Presence, Economy of Force and Scalability: The New Amphibious Task Force

By Robbin Laird

The USMC is considered the nation’s crisis management force.

But with the rise of new authoritarian powers, peer-to-peer maneuvering and conflict are now a clear part of crisis management.

The good news is that the evolution of the USN-USMC team at sea has evolved over the pst decade, and now the amphibious task force piece of crisis management is a key element bringing presence, economy of force, scalability and lethality to the operational force.

Prior to the coming of the Osprey, the amphibious force was operating within a 200 square mile box. The Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit could engage in the high end fight only with the presence of the carrier task force or USAF support.

This all changed with the Osprey.

Now the Marines could operate at much greater distance and the ARG-MEU evolved to operate over a much wider area.

Within the first decade of the change, the three ship ARG-MEU began to be part of different land-based operations, and the C2 side of the operation became a bit confused and muddled from the standpoint of the amphibious task force itself.

With the coming of the F-35B to the amphibious force, now the crisis management force had a high end asset able to provide tip of the spear ISR, C2 and weapons to the fight.

We have seen this with the first deployed F-35B enabled amphibious task force which has just returned from the Middle East this year.

The deployment marked the first combat sorties by the F-35B multi-mission jet, flown by the Wake Island Avengers of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. Missions included support to ground forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The amphibious force operated in three geographic regions during the deployment, mostly in the U.S. 7th Fleet and 5th Fleet – and Anchorage also traveled to the Mediterranean to support U.S. 6th Fleet operations and train with the Italian military.

“The 13th MEU provided support to Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel while simultaneously supporting maritime security and theater security cooperation events in the U.S. 5th Fleet and 6th Fleet areas of operations,” Col. Chandler Nelms, the 13th MEU commander, said in a news release. “Our dynamic operations demonstrated the flexibility of the amphibious task force…..”

The F-35B squadron is part of the 13th MEU’s air combat element led by Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (Reinforced).

The 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines led the Battalion Landing Team 3/1 as the MEU’s ground combat element, and Combat Logistics Battalion 13 served as its logistics element. The Essex ARG includes includes the Blackjacks of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21 and detachments from Assault Craft Unit 5, Naval Beach Group 1, Beachmaster Unit 1, Fleet Surgical Team 3 and Tactical Air Control Squadron 11….

PEARL HARBOR (Feb. 18, 2019) F-35B Lightning II sit on the flight deck while Sailors and Marines prepare to man the rails of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) as it pulls into Pearl Harbor during a deployment of Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The Essex ARG/MEU team is a strong and flexible force equipped and scalable to respond to any crisis ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to contingency operations. The Essex ARG and 13th MEU is the first continental United States Navy/Marine Corps team to deploy with the F-35B. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Freeman/Released)

The following is the March 1, 2019 release from U.S. 3rd Fleet.

Essex Amphibious Ready Group Returns from Deployment

By Third Fleet Public Affairs

SAN DIEGO (NNS) — Sailors and Marines of the Essex (LHD 2) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) returned to their homeport of San Diego, following a successful deployment to the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Mediterranean, and Horn of Africa regions, March 1.

More than 4,500 sailors and Marines of the Essex ARG and embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) conducted maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in support of regional security, stability, and the free flow of maritime commerce.

“This deployment was a great example of dynamic force employment,” said Capt. Gerald Olin, commander, Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 1. “We were successful on our deployment because we operated the way we trained. Our team was manned, trained and equipped successfully so that we were able to meet mission requirements in every fleet.” 

During the ARG/MEU’s deployment, the ships conducted subject matter exchanges and important theater security cooperation exercises with regional partners in 5th, 6th and 7th fleets as well as participated in military operations. 

“Our dynamic Blue-Green team performed admirably and their accomplishments speak wonders to the resolve, resiliency and incredible sacrifice the Sailors, Marines, and their families made to make this a successful deployment,” said Olin. “I am proud to have been part of this deployment with this team, and after such a successful deployment, I know our Sailors and Marines, as well as their friends and families, are excited to be home.”

