At The Basic School, almost every Marine officer has experienced the “What now, Lieutenant?” moment. You’ve sketched out a battle plan worthy of Rommel himself, and then a question is posed by a fellow student, an instructor raises a quizzical eyebrow, and you find yourself suddenly on the spot.
Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa’s recent award-winning essay Putting the “Landing Force” in Air-Sea Battle begs a similar question.
Certainly, the essay hits all the right buzzwords; “reverse A2/AD”, “away game”, “cross-domain synergy”, and features the obligatory historical case study in VADM Barbery’s amphibious landing at Lae in 1943. This case study is such an egregious case of apples and oranges that it bears remarking on. Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa’s thesis is that a MEU can seize islands to form “pockets of local domain superiority” but his historical case study is of a beachhead made, not on an island, but on the coast of Papua New Guinea, and where the landing of the Australian 9th Division, supported by Naval gunfire from 5 destroyers was only half the story; the other half being the immediate airborne seizure of the airfield in neighboring Nadzab by a U.S. parachute regiment to allow the follow-on insertion of a brigade from the Australian 7th Division by C-47 transport aircraft.
|Map of the Battle of Lae|
In the end, the defending Japanese brigade-size force elected to withdraw rather than fight, and managed to successfully evacuate the bulk of its combat strength; the Allied seizure of Lae was not due to a quick in-and-out insertion of a small, hardened MAGTF-style element, but was instead an attempted double-pincer envelopment utilizing airborne and amphibious troops with a 3-1 numerical advantage, supported by robust naval gunfire and air support. General McArthur and VADM Barbery certainly did establish “local domain superiority”, but it’s hard to see the relevance of that battle to the future operations being examined in the essay.
Let’s examine first a key contradiction inherent in this concept; it will supposedly create a defensive node within “the threat ring of the adversary” that is highly reliant on use of X-band radar, in an electromagnetic environment that is expected to be dirty; in other words, we anticipate the opponent will be using jamming and other countermeasures such as the Avtobaza system that Iran has alreadyacquired from Russia. These systems can both target and jam X-band fire-control radars and disrupt missile data links. This raises a serious question about the viability of Theater High Altitude Air Defense, (THAAD) “Iron Dome”, and Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) to function as advertised in the very environment which Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa himself believes will exist when we put our modified MEU ashore to create. Further, while he acknowledges early on that “we must attain local air and sea control long enough to offload the landing force,” he does not explain how that challenge will be resolved in an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) environment.
Which brings us to the next issue; actually putting a MEU ashore on any one of the various locations suggested; the Senkakus, Paracels, Spratlys, or one of the small islands in the Strait of Hormuz.
Let’s deal with these locations separately, starting with the Strait of Hormuz. The islands in question, Siri, Abu Musa, Farur, and Greater Tunb are little more than 5 miles wide, are host to Iranian military forces, and sit well within the shadow of mainland Iranian air defense missiles, radars, and anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) sites. So, what now, Lieutenant Colonel? How do we put the MEU ashore into what becomes effectively a five-mile square kill box which, in the case of Greater Tunb and Farur can easily be covered by mainland rocket artillery such as the Fajr-3? In the ramp-up to any offensive US actions, the Strait will likely be mined; island garrisons will likely make sure the beaches and all mobility lanes are seeded with IEDs or conventional anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Assuming that we can get the landing force ashore (and either V-22’s through the Iranian air defense artillery network or landing craft past fast-boat swarms, submarines, ASCM, and mines would be tricky) one then wonders - getting the MEU ashore accomplishes what, exactly? It creates an “Iron Dome” over, well, itself. It takes a full MAGTF out of the fight, without functionally tying up any significant enemy force. It leaves them vulnerable to continuous pounding from mainland rocket artillery on two islands, and (if the Iranians are smart and position Fajr-3 or equivalent units on each of the four islands) interlocking indirect fires from multiple directions on any of the islands. One the plus side, it would create an “unsinkable battleship” armed with LRASM to defeat Iranian ships out to 600 NM, which does a nice job of covering the entire Strait – until you run out of missiles (an 8-cell launcher weighs 13 tons – empty!) Or until you run out targets worth shooting; the Iranian Navy only has 5 frigates and 3 corvettes! Opening the aperture, another 26 targets may present themselves if Sina and Houdong-class missile boats are considered; the rest of its forces are either underwater, or so small and numerous that the cost of a LRASM (which are still not operational, despite the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa talks about “leveraging current capacities”) would not justify a launch. Bottom line; there are cheaper, faster, less risky ways to destroy Iranian missile boats than putting a modified MEU ashore on a tiny island.
