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The Fleet—and Fleet Marine Force—in the 21st Century

By Lieutenant Colonel John T. Quinn II, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

A recent Proceedings article, coauthored by General James Amos and Admiral Jonathan Greenert (“A New Naval Era,” June 2013), provides both the intellectual foundation for this adjustment and the top cover for sailors and Marines to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Of the ideas they mention for us to consider, one stands out: “Assess our force-design and deployment models through the lenses of forward presence, deterrence, and crisis response in order to better align the core capabilities of the naval force to be immediately relevant to the geographic combatant commanders.” Their direction is clear—be prepared to do things differently, and to do them principally in a naval context.

Colonel Bradley Weisz, a former expeditionary strike group (ESG) deputy commander, has taken a bold step in this direction with an article titled “Optimizing the Blue-Green Team” in the September 2013 Marine Corps Gazette . He proposes many actions to promote amphibious and naval integration, such as strengthening ESG and Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) staffs, manning them with more personnel from the opposite service, adding more Marines to ship crews, and even establishing special-purpose Marine air-ground task forces (SPMAGTFs) on aircraft carriers. In that spirit, the paragraphs that follow share some of those ideas, but they attempt to address the naval-integration challenge more fundamentally.

Corps Constants and Navy Constraints

As part of its adjustment process, today’s Marine Corps must make its best estimate of the future and transform to meet its expected challenges. It must also have a clear idea of the roles and missions that have stood the test of time. This does not mean the Corps must preserve everything it does now. Doing “more with less” is not a realistic option—as budgets decline, the Corps will have less resources, and thus it must do fewer things. It must make difficult choices now in order to assure its continued—and ideally increased—relevance in the 21st century.

Since the United States emerged as a world power at the end of the 19th century, the Marine Corps has been and should remain these things:

• An Expeditionary Naval Force. The Corps must remain organized and equipped for actions in the littorals and optimized to project combat power and influence from the sea. It has fought far from the sea when the nation has needed it to do so, but that is not its reason for being.

• A Combined Arms Force. The Corps’ composition (a minimum of three divisions, three air wings, etc.) and functions are described in Title 10, and it should not stray from that statute. It is by design a tactical combined-arms team, and this is worth preserving in the face of “top-down” jointness.

• A Ready and Forward-Deployed Force. The Corps must “be the most ready when the nation is least ready.” Modernization is a key aspect of that readiness: The Corps entered World War II armed with obsolete equipment, and Marines paid dearly for that at Corregidor, Wake, and Guam. That model was a costly one then—and is a recipe for disaster in the future.

• An Agile and Adaptable Force. The Corps must be employable across the range of military operations, but optimized for the “middle”—crisis response and contingencies. This requires agility and adaptability, built on a foundation of well-trained, educated, and naval-minded Marines.

The Corps must be particularly cognizant of the constraints faced by the Navy. Initiatives such as better interoperability with U.S. Special Operations Command are important, but the Navy is and will remain the critical partner. The impact of austerity on the Navy will be the Corps’ major limiting factor. There are critical trends that are affecting the Navy right now that should be treated as assumptions and recognized to be of vital concern to Marines:

• The Navy’s inventory of warships will decline, despite their long-range plans.

• As its inventory declines, amphibious ship numbers will decline at a similar rate.

• The Navy will target LSD-41/49s and older big-deck amphibs for early decommissioning.

• In a competition with DDGs, SSNs, CVNs, and SSBN(X)s for funding, the LSD replacement will lose out, forcing a delayed buy, a reduced buy, a reduced cost per ship—or a combination of all.

The Navy will struggle to preserve major surface, subsurface, and aviation programs, and it will make difficult choices in those and other areas. It will reduce or place in reserve naval beach-group and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command capabilities, resulting in longer response timelines for major contingencies. It will likely adopt policies that will first enable and soon drive the use of hybrid or commercial ships for the amphibious force, including an expanded role for civilian mariners.

While pushing hard to deploy mine countermeasures on littoral combat ships (LCSs), its countermine capacity will likely be reduced, leaving naval forces that must work close to shore at increased risk. The aggregate impact of these choices will be a smaller, less ready and perhaps more risk-averse Navy.

Decisions and Opportunities

With these constraints, the Navy and Marine Corps are now confronted with critical decisions regarding amphibious capabilities and capacities. They must decide whether or not to:

• Preserve MAGTF embarkation capacity by reducing some capabilities, such as relaxing naval vessel rules in order to produce less expensive amphibious ships.

• Increase landing-force ship-to-shore movement capacity by upgrading connectors.

• Preserve the current amphibious assault-vehicle family by making modest upgrades to part of the fleet.

• Invest modestly in the continued development of an amphibious combat vehicle, recognizing that its high cost means that it cannot be produced during the austerity era.

• Experiment aggressively with unmanned surface vehicles, with a bias toward lower-cost solutions that at a minimum convey fuel, water, food, and ammo to maneuver units ashore.

Ultimately, they must rely more heavily on the vertical movement of Marines from the sea, and on sea-based aerial resupply. Recapitalized at an ultimate cost of well over $100 billion, aviation is the Corps’ true battlefield enabler.

