Embrace Afloat Forward Staging
As global turmoil escalates, the United States must increase its ability to respond rapidly to emerging crises. Positioning amphibious warships near areas of instability is a proven solution, but there are not enough of these ships available to meet the demand for persistent, sea-based presence. The amphibious fleet struggles to fill its training and operational requirements, and there is little chance of acquiring additional amphibious warships under current fiscal constraints.
Since limitations on defense spending likely will continue, a cost-effective alternative for helping address amphibious presence shortfalls is the afloat forward-staging base (AFSB). AFSBs can stage, transport, or sustain forces at sea in key locations.
The AFSB concept previously has supported missions such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR), special operations, and mine countermeasures. The USS Ponce (LPD-15) was converted into an interim AFSB, while the USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) was launched as the first purpose-built AFSB. Joint high-speed vessels, Lewis and Clark (T-AKE-1)–class ships, and modified container ships all have been considered for possible AFSB roles.
Like amphibious warships, AFSBs provide basing at sea when it is not feasible, possible, or advantageous to go ashore. Operating from over the horizon, they reduce operational security, force protection, and diplomatic issues associated with bases on land. Unlike fixed bases ashore, they can be repositioned quickly to where they are most needed.
AFSBs can tailored to meet mission requirements. Larger platforms potentially could support a company of Marines, vertical launch aircraft, and smaller surface craft. Depending on the mission, they also may be equipped with a more robust command-and-control suite, unmanned aerial systems, or surgical facilities.
AFSBs would not be expected to conduct the full range of missions performed by amphibious warships. They would, however, help fill presence requirements in areas that do not warrant tying down an amphibious warship.
AFSBs still could support a wide range of missions, including embassy reinforcement, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, and expanded maritime interdiction. They also could serve in the lead echelon of a larger noncombatant evacuation or disaster relief operations.
There are many areas around the world where an AFSB could have a significant impact. The west coast of Africa is one where amphibious ships generally do not maintain an enduring presence. Even with indications and warnings of an impending crisis, it may take days for the amphibious fleet to reach a position where it could influence events ashore. Having an AFSB already positioned in close proximity to a crisis area would allow Marines to get ashore during the critical early hours until a more robust force arrived.
Embrace Afloat Forward Staging
Some critics believe ASFBs would not have sufficient forces to influence actions ashore, and employing small groups of Marines in such a manner would be a waste of resources. Yet this is how land-based Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) and sea-based Amphibious Ready Groups/Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG/MEUs) generally have operated. Although positioning smaller groups of personnel and equipment across a large geographical area is not ideal, it can be effective under the right conditions.
A smaller force of Marines on board an AFSB would not possess the same capability of an ARG/MEU, but their value should not be underestimated. There are many crisis response scenarios where a platoon or company of Marines arriving on short notice could make all the difference. Bringing a platoon of Marines into Benghazi during the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate likely would have changed the outcome.
Other critics worry about the survivability of AFSBs that are not purpose-built warships. They cite the loss of the British merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor during the Falklands War as an example, ignoring the fact that five British warships also were sunk. AFSBs would be employed primarily in permissive and semipermissive areas where close-in defense systems would be sufficient to address low-end threats. If required to operate in an increased threat environment, they would do so under protection of aircraft and other warships.
There is no easy solution for addressing sea-based presence shortfalls in the current fiscal climate, and money will not suddenly become available to build a dozen additional LPD-17s. While not a panacea, AFSBs can help reduce presence shortfalls and ease the pressure on an aging and overworked amphibious fleet. Most important, they can position Marines close to areas of instability, allowing them to respond to a crisis within hours, not days.