The Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) just left for a deployment to the Western Pacific and
There are some interesting aspects to the deployment including a
detachment of F-35Bs. Here’s some more
tidbits of interest.
Essex ARG includes
Essex (LHD-2), amphibious transport dock
USS Anchorage (LPD-23), and dock landing ship
USS Rushmore (LSD-47).
- "Blackjacks" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21 (MH-60S helos)
- Assault Craft Unit 5 (LCAC)
- Naval Beach Group 1
- Beachmaster Unit 1
- Fleet Surgical Team 3
- Tactical Air Control Squadron 11
13th MEU is commanded by Col. Chandler Nelms and consists of
- Command Element
- Aviation Combat Element
- Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (Reinforced)
- Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211
- Ground Combat Element
- Battalion Landing Team 3/1 (Reinforced)
- Logistics Combat Element
- Combat Logistics Battalion 13.
The F-35B’s belong to VMFA-211 (Yuma Marine Corps Air Station,
) and will make up part of the 26-aircraft
air combat element. A MEU typically
operates around half a dozen Harriers in addition to MV-22s and various
transport and attack helos so, presumably, the F-35B’s will also number around
Deployment training evolutions included exercises in maritime interdiction operations, anti-piracy operations, close-air support, air assaults, reconnaissance, amphibious landings, humanitarian assistance, non-combatant evacuation, assisting the State Department. (3) Note how many of those missions are non-combat.
One of the interesting aspects of the ARG is the apparent lack of advanced communications and data linking as compared to other surface warships.
“Olin [Capt. Gerald Olin, Amphibious Squadron 1 commander and commodore of the
Essex], who’s served on warships and a
carrier, said he was surprised when he came to Essex – his first amphibious ship
assignment – and took command of PHIBRON 1 in November after serving as its
deputy commander. “I didn’t see an air picture. I didn’t see a robust link
picture,” as he did on other ships.
“We’re trying to up that game a little bit, ensure that the command-and-control piece is much more clearer for the leader controlling forces,” he said of the Essex ARG. (1)
The Marine Commandant noted the same types of issues.
“Neller [Commandant of the Marine Corps] voiced concerns about continued shortfalls in advanced joint communications technology among the Navy’s L-class inventory of amphibious ships, particularly as it enables the Marine Corps to maximize the capabilities and features of the Joint Strike Fighter. “They need to have a comparable capability with other ships,” the commandant said.
With the F-35 shipboard deployments looming ahead, “I’m not sure we’re going to optimize the capability of that airplane on the big-deck amphib because of some of the command-and-control. So we’ve got to fix that,” he added.” (1)
“The Marines’ new F-35Bs have the sensors to gather vast amounts of data and the computer smarts to “fuse” and make sense of it, experts tell us, but the Navy amphibious warships it will fly from lack the networks and computing to download and use all that intelligence. (4)
“almost none of our ships are equipped communications-wise to make full use of all of the information an F-35 can send to them in real time,” (4)
How long has the F-35 been under development and the Navy still hasn’t addressed aircraft-to-ship communications and data linking? It’s not like this is a sudden, new problem. The communication and datalinking issue has been highlighted for many years in DOT&E reports.
F-35 sensor fusion remains a problem. Note the use of the phrase, “a little bit funky”.
“Shoop, VMFA-211’s commander, said the F-35B’s AN/APG-81 distributed radar “is the best one on the market, hands down,” noting among other features its multiple air-to-ground nodes to link with ground forces. Various sensors fused for situational awareness into a single display remain “a little bit funky,” he said, but pilots “get a God’s eye view.”
“It’s good right now. It’s getting better as software fusion algorithms get tweaked,” he added.”
The MEU will also deploy with a small UAV, the RQ-21 Blackjack.
“The F-35B isn’t the only new aircraft the 13th MEU will have for the first time. The air combat element will have the RQ-21 Blackjack, a small, tactical Group 3 unmanned aerial vehicle from a detachment from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, based at
“There are some naysayers about the RQ-21 deploying with the MEU, because it does have a fairly limited radius as a platform,” Nelms said. “It’s got an incredible amount of time on station, but it’s only get a fairly limited amount of combat radius for us because it’s a line-of-sight controlled platform.”
The UAV has a “range” of 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, according to Naval Air Systems Command. (Boeing, whose subsidiary Insitu, Inc., developed the RQ-21, advertises a “line-of-sight range” of 55 nautical miles, or 63 miles.)” (1)
These kind of UAVs are a niche capability but, under the right circumstances, can be quite useful. Whether they’re worth the space onboard ship is an open question especially since the ARG/MEU has plenty of full size helos with much greater range.
13th MEU will also bring along M1 Abrams tanks – something that is becoming less and less common.
“Along with a full company of 19 light-armored vehicles, more than it took on its prior MEU deployment, it will have a platoon of [four] M1A2 Abrahms main battle tanks.” (1)
The Marine’s focus on non-combat capabilities shows with the 13th MEU deploying with a Female Engagement Team (2) which is, according to the Marines, a small group of women as advisers and liaisons uniquely poised to cut through cultural sensitivities surrounding gender. What a bunch of bilgewater! If you need a Female Engagement Team then you’re not engaged in combat and you don’t need the Marines. The Marines are meant to fight, not talk. We have plenty of other organizations that can talk about feelings and sensitivities.
|Female Engagement Team - Seriously?|
The 13th MEU’s deployment is demonstrating the changes the Corps and the MEU’s are undergoing as they transition from powerful, feared, credible amphibious combat units to non-combat, light infantry, crisis response groups whose focus is steadily moving away from combat and towards humanitarian missions. Peer level combat seems to be a fading priority.
(1)USNI News website, “Challenges Ahead as 13th MEU, Essex ARG Prep for First West Coast F-35 Deployment”, Gidget Fuentes, 12-Feb-2018,
(4)Breaking Defense website, “Upgrade Navy Networks To Get Most From F-35: Commandant Wants Quality” Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.,