Traditional Amphibious Warfare Wrong for decades, wrong for the future

The title of a challenging article in the US Marine Corps Gazette from USMCR Major Trevor Howell

The introductory paragraph sets out the thrust of the article

Military news is replete with calls from traditionalists for the Marine Corps to return to its “amphibious roots.” Citing a dubious account of history, traditionalists have long held amphibious warfare to be the defining characteristic of Marines while simultaneously displaying a strong aversion to Corps participation in irregular warfare (IW) in the decades following the 1950 amphibious landing at Inchon. With Afghanistan winding down, that war will join Iraq and Vietnam in a list of military campaigns that traditionalists will point toward to justify their aversion to IW no matter the circumstances. Notwithstanding the mixed results of these campaigns, the traditionalists’ claim that the Marine Corps is rooted in amphibious warfare is dubious insofar as it is not a full presentation of the historical record. Moreover, a return to amphibious warfare in the same way traditionalists have wanted since Inchon, with the opposed amphibious landing being the crown jewel of these forcible entry operations, will be detrimental to the Nation and the Corps

Given our recent discussion on the future of the UK’s general amphibious capability I thought it worth sharing.

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As a footnote, you do have to admire the US forces for the way in which they can allow challenging articles to appear in their professional journals, something to be learned there I think.

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Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
September 25, 2014 2:35 pm

Very interesting TD – been doing a bit of reading around the Vietnam CAP mentioned and the concept of Distributed Operations. However, at the end he does advocate sea basing which I believe you have criticised in the past – do you see sea basing for IW or distributed operations viable?

September 25, 2014 10:06 pm

The Marines in the US have five roots

(1) boarding teams aboard warships
(sailors could and likely should double as such, or the marines aboard could be called sailors and double as damage control teams)

(2) Wall Street’s enforcers, typically in Latin America
(“Banana Wars”, “United Fruit Company”, look up Smedley Butler’s “War is a racket” account which he wrote after doing this job for years. The CIA took over this role during the Cold War.)

(3) island base conquerors and defenders in War Plan Orange / Pacific War 1942-1945
(the root of the “amphibious” tradition, but there were no Marines in Normandy and U.S.Army provided follow-on forces for all large island invasions in the Pacific)

(4) embassy, consulate and White House guards

(5) reinforcement for the army
(especially during First World War, Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan occupations)

The army’s capability in regard to forcible entry (especially with their heliborne forces, which can do quite the same as the Marines’ heliborne forces) strongly questions any focus on the Marine’s claim of amphibiousness as unique selling proposition to the taxpayer.
The USA could do without any marines, especially if a few thousand of them were redesignated as secret service agents or navy sailors.

It was surprising to me that the USMC failed to exploit the Somali pirates story for triphibious assaults on pirate hot spot villages and for much publicity for the boarding teams, possibly even as armed guards. Maybe the lack of freighters still flying the U.S. flag was their key problem.

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
September 25, 2014 10:32 pm

I was interested to read that the USMC wants NGFS from battleships not the autoloading guns on the front of modern warships. I thought the latter made up in rate of fire for the multi barrelled multiple turrets, maybe a subject matter expert can explain out the issues involved

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
September 25, 2014 10:50 pm

Here is a link to Tom Lehrer’s song “Send in the Marines”

September 25, 2014 11:39 pm

NGFS with 8″ to 16″ is an old fanboi debate similar to “tracks vs. wheels”.

The USMC should get its antiquated organic fire support right instead of toying with robot mortars and gold-plated titanium howitzers in 70’s style.
They wouldn’t need to whine about 5″ NGFS if they had a decent SPG and an answer to the logistical problem of arty ammunition resupply.

September 26, 2014 12:29 am

The army’s capability in regard to forcible entry (especially with their heliborne forces, which can do quite the same as the Marines’ heliborne forces) strongly questions any focus on the Marine’s claim of amphibiousness as unique selling proposition to the taxpayer.
The USA could do without any marines, especially if a few thousand of them were redesignated as secret service agents or navy sailors.

I’m about as partisan supporter of the US Army as you’ll find. But I do still support the forced entry capability of the Marine Corps.

Yes, the Army does have a robust forced entry capability, through both the 82nd Airborne (and the 75th Ranger Regiment) and various heliborne formations.

But the 82nd is very light on firepower, much lighter than any Marine unit. Deploying it in a forced entry capacity also places an extraordinary drain on available airlift. As for the heliborne option, it is very range limited. To use it would be based on the availability of a friendly foreign forward staging base. And that’s simply not an option in many scenarios.

The Marines also have the ability to seize a beach over with follow on Army LOTS forces can establish a reasonable logistical tail.

Finally, no service has more political influence than the Marines. By law, there WILL be three divisions, and three air wings. That law isn’t getting repealed anytime soon.

September 26, 2014 1:05 am

The 82nd/101st/Ranger/whatever of the army aren’t lighter on firepower than comparable, heliborne Marines. The heaviest punch of air-deployable Marines is the M777, which it shares with said army units.

The Marines have this War Plan Orange left-over beach assault capability with boats and LCAC, but IIRC those LCACs are navy (not subset USMC) equipment, which an army unit could use just as well (again; the Marines missed Normandy, and satisfactory navy-driven amphibious training can be done within weeks or months!). The USMC doesn’t have any equipment specifically designed for LCAC, LCU whatever.

The Marines’ only monopoly is in the AAV-7, which is obsolete, officially considered unsatisfactory (hence the replacement efforts since 1973(!)) and was sidelined by decades of USMC doctrine development towards hovercraft, helicopters and tiltrotors. The USMC basically says the AAV-7 approach is nonsense nowadays – unless the debate is about whether the USMC has a unique capability.

