The amphibious ready group (ARG) and Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) construct is a holdover from the Cold War that is failing to keep pace with 21st-century conflict and the needs of combatant commanders. New systems allow commanders to update the way they employ this team, which was conceived during the Reagan administration. With a new commitment to a smaller, more relevant set of missions, better-defined command relationships, and a forward-thinking allocation of air and ground assets, the ARG/MEU team can meet the needs of the United States well into this century.
A Dinosaur Model
The current ARG/MEU replaced the older Marine amphibious unit model in the mid-1980s. It uses a three-ship amphibious squadron (PhibRon)—an LHD, LPD, and LSD—commanded by a captain. The embarked Marine unit includes a reinforced medium tilt-rotor squadron, a reinforced infantry battalion, and a composite logistics unit, all commanded by a Marine colonel. According to doctrine, these two coequal commanders defer to the other under a “supporting” and “supported” command model that leaves no single person in command.1
Over the years, there has been significant administrative and mission creep with the ARG/MEU team, leading to additional attachments and little excess room on the ships. The original ARG/MEU concept was meant to provide a “fire brigade” in theater and predates the widespread use of aerial deployments of crisis response units the military has called on repeatedly in the past three decades.
The MEU model is an awkward size, which makes it difficult to employ. The battalion landing team, with its attached tanks, light-armored vehicles, amphibious assault craft, and artillery battery, is a large and heavy formation for maritime raiding. At the same time, it is too small to make an independent amphibious assault and hold a beachhead against opposition in a conventional war scenario. Similarly, the ARG rarely has any cruisers or destroyers attached and usually only briefly enjoys such support. Today’s ARGs must be more prepared for a blue-water fight than was ever anticipated. The combat suites, sensors, and weapons on these ships need to be more robust, as they often operate on their own or only with the other ships in the ARG.
A New Flight Deck
The LPD Flight II opens many possibilities. These ships will replace antiquated LSDs, which have insufficient aviation facilities. The new flight of LPDs will have a less robust combat suite than the LPD-17 but will retain its aviation facilities.2 Having another flight deck means the ARG can carry additional air assets and rethink loading paradigms. In addition, more aircraft can be moved off the LHD flight deck, which has become crowded as the much larger F-35 Lightning IIs and MV-22 Ospreys replace the AV-8 Harrier IIs and CH-46 Sea Knights in service when the MEU table of organization and equipment was written.
More than just moving around the current pieces, the MEU’s component units need to be reevaluated in the current operational context. As F-35Bs succeed AV-8Bs, the increase in capabilities will make them valuable commodities to combatant commanders. The 2018 Essex ARG deployment has shown that the new platform gives the ARG/MEU a more sought-after aviation capability as both a strike platform as well as a legitimate air-to-air asset. Increasingly, commanders will start to think of LHD/LHAs in terms of light aircraft carriers, not amphibious assault ships.
There is less need now for a ready force to conduct an amphibious assault than there was 35 years ago. Rather, the Navy and Marine Corps should focus on the four missions that cater most to the needs of geographic component commanders: strike (as a light carrier), raiding, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations, and special operations support. By narrowing down to these four missions, the ARG/MEU can better train and become more proficient in a more limited set of skills.
With the catalyst of new LPDs and their additional flight decks, the Navy and Marine Corps should rethink their aviation allocations. The easiest solution would be to move the A/UH-1 Huey helicopter detachment to one LPD and the CH-53 Sea Stallion detachment to the other. ARGs commonly put one or the other on the LPD, so there is precedent for such a move. The RQ-21 unmanned aerial vehicle detachment also regularly operates from one of the LPDs. Spreading the aviation combat element better blends the capabilities of carrier strike and an amphibious assault ship.
