Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Anywhere, Anytime ... But Why?

USNI News website has an article about the Marines testing the feasibility of operating from non-traditional bases and ships including foreign ships, AFSBs, T-AVB aviation logistics ships, etc. in response to the Commandant’s Planning Guidance document (1).  For example,

“A few weeks ago, a crane on a T-AVB aviation logistics support ship – one of the original Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships from the 1980s – lifted onboard a LCM-8 “Mike boat” – which made its debut in the fleet in 1959.

Are these vessels intended to be the equivalent of the standard Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) LHAs, LPDs, and such?  Of course not.

“But the ability to put them [Marines] onboard surface ships for select periods of time – an amphib can carry a Marine unit virtually indefinitely; you can’t do that with these other platforms, they’re not designed [for that] – but for select, short periods of time, yeah, you could put … units and aircraft onboard. Your biggest limitation with aircraft would be the maintenance and support capabilities that the ship has for the V-22.”

We see, then, some of the glaring limitations of such an approach using vessels that were not designed for the use.

Flight Deck Space – Flight deck space on these alternate vessels is generally pretty limited.  A T-AVB, for example, has space for only two helo spots and could probably handle only a single MV-22.  The vaunted AFSB has space for operating two CH-53 helos and parking two more.  Likely, it could operate only two MV-22s.  That’s not much aviation capability.

Limited Hangar Space – Similarly, alternate vessel hangar space is non-existent or quite limited.

Berthing – Ships that are not designed for hosting large numbers of troops lack the facilities to berth and support troops for more than a very short period.

Vehicle Storage – Again, most of these vessels lack the facilities to store and, more importantly, handle (meaning, move into and out of storage) vehicles in a combat timely fashion.

Maintenance – Alternate vessels generally lack the maintenance capabilities to support Marine vehicles and aircraft or even troop gear.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with alternate means of deploying Marine units, is there?  OK, that seems reasonable on the face of it.  Remind me, though, why are we doing this?

“ ‘A lot of these are just old ideas that are fresh and new. A lot of it’s back to the future. But we’re aggressively pursuing that because that’s what it says to do here,’ he [Jim Strock, Marine Corps Seabasing Integration Division director] said, referring to the Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

So, we’re doing it because the Commandant said so.  Fair enough … assuming he’s right.

Let’s think about this a bit deeper.  What is this going to accomplish?  Well, it could put Marines and a very few of their aviation units onboard a ship for a brief period of time.  The question is whether that’s a useful capability to have.  Alternate vessels will be ill-suited to the task and quite limited resulting in a Marine force that is very light (likely no tanks, artillery, or heavy vehicles) and has very limited aviation support available.

So, what can a force like that do that’s useful?  This is where the concept falls apart.  Aside from a very light embassy evacuation or hostage rescue operation, such a force can’t do much.  Even in those low end combat scenarios there will be a significant degree of risk due to the lack of aviation support.

Honestly, this concept feels a bit haphazard to me – like the Marines are floundering around in an attempt to look amphibious but without a serious purpose behind the effort.  Consider this statement from the article.

“What’s the right mix of non-amphibious ships to do that? I don’t know. Do you need three JHSVs plus an MLP plus a tug boat? What’s the right mix? And I think over time we’re going to have to sort that out. … The ARG/MEUs sail out with a pre-defined mix: a big-deck, an LPD and an LSD. That’s pretty routine. But if you are able to get three or four platforms together to support a 90-day patrol for the rotational force out of Darwin, if you did that a year from now with three or four ships, the time they did it after that I doubt if it’s going to be the same three or four types of ships. What’s the right mix? I think that will be exciting over time to capture the lessons learned and be able to go back to the operating forces with some decent data.”

The spokesman is describing a best case scenario using an ad-hoc group of mismatched vessels to conduct a short deployment.  What he doesn’t describe is a useful mission for such a group.  Simply sailing around aimlessly for 90 days is a waste of time.  I’m not an expert on Marine tasking, especially out of Australia, so maybe there is a useful mission that could be conducted by a very light force for a very short period of time.  If so, this is a good experiment.  However, I suspect there really isn’t much of a valid purpose for such a deployment other than to say it can be done.

I have no problem with experimenting with concepts.  In fact, I’m all for trying things out and I’m all for attempting to get maximum usage out of existing assets.  My concern is that this is not really an experiment but, rather, another step on the path of the new Marine Corps – Light.  This is cementing the notion of a fighting force that is entirely air-mobile (though few of those alternate vessels can host enough aircraft to “mobile” the troops) and lightweight. 

It feels like we’re giving up our heavy assault capability in favor of lightness for reasons that, frankly, escape me.  Instead of seeing how light a force we can briefly shoehorn onto an ill-suited vessel, we should be trying to figure out how to get M1 Abrams and artillery ashore in the initial assault waves.  As an interesting counterpoint, the Chinese have developed a family of Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 105mm light tanks that are completely amphibious along with modern LPDs and LCACs (see SNAFU website for an excellent pictorial look at a Chinese armored landing force).

