The USMC and Crafting the Seabase Enterprise


The USMC has become more of a land army as a consequence of the Iraq War. General Conway, the USMC Commandant, is worried the Corps is losing its expeditionary focus. Marine officers who have joined the USMC during the Iraq period are very likely NEVER to have been aboard ship. According to Conway, “They have been to Iraq two or three times in most instances but, in some cases, now are leaving us never having stepped aboard a ship.”

But the essence of the USMC is to be a flexible, expeditionary force. Indeed, in their operations in Afghanistan and Iraq they have conducted flexible operations built around their aviation capabilities. Indeed, in a famous moment in the initial Afghanistan operation, the USMC operated from ships to move deep inland to operate against the Taliban. Task Force 58 was in essence a seabasing operation as the USMC leadership sees it, and an example of what the USMC needs to be prepared and supported to do in the years ahead. Task Force 58’s (TF-58) combat operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001 covered 450 nm to establish Camp “Rhino” and then operated over 750 nm to Kabul. “On 25 November TF 58 opened a second front in the south by commencing the longest ship-to-objective maneuver in history, moving 400 miles inland to seize the desert airstrip south of Kandahar. Renamed “Forward Operating Base (FOB) Rhino,” it supported the introduction of additional joint forces as well as the isolation and the eventual seizure of Kandahar, the last political and military stronghold of the Taliban regime. Supported and sustained from a sea base 450 miles away, FOB Rhino facilitated the projection of combat power several hundred miles further inland.”[1]

Figure 1 General Amos, The Competition for Access and Influence "Seabasing" presented at the 12th Annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Panama City, Florida, 2007
Figure 1 General Amos, The Competition for Access and Influence "Seabasing" presented at the 12th Annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Panama City, Florida, 2007

The flexibility of operations essential to the USMC was underscored by the release of the USMC’s Combat Development Command at Quantico’s evolution of the concept of the “Strategic Corporal.” The “Strategic Corporal” was invented by former USMC Commandant General Krulak and referred to the flexible training and capability of the individual marine operating in variety of organizational settings, notably the “three block war.” In the October 2007 release of the Combat Development Command, the “Strategic Corporal” became associated with the evolution of the seabase. Here the concept of the role of the “Strategic Corporal” is that of the USMC unit of operations from battalion on up able to operate flexibly from the sea many miles inland to influence events. Here the USMC is seen as able to operate in peacekeeping, stability, and low-to-high intensity operations with integrated equipment packages able to operate from the sea or redeployed on the shore or deep inland able to influence events. The notable point is the modular sea-base approach is seen as integral to the operation of the new USMC equipment, notably the Osprey and the F-35 in the years ahead. Flexibility, expeditionary, integrated operations and sea-basing are seen as closely integrated in evolving USMC doctrine and operations.

In a discussion with Jim Strock, Director, Sebasing Integration Division of the Capabilities Development Directorate of the USMC Combat Development Command  the basic USMC approach was outlined.

Characteristics of Seabasing Key Attributes of the Seabasing Enterprise
National capability for force projection No secure beach or host nation required
Exploits sea as maneuver space 365 days a year No “iron mountain” ashore to protect
Maximizes the effects of forward presence Assembles troops and equipment at sea
Reduces dependence on vulnerable land bases, “steps lightly” on allies and partners Selectively offloadable for different missions
Increased options for the President Sustainment and reconstitution of fighting from the sea
Crafting of an enterprise which can cover the spectrum of political-military missions on a global basis Deployed and sustained force afloat able to influence events ashore with ground forces engaged ashore
Enabler of joint and coalition operations in area denial and anti-access environments Sea strike becomes a deployed joint force, not simply an aerospace strike force

The first and most compelling point made by Strock was that seabasing should be understand in a modular way. No two seabases will be alike. A mix of capabilities will be blended to allow the forces operating off of the seabase to influence events ashore. Modular mix and match will allow the seabased force to provide the flexibility necessary to operate in a variety of settings and for a variety of missions. The seabase is flexible and scalable. But without a sufficient robust mix of capabilities and without “sea shield,” the seabase will not be effective.