Essex is comprised of amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23), and amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47). Embarked commands include “Blackjacks” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC-21), Assault Craft Unit 5, Naval Beach Group 1, Beachmaster Unit 1, Fleet Surgical Team 3, and Tactical Air Control Squadron 11.

13th MEU is commanded by Col. Chandler Nelms and consists of the Command Element, the Aviation Combat Element comprised of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (Reinforced), Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, the Ground Combat Element comprised of Battalion Landing Team 3/1 (Reinforced), and the Logistics Combat Element comprised of Combat Logistics Battalion 13.

The end of this deployment is uniquely significant, as it was the inaugural combat deployment of the Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II.

“The Essex was embarked with the next generation of air assets,” said Olin. “The full integration of the Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II drastically enhanced the ARG/MEU lethality and proved to be a credible strike and defense capability. The MV-22 provided the range and cargo capacity to maintain critical logistical lines of effort to maintain continued support of operations. This Essex deployment perfectly demonstrated the promising future of aviation for the ARG/MEU teams.”

Throughout deployment, the ARG/MEU participated in a variety of exercises with multi-national partners throughout the Indo-Pacific, Mediterranean, and Middle East regions, which strengthened partnerships and increased combat readiness, amphibious and crisis-response capabilities, and communication between U.S. and partner nation forces.

In the western Pacific, sailors and Marines worked with militaries during bilateral Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercises with Malaysia and Indonesia. Simultaneously, sailors and Marines of the Anchorage worked with the military of Sri Lanka to bolster regional partnerships.

In the Middle East, the team participated in exercises with a variety of partners during bilateral engagements such as Eastern Maverick 19 with Qatar and the Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal, which was conducted in Djibouti.

“Our Sailors and Marines did an absolutely fantastic job this deployment,” said Capt. Brian Mutty, commanding officer of Essex. “It was impressive to watch the Navy/Marine Corps teams execute every mission we were tasked with. During Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal and Eastern Maverick, the coordination between the Navy-Marine Corps team effectively projected power from the sea and ashore. Furthermore, the ship provided direct combat support for Operations Inherent Resolve and Freedom’s Sentinel.”

As Rushmore and Essex conducted operations in the Middle East, Anchorage represented the ARG/MEU team as they operated in the Mediterranean Sea. The steadfast and formidable presence of Anchorage and the 13th MEU decisively advanced stability and security objectives in the region.

“Our ARG/MEU team operated across two geographic combatant commands simultaneously supporting multiple operations, exercises and subject matter expert exchanges,” said Capt. Dennis Jacko, commanding officer of Anchorage. “The inherent flexibility of the ARG/MEU is what makes our team so valuable to theater commanders, and the robust capability of the LPD 17 Class to execute independent operations provides a force multiplier in every ARG.”

13th MEU, Essex ARG Return Home, Ending First F-35B Combat Deployment

The new capabilities of the new amphibious group was demonstrated during this deployment as well.

In an article by Alex Lockie published on September 11, 2018, the role of the amphibious task force off of Syria was highlighted and the force would not be playing this role without the F-35B onboard.

A U.S. Marine Corps aircraft carrier full of F-35B stealth jets showed up in the Middle East after Russia threatened U.S. forces in Syria in the latest military buildup between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers.

Russia sailed a small armada to the Mediterranean sea in August as its prepares with its ally, Syria, an offensive against the last rebel stronghold in the country after predicting a chemical weapons attack that it prematurely blamed on U.S.-aligned forces.

Until recently, the U.S. had no capital ships and just one or two destroyers in the Mediterranean, but the USS Essex, a small, flat-deck aircraft carrier used to launch U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth jets that can take off almost vertically, just arrived off the horn of Africa, USNI News reports.

