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Navy Downsizing Could Weaken Marine Corps Expeditionary Posture 

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by Roxana Tiron 

As the U.S. Navy’s investments and planning point towards a shrinking fleet, it remains unclear how the downsizing will affect the Marine Corps and its ability to carry out expeditionary warfare missions.

Cutbacks in the number of amphibious ships, particularly, are of great concern to the Marine Corps, whose requirement for sealift assets is based on the need to transport 2.5 Marine expeditionary brigades. A MEB is an air-ground task force comprising 15,000 Marines.

Although no decisions have been announced yet, the Navy is expected to move away from its original goal of deploying 12 expeditionary strike groups and consider dropping the number to eight or 10. The ESGs are the service’s new operational concept that augments traditional amphibious ready groups with cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

Amphibious ships are the central piece of the traditional deployment posture of the Marine Corps. An amphibious ready group typically includes an LHA or LHD big-deck amphibious assault ship, one or two LPD amphibious transport dock ships and sometimes an LSD dock landing ship. An amphibious ready group often deploys with a carrier battle group.

If the number of ESGs is reduced, it would be almost certain that the Navy would scale back the 12-ship San Antonio class of new LPD amphibious transport dock ships.

Proponents of the cutbacks argue that the Marine Corps could fulfill its lift requirements with fewer ships, because future planned vessels are far more capable and roomier than the current platforms. They point to the future replacement of the LHA, the LHA-R, and the future maritime pre-positioning cargo ship, the MPF-F, as examples of future ships that will dramatically enhance the Marine Corps’ expeditionary capabilities.

Neither the LHA-R nor the MPF-F, however, will be available for many years. Both programs remain in the concept development phase, and funds have yet to be allocated for construction.

Even though the Navy claims that capabilities are more important than numbers, the Corps still needs to know that it will have a certain number of hulls available to deploy its forces, Lt. Gen. Robert Magnus, the service’s deputy commandant for programs and resources, told reporters.

“If you don’t own the beach, there’s no other way to get there,” he said. “They’re asking for Marines and amphibious forces to go to the fight.”

Magnus recognizes that new ships such as the LPD-17 amphibious transport dock, are “a hell more capable than ships that are out there right now. If we think the better ships will allow us to use less force, then we’ll continue to buy LPD-17s and large deck amphibs, and just retire some of the older ships sooner.”

But trimming the number of ARGs could have significant implications for the Marine Corps, given that even the current 12 cannot accommodate 2.5 MEBs, noted retired Marine Maj. Gen. William Whitlow, a former director of naval expeditionary warfare.

“If we can’t get our forces to the objective area expeditiously and in sufficient quantity to win, then we are relegated to a long, protracted attrition type of conflict,” he told National Defense.

Beyond the sealift capability, the Marines need the infrastructure, offered by amphibious ships, to sustain prolonged operations, Whitlow said.

“The Navy is building less and the Marines are sitting by,” he said.

Another trend in the Marine Corps is the increasing reliance on air support. That is why the LHA-R is expected to carry more aircraft than any other amphibious assault ship.

The Marines agreed to give up the well deck in the LHA-R design to make room for 23 Joint Strike Fighters, 28 MV-22 Ospreys, or a combination of aircraft. Giving up the well deck means no air-cushion landing craft or amphibious assault vehicles can be launched from the ship.

“Not having the well deck basically gives you more volume for the major mission equipment,” said Arnie Moore, chief engineer with Northrop Grumman Ship Systems. The company is working on the design of the LHA-R.

“It’s a long, very large space, and it’s not subdivided into a number of smaller spaces,” he said. “I believe that they’re going to have a lot of capability there to support the air wing that they don’t currently have now.”

Without a well deck, the LHA-R will have to join other vessels for amphibious assaults, according to the Navy. The LHA-R is meant to replace the existing four LHAs in the fleet.

Nevertheless, insiders say the Marine Corps will not want more than two ships without a well deck. The first LHA-R could just be an intermediate step towards a new class of ships.

“The LHA-R should be capable of handling legacy air assets and future ones that are different size and weight,” said Whitlow. “It should have the ability to switch out modules to convert into a command and control ship. It should not be a single-purpose ship.”

An aviation-only capable ship would be “very short sighted,” Whitlow added. Any future ship should be built “from the keel up to be able to adapt to a myriad of capabilities.”

That also should be the case with the MPF-F, intended to replace the current fleet of 18 pre-positioning cargo vessels. The Navy and the Marine Corps have not settled yet on a design.

Options could range from a ship comparable to the current Bob Hope class, to a much larger ship, or a family of dissimilar ships.

But if the program does not get under way next year, the Navy will not be able to have the MPF-F by 2010, when it would be needed, according to Whitlow. “That is a charade,” he said.

Marines are “not astute at watching” the discrepancy between rhetoric and action when it comes to shipbuilding, said Whitlow. “They trust the Navy.”

Even though recent conflicts validated the need for more sealift and support vessels, the Navy continues to wrongly focus its investments on destroyers and submarines, said Whitlow.

The Navy should recognize there is a limited role for cruiser destroyers with anti-aircraft capabilities, or for a $4 billion submarine program—the advanced SEAL delivery vehicle— to transport the Navy Sea, Air and Land teams, he said. That is a “pretty expensive platform, and the SEALs can get there in other ways,” he said.

Should the U.S. military have to reposition forces to handle another contingency, it would have to take “huge risks,” in the absence of sufficient sealift.

Without enough amphibious ships to carry and sustain three MEBs, the service will lose its ability to gain unencumbered access to the battlefield, said Whitlow. Under the worst-case scenario, he noted, if there are insufficient ships, the Marine Corps may have to consider downsizing its own force.

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