Now let’s make a literary “Pivot to Asia” to address the viability of this operational concept in the South China Sea.
|Operational Concepts - OPNAVINST 5401.9|
A visualization of future operations that describes how a commander, using military art and science, might employ capabilities necessary to meet future challenges and explore potential opportunities.
However, just as there are offensive and defensive “plays” in most sports, so there can be operational concepts which work better in the defense than the offense, or vice versa.
And in fact, the operational concept which Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa proposes is quite sound; from the perspective of the home team. In fact, a similar concept was the cornerstone of my 2011 thesis for the Indonesian Navy’s Command and Staff College: Konsepsi Pembangunan Postur TNI AL Masa Depan Yang Mampu Mengatasi Ancaman Maritim Guna Mendukung Pertahanan Dan Keamanan Nasional Dalam Rangka Mewujudkan Pertahanan Regional – English translation – “Development Concept for the Indonesian Navy to Enable it to Overcome Future Maritime Threats to National Security in the Framework of Developing Regional Defense.”
In that report, I explained how Indonesia (and in the future regional partners such as neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines) could utilize 12-15 small, strategically placed islands armed with Akash, Mistral, and Brahmos missiles to prevent incursions by adversary naval or air forces at a relatively low cost to equip and maintain. Also, fairly easy to set up, and to make mutually supporting – if you emplace them as defensive measures on your sovereign territory far in advance of any conflict.
What Lieutenant Colonel Tlapa proposes – standing up a single similar strongpoint, unsupported by others, in the middle of an air and sea environment where the adversary will be dominant in one or more domains and where there are multiple claimants to recognition under international law (none of which includes the United States) – would be neither easy to set up nor to maintain long enough to be strategically relevant. A good defensive play for the home team; a terrible offensive play for the away team.
A look at the map gives us an idea why.
Take the Senkakus – the largest is less than 3 square miles in size – and sits well within the range ring of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rocket artillery. It’s also within the air defense range of the S-300 and S-400, both of which are owned by the Chinese, and their diesel submarines could operate freely within our notional LRASM range ring.
|Range Ring of the DF-21 Missile|
Again, the first challenge is getting the MEU within striking distance of any of these locations during a time of war; all the Asian navies field significant submarine forces and most are building more. The anti-ship version of the DF-21 threatens, as do naval mines and preponderant numbers of small vessels (122 missile boats being the greatest threat). All the islands are well within striking range of the Chinese air forces; the PLA-Navy can bring over 100 strike aircraft to the fight; the PLA-Air Force could easily triple that with plenty of reserves. And of course, this operational concept, as it is written, requires the landing force to get ashore before it can employ any significant air-to-air or anti-ship capability. Supposing that, by some miracle, our Marines make it ashore, and their radar is not degraded by adversary jamming.
Now, the problem is the opposite of the Strait of Hormuz; instead of too few good targets, they will have too many. Our THAAD missiles may knock down 3-6 attacking aircraft before they are overwhelmed by even a small “swarm” attack; the “Iron Dome” will take out about 20 missiles, but then it, too, runs out of Shlitz. The notional MAGTF lacks ground-to-ground rocket artillery to compete with anything the adversary has emplaced on any of the many neighboring islands, and it’s clear that even if allowed ashore, it can swiftly be wiped out by a fairly small element of a potential adversary’s forces.
I’ll address the myth of “parity” in a future post; for now, while I applaud Lieutenant Colonel Tlaba for putting forward an idea in support of the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), the fact that it was selected for the Lieutenant Colonel Earl “Pete” Ellis award makes me wonder if senior leaders might seriously consider it a good idea. It’s not. This might have been a revolutionary concept back when Lieutenant Colonel Ellis was still alive; today it’s a recipe for disaster.
Maj Edward H. “UTAH” Carpenter is an Aviation Logistician and Foreign Area Officer.