Marine Corps Makes Strong Pitch for ‘Sea Bases’
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Senior Marine Corps officials are asking Navy leaders to commit to a plan to deploy floating military bases within the next decade.
Since 2002, the Navy and Marine Corps have debated “sea basing” options as alternative means to bring troops close to shore when land bases are not accessible. Advocates point to Turkey denying U.S. forces rights to its ports and airfield before the invasion of Iraq as an example of why the United States needs to be able to launch operations from the sea.
So far, however, there is little consensus on what exactly constitutes a sea base. Some officials have argued that the Navy already deploys sea bases — in the form of aircraft carriers, large-deck amphibious ships and cargo vessels. Others, particularly in the Marine Corps, contend that future sea bases require more sophisticated equipment that the Navy currently does not have.
“Sea basing would allow the military to exploit maneuver of the seas 365 days a year,” said Lt. Gen. James Amos, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, at an NDIA conference.
Troops could be as far as 150 miles off shore and still have the ability to operate from the sea base doing a range of missions, from humanitarian assistance to major combat operations, he said.
Beyond attaining access for major combat operations, the need for sea bases has been demonstrated in recent natural disaster relief and humanitarian aid missions around the globe, officials said.
Shortly after his installation as chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead formed a “sea basing and forcible entry task force” — an advisory group consisting of leaders in academia and industry. The task force will pay particular attention to relationships and cooperation among the maritime services and international and interagency partners, said Cmdr. Pamela Kunze, spokeswoman for the chief of naval operations.
“Effective sea basing is critical for maintaining the expeditionary character and versatility of maritime forces … in areas where access may be denied or limited,” she said.
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James T. Conway, recently endorsed the sea basing doctrine.
“One of the important cornerstones in my mind is this concept of sea basing,” he said. “To be able to put something at sea that serves as a port and an airfield, to flow things through to shore” in an anti-access environment is crucial, he said.
In the future, Marines want to be able to pre-position forces at sea rather than rely upon airfields, said Maj. Gen. Thomas Benes, director of the Navy’s expeditionary warfare division.
Achieving that goal will require more than just large ships, officials said. A sea base also must have sophisticated cargo loading equipment that can move supplies from one ship to another, as well as transport vessels that ferry troops and equipment from the ships to the shore and back.
“We think it’s going to work, but we’re not sure yet,” said Conway.
The Navy has a fleet of landing craft air cushion vessels that it plans to replace with a next-generation vehicle. “That’s the main connector for the sea base. The sea base is not a reality without that connector,” said Benes. Capable of operating from the well decks of amphibious ships, the LCAC rides a cushion of air and delivers forces and equipment onto beaches. Research into a replacement began in 2006 and the first craft is projected to begin service in 2014.
To transport forces quickly into austere ports, the Navy joined efforts with the Army to procure 12 high speed vessels. These shallow draft ships will accommodate company-sized units with their equipment and will have flight decks for helicopters and off-loading ramps for vehicles.
“It’s essentially a truck,” said Benes.
The Marines require at least six such ships for operations in the Pacific, he added. Rear Adm. Charles Goddard, program executive officer for ships, said the decision of which vessel to buy will be made in August or September. The Navy plans to buy five ships and the Army is procuring seven. Delivery of the first ship is expected in 2011.
The cornerstone of the sea base is a fleet of ships collectively known as the maritime pre-positioning force future. It would have a mixture of amphibious assault and cargo ships, including two Landing Helicopter Assault Replacement ships (LHAR), one Landing Helicopter Dock ship (LHD), three Large Medium Speed Roll On/Roll Off ships (LMSR), three dry cargo/ammunition carriers (T-AKE), three mobile landing platforms (MLP) and two maritime pre-positioning ships (T-AK).
The LHAR and LHD amphibious ships resemble small aircraft carriers that can host vertical take-off and rotary wing aircraft operations. They have well decks that can accommodate sea base connectors, such as the LCAC boats. The LMSR and T-AK ships can carry ammunition, food, water, fuel, vehicles and other equipment and supplies to sustain up to 20,000 soldiers for up to 15 days, and 17,000 Marines for up to 30 days, respectively. The T-AKE dry cargo/ammunition ships will provide at-sea replenishment of supplies. Finally the mobile landing platform ships will enable at-sea cargo transfers.
