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

By Robbin Laird

As the services focus on modular task forces, how they will be formed is determined in part by the basing architecture available for distributed force operations.  A key element for shaping such a force is its ability to operate the geo-political chessboard from mobile bases able to operate in the areas of key combat or crisis management effects.

Basing is part of the capability to generate a desired aggregate effect from a modular task force sanctuary force operating at a point of significant impact on the adversary and his actions.

For example, the navy’s working approach to force distribution is what they call distributed maritime operations or DMO. But to be fully effective such capability is part of a larger effort, one in which the joint forces are working force mobility and basing flexibility to intersect with DMO to deliver a much more lethal, and survivable force. It is also one that is agile and can operate at the point of impact within a crisis environment.

The USMC has been for a very long time the core joint force specialists with regard to force mobility. The build out of their aviation capabilities over the past two decades, even while being tasked with Middle East land war duties, has put in place key assets which allow for force mobility. The Osprey has brought speed and range to the assault force. The F-35B has brought a sensor rich, C2, strike aircraft to naval aviation by the Marines paving the way.  The coming of the CH-53K adds another key capability to enable the expeditionary force.

The USAF has certainly gotten the point, and innovations like Rapid Raptor, which is designed to allow for force dispersion in times of crisis is clearly a case in point. We first heard of Rapid Raptor in a discussion in Hawaii with the then head of the Pacific Air Force, General “Hawk” Carlisle, in 2014. He indicated in that discussion that the Rapid Raptor concept was being implemented whereby 4 F-22s are supported by a C-17 at an airfield different from where they took off is a clear indicator of the projected trend line. And from discussions with the PACAF staff at the time, it is clear that a major effort is underway to shape the logistics and support approach to allow for the operation of a dispersed air force executing a distributed operational approach throughout the region.

Later discussions at the USMC center of excellence for air-enabled combat training, MAWTS-1 highlighted the recognition which the USAF has for USMC domain knowledge with regard to delivering force mobility. We learned in various visits over the past five years to MAWTS-1, that they were working closely with the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force base with regard to expeditionary air operations.

The experience the Marines have had with F-35B, the most expeditionary of all versions of a fifth-generation aircraft, has clearly impacted the reworking of mobile basing as well. For example, in a 2020 discussion at MAWTS-1 with Maj. Brian “Flubes” Hansell, MAWTS-1 F-35 Division Head, the expeditionary nature of the USMC and its intersection with integration with the F-35 was underscored. “The Marine Corps is a force committed to expeditionary operations. When it comes to F-35, we are focused on how best to operate the F-35 in the evolving expeditionary environment, and I think we are pushing the envelope more than other services and other partners in this regard. One of the reasons we are able to do this is because of our organizational culture. If you look at the history of the Marine Corps, that’s what we do. We are an expeditionary, forward-leaning service that prides itself in flexibility and adaptability.”

The USAF operating from protected land bases – building revetments and working the lost art of rapid runway repair – can provide key elements for providing force to the air-maritime fight that defines both of the threat areas highlighted by Adm. Gortney. And the extant bombers and even more significantly the coming of the B-21 will add a very flexible, and scalable force to the distributed seabase chessboard.

An example of the shift in USAF efforts could be seen in the WestPac exercise of January 2020.[1]  The exercise had the stated purpose of distributing airpower throughout the operational area and working integratability to shape the desired combat effect. But not overtly noted in the official statements was the growing concern and focus which the USAF, working with the U.S. Navy and the USMC, and where relevant the U.S. Army, on dealing with a major threat to its operational basing — the maritime strike threat from Russia and China in the Pacific.

When the B-21 comes to the force, it will have a significant role in the reworking of the kill web approach to dealing with the air as well as maritime strike threats to USAF operational basing. With the US Navy highlighting a distributed maritime operations approach along with the USAF highlighting its ACE approach, a key question is how these will dovetail and shape an effective kill web capability in the Indo-Pacific and European regions?

With the two services clearly focused on ensuring their capabilities to work integrated distributed operations, how do they view the strategic direction they would most like to see from the USMC? What kind of mobile basing and expeditionary operations will be best aligned with where the USAF and the U.S. Navy are shaping their strategic trajectories in their warfighting approaches?

For the U.S. Navy, the evolving approaches to distributed maritime operations involve fighting as a distributed fleet but with integrated combat effects. This involves working on fleet operations which operate over 360-degree space with multi-domain operations and combat effects. This entails reworking how the strike fleet works together into modular task forces as distributed combat clusters.

A key part of reworking the sea bases as a chessboard force is finding new ways effectively to cross-integrate U.S. and allied maritime assets, such as using aviation assets differently to provide for cross-decking and more effective use of land mass as part of maritime sea control and sea-denial efforts.

As the Navy rethinks how to use its aircraft carriers, how to use its amphibious forces and how to use the whole gamut of its surface and subsurface forces to fight as a fleet, an opportunity for change is clear: why not rework how air assets move across the sea bases to provide the Fleet a wider variety of combat capabilities tailored to specific combat scenarios? Notably, moving helicopters and tiltrotor assets across the Fleet provide for a wider variety of options than simply having a set piece of equipment onboard each class of ship.

The mobility of the fleet is a baseline capability which the seabase brings to a more agile combat force. Ships provide for presence, but mobility at sea, with variable degrees of speed and stealth. But added to this are a range of other mobility capabilities which can work effectively with the fleet to expand its reach, range and lethality. This is certainly part of the wider kill web approach.

The first is the use of land either as protected base from which air assets, manned or unmanned (for that is what weapons are), can operate as reachback forces to enhance the scalability of a modular at sea task force. We discussed earlier, how the USAF can expand its role in this regard, and in the next section will discuss how the U. S. Army could do so as well.

