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Marines Testing Operating from Foreign Ships, Near-Forgotten Platforms to Bring Units Back to Sea

An MV-22 Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, Reinforced, approaches the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE 5) to transport an AV-8B Harrier jet engine to the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) during a replenishment-at-sea in October 2014. US Navy photo.

An MV-22 Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, Reinforced, approaches the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE 5) to transport an AV-8B Harrier jet engine to the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) during a replenishment-at-sea in October 2014. US Navy photo.

The Marine Corps is experimenting with the interoperability of its Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) with various non-traditional platforms, including rarely-used 1980s logistics ships and foreign navies’ amphibious ships, to help get its land-based units back out to sea.

As the Navy and Marine Corps are working to grow the size of the amphibious ship fleet, the Commandant’s Planning Guidance from January includes a section requiring the Marines to “aggressively develop concepts of employment for alternative platforms that are consistent with mission requirements and platform capabilities. Our priority will be to develop immediately a concept of operations for SPMAGTFCR Africa (Special Purpose MAGTF – Crisis Response) and Marine Rotational Force-Darwin that employs alternative sea-based platforms to enhance flexibility and compensate for the shortfall of amphibious ships.”

Marine Corps Seabasing Integration Division director Jim Strock told USNI News on June 18 that he and others in the Marine Corps are taking that guidance seriously, plotting out ways to use the military’s newest platforms – as well as some older and forgotten ones, and those belonging to allies – to bring Marines where they are needed.

“What the commandant is seeking is not necessarily new, it is a repurposing because we now have a driver in this, and that is the Special Purpose MAGTF CR in Africa and the Marine Rotational Force in Darwin, to find additional methods to give them a greater degree of littoral mobility,” he said.
“The CR MAGTF in AFRICOM, they have V-22s. Aviation-wise, they can get anywhere they want, but that has its limits. But the ability to put them onboard surface ships for select periods of time – an amphib can carry a Marine unit virtually indefinitely; you can’t do that with these other platforms, they’re not designed [for that] – but for select, short periods of time, yeah, you could put … units and aircraft onboard. Your biggest limitation with aircraft would be the maintenance and support capabilities that the ship has for the V-22.”

A Dutch marine from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps is securing the area of Utah Beach during Bold Alligator 14. Dutch amphibious ship HNLMS Johan de Witt (L-801), in the background, served as the command and control headquarters during the exercise to improve interoperability between Dutch, American and other partners' militaries. US Navy photo courtesy of the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

A Dutch marine from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps is securing the area of Utah Beach during Bold Alligator 14. Dutch amphibious ship HNLMS Johan de Witt (L-801), in the background, served as the command and control headquarters during the exercise to improve interoperability between Dutch, American and other partners’ militaries. US Navy photo courtesy of the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

Foreign Amphibs

Among the concepts the Marines are trying out now is putting U.S. Marine Corps units onto NATO allies’ ships. Allies including Spain and Italy already host SPMAGTF units on the ground, and “the Allied Maritime Basing Initiative is designed to cover gaps in available U.S. amphibious ships by leveraging our European allies’ ships, just as we leverage our allies’ land bases,” U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe & Africa spokesman Capt. Richard Ulsh told USNI News.

“Ideally, we would partner with our Navy brethren to provide a year-round, day and night crisis response force. However, with more requirements world-wide than available U.S. Navy amphibious ships, the Marine Corps has had to adopt a land-based deployment model from allied countries such as Spain, Italy, and Romania,” he said. Having these units land-based, however, means they are limited to operating in a hub-and-spoke model and deploying only as far as their MV-22 Osprey and KC-130J tanker combination will take them.

Operating from a ship not only offers a mobile home base, but “basing at sea offers allies and international partners a visible deterrent when a warship – be it American, British, Italian, Spanish, or French – with U.S. Marines embarked aboard is sitting off the coast. In any language, such a sight means it is best to not cause trouble here,” Ulsh added.

Marines will first head to sea on an Italian ship this fall, followed by a British amphib and eventually French, Spanish and Dutch ships, the Marine Corps Times reported.

Ulsh told USNI News that the Allied Maritime Basing Initiative is still in the proof-of-concept phase and that the Marines would have to go aboard allies’ ships to more fully understand how well the Marines could operate from them. Because the initiative is still in its early phase, it is unclear whether Marines on foreign ships would replace the land-based SPMAGTFs or supplement them, he said.

This particular initiative is new, but Strock said that testing the interoperability of different nations’ assets is not. The Marine Corps’ current interoperability matrix actually comes from one NATO has used for a long time, which lists out the allied countries’ military assets and tracks which are definitely interoperable, which are definitely not interoperable and which need to be studied further.

