Re-Thinking Maneuver Warfare From the Sea


by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

The Libyan operations and Bold Alligator 2012 provide important inputs to re-thinking maneuver warfare from the Sea.  Both operations involve amphibious capabilities and the leverage of sea bases to re-shape how the US and its allies can operate in a new approach leveraging the available operational bases to achieve tactical and strategic dominance.

In our discussions of Libya, we focused on how the sea base can be integrated into an overall strike and sustainment operation.  At the heart of the new approach is the ability to engage and to dominate through SUSTAINED operations.  Such operations will require forces able to strike, to control the battlespace and then to prevail through the necessary period of the operation to achieve strategic and tactical objectives.

To sustain will mean that the sea bases will not just show up for a show of force, but be part of a sweep and sustainment operation.  This will mean that the ability to operate from land, whether in close proximity or distance will be integrated into the thinking about the USN-USM strike force.

No platform fights alone; nor does a single service.  We wrote earlier on AOL Defense:

The French operational experience in and off of Libya has neatly dovetailed with that of the U.S. Marines and suggests a way forward for American thinking about littoral operations.

With the decision of the U.S. national command authority to “lead from behind,” the Marines were almost inadvertently given a leading role. What “lead from behind” meant operationally was that the U.S. was not going to commit significant combat air capabilities to the fight, so the F-22 returned from Middle East exercises and the aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean was sent elsewhere, to support US ground troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. was to provide a C2 package to support the operation, as well as ground attack capabilities such as A-10s and C-130 gunships. Most importantly, the U.S. provided airborne tanking and related air support to the allied operations.

This piece is really all about the performance of the Marines and the US Navy-Marine amphibious ready group team. What the ARG ended up doing was re-shaping the next phase of operational history. The recently departed Secretary of Defense confused amphibious with Inchon, whereas the ARG really is a seabase from which one can conduct a variety of operations across the spectrum of warfare.

Operations off of the Mistral BPC during Bold Alligator 2012. This class of ship was an important element of the Libyan operations. Credit: SLD

The ARG is in the throes of fundamental change, with new ships and new planes providing new capabilities. These new capabilities are nicely congruent with the Libyan operational experiences. Given the Marines battle hymn, it seems that “off the shores of Tripoli” can have a whole new meaning for the evolution of the US force structure.

The ARG was used in several unprecedented ways in the Libyan operation. First, the V-22 Osprey was a key element of changing how U.S. forces operated. The Osprey provided a logistical linchpin which allowed the ARG to stay on station and allowed the Harriers to generate greater sortie generation rates and ops tempo. The use of the Osprey in the operation underscored the game changing possibilities of the ARG in littoral operations of the future.

For the Marine Expeditionary Unit, the combat elements might be on the ship, might be ashore, or might be in transit. The challenge for the MEU commander is to be able to concentrate force on the task at hand. Prior to the Libyan operations, Col. Dessens, the 26th MEU commander, faced the challenge of assembling his capability to fight the battle and then to be able to flexibly change the mix of forces at sea. What this meant was that some of his Ospreys were in Afghanistan, and not on his ARG ships.

The key point here is that the sea base, which in effect the ARG is, can provide a very flexible strike package. Given their proximity to shore, the Harriers could operate with significant sortie rates against enemy forces. Not only could the Harriers come and go rapidly, but the information they obtained with their Litening pods could be delivered to the ship and be processed and used to inform the next strike package. Commanders did not need a long C2 or C4ISR chain to inform combat. This meant that the ground forces of Gadaffi would not have moved far from the last positions Harriers noted before the new Harriers moved into attack positions. This combination of compressed C4ISR and sortie rates created a deadly combination for enemy forces and underscored that using sea bases in a compressed strike package had clear advantages over land-based aircraft several hours from the fight dependent on C4ISR coming from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

One more point about the ARG’s operations. The Osprey and the Harrier worked closely together to enhance combat capabilities. One aspect of this was the ability of the Osprey to bring parts and support elements to the Harriers. Instead of waiting for ships to bring parts, or for much slower legacy rotorcraft to fly them out, the 300-mph Osprey could bring parts from land bases to keep the ops temp up of the Harriers.

The well known pilot rescue mission certainly highlighted how a vertically-launched aircraft working with the Osprey off of the ARG can create new capabilities. The elapsed time of authorization to the recovery of the pilot and his return to the USS Kearsarge was 43 minutes.