September 26, 2014 3:05 am

SO, while the AAV-7 is old, close to obsolete and in dire need of a replacement, how is the concept of use nonsense?

Agree on the rest, but the AAV-7 part seems to be phrased in a bit too extreme a manner. I can see some uses for something that can self deploy without need for LC, especially as a vehicle to set up a perimeter around a beachhead fast.

I can see 2 possible ways a replacement AAV-7 can go with a massive improvement in both. Case 1 is the current USMC MPC method, not much of an increase in performance for a big increase in protection. Case 2 is a modification of something like the Gibbs amphibious vehicles. Not much increase in protection for a big increase in transit speed. Both cases are diametrically opposite solutions. Case 1 is more probable though Case 2 has interesting potential.

September 26, 2014 3:17 am


“U.S.Army provided follow-on forces for all large island invasions in the Pacific)”

You may want to check; one of the two pushes across the Pacific was a pure army show.

As for your later comment on fire support across the beach, the next commentator put you right (in such a polite way that you may not have noticed, and I thus make this remark). If the Corps is part of the Navy, NGS is organic as are the aviation wings.
“The USMC should get its antiquated organic fire support right instead of toying with robot mortars and gold-plated titanium howitzers in 70’s style.
They wouldn’t need to whine about 5″ NGFS if they had a decent SPG and an answer to the logistical problem of arty ammunition resupply.”
– but as you are not modifying your know-all style (despite robust feedback), what is the answer to the last”question” you pose above?

September 26, 2014 3:28 am

@ SO got that wrong sunshine. The US Army airborne arty uses 105mm M119. Not sure that the US Army uses M777 at all, but possibly 10 Mtn Div. Basically the US Army uses 155mm SPs. It’s the USMC that has the misguided fondness for towed 155mm.

Jeremy M H
September 26, 2014 3:31 am

Its an interesting piece. I think there is a bit of truth to what he is saying but I am not sure that when people call for a return to the roots of the Marine Corps as an Amphibious force they are really calling for it to return to the more conventional opposed assault role that the author seems to think. I think the main aspect of that call is simply for them to refocus on being able to operate effectively in the maritime and coastal environments. To me that is a logical thing to discuss given where they have been deployed.

I do think some of the most important points that were made were that it made sense for Marines to be contributing people and expertise to the special operations command. That is a net positive for the US military in the long-term.

I like having the Marines around. Really it makes for a pretty fair mix of assets for the United States as the Marine units kind of inhabit a middle ground between the heavy army formations and the light army formations. Having two distinct groups thinking about similar problems isn’t the worst thing in the world and on the scale the US is doing it it really doesn’t add a ton on inefficiency to have the Marines do things their own way just a bit.

September 26, 2014 3:38 am

Is today “diss the item you don’t like” day?

155mm isn’t misguided, it’s standardized, so unless you’re going to field a new unique calibre with all the attendant problems, standardizing to 155mm makes sense, and towing makes sense if you don’t want to integrate a 30 ton armoured vehicle into your force.

September 26, 2014 3:39 am

Observer, if you go by this year’s budget hearings, the matter is already decided

“ACV 1.2 would then buy more of the vehicles, including the base version but also a command variant and a recovery variant, and when these are all fielded it would add lift capability for six battalions.

“So you’d have the ability to lift 10 infantry battalions: four of them would be in the AAVs that were going to be upgraded and then the rest [six] would be in the ACVs,” Gen Glueck explained.”

NaB once again had his gaze firmly on the rear view mirror when killing comments about the JHSV made here (more will be on order from Austal, I am sure ship-buikding trade publicagions have informed). How the trials have been run is different from the planned use (from the ssme hearing):

“”What we’re looking for is more along the lines of the Joint High Speed Vessel, for example, or another connector similar to that that’s going to be able to give us probably 25-35 kt over the water to be able to, say, take our ACVs,” said Gen Glueck. “We can do an at-sea integration between the [amphibious ships] and the joint high speed vessel; put those [ACVs] on there and they’d be able to actually launch those into the surf closer in to shore.””

September 26, 2014 3:49 am

Apologies, Observer, as you used the term MPC, I should have inserted it into my comment.

ACV 1.1 something like Havoc, as trialled and appr. 200 in quantity
ACV 1.2 same base vehicle, a follow on order for variants that may not exist in flesh and blood (well, metal and attached gadgets)

So, MPC generic for the above that are already projects (more specific, e.g a price tag on them)

September 26, 2014 3:51 am

regarding AAV-7:
Beach assaults are widely regarded as obsolete, not the least due to the power of artillery and AT weapons. You don’t need an AAV-7 for unopposed landings, and it’s a deathtrap in well-opposed landings. It’s also useless in Inchon-style landings (since it depends on a flat beach) and would require special support in Normandy-style landings (due to artificial obstacles).
It’s fine almost only for poorly defended sandy beaches.

@Obsrv/airborne arty: The U.S.Army airborne has been using M777 for years already.
One may nitpick that 18th Fires Bde isn’t organic to 82nd Div, but it’s assigned to it. A U.S.Army landing by parachute or helicopters would include the very same arty, mortar and almost the exact same anti-tank support weapons as its marines equivalent.

@ArmChairCivvy: I didn’t consider the very large islands such as Mindanao, Luzon, Papua. The interesting amphibious ops were the opposed ones, on cramped tiny islands and atolls.

September 26, 2014 4:17 am

SO, popularist media may not be the best judge on the viability of a military strategy or tactic. There are methods to make it work, some of which are extremely annoying and uncomfortable, but workable. And I hate night landings in the rain. Freaking cold!