(1)USNI, “Marines Testing Operating from Foreign Ships, Near-Forgotten Platforms to Bring Units Back to Sea”, Megan Eckstein, June 23, 2015


  1. It makes sense for everyone but you guys.
    The IDF had civilian (ish) yachts on the route out and back for operation table (wooden?) leg.
    The usn could all but deploy a bridge of ships along the route.

  2. Has anyone thought about the difficulties that non-standardization would do across a military?

    If every ship in the fleet is different in a unique way, it will make maintenance, logistics, and daily operations more difficult.

  3. Amphibs are transports, but the problem is our Navy assigns them to surface warfare officers who insist on building them as billion dollar hybrid surface combatants that deploy and cruise around. As a result, we have half as many with half the lift they could have. The crew sizes are as big as the troops they carry!

    1. Amphibs are both transports and "presence" vessels.

      A pure point-A-to-point-B transport doesn't need to be that expensive, but a ship that deploys with its Marines and stays at sea for months at a time every couple years is going to be more expensive.

      Do they have to be as expensive as what we're building now? Probably not.

  4. Yep, I read recently a detachment of USMC will be assigned to either HMS Ocean or more likely HMS Bulwark, both are Anphib Assault ships and generally carry 500 ish Royal Marines + equipment.

    They are both in the 17-22K tonnes range. With flight deck and well deck. And can sustain troops effectively indefinably. So you might be ok there.

    (Maintenance is defiantly a concern unless they bring their own guys and supplies)

    I’m like you still a little confused as to why?

    Possibly just a bit of cross deck training, it’s not uncommon, just never seen it on this scale?


    1. It's certainly feasible but if the U.S. ever got into a combat situation requiring 500 Marines, I can't see someone saying, hey, let's not use one of our own 33 big deck amphibious ships, let's use a RN ship that we're not really familiar with. Plus, if we had a conflict serious enough to warrant RN participation, the RN ships would, presumably, have RN Marines aboard.

      I just don't get it.

    2. Yep our Assault ships ( like yours ) will generally sail at least partly if not fully kitted. The only 2 things I can think of, is that ;
      1. NATO is really kicking this "extreamly high readiness" thing right now. OR
      2. Queen Elizabeth Class will be able to re-tool mid ocean for Assault config. from Fixed wing.

      But either still boads the question why USMC on RN vessels when we both have our own resources. Ready to go right now ?

      Perhaps we are thinking that if we move the troops around fast enough, with the wrong camo on the right ships and vice versa. Putin will eventually get dizzy and fall over ???


    3. As noted earlier, a lack of standardization would be a huge issue.

    4. My guess is putting a Marine detachment on RN vessels is mostly for training, cross-military collaboration, and liaison.

    5. Smitty, training for what? I ask that seriously. What possible beneficial training could we get from putting Marines on an RN ship?

      There's some tiny, tiny benefit to simply fraternizing with RN sailors and Marines but no actual training benefit that I can come up with.

    6. It's standard practice for our military to train with other countries, especially those that we regularly work with. Coalition countries just can't show up one day and fight as an integrated unit without this type of regular peer contact.

      We learn how they do things. They learn how we do things.

    7. When have we ever (since WWII) fought as integrated units composed of elements from multiple countries? Even during Desert Storm, units fought as independent entities joined by a common command structure.

      It's highly debatable that we gain any tangible benefit from this kind of training.

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    9. We have never fought with composite units, but we have had foreign embeds in our units, and vice versa. We also have to know their capabilities and limitations and how they fight. That kind of familiarity only comes with training and working together.

      You may not see the value, but the military has. This kind of thing takes place a lot.

    10. Tell me you're not making the argument that just because the military does something, that makes it right? I'll offer one, simple example. The military saw the "advantage" in minimal manning and reduced maintenance and that has cost us many ships to early retirement due to deteriorated physical condition.

      Don't make me list an endless series of incredibly poor decisions by the military.

    11. I'm making the argument that has been proven many times over to be a good idea and we should continue to do it. I don't really think I need to be defending it either. The benefits should be obvious.

      Getting back to the Marines on RN vessels. It was just my speculation that it was related to training, collaboration and liaison.

      It may be something else entirely.

  5. The Marines are a bit rudderless at the moment.

    Some have advocated the Marine Corps switch to a force primarily geared towards Crisis Response, and company- to battalion-sized formations, and leaving brigade or larger operations and major warfighting to the Army.

    Finding more places to host small Marine units would fit this model.

    1. You've summed up the key point for the Corps. They don't know what they want to be.

    2. I have a hard time justifying a Marine Corps that's separate from the Army. But that's a different can-o-worms. :)

    3. I'm with you. I have a VERY hard time justifying a Marine Corps that can only do small, light infantry missions. The 101st can do the same missions and do them better. The Corps either needs to get back to high end assault or go away.

    4. The US Army has performed many high-end amphibious assaults. There were more Army soldiers involved in the Okinawa invasion than Marines!

      So even high-end amphibious assault doesn't feel unique enough to justify a separate service.

      It skews limited military dollars towards a mission that may not have any more strategic importance than airborne assault or other forcible entry methods. Does the 82nd airborne need to be a separate service??


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