Even with reduced resources, there are opportunities for improvement. The Navy and Marine Corps can still increase forward-presence forces that are relevant for engagement, deterrence, and crisis response. However, this requires the Navy to have more ships that are useful in these roles. One way to achieve this is for Marines to operate from more types of ships, including commercial ones. With nearly 10,000 container ships in service worldwide, there are hundreds that could be modified for routine military use. A converted container ship could readily host MAGTFs composed of hundreds of Marines as well as two dozen large aircraft such as MV-22s and CH-53s. While there are legitimate concerns over protection capabilities of this type of ship, their large displacement affords alternative survivability options in this area, and so does their greater quantity.

Challenges afflicting the LCS program also present opportunities. Its various mission modules have fallen far short of their promise, and they will require a lot of money to fix. However, given the momentum of the program, the Navy is likely to have at least two dozen of these ships by the end of the decade, split between two classes. Four LCSs will soon operate forward out of Singapore, and others will eventually operate in the Persian Gulf. Depending on the hull type, there is room to host a Marine detachment that can conduct visit/board/search/seizure and security duties using H-60s or small boats. While less than optimal, this platform is workable, and in doing so Marines can help remediate a difficult Navy problem.

The same argument can be made for Marines returning to other surface combatants. Detachments equipped and trained for security and minor contingencies ashore such as embassy reinforcement would be a tremendous asset to the forward commanders. As U.S. warship numbers decline, virtually all become “capital” ones in terms of the investment in lives and treasure. The Navy’s force-protection challenges are many, and work in the littorals raises the exposure and risk to ships and sailors. The Corps must not be blind to this or maintain that this is not a Marine problem to help solve. On the contrary, it has “Marine” written all over it.

What Must Be Done?

The Marine Corps is not its own customer—it provides forces to operational commands, most often to a numbered fleet or to a joint task force. It should be prepared to do what is necessary to support those missions. In their hierarchy of needs, there are a range of things that Marines do very well. Even in austerity, Marines can continue to do them well—and do them in more areas that matter—if the Corps, and the Navy, are open to new organizational possibilities.

Experience tells us that, while the range of possible forces and missions is endless, forward fleet and combatant commanders ­need four core types of task forces from the Marine Corps:

Amphibious Forces. The Corps must continue to provide forward-deployed, combat-ready Marine task units embarked on amphibious ships, with capabilities focused on strikes, raids, recovery, and crisis-response operations in two critical red-zone areas: the China Sea and the Persian Gulf. These regions are so described because potential adversaries therein possess combinations of missiles and numerous small warships that create a complex and deadly operating environment. Marine forces operating regularly in these zones must be embarked on fully capable amphibious warships, and they must be prepared to go in harm’s way.

Greater threat complexity demands new approaches. Many Marines are still wedded to the idea that today’s—and tomorrow’s—Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) exists primarily to deliver a battalion landing team (BLT) to an enemy shore by air and surface assault, supported by its other elements. This idea has been overcome by events. The amphibious ready group/MEU is now a combatant commander’s Swiss Army knife, with a balanced set of valuable capabilities. The addition of the F-35B to that set will be game-changing in ways that most do not appreciate: We must figure out how to operate more of them at sea.

To underscore these changes, the Corps can start by returning to the term “Marine amphibious unit” (MAU). This would accurately distinguish this force from the generously categorized expeditionary forces of the other services. Due to likely early retirements in the LSD-41/49 class and delays in its replacement, the proposed new MAU would feature different capabilities and capacities. Most MAUs would routinely deploy on two amphibious ships—an LHD and an LPD—from the continental United States to the Arabian Sea and to East Asia. However, as part of the Pacific rebalancing, two of the remaining LSDs could be paired with two LPDs and both the USS America (LHA-6) and Tripoli (LHA-7) in Japan to form a stronger forward-based amphibious capability in Northeast Asia. This would avoid the problem of deploying an MAU with only one well-deck ship, and it would allow for the off-cycle LHA to serve as an F-35B “lightning carrier” in the 7th Fleet area.

The MAU’s reconfigured aviation-combat element would have an F-35B squadron at its heart, helicopter- and tiltrotor-squadron attachments. The ground-combat element in the new MAU would necessarily be a lighter one, perhaps even reconceived as a commando-style battalion landing team. It would be equipped with fewer and lighter vehicles and attachments, through choices such as the substitution of the expeditionary fire-support system for the M777 howitzer in its artillery battery.

Security Forces. The Corps must provide forward-deployed Marine security units (MSUs) to the fleets that can be flexibly assigned to both ashore and afloat duties in critical areas that involve (1) close-in defense of ships or key facilities and (2) the enhancement of sea-lane security. The primary area of need for this type of force is in the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca. The unit designed for this purpose must be able to provide detachments of Marines to multiple LCSs, DDGs and even auxiliaries, and they must be employable via small boats and helicopters.