September 26, 2014 5:14 am

I agree with the author that opposed landings are a thing of the past. That being said given the relativly small size of most army’s it is often impossible to defend an entire coast line and with assets like V22 the reach of amphibious forces becomes even greater.

Amphibious capability is what makes the USA a global superpower. For all the bluster of China and Russia they are unable to take on any nation that does not share a direct land boarder with them. The USA on the other hand could pose a threat to almost any nation on earth if it wants to.

Its also worth noting that while the USMC may have lost the Iowa Class it is about ato gain three Zumwalt class. Rapid fire 155mm guns able to fire precision munitions is probably far more useful on the modern battlefield than lobbing dumb 16 inch shells around.

September 26, 2014 5:37 am

Actually against things like a light infantry company, amphibious forces stand a fair chance of winning. People commonly use the words “opposed landing” but if you really got technical, what really butchered amphibious forces was fortified landing areas, not defended ones. It was the fortifications that took their toll on landing forces. If an infantry company was in the area without being dug in, it isn’t that bad. The casualties from things like Normandy was bad because of things like the Atlantic Wall, massively fortified areas.

IIRC an infantry company only had something along the lines of 2-4 GPMGs and 2-4 84mm CGs.

September 26, 2014 5:53 am

Observer, I’m not sure what you’re referring to as “popularist media”, and in what context.

In case you meant my take on forcible entry landings with AAVs; that’s a standard theme in professional literature. The USMC itself has promoted the hovercraft and helicopter/tiltrotor approach as alternatives because the ‘amphibious huge APC/IFV’ approach is very, very questionable.

The really heavy losses of amphibious operations were rarely in the landing phase itself. They incurred
* during the supposed mop up phase after the landing, against what turned out to be fortresses (Iwo Jima and Peleliu)
* during prolonged warfare in an adverse environment (Guadalcanal)
* because beachheads weren’t expanded aggressively and early, which allowed opposing forces to seal it off or to even counterattack in force (Anzio, Normandy)

The losses on the beach were typically rather low except for at Dieppe, where the invaders hardly left the beach at all. Movies depict the landings most dramatically because landings offer the best photography, though.

September 26, 2014 9:05 am

SO, then it isn’t the landing that is the problem isn’t it? It’s the terrain. And to put it in another way, even if they came in by land, they still had to take the fortified areas and jungle terrain with similar results. The only outlier would be the beachheads that were not aggressively expanded.

And I don’t think even LCACs or V-22s can survive in an adverse environment. LCACs are unarmed and a V-22 is a helicopter like any other, only with better in flight performance. Use them in lieu of LCs will probably get the same results.

Amphibious warfare, you need to pick your target properly. Chinese saying. A good beginning is half the key to success. Screw up this important first step (picking the right target) in amphibious warfare and you know the results. But then, that’s the same for all operations isn’t it? Like an infantry assault against a tank laager, armoured assault in an area without air denial etc. You can’t blame others or say the idea is bad if you are the one who screwed up. It isn’t the fault of the strategy, it’s the fault of the person misusing the strategy.

El Sid
El Sid
September 26, 2014 10:39 am

@Deja Vu
You’re slightly misreading the quote – it’s saying the traditionalists miss the heavy NGFS of the Iowas, but they’ve largely been proved to be wrong, and things like Tomahawks can do things that traditional guns can’t. “successful combined arms operations like “shock and awe” were carried out far inland to demonstrate the merits of modern weaponry without NSFS to essentially render moot the traditionalist argument for its return

As SO says, the US battleship fanbois make UK carrier fanbois look disinterested, and they really, really hate the way they’ve had a capability gap in dedicated NGFS from 1992 until the Zumwalt commissions next year. The Burkes’ 5″ gun doesn’t count for these purposes – it can only fire 20 rounds from its automatic loader – the Zumwalt’s AGS is a)firing a much heavier shell and b) has the magazine depth and loading system for sustained fire. But the fanbois would much rather have the big bang of an Iowa’s 16″ (although not as big a bang as the Lord Clives, obviously).

September 26, 2014 2:52 pm

“Screw up this important first step (picking the right target) in amphibious warfare and you know the results.”

The USMC turned innovative and towards amphibious invasions on defended beaches around 1930 because War Plan orange had anticipated that this choice wouldn’t be available. To assault and conquer some defended atolls was deemed the lesser evil, and the small size of said atolls meant that the Japanese would easily be able to afford a proper defence (especially since the plan did not anticipate their army to be bogged down in China).

One wouldn’t need specialised amphibious forces if one could always pick one’s fight well. This in turn means there’s no justification for dedicated amphibious forces if they aren’t promising in regard to assaults on difficult, defended shores.
The Marines aren’t, thus they have insisted on their ability to pick suitable LZs with their heliborne approach. That’s an army capability as well, though.

September 26, 2014 3:17 pm

Not all “fanbois” of NGFS are traditionalist Marines, nor are all of them solely battleship “fanbois.” The argument that Tomahawks make NGFS moot is specious at best and counterproductive at worst. While popping buildings and command centers with a single missile at great distances is great and glorious (and I don’t have a problem with that), sometimes you need bullets, big bullets, and lots of bullets, in support of landings or operations near shorelines. Before your artillery gets ashore, there’s only one way to get fire support that won’t go “bingo” on fuel when you need it; there’s only one way to suppress enemy positions that were hidden until they opened up on you; there’s only one way, and that’s effective NGFS.

Is the 5″/54 the answer? Well, it’s better than nothing, but the ready ammo is limited. Is the ZUMWALT-class’ (all three of them) 155mm/62 the answer? Not at $12.07 billion for what amounts to a battery of medium artillery.

Maybe it’s time for a return to real “gun” ships. (If you don’t want to spend the money on big ships.) (If you want to stay with a 155mm class round.)

