August 1, 2011  

Trouble busters

Global demand for amphibious forces outstrips resources

When a crisis erupts the first question U.S. leaders often ask is, “Where are the aircraft carriers?” This historical axiom, however, has expanded over time and now regional commanders also ask, “Where are the amphibious warships?”

Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough of these versatile warships and their Marine Corps landing forces to meet the growing demand.

The rising primacy of amphibious operations began barely two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., when sailors and Marines from two amphibious ready groups (ARGs) and Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) launched the longest-range amphibious assault in history. Task Force 58’s mission was to fly 450 miles inland and seize the airfield near Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. The assault’s objective was to open a new front in the U.S. campaign to destroy al-Qaida and upend the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. The helicopter-borne Marines from the 15th and 26th MEUs seized control and quickly established Forward Operating Base Rhino, which was completely supported from the sea by ships of the Peleliu and Bataan ARGs for the next four months.

Little did the Marines and sailors realize it at the time, but Task Force 58’s operation — a textbook example of the power and flexibility of sea basing –– was the opening salvo in a decade-long series of operations that has continually reinforced the ARG/MEU team as the nation’s crisis-response force of choice. Wherever and whenever troubles have arisen over the last decade and the nation requires a rapid response, the Navy/Marine Corps team has been there. And when the klaxon sounds, increasingly the first responders of the Navy/Marine Corps team has been the ARG/MEU. These forces are truly the utility players of the fleet team.


Typically an ARG consists of three amphibious ships of various types, which collectively can perform 16 assigned missions across the range of military operations. Usually it includes an aviation- and surface-capable amphibious assault ship, an amphibious transport dock and a dock landing ship. A MEU totals about 2,600 Marines and includes a command-and-control element, a ground-combat element consisting of a reinforced infantry battalion landing team, an aviation-combat element consisting of a reinforced medium-lift squadron and a combat-service-support element consisting of a reinforced combat logistics battalion. These units are then loaded and embarked across the three amphibious warships that make up an ARG, typically deploying for six-month missions to regional areas deemed of greatest interest by U.S. commanders. The three ARG/MEU teams, deployed continuously around the globe, represent a unique mix of effective, flexible and adaptive naval capabilities.

The ARG/MEU can be equipped with a variety of medium- and heavy-lift helicopters, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, AV-8B Harrier short takeoff and vertical landing “jump-jets,” Marine infantry and landing craft, and Navy logistical, medical and other support functions. Other capabilities such as flight and well decks, billeting, communications, messing, planning and command-and-control combine to increase the overall mission value of these assets to regional commanders. Naval amphibious forces create options and maneuvering space for political leaders because they can loiter offshore indefinitely in a crisis, providing valuable time for other slower-moving diplomatic efforts to unfold. These units can also operate in blue, green and brown water maritime environments, which add to their mission effectiveness. Collectively the ARG/MEU team provides regional commanders an agile tool for confronting the irregular challenges of an increasingly gray, uncertain –– and still dangerous world.

The preference and need for ARG/MEU capabilities continues to grow almost daily. Most recently their multimission capabilities were on display with the Kearsarge ARG/26th MEU conducting strike sorties and maritime interception operations against Libya to enforce a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone. Simultaneously, thousands of sailors and Marines of the Essex ARG/31st MEU were engaged in efforts to provide urgent assistance to the Japanese people following the earthquake and tsunami disasters. The ARG/MEU combination is so powerful and so in demand because these units are, as the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead says, “flexible, formidable and fast to respond.”

This flexible combination of capabilities is what has driven the political and military demands for using amphibious forces, which have conducted more than 100 specific missions since the Cold War ended. This operational total does not account for the vast array of military engagement and security cooperation missions that Navy and Marine Corps forces routinely undertake and which, prior to recent changes in joint doctrine, were not considered amphibious operations. Marine Corps forces alone have responded to more than 20 additional crises since 9/11, beyond their extended combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is not diminishing, however, is the continued operational demand on Navy and Marine Corps forces for crisis-response, forward presence-engagement and humanitarian-assistance missions. For example, former Navy Assistant Secretary Seth Cropsey calculates that naval forces provided continuous forward presence and responded to more than 360 humanitarian missions from 1960 to 2000, compared with only 22 combat missions during the same time period. In an era of declining access and strategic uncertainty, it is anticipated that this upward trend in use will continue. These demand signals from regional commanders reflect the operational value of amphibious forces for missions across the entire range of military operations.