What's in the Joint Seabase?

“Viewing the Sea Base as a capability, it can be formed by a one ship, a small group of ships, or a larger, more diverse force. No two seabases will ever be the same. The platforms shown on this graphic are all components that will play a role in the “system of systems” of the seabase enterprise. At the center of the Seabase will be the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future). The Carrier Strike Group is built around an aircraft carrier, while an Expeditionary Strike Group provides the synergy of surface combatants with a Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked on Amphibious Warfare Ships. Various connectors will provide both intra-theater and inter-theater lift of aircraft, personnel, and equipment. The Combat Logistics Force ships provide sustainment, and Coalition Forces provide unique capabilities to the Sea Base that will be critical to our success.”

Seabasing is not about logistics support to forces put ashore. It is about logistics embedded in the sustainment of forces able to deploy from the seabase deep inland. It is about sustainment and engagement as two arms of deployed capability. Seabased forces maneuver directly to the objective rather than first establishing a presence on shore.

At heart, the seabase by combining its initial logistics support and providing a base for continuing operations with a possibility of sustained replenishment can operate effectively from the moment it arrives on station. By combining sustainment and deployable forces, the seabase embodies a force able to influence events ashore across a wide range of contingencies. The flexibility of the seabase concept, Strock, maintains will be essential to U.S. and allied strategy in the years ahead, as access denial becomes more telling and the need to insert force rapidly or selectively becomes more important in shaping counter-terrorism or humanitarian missions. Insertion forces will become strategically important as the U.S. rethinks the desirability of deploying large land armies to do stability operations as a core motif of U.S. operations.

Also important to the USMC is getting the seabase approach in place and operating effectively as it brings online its new expeditionary equipment. The F-35, the Osprey and the expeditionary fighting vehicle all will provide greater range, lethality, and C4ISR capabilities to a deployed force. And the USMC will be able to operate its evolving doctrine of decentralized and reconfigurable forces (distributed operations) with the new equipment connecting the deployed elements. And with reachback to the seabase, the force can operate with sustainment in place.

Seabasing allows the USMC to focus on operations right away rather than primarily focusing on managing the offloading of equipment to port and shore facilities. Strack underscored that in current operations it is necessary to offload inventory ashore, then organize the inventory, then marry the supplies to the equipment, then assemble to equipment and only then begin operations. This not only takes time, but enhances significantly the vulnerability of an embarqued force. With the growing capabilities of adversaries to target fixed facilities ashore, the need to operate rapidly against those capabilities and to operate from various vectors of operations connected by the seabased forces networks and protected by sea-based defenses is growing. The seabase may provide the only viable insertion of ground force option in many future contingencies.

For operations beyond the initial insertion, the seabase will need to be replenished. And here a new vehicle (the Vehicle Transfer System of VTS) is being developed to provide offloading capability from replenishment ships and capable of transferring assets among elements of the seabase. And indeed, R and D efforts are underway to enhance the capability for replenishment and transfer of assets to provide for greater sustainability and, therefore, operational capability for the seabase. The seabasing concept of the USMC places sustainment on strategic par with the forces able to be deployed. Twining of sustainment and operational capability is a core aspect of the evolving concept of the seabase.

Vehicle Transfer System

Some of the key technologies which must be developed to enable the seabased enterprise are: skin to skin transfer of cargo and related operations, automated cargo handling systems that will permit selective offload of cargo, cranes that can lift more and operate in higher sea states, and the ability to interface and offload rolling stock and cargo with other ships and connectors.