Changing the F-35B Marine attack squadron to eight aircraft from the current six-aircraft detachment of AV-8Bs will improve combat power; however, the increased footprint of these aircraft will not allow the current model of 12 MV-22s on the LHD/A. Reducing to eight MV-22s would open significant deck room and leave enough aircraft for both a deep raid force and a logistics detachment, though the Marines would need to drop the logistics requirement to lift a reinforced company. The possibility of MV-22s assuming the role of aerial tanker also would increase the LHD’s ability to complete some light carrier and deep raid missions.3 Readiness concerns continue to plague the MV-22 community. Reducing the number of aircraft but keeping a like number of maintenance personnel will increase readiness rates by allowing more maintainers to focus on fewer airframes.
Embarking an MH-60R Seahawk detachment would increase the ARG’s antisurface warfare (ASUW) options with the helos’ surface search radar and ability to manage a Link-16 network. Paired with Hueys as the strike coordinator and as armed reconnaissance assets, the MH-60Rs’ sensors would enhance combat ability. The MH-60Rs also would give the ARG something it has never possessed: an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability. With the proliferation of diesel submarines among adversaries, the ARG is increasingly vulnerable, and the absence of ASW capacity poses unacceptable risk. In addition, the number of MH-60S Knighthawks should be increased to four as a standard complement. That would give commanders flexibility to cut loose a section for tactical missions or to conduct special operations while still leaving aircraft available for task force defense and plane guard.
One Admiral to Rule Them All
Carrier strike groups have clearly defined command relationships, all stemming from the strike group commander. With two equal and often competing sets of priorities between the MEU colonel and ARG commodore, unity of command is thrown by the wayside in favor of parochial concerns. In expeditionary strike groups (ESGs)—ARG/MEUs with supporting surface combatants—rather than commanding a fixed group of ships, the commander and staff belong to a fleet commander and rarely embark on board their ships. Moving forward, there should be one ESG commander and staff per ARG and they should be embarked continuously on workups and deployment, as is standard with the carrier strike groups.
Continuing to borrow from the carrier strike group model, the aviation combat element should be split from the MEU while embarked. Doctrinally, the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) is a central concept to the Marine Corps.4 However, retaining it while embarked on the ARG prevents full use of the Navy rotary-wing assets because of the split command structure and de-emphasizes the needs of the ARG in favor of the priorities of the MEU. There should be a Marine colonel who serves as the commander, air group (CAG), while embarked.
This single aviation commander would be the equal of the PhibRon and the MEU commanders and would help to ensure the best use of the aviation assets. It would create unity of command for the entire aviation allocation, both blue and green, and make the CAG answerable to the ESG admiral for operation and training priorities. When and if the MEU fully disembarks from the ARG, this CAG would follow and revert to being the aviation combat element commander of the MEU in the MAGTF construct and fit into the current Marine Corps doctrine for ground operations.
Battalion Landing Team: Hit the Treadmill
The battalion landing team requirements and the equipment to support it far exceed its use by combatant commanders. The number of detachments added to an infantry battalion to form a landing team gives the unit a large footprint on board the ARG. If the ESG concentrates on four mission sets, the battalion landing team should be slimmed down and optimized to support those missions. Each ship in the ARG should have one complete rifle company. The landing team’s heavy weapons company should divide into three groups, each staffed with some of their machine gun, antiarmor, and mortar platoons, and be split among the three ships in the group. This would give every ship in the ARG a capable landing force. However, the remainder of the detachments would disappear from the new MEU construct. The combat logistics battalion should be slimmed down as well.
The vehicle storage space freed by eliminating these would allow ships in the ARG to carry a greater share of aviation parts. Currently, the LHD hangar deck often is choked with parts, quadcons, and aviation support equipment, leaving little room for aircraft maintenance. The F-35B has an enormous footprint because each jet requires its own shipping container for support. Placing these in lower vehicle storage would give them space without crippling the hangar and make them easier to secure from unauthorized personnel.
Support the Shadow War
The new ARG/MEU construct can and should be a key part of supporting special operations forces. The landing team would support missions as a PR asset, blocking force, or as part of a quick reaction force. The LHD also could use the troop berthing cleared out by slimming the landing team to embark a Tier-II special operations asset, such as a company of Force Reconnaissance or Marine Raiders or a SEAL platoon.
