Marine Corps Gets Creative in Solving Ship Shortage, Vehicle Needs

By Dan Parsons

The Marine Corps has fewer amphibious ships than it requires to maintain a global presence and the vehicles it needs to get ashore during battle are nearing a half-century of service.

With dwindling funds to buy more ships or replace its ship-to-shore connectors, officials have had think creatively about how they will achieve their vision for providing a global scalable sea-based crisis response force, which they call Expeditionary Force 21.

Military Sealift Command has been tasked with providing ships to help the Marine Corps achieve its goal of maintaining "a force that is naval in character and capable of conducting amphibious operations” while “meeting current commitments and preserving readiness,” as Marine Corps Commandant James Amos wrote in the forward to the 48-page plan.

Rear Adm. T. K. Shannon, chief of Military Sealift Command, outlined several options for repurposing non-combatant ships as complements to sea-basing and expeditionary operations.

“To complement our Navy’s extremely capable amphibious ships, we need to look at alternate platforms from which we can conduct some Marine Corps operations,” Shannon said April 9 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference at National Harbor, Md. “Military Sealift Command has a host of platforms that can be used in new and creative ways in support of Expeditionary Force 21.”

Shannon has no intentions of attempting to replace amphibious assault ships. But if they are thought of as the starters in a basketball game, Military Sealift Command ships can take on some missions to let them catch their breath during a fight, he said.

The USS Ponce, an old amphibious ship due for decommissioning in 2011, was converted into an afloat forward staging base and deployed in 2012 to the Middle East. It most likely will stay there until at least 2016, Shannon said. This ship operates as a test platform for weapons and a staging base for special operations and other forces.

“We are just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do with platforms like this,” Shannon said.

The afloat forward staging base — a mobile landing platform hull with a flight deck above the docking bays for landing craft — will handle a wide range of aircraft to include the V-22 Osprey, CH-53 heavy lift helicopter and possibly the F-35B jet fighter.

Plans are to repurpose two ships as mobile landing platforms, not counting the USS Ponce, which is a proof-of concept vessel. The USNS Montford Point has just left a West Coast shipyard after conversion to a mobile landing platform and will undergo sea trials this summer, Shannon said. The second ship in the class, USNS John Glenn, will follow Montford Point into the yard for installation of its mission package. In early 2015, work will begin on USS Chesty Puller to convert it into the first floating staging base.

The third and fourth hulls in the class will be outfitted as afloat forward staging bases with flight deck capabilities, Shannon said. Navy officials hope to eventually purchase a fifth hull in the class, but do not yet have funding for it.

The joint high-speed vehicle, or JHSV, is a shallow-draft troop transport with a flight deck that could be used to facilitate Marine Corps landings. Vehicles can also roll into and out of the vessel’s cargo bay, Shannon said.

“Perhaps a joint high-speed vessel with an adaptive force package of Marines could free up a multi-mission combatant or a big-deck amphibious ship to execute the more complex missions they were designed for,” Shannon said.

The JHSV in 2016 will carry the Navy’s new electromagnetic rail gun for test firing. Officials at the Office of Naval Research chose the vessels because it was available and had ample room on its flight deck and in its cargo hold to house the rail gun components. Testing the system aboard a destroyer would have taken one of the combatant vessels out of active service for months, Shannon said.

“Listen, please. MSC can’t and won’t replace amphibious ships,” Shannon said. “But we can operate in a way that complements them and helps relieve the stress on our combatant Navy and on our amphibious ships.”

 Another example Shannon gave of taking existing ships and employing them in new ways was repurposing large gray hull cargo ships in support of expeditionary maneuver.

The Navy has taken its TAK-E dry cargo and ammunition ships and landed a V-22 on its aft flight deck. The aircraft, when its wings are folded, will be able to fit inside that ship’s hangar once the door is widened. It has also been used and a command-and-control ship during Marine Corps expeditionary warfare exercises and to house Marines for transport.

Other large 900-foot-plus cargo ships equipped with heavy duty cranes could serve similar purposes, Shannon said. Large medium-speed ships have 392,000 square feet of cargo capacity, he said.

“Let’s think about the flexibility of using this incredible platform,” he said. “Think of the capabilities we could add if we, for example, removed the cranes and put a small flight deck on there that could operate V-22s.”

Shannon said the conversion of the motor vessel Cape Ray last year is a perfect example of the versatile capabilities of sealift ships. The Cape Ray was turned into a floating chemical weapons neutralization platform in 90 days in response to the use of such weapons by the Syrian government.

“We can take a traditional platform … and use it in a non-traditional way to help meet our nation’s needs. We can do it quickly. We can do it effectively. We can do it efficiently.”

MSC operates 110 ships daily around the world. It has another 22 ships in reduced operating status, most of which can be brought back into operation within five days, Shannon said. Another 46 ships are available from the command’s maritime division, which is under the Department of Transportation. Those ships are crewed by civilians but are part of the Navy’s ready reserve force and can be rushed into service when needed.

Once the Marines are in position near a crisis, they must get from ship to shore, which leaves the force reliant on a fleet of aging “connector” vehicles.

“With the fiscal situation being what it is, it is starting to narrow the options with regards to what were going to be able to do with pursuing capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. William Mullen, director of the Marine Corps Capabilities Directorate.

The Marine Corps has most notably had to temper its appetite for a high-speed swimming tracked vehicle. It has spent $3 billion over 26 years trying to replace its amphibious assault vehicles, or AAVs, that launch from the well deck of amphibs and deliver Marines ashore into combat.

“High water speed is tremendously important to us, so much so that we went after it for 26 years,” Mullen said. “We need to get from ship to shore as fast as we possibly can.”

The latest failed development attempt, called the expeditionary fighting vehicle, achieved the desired speeds through water, but made “unacceptable tradeoffs” in troop protection and weapons, among other attributes. It was canceled and revived as the amphibious assault vehicle, which has lagged and is being revised as a phased acquisition.

The ACV will now be wheeled instead of tracked, at least in the first phase of procurement. Such a vehicle is readily available off the shelf, Mullen said.

Up to 392 AAVs that are approaching 45 years old will be upgraded as a near-term solution to the need for connectors, Mullen said. The Marine Corps needs to replace a total 1,058 AAVs, Mullen said.

The Marine Corps will then buy 204 ACVs in the first phase of procurement, he said.  They will be personnel-carrier variants only. Mullen called it the “good enough vehicle given fiscal realities.”

BAE Systems, General Dynamics Land Systems, SAIC and Lockheed Martin have each offered ACVs that have undergone preliminary testing by the Marine Corps. The ability of these vehicles to match or improve upon the AVV’s performance at sea has not been established, Mullen said.

The second phase will include mission-role variants and weapons variants, of which the Marine Corps plans to buy 490. Those variants may reintroduce tracks or could remain wheeled, Mullen said.

That phase will likely take place around 2025.

Topics: Combat Vehicles, Expeditionary Warfare, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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