A sailor aboard the dock landing ship Ashland signals to an MV-22B Osprey with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 (Reinforced) as it takes off Nov. 22 to deliver supplies to the Philippines during Operation Damayan. U.S. relief efforts were hampered by the lack of available amphibious ships, according to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. (Gunnery Sgt. Ismael Pena / Marine Corps)
After a super typhoon swept through the Philippines last year, U.S. Marines and sailors arrived to bring aid, evacuate survivors and work to limit the death toll, which had climbed into the thousands.
Their lifesaving work was impaired by a lack of amphibious ships, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps said this week.
“The Filipinos were living and dying based on V-22s and KC-130s,” said Gen. John Paxton, speaking of the Marine Corps’ tiltrotor and heavy lift aircraft. “And think of the difference it would have made if we had more ships.”
Paxton’s comments during a speech at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Expo near Washington, D.C., underscored a renewed push to build up the Navy’s amphibious fleet, used by the Marine Corps for humanitarian assistance missions and Marine Expeditionary Unit deployments. Late last month, 20 retired Marine three- and four-star generals — headlined by the previous commandant, Gen. James Conway and the former head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis — petitioned the Senate Armed Services Committee for funding to build another San Antonio-class amphibious ship, which had been cut from construction plans due to budgetary belt-tightening.
In an earlier session at the expo, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos said he had not asked the retired generals to write that letter or been aware of its publication, but he said he was grateful for their voices on the issue.
Paxton reiterated the Marines’ position that they need 54 amphibious ships for adequate global presence, nearly double the current fleet size of 29. Current operational plans call for a future fleet of 38, but that figure may be cut to 33 due to ongoing sequestration budget caps.
“Sooner or later, quantity has a quality all its own,” he said.
The shortfalls were starkly revealed, Paxton said, when the Navy struggled to get two amphibious ships, the Ashland and the Germantown, out of the yards following their deployment with the 31st MEU to respond to the disaster in the Philippines. The third ship of the MEU, the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, could not be made ready in time to respond to the crisis. And while V-22s and KC-130s were on-scene delivering humanitarian aid within 48 hours of the storm’s landfall, the ships took nearly two weeks to arrive. Elements of the George Washington Carrier Strike Group also responded to the disaster.
“I’ll tell you, that whole evolution would have been greatly enhanced if we had more naval ships,” Paxton said.
In another example highlighting the need for more amphibs, Paxton described the Marines’ response efforts in the wake of unrest in Juba, South Sudan. Conducting midair refuelings to minimize delay, the Marines moved a reinforced special-purpose Marine air ground task force with 250 Marines, four V-22s, and two KC-130s from Morón, Spain, to Entebbe, Uganda, in 15½ hours in preparation for a U.S. embassy evacuation.
But if the Marines had a MEU operating in the Mediterranean as they once did, Paxton said, the response could have been even more timely.
“We don’t have enough ships to handle the day-to-day presence out there,” he said. “This is the readiness aspect. This is the forward deployed, forward presence aspect that we talk about with our combatant commanders when we get together.”