Basing, Geography and Maneuver Warfare at Sea

By Robbin Laird

In a 2020 Congressional Research Service note on geography and U.S force structure, a key argument was made along these lines: “The goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia is a major reason why the U.S. military is structured with force elements that enable it to deploy from the United States, cross broad expanses of ocean and air space, and then conduct sustained, large-scale military  operations upon arrival in Eurasia or the waters and airspace surrounding Eurasia.

Force elements associated with this objective include, among other things:

  • “An Air Force with significant numbers of long-range bombers, long-range surveillance aircraft, and aerial refueling tankers.
  • “A Navy with significant numbers of aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered (as opposed to non-nuclear-powered) attack submarines, large surface combatants, large amphibious ships, and underway replenishment ships.
  • “Significant numbers of long-range Air Force airlift aircraft and Military Sealift Command sealift ships for transporting ground forces personnel and their equipment and supplies rapidly over long distances.

“Consistent with a goal of being able to conduct sustained, large-scale military operations in Eurasia or the oceans and airspace surrounding Eurasia, the United States also stations significant numbers of forces and supplies in forward locations in Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the Indo-Pacific.”[1]

No military service has provided greater deep knowledge competence and experience with regard to flexible basing than the U.S. Marine Corps. Thus, it is no surprise that a key part of the rethink with regard to blue water expeditionary operations and maneuver warfare is seeing greater focus on innovations in terms of the U.S. Navy working with the U.S. Marine Corps.

In a September 2020 visit to MAWTS-1, the USMC’s premier weapons training integration facility in the USMC located at MCAS Yuma, we talked with the CO of MAWTS-1, Col. Steve Gillette, about the way ahead with regard to U.S. Navy-USMC integration.  That interview highlighted the way ahead, and the key role of flexible basing by the USMC in support of core U.S. Navy combat missions.

We started by focusing on ways the Marines might best contribute to the sea control and sea denial mission with the U.S. Navy and allies. Colonel Gillette argued that: “Working through how the USMC can contribute effectively to sea control and sea denial for the joint force is a key challenge. The way I see it, is the question of how to insert force in the Pacific where a key combat capability is to bring assets to bear on the Pacific chessboard. The long-precision weapons of adversaries are working to expand their reach and shape an opportunity to work multiple ways inside and outside those strike zones to shape the battlespace.

“What do we need to do in order to bring our assets inside the red rings, our adversaries are seeking to place on the Pacific chessboard? How do you bring your chess pieces onto the board in a way that ensures or minimizes both the risk to the force and enhances the probability of a positive outcome for the mission? How do you move assets on the chessboard inside those red rings which allows us to bring capabilities to bear on whatever end state we are trying to achieve?

“For the USMC, as the Commandant has highlighted, it is a question of how we can most effectively contribute to the air-maritime fight. For us, a core competence is mobile basing which clearly will play a key part in our contribution, whether projected from afloat or ashore. What assets need to be on the chess board at the start of any type of escalation? What assets need to be brought to bear and how do you bring them there? I think mobile basing is part of the discussion of how you bring those forces to bear.

“How do you bring forces afloat inside the red rings in a responsible way so that you can bring those pieces to the chess board or have them contribute to the overall crisis management objectives? How do we escalate and de-escalate force to support our political objectives? How do we, either from afloat or ashore, enable the joint Force to bring relevant assets to bear on the crisis and then once we establish that force presence, how do we manage it most effectively? How do we train to be able to do that? What integration in the training environment is required to be able to achieve such an outcome in an operational setting in a very timely manner?”

One way to do this is to reshape the current amphibious fleet to provide for sea control and sea denial capabilities. This fleet is changing with the addition of the new America-class ships being a key driver for change. We discuss this more fully in the next chapter, but Colonel Gillette provided insight into the way ahead. “The traditional approach for the amphibious force is to move force to an area of interest. Now we need to look at the entire maritime combat space, and ask how we can contribute to that combat space, and not simply move force from A to B.

“I think the first leap is to think of the amphibious task force, as you call it, to become a key as pieces on the chess board. As with any piece, they have strengths and weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are clear, such as the need for a common operational picture, a command-and-control suite to where the assets that provide data feeds to a carrier strike group are also incorporated onto L-Class shipping. We’re working on those things right now, in order to bring the situational awareness of those types of ships up to speed with the rest of the Naval fleet.”

“There is a significant shift underway. The question we are now posing is: “What capability do I need, and can I get it from a sister service that already has something that provides the weapons, the C2 or the ISR that I need? I need to know how exploit information which benefits either my situational awareness, my offensive or defensive capability of my organic force. But you don’t necessarily need to own it in order to benefit from it.