This rescue took place even though the US Air Force had a rescue helo aboard the USS Ponce. In my view, having discussed this with the relevant personnel, it was not used for two reasons. It would have gotten to the pilot much later than an Osprey team and the command and control would have been much slower than what the Marines could deliver. The key to the Marines’ C2 was that the pilots of the Ospreys and Harriers planned the operation together in the ready room of the USS Kearsarge. They did not meet in virtual space. They exchanged information in real time and were in the same room. They could look at the briefing materials together. The Harriers were informed by fresh intelligence ABOARD the USS Kearsarge. The sea base brought together the assets and intelligence to execute the mission.

If we look at the French experience several Libyan lessons can be highlighted. First, the centrality of leveraging multiple bases in a littoral operation is significant. The French used several land bases and incorporated the sea base – whether the carrier or their amphibious ships – to work with land-based aircraft. The U.S. Marines used their land base largely to supply the sea-based air ops via Ospreys. Second, having the C4ISR forward-deployed with the pilot as the key decision maker is crucial to mission success.

The classic Air Force CAOC system was challenged by what the Marines demonstrated in the operation; the French experience reinforces that lesson. In a recent story from London on AOL Defense, the point was made that some French pilots felt the release authority from Predator information was too slow. The interpretation was unhappiness with the US, but I would argue that it is more the case that the information in a fluid and dynamic situation must be provided in a more timely fashion than a system built for 1991 air operations permits. Third, new air capabilities make a significant difference. For the Marines, the Osprey was the game changer in this operation. For the French, it was the new recce pods off of the Rafales. Fourth, the dynamic targeting problem discussed in the first article was also highlighted by the USMC experience. Getting accurate information from the ground is central to operations.

The USN-USMC team has a number of new capabilities being deployed or acquired which will enhance their ability to do such operations. The F-35B will give the Marines an integrated electronic warfare and C4ISR capability. The new LPDs have significant command and control capabilities. The new LCS could provide — along with the Osprey — significant combat insertion capability for ground forces and rapid withdrawal capability.

For the French, UAVs could become wingmen for the Rafaels. Also, the role of C2 capabilities of the new amphibious ships were underscored as well. Fifth, the pick-up quality of this operation may become more a norm than an aberration in the future. The old paradigm of days or weeks of significant planning and then roll out of a fleet of C4ISR aircraft and other capabilities may be challenged.

Deploying air assets that can be tapped by the sea base to shape an operation may become a key requirement for future battles on the littoral. As with any operation, each one’s characteristics are unique and thus not predetermined. What the Marines and the French forces have demonstrated is that 2011 certainly is not Iraq 1991 or Bosnia 1996.

Bold Alligator 2012 continues the learning process.  Here the USN-USMC-Allied team moved force ashore to where the enemy wasn’t to set up position points to pressure adversaries.  Going where the enemy is not will be significantly facilitated by the population of the forces with F-35s.  Already presaged in BACH1-11, the F-35 combat systems off of the Amphibs will allow the preparation for the insertion of forces like the MARSOC and to operate as a mini-JSTARS force guiding the insertion of force.

In the exercise, Harriers based on the USS Kersarge worked closely with land-based air to provide for a significant air combat capability to shape the battlespace.  The point is that the organizer of the spear is on the sea-base, and this capability can be conjoined with the various air combat centers extant or being developed in the region.

The F-22s could have used from ACC in Langley AFB to participate in the exercise along with the F-35 combat systems to shape significantly the battlespace to provide for C4ISR dominance.  The F-22 is the premier SEAD aircraft ever developed.

The jamming by the F-35 combat systems of enemy forces will be a significant part of allowing the initial sea-base to prepare for the augmentation of the force as staying power is required and shaping functions augmented.

An MV-22 Osprey lands on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) to receive and transport troops during the amphibious assault phase of Bold Alligator 2012. Credit: USN

The ability to leverage other sea based and land-based capabilities into a scalable force will become a core approach in re-shaping how the US and its allies organize force to operate in a fluid battlespace.

Deploying new supply ships – notably the T-AKE – will allow the seabase to have much greater staying power.  The VM-22s and eventually new CH-53Ks will be able to link the supply ships to support of the sea base and forces deployed ashore and provide significantly augmented staying power.

