Navy officials have drawn up plans to deploy a floating military base capable of supporting two combat brigades by 2019.
It is not yet clear, however, whether the sea base concept is based on solid analysis or whether its potential benefits justify the cost, critics argue.
"Sea basing as a concept is very, very good," said Robert Work, senior naval analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "It just needs to be scrubbed much more carefully with an eye toward joint payoff."
Work said the concept was hijacked by advocates who believe that sea bases are the answer to the Pentagon's demands for rapid-reaction forces that can deploy to a major combat zone in 10 days and defeat an enemy in 30 days.
"That changed the entire concept of sea basing," Work said.
A sea base notionally would include a squadron of about 14 ships located 25 miles offshore. It would need to support two brigades within 10 to 14 days of a commander's order. Each sea base would be home to 14,500 people and carry 1,886 major pieces of equipment, said the director of Navy material readiness and logistics, Vice Adm. Justin McCarthy.
The cornerstone of the sea base will be a new cargo ship that is called the Maritime Pre-positioning Force Future or MPF(F).
Each MPF(F) squadron would be composed of three amphibious assault ships, three roll-on/roll-off cargo ships, three dry cargo carriers, three mobile landing platforms and two older container ships.
The push for sea basing resulted from Turkey's denial of access to its ports and bases in 2003 for coalition forces to mount a northern front for Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a presentation to an industry conference in Panama City, Fla., the director of the Navy's expeditionary warfare division, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gordon Nash, pointed out that the U.S. military has had access to more than 170 overseas bases since 1945. But that number has dwindled to 26.
Sea basing will not only help solve the access issue, said proponents of the plan, but it will bring speed, allowing services to assemble forces, such as a Marine expeditionary brigade, in about half the time it takes now.
"Either way you sight it, it's a significant improvement of where we are today," Nash said.
But Work disagrees. The Navy is capable of landing a Marine expeditionary brigade within 28 days using amphibious ships right now, he said. "Describe a scenario in which 10 days would make a difference in the global war on terrorism. I can't think of one."
For operations in which speed would have crucial impact, the service traditionally has employed smaller forces.
"We've demonstrated the capability to support from the sea, certain size forces," said McCarthy.
Today, the Navy can transport and support a Marine expeditionary unit ashore for a 15-day deployment, said McCarthy. But that is a far cry from supporting two brigades in a joint force entirely from the sea, he cautioned.
"We're beginning to get appreciation for what it would take to float an Army brigade. Because of our close relationship with the Marine Corps, we have a very clear understanding of what it would take to support the Marines. We have less clear understanding of what it would take to support the Army," said McCarthy.
The Navy's ships have served as a base of operations for the Army before. In 1994, Army light forces deployed off a carrier for operations in Haiti. But the sea-based operation was ad hoc and small scale, said Col. Chels Chae, chief of joint and Army concepts at the service's Training and Doctrine Command.
"What we are talking about in terms of sea basing is being able to project forces that are lethal, survivable and mobile, and pose credible threat to our adversary when they are on the ground," he said in a phone interview.
But the real challenge is in the equipment that would go along with those heavy forces, said McCarthy.
"If you put a C-130 cargo aircraft on a Navy platform, it would tie up an awful lot of deck space," he said.
To construct the MPF(F) will cost $6.5 billion, said Nash. But Work said each of the squadrons also would require a $1.3 billion rapid strategic lift ship plus millions more in add-ons, such as specialized cranes and lift equipment. He suggested several cheaper alternatives-modifying current ships for $3 million in the vein of the USNS Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham, which served as a sea base, or converting current MPF ships-which have 20 years of service life left.
Navy officials expressed confidence about the service's capabilities to implement the sea base plan.
"Sea basing is what we did in Katrina," said Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations. He cited as examples the "city at sea" that the Navy built off the coast of Indonesia to help in tsunami relief efforts as well as the flotilla of ships off the coast of Turkey and around the Persian Gulf prior to commencing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The hurricane relief efforts highlighted the service's capability to function as a base for joint operations, officials noted. Amphibious ships, like the USS Bataan, USS Iwo Jima and USS Tortuga, served as intermediate bases, or "lily pads," for various search and rescue operations, and housed thousands of civilian first responders and National Guard units.
The Iwo Jima was a natural choice as flagship for the humanitarian operations in New Orleans, Capt. Richard Callas, its commander, told conference attendees. The ship's airfield was the only full-service facility operating 24 hours a day.
"Our amphibious air traffic control center became the de facto FAA," he said.
However, not everything proceeded as planned.
When the Iwo Jima arrived for duty, it was promised a water barge to replenish its supplies. But the barge didn't show for days, said Callas. Though the ship was able to produce its own purified water from the contaminated Mississippi River, the scenario illustrates one of the many logistical challenges facing sea base planners as they develop the concept.
Another advantage of sea basing is that it allows U.S. forces to keep the enemy guessing, said Cmdr. Mark Becker, deputy director for the sea base pillar at the Navy's warfare development command. "If he spreads himself thin, then no matter where I go ashore, I have a better chance of forcible entry," he said.
Working with a joint team, Becker led the development of detailed "concepts of operations" for the sea base for major combat, humanitarian aid and counter-insurgency campaigns.
The sea base concept could allow as many as six brigades to be projected rapidly into a fight, he said.
For example, commanders could air drop members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division as part of an early entry force while concurrently moving a Marine expeditionary brigade ashore. Simultaneously, the sea base could launch an Army air assault combat team.
In addition, high-speed lifts could bring in Army Stryker brigades while amphibious ships could insert an additional Marine brigade.
Opponents of the concept have criticized such plans because they believe waging - and winning - future battles cannot be accomplished completely from the oceans.
"That's never been a claim of our concept," said Becker.
But sea bases, to be successful, need to be optimized for sustained operations ashore-not for amphibious expeditionary operations, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales.
The Army, said Chae, is keeping that issue on the "front burner" as it participates in the concept's development, ensuring that the value of sea basing is measured through the whole course of a campaign.
If a sea base can support and sustain Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces over time, "I think it has a bright future," said Scales. ND