A Marine force composed primarily of light infantry and helicopters would be well suited for this purpose. Ideally, it would be forward-based in or near these straits on an LPD-17 variant serving as the LCS squadron’s mother ship. This force would provide support to the fleet’s boarding, reconnaissance, and scouting duties in the littorals. Ultimately, the MSU provides the fleet commander a ready security force under his or her control that can be weighted according the needs of the moment and shifted to cover emerging or transitory requirements.

Response Forces. The Corps must provide forward-deployed Marine response units (MRUs) that are capable of crisis response, presence, and engagement activities, primarily in non-red-zone areas. As an example, consider the value of an assault support-heavy MAGTF built around a small Marine aircraft group in the Mediterranean. The force could be forward-based ashore, with squadrons and other subordinate elements rotated there from the United States. The MAGTF would be paired with a nearby container-ship afloat forward-staging base (AFSB) that could readily embark and operate MV-22 and CH-53 squadrons for extended periods. If the AFSB is paired with an LSD, the Corps could routinely rotate a variety of units forward to form an air-transport-heavy SPMAGTF with a small ground-combat element and logistics-combat element. The manpower, operations, and maintenance bills associated with the MRU (and its associated sea base) would be affordable for both the Marine Corps and the Navy.

The MRU could cover many peacetime partnering, training, and advising demands from the sea. It could serve as the centerpiece of a humanitarian-aid/disaster-relief effort and, in time of crisis, could be moved closer to a red zone to support and even combine with an MAU. In theory, it could serve as a model of an expanded version of the crisis-response MAGTF recently deployed to shore bases in the Mediterranean, but with the benefit of being able to move to sovereign territory afloat during operations that may require a more nuanced approach.

Expeditionary Forces. The Corps must provide elements of forward-based or forward-deployed Marine expeditionary forces, formed as brigades (MEBs) that are designed to live and work near the two remaining Marine prepositioning ship squadrons (MPSRONs). These should be capable of protecting the high-value assets and bringing the MPSRON force to life upon activation. This would ideally entail most of an MEB based in Guam and some part of one split between Diego Garcia and Australia.

Like today’s MEU, the three proposed new task units (MAU, MSU, and MRU) would be normally deployed as part of separate task groups that would fall under the operational control of the numbered fleet commander. In a break from recent practice, in the larger numbered fleets a two- or one-star fleet Marine officer would be based forward to command, plan, and oversee these disparate units as part of an integrated naval-force headquarters. As the senior Marine afloat, this officer would serve as the commanding general of the fleet’s Marine force and would have a small tactical staff (perhaps even the nucleus of an MEB command element) so that, when necessary, this general could be assigned to operational command of a task group in a contingency. All or parts of these forces could be quickly merged with an MEB or organized under an MEF commander as a contingency response expands.

Achieving a ‘System of Systems’

The new task units described in this article are designed to operate as part of a naval expeditionary “system of systems.” Widely dispersed at sea and ashore in the littorals, they could aggregate quickly and serve as an early action force in a crisis. Although East Asia and Southwest Asia will continue to dominate requirements, the Sea Services must anticipate demands for forces in the Caribbean, Central America, West Africa, and elsewhere.

If a major amphibious assault is required, it could still be executed by this system—with time—using surged and mobilized forces from the United States. While policy makers and joint commanders alike need Marine forces to perform many important missions, few think that 30,000-plus Marines, conveyed toward an enemy shore on a fleet of 30 amphibious ships and driving amphibious vehicles through the surf, are vital components to future success in war. Many of them can more readily imagine a limited nuclear exchange than a major forcible-entry operation. This view will likely prevail—at least until the security environment worsens.

That point may not be far in the offing. The recent era, featuring no serious U.S. challenger, is disappearing. Governments that survived the demise of the Cold War world have fallen or are teetering. The “arc of instability” is smoldering or aflame, and it will remain so. Contrary to plans, our allies and partners will not pick up the slack. In spite of instability being much closer to them than to us, many of our allies continue to disarm, and desired partners are falling short of our expectations.

The Navy’s investment priorities will naturally remain oriented on the parts of the Fleet that wage the undersea battle, shoot down inbound missiles, and stand well offshore and launch salvos of missiles and aircraft at enemy targets. However, if the enemy is powerful, the Fleet will be at risk of running out of missiles, airplanes, and ships before it can achieve a decisive effect. It thus must sustain credible capacity not only for Air-Sea Battle but also for “most likely” crisis response and even “most dangerous” forcible-entry operations.

Today’s sailors, led by the Chief of Naval Operations, appreciate that the littorals are truly the forward edge of their battle space, and that Marine forces are essential to the landward extension of the Fleet’s combat power and influence. After a decade at war in places far from the sea, today’s Marines, led by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, must commit to building capabilities that first serve that purpose. Those capabilities cannot be restricted to what can be applied from land or via a handful of amphibious ships. Marines must be able to be forward and afloat in more places, with more of the capabilities fleet and combatant commanders value, in order to apply appropriate force or influence when needed. This requires the Marine Corps and Navy to adopt creative solutions in order to remain relevant in an era where hybrid conflict is the new normal.


Lieutenant Colonel Quinn has been the Deputy Director, Strategic Initiatives Group, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, since 2006.
 

 
 

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