During the 2017 hurricane season, the USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), shown here, and USS New York (LPD-21) had to sail north for two days, from Mayport to Norfolk, to onload landing craft and other equipment before sailing to the Florida Keys for disaster-relief operations. This is a time-distance problem the Navy can fix.
In 2017, during a summer beset with natural disasters, the U.S. Navy responded to hurricanes that struck Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and other locations in the Caribbean. In response to the devastation in Key West, the
USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) and USS New York (LPD-21)—both homeported in Mayport, Florida—conducted recovery operations in support of federal and state authorities.
Time matters in emergency response. When a natural disaster strikes—be it an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane—the timeliness of emergency response is critical and can include evacuation, medical services, and providing for basic human needs such as food, water, and shelter. Without these, thirst, hunger, sickness, and potential death plague the survivors.
The Navy must be in position to respond quickly to requests for disaster relief after storms make landfall in the Southeast, Gulf of Mexico, or Caribbean. Ships can load out and move to positions where they quickly can follow storms to deliver supplies, assess the damage, and respond immediately to minimize suffering.
Currently the Navy’s Mayport-based amphibious ships cannot respond quickly to disasters (or other operational tasking) because the landing craft, personnel, and equipment that provide the necessary ship-to-shore connections are not co-located in Mayport. Instead they are hundreds of miles north, in North Carolina and Virginia, away from the likely direction of most disaster-
When tasked, an amphibious ship will embark landing craft and a Marine task force and then transit to the affected region. East Coast ships embark their landing craft and Navy helicopters in Norfolk, Virginia; then transit to Onslow Bay, North Carolina, to onload the Marine task force and its equipment; and then sail to the where they are needed.
Before the Iwo Jima and New York could execute relief efforts last year, they had to sail north, away from their destination, to Norfolk to pick up supplies, equipment, and landing craft, delaying their arrival in the Florida Keys for several days. At the same time, the Norfolk-based ships USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) and USS Oak Hill (LSD-51) could load quickly and transit to where they were needed.
In 2013 and 2014, the amphibious ships Iwo Jima, New York, and USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) shifted homeports from Norfolk to Mayport to build up the naval presence in Mayport after the Navy decommissioned an aircraft carrier and several frigates stationed there. This supported the Navy’s commitment to a strategic dispersal of ships on the East Coast, but it also provided a force with unique amphibious capabilities closer to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The three amphibs now based in Mayport theoretically were postured to provide humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) or defense support of civil authorities (DSCA).
During the first hurricane season after their arrival, two landing craft were sent temporarily to Mayport to support any contingencies that may have arisen during the hurricane season. The landing craft were prepositioned strictly as on-call capabilities for disaster relief; and although they could have been used for predeployment training, neither was used during the amphibious training or exercises.
Currently, if a Mayport-based ship is tasked to respond to a natural disaster, it must transit north to Norfolk (48 hours), embark landing craft and other equipment (24 hours), and then transit south (24 hours) to Onslow Bay to onload the Marine task force. Thus, a ship from Mayport is delayed at least two full days (transit and loading) longer than its Norfolk counterparts.
In a similar situation, Mayport-based ships require additional steaming time (and fuel expenditures) before and after all amphibious training, which normally is conducted at either Fort Story (at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay) or in Onslow Bay. For either of these training locations, Norfolk-based amphibious ships embark their landing craft as they depart the Chesapeake, but Mayport-based ships require the 48-hour transit.
To alleviate the transit time and unnecessary delays, Naval Beach Group Two, based in Norfolk, should use the model its West Coast counterpart, based in San Diego, California, uses in Sasebo, Japan. There a detachment of Naval Beach Group One is co-located with the amphibious ships. Naval Beach Groups One and Two provide the support elements, including amphibious landing craft, for amphibious ships.
Beach Group One’s permanent detachment in Sasebo conducts training, exercises, deployments, and other operations, including HA/DR. When a ship gets under way, the landing craft are embarked as the ship departs the harbor, eliminating any transit time to embark landing craft, associated personnel, and equipment.
