HONOLULU — More nations are seeking to enhance their capabilities to respond to earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis.
Nations with navies, in particular, are relying on their amphibious ships, which can carry hundreds, even thousands of troops and a myriad of aircraft, combat vehicles, engineering equipment and landing craft. Such vessels are equipped with medical facilities and can deliver military personnel and supplies ashore by air or by sea to provide assistance and relief.
“There’s a renaissance in amphibious warfare capability going on worldwide,” says Robert Work, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Amphibious ships have long been tied to images of Marines and soldiers storming the beaches in World War II. Though that legacy is undeniable, the employment of such vessels and troops in present day conflicts has evolved.
“A lot of countries no longer see the amphibious ships as purely an over-the-beach assault, World War II, old-style type of force,” says Capt. Rodney Clark, commodore of the Navy’s Amphibious Squadron 7. “They see the USS Iwo Jima pulling up into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and becoming headquarters for relief operations.”
“Yes, we go to war. We can do that. But our real money is in the prevention of war,” says Capt. Neil Parrott, commanding officer of the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship of the landing helicopter dock, or LHD, class. “The ability to go out in a global environment and show that we’re here to help as needed — whether it’s providing diapers for kids, or providing bullets for the Marines — it’s all part of our mission.”
Increased visibility of such warships in recent years during relief operations has bolstered the value of the “gator” fleets.
U.S. amphibious ships were key in delivering aid to victims of the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, the cyclone in Bangladesh in late 2007 and the earthquake in Peru earlier this year. A group of amphibious ships also were dispatched for relief operations in May following the cyclone in Burma, but the ruling military junta there did not allow the aid.
During the Cold War, the emphasis on amphibious operations declined as many maritime nations focused on anti-submarine warfare. Ships were built to detect and eliminate underwater threats such as mines and sub-surface vessels. But since the Iron Curtain fell, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been refocusing on power projection in their maritime assets, says Work.
In Europe, navies are growing their fleets of amphibious ships. The Spanish and Italians are each building LHD-class amphibious assault vessels. In the Pacific, the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Australians also are building LHD-type ships, says Work.
“Amphibious ships remain the most efficient means by which to land forces from the sea, and they will be for some time,” says the retired Marine Corps colonel.
Nations also are seeking opportunities to train for the full spectrum of operations, from traditional beach landings to disaster relief missions.
“It’s not a trivial art form — it requires practice and it requires discipline to execute it,” says Vice Adm. Samuel Locklear, commanding officer of the Navy’s Third Fleet, based in San Diego. He is in charge of a biennial naval exercise here called Rim of the Pacific, which is the largest war game of its kind in the world.
Aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a coalition of U.S., Australian and Indonesian marines and sailors are participating in the multinational exercise.
The commander of the Australian Amphibious Task Force, Capt. Peter Laver, tells National Defense that his navy is building two amphibious assault ships that are similar to the LHD-class. He points at a slide that illustrates the new vessel in comparison to fleet’s current class. It’s a much larger ship with a flight deck, a well deck, and ample vehicle storage spaces.
Capt. John Funk, the Bonhomme Richard’s executive officer, says smaller warships can’t do the job. “They don’t have the room on board to be able to bring that hospital, or dental capability, or logistics support that we can provide from the big deck amphib.”
The Australians expect their first new amphibious assault ship to be completed in 2013. The second is due in 2016.
“The new equipment we’re going to acquire across the three services will make the best use of these ships so that we’re able to do a lot more things for a lot more people across the Australian area,” says Laver.
In preparation, the Australian sailors and soldiers who are embarked on the Bonhomme Richard during RimPac are interacting with their U.S. counterparts to learn how amphibious operations are carried out from the ship.
“This exercise gives us an opportunity to build up our experience and our range of capabilities so that when our ships are built, we’ll be ready to go,” says Laver.
The Rim of the Pacific exercise has been conducted biennially since 1971 and the number of countries participating has grown steadily. The July event included more than 20,000 sailors, marines and soldiers from 10 nations.
“Everything we do is as a coalition,” says Clark. “The more connections that you can make with these other countries that are likely to be some of your coalition partners, the more effective you’re going to be when you come together.”
Future multinational amphibious operations will include not only disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions, but also non-combatant evacuation operations that are similar to the one that happened last year in Lebanon, when Hezbollah attacked Israel, says Work. French and U.S. amphibious ships were instrumental in evacuating civilians from the area.
In RimPac, the Bonhomme Richard is working in concert with the Australian amphibious assault ship, HMAS Tobruk, and supporting troops from the Australian and Canadian armies, says Parrott. The ship also hosted Indonesian marines for onboard training. Every member of the amphibious task force’s ground combat unit, whether Indonesian, Marine or Canadian, had opportunities to fly in the U.S. Navy’s helicopters and fast rope out of them, says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holt, operations officer for RimPac’s Special Marine Air Ground Task Force. “We got to test the limits of interoperability on surface craft, ships and helos,” he tells reporters.
