigated. Doctrine requires amphibious vehicles launch from at least 12 miles off shore, despite their anachronistically slow ship-to-shore movement speeds brought from World War II. Even the most modernized versions of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) still move to shore at the same speed of their predecessors from the assault on Tarawa in November 1943. The current planned replacement for the AAV will be a wheeled vehicle with even more limited capability to move autonomously from ship to shore. Unfortunately, submarines, the only platforms with the ability to stealthily penetrate the A2/AD screens to be faced, are not even mentioned as an “alternative platform” to be considered for this purpose within Expeditionary Force 21. This conceptual oversight must be addressed and remedied.
The introduction to the fleet of the “guided missile” class of submarines is the perfect tool for amphibious operations in the 21st century, yet is being ignored by the Marine Corps. In 1999, the U.S. Congress funded the conversion of four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines into guided missile submarines, or SSGNs. At 560 feet long and over 18,000 tons (submerged) in displacement, these “boats” are like their predecessor the Argonaut with far greater capability. The SSGNs have long-term billeting for 66 personnel and, with “hot-racking,” have managed 100 or more embarked personnel for short-term transits. Missile tubes that previously protected our nation through nuclear deterrence now hold a mixture of Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles (TLAMS) and gear for amphibious operations. Two of the former missile tubes have sprinkler systems to afford considerable space for ammunition storage. Remaining storage areas can hold up to 39 inflatable boats (CRRCs), enough for over 200 marines to move from ship-to-shore by this World War II-era conveyance. The SSGNs also have an operations center for embarked troops that rivals those aboard any of the amphibious ships currently at sea in any navy, giving an embarked commander the ability to command and control forces ashore effectively. “Through-deck” connectors allow access while submerged to two Dry-Deck Shelters (DDS) mounted to the exterior deck of the SSGN behind the “sail.”
The two shelters of an SSGN provide over 3000 cubic feet of dry storage for ship-to-shore movement systems for marines. The inflatable CRRC, the most prominent conveyance when marines last conducted submarine training, is an antiquated, anachronistic World War II system — not to mention highly vulnerable in a firefight — and needs to be discarded. While not the vehicle deck of a landing platform dock, the purchase of current off-the-shelf technology can give marines legitimate over-the-horizon delivery capability at high speeds across water, and then transition to a land vehicle with equally impressive performance from the DDS. Mr. David March, who works through Fountain Valley Bodyworks based in Fountain Valley, California, designed and builds the fast amphibian known as the “Panther.” The Panther looks like a jeep but combines a V6 engine with a conventional water-jet to give highway-speeds on land and over 40 miles per hour on water. On a single tank of fuel, builders of the Panther have documented ranges of 60 or more miles on water, followed by equal ranges on shore. A second off-the-shelf platform for use — equally innovative and viable — is the Gibbs Quadski. This vehicle resembles a standard 4-wheeled all-terrain vehicle (ATV). The Quadski, however, can transition from land to water mode in approximately five seconds. Capable of 45 miles per hour on land and water, the Quadski is designed for one passenger but can accommodate two and sells for approximately $40,000. Marines launching from an SSGN with these types of vehicles would have speed and range to get to the shore from OTH, mobility once they arrive, and fire power inherent in being able to carry crew-served weapons on a vehicle. Employing the critical technique of “maneuver warfare” and landing where the enemy is not, small-mobile-fast Marine units with substantial firepower would have legitimate combat capability to a scale and scope exceeding the size of the unit by an order of magnitude. Additionally, the ability to drive out of a DDS directly into the water equates to much greater safety for the submarine, as compared to marines toiling on the deck inflating CRRCs while the sub waits to submerge again. The DDS would provide space for at least two, perhaps four, “Panthers,” allowing the insertion of up to 16 marines simultaneously. Unfortunately, this type of innovative thinking is not being considered in the operational Marine Corps.
He seems most concerned that various special operations forces are taking over this role.