Shaping the Way Ahead for the Combat Insertion Force: The 15th MEU Goes to Sea with the USS America


2017-01-07 By Robbin Laird

A simple news release highlights the evolving USN-USMC combat team as a key step forward in shaping the combat infrastructure for the sea base which can support evolving capabilities for the assault force.

According to a press release from the USMC dated January 6, 2017:

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit based out of Camp Pendleton, California, assembled as a complete Marine Air-Ground Task Force January 6, to begin pre-deployment training with the U.S. Navy’s America Amphibious Ready Group for the upcoming Western Pacific 17-2 deployment.

Joining the 15th MEU Command Element is 1st Battalion, 5th Marines serving as the Ground Combat Element, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161 (Reinforced) serving as the Aviation Combat Element, and Combat Logistics Battalion 15 serving as the Logistics Combat Element.

“This Navy-Marine Corps team is comprised of some of the most historic units in Navy and Marine Corps history,” said Col. Joseph Clearfield, 15th MEU commanding officer.

“We will honor this lineage by deploying as a strong, flexible, consistent, and responsive crisis response force.”

The 15th MEU’s training cycle will begin with Marine Corps-specific training and progress to full Navy/Marine Corps joint evolutions throughout the six month pre-deployment period, culminating with a Certification Exercise to test the readiness of the America Amphibious Ready Group and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The three ships that will compose the America Amphibious Ready Group are the

San Diego based Marines to set sail on USS America from on Vimeo.

USS America (LHA-6), USS San Diego (LPD-22) and USS Pearl Harbor (LSD- 52).

The flagship, USS America, adds a unique aspect to the 15th MEU in that it is the first of its kind to be built with additional air support capabilities, designed specifically to support airborne amphibious assaults.

Commissioned in 2014, USS America will begin her maiden deployment with the 15th MEU and staff of the Commander, Amphibious Squadron 3 embarked.

For its last deployment, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve; the

15th MEU’s aviation combat element flew 76 sorties and 500 combat flight hours that resulted in 36 strikes against Da’esh positions, equipment, and personnel. In June, the USS Rushmore and embarked Marines rescued a group of Indonesian sailors from a sinking vessel in the Sulawesi Strait.

The 15th MEU provides a forward deployed, flexible force capable of conducting amphibious operations, crisis response and limited contingency operations in order to support the requirements of geographic combatant commanders.

But what this represents the next phase of the evolution of the long range assault force and its capabilities by the USS America operating as the flagship for the 15th MEU.

The USS America has recently seen the coming of the F-35 to the ship along with the Osprey and will soon see the CH-53K onboard, significantly increasing its lift capability into the area of interest.

Last month, we discussed this process with Col. Wellons, the CO of MAWTS-1.

Question: How does the integration of the F-35 into your operations, change how you think about those operations?

Col. Wellons: A lot of that can be quickly classified but let me give you an example, which does not fall into that category.

Historically, when we could come off of L class ship with Mv-22s, CH-53s, Cobras and Harriers and we then faced a serious AAA or MANPADS threat we would avoid that objective area.

Now we do not need to do so.

It changes the entire concept of close air support.

In Afghanistan and Iraq we have not had prohibitive interference in our air operations.

With double digit SAMS as part of threat areas we are likely to go, the F-35 allows us to operate in such areas.

Without the presence of the F35, it would be a mission that we wouldn’t be capable of executing.

The SA of the airplane is a game changer for us.

Rather than getting input from the Senior Watch Officer on the ground with regard to our broader combat SA, we now have that in our F-35. This allows us to share SA from the pilot flying the airplane and interacting with his sensors. He can share that information, that situational awareness, with everybody from other airborne platforms to the ground force commander in ways that are going to increase our ops tempo and allow us to do things that historically we wouldn’t have been able to do.

The ability of the F35 to be able to recognize and identify the types of prohibitive threats that would prevent us from putting in assault support platforms and ground forces is crucial to the way ahead.

The F-35 can not only identify those threats, but also kill them.

And that is now and not some future iteration.

Evolving the capability of the insertion forces rather than simply relying on putting “Walmarts” ashore and conducting combat support from Forward Operating Bases and airbases in contested territory, the sea base provides its own integrated support and operational integrated capabilities.