Though the Essex remains on the opposite side of the Suez Canal from Russia’s ships in the Mediterranean, it’s a quick-moving ship. Additionally, the F-35Bs can fly about 550 miles out from the ship in stealth configurations that make them hard to detect for enemy defenses.

Direct combat between Russia and the U.S. remains unlikely, as both sides work together to avoid accidental conflict and neither side seems willing to escalate a fight over Syria into a massive war.

But Syria has hosted the world’s liveliest air defense and battlespace for years. Missile fires have taken down Israeli, Syrian, and Russian jets over the course of the war. Syria has seen the combat debut of the F-35 and the first U.S. air-to-air kill between manned aircraft since 1999.

The F-35Bs aboard the Essex will train on a variety of missions near the Red Sea, such as how to provide close air support for Marine units optimized to take beaches, or how to respond to an attack.

“Our primary mission is crisis response… being current and absolutely ready for anything the geographic combatant commander needs us to do while we are here,” Col. Chandler Nelms, commander of the military expeditionary unit aboard the Essex told USNI.

Gidget Fuentes in an article published on February 27, 2019 by USNI News highlighted the new roles for the amphibious task force which the deployment is presaging.

The Marine Corps is slowly replacing its aging fleet of AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft with the fifth-generation fighter that boasts suites of advanced avionics, navigation, communications and weapons systems that added a wide range of new capabilities to the Essex ARG.

“It’s got the short-takeoff capability of the Harrier, the speed and payload of a (F/A-18) Hornet, and it’s got the forcible entry options that stealth technologies give us,” Nelms said.

“Because of its air-to-air capability and its sensors for air-to-ground capabilities, it also provides a new dynamic for the ARG commander, for the commodore, while we’re out conducting blue-water operations or littoral operations or defending the ARG. … On its first deployment, it was kept very busy.”

“[It] increases battlespace awareness with data fusion and the ability to share information with the ships and the ships’ combat control system,” Capt. Gerald Olin, Amphibious Squadron 1 commander and Essex ARG/MEU commodore, told USNI News from Essex. “So it’s really an extension of our sensors, and it also brings to the table a greater increased lethality than what we had with previous generation aircraft…”

The aircraft and its integration with the ship and integration with the mission exceed my expectations,” Lt. Col. Kyle Shoop, who commands VMFA-211, told USNI News. “Just in our time with 5th Fleet, we supported over 50 days of combat for over 1,200 flight hours … didn’t drop a single line of FRAG or combat support.”

At times, the jets flew off Essex for long missions, “and we kept employing ordnance in both theaters,” Shoop said, referring to Afghanistan for Operation Freedom Sentinel and Syria and Iraq for Operation Inherent Resolve.

“The jet itself proved to be very reliable. Throughout that whole time period, Marines did a great job keeping it serviceable,” he said. “We were gone away from the ship for an extreme amount of time – a lot of times over five, six hours away from the ship – and they’d turn them around that night to fly again the next day. So that went really well.”

The F-35B performed “like we expected,” Shoop added. “Some of the sensors onboard would do better than, say, a Harrier would through adverse weather or things like that. So it proved to be pretty versatile…”

The addition of the F-35B also gave commanders an aircraft capable of helping defend the amphibious task force. Its onboard systems provided a data link so “we could communicate with and incorporate into our defensive posture,” said Olin, whose career includes operational deployments with carrier strike groups.

“That’s kind of the model I’m used to. We were able to emulate that, to some extent, here on the Essex ARG by using the F-35 for deck-launched interceptor support, defensive counter-air, anti-surface warfare type of missions. So that was a really great addition to the package here, above what we and I had experienced with the AV-8 Harrier on the last deployment.”

“I think we have already proven that the [F-35B] is reliable and that it integrates well on the amphibious shipping,” Nelms said. “So the next step now is just continue to develop the tactics, the techniques, the procedures of how we fight with that. We got a really good look at that on this deployment, and I think there’s a lot more to be explored in the future.”

The articles cited above discuss the recently returned ARG-MEU force which deployed with the F-35 for the first time.

