Marines want to swarm enemy defenses with hundreds of small boats
Move over, 355-ship Navy.
The Marine Corps is working to build up its own sizable fleet of boats as it postures itself for future combat in shallow coastal waters and dispersed across large stretches of land and water.
Maj. Gen. David Coffman, the Navy's director of expeditionary warfare, said the service wants to find new ways to put conventional forces on small watercraft for operations ranging from raids to insertions and river operations.
A Navy boat launched from USS New Orleans Aug. 14 carries maritime raid force members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit to a vessel the force's assault element later boarded during counter-piracy and counter-terrorism training. (Lance Cpl. Justin R. Stein)
Typically, small boats have been the territory of Marine Corps and Navy special operations and specialized forces, such as the Coastal Riverines.
But, Coffman said, he has received guidance from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to change that.
"If we were to claim any moniker, we want to be the father of the 1,000-boat Navy," Coffman said at a Navy League event near Washington, D.C., in late November.
Currently, he said, Naval Expeditionary Warfare is resource sponsor to about 800 small boats, including combatant craft, Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats, and smaller craft. While the precise numbers desired haven't been settled on, he suggested 1,000 boats is close to what's needed.
"The Marine Corps largely got out of what we call itty bitty boats ... the commandant wants us to get back in the boat business," Coffman said. "He's recognizing he needs to distribute his force and be able to move in smaller discrete elements and different ways."
The strategy for employing these boats is still being developed, but Coffman said the Marine Corps wants to be able to cover a wider range of maritime operations. The service, he said, likely wants to develop a family of small boats, ranging from high-tech combatant craft like those used in special operations to lower-end craft for harbor escorts and troop transport.
A good starting point for discussion, he said, is the 11-meter Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat, or RHIB, used by the Navy SEALs for a variety of missions and by Naval Expeditionary Warfare for things like maritime interdiction and transport to and from larger ships.
That design, Coffman said, would be easy to "sex up or simple down" as needed.
For the Marine Corps, small boat employment has largely focused on protecting larger ships, Coffman toldin a brief interview.
Force reconnaissance Marines with 4th Force Reconnaissance Company paddle toward the beach in F470 Combat Rubber Raiding Crafts during hydrographic reconnaissance training at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows in Waimanalo, Hawaii. (Image Marines)
"A lot of my theme is trying to flip the script, move from defensive to offensive," he said.
With the Navy's riverine forces increasingly employed in the Middle East to defend ships, there's less availability for other small boat missions that could press the advantage. But with an investment in a new family of watercraft, that could change.
"That's part of how you counter the peer threat: 'I'll out-asymmetric you,' " Coffman said. "So [Neller is] excited about that, that work's going to happen."