Trouble Busters: The Agile Response Group in Action


09/06/2011 By Maj. General Tim Hanifen, Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris and Robert Holzer

Global demand for amphibious forces outstrips resources.

When a crisis erupts the first question U.S. leaders often ask is, “Where are the aircraft carriers?” This historical axiom, however, has expanded over time and now regional commanders also ask, “Where are the amphibious warships?”

Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough of these versatile warships and their Marine Corps landing forces to meet the growing demand.

The rising primacy of amphibious operations began barely two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., when sailors and Marines from two amphibious ready groups (ARGs) and Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) launched the longest-range amphibious assault in history. Task Force 58’s mission was to fly 450 miles inland and seize the airfield near Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. The assault’s objective was to open a new front in the U.S. campaign to destroy al-Qaida and upend the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. The helicopter-borne Marines from the 15th and 26th MEUs seized control and quickly established Forward Operating Base Rhino, which was completely supported from the sea by ships of the Peleliu and Bataan ARGs for the next four months.

Little did the Marines and sailors realize it at the time, but Task Force 58’s operation — a textbook example of the power and flexibility of sea basing — was the opening salvo in a decade-long series of operations that has continually reinforced the ARG/MEU team as the nation’s crisis-response force of choice.

Wherever and whenever troubles have arisen over the last decade and the nation requires a rapid response, the Navy/Marine Corps team has been there. And when the klaxon sounds, increasingly the first responders of the Navy/Marine Corps team has been the ARG/MEU. These forces are truly the utility players of the fleet team…..

This flexible combination of capabilities is what has driven the political and military demands for using amphibious forces, which have conducted more than 100 specific missions since the Cold War ended. This operational total does not account for the vast array of military engagement and security cooperation missions that Navy and Marine Corps forces routinely undertake and which, prior to recent changes in joint doctrine, were not considered amphibious operations. Marine Corps forces alone have responded to more than 20 additional crises since 9/11, beyond their extended combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is not diminishing, however, is the continued operational demand on Navy and Marine Corps forces for crisis-response, forward presence-engagement and humanitarian-assistance missions. For example, former Navy Assistant Secretary Seth Cropsey calculates that naval forces provided continuous forward presence and responded to more than 360 humanitarian missions from 1960 to 2000, compared with only 22 combat missions during the same time period. In an era of declining access and strategic uncertainty, it is anticipated that this upward trend in use will continue. These demand signals from regional commanders reflect the operational value of amphibious forces for missions across the entire range of military operations.

It is not just the capabilities resident in the ARG/MEU team that fuel the demand for these assets. In addition, a host of global trends are converging, most significantly in the world’s littorals, that places an increasing premium on ships, units and capabilities that are agile and don’t require a huge footprint ashore…..

The growing interest in naval amphibious forces is not a new phenomenon for the Navy or Marine Corps. The type of integration and seamless cooperation that exists across the ARG/MEU combination is engrained in each service’s DNA. Since the inception of amphibious forces, their flexibility and utility have been demonstrated by time-sensitive amphibious expeditionary operations in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and numerous crisis response and humanitarian assistance missions over the ensuing decades. In today’s world, the demand from regional commanders for ARG/MEU deployments as well as the demand for deployments of individual amphibious ships has skyrocketed.

For example, since 2007, the combatant commands operational demand for ARG/MEUs has increased by 86 percent and the demand for individually tasked amphibious ships has increased by 53 percent. The daily peacetime demand for amphibious warships far exceeds the stated requirement for 38 amphibious warships to embark the assault elements of two Marine expeditionary brigades for joint forcible-entry operations. But fiscal challenges have limited the total amphibious force to only 33 warships — five below the required threshold…..

A Decade of Action







USS Peleliu/Bataan

15th and 26th


Indonesian Tsunami

USS Bonhomme Richard




USS Iwo Jima/Bataan



Pakistan Earthquake

USS Tarawa



Lebanon NEO

USS Iwo Jima



Leyte Island Mudslide

USS Essex



Hurricane Felix

USS Wasp



Tropical Cyclone Bangladesh

USS Kearsarge/ Essex/Tarawa



Haiti Multiple Hurricane Response

USS Kearsarge

MHH 464



Maresk Alabama Piracy Rescue

USS Boxer



Haiti Earthquake

USS Bataan/Nassau



Pakistan Floods

USS Peleliu/ Kearsarge

15th and 26th


Japan Earthquake/tsunami

USS Ronald Reagan carrier group

31st and 3rd MEB


Libyan no-fly zone enforcement

USS Kearsarge/USS Ponce


US Navy and Marine Corps Research

Extrapolating current trends, we see no lessening of the demand from regional commanders for forward deployed amphibious forces. The broad range of irregular challenges is not going away. They, too, are on the increase. Naval amphibious forces provide a capable, agile and responsive force of choice in an uncertain world. They remain scalable to meet quickly evolving operational demands in hybrid conflicts. They provide a quick response to fast-breaking crises or humanitarian disasters as they erupt. They create decision space and buy time for U.S. and allied leaders. But, when needed, they can also seamlessly blend kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities to match operational situation. No other joint or naval capability can “land the landing force” whenever and wherever needed.

Yet our amphibious force cannot meet all current demands arising from regional commanders. For example, naval forces could fulfill only 34 percent of combatant command requests for amphibious forces in fiscal 2010, and only 35 percent of requests are being met in the current fiscal year. Clearly, there is a troubling and growing gap between ends and means.

Amphibious ships are in high demand because they are forward deployed, heavily engaged in troubled regions and provide more options for U.S. commanders. It is those attributes that set naval forces apart and bring credibility to Roughead’s assertion that the Navy/Marine Corps team doesn’t “surge and we don’t ride to the sound of the guns. We’re there, and when the guns go off, we’re ready to conduct combat operations.”

With such success, and their ability to meet the widest range of mission requirements, what better option exists than the ARG/MEU mix?

The text was provided by Rob Holzer for republication on Second Line of Defense.  The original and complete piece appear in Armed Forces Journal August 2011

MAJ. GEN. TIMOTHY HANIFEN is the director of Expeditionary Warfare. REAR ADM. SINCLAIR HARRIS is the director of Navy Irregular Warfare. Both offices are part of the Chief of Naval Operations staff. ROBERT HOLZER is a principal analyst with Gryphon Technologies