Establishing a permanent beach group detachment in Mayport would:
• Reduce preparation time before ships can respond to crises
• Provide beach craft for local amphibious training
• Reduce time and money spent transiting to training events in Onslow Bay
• Provide schedule stability for craft that deploy with Mayport-based ships
• Build bonds between the naval support elements/craft and their ships
• Allow beach group sailors to locate their families in Mayport, eliminating time away from them during hurricane season
In addition, when the amphibious ships in Mayport are assigned as the “ready duty amphibious” group, the Marines could pre-stage their DSCA equipment at the Marine Corps Support Facility on Blount Island in Jacksonville, Florida, the same way they can pre-stage at Camp Allen in Norfolk when assigned to a Norfolk amphibious ready group. This would eliminate the need to transit to Onslow Bay to onload Marines and would facilitate a quicker response to disasters. In 2013, in expectation of the amphibs moving to Mayport, the Marine Corps conducted a study about prepositioning a DSCA or HA/DR package in Florida. The concept was later discarded, however, because of the lack of landing craft in Mayport.
As with any new program, there would be initial costs and planning factors associated with this move, but the Navy should not let these deter it. In moving the landing craft and their support teams to Mayport, several of the key considerations include real estate, environmental issues, training locations, construction, maintenance facilities, and expertise. The real estate must be carved out, identifying the ramp locations for air-cushioned landing craft (LCACs), pier space for utility landing craft (LCUs), beach master facilities, and support services.
With the growing fleet of littoral combat ships and the potential for another amphibious ready group to be based in Mayport, demand for pier space is rising. Perhaps Blount Island in Jacksonville; King’s Bay, Georgia; or other federal properties in the Jacksonville area are
viable options nearby.
To support LCAC operations, environmental impact/feasibility surveys must be conducted at all possible locations and subsequent issues addressed. The results of these surveys will determine how and where craft can operate and will be, perhaps, the most difficult and contentious obstacle to overcome. Training areas (beach and at sea) must be established where craft can conduct landings to support boat control training and amphibious warfare certifications, and the environmental issues must be mitigated. Virtual beaches/training
areas at sea can be used for some training. However, simulated amphibious training and landings do not replace live training in the surf and beach environments that the ships and landing craft need. Are locations available in Georgia or South Carolina if beaches are not available in Florida? If none are suitable, an option would be to conduct some training virtually in the Mayport operating area and conduct live training in Onslow Bay. This option would reduce further the transit/fuel costs associated with a full transit to Norfolk and back to Onslow for live events.
When the final laydown/pier locations are identified, the LCAC ramp, pier services for the LCUs, and other support facilities will need to be built. Maintenance facilities and technical expertise specific to the craft will need to be developed at the Southeast Regional Maintenance Center for intermediate-level maintenance. Capable depot-level facilities will need to be identified to address depot-level maintenance and repair work, including continuous maintenance availabilities (if desired and cost effective, craft could be exchanged with those in Norfolk for major overhauls, including service-life extensions or drydocking, as those facilities already are established there). Although each of these challenges seems daunting, they can all be overcome.
If a second amphibious group is moved to Mayport, it will be even more imperative that a permanent detachment of landing craft, personnel, and equipment be co-located with the amphibious ships—ready at all times to respond to disasters, incidents, and operational tasking. In addition, expeditionary warfare expertise and training facilities will need to be established in Mayport to conduct training and instruction in naval expeditionary warfare to prepare the Mayport amphibious forces for operations.
In the short term, during the 2018 hurricane season, LCACs can be berthed on board the amphibious ships and LCUs moored pierside, as they were in 2014, so the Mayport-based ships have ready, available assets in case they are called to respond for disaster relief. This will mitigate some of the issues until a permanent solution is established. In the long term, however, it is clear Mayport needs to be a fully equipped disaster-response base, with amphibious ships and landing craft ready to move directly toward an HA/DR crisis when the call comes.
Captain Ulmer is the former commanding officer of the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) and currently serves as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the U.S. Naval Institute. He has been selected for major command.