Navy, Marine Corps Rethink Expeditionary Warfare

By Thomas A. Benes

Expeditionary warfare is defined in the Defense Department’s dictionary of military terms as “military operations mounted from the sea, usually on short notice, consisting of forward deployed, or rapidly deployable, self-sustaining naval forces tailored to achieve a clearly stated objective.”

Mission areas include amphibious operations, littoral and mine countermeasures and deploying floating bases.

According to the Navy’s 2012 operational concept, “Being expeditionary is one of our defining characteristics — we are ready to fight when we leave the pier.”

Expeditionary warfare is evolving to meet the demands of a future beyond the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts. The Navy is rebalancing its forward deployment posture, and the Marine Corps is in transition from land-centric warfare.

New conditions are driving requirements and training in ways much different from the past.

Near-term needs are being characterized more by how the Navy and Marine Corps will operate given current platforms and systems. This represents a subtle shift in acquisition and contracting priorities for the industries that support the expeditionary warfare customers. Many companies are taking the opportunity to reassess and realign capabilities. With all of the uncertainties surrounding the defense contracting business, it is important for industry to understand the underlying conditions driving change.

Defense Department budget and acquisition cutbacks have forced both the Navy and Marine Corps to look more closely at amphibious doctrine and readiness to close capability gaps. The services realize that programs and large investments are not the answer, at least for the near term.

Lessons from recent exercises conducted this year such as Expeditionary Warrior and Bold Alligator indicate that the ability to operate “upon arrival” is paramount.

Readiness, or the ability to execute core capabilities, is becoming more evident in service budget priorities. Acquisition leaders have taken up the mantle of “providing readiness at cost” as a discriminator in their accounts.

The biggest change driver for expeditionary warfare is the new defense strategy that commits the Navy and Marine Corps back to forward presence, crisis response and power projection missions.

Forces will be shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. But unfettered littoral access for expeditionary forces can no longer be assumed because of the increase in sophistication and proliferation of anti-access area denial (A2AD) weapons that can block access to beaches, ports and airfields.

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and resulting tsunamis, need to be factored into the response equation.

Closing the A2AD gap for amphibious operations is currently the biggest challenge for expeditionary forces. The national response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a decade of counterinsurgency operations detracted from development and investment in the amphibious mission and sea basing. So there is some catching up to do.

Expeditionary Warrior-12, a table-top exercise that was conducted in March, explored the characteristics of A2AD operating conditions for amphibious forces.

Exercise conditions forced naval leaders to think larger than just executing amphibious operations and sea basing. A2AD challenges highlighted the need to integrate and better understand the roles of strike, ballistic missile defense, mine warfare and joint command and control in gaining access to littoral space.

Strategic sealift and the maritime prepositioning of squadrons were viewed as key enablers to sustain forces over extended ranges. Getting to the fight and learning to operate with what the force brings proved as critical as ship-to-shore capabilities.

The Navy and Marine Corps are focusing on force readiness in their budgets as the best means to mitigate risk in these areas. They have re-engaged in larger scale training and readiness exercises that have been dormant since the 1990s.

The Bold Alligator-12 amphibious exercise conducted off of the East Coast in January and February included a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Expeditionary Strike Group with more than 25 ships, 14,000 Marines and sailors and 12 allied countries. 

The exercise reinforced the need to become better at command and control from sea-based platforms and to learn to operate with shipboard command-and-control systems. Amphibious ships have limited space and are not able to accommodate the complex and robust digital data pipes that the force has become accustomed to on land bases. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is experimenting with several commercial options to find ways to provide digital ship-to-shore networks over extended distances.

The Marine Corps already is planning for an expanded presence in Asia. This will include rotations in Guam and Australia with expectations to train and exercise with regional partners from these locations. Marine forces will require additional amphibious and sea-basing platforms.

Joint High Speed Vessels and Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) will likely play a bigger role in supporting Marine Corps operations. The notion of pre-positioning equipment for the Marine Corps will need to be reviewed as the focus shifts from the Middle East and Europe. Repairs of vehicles and equipment returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will have to be factored in as well.

But the biggest change for the Marine Corps is transitioning from the 202,000-strong force, which was developed to support Iraq and Afghanistan rotations, to 182,000 over the next five years. Marine leaders describe the Corps’ end state as the nation’s “middle weight” fighter that is capable of low and high-end combat.

Acquisition priorities include a desire for lighter vehicles and equipment to reduce weight requirements aboard amphibious ships. The Marine Corps vehicle strategy includes a requirement for an amphibious combat vehicle to replace the canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, in addition to a new Marine Personnel Carrier for inland mobility.

It remains to be seen how the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle fits into this mix and if adequate funding will support this strategy. In any event, the Marine Corps will be looking to industry to help develop these vehicles and define an acquisition strategy that links these intended programs to amphibious ships and the MPS program. This will require a new approach to acquisition for the Marine Corps more in line with the Navy’s processes where program executive officers have been working toward integrating projects across an enterprise.

Research and development focus for the Marine Corps has shifted from threat targeting and vehicle hardening to applications that are focused on “lightening the load” for the individual Marine such as reducing reliance on disposable batteries for weapons, night vision and communications devices as well as bottled water.

“Task force energy” is a Marine Corps initiative to explore practical and affordable means to reduce energy demand in forward operating environments. Trucking diesel fuel to power electric generators and water have proven to be higher logistic drivers than ammunition, food and equipment. Unmanned vehicle development now includes logistics and sustainment platform demonstrators — both air and land to cut down on road convoys for these reasons.

Industry can expect that Marine Corps requirements will include integrated power systems, reducing energy, weight and bulk.

The Navy is also paying more attention to the expeditionary warfare mission and in particular, the littorals. The Navy’s shift to the Pacific is already evident with plans for Littoral Combat Ship basing in Singapore and efforts to increase Pacific Fleet presence.

The Naval Expeditionary Combat Command — which was created to support the Marine Corps and Army in Iraq and Afghanistan — is shifting focus to the “green and brown water” maritime security mission. Riverine squadrons are acquiring bigger and faster patrol craft. The intent is to integrate with the LCS in the surface warfare role and free cruisers and frigates to focus on the “blue water” missions to counter A2AD capabilities. 

There is a renewed interest in mine warfare as A2AD mitigation strategies are being developed and a new sense of urgency is evident with additional anti-mine platforms being sent to the Persian Gulf.

Mine warfare is undergoing a transition with the introduction of the mine warfare mission module for the LCS and eventual retirement of the legacy mine-sweeper force. After more than a decade in development, a deployable mine warfare mission package is undergoing operational testing this year, with initial operational capability planned for 2014.

Unmanned and autonomous systems with updated sensors have the potential to significantly collapse the timeline for detecting and clearing amphibious operating areas and surface beach landing approaches.

The future of mine warfare lies in the development of more sophisticated unmanned systems with better sensors, range and endurance.

Thomas A. Benes is a retired Marine Corps major general and chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Expeditionary Warfare Division.

Photo Credit: Marines

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Expeditionary Warfare

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