Combat Transformation, and the Amphibious Force: A PACFLEET Marine Corps Perspective.


2015-08-11 By Robbin Laird

During my visit to PACFLEET at the end of July 2015, I had a chance to discuss the perspective of Colonel Jeffrey “Face” Hagan who is on the staff of Admiral Swift, the PACFLEET Commander.

His role is to operate as link between PACFLEET and the Marines, both in terms of the Marines working directly for PACFLEET as well as with MARFORPAC,

The transformation of the amphibious fleet is a key driver for change in the Pacific and one, which the current PACFLEET commanders are working to leverage for overall combat transformation in the Pacific.

Col. Hagan is a CH-53 pilot with significant MEU experience in the both in the Pacific and in the Atlantic/Middle East. And he has tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“80 percent of my time is spent with the N3 working with the PACFLT/MARFORPAC amphibious campaign plan.

Where do we put the amphibious warfare pieces in all of our future operations?

Are the ships supporting the schemes of maneuver that MARFORPAC wants?

And is MARFORPAC supporting the schemes of maneuver that PACFLT wants?”

For Col. Hagan, the shift from a preoccupation with the land wars created more than a decade gap in prioritizing the maritime integration of the Marines and the Navy.

The transformation of the amphibious warfare mission is occurring precisely as the two services are working to enhance their ability to operate more effectively together in the maritime domain.

He believes PACFLEET leadership recognizes the changes associated with the amphibious ready group and the Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG-MEU) and is working to leverage those changes within their overall strategy in the Pacific.

“If you picture the World War II storming of Tarawa, that’s not the amphibious assault we’re talking about today.

And I think carrier operations and naval operations as a whole are evolving in exactly the same way.

The picture of how we operated in World War II is not how we plan to do it today.”

The dynamics of change associated first with the Osprey and now with the F-35B are showcasing the strike capability of the amphibious fleet.

The fleet is becoming a base from which one would conduct the operation instead of offloading where one would do an operation.

He put the change bluntly: “The amphibious capability now gets a front row seat for consideration for every flavor of operation across the range of military operations (ROMO).

They can deploy, execute the mission, and when the mission is done – leave.

We still have the ability to mass the force if that’s what’s required for the mission.

I can mass the force and overwhelm you with power projection right in your face if needed.

But there are a lot of missions where I don’t want to, or need to, mass force on force; it’s not always the best way to accomplish the mission.”

The Osprey was a key element of the change.

The range and speed of the Osprey and its quality of a plane, which can land as a helicopter meant that one could go to an area of interest, do the task and then return to base or to a ship.

You did not need to be an additional logistical burden on the area in which one would insert; you could be sustained elsewhere.

“Some look at the Osprey as a helicopter which can fly like an airplane; I look at it the other way around.

It is a plane, which can land like a helicopter and dramatically enhance where you employ your forces.

You’ve made a lot of things more manageable through your ability to self-deploy.

Its self-deployment capability has changed forever how we can operate throughout the Pacific area of operations.

It provides the commander with a speed to respond capability which can put a force where you want it but with a smaller logistical footprint, then it can leave and be sustained elsewhere.

With the nature of the terrain in the Pacific, even on a lower end HA/DR response, show the decisive advantage gained from the combination of platforms like the MV-22 and amphibious ships.”

The F-35B is bringing new capabilities to the ARG-MEU which will enhance significantly the capacity to operate from the ships to operate across the ROMO rather than having to forward deploy to land, set a support base and then to operate.

In other words, operating the F-35B from the sea is a key part of reshaping how the USMC-USN team is planning to work from the sea.

And as the USN-USMC team was working through its own combat transformation, allies and partners in the region are looking at enhancing their own amphibious capabilities as well.

Notably, at the lower end of the ROMO, the ability of the US to work with allies with the same TTPs and common C2 means that the ability to work in HA/DR operations with allies and partners can enhance the ability to respond and lower the demand on the US fleet.

“We are seeing a growth industry in the Pacific for amphibious capability.

But we’re seeing two flavors of that.

There are countries that see that amphibious capability more in terms of a mobility asset.

They need an L-class ship to move equipment areas they have to protect.

And some are not ready or able yet to make the intellectual leap of fighting from the ship.”

But there clearly are allies that are looking to evolve like the USN-USMC team towards the strike force capability, which the ARG-MEU is in transition to do more effectively over time.

Working with allies in partners in both areas is important for PACFLEET going forward.

Given the nature of the dynamics of change in the Pacific is crucial for the US to work on transforming its capabilities and to do so with a core effort on cross cutting modernizations with allies.

In an interview last year with Lt. General Robling, then MARFORPAC Commander, highlighted that the Aussies are a good example of an ally building out its capabilities as the US does so and working out a very interactive and mutually reinforcing defense structure.

“The two allies see a mutually beneficial relationship.

The intersection of Australian training ranges with those we are modernizing in Guam is a key element of working cross cutting modernizations.

This will allow us to work with a set of allies in the region as well within the Guam context to facilitate mutual modernizations of the allies as well.