Strock uses similar matrices – one matches ships to other ships, another ships to surface connectors and the third ships to aircraft – to help guide his plans to insert interoperability experiments into pre-existing wargames and exercises.

“We are only limited by imagination, and it’s going to be working with the combatant commanders, working with the [Marine Forces] commanders, giving them some ideas and letting them turn their staffs loose,” Strock said.

The mobile landing platform Lewis B. Puller (T-MLP-3/T-AFSB-1) successfully completed launch and float-off at the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO) shipyard on Nov. 6, 2014. US Navy Photo

The mobile landing platform Lewis B. Puller (T-MLP-3/T-AFSB-1) successfully completed launch and float-off at the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO) shipyard on Nov. 6, 2014. US Navy Photo

New Platforms

Among the items to test in Strock’s matrix, and one of the ones getting a lot of widespread attention, is testing the new Afloat Forward Staging Base with the whole range of aircraft and connectors. The Navy just accepted the first AFSB, the USNS Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller (MLP-3/AFSB-1), on June 12, and a lot of people already want to use it.

“It is my understanding that that ship is now, I think, at initial operating capability and is planned to go to support combatant commander mine warfare requirements,” Strock said. However, “a lot of people, to include the commandant, said we’d like to get our hands on that thing and that type of capability – and he’s absolutely right. And we have been developing some ideas on how could we use a ship like that – that ship, or a ship like that – to support the CR MAGTF and Marine Rotational Force Darwin.”

Because the MV-22 creates a lot of heat and a tremendous downwash, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) needs to carefully study whether to certify the Osprey for operations on the various ship classes the Marines are considering as alternate platforms. Strock said the Marines are working with NAVAIR now to certify the MV-22 to operate on the AFSB, though none of the aircraft have landed on the Lewis B. Puller yet.

SS Wright (T-AVB-3), one of two aviation logistics support ships. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

SS Wright (T-AVB-3), one of two aviation logistics support ships. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Old is New Again

Though much attention has been paid to the newer MV-22 and AFSB, Strock said his office is also reaching further back into the Navy’s inventory to help address the amphibious shortfall. A few weeks ago, a crane on a T-AVB aviation logistics support ship – one of the original Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships from the 1980s – lifted onboard a LCM-8 “Mike boat” – which made its debut in the fleet in 1959.

There are only two T-AVBs in the fleet, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, and the Mike boats are so old the military has auctioned some off to the public. But Strock said they were in good enough material condition to deploy if they proved useful for bringing Marines to sea.

Similarly, Strock said there has been speculation about the Marines using the Maritime Administration’s vehicle cargo ships Cape May (T-AKR-5063) and Cape Mohican (T-AKR-5065) – delivered in 1972 and 1973, respectively – as connector station ships after testing several years ago proved they could work with current surface connectors.

“These are vessels are not amphibious ships as we know them, but quite frankly Marines, we’ve been operating off these ships in varying degrees for years,” he said.
“Everyone thinks, ‘well, we’re going to make these connector station ships,’ which we’re thinking about doing, ‘because we know we can put LCACs on them because we tested that back in 2008. This is a new and bright idea.’”

“In 1994, Col. Strock moved his battalion from Okinawa to Korea … onboard the Cape Mohican,” he said, referring to his earlier career as a Marine officer.
“A lot of these are just old ideas that are fresh and new. A lot of it’s back to the future. But we’re aggressively pursuing that because that’s what it says to do here,” he said, referring to the Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

Strock said that, given the resources to insert experiments into exercises and to obtain NAVAIR and other certifications, the sky is the limit in terms of creating combinations of ships, connectors and aircraft that are technically interoperable. What will be interesting to watch in the coming years, he said, will be the larger packages of those platforms that deploy to bring Marines around the littorals and across combatant commands.

“What we’re really going to have to look at in the future is, we have a variety of platforms out there that are all designed for primary missions, be it MPF or be it a primary mission of 30 years ago with the T-AVB. I think the challenge will be in how do we assemble the right mix of these types of platforms to generate the ability to support a MAGTF at sea?” he said.
“And it’s no single platform that can do it. … What’s the right mix of non-amphibious ships to do that? I don’t know. Do you need three JHSVs plus an MLP plus a tug boat? What’s the right mix? And I think over time we’re going to have to sort that out. … The ARG/MEUs sail out with a pre-defined mix: a big-deck, an LPD and an LSD. That’s pretty routine. But if you are able to get three or four platforms together to support a 90-day patrol for the rotational force out of Darwin, if you did that a year from now with three or four ships, the time they did it after that I doubt if it’s going to be the same three or four types of ships. What’s the right mix? I think that will be exciting over time to capture the lessons learned and be able to go back to the operating forces with some decent data.”

