The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have released a new strategy to integrate their capabilities to address the challenges posed by archipelagic and coastal geography, and the proliferation of advanced sensors and mobile, long-range missile systems that can threaten naval forces from ashore. Called Littoral Operations in Contested Environments (LOCE), the concept puts forward a framework to fight for, and gain sea control in littoral geographies by employing both sea-based and land-based Marines Corps capabilities to support the sea control fight.
LOCE has been under development and testing since 2015 and the full concept remains classified. The release of this unclassified version, signed by both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, signals the development of new doctrine, exercising the concept in wargames, and the acquisition or modification of weapons systems to enable it.
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After the Cold War, the U.S. Navy assumed it would never again face a serious challenge to its use of the seas. As a result, weapons systems and competencies critical to engaging in sea combat to establish and defend control of the seas were left fallow. The most striking of these decisions was to equip only the first 27 of the 73 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in service or under construction with anti-ship cruise missiles designed to attack another warship (the rest won’t receive new long-range anti-ship missiles now under development until the 2020s).
Under those old assumptions, the “hard part” of U.S. amphibious operations was for the Marines fighting ashore, but long-range anti-ship missiles fired from an adversary’s mainland or deployed to remote archipelagic bases threaten the U.S. Navy’s freedom of action. Recognizing that these missile systems now give naval combat a “landward dimension,” the LOCE concept reverses amphibious operations’ old assumptions and roles. Instead of the Navy establishing sea control to put Marines ashore to achieve their objectives, the Marines will be going ashore under hostile sea conditions to then help the Navy establish sea control.
The Marine’s role under this concept will be to neutralize the adversary’s land-based sensors and anti-ship weapons that threaten U.S. warships, and then use their own air assets and mobile artillery and missile systems to deny free use of the seas to the adversary fleet. Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller described it recently as having to “fight to get to the fight.”
For the Marines, this doesn’t just mean storming beaches to then turnaround and help defend the Navy from shore, but also supplementing the defense of the amphibious ships they are embarked on and even giving them their own offensive anti-ship and anti-air capability.
It’s not an entirely new role for Marines embarked on warships. On the U.S. World War II-era Iowa-class battleships Marine security detachments would man the ships’ 5-inch anti-aircraft batteries, and on British battleships, Royal Marines were usually responsible for manning one of the ships’ main gun turrets.
The modern twist on this legacy will be to emplace the Marines’ tube and rocket artillery systems on amphibious ships’ large flight decks, transforming them into floating firebases to deliver offensive “precision fire” against targets ashore and at-sea. Advanced mobile missile systems like HIMARS can readily be driven onto an amphibious ship’s deck and were already being looked at to fire anti-ship cruise missiles as a land-based sea-control system.
For the U.S. Navy, this dovetails with its distributed lethality concept to provide warships increased combat capability to support a distributed network of threats to complicate an adversary’s operations. Amphibious ships are generally regarded as relatively vulnerable platforms that need to be defended by more capable destroyers or cruisers. The addition of Marine defensive and artillery systems to amphibious ships not only reduces the requirement for other warships to defend them, freeing those ships up for other missions, but gives them their own offensive capability to threaten adversaries at-sea and ashore for the first time.
A Message to China
The document does not target specific countries, but does reference the Western Pacific, Eastern Mediterranean, and Baltic Sea as regions where the concept would apply. Marine Corps strategists told USNI News that the concept’s genesis was in the 2006 non-combatant evacuation of Beirut when Hezbollah struck an Israeli corvette with an anti-ship cruise missile, and the document stresses that it does not cover “major combat operations” with peer competitors. Nevertheless, Littoral Operations in Contested Environments is a not-so-thinly veiled message to China.
The concept is concerned by threats from states with “significant sea denial capabilities,” and capacity advantages in precisions weapons, shore-based sensors, and air and surface platforms that together might negate the U.S. Navy’s more advanced but comparatively limited capabilities; only China possesses all of these attributes. Any lingering doubt about the concept’s target is erased by mention of neutralizing the threat from anti-ship ballistic missiles, a system that only China is developing and fielding, and by calling out patterns of aggressiveness by “proxy forces” that assert control over disputed geography, a clear reference to China’s Maritime Militia and its operations in the South and East China Seas.
Furthermore, the document’s sole graphic illustrates how an integrated network of sensors, weapons platforms, and logistics sites arrayed on a generic archipelago would deny sea- and airspace to an adversary, and control chokepoints and sea lanes outside an adversary landmass.
The geography’s anonymity is thin, however, and bears unmistakable resemblance to Japan’s southwestern island chain that rings China’s east coast. Implicitly, a fully resourced and implemented LOCE concept could effectively contain Chinese air and sea forces behind the first island chain.
As I explained last April, the development of this concept brings China and the United States closer to the costly Western Pacific stalemate predicted by scholars in sweeping studies of a potential war between the two countries published last year. The analyses conclude that a conflict would settle into China projecting an area of control out from its mainland, the U.S. and its allies project similar control from the islands ringing China’s coastline, and neither decisively controlling most of the seas and airspace between them.
But refining and implementing the LOCE concept does not have to lead to a destabilizing arms race or conflict spiral between the United States and China. It could even provide the United States with negotiating leverage to broker an implicit agreement with China to freeze its militarization of its South China Sea bases before it deploys long-range force projection systems like bombers and missiles to them.