Together these vessels would provide assembly areas for forces to prepare for operations. They will transfer the necessary troops and equipment from ship to ship and then support those units as they operate ashore.
Navy and Marine Corps officials have initiated a study to examine the mix of ships for the sea base.
“I think this is a really good time to ask these questions. The debate over the proper mix of MPF(F)s and amphibs is intertwined in this. We still have a ways to go,” said Robert Work, senior naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“The vehicle transfer system is critical. The technology must be fully developed,” said James Strock, director of the sea basing integration division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
One such system is found on the mobile landing platform, a partially submersible platform that will link the LMSR ships with connectors, such as the LCAC. It will have a dynamic lifting capability and a high tech ramp to facilitate the transfer of equipment and vehicles from the cargo ship and onto transports that will move troops ashore.
The LMSR ship must be outfitted with anti-roll tanks in order to maintain its position even in rough seas — so that a lance corporal in a truck or tank can get across those ramps, said Strock. The Office of Naval Research has determined that the ramp technology is still not ready for deployment. “There’s a reasonable sense of confidence that these technologies will be mature in time when these ships come on line,” Strock said. Such technologies must be developed in order for sea basing to become a reality, he added.
The Navy plans to award a contract for the MLP in 2010 and the fleet will probably see those ships four or five years later, he said.
A recent study examined the squadron composition of MPF(F) for contingencies in other parts of the world.
“The consensus at this point is that big decks will stay in MPF(F),” said Strock.
Besides technological hurdles, the sea basing doctrine faces political and budgetary obstacles. The concept must appeal across the entire military force in order to be successful.
“None of the MPF programs or the connector programs will fare very well … unless we ensure that those capabilities fully address the needs of the joint force,” said Strock.
Sea basing has been more or less embraced by the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
“Why do we have to go to an airport? Why don’t we move from ship to shore to an unpredictable place?” said Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Martz, director for concept development and experimentation at the Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center.
TRADOC officials support the development of a “joint heavy lift rotorcraft” as a potential replacement for the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and as a key transportation asset for troops and gear deploying from sea bases.
“People think it’s a big helicopter. It’s not. This is bigger than a C-130,” said Martz.
As envisioned, the rotorcraft could carry the service’s combat vehicles without having to rely upon airfields.
“This is just the Osprey on a larger scale,” and it has to work for sea basing, to cover that 24 nautical mile gap, he said. “Being able to insert small forces at key points will have a dramatic impact on the enemy,” he said.
Sea basing proponents, especially those within the Marine Corps, remain adamant about the need.
“I think sea basing is probably the most revolutionary war fighting enabler that’s on the market today,” said Amos, who expects that funding for the program will be approved as early as 2010. Implementing the concept will be difficult and expensive, he acknowledged. But the United States must pursue it aggressively, he asserted. Other nations, including China, India, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, have proposed similar concepts.
“Why is it so difficult to think you can bring a group of ships together, have the ability to move people and equipment from ship to shore?” he asked. Supporters such as Amos point out that the sea basing concept is not quite as elusive as some might think. In the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom, expeditionary units of Task Force 58 made their way 760 miles inland into Afghanistan. “It was a significant operation in that you had maneuver from the sea,” said Amos.
Current Navy deployments known as “global fleet stations” are essentially sea bases on a smaller scale, said Benes. These are combinations of different ships that are engaged in a variety of missions in three theaters around the globe. “We’re learning quite a bit on how to do this,” he said.
Amos asked that industry invest in the technologies that will enable the concept and make it a reality in the next five years. “It’s that critical,” he said. “This is what we need to get to 2025.”
But technology is not the greatest challenge, he said. The concept requires financial commitment from the Defense Department and the military services, he said. “This is now beyond the bowels of the Pentagon.”
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