Continuing our discussion of the LX(R) and amphibious groups, let’s look at the current Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) trends.
Marines traditionally deploy as a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) consisting of around 2300 troops, 4 tanks, a half dozen artillery pieces, a dozen or so LAVs, a dozen or so AAVs, and a couple dozen mixed helo and fixed wing aircraft. This force is distributed among three amphibious ships which comprise the
the MEU/ARG train together and deploy together so that the full capability of
the MEU is available at all times. Two
or three ARGs have usually been deployed at any given moment. ARG.
The MEU/ARG is the nation’s forward deployed, quick reaction force. The idea is that the force is already on site and ready for action when trouble occurs. There is no need to assemble, train, and transport those forces. The MEU/ARG is already there. Of course, that assumes that the MEU/ARG is in the right spot to begin with.
Now, however, we are seeing new trends in ARG deployments.
- Only one ARG is deployed at a time.
- The ARG is splitting into individual ships rather than staying as a group.
These trends are a consequence of budget constraints. Well, more accurately, they’re a consequence of priority constraints rather than budget. The Navy has prioritized new construction over deployments, maintenance, training, etc. but that’s a topic for another time.
Considering the size of the world and the number of potential hot spots, a single deployed ARG is less than optimal, to say the least. Of course, one can debate the entire forward deployed MEU concept but that, too, is a topic for another time. The Navy/Marines are committed to the MEU/ARG concept so we’ll go with it for the sake of this discussion.
The hope is that the MEU/ARG is deployed to the most likely place it will be needed and is, therefore, on-scene when trouble occurs. With only a single ARG deployed, what are the odds that the group will be at the right spot at the right time? Consider all the potential hot spots in the world right now:
, Russia , China , Iran , Syria , and North Korea Africa to name a
few. Consider the immense geographical
area those spots cover. One, or even a
few, ARGs cannot hope to cover all those.
Even covering a single general area is a challenge. Consider the Chinese area which includes the
East and out to the first island chain and beyond. That’s a huge area to cover even for a
dedicated MEU/ARG and that’s just one of the potential hot spots in the
world. I don’t envy the person who has
to decide where in the world to send the only deployed South China Seas ARG.
In addition to having only a single deployed ARG, the Navy has taken to dispersing the
Each of the
three ships is being sent off on independent operations. As long as the MEU is not called on to act,
that’s fine. Three ships can do more
port visits, flag showing, partner training, or whatever than a single group
can. Of course, most of those types of
missions don’t call for an amphibious ship and could be handled by lesser, much
cheaper ships. However, if the MEU has
to act, the dispersed force becomes a problem.
A single ship contains only a third of the MEU’s combat capability
(that’s not true since the ships are different sizes and the combat capability
is not necessarily uniformly distributed but we’ll conceptually treat it as
thirds for the sake of discussion) and that’s not much if combat is
required. Of course, the MEU could
simply wait until the dispersed ARG reassembles but that negates the quick
reaction concept which is the reason the MEU exists. ARG.
Quick reaction - what does that mean? Well, it’s all relative. If an embassy is suddenly attacked (
, for example), quick reaction means within the hour
and the MEU will have only what it can instantly transport via helicopter. If an unfriendly country is building up force
for a cross border excursion, quick reaction might mean days or weeks in which
the MEU can slowly assemble, unload, and prepare for combat. Benghazi
Historically, the most common MEU actions are embassy defenses and evacuations, civilian evacuations, rescues, raids, and humanitarian assistance (shouldn’t be a military mission but it is). These kinds of missions tend to crop up quickly and with little notice thus “quick reaction” tends to be on the order of hours.
So, what does “quick reaction” mean in relation to the dispersed ARG? It means that an independently operating ship may well find itself in the position of having to conduct a mission on its own with only a third of the MEU’s capabilities. That’s a sure fire recipe for getting in over one’s head – for getting involved in an action that is beyond the capability of the fractional MEU.
In independent operations, an individual amphibious ship can carry several hundred troops. That’s kind of an odd amount for operations – more than a Company, less than a Battalion. Presumably, the MEU’s tanks and artillery would be evenly distributed if the ARG’s ships were disbursed. That would give each ship one tank and an artillery piece. Again, that’s an odd amount. It’s not how tanks and artillery are organized, trained, or operated. The embarked Marines would constitute a very lightly armed force, incapable of any kind of sustained operations. The danger is that, eventually, they’ll get dropped into a situation they’re not equipped to handle and find themselves in over their heads with no help to call on.
While we can probably get away with a light force for embassy evacuations or low end hostage rescues, those kind of situations have a way of spiraling out of control – witness the Somalia Blackhawk incident. Further, we have all manner of forces that can do the same job without the added expense of operating amphibious ships. Airborne divisions and Special Ops forces can deploy from the
for those rare occasions. US
On the other hand, for the 99% of the time that the ARG, whether aggregated or disaggregated, is not actively conducting combat ops, the missions are well within the scope of a single amphibious ship: show the flag, port visits, cross training with foreign nations, etc. Of course, those missions are well within the scope of a yacht with an American flag or a Cyclone class PC – they don’t have to be conducted by one of the most expensive ships in the world carrying a third of a MEU.
Thus, there seems to be little benefit to disaggregating the
It splits the
combat power of the MEU to a dangerous level and gains nothing that can’t be provided
by an American flagged yacht.
Independent operations are a very questionable concept that is driven by
budget rather than operational or tactical requirements. In short, if it’s worth deploying a MEU/ARG,
keep it together! ARG.