Joint Seabasing Experimentation

Although seabasing is a core U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps approach, the U.S. Army is becoming an increasingly important partner in the evolution of the seabase. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US Army and USMC have increasingly cooperated in shaping common capabilities, e.g, the procurement of the Shadow UAV by the USMC and sharing of operational approaches with the US Army. The US Army has become a partner with the USMC in shaping joint R and D with regard to vessel requirements and is sharing the acquisition of some elements of the seabase. US Army thinking was underscored in a recent US Army presentation on the seabase at the annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference in October 2007.[2]

Figure 2 From BG Martz Brief to Expeditionary Warfare Conference (2007)
Figure 2 From BG Martz Brief to Expeditionary Warfare Conference (2007)

In effect, what the Army is advocating is reshaping their logistics ship support from offloading equipment to a mixed fleet which could support operations from the seabase for a period of time before an offloading operation is embarqued.

Figure 3 The JHSV is being developed with the Army working through Navy program office (PMS 325).  The JHSV is a 35-45 knot ship that will provide intra-theater life of equipment and personnel.
Figure 3 The JHSV is being developed with the Army working through Navy program office (PMS 325). The JHSV is a 35-45 knot ship that will provide intra-theater life of equipment and personnel.

Although the USN and USMC both support the seabase concept, there is a difference. Due as much to the shipbuilding challenges as much as anything else, the USMC emphasizes amphibious assault and forceable entry. The USN tends to emphasize replenishment and resupply of forces which have moved ashore.

Clearly, the USMC would like a significant increase in the commitment in the shipbuilding budget to ships appropriate to the seabasing enterprise.[3] Here additional amphibious vehicles, transfer vehicles, replenishment ships and other assets are required to achieve the promise of seabasing. Strock indicates that about 7% of the shipbuilding budget goes to the amphibious fleet. He would like to see this increased.

One might observe that the seabasing enterprise could become more significant to future Administrations. The current shipbuilding crisis is shaped by what Defense News’s Chris Cavas calls a radical commitment to building many new ships at once for the surface navy.[4] It is a hugely risky venture designed to build a strike fleet. In contrast, the seabase enterprise makes the combined ground, air and naval team (USMC and US Army) the naval strike force. The difference here is significant: is naval strike largely about missile and related strikes from a carrier task force or is it about influencing events ashore from a seabased enterprise? Indeed, one could see the U.S. Navy being recast as a littoral endurance force able to employ a seabased enterprise, provide for maritime security and provide global presence seeking to influence events in the littorals as the core US elements.

If the seabasing enterprise is to be realized, there clearly will have to be a sustained strategic and financial commitment.  The challenge is that the Obama Administration is reviewing the entire gamut of amphibious operations.  And support for sea-basing might be construed as part and parcel of any cuts to the amphibious fleet.  This would be unfortunate given the flexibility which the fleet provides and the utility of insertion forces globally and across the spectrum of operations.  As the Administration considers the role of “hybrid warfare,” sea basing could prove an indispensable tool for flexible global operations.  And the USMC is emphasizing the role of sea basing within what the USN is calling its global fleet station strategy.  And the commitment to the F35 carries with it the opportunity to consider the role of the F-35B to a future sea-basing strategy.

The Obama Administration through the QDR process is very likely to change elements of what underlies the seabasing capability.  Notably, with regard to the logistics ship which will  underlie the capability.  The Mobile Landing Platform of MLP is a centerpiece to the capability.  But it appears that the Administration will not build a new ship for this capability, instead opting for an existing hull form.  So the shift might be from the MLP to a MLP-like capability.  The jury is out on weather the Administration supports a core capability; but the need is not.

An earlier version of this article was published in Military Logistics International in February/March 2008 and was authored by Murielle Delaporte and Robbin Laird.

[1] Grace V. Jean, “More Amphibious Ships are Needed, Marines Contend,” National Defense (February 2008)

[2] Chris Cavas, “US Navy Gambles on High Technology,” Defense News (February 4, 2008).

[3] BG Joseph E. Martz, Director, Concepts Development and Experimentation Army Capabilities Integration Center, A Campaign Quality, Expeditionary Army for 21st Century Full Spectrum Operations (October 23, 2007).

[4] Naval Operations Concept 2006, p. 28.


***Posted September 18th, 2009