Some military theorists argue that the era of the amphibious assault is over, citing Marine Corps presence far beyond the littorals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others counsel that history clearly demonstrates the efficacy of sustaining a seabased amphibious power projection capability.
Regardless, Marines must have sufficient fires to protect the force, retain the offensive, and exploit maneuver. Naval surface fire support (NSFS) plays a role (at least doctrinally) in the triad of air-surface-ground fires supporting Marine ship-to-objective maneuver (STOM).
However, new operational concepts, threat trends, and budgetary realities have dramatically reduced the potential NSFS contribution to amphibious operations. Despite 15 years of doctrinal and operational concepts espousing support of operations ashore, NSFS falls short of Marine Corps requirements for responsive, long-range, lethal, high-volume fires. Repeated government and Marine Corps criticisms stress that the Navy has no coherent program to meet this need. (1)
In keeping with the Marine mantra of “improvise, adapt, overcome,” Quantico developed its own plan for fires and is rapidly fielding systems that make Marines less reliant on seabased fires. In fact, the emerging capability mix within the Marine air-ground task force, when supplemented by dedicated joint fires against preplanned targets, may be sufficient even without dedicated NSFS.
The implications of this development are significant not only to Marines—if there is less need for surface ship fires, there is less justification for the development and acquisition of the DDG 1000’s advanced gun system (AGS), and perhaps even for the ship class itself in its current configuration.
A Common Conclusion: Inadequate Surface Fires
While historical Marine and Army criticisms about overall Navy support for amphibious operations abound, the contemporary debate heightened after the deactivation of Iowa-class battleships and their 16-inch guns. Since then, Marine leaders consistently decried the capability gap, while Navy peers provided assurances of future capability. Recent official comments have helped to illustrate this point.
- Gen James L. Jones stated in 2000: We have atrophied our Marine ground fires inventory to a dangerous point. We’re out-gunned and out-ranged by just about everyone. So I am fixing the artillery.
- ADM Michael Mullen acknowledged in 2002 that the Marine Corps’ operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS) and STOM concepts relied on “long-range, responsive, accurate, and lethal fire support from Navy ships.”
- ADM Vernon Clark replied to congressional criticism on the lack of NSFS solutions in 2002 that the Navy would cover the needs with combat air.
- MajGen William A. Whitlow lamented at a 2002 conference that:
- You can’t shoot $1 million missiles against the guy in the tent and then run back to the United States and reload. You don’t have enough of them, and you can’t afford it.
- Gen Michael W. Hagee testified in 2003 that expeditionary forces ashore remain “at considerable risk for want of suitable sea-based fire support until DD(X) joins the fleet in significant numbers.”
Requirements Supported by Combat Operations
The following recent assessments make clear the specific characteristics of fires that ground forces need (mirrored in Service doctrine)—rapidity, lethality, volume, responsiveness, flexibility, accuracy, mobility, range, and sustainability.
- 2002 Afghanistan Operation ANACONDA lessons learned stress ground forces without sufficient organic indirect fires face greater risks.
- A 2004 Defense Science Board study cited NSFS inability to support maneuver forces, minimize collateral damage, or provide sustained volume/area effects. (2)
- An August 2004 Multinational Corps-Iraq urgent need statement requested a precision-guided cannon munition with greater range, precision, and lethality.
- A 2007 analysis of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan concluded that only cannon artillery provided instantaneous and nonweather dependent day/night fires. (3)
Marines Field New Artillery Capabilities
The combination of inadequate naval fires, combat lessons learned, and the surge in procurement funds after 11 September 2001 provided the necessary impetus to acquire a new generation of ground indirect fire systems. Marines acquired the RT heavy mobile mortar (expeditionary fire support system (EFSS)), the M777 lightweight 155mm towed howitzer, and the high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS).
While a capable system, HIMARS is too heavy to support STOM’s rapid vertical movement. EFSS and M777 are transportable via CH–53/V–22. Short of NSFS, then, organic indirect fires currently able to support rapid Marine maneuver are limited to the M777 and EFSS.
Of the three systems the M777 brings the most dramatic new capability. Marine units are now receiving the M777, replacing the venerable M198 towed 155mm howitzer. Mobility improvements result in a fires system that can accompany rapid STOM over or around a defended beachhead, providing organic ground fires beyond naval gunfire’s limits. The M777A1 version adds a digital self-location fire control system—the global positioning system (GPS).
