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”, , June 23, 2015