The second revolves around how the Marines can leverage their expeditionary history and capabilities to operate more effectively with the DMO fleet. One way is to enhance how they can operate off of the amphibious fleet to play an expanded role in sea control and sea denial at sea. Rather than looking at the amphibious fleet as providing greyhound buses to jump off to fight at land, the focus is upon how the amphibious fleet today and redesigned into the future can be part of the wider DMO sea control and sea denial mission sets.

A second way is to enhance their capabilities to operate their crisis management integrated forces, such as marine expeditionary units or marine expeditionary brigades to operate from mobile bases. These capabilities have clearly expanded as they are building out the Osprey-F-35B-CH-53K triad. The focus here is upon having an integrated modular force capability survivable and lethal enough to fight as an integrated combat force while operating from distributed bases.

The third way is what the current Commandant has labelled expeditionary basing. This is the Commandant’s version of a wider focus by navies on how to deploy an Inside Force to support the outside force. By the Inside Force, one is referring to a small force operating inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone. The challenge of course is to not have these forces compromise the larger outside force, or to simply put in play chess pieces on the chess board which the adversary can use more effectively than can the U.S. forces can. Given that the key focus is crisis management, providing adversaries with hostages is not something one would want to do.

An example of how the U.S. Navy is looking at how to leverage this approach can be seen in a recent exercise led by the USS Eisenhower. This is how a February 19, 2021, Second Fleet story described this exercise: “The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and the ships and aircraft of Carrier Strike Group Two (CSG 2), the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (IKE CSG), departed for deployment Feb. 18, after successfully completing a historic Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX), that included a NATO vignette and training with SEALS from an East Coast-based Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Group for the first time in recent history.

“COMPTUEX provided graduate-level training that simulates the full spectrum of operations, low intensity to high-end combat that IKE CSG must be ready for,” said Rear Adm. Scott Robertson, commander, Carrier Strike Group Two. “The live, virtual and constructive training with a NATO backdrop enabled the team to hone its application of integrated, multiple domain warfare. We are ready to deploy!”

“The inaugural NATO vignette, developed by Carrier Strike Group Four (CSG 4) and Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence (CJOS COE), consisted of familiarity training designed to facilitate Allied maritime interoperability and integration, in practical terms using NATO procedures, messaging formats and chat capabilities. The vignette developed and refined a clear list of interoperability requirements for future Navy force generation and improved Allied maritime Command and Control (C2) linkages.

“To ensure truly effective deterrence and defense in the North Atlantic, we need to make sure that the navies of NATO can work as one team, and that means interoperability is vital,” said Commo. Tom Guy, Royal Navy, deputy director CJOS COE. “This NATO vignette has been a great step forward in pursuing allied interoperability. CJOS COE looks forward to continuing to develop this for future deploying Strike Groups.”

“Additionally, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) SEAL, Boat and Reconnaissance units integrated with the IKE CSG team to enhance warfighting lethality in the maritime domain and to educate Fleet leadership on unique NSW capabilities. The SEAL Team focused on supporting COMPTUEX in maritime strike warfare. During the training, personnel helped with over-the-horizon targeting, directed combat aircraft’s action in close-air support, and other offensive air operations. NSW forces-controlled operations from a Task Group headquarters. To extend the IKE CSG reach, NSW forces employed multi-mission combatant craft, which allowed operators to get closer to simulated enemies and send the real-time operational picture back to decision-makers on the ship and beyond. The SEAL Team also sent an advisor to the training cell to provide expertise on NSW capabilities.

“The opportunity to support IKE CSG objectives by showcasing NSW’s unique contributions to Distributed Maritime Operations improved integration and interoperability with the Fleet. NSW was able to validate near-peer maritime and land-based tactics, techniques and procedures to demonstrate NSW’s critical role in Global Power Competition.”[2]

In this statement the Inside Force for the outside force referred to by the U.S. Navy was a SEAL team. But the Marines participated as well in a similar role, and that is really what the expeditionary basing motif is all about. And the article by Megan Eckstein on the exercise highlighted their participation and their role.  “During the simulated operations, Robertson (Rear Adm. Robertson, the commander of the IKE Carrier Strike Group) took the first crack at a carrier commanding SEAL platoons and special boat detachments, as well as Marines conducting Expeditionary Advance Base Operations focused on surface-to-air and surface-to-surface strike. The EABO operations, though virtually inserted into the exercise, were supported by Expeditionary Strike Group 2 and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade staff ashore.

“We were able to actually test some of our draft C2 (command and control) elements on how we would actually fold in Marines in an EABO capacity into the [composite warfare commander] construct, which was a big step for us, figuring out how do we sit there and do mutual fire support irrelevant of whether it’s coming from an aircraft, a surface ship or an EAB established ashore somewhere,” Robertson said.”[3]

The challenge is that while Marine Corps forces operating at sea in an expanded sea denial or sea control role, or from mobile bases where parts of a MEU or MEB or MAGTF are deployed, the Inside Forces are not part of a deployed force large enough to be easily survivable by themselves. For a force deployed around expeditionary basing, the challenge is how that force nests among the key elements of the outside force which it is supporting.

How survivable is this force and how effectively does it empower the wider or outside force?

[1] “18th Wing, Joint Partners Execute First WestPac Rumrunner Exercise,” 18th Wing Public Affairs (January 10, 2020),

[2] USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Deploys Upon Completion of Historic COMPTUEX,” Second Fleet (February 19, 2021),

[3] Megan Eckstein, “IKE Carrier Strike Group Commands SEALS, Marine Missile Teams in First-of-a-Kind, Large-scale drill,” USNI News (February 17, 2021),

See the first piece in this series:

Re-shaping Forces for the High-End Fight: The Challenge of Overcoming the Legacy of the Land Wars