The most significant aspect of the M777 (A2 version) is the ability to fire the next-generation extended range (40 kilometer) GPS/inertial navigation-guided M982 Excalibur projectile, giving Marines “one shot, one kill” capability. Increased accuracy supports maneuver and reduces the logistics tail.
Improved lethality from a naturally fragmenting steel warhead and near vertical terminal trajectory also reduces collateral damage—a critical concern in urban terrain. Excalibur is now combat proven in Iraq, and M777s are in use in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. (4) Excalibur’s greatest drawback is cost—$100,000 per round.
Why NSFS Capabilities Fall Short
Summarizing NSFS concerns helps explain why Marines developed their own solutions. Common criticisms include:
- Inadequate naval guns available to meet expected STOM requirements. (5)
- Insufficient ship magazine capacity to support volume fires.
- NSFS is not an all-weather equivalent to close air support.
- Tactical Tomahawk (Block IV, TacTom) excessive cost and response time, potential theater reluctance to expend, and warhead overkill for many targets. (6)
- Excessive time of flight for seabased extended range gun munitions (7 minutes).
- NSFS platforms’ proximal vulnerability to coastal antiaccess threats.
- Unavailability of multimission NSFS vessels due to other tasking.
- Minimal naval gun munition effectiveness against harder targets. (7)
- Limited naval gun round explosive weight (7 pounds).
- NSFS longer range weapon dependence on precise target geocoordinates that are difficult to attain in a dynamic combat environment.
- High costs of proposed NSFS munitions.
- Complex shore-to-sea fire support coordination (airspace deconfliction, fratricide avoidance, rules of engagement, target identification, etc.). (8)
Reasons for the Current Dilemma
The current NSFS capabilities gap seems to be a result of changing Navy priorities, changing Marine Corps NSFS requirements, and a changing threat environment. Navy doctrine and operational concepts since 1991 reflect the shift in focus from blue water to the littoral and support of operations inland.
Yet, for many reasons, NSFS efforts were consistently underfunded, delayed, or cancelled. The 1992 Iowa-class deactivation dramatically widened the gap. By 1994 Navy leaders developed near/midterm plans for upgrading 5-inch/54 caliber guns to 62 caliber for longer range and to accommodate an extended range guided munition (ERGM).
The long-term plan called for a new “land attack” destroyer with missiles and an entirely new 155mm AGS, and the investigation of electromagnetic rail guns.
Ship design candidates briefly included single-mission vessels to support operations ashore. However, despite a Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel recommendation to develop the arsenal ship, the Navy canceled the program, focusing instead on DD 21. One NSFS expert explains:
The Navy’s attitude and priorities about NSFS are not just a reflection of the limits of their understanding of fires in general, but are a symptom of a larger problem—their acceptance of the strike mindset for fighting wars. (9)
Marine Corps NSFS requirements also changed in the post-Cold War era, complicating Navy plans to address them. By 1994 Quantico established range requirements between 41 to 63 nautical miles (nm). (10) Volume and explosive weight requirements centered on each NSFS vessel delivering fires equivalent to a 155mm artillery battery (six guns).
By 1997 the dramatic impact of the new Marine Corps OMFTS and STOM concepts and emerging maneuver capabilities obviated previous range requirements. Marine Corps NSFS range requirements, though not formalized, began to cite 100 and even 200nm. (11) Essentially STOM would rapidly outpace planned NSFS capabilities, exacerbating already delayed Navy programs. As late as 2004 the Navy-Marine Team had not yet addressed a resolution to the persistent requirement capability gap. (12)
Lastly, by the early 1990s, a new generation of littoral antiship weapons systems threatened Navy NSFS delivery platforms to the point that Navy and Marine leaders modified amphibious operational concepts. Quiet diesel submarines, sophisticated coastal cruise missiles, and widely available mines—when deployed by an intelligent opponent—could comprise a credible, layered antiaccess defense not easily countered.
As such, OMFTS called for amphibious and support shipping to stage 25nm off the coast during the early phases, for both survivability and to achieve surprise. (The 41 to 63nm NSFS range figure incorporated the 25nm standoff assumption.) The result was an instant nullification of naval gunfire’s contribution to NSFS, due to the 5-inch gun’s short range. Expanding NSFS range requirements created a tyranny of distance that proved to be the greatest obstacle to bridging the gap.
NSFS Status Today
The gap persisted as of late 2007. Current capability statuses follow:
- Naval fire control system (NFCS): installed on DDG 51 Burke destroyers.
- TacTom: operational, but the most expensive NSFS weapon and does not meet Marine Corps responsiveness requirements.