This force and support integration offshore provides capability for not only force protection but also surprise against enemies who wish to use agility to their advantage.

Donald Trump as candidate has often raised the issue of changing the approach to fighting ISIS.

“I want to be unpredictable.

I don’t want to tell ISIS what I’m going to do to knock the hell out of them.”

“I think we have to be unpredictable,” Trump told CBS News’ John Dickerson in January.

“Our enemies know what we are going to do, whether it is battle, whether it is war, whether it is finance. You have to be somewhat unpredictable.”

PACIFIC OCEAN -- An MV-22B Osprey takes off from the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6), November 19, 2016. The Osprey dropped off distinguished visitors and media before the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. The demonstration is the first shipboard Marine Corps F-35B integration demonstration alongside other Marine Corps Air Combat Element assets. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)
PACIFIC OCEAN — An MV-22B Osprey takes off from the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6), November 19, 2016. The Osprey dropped off distinguished visitors and media before the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. The demonstration is the first shipboard Marine Corps F-35B integration demonstration alongside other Marine Corps Air Combat Element assets. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)

On the one hand, he wants to hit Isis much harder.

The approach suggested by the retired Lt. General Deptula, to have a real air campaign against ISIS is certainly a way which force against the adversary could be ramped up and calibrated.

We need to begin with an aggressive air campaign — where airpower is applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle; 24/7 constant over-watch, with force used against every move of IS forces and personnel. 

We’ve done this before — Desert Storm where the opening 24 hours witnessed over 2.500 aircraft missions focused on a simultaneous attack across the breadth and depth of the entire country of Iraq—an attack from which Saddam Hussein’s forces never recovered. 

IS won’t require that level of effort.

On the other hand, it is not airpower versus boots on the ground.  It is about changing the nature of the ground forces used and how air-ground integration to kill the enemy is conducted.

It is not about putting bases on the ground that ISIS can strike as they can.

The recent attack on Bagram reminds us of the inevitable problem of the land base in contested territory.

Four Americans were killed in an apparent suicide bomb attack early Saturday at Bagram Airfield, the largest US base in Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

Two of those killed were service members, and two were contractors, he said, adding he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

The explosion also wounded 16 other US service members and one Polish soldier participating in the NATO mission, Carter said in a statement.

The Taliban claimed responsibility in a tweet praising the “strong attack” on Bagram Airfield.

This kill and tweet approach of our terrorist opponents becomes a lot more difficult if you can not find the Americans until they descend upon you with intent to kill.

Forces can be moved around the point of attack to enhance unpredictability while reducing the vulnerability of needed ground forces by relying on insertion forces, leveraging the sea base.

As Ed Timperlake and I wrote in 2014, the new capabilities which the amphibious task forces coupled with large deck carriers provides a variable attack force which can insert ground forces against areas of interest and then withdraw back to the sea base.

ISIS is a rapidly moving target and needs a response that is not measured in the months and years of a return of the US Army to Iraq to re-start training an Iraqi Army which the Obama Administration has already clearly recognized as part of the problem not the solution. The total collapse of the Iraq Army after a decade of US investment is a testimony to failure, regardless of who is at fault in US planning and execution of Iraq Nation Building.

 For defenders of COIN, it would have to be explained why time and continued effort would overcome what are clearly deeply rooted fissures within the political texture of Iraq: namely the Sunni-Shite cleavage, the role of Iran and the use of the military by Prime Minister Malki for his own political purposes?

In effect, Maliki has used his Shia-dominated military in ways similar to how Saddam Hussein used his Sunni-dominated military, namely to prop himself up in power and to shape domestic political outcomes to his benefit. Simply changing the name of the leader is not likely to change power realities.

And when the ISIS were able to aggregate forces, the absence of an air enabled ground force, demonstrated a fundamental fact often forgotten: it is not about airpower versus boots on the ground….

 If the ISIS forces loses their maneuver ability and their crew-served weapons and armored vehicles, especially tanks, to seize terrain and key choke points, they will be forced back into the cities or be forced hide in small units in the countryside.

If US forces can see them outside of cities they can kill them. City fights should be left to what is remaining of the Iraq Army.

ISIS was well on the way to fielding an Army when the US finally engaged.

