Future amphibious assaults will most likely look nothing like the famous WWII Iwo Jima attack, which was largely linear, straight ahead and led by thousands of committed Marines willing to absorb enemy fire to take the beachhead.
Now, the advent of autonomy, AI-enabled unmanned systems, long-range sensors and weapons, not to mention 5th-Generation close air support, have radically altered the strategic equation regarding how amphibious warfare would likely be conducted. Dispersed, yet closely network fleets combined of a mix of armed platforms to include surface ships with “over-the-horizon” missiles, ship-to-shore connectors loaded with Abrams tanks, undersea, aerial and surface drones conducting reconnaissance looking for weak or less defended points along the enemy coastline and of course Ospreys and even amphib-launched F-35Bs supporting the approach. AI-enabled large and small, surface and undersea drones will coordinate operations, share pressing target information and even conduct high-risk attacks while Marines and sailors perform command and control at safer standoff regions.
At the risk of oversimplifying, future amphibious warfare will not only rely heavily upon unmanned systems and a new generation of air support … but also one simple word. Range. This is critical from both an offensive and defensive standpoint, meaning amphibious attacks will need to operate with the understanding that advanced enemies operate extremely accurate and precise long range weapons, sensors and guidance systems.
These dynamics and combat variables are likely part of the conceptual inspiration for why the Marine Corps recently shot off the Raytheon-built Naval Strike Missile from land-based vehicles, introducing an innovative and as of yet unprecedented adaptation of a ship-launched “over-the-horizon” weapon now arming Littoral Combat Ships and planned for the Navy’s new Constellation-class Frigate.
The recent Marine Corps live-fire event, which took place from Point Mugu Sea Range, Calif., last November, involved shooting a high-tech, precision-guided weapon over the horizon from land. This adaptation took a ship-launched weapon and made slight modifications to ensure it could fire successfully from land, introducing new tactics to modern amphibious warfare. The Marines call the nascent program Ground Based Anti-Ship Missile, or GBASM.
“The Marines are making this cultural shift to sea denial and sea control. one of the common
priorities,” Randy Kempton, NSM & Tomahawk Program Director, told Warrior in an interview.
The Marine Corps GBASM will be a disaggregated, multi-domain mix of combat tactics and variables to include advanced maritime, air and land-based operations, including an ability for newer kinds of land-sea “island hopping” amphibious attack wherein Marines and even heavy weapons transport and transition quickly from sea to shore and back .. quickly. Weapons systems primarily thought of as surface fire are now being configured as mobile, adaptable attack platforms able to transport from ships to land-firing locations and back, depending upon threats and mission requirements.
This kind of tactical dynamic, which would of course apply to littoral land-sea island strips such as those in the South China Sea, is likely emerging due to the decided recognition that adversaries operate with advanced weapons and platforms capable of threatening amphibious forces in previously unprecedented ways. Additionally, these kinds of threat scenarios are also likely formed the conceptual foundation for the Marine Corp’s emerging Light Amphibious Warship, a now-in-development platform intended to pick up and transport Marines and weapons in an agile, fast, multi-domain and expeditionary way. Members of Congress are showing great interest in the development of this new
Marine Corps platform, given the current threat environment and the prospect of adding additional “over the horizon” attack options.
“The Marine Corps has a very good operational concept about how that (The Light Amphibious Warship) would work, especially as they are going to look at putting their units into formations that are dispersed throughout the Indo Pacific armed with long range strike capability, and anti ship missiles,” Rep. Rob Wittman -(R) Va., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, told Warrior in an interview.
Wittman’s reference to “anti-ship” missiles in the context of the emerging vessel intended to bring newer kinds of multi-domain, “island hopping” kinds of expeditionary amphibious platforms such as LAW, may have been a specific reference to NSM and the kind of “sea control” envisioned by Navy and Marine Corps strategists.
Interestingly, Kempton’s comments seem to support the latest Marine Corps thinking when it comes to establishing “sea control,” as evidenced by a Fall 2020 essay by Marine Corps Universities’ “Journal of Advanced Military Studies.” The essay takes up the question of advanced enemy anti-access/area-denial strategies employed to restrict maritime maneuvers intended to prevent or deny the “sea-control” necessary to operate successfully. Not surprisingly, the essay refers to long-range enemy weapons.