The embarked MH-60S detachment would need to be certified to support this unit as an insertion platform for short- to medium-range missions. The Osprey squadron, with its longer range and faster speed, would take over for long-range missions. With less heavy equipment on board the ARG, there would be less need to embark landing craft, utility (LCUs), and the space could be reallocated to embark special operations craft.
Be Ready for the Blue-Water Fight
Much as the MEU needs to reevaluate its assets and how they will be used in a new tactical doctrine, the ARG needs to take stock of its resources and better leverage them to be ready for a blue-water fight. In the Gator Navy, “fight in, fight out” is often bandied about with little thought to what that means. The fight to stop an amphibious group begins far from the coastline and can range from high-end enemy units to drone attacks and mines.
The ARG generally is ill-prepared to “fight in,” but the Navy could take some steps to be better primed for that fight. The first would be to cease disaggregation of the ARG, which leaves the ships with no mutual support. The new LPD alone is a large improvement. Adding the MH-60R to the ARG will finally give it some ASW capacity. With less need for the LCUs, ARGs could carry Mark VI patrol craft in their well decks and deploy them in theater to act as escorts.5 Packing a hearty armament on a sleek frame, these craft would give ESG commanders greater flexibility. In a low-end threat environment, particularly against suicide boats and attack craft, these boats would be invaluable.
Adding even one small surface combatant would tremendously increase the ARG’s combat ability for ASW, antiair warfare, and surface combat. The new class of frigates will be entering service at the same time as the LPD Flight II and would give an area air-defense capability not currently available.6 Furthermore, the frigate will have the AN/SQQ-89 undersea combat system and
will be able to manage ASW operations without any modification to any other ship in the ARG. Making a frigate a permanent part of the ARG would greatly increase the ARG’s flexibility and ability to conduct independent missions, while not drawing further on destroyers in the fleet.
The two-mile range of the 25-mm and 30-mm guns on the LHD and LPD gives those ships no ability to threaten something as large as an enemy corvette or frigate. Ship-to-ship armament, such as the Naval Strike Missile in development, would be an easy upgrade to existing ships. The ARG must be better prepared to operate without protection from nonorganic surface combatants. Adding ships with a dedicated offensive weapons suite and preparing to fight independently would be critical steps for the ARG that would increase its ability to project power.
Transform the ESG
Plenty of Marine and Navy commanders will bristle at the idea of changing the ARG/MEU construct to an ESG. Ultimately, new technology and the ability to deploy forces rapidly have shifted the requirements that underpin ARG/MEU doctrine. Recognizing that and taking steps to give combatant commanders what they want and need with the new technology would prevent the ARG/MEU from falling into irrelevance.
Unifying command under one admiral, as in a carrier strike group, would simplify the command relationships. Elevating the aviation assets, both blue and green, into another equal part of this equation would create a triad of O-6 commanders under that admiral. Focusing on a select group of missions would allow commanders to better tailor the ESG’s forces. These changes would be difficult for many to accept, but if implemented, have the ability to transform the ESG into a force that will increase the role of the Navy and Marine Corps as the century continues.
1. LTGEN Daniel J. O’Donohue, USMC, Joint Publication 3-02, Amphibious Operations, 4 January 2019, III–2.
2. “LPD Flight II: Providing Next Generation Capability Today,” Huntington Ingalls Industries.
3. Megan Eckstein, “Davis: V-22 Aerial Refueling System Should Be Ready for Early F-35 Operations Despite a 1-Year Delay,” USNI News, 29 July 2015.
4. First introduced in Marine Corps Order 3120.3, December 1963. Currently described in “MCDP 1-0: Marine Corps Operations” (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2017).
5. Tyler Rogoway, “The Navy’s Long Overdue Smart & Deadly Patrol Boat Has Arrived,” Foxtrox Alpha, 7 September 2014.
6. “Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Office, 17 May 2019.