Monitors with big guns were the original “littoral combat ships.”

Not a Boffin
Not a Boffin
September 26, 2014 3:39 pm

Or as Jim Bowen used to say “take a look at what you could have had……”

September 26, 2014 4:05 pm

“The really heavy losses of amphibious operations were rarely in the landing phase itself. They incurred
* during the supposed mop up phase after the landing, against what turned out to be fortresses (Iwo Jima and Peleliu)
* during prolonged warfare in an adverse environment (Guadalcanal)
* because beachheads weren’t expanded aggressively and early, which allowed opposing forces to seal it off or to even counterattack in force (Anzio, Normandy)

The losses on the beach were typically rather low except for at Dieppe, where the invaders hardly left the beach at all. Movies depict the landings most dramatically because landings offer the best photography, though.”



You need to read Ken Estes book “Marines Under Armor” for a fair assessment of amphibious operations; the key issue is not casualties, but vulnerability and any amphibious operation is most vulnerable during the initial landings.

In fact then Colonel Smith made the point that the need for mechanization of the amphibious force to avoid the inevitable bunching up of infantry on the beach for up to an hour until the armor arrived. Surely a beautiful target for artillery.

Your observations about helicopters is also requires reflection. People continuously assume that a few RPGs and ATGMs will decimate an amphibious force, but somehow a helicopter borne forces will magically make it through unscathed – bunk!

The USA lost 10,000 helicopters in Vietnam, and almost every one was flying over South Vietnam, not the much more heavily defended north. If an enemy can oppose a seaborne invasion, he certainly can oppose a vertical envelopment.

The real issue comes back to logistics, and there is no way you can fight a high intensity war without access to some form of port to move supplies. The realities of geography mean that the the USA has to have the ability to seize, or build up a port. This is not an issue for your country, but is for mine.


September 26, 2014 4:18 pm

Can you imagine if the SPRUANCE-class destroyers were built with two of these as originally planned instead of the 5″/54s? Could the RN have used something like this in the Falklands and at Al-Faw? BOOM!

September 26, 2014 4:21 pm

@GAB – Mulberries!

The Other Chris
September 26, 2014 4:24 pm

How do folks see Railguns fitting in / changing the playing field? Assuming development’s are successful.

Will we see gravitate towards vessels with 2, 3, more turrets? Will single turrets remain de rigueur?

September 26, 2014 4:45 pm

“The realities of geography mean that the the USA has to have the ability to seize, or build up a port.”

I call BS on this. The USA can defend itself without invading anywhere, Hawaii is far from being threatened with successful invasion.

The realities of foreign/military policy ambitions drive the requirements.

I don’t pretend helos are very survivable, in fact I think they’re largely a waste of money. The USMC itself promoted its heliborne approach as an answer to severe doubts about the AAV approach.

September 26, 2014 4:55 pm

The new DDG-1000 Zumwalt has two turrets positions for the new BAE 155mm gun/ missile system but one will be turned over to the BAE Rail gun eventually , as for the future RN ships over to NAB.

September 26, 2014 5:19 pm

@TD: Always thought that was a brilliant idea. Whole fleet should of standardised on it. It was meant to be the /52 ‘Braveheart’ barrel too. Huge firepower and accuracy, not to mention sensible behind the scenes things like commonality etc.

@TOC: Initial railguns will just slot in where the gun is now. When they(lasers too) truly come of age they will change warfare as thoroughly as WW2 did. I don’t think the biggest changes will be on the ships that carry them but on everything else that doesn’t. Supercarriers and many missiles face obsolescence for example(though not for decades).

While we’re mainly discussing NGFS here. I think counter air is the more interesting question. In air defence terms these technologies offer the capabilities everyone was afraid the SAM would bring; near total airspace denial.

On the railgun ships. I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one great power go the ‘railgun battleship’ route by the 2050’s. Although larger railguns will constrained more by politics than technology before long while no-one really talks about it atm because the tech just isn’t there yet; you can scale a railgun into WMD territory quite easily(easy isn’t really the right word, but it would only require time and money, not rewriting the laws of physics or anything) just from it’s sheer kinetics and of course the other route of using it just as the delivery system.

I think DDG1000 is probably pretty representative of what a surface combatant with railguns as main armament will look. Stealth and speed will be ever more valuable. Might see something that looks like a giant LCS trimaran too. If that program ever stops upsetting everyone if not military Trimarans will be out of fashion for a while. The speed offered by the trimaran will be very tempting though. 30kt’s isn’t going to cut it in the future.

On turrets in particular don’t expect multiple turrets or twin/triple turret’s on anything without a nuclear reactor for a while yet, not until we increase their efficiency. Sustained rapid fire from even just a single gun requires more power than most modern warships generate in total let alone multiples, the caveat I can think of being that it may be done for cooling/redundancy reasons.

September 26, 2014 5:27 pm

@monkey – You realize that there are only every going to be three (3) ZUMWALT-class DDGs, right?

@TOC – Railguns are dependent on power and their rate of fire will be determined by cyclic rate of capacitance recovery or multiple banks of capacitors. Power generation and cooling will be a major issue for railguns. We might be looking at water-cooling to make that happen. I would think at least two railguns per cruiser-class ship so rate of fire and throw weight can be maintained without boiling the water around the hull. Might be looking at a return to nuclear power just to generate the electricity required.

@TD – I think the AS90 turret with the 155mm/52 gun (6.1″/52integrated into a magazine feed from belowdecks and integration into a naval FCS would be dandy for a light cruiser analog.

September 26, 2014 5:37 pm

@TD – “…the 155mm/52 gun (6.1″/52) integrated into…” I hate typos.

