Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Marine Corps Amphibious Future

Not long ago I wrote a couple of blog articles about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and some of his comments regarding the future of the Marine Corps Amphibious capability that made me nervous. Well, I was reviewing some comments made recently by Undersecretary of the Navy Bob Work on that very subject. He made some interesting and very valid observations.

Mr. Work was assuring everyone that the post-Afghanistan future of the Marine Corps is a bright one and its greatest value has been and will continue to be executing amphibious operations. The interesting questions was: “how you define amphibious operations versus forcible entry."

He gave a very halfhearted endorsement of the Marine’s new armored amphibious assault craft, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The EFV is a “tremendous machine,” he said, but it is “very expensive.” Its future, along with the future of all Marine platforms, is under scrutiny and will be decided during ongoing “affordability discussions” (remember, I warned you this was coming as a result of Obama’s over-spending in other areas).

Mr. Work pivoted from the EFV to the MV-22, another very costly platform, and the value and range of options the vertical lifter provides in forcible entry. The Marines leveraged their future to the Osprey many years ago and I’m guessing that in the final budget drills it may just squeeze out the EFV.

Back to amphibious operations. There are many ways to skin a cat, and crawling over coral in the face of an enemy’s hardened defenses is not the only, nor is it necessarily the preferable, way to get troops ashore. The definition of “amphibious assault” is establishing a ready to fight force on hostile shores. It does have to not mean piling Marines in front of a sea wall under heavy fire and then painstakingly carving out a blood-smeared beachhead. In many cases, it may be better is to land troops where the enemy isn’t by performing some fancy “littoral maneuver.”

The mission the Marines should truly embrace, and the one at which they would excel, is providing the amphibious component of joint “theater entry” operations. The beauty of joint theater entry operations is the other services can buy into it. Historical examples have shown the importance of Army airborne brigades in theater entry; it also allows setting up bases ashore to conduct land-based air operations, always appealing to the Air Force and its short-legged tactical fighters.

The Navy leadership has never questioned the need for amphibious assault (at least, not yet); the debate was over the number of amphibious ships. For a “full-up, absolutely high-end,” amphibious assault, studies showed 38 amphibs were needed, he said. Yet, that number was probably not defensible, so, after much debate, 33 amphibs was the number settled on as a “reasonable floor.” With 33 amphibious ships the Marines can land two expeditionary brigades; about 2 percent of the entire force structure.

The flexibility of amphibious ships across a wide range of missions – regional patrolling, partnership building, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, raiding, shows of force — is what ultimately sold Defense Secretary Robert Gates on maintaining a large amphib fleet. They are the most highly demanded ships by the combatant commanders, he said, second only to Ballistic Missile Defense ships.

The Navy is “working hard” with Northrop Grumman to get a lower price for the new Landing Platform Dock (LPD) and LHA amphibious assault ships, he said: “We’re not going to put those ships on contract until we get the price that we think those ships should be.” The ultimate design of the new LHA and Landing Ship Dock (LSD) is also to be determined.

Work did give the Marines a bit of a warning that they are getting too big, literally; their heavier vehicles and kit are maxing out the available lift. “The amphibious system is a system which the Navy and Marine Corps operate together, and we have to be able to make trade-offs both in what we put in those ships as well as the number of ships we have.”
Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who heads up Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and who spoke at a resent CSIS event, said the Marines will shave 10,000 vehicles from their battle fleet to try and reduce weight, from the current 42,000 to about 32,000 over the next three years. He also said the Marines must re-reexamine their requirements across the board and decide where they can take risks.

Work was asked about the Independent QDR Panel’s recommendation to build to a 346-ship fleet, using the 1993 Bottom-Up Review as a force planning model. The Navy’s target for its future fleet, Work said, somewhere between 313 and 323 (up from 286 today), is not too different from the BUR’s proposed fleet. The composition of that future fleet, according to Work: 11 active carriers, 48 attack submarines, 88 to 96 large surface combatants and 55 Littoral Combat Ships and 33 amphibs.

In the end, I felt a lot better about the whole situation and encouraged that there are many others who see the insanity in even discussing doing away with the Marine Corps Amphibious Assault capability. Now what gives me ulcers is the thought of the Administrations bureaucrats taking budget cutting scissors to the Corps’ fighting capability!

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