Marines Prepare Modular Force for Future Rife With Conflict

By Dan Parsons
Despite a dozen years of combat operations coming to a close, the next decade likely will provide no rest for the war-weary Marine Corps. 

Commanders see the potential for conflict, natural disasters and other events that will require the service’s attention on every continent except Antarctica.

Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commander of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and recent appointee to command all Marines in the Pacific, laid out in February various threats the Marine Corps is already facing outside of Afghanistan.

“What is today’s fight? Today’s fight is Benghazi,” he said, referring to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead. “Today’s fight is Lebanon. Today’s fight is South Sudan. Today’s fight is really all over the globe in an awful lot of places that are in pretty bad shape.”

Many of the regions Toolan listed are wary of prolonged U.S. military presence within sovereign nations. The Marine Corps will have to perform all of those missions from floating bases, said Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos.

“A lot of what is going to take place in the world in the future is going to come from the sea. It’s going to come from a sea base,” Amos said in February at the AFCEA West conference. “We tend to think of a sea base as some huge floating armada, like the invasion of Normandy with 5,000 ships.”

The Marine Corps’ plan for the future, called Expeditionary Force 21, envisions scalable units that will employ a variety of Navy ships to accomplish its laundry list of missions, from forcible entry to disaster relief.

The plan “recognizes the need for living, operating, sustaining and maintaining people and equipment in Spartan conditions where large support bases are unacceptable” or not feasible and “promotes the economical employment of forces of almost any size and configuration with capabilities appropriately matched to the mission.”

Amos is preparing the Marine Corps for a world in which its services are in demand nearly everywhere. At the same time, troops will respond to natural disasters and other contingencies in areas of the globe where no permanent U.S. infrastructure or bases exist.

“The world we are going to be operating in over the next two decades is going to be a world where America is not just welcomed on the sovereign soil of other nations,” Amos said. “They are going to want to train with us. They are going to want help with their borders and setting up their militaries. But they are not going to want us to build bases. Those days, at least for the near term, are gone.”

The global deployment of Marines is a necessary precaution in a world that is increasingly volatile and unpredictable, said Brig. Gen. Michael Groen, director of Marine Corps intelligence.

“As much as we wish to be done with the dirty and dangerous in this world, the world has a way of bringing these things to our doorstep,” Groen said. “Ukraine is a perfect example. Ukraine was at the bottom of everyone’s priority list three months ago. … Suddenly it pops up to number one. This is the nature of the future operating environment.”

The world is on the cusp of “massive social change,” he said. “That social change drives who we fight. It drives where we’re going to fight. It drives how we’re going to fight. For the world’s global crisis response force, business is booming.”

Marines primarily are conveyed by amphibious ships to points where they disembark onto “connectors” that shepherd them to shore. But service leaders assert that there are hardly enough amphibs to respond to global contingencies. While they could comfortably use up to 50 such ships, the Navy has fewer than 30.

“The types of ships we are likely going to need to engage and to train and build partnership and build trust … I would argue the most utilitarian of ships is a version of an amphibious ship,” Amos said. “The truth of the matter is we don’t have enough amphibious ships right now. … We are meeting less than half the needs of the combatant commanders.”

Amos said that while the ships are almost infinitely useful for offensive and non-combat missions, they are not as valued by senior Navy officers who apportion shipbuilding funds. The dollars more often go to capital ships like destroyers and aircraft carriers, he said.

“The problem we have is they are not sexy looking,” Amos said. “They are not pointy and they don’t shine very bright, but they are the Swiss army knife of the fleet. They can do an awful lot that … this world is going to need us to do for the next two decades.”

The proliferation of guided missiles has forced the Marine Corps to plan for operations both from the sea and farther from shore where their ships and sea bases are not under threat from land-based batteries. Toolan said future conflicts against potential adversaries like Iran or China will require Marines to project forces from beyond the horizon, miles out to sea.

“We don’t want to operate from shore,” Toolan said.  “We want to operate from the sea. We are in the process of building ships and expanding our seabasing capability, but we’re not there yet. We are woefully short on operational mobility. Whether it be ships or airplanes, we’ve got to build that fleet back up.”

“There are a variety of platforms we can use,” he added. “We have to look at alternative ships because we just don’t have enough of what we need right now.”

Navy Rear Adm. T. K. Shannon, chief of Military Sealift Command, has offered his fleet of various cargo vessels as improvisational amphibious ships. Cargo vessels — with large hulls and big, flat decks — that haul ammunition, food and other supplies can just as easily carry Marines and vehicles, he said.

“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 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference at National Harbor, Maryland. “Military Sealift Command has a host of platforms that can be used in new and creative ways in support of Expeditionary Force 21.”

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.

Shannon has no intention of replacing amphibious assault ships or satisfying the Marine Corps’ need. But if they are thought of as the starters in a basketball game, Military Sealift Command ships can take on some missions to let amphibs catch their breath during a fight, he 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 landed a V-22 on the aft deck of a dry cargo and ammunition ship called T-AKE to demonstrate the vessel’s potential use as a seabase. 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 as 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 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.”

The Marine Corps also will have to accomplish its globally distributed missions with a force that, as a result of dwindling funds, will include fewer troops than it has had available to move around the map in almost a dozen years.

The Marine Corps’ future force posture plan assumes its end strength will decrease from 202,000 Marines to 182,000.

But if sequestration-level cuts are reinstated after 2015, the force will shrink to 175,000, which will disrupt plans to station Marines on or near every continent but Antarctica.

Maj. Gen. Frederick Padilla, director of operations for Headquarters Marine Corps, said the service’s plan to respond to crises around the world would not survive heavier cuts that will go into effect after fiscal year 2015.

“This is not possible with a 175,000 force. These are significant challenges,” Padilla said. “Can we do this with a 182,000 force? Yes we can.”

The service’s force structure plans call for two Marine Expeditionary Forces, the largest Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF), to conduct any large-scale combat missions that crop up. Three smaller Marine expeditionary brigades will perform a range of functions including disaster relief. One each will be based in Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

The Middle East and Asia also will have dedicated special-purpose MAGTFs modeled on the one recently given responsibility for swift security operations and partnership building in Africa.

A special purpose Marine air-ground task force based in Spain and focused on Africa was recently increased in size from 550 to 850 Marines. They are equipped with six MV-22 Ospreys and two KC-130J aerial refueling tankers that allow the unit to rapidly perform missions on that continent.

It is the Marine Corps’ first response to the “new normal” situation created by the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Padilla said.

In the United States, the Marine Corps will station a crisis response force of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades, each with about 14,500 Marines that will focus on North and South America.

Thousands of Marines and a majority of their 38 amphibious assault ships will be deployed to various parts of the Asia-Pacific region in support of the Defense Department’s growing focus there. The service will therefore have fewer Marines to send to other areas of the globe. Units in the Pacific will be tailored to cope with current and foreseen contingencies.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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