In World War II, amphibious warfare was all about "hitting the beach." Marines, backed by planes and ships, stormed out of landing craft and fought in the dunes with enemy troops.
In 2008, advances in military technology make it possible to skip the beach altogether.
"The idea now is to keep going," said John Pike, who heads research firm GlobalSecurity.org. "U.S. forces are going to fly directly from ships to a target or use vehicles to push straight inland without stopping."
The revolutionary change in land and sea war hinges on a new generation of ships, planes and vehicles packed with advanced gear and communications. That is generating profits for big defense contractors like Northrop Grumman NOC, Boeing BA and Bell Helicopter, which are supplying the Navy and Marines with these new weapons.
Some projects are triggering problems. Northrop's first-quarter earnings miss in April stemmed in large part from wiring glitches that will delay delivery of the Makin Island, a new Navy aircraft carrier that uses planes and helicopters to ferry troops into combat. The setback contributed heavily to a $326 million charge the defense contractor announced for the quarter.
Still, the effort is creating big opportunities for defense firms. One of the biggest is Northrop's amphibious shipbuilding efforts, a showcase for the new war strategies. The company already is deploying a "San Antonio" class of amphibious transport ships, also known as landing platform docks, or LPDs.
Ships of this class have angled "stealth" superstructures that can make them look like ordinary fishing trawlers on radar. They also carry V-22 Osprey troop planes that take off and land like helicopters, but can switch in flight into regular, high-speed turboprop aircraft to fly over long distances.
The Osprey was developed as a joint project between Boeing and Bell Helicopter, a unit of defense contractor Textron TXT.
Bell and Boeing received a $10.4 billion Pentagon contract in March 28 for 167 Ospreys. The Marines will get 141 of the new planes. (See related story, this page .)
The latest of nine planned San Antonio-class ships is the USS New York. It was christened in New Orleans on March 1.
The 684-foot-long transport ship -- which can carry a fully equipped battalion of Marines -- has seven tons of recycled steel in its bow from the World Trade Center to commemorate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Northrop has built three of the ships at a cost of $1 billion or more each.
The San Antonio ship program has faced cost overruns, funding doubts and design glitches. But backers say they're more economical than the 1960s-era Navy troop transports the new ships replace.
The ships fill an operating gap for the Navy and Marines, Northrop spokesman Bill Glenn says.
"They're versatile ships," he said. "The fact that they deploy Marines makes them an asset in fighting terrorism around the world."
The ships can hit speeds of 22 knots and carry air-cushion boats for special operations.
The Marines tapped General Dynamics GD to build prototypes of an expeditionary fighting vehicle, or EFV, to work with the new ships and planes. The vehicles, set to deploy in 2015, will be designed to zip across water or land at high speeds after disembarking from one of the new San Antonio ships.
Together, the new ships, planes and vehicles form the cornerstone of a U.S. strategic plan known as "Forward ... from the sea." The concept is to assault enemies from the sea without having troops depending on prepositioned supplies or bases in nearby nations.
"The biggest single advantage is the ability to deliver heavily armed U.S. Marines in ill humor, at times and places that are inconvenient to our enemies," said Joseph Callo, a retired rear admiral in the Naval Reserve and an expert on amphibious warfare.
He says the LPD class of ships combines the functions of three or four previous ship types and can hide more effectively from radar, strike from farther away and move faster to hot spots.
Pike says the Marines have been hunting for alternatives to old-fashioned land and sea warfare since the 1982 Falklands War between the U.K. and Argentina.
The conflict erupted when Argentina seized a group of disputed islands in the South Atlantic. It used a small number of air-to-ship missiles to inflict surprisingly heavy losses on British ships trying to retake the islands, though Britain ultimately prevailed.
"The Marines realized that their traditional way of getting across the beach wasn't going to cut it anymore," Pike said. "Having amphibious assault ships a few miles off the beach was just going to turn them into targets."
The British Navy could jam long-range missiles with sophisticated homing devices that were fired at its ships from a distance, Pike says. But it had no defense against so-called point-and-shoot short-range missiles fired from shore.
"Shorter range missiles have nothing to jam," he said.
To avoid a similar situation, U.S. Marines and Pentagon planners decided the only option was to move troop ships as far from shore as possible in an amphibious assault.
The Navy also needed fast, long-range aircraft that could carry Marines from these ships and fly them over the beach to their targets.
After almost two decades of research, the result is the new San Antonio-class ships paired with V-22 Ospreys and the new expeditionary vehicle.
"The new Marine vehicle is a speedboat that thinks it's a tank," Pike said. "It needs to be fast enough in the water so it can get to the beach the same day it was launched."
In future wars, this means U.S. ships attacking a hostile coast will wait 25 or more miles offshore, hidden by stealth technology. Ospreys will take off from these ships and ferry Marines to their targets many miles inland. At the same time, vehicles will be launched from these ships to support the Marines who have already landed. Once they leave the water, they will plow ahead without stopping.
The new strategy has critics, who question its usefulness in the wars that are likely to erupt in the 21st century. Pike notes that U.S. forces haven't made a major sea landing under fire since the Korean War.
He says future conflicts probably would involve large-scale use of air power or land-based forces. He says it's highly unlikely that the U.S. would stage a large sea-based assault like the D-Day landings in Normandy 64 years ago.
Callo strongly disagrees.
"Modern expeditionary warfare -- projecting military power from the sea -- is a lot more than over-the-beach-type landings," he said. "One of the most essential ingredients is flexibility, and that's a crucial military dimension (that) the LDP-class ships and their Osprey aircraft, helicopters, air-cushion vehicles and Marine expeditionary fighting vehicles add to U.S. military capability."
Source: Investor's Business Daily