In the scenario, the American embassy in a fictitious country has come under threat and the ambassador has asked the military to evacuate citizens.
A coalition of troops, including a Canadian army company, an Indonesian marine platoon, and a U.S. Marine platoon and combat logistics battalion, have secured the beach and the embassy compound. About 40 role players from Marine Corps Base Hawaii interact with them. Some pose as American citizens preparing to evacuate the area. Others portray belligerent civilians of the fictitious nation causing disruptions and distractions outside the embassy.
Canadian soldiers who are providing security on the beach and at the embassy contend with these disturbances. Though the unit is experienced in non-combatant evacuation operations, this amphibious exercise is a proving ground for the troops, many of whom have never served aboard a ship, says Master Cpl. Greg Davis with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
The Canadian Forces do not have a marine branch, but officials are contemplating adding an amphibious force, he adds.
The non-combatant evacuation operation is the culminating mission for the multinational amphibious force. Leading up to that, the troops participated in three raids, says Lt. Col. Robert Rice, operations officer for the Special Marine Air Ground Task Force.
The first raid inserted a reconnaissance team ashore to verify the presence of a coastal defense cruise missile system, which was destroyed by an F/A-18 air strike. The second mission, a helicopter raid, eliminated and captured suspects making improvised explosive devices in the northern-most point of the island.
The third, a mechanized raid of a location called Pyramid Rock on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, served to expose a direct connection between insurgents and the notional country of Orange, which led to the call to evacuate the embassy, he says.
At dawn on an overcast and windy morning, five amphibious assault vehicles bob in the choppy near-shore waters of the Pacific. They land on the beach and slowly approach an encampment where a meeting between insurgents and the notional island nation’s officials is taking place. The tracked-vehicles’ engines whine in the distance and grow louder as the Indonesian and U.S. Marines close in and surround the camp. Troops unload and take cover. Some shots are fired in the distance and the role-playing insurgents return fire.
It’s the first time that Indonesia has sent troops to this naval exercise. By training together here, the U.S. and Indonesian forces are forming a close working relationship, says Capt. Didiet Wijaya of the Indonesian Marine Headquarters based in Jakarta. He is leading 35 marines from the 1st Brigade, Indonesian Marine Force in the raid.
His U.S. counterpart, Capt. Robert Kleinpaste from B Company, 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion, agrees.
“We get to work with foreign forces and understand how other countries might have different ways of doing things,” he says. Overhead, two F/A-18 fighters circle the scene. With their help, the troops on the ground destroy insurgents’ equipment and capture the leadership.
“The enemy may not be real, but I look at these operations as being very real, because we are putting Marines and soldiers on landing craft and helicopters, and we’re putting them ashore,” says Rice.
Because many units were occupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there weren’t enough Marines available to participate in RimPac, says Locklear, so the scope of each mission was scaled down.
“It’s important, particularly in the Pacific, for the Navy-Marine Corps amphibious team to remain strong and for us to be able to leverage coalition partners where we can in that amphibious warfare,” he says.
Though the current focus is on the operations in the Middle East, officials also have their eyes ahead on the future.
“In time, we will set the conditions to where the enemy will have to move elsewhere and adapt to another environment, one in which an amphibious ship may well be the option of choice,” says Col. Robert Coates, director of the training and exercise group with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
When operations in Iraq and Afghanistan cease, the Marines will resume their peacetime missions aboard amphibious ships, says Work.
“We’re never going to have another Tarawa again,” he says, referring to the Marine assault landing on the Pacific atoll during World War II. “But I can envision many, many scenarios in which Marines would have to be ready to fight immediately upon landing.”
There may be a need for U.S. forces to seize a port, for example, he says. “You’d land forces not into teeth of defense, like we had to do in World War II, but land away from the enemy and maneuver towards them ... That will be the future of amphibious assault,” he says. “Having the capability to land two Marine expeditionary brigades to establish lodgments so that other forces can come into the country is a good assurance capability.”
At the same time, naval leaders believe they can help prevent those types of conflicts from occurring in the first place by conducting more humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
“We can kick doors down, but we’d much rather be building them, or opening them and opening people’s eyes along with them,” says Funk of the USS Bonhomme Richard.
Parrott, the ship’s skipper, agrees. “You start talking about providing diapers to kids going to orphanages, to rescuing people whose homes have been destroyed. Even the saltiest, grimiest engineers will raise their hands and want to go help,” he says. “I have no shortage of volunteers.”