September 26, 2014 6:02 pm

A standard 8 inch projectile weighs 260 lbs. A standard 155 mm (6.1 inch) projectile weighs 102 lbs. A standard 5 inch projectile weighs 70 lbs. Guided and extended range (RAP and base bleed) projectiles have less explosive power that make them less effective. Guided projectiles are also “spoofable.” If you need longer ranges, a 155 mm projectile can reach 40+ miles if saboted and fired from an 8″/60 naval gun.

This short article makes sense to me:

September 26, 2014 7:44 pm

To be the devil’s advocate in the room, I have to say that I think railguns might be a passing fad. Not many countries in the world have the requirement of needing to bombard shore positions with electromagnetically accelerated projectiles and even the biggest one that is pushing the project, the US, is only planning for a pathetically small number of them. I really don’t see a future in them, especially with the lack of nuclear powered ships worldwide.

I can see a 155mm main gun though, commonality is sensible in a way. I wonder if 120mm tank rounds can be resleeved into a 155mm casing like a sub calibre, this way you might be able to use the gun in a direct fire role in addition to fire support. Rare to use it like that I know, but shit happens.

The Other Chris
September 26, 2014 8:03 pm

It’s the projectile development that will allow the weapon system to take off.

e.g. Sample roadmap:

– Solid kinetic projectiles
– Projectiles with warheads
– Guided projectiles
– Seeker equipped projectiles
– Start of surface-air projectiles, highly steerable/maneuverable
– Ramjet/Scramjet sustainer engines

September 26, 2014 9:10 pm

@obs: Nah they’re here to stay. They just aren’t very good yet. Frankly, in some regards they’re simply bad, no matter what GD and BAE say. This is however only v1. The final product is a long way off despite some talking like it’ll be standard issue by Christmas. Personally I think they’re still far enough away that most warships afloat today will never see one, let alone be fitted with one. I don’t expect to see one in the RN before T45 is replaced tbh. Maybe late model 26’s at best.

They’ve got the shooty bits sorted, now just it’s the turning it into a practicable weapon system. The reason I think they’re staying; is that all the technological challenges they now face are in dual use tech that is being actively researched and making good progress globally. It’s all about power generation, capacitors, miniaturisation and superconductors now. Naval gunfire isn’t the end of the road, it’s the beginning.

@TOC: Good point on the warheads but personally I think the gun development is the more interesting of the two. We’ve played this game before with gunpowder. You start with a big single shot cannon and end at the GAU-8 Avenger and P90. The big single shot cannon is impressive no doubt, certainly useful too, but the true growth military effectiveness/effect on warfare will come as it gets smaller, faster firing and easier to deploy/employ. Just like it did with gunpowder.

Railgatling CIWS anyone? Close in now extending out 25-50miles of course ;)

Seriously though a day will come when it will supplant gunpowder in all roles from arty to sidearms. Although not for many generations yet.

September 26, 2014 9:36 pm

@Observer – On D-Day at Omaha Beach, the destroyers of DESRON 18 closed to as close as possible to the beach to take targets under direct fire. “Owen F. Keeler Jr., gunnery officer in Frankford, recalls that his skipper, James Semmes, decided to take the ship in for a closer look. With the tide in his favor, and navigating by fathometer, he took his ship in so close the optical rangefinder was against the stops [at maximum elevation] at 300 to 400 yards. Here was an American light tank, sitting at the water’s edge, that fired at something on the hill. We immediately followed up with a 5-inch salvo. The tank gunner flipped open his hatch, looked around at us, waved, dropped back in the tank, and fired at another target.” This event, reported in Frankford’s action report at 1036, took place near Exit E-1 on Easy Red”

Direct fire isn’t a problem. Several of the destroyers apparently used their fathometers to move in much closer than was considered “safe.” One destroyer, the USS Harding, hit something that damaged both propellers. (The Harding’s draft was ELEVEN FEET!) The USS Corry hit a mine and sank at 0729. The USS Meredith hit a mine but was pulled clear. A German bomb near miss later sank her. The USS Glennon hit a mine and was later sunk by German artillery. The USS Rich, a DE, was moving to assist Glennon when she triggered THREE German mines, tearing her apart, and suffered 162 lost and wounded of 215 crew.

September 27, 2014 5:42 am

Kent, that a single operation was it not? Hardly ubiquitous usage. I did acknowledge the possible usefulness of it otherwise I would not be recommending sabotted tank rounds as a sub-calibre. 155mm rounds tend to be artillery, i.e arching fire. Hard to hit a target when you have to factor in a 3nd dimension rather than two (left/right + time)

Chuck, how many ships are going to be nuclear powered, even if you are talking about “next-gen” ships? Only the US and Russia went into nuclear ships in a big way and even then, the US only has 3 Zumwalts and the UK even designed the QE-class without nuclear power even though carriers are one of the most reasonable and common usage for nuclear reactors besides long endurance subs. For the rest, power generation for those energy hogs are going to be a problem. Not to mention some countries in the world are nuclear averse, like New Zealand. I really can’t see a growth pathway for them, even in the US. Their niche is too specialized. Most countries in the world are not going to get nuclear powered ships just to fit a railgun when the normal chemical propellant one would work just fine. Even the USN is on a “back to basics” drive these days with a manufacturing priority of more Burkes and a possible new conventional frigate instead of the LCS modularity.

The only bright spot I can possibly see is energy weapons, though there is a strong focus on lasers and too little on neutrally charged particle guns IMO. Think Chuck’s right in the potential for lasers vis a vis air denial, but if that leads to a drive for nuclear ships due to increased power needs, I really can’t tell. At least the air denial part is a bigger draw to the rest of the world than shore bombardment.

