Navy, Marines Practice ‘Littoral Combat Force’ Construct in Alaska

September 23, 2019 6:53 PM - Updated: September 24, 2019 4:07 PM
U.S. Marines with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 set up at a forward arming and refueling point (FARP) as a CH-53E from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361 flies overhead during Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE) in Adak, Alaska on Sept. 18, 2019. US Marine Corps Photo

This post has been updated to include additional comments from U.S. 3rd Fleet.

The Navy and Marine Corps recently used a new Littoral Combat Force concept to command and control units spread over 2.2 million square miles of land and sea, in the latest demonstration of what a future operation near and on the shore might look like.

After the two services signed out the Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) concept in 2017, they’ve been trying to understand what gear they’d need to support moving small units of Marines around the littorals to take a beach, establish sea control from ashore, and more.

It turns out many of the Navy’s platforms are well suited for this work, but most sit outside the traditional amphibious ready group (ARG) or expeditionary strike group (ESG) model.

With expeditionary ships now in the fleet in numbers – 10 Expeditionary Fast Transports, with four more on the way; two Expeditionary Transfer Docks; and two Expeditionary Sea Bases, with at least four more on the way – as well as Littoral Combat Ships, expansions to the expeditionary mine countermeasures companies (ExMCM) and other growing capabilities, a lot of opportunity exists in the Navy today to help move Marines around safely. But there was no single type of commander who would have all those assets at their disposal.

There was also no command and control model that adequately reflected that, under LOCE, there would no longer be a traditional blue-in-support-of-green or green-in-support-of-blue relationship. Rather, ships at sea would provide cover for Marines trying to get ashore, who could then set up temporary anti-ship missile launchers and contribute to sea control from ashore, and the supported/supporting relationship would be constantly moving back and forth.

That need for a new C2 model drove the creation of the Littoral Combat Force commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 3 Commander Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle told reporters on Monday.

U.S. Marines with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 set up a fuel berm at a forward arming and refueling point (FARP) during Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE) in Adak, Alaska on Sept. 18, 2019. US Marine Corps Photo

Last year, the Navy and Marines first tested out a key tenet of LOCE: the Littoral Combat Group, which would combine a traditional ARG and embarked Marine force with at least one surface combatant and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command assets. In that case, USS Somerset (LPD-25), USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) and Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SP-MAGTF)-Peru deployed together as Littoral Combat Group 1 in November and December.

Pringle, speaking to reporters from Alaska, said it became clear that the Littoral Combat Group idea needed to be scaled up, providing a one-star officer to oversee multiple LCGs in different areas conducting different missions.

During the Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE) 2019 exercise that has been taking place in Alaska and Southern California in recent weeks, Pringle and his staff had the chance to test out the Littoral Combat Force structure by commanding two LCGs spread from Adak in the Aleutian Islands to Anchorage and Seward in south-central Alaska to the San Diego area.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday visited for part of the exercise, and Pringle said the timing was great, as the new CNO is working on putting out a new naval guidance document that is likely to emphasize Navy/Marine Corps integration.

During the visit, Pringle said, Gilday saw “the ability for us to command and control just about any force that’s operating in the littorals in a wide range of missions, and to show him exactly how we were set up to do that. He’s certainly intrigued by that, and I owe him a few things as we capture all of our lessons learned and try to rewrite and organize the Navy’s integrated maritime power and talk about how we fight and how we also render assistance” in a disaster relief type of scenario.

A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 participates in forward arming and refueling point (FARP) operations during Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE) in Adak, Alaska on Sept. 18, 2019. US Marine Corps Photo

“We gave him a snapshot of what it could look like to have an integrated Navy and Marine team,” Pringle said, and “I suspect that when he comes out with his guidance here real soon, there’s going to be a heavy portion of it that discusses naval integration and how the Navy and Marine Corps and the Coast Guard can work better as an integrated American seapower team.”

The Pacific Blitz 2019 exercise in California this spring touched on the Littoral Combat Force structure, but Pringle said “I think we advanced the Littoral Combat Force discussion and initiative this time. … I thought [Pacific Blitz 2019] was a great execution for that exercise and where we were at that time. I think this is a bigger step, simply because we controlled a wider range of assets, and we were able to touch on a wider scope of capabilities and command and control them.

“Part of my discussion with the CNO involved just talking about having a Littoral Combat Force construct to command even a wider range of assets that operate in the littorals,” he continued.
“There are lots of things we’re building that don’t necessarily fall under Expeditionary Strike Group 3, and my thought is that, as we continue to develop these capabilities, we find a way to have a unity of command and unity of effort, and we do that underneath the Littoral Combat Force umbrella.”

The rear admiral said this exercise in Alaska was also significantly more challenging than Pacific Blitz due to the environmental difficulties of operating in Alaska.

Sailors observe sunrise on the flight deck of San Antonio class amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD-25) during Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE) 2019. US Navy Photo

Somerset and a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SP-MAGTF) operated off Adak, and “it is a challenging environment, but we have learned a ton operating up there. We’ve also learned a lot operating in the vicinity of Seward, with our bulk liquid transfer system, figuring out how we can actually push fuel to forces ashore if we need to, which would actually support us if we were in a wartime environment or peacetime, a disaster relief situation.”

USS Comstock (LSD-45) also operated off Seward. Pringle and his headquarters staff were located at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

Pringle said it was important for the Navy and Marine Corps to practice expeditionary logistics capabilities in tough environments. He said they previously were able to do some of this work in South Korea, but those exercises were suspended last year as part of a negotiating process between the White House and North Korea.

“Instead of doing maybe about four exercises per year on the Korean Peninsula, we needed to find another location to do them. This was the perfect environment to do that,” he said of Alaska. The naval teams faced 45-knot winds, low cloud ceilings in the morning, late sunrise times, seas that oscillated from rough one day to calm the next, he said – something that can’t be replicated at home on the East Coast or West Coast.

U.S. 3rd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. John Alexander told USNI News that training in the austere Alaskan environment was important for the naval force’s readiness.

“AECE provided our Navy and Marine Corps team an opportunity to test our collective ability to plan, communicate, and conduct complex amphibious and expeditionary combat support operations in a challenging, austere environment. The training and experience we gained from AECE will help ensure that we remain a lethal and capable fighting force and that we are able to conduct Defense Support of Civil Authorities in the event of a crisis or disaster at home,” he said in a statement.

Pringle agreed, saying, “we have to stretch ourselves, we have to find the hard venues and prove that we can operate in them. … We need to diversify where we operate and how we operate because our Navy and our integrated maritime force is a global force, and it has to be able to be applied anywhere so we can maintain access to the global commons.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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