Amphibious squadron commanders and their staffs have little to no time to focus on developing and honing the skills necessary to plan and conduct amphibious operations and tactically fight their ships at sea. Instead, shepherding their ships through the predeployment phases of maintenance and unit-level training (ULT) consumes them.
Amphibious warships, commonly referred to as L-class ships, are notorious for having scheduled maintenance phases extended because of growth of work discovered during their allotted maintenance period. A primary reason for this is that geographic combatant commanders have high demands for amphibious warships, and with only 33 L-class ships in existence, there are too few to meet the requirements. As a result, these ships are “rode hard and put away wet,” as the expression goes. Maintenance overruns then compress their ULTs, resulting in shorter training events before the ships need to deploy again.
The responsibility to solve this conflict falls on the amphibious squadron commanders and their affected ships’ commanding officers. While the primary goal for squadron commanders and L-class commanding officers is to form amphibious ready groups (ARGs) and complete predeployment certification training, the material readiness issues negatively affect the group-level training phase.
It is not uncommon for key members of a squadron commander’s staff, including the commodore, to be absent from required group-level training events because of competing maintenance demands. Instead of attending these training evolutions, the squadron commander must instead brief higher headquarters on the ship’s material status, advocate on behalf of the ship to the maintenance community, or manage significant maintenance milestones, such as a visit by the Board of Inspection and Survey. As a result, squadron commanders and their staffs are unable to focus on building tactical acumen and amphibious warfare expertise for upcoming deployments.
Squadron Staff Training
Senior Navy leaders assume amphibious squadron staffs are deployable units, with the expectation that they show up at the group-level training phase fully formed and ready. However, getting the squadron commander and staff through all the required schools and team trainings prior to group-level training competes with the staff’s responsibilities to man, train, and equip their ships.
Continental U.S.–based amphibious squadrons are subordinate to U.S.-based Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs)Two and Three. The ESGs are not type commanders (TyComs), responsible primarily for the man, train, and equipping functions of ship readiness (Naval Surface Forces is the TyCom), but they are expected to provide oversight of and advocacy for those functions for their amphibious forces. In addition, while neither ESG is a rotational seagoing operational command element, they are still expected to be able to deploy for contingency operations. This mismatch between resourcing, authorities, and functions creates a struggle to find ESGs a consistent role—a problem that has endured for more than a decade.
However, there is a solution that does not require an increase in manning or budget. To remove the man/train/equip burden from deploying amphibious warfare squadrons and allow them to focus on warfare skills, shift the squadron training officer (N-7) and most of the material readiness (N-4) senior enlisted billets from the squadron staffs to the ESG staffs. This would resource the ESG for this expanded TyCom-like role without the Navy incurring an additional manning bill.
Amphibious squadrons will still retain the N-4 officer billet, as he or she is necessary for logistics and maintenance support while the ARG is deployed. Similarly, a staff officer will have to track and report the training readiness of the ships deployed or in the postdeployment sustainment phase. To support this change, the ESG will be responsible for ships in maintenance and the ULT phase, which requires the ESG to have the necessary authorities to drive this effort—additional control and tactical control, respectively, of the ships while in these phases, with the ship commanding officers answering directly to the ESG commander.
By concentrating the squadron N-7 officer and N-4 enlisted billets on the ESG staff, both the ESG and amphibious squadron staffs will be better manned to perform their missions. Once maintenance and ULT phases are complete, the squadron will gain tactical control of ships from the ESG. The squadron will then complete group-level training with these ships, focused on honing warfare skills and tactical employment before deploying as an ARG.
Benefits in Maintenance
In the maintenance phase, amphibious ships will enjoy direct flag-level support and assistance from a staff of senior enlisted and officer subject matter experts to guide and support them through what is arguably the most difficult phases of the ship’s life cycle. Some benefits include:
• Amphibious squadron commanders and staff will have time to attend the required predeployment schools and team training.
• The squadron command element can focus on developing well thought out and viable warfighting instructions and battle orders.
• Watchstanding skills can be honed in synthetic team training from Tactical Training Group Atlantic or Pacific.
• Squadron staff personnel will develop subject matter expertise in “amphibiousity” by taking advantage of the extensive curriculum at school commands, such as Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic or Pacific.
• There will be more time available for the squadron staff to build the critical working relationships necessary with their Marine expeditionary unit counterparts.
• Key squadron staff personnel can attend the Naval War College staff planner courses.
This proposal is not completely new, as there have been similar suggestions over the years. As recently as the 1980s, the Navy had readiness destroyer squadrons run surface combatant ships through their predeployment phases before turning them over to the operational command that would employ them on deployment.
Decoupling the responsibility for the maintenance and ULT phases from that for the group-level training and deployment phases will allow squadron commanders and staffs to develop the tactical expertise necessary to employ ARGs while on deployment. With the potential for conflict growing, it is imperative that tactical decision-makers and watchstanders possess the acumen and warfighting knowledge to prevail in combat. This proposed model may be worthy of study for underresourced and overcommitted destroyer squadrons as well.