General David Berger, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, recently laid out a bold vision for his service to organize and prepare itself, at least in part, for a new mission, anti-submarine warfare, as part of equally new and rapidly evolving distributed and expeditionary warfare concepts of operations. In recent years, the top Marine officer has already initiated a dramatic overhaul of his forces, including eliminating heavy armored units and their tanks, and has called for a major rethinking of how they fight, including a push to significantly reduce its reliance on traditional U.S. Navy amphibious warfare ships.
Berger explained how the future Marine Corps could also contribute to anti-submarine operations in an article published in the November 2020 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine Proceedings. He said that this mission set was among those that Marines could carry out while conducting broader distributed and expeditionary operations as part of his service's still relatively new Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept.
At its most basic, EABO envisions Marine units rapidly establishing forward operating bases across a broad area from which they can conduct various missions and then disestablishing them just as quickly, relocating, and repeating the process elsewhere. In principle, this creates a dynamic battlespace across a huge geographical expanse that makes it difficult for opponents to prioritize threats and adequately respond to them. You can read more about this in-depth in this previous War Zone piece.
"As Chinese and Russian undersea warfare capabilities continue to improve, logistics and other supporting operations for U.S. ASW forces will grow in importance," Berger wrote in Proceedings. "Integrating cross-domain ASW [anti-submarine warfare] operations into the Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept could enable the joint force to sustain or widen its advantage in ASW."
The Marine Corps Commandant is certainly not the first within the U.S. military to sound the alarm about increasing Russian and Chinese submarine and other underwater activity, as well as both countries' development of improved submarines and new undersea capabilities, and the challenges and threats that they represent. The Navy has been particularly outspoken in recent years about the dangers it sees in a new "Fourth Battle of the Atlantic," though these same issues also apply to the Arctic and Pacific regions, as well.
"Nearly two years ago, my predecessor, former Commandant General Robert Neller, drew applause at the 2019 Naval Institute/AFCEA WEST Conference when he said, 'We’re going to have to fight to get to the fight,' and, 'I think we’re going to need more submarines' in a fight against a peer adversary," Berger added. "While those were bold statements from a Marine general, I am ready to take that line of thinking even further. The undersea fight will be so critical in the High North and in the western Pacific that the Marine Corps must be part of it."
In his article, Berger described a variety of different ways in which Marines could contribute directly to hunting and killing submarines from forward bases in the future.
When it comes to finding submarines, the Commandant noted that Marine unmanned aircraft could potentially deploy sonobuoy arrays and other anti-submarine warfare sensors in the waters around an expeditionary outpost. This could be a tall order for the Corps' existing RQ-21 Blackjack drones, but the service is actively working toward acquiring more capable, longer-range unmanned capabilities.
The service has two MQ-9 Reapers on order now and is training personnel to operate them already. General Atomics, the Reaper's manufacturer, already offers the Sea Guardian variant of this unmanned aircraft configured for maritime surveillance missions with a large surface search radar and been exploring adding anti-submarine capabilities to the design, including underwing sonobuoy dispensers. In 2017, one of these drones also demonstrated its ability to serve as a relay for data from sonobuoys other aircraft and helicopters might deploy. The Marines also see their Reapers as a stepping stone to fielding other larger unmanned aircraft.
In addition, though Berger doesn't specifically mention it, manned aircraft, such as the service's KC-130 Hercules tanker-transporters and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, and helicopters could also contribute and might be better suited to rapidly deploying components of a more robust anti-submarine sensor array.
Just in October, the Marine announced that, for the first time ever, it had used an MV-22 to deploy oceanographic sensors, used to gather important environmental data to support amphibious operations planning, from an MV-22 as part of an exercise. Typically, C-130 variants have been used to drop these systems in the past.
“Using the MV-22 to deploy these sensors not only greatly expands when and where oceanographic data can be collected, but having the capability to organically deploy these sensors, can ensure that the data most relevant to the Marine Corps is captured,” Steven Jayne, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who took part in the demonstration, said afterward in a statement. “Because of how accurate the sensors are, commanders can ensure a safer environment for future amphibious operations.”
It's also worth mentioning that a 2016 "toolkit" describing various notional future concepts for Marine planners to use in tabletop wargames around the EABO concept also included potential methods for the emplacement of bi-static and multi-static sonar arrays via aircraft or personnel on the ground. The expectation was that Navy personnel would operate these systems.
With these organic means of detecting submarines in place, as well as information from networks linked to other anti-submarine elements, including those within the Navy and those operated by allies and partners, Marines could then engage any undersea threats they detect. This could be done using Marine manned aircraft, drones, or helicopters armed with traditional lightweight torpedoes, according to Berger.
The 2016 wargame toolkit also specifically raised the possibility of using armed MV-22s in the anti-submarine warfare role. From the very beginning of the Osprey program there had also been talk of developing an anti-submarine variant using a roll-on/roll-off kit, that would add capabilities such as dipping sonar, with the Navy going so far as to reserve the designation SV-22A for this version. Other weapons, including torpedoes with stand-off wing kits and anti-submarine mines might also be options to increase the anti-submarine capabilities of Marine manned and unmanned aircraft.
