Marine Corps Struggles With Sea-Based Supply Lines

By Dan Parsons

Over the past decade of fighting landlocked wars Marines have developed what leaders have termed “logistical paranoia.”

Modern ship-to-shore invasions, unlike their massive predecessors during World War II and Korea, rely on smaller forces that wade ashore then draw supplies and ammunition from a ship. The Marine Corps is designed to perform ship-to-shore operations, but a large portion of the force, including leadership, has little experience with “ship-to-objective” scenarios where supplies and command and control remain at sea.

“What we’ve seen is that when Marines come ashore, they’re carrying 130 pounds of food, water, batteries, ammo, you name it, on their backs because fundamentally, they don’t trust sea-based logistics to keep them supplied,” said Vincent Goulding, director of the experiment division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico, Va. “We have got to convince commanders that their Marines can go ashore with one day’s worth of supplies and that the system will take care of them.”

The Marine Corps has been testing its expeditionary acumen in a series of exercises dating back to 2010, when it attempted to land and keep supplied a combat landing team of about 285 Marines on an island in Hawaii. The exercise, one of several “limited objective experiments” the Warfighting Lab has carried out, was held in conjunction with the international Rim of the Pacific exercises.

“For the first time, we deliberately experimented with attacking from over the horizon into a distributed battlefield,” Goulding said. “Once the combat element was ashore, we literally flew the wings off of our aviation element to keep them supplied.”

During the RIMPAC experiment, Marines consumed “astronomical amounts” of water, Goulding said. Instead of foraging for more, they were resupplied by air, which proved both successful and problematic. The exercise proved that troops’ paranoia about being stranded ashore without resupply was unfounded. In fact, so much food and water was flown to them aboard V-22 Ospreys that they were burdened by abundance.

“We gave them more than they could possibly maneuver with and we immobilized them by doing that,” Goulding said. “We learned that what we need to do is figure out how to sustain a mobile, agile force from a sea base without negatively impacting their mobility once ashore. We have to be much more surgical about what we send them.”

During Bold Alligator 2012, a massive amphibious exercise held along the East Coast last year, a contingent of Marine Special Forces troops were flown from an amphibious assault ship 165 miles inland to Ft. Pickett, Va. The insertion was not designed as a raid, but as a sustained ground operation with resupply from the air. Here again, the Marines were weighed down by supplies, but had eliminated much of the water weight they were carrying. They were issued 70-pound suitcase-sized tactical purification system that could filter any water they found. The system isn’t perfected — engineers are working on scaling it to a compact size that each they can carry. It is an example of the fragile balance between what supplies troops should lug into battle, what they should forage for and what has to be flown in for them.

Resupply was less of an issue in amphibious landings of old, where once a beachhead was established, supply depots and logistical support were pushed ashore en masse in following waves. During World War II, the Navy technically controlled the landing, and the attack began once Marines hit the beach and moved inland.

 “Now the attack begins at sea, beyond the horizon, allowing us to maneuver at sea to gain an advantage,” Goulding said. “But that also presents obvious logistical challenges.”

Marine Corps engineers have made headway on improving communications, a major enabling factor for successful ship-to-shore logistics, said Maj. George Sweetland, head of the Warfighting Lab’s logistics branch.

Communications and command-and-control systems were a major focus of Bold Alligator 2012, the largest amphibious exercise in a decade that involved 14,000 sailors and Marines from several nations. The exercise highlighted that ship-to-shore tactical communications have “languished horribly,” Goulding said.

Introducing new systems requires a drastic improvement in bandwidth between the ship and combat elements ashore, said Sweetland. Many of the issues were corrected by the introduction of tactical radios and new transmission systems aboard ships during the Bold Alligator event, Goulding said.

Using software like the Rapid Request Application developed by engineers at Penn State University, requests for specific supplies can be made through a computer terminal. They are then sent back to a supply ship, where the goods are specially packaged and airlifted ashore.
That notion is a “huge mindset shift” from the blanket bulk supplies logistics officials typically send to forward deployed units, Sweetland said.

“We’re stuck in the mindset that we can get Marines whatever they need, but the problem is they don’t always need everything we can send them,” Sweetland said. “I can fly out and drop off 40 jerry cans of water and 300 to 500 cases of [meals ready to eat], but what are they going to do with them if or when they move? We have to do a better job planning and figuring out how to package supplies more precisely for the present need.”

The Marine Corps is also experimenting with prepositioning supplies and ammunition aboard the Navy’s fleet of auxiliary cargo ships, called T-AKEs.

“They are unlike any other ship we have,” Sweetland said. “We are experimenting with how we can use them to selectively offload different classes of supplies as requested by Marines deployed ashore.”

Logisticians traditionally would send a unit one day’s supply of everything across the classes of materiel, to include food, water, construction supplies and ammunition, among other things, Goulding said.

“What we realized is maybe a rifle company doesn’t need construction supplies with every shipment,” he added.

By relying primarily on floating supply depots, Navy amphibious assault ships can retain their supplies, freeing them up for use elsewhere if necessary, Sweetland said. The fleet of 14 ships was originally designed for replenishment of other warships while under way.

In October, Navy and Marine Corps leaders practiced this concept with the USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE1) during an exercise in the Maldives. It was the first time the cargo ships were used to selectively resupply troops ashore.

Another exercise running from March through April in the Philippines will take lessons from the preceding event and apply them to operations with the T-AKE2, the USNS Sacagawea, which will be tasked with offloading “robust amounts of equipment and supplies, while helping to reduce the iron mountain” of unnecessary gear that can accumulate during amphibious operations, Sweetland said.

During an actual offensive operation, when bullets are flying, logistics flows both to and from the shore, Marine officials have been reminded during these and other recent exercises. While troops and materiel are flowing landward, casualties need to be evacuated rearward to waiting ships for treatment.

“A big takeaway from these experiments is we were unable to take care of our wounded Marines,” Goulding said. “In Hawaii, in heavily vegetated terrain, the units ashore were unable to move them to a suitable [landing zone] for extraction within the Golden Hour,” he added, referring to the time after sustaining a wound, if medical treatment is administered, that a person is most likely to survive.

Marine Corps leaders want a vehicle that can be transported inside an Osprey for moving supplies and wounded Marines. Systems are also in development that can transmit vital signs and medical data back to awaiting medical personnel.

“We have a device now that a corpsman can immediately attach to a casualty that will allow a surgeon back on the ship to know exactly what has happened and the condition of his patient before the patient ever arrives,” Sweetland said. “We’re hoping we can reduce the time it takes to have treatment because the surgeon already knows what needs to be done.”

Marines have doubled down on returning to their role as expeditionary warriors whose specialty is distributed operations from the sea. That sort of warfare is founded on three pillars, said Goulding. Logistics is but one. The other two are communications — on which logistics heavily relies — and “fires,” Marine Corps speak for offensive weapon systems.

The Marine Corps will continue to study how best to resupply combat troops from the sea, Goulding said. The consensus out of Bold Alligator 12 is that the Navy-Marine Corps team has made dramatic improvements in its ship-to-shore communications and is installing new radio systems aboard many of its amphibious ships. The Marine Corps will tackle fires during exercises beginning in May.

“It is important that we experiment with experienced operating forces whenever we can and that we leverage exercises like Bold Alligator to continually improve our logistics,” Goulding said. “We need feedback from all echelons of leadership and the unvarnished opinion of Marines at all levels of what capabilities are needed.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

Topics: Logistics

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