It is not just the capabilities resident in the ARG/MEU team that fuel the demand for these assets. In addition, a host of global trends are converging, most significantly in the world’s littorals, that places an increasing premium on ships, units and capabilities that are agile and don’t require a huge footprint ashore. These are the forces ideally positioned to operate within a future security environment that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates characterized as “exceedingly complex, unpredictable and unstructured.” One of the enduring strengths of naval forces is their ability to adapt to changing environments.


Some basic facts about the littorals will help illuminate these trends. The world’s population is increasingly moving closer to the sea. The Office of Naval Research estimates that 90 percent of the world’s population will reside in the littorals by 2025, with that population growth colliding headlong into a host of other troubling issues stemming from rising seas and environmental degradation as a result of global climate changes.

Seaborne commerce still dominates as the principal means of global transport, with 90 percent of trade — in 2008, totaling $14 trillion — moving by ship. Most of this cargo transits critical strategic choke points in the littorals. From the Straits of Malacca to the Gulf of Aden and from the Panama Canal to the Arctic, ensuring the unfettered navigation of the global maritime commons is critical to the healthy functioning of the world’s economic engine.

Other global issues and concerns — including competition for resources, scarcity of food and water, extremism, weapons proliferation and piracy — will be most severely felt in regions already bedeviled by weak governance. Catalysts such as poverty, growing male youth population, unemployment, disease, lawlessness, narcotics and perceived inequality across the globe will fuel civil unrest. Confronting these festering irregular challenges is a growing mission area for naval forces, since they will continue to be, according to Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, “the force of choice for crisis response.”

The growing interest in naval amphibious forces is not a new phenomenon for the Navy or Marine Corps. The type of integration and seamless cooperation that exists across the ARG/MEU combination is engrained in each service’s DNA. Since the inception of amphibious forces, their flexibility and utility have been demonstrated by time-sensitive amphibious expeditionary operations in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and numerous crisis response and humanitarian assistance missions over the ensuing decades. In today’s world, the demand from regional commanders for ARG/MEU deployments as well as the demand for deployments of individual amphibious ships has skyrocketed. For example, since 2007, the combatant commands operational demand for ARG/MEUs has increased by 86 percent and the demand for individually tasked amphibious ships has increased by 53 percent. The daily peacetime demand for amphibious warships far exceeds the stated requirement for 38 amphibious warships to embark the assault elements of two Marine expeditionary brigades for joint forcible-entry operations. But fiscal challenges have limited the total amphibious force to only 33 warships — five below the required threshold.


Extrapolating current trends, we see no lessening of the demand from regional commanders for forward deployed amphibious forces. The broad range of irregular challenges is not going away. They, too, are on the increase. Naval amphibious forces provide a capable, agile and responsive force of choice in an uncertain world. They remain scalable to meet quickly evolving operational demands in hybrid conflicts. They provide a quick response to fast-breaking crises or humanitarian disasters as they erupt. They create decision space and buy time for U.S. and allied leaders. But, when needed, they can also seamlessly blend kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities to match operational situation. No other joint or naval capability can “land the landing force” whenever and wherever needed.

Yet our amphibious force cannot meet all current demands arising from regional commanders. For example, naval forces could fulfill only 34 percent of combatant command requests for amphibious forces in fiscal 2010, and only 35 percent of requests are being met in the current fiscal year. Clearly, there is a troubling and growing gap between ends and means.

Amphibious ships are in high demand because they are forward deployed, heavily engaged in troubled regions and provide more options for U.S. commanders. It is those attributes that set naval forces apart and bring credibility to Roughead’s assertion that the Navy/Marine Corps team doesn’t “surge and we don’t ride to the sound of the guns. We’re there, and when the guns go off, we’re ready to conduct combat operations.”

With such success, and their ability to meet the widest range of mission requirements, what better option exists than the ARG/MEU mix? AFJ

MAJ. GEN. TIMOTHY HANIFEN is the director of Expeditionary Warfare. REAR ADM. SINCLAIR HARRIS is the director of Navy Irregular Warfare. Both offices are part of the Chief of Naval Operations staff. ROBERT HOLZER is a principal analyst with Gryphon Technologies.