More interestingly, Berger also described the possibility of employing "ground-launched ASW missiles." Though he did not describe what this kind of system would consist of, the Indian military recently tested a weapon that would seem to fit this general description called the Supersonic Missile Assisted Release of Torpedo (SMART). SMART is a supersonic missile that carries a lightweight torpedo instead of a more traditional warhead and releases this payload after arriving at a designated target area.
The Marine wargaming toolkit from 2016 also included notes on possibly tethering an unspecified launch platform with the RUM-139 Vertical Launch Anti-Submarine Rocket (VL-ASROC), which is presently in service with the Navy, in some way to an expeditionary Marine Corps network. A ground-launched version of VL-ASROC could certainly be something Berger has in mind, as well, but the ship-launched version has a maximum range of just around 15 nautical miles. As such, this could valuable for littoral defense around a forward operating location, but it could be necessary to extend that range for the system to be more useful in a distributed, expeditionary environment. India's SMART is expected to be able to carry its torpedo out to areas up to 400 miles away.
It's important to note that Berger's new Marine Corps force structure already focuses heavily on expanding the service's land-based anti-ship and land-attack missile capabilities, including ground-launched Tomahawk and Naval Strike Missile (NSM) cruise missiles. There are also plans for a multi-purpose, unmanned launcher vehicle, called Remotely Operated Ground Unit Expeditionary Fires (ROGUE Fires), to employ these weapons, among others. ROGUE Fires will combine the chassis of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) with a launcher derived from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).
The Marine Corps officer's vision isn't limited to this kind of direct action against enemy submarines. His piece in Proceedings underscored how Marines operating from forward bases could also provide anti-air and anti-ship capabilities to neutralize or otherwise mitigate threats to other anti-submarine warfare assets in the air and at sea, including the Navy's P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes.
He also pointed out the increasing threats to established U.S. bases during a major conflict, an issue that the U.S. military, as a whole, has been grappling with in recent years, which will demand greater focus on distributed operations to make it more difficult for opponents to target American forces and disrupt their operations. The Marine Corps' EABO concept is already focused on this kind of warfare and Berger highlighted how those outposts could potentially serve as forwarding bases for other anti-submarine warfare assets or as logistics nodes to support other nearby locations where those assets might be operating from.
The 2016 wargaming tool kit included an entry on one possible concept involving a shore-based Navy SH/MH-60 Seahawk detachment flying from a Marine forward base and conducting local anti-submarine operations, as well as anti-surface warfare (ASUW) and other missions. The document described this "ASW/ASUW Hunter Killer / Pouncer Team" as being "like when ship based, operates as the striking, search and localization arm of the other local ASW and associated Expeditionary sensor units."
There's also the possibility that, depending on how the Marine Corps might ultimately deploy the various capabilities in question, that the service could be able to contribute to the anti-submarine warfare fight from the decks of amphibious warfare ships or sea bases. The Marines have already demonstrated the ability to employ HIMARS in this way from the deck of San Antonio-class landing platform dock and have also used a mobile electronic warfare jamming system on deck of a Wasp class amphibious assault ship to knock down hostile drones.
"From operating areas in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, EABs could support an ASW fence across the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, bottling Russian submarines in the Norwegian Sea and keeping them out of the North Atlantic," Berger explained. "The same concept could be applied to the First Island Chain in the western Pacific."
"Without being limited to the Philippines and Japan, EABs could create opportunities from multiple locations beyond the South and East China Seas," he continued. "Close, confined seas may offer more opportunities for Marine EABs to sense and strike Chinese ships and submarines, while supporting fleet and joint ASW efforts."
As already noted, the challenge that Russian or Chinese submarines would present in any major contingency or conflict in the future, both to naval forces on the front lines and maritime logistics chains in rear areas, is very real. It's hardly surprising then that Berger would be adamant about contributing to that part of the fight.
At the same time, it remains to be seen just how much of this vision the Marines will be able to actually implement. While many of the technical aspects appear to be readily achievable, hunting submarines is a very specific skill set, as the War Zone
has explored on multiple occasions in the past. It's not clear how realistic it might be to train Marine units to take on this mission set on top of all the other tasks they are already expected to perform as part of the EABO concept. Using Navy assets or those from U.S. allies and partners to cue Marine anti-submarine warfare attacks might help mitigate this, but could limit the Corps' ability to conduct these kinds of operations independently.
There is also a basic manpower question. Berger, and his predecessor Neller, has already talked about expanding the Marine Corps ability to carry out other kinds of operations, including electronic warfare and cyber warfare, but with an understanding that the overall size of his service is unlikely to increase in any substantial way and that it could even shrink. Any effort to establish a dedicated anti-submarine force within the Corps, or even just set aside units to focus more heavily on this mission, could find itself competing for these finite personnel resources.
At the same time, Berger clearly understands that the Marines would always be just one component of a larger anti-submarine warfare picture. In Proceedings, he rightly described several valuable indirect ways in which his service could provide valuable protection for other services or foreign allies and partners hunting for undersea threats and otherwise support those operations.
What is clear is that the threat that submarines would pose to U.S. military operations, broadly, in any future high-end conflict has come sharply back into focus in recent years amid Russian and Chinese developments. Any contribution that Berger's Marine Corps can make toward any future undersea fight would certainly be more than welcome.
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