- 5-inch/62 caliber: installed on DDG 51s after hull number 81; multiple round simultaneous impact (MRSI) feature; ERGM-capable, but handling equipment not yet installed; cruiser and first 32 DDG 51 5-inch/ 62 caliber upgrades pending.
- Advanced land attack missile: program never initiated.
- Land attack standard missile: program cancelled in 2003.
Hence, 15 years after the shortfall arose, naval guns can contribute nothing to NSFS if they remain outside 25nm.
The Navy Plan
If current planning comes to fruition, the Navy will deploy significant NSFS improvements. Future capability program statuses and remaining challenges follow:
- 5-inch ERGM: 10 meter (m) circle error probable (CEP), 63nm range (though not yet achieved), numerous microelectronic technical challenges, expected $50,000/round cost, $500 million spent to date, and full operational capability (FOC) estimated for 2011. (13)
- Long-range land attack projectile (LRLAP) 155mm munition: 100nm range, larger 24-pound explosive weight, 50m CEP, expected $50,000/ round cost, long flight time (10 minutes), and 2013 FOC. (14)
- AGS: fully automated rapid fire 155mm gun, MRSI capable, reduced magazine capacity (300 rounds), reduced firing rate to 10 rounds/ minute, nearly $1 billion in costs to date (including LRLAP), (15) and estimated 2013 deployment.
As the most significant component of the future NSFS program, the DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer’s status deserves more detailed discussion.
DDG 1000 Not an NSFS Solution
Formerly known as the DD 21/DD(X), Zumwalt will have an arsenal of two 155mm AGSs and a vertical launch system for TacTom, but myriad concerns continue to plague the program. Originally estimated to cost $1 billion per ship when 32 were envisioned, the DDG 1000 program’s growing pricetag—an estimated $4.8 billion cost for the first unit, to be delivered in 2012 (16)—when viewed within the framework of the Navy shipbuilding plan, should indeed give Quantico pause.
Budgetary constraints reduced the planned DDG 1000-class size significantly to seven, limiting its potential contribution to NSFS. Regarding program viability, naval analyst Col Robert Work, USMC(Ret) asserts that:
. . . given the unwelcome impact that the DDG-1000 has had and will continue to have on the Navy’s post-Cold War transformation plans, even the staunchest proponents of the ship have to question whether pursuing the ship continues to make sense. (17)
Additionally, planned DDG 1000 NSFS capabilities are simply inadequate to support Marine NSFS requirements—especially as Marines maneuver inland. (18) A corollary is that absent a viable Navy capability, Marines will pursue their own solutions, making the DDG 1000 somewhat irrelevant. The current multimission design (note the added “G” in the class designation) also has the serious potential of diluting overall NSFS capability with the distractions and priorities of other missions.
Further, pinning future NSFS capability to the Navy transformation flagship carries risk. The rush to test too many new or unproven technologies (AGS for instance) in the DDG 1000 program may also lead to a floating “technology demonstrator.” (19) Considering the tenuous littoral combat ship program, the few envisioned DDG 1000s may have to operate with little support in the littorals in high threat conditions to provide NSFS.
Additionally, with only a few hulls in service, they will be in high demand for forward deployment and will be prime high-value targets for an intelligent adversary. Finally, if TacTom becomes the de facto answer to NSFS requirements, submarines may be more able to meet Marine NSFS needs.
Several recommendations flow from the above analysis, some reflected in current literature debating NSFS and the DDG 1000.
- Develop a penetrator munition for TacTom and next-generation naval guns to meet Marine fires needs.
- Ensure unmanned aircraft systems/combat vehicles and fixed-wing targeting pods can provide geocoordinates that are accurate enough to support GPS-guided weapons.
- Ensure that Marine targeting centers have sufficient wherewithal to conduct indepth battlespace preparation to maximize preplanned precision fires. A well-planned wave of joint/Navy/Marine air-to-ground and Tomahawk strikes could provide the needed punch to secure a foothold inland to bring the EFSS and M777 to bear.
- Develop sufficient seabased sensors to provide adequate target acquisition for Navy and Marine fires, especially during STOM. Maximize the potential of the digitally networked NFCS.
- Focus current naval gunfire capabilities on extended range, non-precision area suppression. This is more affordable than ERGM/LRLAP and could service Marine Corps antimaterial/antipersonnel targets without precise coordinates.
- If AGS/LRLAP costs spiral, cancel both and install the 5-inch/62 caliber on all warships.