September 27, 2014 7:59 am

@Obs: Almost none. I was making a point about the immaturity of the tech and energy required to use railguns as primary armament on a large warship. The great powers might do a few, Russia likes nuclear power on the surface, but they will be prestige pieces, a handful at most. Everyone else will just wait until they can cram enough conventional power generation on their ships and even the great powers main fleets(FF/DD etc) will do the same. I want to stress again I’m talking very long time-scales out to the end of the century and beyond with my earlier small arms and full auto comments. No-ones even fired one on the water yet. When they do it’ll off the back of a transport so there’s still the question of integrating into an actual warship even one ready for it isn’t going to simple, there will be problems.

Nuclear power won’t be the default choice so long as there’s still oil at a reasonable price, but remember it is an archaic power source and is going away sooner or later. By the time it does reactors will be vastly different of course; most likely Thorium powered or if we get really lucky Fusion. The physics on both are proven just time and money now.

The politics around nuclear power will change rapidly when the oils gone. Even more once Urainium(a cold war holdover we should have gone Thorium from the start for power) is out of the picture. Which these new tech’s will allow. Bringing about the very real possibility of a reactor that simply cannot suffer a catastrophic meltdown in the vein of Chernobyl and produces radioactive waste measured in kilos, much of which will still be useful not thousands of tons. With half lifes measured in decades not millennia.

Back to the guns; The real break point will occur when Munition + capacitor/battery is smaller and lighter than munition + propellent + brass. That’s the moment gunpowder will become obsolete and the change over will greatly speed up. Until then they will be a niche weapon for only the very richest nations. Once that happens they’ll put the capacitor in the bottom of the mag slugs in the top and hey presto rail gun armed infantry. Even then the AK will probably still be ubiquitous for many decades after that. Remember the last confirmed kill with a Longbow was WW2 and the last castle to successfully resist a siege was in 1992 and we’re still stabbing each other. Obsolescence doesn’t render something useless, but it does mean the big boys will discard theirs for the Next Big Thing™.

Back to 2014 from 100 odd years in the future; the USN’s going back to basics is sensible. I think the LCS is a decent concept(a great one if they could of done it on budget) and I really like that trimaran but trying to replace all up FF’s with them is just foolishness. They’re corvettes with a big hangar stuck on the back, even with the up gunning they’re doing I think they’re barely a sloop and I’m being generous and counting the heliborne weapons too.

September 27, 2014 11:58 am

On the Zummwalts , a seriously expensive experiment

The Other Chris
September 27, 2014 12:28 pm

Zumwalts have already served their purpose: Keeping advanced US warship design skills ticking.

Mike Wheatley
Mike Wheatley
September 27, 2014 12:34 pm

Re: “Might be looking at a return to nuclear power just to generate the electricity required.”
..and similar comments.


What generates more electrical power:
(1) 2 × Rolls-Royce WR-21 gas turbines, 21.5 MW (28,800 shp) each, total 43 MW. (Type 45 DDG, IEP.)
(2) The S9G nuclear reactor, 29.8 MW. (Virginia class SSN, turbine.)

Nuclear power does not generate more electricity! The difference is that the fuel lasts longer!
This is important for (a) cruising for a long time at high speeds, and (b) not needing air to burn the fuel.

In contrast, an electric weapon (railgun, large laser, high power microwave, etc.) has a high surge demand, but you are not firing it constantly for the entire 20 year survive life of the ship!
E.g. in 1982, there were 7 ships able to fire long ranged SAMs, and a total of 42 shots were fired, in the entire 3 month campaign.
42 shots in 3 months: electric weapons are not going to be a significant factor for a ships long-term energy / fuel usage.

The problems are firstly that your power needs to be electrical, and secondly the surge demand.
(1) Most ships – including most nuclear powered ships! – have the prime mover mechanically linked straight to props, and have very little electrical power generation. The DDG-51 in particular suffers from this. The DDG-51 has enough power for railguns and a big new AMDR radar, but the power is all mechanical, and (it seems) there is no room to install the necessary generators.
The Zumwalt and the Daring are the exceptions, having IEP and high power electrical distribution systems.
(2) Nuclear power is horribly slow to ramp the power up, but an electrical weapon needs to be able to respond to threats. In the very short term, capacitors would help – and are required for the railguns anyway – but if you want to add laser weapons to a CVN, you probably also need to add some Gas Turbines to power the lasers, since only they will be responsive enough.
Nuclear power is not only unnecessary, it is actually unfit for purpose.

Mike Wheatley
Mike Wheatley
September 27, 2014 1:08 pm

But to actually answer the question – railguns for naval gunfire support, and turrets.

IMHO, railguns should the though of as less like guns and more like missiles.
150-200km range, flight times in minutes, cost per shot comparable to a GPS guided bomb, but a very expensive launcher.

One oddity:
A railgun round depends upon its kinetic energy, which depends upon not spending much time in the earth’s atmosphere.
So, it the target is closer than the maximum range, you can’t slow the shot muzzle energy, (it won’t hit with enough KE,) nor can you depress the elevation (too much atmosphere = too much drag = it won’t hit with enough KE). The only thing you can do is increase the elevation, which means it will take longer to hit a closer target than a target at maximum range.

For NGFS, I don’t think they will produce enough shrapnel for effective suppressive fire. I expect them to be good for killing what they hit, but not really for any area anti-personnel effect. Precision close support I can see, but not really the NGFS role. (E.g. you fire the round at an empty field, and the close support designator then re-directs the rounds as they arrive 3 mins later, if there are any targets worth hitting.)

