An air-cushioned landing craft loaded with gear from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is set to launch from the well deck of the US Navy's amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde. The US Marine Corps is vigorously refocusing on seaborne operations after years of land-based combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. (US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The US Marine Corps is in a period of transition, working to reconstitute itself as a sea-based fighting force after more than a decade of fighting land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Corps is rolling out Expeditionary Force 21 (EF 21), a new construct intended to organize its forces to deploy and respond worldwide to whatever need it’s assigned to.
Key to the new plan is the Expeditionary Warfare Branch in OPNAV, the offices reporting directly to the US Navy’s chief of naval operations. As the N95 director, Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh is charged with determining and assessing the requirements for amphibious, mine and naval special warfare missions.
Q. What is EF 21?
A. EF 21 leverages a lot of the concepts we had earlier on, like operational maneuver from the sea, ship to objective maneuver. We have not had a concept like EF 21 since we had the Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, which came out in 2008. That 2008 document was written heavily grounded in irregular warfare, it was in the heart of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. EF 21 is kind of coming back more to our maritime roots.
One of the key things in any aspirational vision is to project out to the future. To be able to start to develop and design capabilities, operating concepts and how they’ll work. The fleet getting out there and doing war gaming, experimentation, trying new things. How do we take proven concepts and make them work better by laying down what the aspirational vision would look like, then start designing what those capabilities would be able to do.
You start taking a look at the ships we have, being able to network in a much different way than we would have networked those ships in in the past. Our connecter strategy on being able to get the forces ashore using our sea-basing capabilities and where we want to go with that. The ability to operate away from shore in a disaggregated fashion, be able to quickly come together, it’s some of this operational design we’re taking into consideration.
Q. Is what you have today what you need to be able to do these things? Or is this something that is aspirational?
A. If we were given a mission, we’d use all the capabilities we have within the Navy and Marine Corps team to try to come together and execute that mission. We’ve got pretty solid capabilities. What I would argue is some of our concepts of operations are things we just haven’t looked at for a long time. When you’re focused on irregular warfare and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the last 10 to 12 years, you really haven’t had a renaissance in maritime thinking to try to get after these sort of issues.
Getting back into the maritime domain, we don’t know where we’re going to be at any one time in the chaos that’s throughout the world. It could be as we try to rebalance to the Pacific, we also have a new normal throughout the Middle East, Africa, that we’ve got to deal with. What’s our mission today as we start evolving?
Q. The traditional seagoing deployment structure of the Marine Corps and Navy has long been the Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) and the three-ship amphibious ready group (ARG), composed of a big-deck assault ship, an LPD amphibious transport dock and an LSD landing ship dock. EF-21 discusses the need to be able to split up or disaggregate the MEU during deployments. Is there thought being given to developing alternatives to the traditional MEU-ARG deployment structure?
A. Part of the expeditionary nature of the Navy and Marine Corps team [is] being able to quickly deploy, be forward deployed, come together quickly to be an enabler for the joint force. The EF 21 piece has these special-purpose Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs). It’s got the MEUs. It also focuses more on a Marine expeditionary brigade structure, a major piece of which is aggregation. So being forward deployed means land-based, it means being the special-purpose MAGTFs, it’s our ships that are forward deployed, and also the ability to surge more ships. It’s taking whatever we have available to us and using it.
On the ARG and MEU, we have done this for many years where our ARG/MEU would go into a certain area of operations and conduct what we call doctrinally split-ARG operations. We train to operate as an ARG/MEU that works together as a three-ship ARG, and we deploy together, then we get over to theater and we get forced because of the problems that are out there to end up splitting.
So the split part would generally be how we define those split operations. You’re still working underneath the ARG/MEU commanders. They’re able to maintain control, but they’re in different locations. They’ve disaggregated, and in some cases, they’re operating under different combatant commanders, as in Operation Odyssey Dawn off Libya in 2011. The 26th MEU was doing contingency operations in the Red Sea, waiting for potential non-combatant evacuation missions or embassy reinforcement in Egypt or Lebanon, or potentially conducting piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Operating under two separate combatant commanders, where that ARG/MEU commander, there was no way he was going to be able to keep control over that.
I think we’re under the realization that this is the way of the future. Because of that, we’re writing a concept of employment to disaggregate those ARG/MEUs. That will now be a tool set our amphibious forces will be able to read, understand, train to, and then be in a much better position to operate in a disaggregated manner.
Q. The LPD 17 San Antonio-class ships were designed specifically with disaggregated operations in mind, featuring enhanced command-and-control (C2) facilities and defensive systems. LX(R), the LSD replacement design, looks like it will be a much more austere version of LPD 17, not nearly as capable of independent operations. Are those factors figuring into the thinking about what an ARG/MEU can do?
