Admiral Mike Gilday’s December 2019 FragO asserts a vision of innovation in warfighting and improved integration between the Navy and Marine Corps as the key to winning the future fight. The Chief of Naval Operations outlined a continued focus on great power competition and leaves in place his predecessor’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority Version 2.0. The documents prescribe continued development of the distributed maritime operations (DMO), expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), and littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE) concepts. These will improve integration, increase distribution of forces, and enhance maneuver to gain the advantage against adversaries.
Tactics are changing. The days of aggregating naval forces around a high-value unit are quickly coming to an end, and the question for today’s Navy leaders is: How will they employ current and new technologies to support distributed operations? One component of the solution could be to use amphibious ships as forward arming and refueling ships (FARSs) to increase operational agility and flexibility.
The FARS Concept
The basic tenet of the FARS concept is that ships within an amphibious task force are able to expand their roles beyond traditional amphibious missions to act as “lily pads” for Marine Corps fixed- and rotary-wing assets and Navy rotary wing aircraft. Amphibious ships acting in a FARS role can expand the range and distribution of antisurface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, strike warfare, airborne early warning, scouting, and logistics operations. A FARS would have the same basic function as a traditional forward arming and refueling point (FARP) but—by virtue of being a ship—would allow for greater maneuver capability and increased geographic flexibility.
A FARS can be employed independent of or in conjunction with FARPs. EABO expressly anticipates the use of temporary bases, and FARPs are a critical mission for those bases. However, geography and/or geopolitical restraints may restrict access to support basing, overflights, or FARP operations. Amphibious forces do not usually move quickly, constraining distributed operations’ necessary agility and maneuver when the amphibs are part of the maneuver element. But using amphibious ships as FARSs where there is little or no available terrain enhances the distribution and maneuver elements of DMO.
Acting as an aviation lily pad lets a FARS extend the range of aircraft, allowing an amphibious task force to reposition forces quickly, and it complicates adversary timelines and risk calculations. For example, very-short-takeoff Marine Corps aircraft could deploy from outside an adversary’s antiaccess/area-denial range and capabilities, and then use a FARS platform as an intermediate stop en route to an established FARP or to conduct a strike mission. If regional partners and/or neutral states are not able to support basing during a conflict, a FARS provides leaders with additional options. The politics or events of any specific conflict may limit assistance rendered by allies (consider France’s refusal to permit U.S. overflights during the 1986 raid on Libya). In-flight refueling only accomplishes one part of the FARP mission; rearming aircraft requires landing them.
When assistance from allies and partners is available, the FARS concept can take advantage of friendly assets to complicate adversaries’ risk calculations. The Navy and Marine Corps frequently operate with partner nations in support of exercises and real-world amphibious operations such as Bold Alligator, BaltOps, and Talisman Sabre. Friendly flat tops, such as the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth, which recently embarked its first F-35Bs, could be FARS force multipliers.
Considerations for the mobile basing options have existed for some time, without ever being fully implemented or developed. In early 2001, Congress commissioned a study into developing a mobile offshore base (MOB) to support strike warfare, missile defense, and logistics in theaters where land bases are not available. The study concluded acquisition of the MOB would have been prohibitively expensive because of the logistical need of large monohull ships and strike requirements. But later that year, the Navy demonstrated the need for and successful use of MOBs when the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)—temporarily stripped of its air wing—operated as a mobile base for Afghanistan operations. Special operations troops and Marines used the platform to “strike targets with speed and secrecy . . . when no land base was available.”1
It is time to reexamine mobile basing options and how amphibious ships are able to fill that role. FARS presents an opportunity to deploy MOBs within distributed and expeditionary operations concepts without prohibitive platform development costs.
Moving Forward with FARS
A major shift in doctrine will have to occur to create new tactics for EABO and DMO. The Navy and Marine Corps have primarily trained and operated in carrier strike groups (CSGs), amphibious ready groups (ARGs), and Marine expeditionary units (MEUs), consolidating forces for layered defense of high-value units within the composite warfare construct—and with little or no integration of Marine Corps assets into sea control operations. A ship that fills the forward arming and refueling role is a high-value unit, and the FARS concept potentially places it at risk. There would be fewer assets available for layered defense while logistics support would be stretched.
Improved use of the electromagnetic spectrum, speed, and agility of action will be used to protect FARS platforms as they will be for other assets in distributed operations. Commanders, including the expeditionary warfare commander, will need to determine how much risk to accept to gain the advantages that FARSs will provide to a distributed force. Naval exercises will help commanders learn to asses this. The CNO’s FragO calls for the return of large-scale exercises, the first one scheduled to occur later this year, with a focus on “leveraging operational concepts” and experimenting and training with large force elements. Such exercises would facilitate assessing the range FARS could extend air and strike operations, testing interoperability between U.S. and partner nation ships, and testing FARS within an area-denial weapons engagement zone.
The Navy and Marine Corps have the assets to test the concept. FARS is an immediately available and cost-effective solution that could complicate adversaries’ calculus, extend the reach of military forces, and expand U.S. existing capabilities. It’s time to get testing.
1. Lisle A. Rose, Power at Sea, Volume 3: A Violent Peace, 1946-2006 (University of Missouri, 2006).