Turrets: why do you need turrets, period?
(1) Responding (defence) to 360º threats.
(2) Continuing to fire on a target whilst you manoeuvre relative to it (battleships).
So I really don’t think that ship-to-land attacks at 100 – 200 km ranges would benefit from turrets at all. Pintle mounts would be enough, maybe elevation only, given that the ship can turn itself, or so I would have thought.
For defence, multiple turrets with one gun per turret.
I also see no advantage in one big ship with lots of guns, over a squadron with 2-3 weapons each. (2 defensive lasers on each ship, plus 1 railgun on some of the ships.)

September 27, 2014 3:31 pm

I think the Zummwalts will be test beds for a lot more new Naval developments , the rail gun mentioned above and other energy weapons for long term service development as well as more conventional kit.They have 78MW of installed power mostly from the same RR MT30 GT’s used in the Lockheed LCS,QE,T26’s etc much more than they need for basic propulsion.The short term test bed is a converted JHSV which will first mount the rail gun prototypes first the two 32MJ units from GA and BAE and then the service size 64MJ unit.
The Zummwalts will influence the Arleigh Burke replacement programme due to start building in the 2030’s if it ever gets the go ahead.
@Mike Wheatly
On the rail gun firing at different ranges I believe they will adjust the power to also control its ballistics as well. On its terminal effectiveness is more like an old fashioned battleships solid cannon ball round in that it carries no explosive warhead and relies on its remaining kinetic energy purely for effect. Maybe they will develop something other than the solid tungsten projectile they use at present.

James Bolivar DiGriz
James Bolivar DiGriz
September 27, 2014 5:44 pm


A thorium reactor “produces radioactive waste measured in kilos … not thousands of tons”

I think that you are mixing up (at least) two different things there.

The majority of nuclear waste is low- and intermediate-level. Radioactively, these do present some risk but then living in Cornwall or Aberdeen presents a significant radioactive risk as well. The amount of high-level waste produced is thousands of tons per year (12,000 according to Wikipedia), but that is from the entire fleet of nuclear power stations. According to
that is 437 plants with a capacity of 374,704 MW. That is, crudely, 27 tonnes per plant per year or 32kg per MW per year.
BTW High-level waste is very radioactive but it is also very dense. A cubic metre of it weighs somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 tonnes. That is why we have been able to just store it for all these decades.

I agree that thorium reactors have much potential but as well as the known issues there are bound to be unforeseen problems that crop up. One of the known issues is that to get the level of waste down, much more reprocessing of the reactor output needs to take place. That inherently presents some risk. Also thorium reactors, certainly LFTRs and maybe other designs, need continual reprocessing, i.e. removing some of the working material every day or so. This is because the reactions produce isotopes that are very good at capturing neutrons and thus ‘poisoning’ the reaction.

Among the radioactive isotopes to be removed from a LFTR are xenon-135 & krypton-85. As these are chemically inert they have to be stored as gas, presumably under pressure. I am not sure that tanks of pressurised radioactive gas would be my first choice of non-usable cargo on a warship!

“With half lifes measured in decades not millennia”
All other things being equal, a short half life mean that something is more not less dangerous. The same amount of energy being given off in less time.

A large part of the problem with plutonium is that it powders very easily and so is very easy to inhale, also it accumulates in the bones. Both of these mean that exposure to plutonium leads to logger term heavy-metal & radioactive poisoning.

@Mike Wheatley

“(2) Nuclear power is horribly slow to ramp the power up”
So how do nuclear powered military vessels cope? They may need to suddenly go to full speed.

“For NGFS, I don’t think they will produce enough shrapnel for effective suppressive fire.”
Won’t that depend upon the nature of the target area?

If the enemy troops are on top of granite cliffs near where you are landing then a solid projectile hitting the land at Mach 7 (or whatever) will throw up some pretty nasty shrapnel. Of course if the enemy troops are hiding in a marshland …


I would have thought that an obvious use of a railgun would be by an enemy of the USA to disable, at least, an aircraft carrier.

A ship with sufficient battery/capacitor storage & sufficient cooling or with multiple guns (or more likely both) could fire a salvo of projectiles from at least 100 miles away. How many would need to be in that salvo to make sure that one got through the defences? How well and how quickly could a carrier recover from a 45kg shot hitting the deck at something like Mach 7?

September 27, 2014 6:10 pm

“The USA can defend itself without invading anywhere, Hawaii is far from being threatened with successful invasion.”

The USA is contractually obliged to help it’s allies; beyond NATO and practically by inclusion their overseas territories (British, Dutch, French, Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish), there are Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Israel, Singapore, more or less every pacific Island state, Georgia, a lot of south and middle American countries … and many more. Even countries in officially neutral state are only capable of doing so, because the big American stick is protecting them and would help them in case of war; Sweden and Finland are coming to mind. And then, their are countries sharing heritage with a lot of Americans like Ireland. Currently, India is becoming more and more of an ally.

For this far-flung obligation you need power projection assets and a good plan B, if things are in shambles. What most of those counties share is the fact, that they are separated form American soil by sea. And this is where the Marines step in.

You may say, that the US would not fight to keep Taiwan independent. Depends, I say. Obama certainly not, Hillary Clinton or John McCain at the drop of a hat.

You may also say, the US public is in full isolationist mode; well, since when does a public define a nations interest?

You may finally say, that this is empire building and the world should be multi-polar. Fact is, still most of those countries would tend to scramble around the main western democratic pole, when the shit hits the fan.

September 27, 2014 7:23 pm

No defence requires invasion.
Treaties can be cancelled and are not forced on any country by virtue of its geography.
Any ally which deems an amphibious re-capture of some of its islands a probable scenario can feel free to maintain its own amphibious capability.
McZ, what you mentioned was about foreign policy ambitions, not about anything that’s actually a requirement on the US by geography or any force majeure.