Focusing upon what is needed to pulverize military capabilities of ISIS to move rapidly and lethally, can buy some strategic maneuver space to sort out what kind of aid the Kurds might really need to protect their augmented territory within a fragmenting Iraq.

Because the US has the option of leveraging our seabase in conjunction with whatever force capabilities might be shaped to support the Kurds, the US is NOT forced to have agreements with a collapsing regime to influence events. The sea-based force can function as the foundation for a force able to operate without the need for specific territorial agreements on basing with fractious factions of Baghdad.

And when they depart, they do not have to leave their equipment behind which can become later seized by hostile forces and used against the United States and its allies.

As Ed Timperlake highlighted in an article published in 2010, operating from sea bases can allow you both to do power projection and to withdraw when the mission is accomplished.  It is about setting objectives and then implementing them with flexible sea base insertion forces.

And such a force allows alignment with evolving strategic objectives.

Bottom line:  what can go in from the Sea with a Navy/Marine AF team can also be withdrawn. Allies to whom we owe a debt can be evacuated or protected from the sea.

These possibilities remain important for our current global commitments and operations.  And with the 21st century con-ops provided by the MV-22, the Harrier and then the F-35B, the Marines can engage in providing capabilities for such situations.

Off the shores of San Diego last November a new powerful capability was worked which can augment the insertion force and give it a whole new punch, pack and ability to insert and withdraw force.

The USS America with F-35Bs and Ospreys can provide for force insertion and provide the kind of unpredictability in approach but success in operations, which President-elect Trump has highlighted as a key part of the tool box to defeat ISIS.

The USS America is the largest amphibious ship ever built by the United States.

The ship has been built at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi and departed mid-July 2014 for its trip to its initial home part at San Diego, California and then was commissioned in San Francisco in mid-October 2014. It is now undergoing its final trials and preparing to enter the fleet.

The USMC is the only tiltrotar-enabled assault force in the world.

The USS America has been built to facilitate this capability and will be augmented as the F-35B is added to the Ospreys, and helicopters already operating from the ship and as unmanned vehicles become a regular operational element as well.

The Osprey has obviously been a game changer, where today, the basic three ship formation used by the Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit can “disaggregate” and operate over a three-ship distributed 1,000-mile operational area. Having the communications and ISR to operate over a greater area, and to have sustainment for a disaggregated fleet is a major challenge facing the future of the USN-USMC team.

With the coming of the F-35B to the USS America, the tiltrotar-enabled force adds significant capability. This can work a couple of different ways.

The ship can hold more than 20 F-35Bs, but more likely when F-35Bs are being featured would have a 16 F-35B flying with 4 Osprey combinations. The Ospreys would be used to carry fuel and or weapons, so that the F-35B can move to the mission and operate in a distributed base. This is what the Marines refer to as shaping distributed STOVL ops for the F-35B within which a sea base is a key lily pad from which the plane could operate or could move from.

Alternatively, the F-35B could operate as the ISR, C2 and strike asset to work with the rest of the assault force. The beauty of the F-35B for the Marines is that it allows them to operate off of an amphibious ship with a plane which can do C2 or provide forward leaning ISR.

In other words, the F-35 working with an Osprey-enabled insertion force operating off of the USS American could well re-define the meaning of Close Air Support (CAS).

Ed Timperlake and I highlighted an opportunity not taken by the current Administration when it came to the possibility of saving the Christians from ISIS.

The USMC can easily setup a TEMPORARY FOB for 22nd MEU with their MV-22s somewhere in Kurdistan to conduct missions into Iraq proper to rescue Christians and eliminate any ISIS fanatics in the way in the process and then leave.

 USS Bush CBG could provide a real combat punch when ISIS mass their forces-or SOCOM/CIA identifies isolated groups.

The French in Mali underscored the point that it was not about COIN; it was about eliminating concentrated forces of the adversary, purusing as possible and then leaving.

This is not about long term occupation and training; this is about the only tiltrotar enabled assault force coming to the aid of the Kurds and Christians, setting up a forward operating base that can influence events in the Nineveh plain, helping move threatened minorities to Kurdish protection, working with those SOF in country, and returning aboard ship.

The U.S. has insertion forces able to engage and withdraw, rather than setting up long-term facilities and providing advisers as targets.

