Expeditionary strike group forward-deployed naval forces (ESG FDNF) remains an undervalued concept. Although it was in Chief of Naval Operations Vernon Clark’s “Guidance for 2004” as one of the extraordinary alignment accomplishments, it remains exiled in the Far East. Apparently, cultural clashes between the East and West Coast naval communities trumped The Power of Alignment.1
The ESG proof-of-concept was designed to be one experiment consisting of two deployments that added two Aegis cruisers, an Aegis destroyer, and an attack submarine to an amphibious ready group (ARG). ESG-1, the West Coast model, recently returned from deployment with a separate 40-person ESG staff under a rear admiral. ESG-2, the East Coast model, deployed in February and builds on the traditional amphibious squadron for an ESG staff of 30. It is commanded by a Navy captain in a coequal supporting/supported relationship with his Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) counterpart, a colonel.
After ESG-2’s return, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) will analyze the two models to determine a uniform ESG staffing model. But rarely has an innovation been determined by a single-event experiment. Moreover, neither ESG has it right—especially with regard to staff size. The danger of an event-based approach to experimentation is that the exercise format may not validate the concept under study. Successful warfighting innovation results from sustained experimentation.
ESG-1 was unable to test its ability to operate with one foot ashore and one foot at sea, as designed and trained. Right after entering Fifth Fleet, ESG-1 was directed to deploy its MEU inland and its seagoing assets were dispersed. Finally, it had no opportunity to function as a joint task force (JTF)—one of an ESG’s designed capabilities. Thus, many Navy leaders are likely to gather that a flag officer-led ESG staff failed to demonstrate a significant advantage over the East Coast’s traditional supporting/supported relationship.
The jury is out on ESG-2 because it is still deployed. Nevertheless, an obvious shortfall is its inability to become a JTF. Commenting on ESG-2’s transition to that role, Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, Commanding General of Marine Forces Pacific, stated, “Sometimes the O-6 [captain/colonel] supported and supporting relationship doesn’t work. Sometimes you need a single on-scene commander who can make the decisions over deploying scarce resources, that is, a Navy flag or Marine general officer who can command a joint task force or be a joint task force enabler.”
The Navy no longer follows the old sequence: sea control to power projection. It must put ships in a contested littoral area while simultaneously projecting power ashore. This requires a common on-scene commander to assign scarce naval resources.
The ESG-1 and ESG-2 experiments are reminiscent of the limited British experiments with armored warfare in 1934 that featured cultural clashes among British military officers. Overly difficult and complex tactical problems were set as a final exam for the test forces, and many senior officers came away from the exercises convinced that the armored warfare concept failed. Ironically, Germany folded the British lessons into careful experimentation over a sustained period that eventually produced blitzkrieg (lightning war).
Commander, Fleet Forces Command planners, who oversee the experiment, have ignored the experimental campaign proposition. They refuse to include two Pacific Fleet ESG variants in the CNA assessment: ESG-3, which is commanded by a Marine general; and Seventh Fleet’s ESG FDNF—the longest standing ESG—which continues to be commanded by either a Navy admiral or Marine general.
The Seventh Fleet’s ESG operates with a blue-green staff of just 12, less than half the size of any other. It operates in the standard ARG-MEU configuration for most of the time. Periodically, however, additional ships (along with a lean staff element) join it to form an ESG under a flag or general officer.
The ESG FDNF sought to invigorate innovation by organizing the first ESG workshop—yet it continues to be shut out of the process. Similarly, the tardiness of the experiment’s overlords to form an ESG innovation cycle among all stakeholders has misaligned the process inadvertently. Rushing to judgment and ignoring the ESG FDNF set a worrisome precedent.
The Navy is in danger of enduring the consequences faced by the British Army at the outbreak of World War II—an organization that failed to encourage and protect the soldiers who experimented with new ways of waging war.
1. George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky, The Power of Alignment (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1997). back to article