“And I think that when we really start talking about integration, that’s probably one of the things that we could realize very quickly is that there are certain, assets and data streams that come from the Air Force or the Navy that make the USMC a more lethal and effective force, and vice versa.

“The key question becomes: “How do I get the most decisive information into an LHA/LHD? How do I get it into a marine unit so that they can benefit from that information and then act more efficiently or lethally when required?”

You need to train as you fight; and you train to reshape how you fight. As a premier training command, Colonel Gillette underscored how to think about the shift in training as well for the evolving concepts of operations. According to Col. Gillette:  “So long as I’ve been in the Marine Corps and the way that it still currently is today, marine aviation exists to support the ground combat. That’s why we exist. The idea that we travel light and that the aviation element within the MAGTAF provides or helps to provide the ground combat element with a significant capability is our legacy. We are now taking that legacy and adapting it. We are taking the traditional combat engagement where you have battalions maneuvering and aviation supporting that ground element and we are moving it towards Sea Control, and Sea Denial missions.

“We are reimagining the potential of what the infantry does. That doesn’t mean that they do that exclusively because, although I think that our focus in the Marine Corps, as the Commandant said, is shifting towards the Pacific that doesn’t relegate or negate the requirement to be ready to respond to all of the other things that the Marine Corps does. It might be less of a focus, but I don’t think that that negates our requirement to deal with a variety of core missions.

“It’s a question of working the balance in the training continuum. What does an infantry battalion train to? Do they train to a more traditional battalion in the attack or in the defense and then how do I use my aviation assets to support either one of those types of operations?” As opposed to, ‘I might have to take an island, a piece of territory that we’re going to use a mobile base, secure it so that we can continue to push chess pieces forward in the Pacific, in the Sea Control, Sea Denial end-state.’

“Those are two very different kind of skill sets. If there’s one thing that the Marine Corps is very good at it’s being very versatile and being able to switch from one to the other on relatively short order. But in order to do that, you have to have a very dedicated and well thought out training continuum so that people can do both well, because if you say that you can do it the expectation is that you can do it well.

“We are shaping a new Marine Littoral Regiment, MLR, but we’re still in the nascent stages of defining what are the critical tasks that something like that needs to be able to do and then how you train to it. How do we create not only the definition of the skill sets that we need to train large formations to, but then what venues must we have to train? How to best combine simulated environments with real world training out on a range?

“We’re working through all that right now and it’ll be interesting to watch how that process unfolds, But it is definitely a mind shift to rethink the context in which our Ground Combat forces will conduct offensive of defensive operations, and specifically, what tasks they are expected to be capable of in this environment.”

“We’re constantly looking at new venues and new methods to start to do the things that we need to do with the new approach. For example, we are taking our TACAIR Community up to the Nellis range for large integrated strike missions. We do face-to-face planning with the Air Force and Navy so that our students can understand the capabilities and limitations of these different platforms. They rub elbows with the USAF and Navy operators and gain first-hand knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of these different platforms.

“Then we fly them all back home and then the next night we go out with this huge armada of joint assets. And it’s, out of the assets that play on this, it’s probably 50% Marines and the other 50% are Growlers, Air Force platforms et cetera. And then we do a mass debrief.

“And this starts to chip away at the legacy perspective: “Okay, I’m a master of my machine.” They come to WTI and learn how to think an integrated manner.  But more importantly, they get exposed and actually go out and do the integration with joint service assets to see the strengths and weaknesses so that they understand the planning considerations required for the joint fight against peer competitors and how to work beyond what their Marine Corps platform can do.”

The USMC has mobile basing in its DNA.

With the strategic shift from the Middle Eastern land wars to full spectrum crisis management, an ability to distribute a force but to do so with capabilities which allow it to be Integratable is crucial. For the Marines, this means an ability to operate an Integratable force from seabases, forward operating bases (FOBs) or forward arming and refueling points (FARPs).

As the Marines look forward to the decade ahead, they are likely to enhance their capabilities to provide for mobile bases which can empower the joint and coalition force by functioning as a chess piece on the kill web enabled chessboard.

But what is required to do mobile basing?

What are the baseline requirements to be successful?

I will deal with these questions in the next piece in the series.

[1] “Defense Primer: Geography, Strategy and Force Design,” Congressional Research Service,” November 5, 2020.

Featured Photo: 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. Approximately 3,000 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel participated in AECE 2019, a joint training exercise that tests expeditionary logistical capabilities in the Arctic region and prepares joint forces to respond to crises across the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tia D. Carr).

For the previous piece in the series, see the following:

Working the Distributed Piece in the Extended Battlespace: The Impact of Basing Architecture