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    Lets see, the USMC has tried to bill itself as America’s 911 force, but w/o squad cars (Amphib Ships). They have maintained that they were not another conventional ground force, unless it suited them that is. They have strived to field their very own Air Force & have even reconfigured Amphib Ship production that omits certain amphibious elements. But now, they are whining about NOT have enough Amphib sea lift, so they are running a PR campaign advertising how pitiful they are & they might have to even place their forces on other country’s ships…All in order to protect America? Talk about a time more than appropriate to raise the B/S Flag! This mismanaged branch of the service, with albeit a good PR agency, has painted their selves into the proverbial corner with their over-the-top aspirations of trying to take over everyone else’s missions w/o thinking it through first. Looks like the chickens are finally coming home to roost & it will be painful. It is time to place the USMC under some adult supervision, some fiscal reality, & re-explain to them exactly what their mission is. It is more than time to make the Special Operations Force-Special Operations Command
    (SOCOM) the FOURTH branch of service, replacing the USMC, & putting the USMC under them as the Nation’s Amphibious Special Operations
    Force. Let SOCOM IAW Congress, establish by law the number & configuration of MEUs & Amphib support ships that the Navy must maintain. Let SOCOM provide the adult leadership that the USMC has sorely lacked for decades…

    • redgriffin

      Why would we make SOC the 4th Branch and put the USMC under them SOC is the hot commodity right now but they already have a sub force at their disposal one that is much more in keeping with their training and the job they have on the battlefield. What the USMC is doing is what the rest of NATO does with smaller navies and tighter defense budgets put mardets on support ships.

    • Navyjag907

      The Marine Corps does more with less than anybody else and is always coming up with new ideas and proposals. This effort to study existing resources and see if we can use them in ways not previously contemplated, is, I think, a very good one.

  • Bad mistake. Whatever happened to the USS Tarawa (LHA-1), USS Nassau (LHA-4) & USS Peleliu (LHA-5). Marines say they need ships. Why not bring those BACK for the Marines instead of using unproven ships and foreign ships.

    • redgriffin

      I’m sure that those ships are in reserve somewhere but the question is do we as a nation have the sailors to man and fight them at this time?

      • I think we do and why not pull from the CIVMAR as well

        • redgriffin

          What would we be paying for up keep on those ships and is it worth it?

      • Steve Skubinna

        That’s is the question, and I’d expect the answer is “no.” Now if the old LHAs are used in the AFSB role they could have a CIVMAR crew for ship functions, as Ponce does now. Even that would require MSC to expand the work force, as usual they’re suffering serious personnel deficiencies.

        • redgriffin

          Also who do you think the up keep of those ships would be?

          • Steve Skubinna

            Doesn’t matter how you answer that, it comes down to people we don’t have. Navy doesn’t have them, and MSC is struggling to keep their ships crewed. All there is, is the shell game of shuffling assets around and hoping nothing breaks.

          • leesea

            I think with enough funding, a good long yard period (neither of which the Ponce had~), both Ponce and Denver could be good for another 10 years?

        • leesea

          That is a good question. Certainly the old gators are in much need of repair. The LPD Ponce got some upgrades to become AFSB(I). And USS Denver could also become an AFSB as well with a MSC hybrid crew. Certainly would seem to be FAR cheaper than sinking over a half Billion $$$ into another AFSB with its limitations. Ask MSC for an estimate to fully convert both ships?

          BTW Ponce seems to have much more capability and capacity that the NASSCO AFSB designs. And we all know that the new AFSB are the ugliest ships in the USN?

          When the number of ships assigned to MSC goes up, they are supposed to get an increase in CIVMAR crewing numbers.

    • Steve Skubinna

      Belleau Wood has been sunk. I think Tarawa is still in mothballs in Mid Loch at Pearl and Peleliu is heading there. As for the LANT ships, I have no idea if they’re still extent or not.

  • halifaxresolves

    We should never have to rely on foreign flag vessels to ship our Marines.
    Come on Congress, get in gear!

    • Jiesheng Li

      Then dont bother asking for allies.

      • Ruckweiler

        Li:
        Allies are fine but to project sea power the US needs its own transport for Marines. I remember the F-111’s in 1986 having to fly outside of Europe to get to Libya because, Spain, Italy, and France refused overflight which caused the strike force to fly incredibly long distances out and back utilizing multiple aerial refuelings.

      • Zebra Dun

        We have no allies, just fair weather summer friends who will melt away like the snow in the warm Russian rain.

  • Seburo

    USMC needs to get it’s budgets and priorities in order. Part of the reason for this is so the British MOD doesn’t embarrass themselves when the QE class has nothing to put on them.
    Should just scrap the F-35 budget and increase UCLASS orders.

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  • Zebra Dun

    Cargo Freighters and container ships, over the side by cargo nets like John Basilone into waiting Bass boats..

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