NORFOLK, Va. — Can the U.S. Navy’s fleet fight two conflicts at once, while managing distributed forces with limited resources?

It’s something the Navy and Marine Corps tested during Large Scale Exercise 2023, which ran Aug. 9-18.

Members of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and 2nd Marine Logistics Group worked in remote fields to extend the range of the Corps’ helicopters, and sailors aboard aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower at a pier in Norfolk, Virginia, headed to a fight in European waters via virtual training systems. Meanwhile, the Navy’s top admirals were hard at work asking new questions about the warfighting concept known as Distributed Maritime Operations.

In the years since the Navy and Marine Corps adopted the DMO concept as their preferred way to fight, the services have experimented and practiced such operations over and over. This latest exercise asks sailors and Marines at the tactical level to conduct distributed operations and win a fight. But it also demands four-star fleet commanders manage two global conflicts while sharing and prioritizing limited assets.

The event has provided lessons learned all the way up and down the chain of command.

”It’s not going to be a regional conflict with our strategic competitors. It will be a global because they are globally distributed themselves,” Capt. Chris Narducci, the lead planner for Large Scale Exercise 2023, told reporters during an Aug. 11 visit to the drill. “We need to maneuver our forces, we need to distribute our forces. But the most important thing is, they need to remain integrated while we do it.”

Four-star commanders

Three four-star admirals used videoconferencing technology each day of the exercise: Adm. Daryl Caudle, who leads U.S. Fleet Forces Command from Norfolk; Adm. Samuel Paparo, who leads U.S. Pacific Fleet from Hawaii; and Adm. Stuart Munsch, who leads U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa from Italy.

The scenario this year provided several challenges for them. One was, essentially, a map. The other is how to share limited resources across that map.

Though clear lines delineate which admiral is in charge of which parts of the globe, the enemy doesn’t care, Caudle said, and is incentivized to take advantage of those seams.

For example, Russian and Chinese warships sailed to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska earlier this month, which fall under Paparo’s Pacific Fleet waters but also affect Caudle as the lead for naval homeland defense. Russian submarines regularly operate in the Northern Atlantic, at the seam between Caudle’s Western Atlantic fleet and Munsch’s Eastern Atlantic fleet. Chinese warships ventured to West Africa earlier this summer, crossing from Paparo’s area of responsibility into Munsch’s.

“You’ve seen some real-world examples where our competitors are more increasingly cooperating with one another, and are more increasingly sailing and operating further afield, which further underscores the need for Large Scale Exercise and our ability to find, track and monitor potential threats, and to do so across the globe among commanders whose headquarters are linked at all times,” Paparo said at the media roundtable.

While this is already happening to a degree, Paparo said the live forces at sea, coupled with virtual forces piped into the scenario created a more complex cross-boundary picture for the admirals to manage together.

“By injecting virtual tracks, you stress the headquarters’ ability to see and understand the space and to know what each unit is doing,” he explained. “The effect … is to stress the command centers, to get them up on a wartime footing so that we’re always ready and that the habits of mind and habits of action of commanding in a global threat environment across a wide geography, across hundreds of units and thousands of warfighters, becomes ingrained in the key warfighting headquarters’ staffs.”

As if the complex map weren’t enough of a problem, about a dozen retired admirals and generals playing the roles of higher-headquarters leaders, including combatant commanders, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, exacerbated the challenge.

During a conflict, four-star admirals would have to ask these leaders for additional support, such as moving people and supplies into theater with U.S. Transportation Command assets.

“Obviously, we have a limited number of things — ships, aircraft, people — and there’s going to be tugging and pulling as the scenario progresses,” said retired Adm. James Foggo, who led Naval Forces Europe-Africa in his final assignment.

Foggo played the roles of defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman for the exercise. These top leaders, he said, would vet incoming requests for high-demand, low-density resources and determine their importance based on the highest-level priorities: defending the homeland, protecting national interests and those of American allies, and deterring war, among others.

“There’s just not enough stuff to go around, so somebody’s going to get what they need here; somebody else here may have to wait a little bit. But where are the priorities? Where is today’s battle? Where is the preponderance of the force needed to deter the adversary?” Foggo explained. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do — we’re putting pressure on the leadership.”

Rear Adm. Andrew Burcher, the vice chief of U.S. Fleet Forces Command and the drill’s leader, told reporters that Large Scale Exercise 2023 assumed the same force deployment and ordnance levels that the fleet had at sea as of the end of June in order to make the event realistic.

Moreover, in addition to whatever fights over resources may bubble up organically, Burcher said, the exercise planners had 50-70 problems they purposely introduced into the exercise — perhaps two fleets needing the same limited resource simultaneously — to ensure the four-stars officers and the retired leaders would be forced to work through the tension of having more needs than the military could realistically provide.

Stealth and distribution

During Large Scale Exercise 2023, a group of about 100 Marines established a forward arming and refueling point, or FARP, at the Oak Grove Outlying Field, located near Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. These FARPs are a key type of expeditionary advanced base Marines would need to set up in combat as a temporary spot for aircraft to refuel, receive maintenance and load up on weapons before moving to more remote locations.

A key area of focus for these Marines involved their ability to conduct FARP operations with a reduced signature in order to avoid detection.

Col. Ginger Beals, who leads Combat Logistics Regiment 2, told reporters that Marines were experimenting with a new communications system on the FARP that uses light signals instead of verbal communication between forces on the ground and aircraft approaching the base.

First Lt. Anthony Viteri, the site lead for Oak Grove Outlying Field, said the Corps conducted an electromagnetic spectrum analysis of the area before establishing the FARP, and were conducting additional studies during the exercise. Using that information, Marines will consider how they might replicate a site as “a decoy FARP” and reduce their signature.

Viteri also said Marines at the exercise trained with other communities who haven’t performed FARP operations but may need to do so. Typically, a Marine wing support squadron would provide the power generation and distribution, water purification, and other life support for the FARP. But for this exercise, Marine Wing Support Squadron 271 worked with 8th Engineer Support Battalion to teach engineers from a logistics group how to do it, too.

“In the future fight, they might be the ones that are supporting us,” Viteri said. “As we spread out more, we’re going to need more support as far as personnel and equipment, so making sure that multiple people are crosstrained on this will support that.”

Capt. Jason Motycka, a CH-53E pilot with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, said the crosstraining between the air wing and the logistics community supports the aviators’ version of Distributed Maritime Operations — dubbed Distributed Aviation Operations — and enable pilots “to be survivable and operate further out.”

Motycka also said the exercise helps Marines aviators identify what it will take to operate from remote locations for a certain length of time. “If we’re going out and operating for a given amount of time with that reduced footprint, we’re refining what that looks like in terms of personnel, aircraft, fuel requirements, maintenance requirements.”

The goal is to become become leaner while still remaining effective, he explained.

Paparo emphasized that the “tactical corporals and tactical petty officers” benefit from this type of training by executing the Distributed Maritime Operations approach in real terrain, using real equipment.

Without these drills, he said. “it’s all just a bunch of concepts on a sheet of paper.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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