We are not just building our bilateral relationships; we are facilitating multi-national collaboration AMONG our allies as well.  This is a clear force multiplier.”

In other words, the opportunity is not just for training but shaping relevant capabilities for 21st century operations.

The slideshow above is from operations during an 11th MEU long-range insertion in 2014.

10/12/2014: MV-22B Ospreys with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, take off from the flight deck of the USS Makin Island for a long-range insertion to Camp Bellows, Hawaii on the Pacific Ocean July 30, 2014.

The 11th MEU and Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group deployed as a sea-based, expeditionary crisis response force capable of conducting amphibious missions across the full range of military operations.

USS MAKIN ISLAND, Pacific Ocean — Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, supported by sailors from Amphibious Squadron 5 and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group, conducted a long range insertion of more than 800 nautical miles into Bellows Training Area, Hawaii, July 31, 2014.

Four MV-22B Ospreys, refueled en route by a KC-130J Super Hercules, departed the USS Makin Island and arrived at their destination several hours later.

“Missions such as these highlight the extensive reach of the MEU, as well as our ability to arrive swiftly where our forces may be needed and with the capability to have immediate impacts,” said Col. Matthew Trollinger, the 11th MEU’s commanding officer.

Predeployment training began for the 11th MEU in January, when the unit grew from a staff of fewer than 100 to a flexible, combined-arms, seagoing force of more than 2,500 Marines and sailors.

The MEU’s major subordinate elements are Battalion Landing Team 2/1, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163 (Reinforced), and Combat Logistics Battalion 11.

The MEU departed San Diego on July 25 and is currently deployed as part of WESTPAC 14-2.

Credit:11th Marine Expeditionary Unit

July 31, 2014

A seminal example of the changes under way was the engagement of the Marines, the Navy as the lead elements in responding the Phillipine relief mission in 2014. 

Americans and others around the globe have seen the moving images of Marine Ospreys and KC-130Js initially based in Okinawa arriving quickly to aide relief efforts in the Philippines.  

The Marines are the only force other than Special Operations that uses their C-130s as tankers (hence KC) and this allows for extended missions for the Ospreys.

These ready on arrival Marines in the aftermath of a horrific Typhoon were the initial tip of the spear of a US relief effort, called Operation Damayan. 

As one senior Marine has put it:

1st MAW had Ospreys and Hercs in Tacloban about 72 hrs after the storm passed. And I am not talking just about people on the ground but real, self-sustaining capability to move the mountains of relief supplies to where it was needed and where nothing else could get the job done so effectively. 

There is no question it is a just a small effort against an immense catastrophe but the combination of rapid deployment and true capability is a crucial part of getting the response in play. 

Only a few months ago, the Ospreys had come to Okinawa, and did so in the face of significant orchestrated public protest to their arrival.

Now they are a unique lifesaving asset of the initial engagement of American forces in the effort.

In these photos taken by the “Flying Tigers” Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. “Sniper” Brown over the past few days, one gains a perspective on the mission

[slidepress gallery=’an-osprey-squadron-in-action’]

The first three photos show the Ospreys after having landed on a school field in the midst of significant devastation.

When the digital support for the mission was down, the Ospreys used aerial reconnaissance (their own) to determine where to take relief aid.

Initially, the team thought this was a soccer field but determined upon landing that it was a schoolyard.

Upon delivering aid, the Filipinos worked with the Marines and the local police who were present to deliver aide in an orderly fashion. According to Brown: “The school children were very happy to see us and the parents and children responded with enthusiasm to our arrival.”

The fourth photo shows the C-130 working closely with the Ospreys to support the mission. Indeed, because the C-130J squadron commander lives next door to Brown in Okinawa, they started planning the joint mission several days prior to its execution.

The fifth photo shows the presence of the large deck carrier with an Osprey coming in for refueling.

According to Brown, “A hub and spoke system is emerging in which the Navy helos are being supported by Marine FARPS (Forward Area Refueling Point) with the Ospreys using either the C-130s or the large deck carrier for refueling.”

In its role the USS Washington is a seasbase operating a few miles offshore and is integrated into the overall operations, rather than being considered as something apart from the overall role of airpower supporting the HA/DR mission set.

Concepts of operations can change as new technologies are added to the fleet.

The Marines have operated as the forward deployed force for the operation, and reminds one of the importance of forward presence.

Having integrated capability for the point of the spear is crucial and the Osprey clearly functions as the tip of the tip of the spear for rapid insertion.

As one senior Marine put it:

1st MAW had Ospreys and Hercs in Tacloban about 72 hrs after the storm passed. And I am not talking just about people on the ground but real, self-sustaining capability to move the mountains of relief supplies to where it was needed and where nothing else could get the job done so effectively.

There is no question it is a just a small effort against an immense catastrophe but the combination of rapid deployment and true capability is a crucial part of getting the response in play.

And it has been clear that the Marines see themselves as part of the overall joint and coalition force and working as a supporting command to the Philippine’s Armed Forces overall.