Marines’ Plan to Deploy Bases at Sea Faces Rough Waters

By Kimberly Johnson
In preparation for the unpredictable battlefield of the future, the Marine Corps is banking on at least one constant: the sea.

The Corps is anchoring its plans on the deployment of “sea bases” that would allow Marines to launch large-scale operations even if they are denied rights to position troops on foreign soil.

Both the Marines and the Navy for years have endorsed the notion of building a sophisticated family of ships that would serve as floating bases for ground troops. The Navy’s support is essential to the Marines because their plan is tied to a multi-billion dollar effort to build a mix of troop-carrying, warehousing and amphibious assault vessels.

But the Navy and the Corps have been at odds about the intended use of these ships. The Marines want the sea base to include helicopter-carrier amphibious assault ships, while the Navy has endorsed a less expensive concept that allows for amphibious assault ships to be interchangeable with troop-transport vessels.

In recent months, both services have been criticized for failing to come up with a unified vision for how to go about building and deploying the futuristic sea bases. The Navy, in particular, has come under political fire from Capitol Hill for delaying the construction of some of the new ships that the Marines have requested.

Marines today operate a less ambitious version of a sea base, which is called “maritime pre-positioning force” — a floating warehouse of combat supplies. The MPF is based in strategic hotspots, such as the Indian and Mediterranean Oceans and the Persian Gulf, in order to outfit assault troops on short notice.

Three MPF squadrons are always on standby, with enough equipment to outfit a Marine expeditionary brigade. The sets include everything from tents to heavy gear, such as bulldozers, tanks and medium and heavy-lift trucks, as well as enough food and ammunition to sustain up to 45,000 Marines for 30 days.

The equipment list includes both combat gear and other supplies that potentially would be needed for disaster relief, said Maj. Rob Meade, a Marine MPF officer.

The equipment is spread out over the three squadrons’ flotilla of 16 ships that are operated under long-term leases. During the next three years, however, five older Maersk-operated ships will be decommissioned. They will be replaced by three new large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships and two swing support ships. A container ship and fuel tanker will be added to the fleet by 2011, Meade said.

The first of the so-called T-AKE dry cargo/ammunition ships is expected in 2012, with two others coming later, Meade said.

The new roll-on/roll-off ships are bigger — about the size of three Maersk-class ships — which will help to accommodate heavier-than-expected armored vehicles, Meade said.

Keeping equipment at the ready doesn’t come cheap. The current pre-positioned fleet currently face annual costs of $480 million for overhead related to ships, fuel and crew, said Maj. Andrew Bergen of the Marine Corps’ office of plans and policies. Maintenance of the gear on board costs an additional $65 million a year.

Pre-positioned forces account for about 70 percent of a Marine expeditionary brigade. The remainder typically flies to the target location.

As the ships are offloaded, a “landing force support” party distributes the equipment as it comes off the ship into staging areas that are set up for specific units, Meade explained.

Once an area is secured, gear is offloaded from the ships either pier-side or ferried to shore, with the goal that it all be completely assembled and operational within 10 days.

But it doesn’t always go according to plan. In the summer of 1990, Marines went to the Middle East after Iraqi forces launched an attack on their southern neighbor, Kuwait. The MPF forces were to send supplies from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The strategy went like clockwork until the goods made it to shore. Then the plan to link up ground units with their gear began to break down under the pressure and sheer haste in launching Operation Desert Shield.

While all the equipment was there, a lack of organization and accountability ashore resulted in shortages for the combat troops already on the ground.

“Going to port,” became synonymous with taking any equipment and supplies you could take when they came ashore because supply chains were nonexistent, recalled one field-grade officer, who did not want to be identified. “It was a free-for-all. If you could drive it away, it was yours.”

The chaos that officer experienced was widespread. “In one case, personnel assigned for the offload arrived after some of the ships had already been offloaded,” wrote Marine Maj. Stephen Dodd in 1991.

“Additionally, the early introduction of combat forces into the theater increased the logistical demand earlier than expected or planned for.”

While military historians may remember Desert Shield as the first successful trial of pre-positioning supplies, those logistical hiccups on the beach provided useful lessons to the Corps. In the future MPF force, the goal is to entirely avoid marrying equipment and their units ashore by executing that function aboard ships.

“Today’s [maritime pre-positioning force] requires a secure port and airfield in order to arrive, assemble and operate,” said James Strock, director of sea-basing integration at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico. The future MPF will do that at sea, he said.

The idea is to avoid having to deploy forces in hostile areas. “We position the sea base in international waters. We employ it as need be, but we are not dependent entirely upon host nation support,” Strock said. “Many of our allies would very much like to support us, but in many instances, for a variety of good and legitimate reasons, they simply cannot do so.”

The concept of pre-positioning combat supplies goes back to the late 1970s. It started to morph into the current program in the mid-1980s.