It is clear that the multi-domain aircraft is at the heart of changing the ARG-MEU for a launch point for helo or Osprey enabled forces and providing a high end capability integrated into the insertion force.

But we have argued for many years, the F-35 is an enabler but you will not get full value from the aircraft, not the global fleet unless you change the entire approach and put into operation new technologies and capabilities which enabled what we initially called the honeycomb force and what we know use, the more widely used term, the kill web.

For the ARG-MEU what this has meant that a significant cluster of innovations is changing the nature of it s capabilities and making a key element for crisis management against peer authoritarian powers.

First has been the maturation of the Osprey.

Second has been building a new class of amphibious ships which can make significantly greater advantage of Marine Aviation as the enabler for the assault or insertion force.

The USS America is a whole new class of ships which has three decks and an ability to support aviation in a way that the two deck large deck amphibs simply can not.

Third has been the significant emphasis of the Marines on shaping a digital interoperable force, one which can reshape the nature of distributed operations.

Fourth has been the sun-setting of the Prowler EW aircraft and focusing on tron warfare built into the operational force.

Fifth has been adding new ships to the task force, some from the Military Sealift Command and working through ways to add capabilities to the task force as a crisis unfolds.

Sixth is training for operating in contested environments and dealing with degraded C2 and here the F-35 can provide key capabilities as a crisis might evolve.

Seventh is the ability to put the new G/ATOR system ashore which can provide the ashore insertion force with significant new reachback capabilities or scalability.

Eighth is the ability to work interoperability between the F-35 and land and sea missile defense systems.

Integration with Aegis provides a significant and rapid asset which can affect the battlespace rapidly.

(Not to put fine a point on this, we already anticipated this in 2011 when this article was written:

And with the Marines latest artillery pieces being linked ashore or afloat, the Marines are working towards what they see as a more integrated kill web farce.

Again, one that can provide presence as the task force enters an area of interest but one which has the capability to add task force elements from ground, sea or air elements within connectivity reach.

Ninth the coming additions to Marine Corps Aviation are conceived of in terms of adding new capabilities to a kill-web enabled amphibious task force.

The new CH-53k is not an E; it has combat systems onboard which change the nature of what a heavy lift helicopter can bring to the fight and can deal with contingencies requiring an augmented ground maneuver force.

Tenth any new unmanned system to be added to the force is seen to contribute to the kill web evolution and if it becomes more a speed bump rather than a contributor, then the Marines will wait until they get the kind of unmanned systems they are looking for.

(See my chapter on the USMC in the new book, One Nation Under Drones.)

Eleventh the force can operate and be sustained from the seabase.

This means that mobile basing is inherent to the force, something which the F-35B can do ashore or afloat.

This means as well as directed energy weapons enter the force, they can be placed on the asset most ready to support it, namely a ship with enough power to operate these systems.

In short, the F-35B has been an enabler of a significant change to the amphibious task force.

But its full value will become expanded or realized only as the task force itself evolves.

With the significant evolution of the amphibious task force into one which can provide presence, economy of force and scalability through the kill web to other Army, Navy or Air Force assets or through the F-35 global fleet through rapid allied augmentations, the USN-USMC team is at the heart of reshaping the kind of crisis management capability crucial to deal with the authoritarian peer competitors we are now confronting globally.

The featured photo:


F-35B Lightning IIs with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, the Wake Island Avengers, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), fly past Wake Island during a regularly scheduled deployment of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the 13th MEU, August 1, 2018.

The Essex ARG/MEU team is a strong, flexible, responsive and consistent force deployed to the 7th fleet area of operations to support regional stability, reassure partners and allies and maintain a presence ready to respond to any crisis from humanitarian assistance to contingency operations.

The Essex ARG and 13th MEU is the first continental United States Navy/Marine Corps team to deploy with the F-35B Lightning.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Francisco J. Diaz Jr.)

We wrote about this coming development in our 2013 book on Pacific strategy.