As the Marine Corps and Navy expand their presence throughout the Asia-Pacific region, officials are examining how best to move personnel and equipment and tackle the logistical challenge of operating in the vast theater. (Marine Corps)
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As the Marine Corps and Navy expand their presence throughout the Asia-Pacific region, officials are examining how best to move personnel and equipment and tackle the logistical challenge of operating in a theater so vast and dispersed.
The emerging strategy will go well beyond traditional three-ship configurations in which 2,200-member Marine expeditionary units deploy as part of the Navy's amphibious ready groups, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told Marine Corps Times during a March 26 interview at the newspaper's offices in Springfield, Va. The two services have a team devising what Greenert called a “Single Naval Battle” concept that will look at putting Marines on a variety of new ships and removing perceived gaps between forces operating by air, land and sea.
The Navy will soon commission the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock Anchorage as its 30th amphibious ship, providing another option that will allow Marines to operate fixed-wing and rotary aircraft from the sea and stow ground equipment ranging from tanks to Humvees. But ship maintenance schedules, coupled with new budgetary restrictions, mean too few amphibs will be available to support the full scope of what's envisioned in the Pacific — meaning the services will need to get creative.
By the end of this decade, Greenert said, the Marine Corps and Navy want to operate an amphibious ready group in Southeast Asia, but it will take time to free up the right ships. Until then, “we may have an amphibious ship, a joint high-speed vessel and [mobile landing platform] free for a while,” Greenert said. “What can we do with that? We will have to be innovative and willing to tailor our lift.”
The first MLP, dubbed the Montford Point in honor of the first African Americans allowed to join the Corps, was christened in March. The Navy plans to build three more in coming years, incorporating an unusual design that features a ramp by which larger ships can transfer vehicles to the MLP directly. From there, smaller landing craft will bring Marine vehicles ashore.
MLPs will facilitate a concept known as sea basing, said Commandant Gen. Jim Amos. Speaking on April 8 at the Sea-Air-Space Expo outside Washington, Amos said they'll allow the Corps to move tanks, 7-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement trucks and other vehicles. The ship is scheduled to begin operational use in 2015, but he estimated development is only 10 percent complete.
“This will be the very first time that we've had the ability to really do at-sea, sea-based logistics in a combat environment,” Amos said. “We won't need a port with this ship.”
Moving forward, the Corps must study how it will incorporate a variety of ships the service has never used before, while considering existing vessels it doesn't commonly use, said Col. Jerome Driscoll, director of the service's Ellis Group, which was established in late 2011 to study the future of amphibious capabilities. Amos tasked the group with developing new concepts for amphibious warfare as the service adapts to changing realities.
“We're talking a lot more about deploying Marines on platforms that we haven't deployed them off in a while, or maybe ever,” Driscoll said. “It may call for the use of ships that we don't usually use in the formation, but their capability is coming online.”
Eventually, Marines rotating through northern Australia could find themselves transiting about the region aboard the Navy's new littoral combat ships, which are slated to be deployed to Singapore, Rear Adm. Michael Smith, director of the Navy's strategy and policy division, told those attending the expo. Plans call for sending an air-ground task force of up to 2,500 Marines on six-month deployments to Robertson Barracks in Darwin, located in Australia's Northern Territory. From there, the Marines could go anywhere in the region.
“As part of our strategy we're looking at how [to] find more venues throughout Southeast Asia … so we can engage our partners,” Smith said. “Although they're not connected in the beginning, we could team the four LCSs in Singapore with the Marines in Darwin and then take advantage of … taking Marines throughout Southeast Asia to ports we've never been to.”
Additionally, maritime prepositioning could allow the service to place its logistics support further off shore — 100 miles or more, Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration, said April 9 during the expo.
The prepositioning program allows the Corps to collect large stores of critical equipment, ranging from vehicles to supplies across the globe. Should Marines drop into a country for sustained operations, maritime prepositioning allows them quick access to more gear that is closer to the battlefield than the U.S. The new MLP ship, with its ability to offload equipment from larger ships, could help in this regard.
Greater reliance on aircraft, even bypassing beachheads, also could be part of the mid-term solution. The Corps is studying how its air assets might offset pending mobility challenges. The MV-22 Osprey and CH-53E Super Stallion, for instance, could become key players in the Pacific, Mills said. Lift capabilities will be further bolstered when the CH-53K variant comes online, which is expected in 2018. The massive 53K will be able to carry a Humvee in its cargo hold.
In Quantico, Va., Marine officials are busy assessing what's called the air-to-ship lift ratio. Traditional doctrine says two-thirds of the Corps' assets are brought ashore by ship.
“We asked why that was the ratio and the answer we came up with was that somebody said it was a good idea back in the '50s,” Mills said.
The lack of current amphibious ships can be traced to the start of the post-World War II era, said Wes Hammond, a retired Marine officer who now specializes in irregular warfare and amphibious operations with the Washington-based consulting firm Whitney, Bradley and Brown. During the Cold War, amphibious operations took a back seat as the U.S. put great emphasis on big-time firepower and prepositioned troops at foreign bases to counter threats posed by the Soviet Union, he said.
Today, many of those bases have been shuttered, and U.S. forces are not guaranteed access. As a result, there's a new need for maneuverability, he said.
It will be imperative to build diplomatic relations and military partnerships throughout the region, said Brig. Gen. Michael Rocco, the Corps' assistant deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations. Joint exercises, in particular, will help uncover blind spots, said Rocco, who has been selected to pin on his second star. There could be inherent difficulties partnering with foreign forces for the first time in crisis situations, he said, adding that it's better to have established a working relationship prior — a major benefit of joint exercises.
The logistical challenge cannot be underestimated, said Steve Bucci, a retired Army Special Forces officer now with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think thank. The current fiscal landscape, which calls for significant downsizing throughout the military, only exacerbates it, meaning help from allies will become even more crucial, he said.
As Marines and sailors move through different parts of Asia, new doors will open, Bucci said. But key to that is leveraging relationships with existing allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia — even the Philippines and Thailand. Those ties could, in turn, be parlayed into opportunities in places like Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam, he said.
“To be able to pivot toward Asia successfully, you need some places to stand on dry ground,” Bucci said. “To get that, we have to consult with friends and get them to help us.”