A. Absolutely. When you compare LPD 17, even to our big-deck LHD assault ships, you’re seeing in some cases better capability than we have on the mother ship — not only is it a nice thing to have within your ARG, it also allows you to operate even as a single ship deployer. The LPD 17s have some of the best C2 capabilities in the amphib force. LPD 17 is very successful.
That said, we don’t really know today exactly where we’re going with LX(R). There are a number of different options we’re looking at in the analysis of alternatives. One of them was looking at an LPD 17 hull form that would be a different ship, but leverage some of the capabilities. That makes a lot of sense from a standpoint of commonality and affordability. We’re trying to get the affordability piece right, make sure we’re not increasing cost by trying to drive in increased requirements, and by working with industry to design in some of that affordability.
You start looking at the way those shipbuilding industries have moved out in designing for affordability with surface ships and submarines. They use a lot of higher technology to design in affordability; to be able to integrate, be more collaborative with the government in designing systems, more than we’ve been able to do in the amphib side. We’re not there. If we’re going to really drive down cost in the amphib fleet, we’ve got to be able to use somebody’s collaborative design tools that we have not used before. We’ve been in the 20th century where they’ve moved on to the 21st century.
As we kind of move into that LX(R) piece, we don’t necessarily want that thing to be tucked in with the mother ship, never can go and operate independently. So we did an operational planning team with the fleet. Both the Navy and the Marine Corps down in Norfolk, about two months ago, brought them all together and said let’s rack and stack all the capabilities that we think the LX(R) will need. One of the things that became clear was that independent operations are going to be a key part of that. So what are the right command-and-control capabilities? What are the right surface connector capabilities? Cargo is a piece of that.
LSDs now have two landing spots, but they don’t have a hangar on them. If you’re going to conduct independent operations, you’re going to need to have a maintenance detachment to bring that aircraft into a hangar and conduct maintenance. Otherwise, they’re just landing spots tied to the LPD or the LX(R). To be truly independent, the fleet decided, we need to have that capability.
As a resource sponsor, where I start to get nervous is when you start giving it to the fleet guys, and they’re going to look at all kinds of requirements that are going to add cost to your standard LSD truck. That’s where we’re looking at some cost trades — what are those things that if we design in new capabilities like new command and control, to be able to conduct independent operations, new hangar capability to be able to do aviation capabilities to support independent operations, where would those trades come from?
Those are some of the things we’re looking at, such as survivability trades. How can we drive in better survivability to be able to drive down cost? We looked at things like speed. If you come off the speed requirements of the ship by only 2 knots, you reduce cost tremendously. So those are some of those trades that we’re looking at to be able to get independent capability, what could we trade out? At the end of the day, affordability is going to be a major driver in this. We have got to do everything we possibly can to make that ship affordable.
Q. There is a great deal of talk about alternative platforms for operations, basing and theater security operations. The mobile landing platform (MLP) and its afloat forward staging base (AFSB) derivative are two platforms frequently discussed. Where do these new ship types stand today?
A. This piece with alternative platforms has been very interesting to watch within the Navy and the Marine Corps. Those alternative platforms really aren’t different — it’s using vessels we already have for sea basing or developing them in alternative ways. These ships have to go into harm’s way just like any other Navy ship that’s part of the battle force, and to be able to, in a lot of ways, conduct some very high-end missions, in some cases the closest to the threat, as they come in to conduct amphibious operations.
So the Marines’ concern with that is hey, wait a minute. We don’t want to take a ship and replace a warship with an alternative platform to do the mission. So what we started seeing is we started getting into the concept development. The chief of naval operations has been pushing us to look at all the different ships that we’ve got.
With some of these — T-AKE dry cargo ammunition ships, LMSR large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships, the MLP — how can we use them so they’re not just sitting there waiting for the big one to occur? How can we use them on a more routine basis? Another piece of that is the joint high speed vessel, looked at initially as a cargo-passenger mover. Now we’re looking at it to use it in many different ways, in many different vignettes.
The MLP has a lot of capabilities. We’re looking at what other incremental capabilities we could put on that ship. Things like berthing capabilities, can we get utility landing craft aboard, could we get aircraft on board?
The AFSB is another example of how we moved in another direction very quickly. Looking at the [interim conversion ship] Ponce, we took an LPD and put it out there for both mine countermeasures mission along with special ops capability missions. That’s an old LPD, where we don’t know how many more years that it’s got on it, but it’s certainly given that mine countermeasures mission a mother ship to work from. That’s a requirement we have today, to be able to operate our MCM capabilities off that.
The CNO’s got us looking at the Ponce and determining if we really want to decommission that ship after we put some significant effort into it, in money, and we’re seeing this increased demand for AFSBs across the globe. And as we bring more AFSBs, we’re not sure whether that’s going to necessarily stay there in 5th Fleet or the Ponce would stay there, or whether we may keep all three and use them in different ways. ■