The concept for developing a future MPF force — known as MPFF — began to take shape in 2001. The Marine Corps hopes to have it in place by 2017.

The Marines are asking for each MPFF squadron to be made up of 14 ships: two LHA(R) general purpose amphibious assault ships, one LHD multipurpose amphibious assault ship, three large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships, three modified T-AKE dry cargo and ammunition logistics ships, three mobile landing platforms as well as two T-AK sealift ships from the current pre-positioning forces.

Last year, however, the Navy backed away from modifying the T-AKE design, and cut two of the vessels from spending plans, saying it would consider adding them later.

Consequently, the MPFF under the 2009 plan is short two ships after 2020, when the squadron is expected to be ready for deployment, said Eric Labs, senior analyst for the Congressional Budget Office.

“MPFF required capabilities and squadron composition, for a major maritime program, has been one of the most thoroughly documented, analyzed and codified capabilities this nation has programmed for,” Strock said. The MPFF is “one of the critical cornerstones of any sea-basing operation.”

The Marine Corps is well aware that the MPFF program could be in jeopardy as a result of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget troubles, Strock acknowledged. Each budget season brings potential vulnerabilities to the program, he said. “We watch it every year, like a hawk.”

The blueprint for how best to preposition Marine forces has long been a contentious issue between the Corps and the Navy. Marines have always considered amphibious ships, which carry assault forces, and pre-positioned forces that followed as a support echelon, as two separate and distinct capabilities, explained defense analyst Robert Work of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments.

Navy planners, citing the high cost of building new ships, have pressured the Corps to make amphibious and transport ships interchangeable, Work said.

Under the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan, the Corps has secured 33 amphibious ships — including 11 big decks to carry two Marine expeditionary brigades. Corps planners now want three additional big-decks for the pre-positioned forces, a request Work thinks will get shot down due to the expense.

The costlier ships are the LHA(R) and the LHD amphibious vessels. “The question then becomes: if you don’t get the big decks and the [amphibious ships], what is [future pre-positioning] all about?” Work asked.

The less expensive ships — the T-AKEs, mobile landing platforms and LMSRs — are less likely to see cuts over the long haul, he said. But it is far less certain that the three big-deck amphibious ships will be built.

“The Navy plan is under enormous pressure, so every single ship in the plan is subject to either delay or cancellation,” Work said. “As long as the Navy and the Marine Corps cannot totally agree on the [maritime pre-positioning force-future] and what should be in it, I think Congress looks at the program when they have to find money.”

The inter-service bickering has prompted members of Congress to question the soundness of the MPFF plan.

“I am not convinced that the Navy and Marine Corps are in sync with the requirements for this force and I am not sure that the Navy has a reasonable plan to build these ships efficiently,” House Armed Services Committee seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee Chairman Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said during a March hearing on the shipbuilding

The lawmaker took issue with a more than $2 billion spike in Navy near-term shipbuilding costs, coming at the same time it planned to delay its last two T-AKE dry cargo and ammunition ships.

“One thing I do know is that breaking production lines and then restarting is expensive,” Taylor said. “Losing the tradesmen who build these ships because of gaps in the Navy build plan is unacceptable.”

Cutting those two logistics ships, even temporarily, will create a shortfall for the Navy, said Labs.

“According to the Navy, the delay gives it time to ‘resolve the concept of operations’ — in other words, decide what missions the squadron would perform and under what circumstances,” Labs told a House panel in March.

The Navy’s 2009 budget cuts the T-AKE ships by two until further review, but the ships are still needed, he said.

The ships “were dropped from the fiscal 2009 shipbuilding plan pending completion of a study on the MPFF concept of operations,” Ronald O’Rourke, a naval affairs specialist for the Congressional Research Service, told lawmakers. The Navy expects that the study will show a need for the two ships, he said. “If so, the two ships might be restored in next year’s shipbuilding plan.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., also turned up the heat on the Navy, adding that the service “has trouble defining the requirements” for the future pre-positioning concept.

“While the subcommittee has heard for several years about the contributions that such a force could make to Marine Corps and Navy operations, we have seen that the procurement of certain ships within that objective being delayed each year, as resolution of questions about the requirements and capabilities keep being deferred,” Kennedy said during an April budget hearing.

The pre-positioning concept has proven itself, Work said. “It’s an extremely good rapid reinforcement capability, but you have to have generally a prepared port to bring this stuff through.”

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the Marine Corps can procure all the ships it says it needs, Work said.

“A lot of people will say we haven’t had an amphibious assault since Inchon in 1950. You can use the same argument for submarines. A U.S. submarine hasn’t sunk an enemy ship since 1945. Does that mean we need to get rid of submarines? No. It’s all about looking forward,” Work said. “When [Marines] look into the future, they say, ‘Hey, when the bad guy has guided missiles, can we be assured that we will have a

Topics: Expeditionary Warfare, Marine Corps News, Navy News

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