Shaping A Distributed Operations Force for the Pacific


2014-01-15 Case 3: Shaping A Distributed Operations Force for the Pacific

The United States is in the midst of its Pivot to the Pacific.  The U.S. Marine Corps is in many ways the pivoting force for the pivot.

The USMC is really at the center of the pivot to the Pacific. The USMC is not only redeploying in the region but enhancing its role as a rotational force as well. As Col. Merna, the Commanding Officer of the 31st MEU put it:

In one sense, the Marines are going back to the force levels we had in the region prior to 9/11.  So it is simply a restoration rather than a build up or buildout.

But the way the force is being configured is very different. We are emphasizing building out a rotational force, notably in Australia, but elsewhere as well.

The USMC is itself pivoting in the Pivot to the Pacific. 

USMC forces in Okinawa are moving partly to Guam and the Marines are shaping a new working relationship with the Australians in Western Australia.  In fact, they are the lead force in re-shaping presence in the Pacific over the next few years.

The Marine Corps in the Pacific faces a myriad of challenges.  The Marines have been directed through International Agreements, spanning two different US administrations to execute force-positioning moves.  This is political, but it’s not partisan.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense has mandated that at least 22,000 Marines in PACOM remain west of the International dateline in the distributed Marine Air Ground Task Force or MAGTF Laydown and he, congress, and the American people are not interested in a non-functional concept for a USMC force.

The US Needs to Operate in Two Strategic Operational Zones: A Triangle In Support of Japan; and a Quadrangle to Support South Korea and Core Asian Allies.
The US Needs to Operate in Two Strategic Operational Zones: A Triangle In Support of Japan; and a Quadrangle to Support South Korea and Core Asian Allies. 

And, the Obama White House has directed the USMC to make to shift as well of forces from Okinawa to Guam and to a new working relationship with the Australians.

Beyond what is directed, the Marines need to maintain a ready-force in the face of existing training area encroachments, plus they have the requirement for training areas near the new force laydown locations

Within the distributed laydown, the Marines must retain the ability rapidly to respond to crises across the range of demands, from Major Combat operation in NE Asia to low-end humanitarian assistance and disaster relief of HA/DR wherever it occurs. 

Each location for the Marines is in transition as well. From Okinawa and Iwakuni, the Marines can locally train in Japan, Korea and the Philippines, as well as respond with “Fight Tonight” capabilities if necessary.

From Guam, the Marines can train locally in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)  to the north, the Federated States of Micronesia to the south, and Palau and the Philippines to the west.  Guam and CNMI provide the Marines something we do not have anywhere else in the Pacific:  A location on U.S. soil where they can train unilaterally or with partner nations

The USMC is focused on shaping a distributed operations force to meet these evolving engagement challenges.  For such a force, strike is built into the force but is not the defining quality.  For many, augmenting the precision strike force is the key area for investments for the US in the Pacific.  But the priority ought to be on building up the capabilities for distributed operations within which precision strike is embedded.

As Lt. General Robling, MARFORCPAC has emphasized:

The key is persistent presence and scalable force.  We need to be engaged in the process of reform of the various allied forces as well in the Pacific.  We cannot nor should not do it all on our own.  And distributed force allows for the kind of security engagement we need to do so, and to be well positioned for escalation if that comes.

Distributed operations and disaggregation is a fact of life in the Pacific.  Rarely do we send an ARG/MEU out now, especially the 31st MEU, into the AOR, where we don’t disaggregate.

Until we distribute them to different missions and then re-aggregate to come back to a large exercise or mission, they spread and can cover several missions by distributed operations.

And then, with the types of equipment we’re buying and we’ve shown this as well in exercises like Bold Alligator, you can stick a MV22 on any one of those amphibious ships or any one of those ships, like an MLP or a TAKE, and you have just extended your shoreline north and south 300 miles each direction.

The Marines are at the forefront of con-ops innovation and have led with the Osprey creating new opportunities and potentially new strategies. 

The then Commanding General of the 1st Marine Air Wing located at Okinawa has characterized the leveraging of the Osprey to shape possibilities of a new and more effective distributed or island operational strategy:

When you add to that the Osprey and its range and speed, you now have a wider selection of landing spots if we needed an intermediate support base.

A good case in point would be when we wish to deploy helicopters from Futenma to the Philippines, there are a couple of places that we must land for fuel.  For one leg, there is only one site, which allows us to do this. But when you have an aircraft with greater range, it opens up more possibilities.

If, in a time of conflict, we were going someplace and an adversary wanted to deny us the ability to put in a refueling point or intermediate support base, they would have to now take into account a much greater number of islands.  With only helicopters, an adversary could draw a 100-mile ring around a base and know where we could operate.

Ospreys, particularly when supported by KC-130Js, would significantly complicate an adversary’s attempts to predict our movements and operations.

With the Osprey, the Marines brought the aircraft into operation after a CH-46 was struck by a manpad in 2007.  They do not wish to see a similar problem with their legacy aircraft, and will seek to bring their F-35Bs, currently training at Yuma Air station into the Pacific as early as 2015.

With the Marines, evolving the strategy with getting the new equipment in the warfighters to shape that strategy is crucial.

It is not about testing in the abstract; it is about prevailing in combat, and they believe that getting new equipment into the hands of the warfighter, in this case the F-35B to the Pacific is a crucial part of the “testing” reality.

As former Secretary of the USAF, Michael Wynne underscored the approach:

The current wisdom is that testing must conclude before operations can be fully implemented has been turned on its head during the past two decades. But the reality is the opposite. Operational use at crucial points is the real testing of systems.

The Marines are already experimenting with Harriers and Ospreys to anticipate a new potent flexible combination: Osprey refuelers and weapons resupply reloaders with the Harriers as surrogates for the F-35Bs.

As the Deputy Commandant of Aviation, Lt. General Schmidle has underscored:

We are looking at a sixteen-ship F-35B formation flying with a four-ship Osprey formation.  The Ospreys could fly with the Bs to provide fuel and munitions for rearming wherever the F-35Bs can land.  As you know, the F-35B can land in a wide variety of areas and as a result this gives us a very mobile strike force to operate throughout the battlespace.  This kind of flexibility will be crucial in the years ahead.

An additional advantage to working out a new strategic approach in response to new weapons – in this case the MV-22 and the anticipated arrival of the F-35B –the Marines are working with allies to reshape their forces and approaches.

Shaping convergent capabilities for future operations is central to a Pacific strategy and will only happen by working the problem at the real world level.

There is no point to playing with yesterday’s equipment to reinforce 20th concepts of operations; leverage the new to shape 21st century approaches.

As Lt. General Robling put with regard to the Australians working with the Marines, notably in the new working relationship based in Darwin:

They want to have a bigger part in the security of the Pacific because they see themselves as major players here. 

And the only way that they can be major players with an Army that’s only 30,000 strong is to give them the capability to have amphibious forces that can project away from Australia and make a difference. 

And the only way they’re going to be able to do that is for us to train them up in amphibious operations, buy the equipment they need to load up those amphibious ships that they bought, and then go out and exercise it. 

We are publishing in five parts a full draft of the article which appeared recently in Joint Force Quarterly.