“Access denial strategies are not a new defensive strategy; what makes access denial challenging on the modern battlefield is the dramatic improvement and proliferation of weapons capable of denying access to or freedom of action within an operational area,” the essay writes. (Lt. Col. Michael Manning)
“Quite significantly, the essay, called SEA CONTROL, “Feasible Acceptable, Suitable or Simply
Imperative,” appears to recommend strategies which support the current Marine Corps adaptation of the NSM to a land-firing contingency. Operating within the conceptual position that “Sea Control” is entirely necessary, the essay suggests “investing in low cost technology that extends the ranges of A2/AD capabilities.”
In this instance the essay seems to not only suggest that enemy A2/AD efforts can both be challenged or defeated from a defensive combat position, but also seems to indicate that offensive forces could themselves employ A2/AD strategies to acquire the sought after “sea control” and prevent an enemy from operating within a particular area. A land-fired, yet sea-transportable NSM seems to be precisely the kind of weapon capable of pursuing this kind of multi-domain amphibious warfare strategy.
The essay bases part of its findings, at least in part, upon a historical analysis of Japanese Naval battles during the early 20th Century, something which may very well have incorporated a retrospective look at Iwo Jima. The author, Lt. Col. Manning, indicates that the research pointed to a decided recognition that “sea control of the maritime domain is possible.”
Therefore, it makes sense to view GBASM in the context of a weapon intended to help achieve this. It is a modern tactical adjustment intended to leverage modern long-range sensors, secure networking and new expeditionary warfare platforms to find new, multi-domain uses for a tested ship-integrated weapon.
Some of the weapon’s key attributes, such as range and precision guidance, seem to lend themselves to the kind of multi-domain use now being pursued by the Navy. According to Raytheon data, the NSM is a 156-in missile able to travel in excess of 100 nautical miles toward targets. The weapon, which first emerged in 2012, features a launch phase solid propellant rocket motor booster and a sustained flight JP-10 fueled turbo-jet engine enabling subsonic speeds.
NSM has a programmable fuze, which includes an ability to penetrate prior to detonation for maximum destructive effect. It is also specifically engineered with a low radar signature and an ability to operate close to the surface in sea-skimming mode to elude enemy radar.
“It climbs and descends with the terrain and performs evasive maneuvers to counter the world’s most capable defense systems. NSM possesses the capability to identify targets down to ship class — a feature that is vitally important to warfighters who must strike only specific, selected targets in congested, contested and denied environments,” a Raytheon essay said.
“A coastal defense solution is something that has been previously fielded in Poland. So it's not like a new concept for NSM. It’s fielded in Poland and it was recently announced that Romania signed an agreement with the US Government to buy the NSM Coastal Defense System. . So we’ve taken some of that heritage. We’ve taken what we learned with LCS, combined that and come up with a quick solution for the Marines to integrate on their vehicle,” Kempton said.
Defensively, the land-firing of NSM supports rationale for the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations which envisions a much wider, more dispersed and multi-domain threat envelope, a circumstance driving a need for attacking forces to be less condensed and therefore less vulnerable to enemy fire.
Coastal or island applications of NSM also support the Navy’s effort in recent years to improve an ability to detect, track and destroy incoming enemy anti-ship missiles from much farther ranges than have ever been possible. This is necessary to improve standoff range and counter dangerous new longer-range enemy weapons. Also, with proper networking, a land-based NSM could function as a critical defense “node” within a broader meshed system of sensors, meaning its targeting technology might be in position to find launching enemy weapons and pass the information to allied assets.
What is more likely, however, is that an island NSM might receive targeting specifics from an aerial drone, submarine or ship-based radar system. This is where offensive comes in, as an NSM could attack and destroy far away enemy surface targets, while ensuring allied surface ships don’t operate within striking range or are properly alerted such that they can launch interceptors such as an SM-6. All of this means amphibious assault ships, supporting closer-in vessels like the emerging Frigate or Littoral Combat Ships and unmanned systems will need to be armed with a new, paradigm-changing sphere of long-range weapons as well, including NSM.
In terms of production, Raytheon invested in domestic manufacturing facilities to ensure their capacity to meet the demand signal from Navy, Marine Corps and other customers. Because they’re buying the identical missile, using the same contract vehicle, the Navy and Marine Corps actually save money through reduced unit prices and logistics commonality.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of integrating the same exact missile that the Navy is buying,” Kempton said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.