September 27, 2014 8:12 pm

SO, ouch. Can you imagine the Soviets invading Germany and when you ask for help, they disband NATO and tell you your on your own? Treaties can be cancelled. And you can forget about signing anything with that country ever again.

James, the problem with the at least current railgun slug is that it is not guided, so there really isn’t a guarantee that it will hit a target that is moving, especially at 100 miles. You have to predict where the target is going to be, then shoot at that location and hope the target doesn’t maneuver. We did this maths for ramjet missiles before, at ~ Mach 3, it’s 1 km per second. For Mach 7, convenience sake, 2 km per second. At 160 km (100 miles), it would take 80 seconds from firing to target, even assuming direct fire, which is not going to happen as Mike pointed out, railguns fire up and over. 80 seconds time of flight would mean that you’ll have to predict where the target is going to be 1 minute away, and carriers can move pretty fast (~ 30 knots IIRC). So in 1 minute, you have to aim about 1 km in front of the carrier, quite a fair distance.

September 28, 2014 9:32 pm

Guided hypersonic rail gun slug anyone ?

Well maybe…….sometime

September 29, 2014 4:12 am

S O: “No defence requires invasion…”


Sorry, but this is not your call – the USA gets to decide what tools it will employ to address its foreign policy needs.

Amphibious warfare is a capability that the U.S. desires; you are free to voice your opinions, but expect them to as welcome as critical American views on German/NATO/EU defense.


September 29, 2014 10:47 am

Can you imagine the Soviets invading Germany and when you ask for help, they disband NATO and tell you your on your own? Treaties can be cancelled.

Historically speaking this happens quite a lot. How many people remember that Turkey had a three-party mutual defence treaty with Britain and France in 1939?

The USA is contractually obliged to help it’s allies; beyond NATO and practically by inclusion their overseas territories

Hey, did you hear that? Apparently the US is obliged to defend Those Islands! I wonder where they were in 1982… (Note to McZ: the North Atlantic Treaty covers the member countries and the North Atlantic. It’s not a worldwide security guarantee.)

Gloomy Northern Boy
Gloomy Northern Boy
September 29, 2014 11:41 am

@a “I wonder where they were in 1982…” – quietly providing us with intelligence, supporting the logistic effort, assisting with re-supply of munitions, and discreetly planning the loan of a carrier if required…along with the French whose efforts to befuddle the Argentine mission to purchase more exocet missiles were wholly successful…and I think the Kiwis who might have lent us a Frigate. Pretty confident that any members of the Anglo-sphere attached to relevant units of HMAF at the time probably went along in person as well, although I might be mistaken on that…

Unwise to forget who our serious friends are in an increasingly dangerous and ugly world, and for my money Sven isn’t on the list, but the Frogs, the Cousins and the Anglo-sphere are…


September 29, 2014 3:03 pm

@Observer – “Kent, that a single operation was it not? Hardly ubiquitous usage. I did acknowledge the possible usefulness of it otherwise I would not be recommending sabotted tank rounds as a sub-calibre. 155mm rounds tend to be artillery, i.e arching fire. Hard to hit a target when you have to factor in a 3nd dimension rather than two (left/right + time).”

A single operation? Hardly. Warships from battleships, heavy and light cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, PC, and SCs, provided direct fire with guns ranging from 16 inch down to .50 Cal in landings from Operation Torch, Operation Husky, and Operation Dragoon, not to mention Operations Avalanche and Shingle in the ETO and just about every landing in the PTO.

The problem with “sabotted tank rounds” for direct fire is that they’re too small (even the 120mm) to have much effect on coastal defenses. In fact, the 5″/38 and 5″/54 rounds are also considered by to be too small for hardened coastal defenses. BTW, the Navy has long experience in direct fire at ranges far in excess of what would be considered normal for land forces, so they’ve pretty well mastered the four dimensions of gunnery. (As an aside, tank gunnery requires mastery of the same four dimensions, even in direct fire. It’s called ballistics.)

September 29, 2014 3:35 pm

Kent, you misunderstood my intent of usage. If you were pounding land targets, you could just use the 155mm as it is, it’s more in the realm of direct fire that I think the 155mm may end up doing funny things as it was not designed for that.

September 29, 2014 6:44 pm

@Observer – Other than rocket artillery, I’ve not seen any artillery that wasn’t capable of and equipped for direct fire. For example, the AS90: “AS90 fire control and observation

The layer’s station is equipped with a direct fire sight from Avimo (now part of Thales Optronics) for direct day and night firing.”

From the point of view of a tanker, I wouldn’t want to get hit with a 155 mm round either directly or indirectly. It would hurt.

September 29, 2014 7:16 pm

Kent, if it can, then there’s no problem.

September 29, 2014 8:40 pm

@Observer – The USN has a long history of firing from moving, maneuvering ships at other moving, maneuvering ships. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, our DDs and DEs had radar controlled guns which could track and fire while the ships were maneuvering. The Japanese ships could not fire accurately in turns which is one of the things that caused confusion in the their ranks over the classes of ships they were facing for surely the little ships maneuvering madly about couldn’t be hitting the Japanese capital ships so accurately. Of course, today’s destroyers are the size of WW2 cruisers.

September 29, 2014 9:20 pm

Kent, was that in response to the time of flight of the rounds? If it was, trying to shoot someone at 100 miles away is still a very extreme shot and as I mentioned, the aim off is one kilometer away. Can you imagine a tank target that you had to aim off by 1 km in the direction of travel to hit? With a one minute time of flight? Most of our aim off is usually measured in vehicles length ahead, not kilometers.

In the end, my guess is that you’ll still end up close and personnel if you’re planning on hitting anything. Which the destroyers in your example also were if you were referring to the Battle of Samar. Too close for comfort if they were close enough to threaten the Japanese with torpedoes.