- Redesign DDG 1000 for single-mission NSFS focus. Alternatively, reemerging global submarine threats suggest a single-mission Zumwalt antisubmarine warfare destroyer is a key requirement. Either way, single-mission focus dramatically reduces costs.
- Either the Navy should rapidly develop improved capabilities to counter antiaccess threats or accept more risk in the littoral and bring NSFS platforms close enough to make a difference.
Now is the time for the Pentagon to make a crucial decision on the way ahead. Navy leaders must understand that to adhere to a rigid NSFS capability plan that falls well short of customer requirements may mean that the end product is overcome by events. Instead, a holistic NSFS requirement-capability reassessment is still possible, even if it means that Navy warships cannot meet Marine demands—perhaps another platform can. At least that would be more rational than developing an impressive yet superfluous and exorbitantly expensive ship class.
Marines typically do not trust glossy artist renditions of the future, but their reliance on hard historical lessons is renowned. History suggests that the future of NSFS is already decided— Navy leaders assume more shipbuilding funds will solve all of the current problems. As such, Marines would do well to vouchsafe self-reliance as the watchword in dangerous times ahead.
1. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Briefing to the Staff of the Subcommittee on Projection Forces, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives: Information on Options for Naval Surface Fire Support,” Washington, DC, 19 November 2004, p. 23.
2. Department of Defense, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Integrated Fire Support in the Battlespace,” October 2004, p. 2.
3. Unterseher, COL J., USA(Ret), “The Case for Cannons: Success in Current Operations, New Technology Keep Artillery in the Fight,” Armed Forces Journal, September 2007, available at http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2007/10/2865268, accessed 10 October 2007.
4. Osborn, Kris, “U.S. Marines Ship New Howitzer to Iraq,” Defense News, 4 October 2007, available at http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?F=3088181&C=america, (also here) accessed 10 October 2007.
5. A 17-hour high-intensity Marine expeditionary force-sized operation with “moderate risk” of mission success requires 12 DDG 1000s with 2 AGSs each. See LtCol James W. Hammond III, “NSFS Shortfalls,” Marine Corps Gazette,March 2006, p. 31.
6. Welch, COL Shawn, USA, “Joint and Interdependent Requirements: A Case Study in Solving the Naval Surface Fire Support Capabilities Gap,” Joint Forces Staff College Joint Advanced Warfighting School, Norfolk, VA, 17 May 2007, p. 35.
7. Various studies all find that 5-inch shell penetration is limited to 2 to 3 feet of reinforced concrete at best, and the density and weight of warhead fragments is only effective against soft area targets. For discussion of urban fires/targeting challenges, see CDR John Patch, USN, “Operation AL FAJR: Enduring MOUT Principles Make the Fight for Fallujah a Success,”Marine Corps Gazette, November 2006, available at http://mca.webfirst.com/gazette/webarticle2.asp.
8. Kerl, Maj Brian D. and Maj Thomas O. Mayberry, “MAGTF Fires XXI,” Field Artillery, Fort Leavenworth, KS, September-October 2001, p. 12.
9. Hammond, LtCol James W. III, “Naval Surface Fires—‘For Want of a Nail,’” Marine Corps Gazette, July 2002, p. 57.
10. GAO, “Report to the Chairman, Committee on National Security, House of Representatives: Naval Surface Fire Support,” Washington, DC, May 1995, p. 2.
11. GAO, “Defense Acquisitions: Naval Surface Fire Support Program Plans and Costs,” Washington, DC, June 1999, p. 3.
12. GAO, “Briefing to the Staff of the Subcommittee on Projection Forces, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives: Information on Options for Naval Surface Fire Support.”
13. Stearman, William L., “Marines Lose the Battleships’ Firepower,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2006, p. 29.
15. “Dead Aim, Or Dead End? The USA’s DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class Program,” Defense Industry Daily, 12 November 2007, available at http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/dead-aim-or-dead-end-usas-ddg1000-zumwalt-class-program-02574/, accessed 1 November 2007.
16. Congressional Budget Office, “Resource Implications of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2008 Shipbuilding Plan,” Washington, DC, 23 March 2007, p. 14.
17. Work, Col Robert O., USMC(Ret),Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em: A New Transformation Plan for the Navy’s Surface Battle Line, 2007, p. v.
18. A National Defense University 2007 award- winning assessment casts doubt on the DDG 1000 class as an adequate solution and makes a cogent case that faulty assumptions have helped create the NSFS capabilities gap. See Welch.
19. Defense Industry Daily.