Logistics advances that supported the experiment included better integration with the sea-basing capabilities of the Navy’s logistic ships. Most important, Navy T-AKE (logistics support and supply) ships have been cleared to launch and recover Ospreys, thus enabling ongoing resupply from the sea to forces well inland. This capability also will have significant implications for humanitarian and disaster relief missions in the future.

As the F-35s and F-22s are engaged, the forward deployed sensors can guide a newly enabled surface and sub-surface fleet with a new generation of weapons – loitering, penetrating and lethal – to provide the “arsenal” ship support to the air and ground forces maneuvering to provide for situational dominance.

And with the new approach, the mix and match approach to basing – land, sea and allied – allows for a very flexible capability to provide for strategic and tactical dominance.

A good example of re-thinking basing was presented in an earlier posting, which focused specifically on the impact of the F-35B working with the USN and USAF team.

In the not two distant future the US Navy/Marine and USAF team may have to establish presence from the sea in a potential combat theater. The threat will be great: friendly forces can be intermixed with opponents who will do what ever it takes to win. From placing IEDs, to employing small unit ambushes, to spotting for artillery and Multiple Launch Rockets, the enemy will be unforgiving and aggressive. In addition there is a large land Army with armor and land-based precision weapons nearby to attack.

The opposing forces also have a tactical aviation component of Fighters and Attack Aircraft, along with Unmanned Aerial Systems and some proficiency in offensive “cyber war” ready to engage. To make it even more difficult the enemy has located and identified potential airfields that could be occupied and has targeted them to be destroyed by terminally guided cruise and intermediate range ballistic missiles.

Finally, the fleet off shore is vulnerable to ship-killing missiles. The problem for US war planners is to secure a beachhead and build to victory from that beginning. Traditionally, the “beachhead” was just that on a beach–but now it can be seizing territory inland first and attacking from the back door toward the sea to take a port and also grab an airfield.

The USAF flying high cover after being launched from bases far enough away to be safe from attack can establish Air Superiority, and the Navy Fighters can go on CAP (Combat Air Patrol) to protect the Fleet. Both services can launch offensive weapons from their TacAir also from B-2s, surface ships and subs. UAS can go into battle for ISR and offense “cyber” can be engaged. US “smart munitions” can attack enemy offensive rockets and missiles launch sites. There will be significant casualities on both sides.

But the Marines do the unexpected and land where the enemy does not have ease of access –a natural barrier perhaps, mountain range, water barrier, very open desert or even on the back side of urban sprawl—. Once established, logistical re-supply is a battle-tipping requirement.

Once ashore the one asset that can tip the battle and keep Tactical Aviation engaged in support of ground combat operations if runways are crated is the F-35B, because every hard surface road is a landing strip and resupply can quickly arrive from Navy Amphibious ships by MV-22s and CH-53K.

The allied element of the new approach is significant as well. An example is the impact of the “new Middle East” in terms of leveraging the sea base to be able to work with coalition partner’s land based capabilities.

With the Arab Spring, the security and defense framework, which the West has underwritten over the past thirty years, is shattered.  The Arab Spring states are in upheaval, the Iranians are preparing to enter the stage as a nuclear power, the Conservative Arab states have to prepare to defend themselves against Iran, and the interaction between Arab Spring forces and the stability of the key conservative Arab states is significant.  Who will the West be aiding and abetting if the Arab Spring continues to pull the rug out from under the de facto Conservative Arab, Israeli and Western alliance?

Will Western states be able and willing to deploy land based forces, whether ground or air, on Arab soil?  And given uncertainties even in key Arab allied states, how might the West best defend its interests, and to ensure energy security in the region?

The answer in part is provided by the BA-12 exercise.  As we mentioned before,  in the exercise, Harriers based on the USS Kersarge worked closely with land-based air to provide for a significant air combat capability to shape the battlespace.  This model can be followed with Arab Air Forces, the Israeli Air Force or Western Air Forces deployed temporarily on Arab soil.  The point is that the organizer of the spear is on the sea-base, and this capability can be conjoined with the various air combat centers extant or being developed in the region.

In short, re-shaping maneuver warfare from the sea by encompassing allied and US land-based air and other support and strike capabilities is a crucial element of the way ahead.