Put bluntly, the new President will have the means to change how the battle is fought which need not repeat the mistakes of the last decade of land wars.

Insertion forces are a key tool set and with the changes in how amphibious task forces operate and with the coming of a whole new capability associated with the USS America, the sea base is adding to its capability for the insertion of force into a vector of assault, destroy and withdraw.

Changing the nature of the force being used against ISIS and reshaping the operational compass against a mobile force which likes to pop up across the region can meet its match – there is no place you can hide that we can not come and find you and kill you.

The new President clearly has the intent; and with some creative rethinking and combat innovation has the means.

The slideshow highlights a long range raid exercise enabled by the Osprey as a key element.

U.S. Marine Corps VM-22B Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162, 2nd Marine Air Wing, Marine Air Group 26, conduct a long range raid as a part of an urban exercise, from Twentynine Palms, Calif. to Yuma, Ariz., Nov. 12, 2016.

The Marines of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 conducted a long range raid in conjunction with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division during an urban exercise, as a part of Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) 1-17 in preparation for the upcoming Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force.

Credit: USMC. 11/12/16

Our latest Special Report provides an update on the introduction and integration of the F-35B into evolving USMC operations. With the significant change introduced into the amphibious fleet and for USMC land based operations by the Osprey, the F-35 B is accelerating the transformation of the CORPS into a wide-ranging insertion force able to operate across the range of military operations.

As noted in one of the pieces included in the Special Report:

As Lt. General Davis, the Deputy Commandant of Aviation, put it onboard the USS America:

“We’d always say ‘if its really a bad air to air (A2A) threat, get some additional jets up there, get some more capability.’

I have no pause or hesitation that this jet will dominate in an A2A environment, would dominate in a strike environment, dominate in a CAS environment, and would also do a very nice job in an electronic warfare realm as well.”

Marines. At their mention I suspect most think, “storming the beaches.”  Amphibious vehicles first in, troops storm ashore.  That capability still exists, but today there is a far greater capability, one that will provide a vexing challenge for any adversary.

Already transformed by the mobility of the Osprey, the F-35B offers a critical upgrade to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and amphibious assault.  The first wave is no longer limited to the beach or uncontested space, it can effectively reach locations 450 miles from the shipborne base – even in contested airspace.

What once came ashore like a wave, now comes as lightning strikes in a violent storm.

Marines on the beach, Marines from behind, and Marines within the adversary’s territory.  Marines striking swiftly with maximum effect to deal with high value targets, including terror cells – all with the stand alone capability to do so.

This is the “Aerial Amphibious Assault” Force, and these are the Marines of the 21st century battlespace.

It is a capability the US Marine Corps (USMC) has patiently and steadfastly build towards, and the pieces are coming together;

Integration with the US Navy LHA Class Amphibious Assault Carrier – The USS America & USS Tripoli (under construction). The LHA class offers enhanced dedicated support for Marine aviation assets.

MV-22B Osprey. The Osprey offers extended range and speed for troop insertion, as well as air to air refueling support.

Existing Attack Helicopters (UH-1Y Venom & AH-1Z Viper).

F-35B Lightning II. The F-35B replaces the AV-8B, F/A-18 Hornet & EA-6B Prowler. The aircraft offers exceptional performance Air to Air (A2A), Air to Ground (A2G), Close Air Support (CAS), Electronic Warfare (EW), Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) all with the capability to operate stealthily within contested areas.

CH-53K “King Stallion” When introduced (2019) the CH-53K will provide nearly 3x the heavy lift capability of the CH-53E.

The USS America (LHA-6) is a maritime base which provides unrivaled flexibility. 

Park it where you want in international waters.  Forward deploy it to a region for any contingency, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is at the ready.  The LHA platform is ideal for military operations involving troop insertion, (anti-terrorism activities) where the objective is to infiltrate, accomplish the mission and leave no boots behind on the ground.

The LHA offers the flexibility to adjust mix from heavy jet (F-35B) to heavy tiltrotor (MV-22B) or rotor wing. Utilizing the MV-22B and the F-35B, the USMC can effectively insert troops 450 miles from the ship in under 2 hours.

The platform offers the flexibility to work together with additional amphibious assault carriers (LHD) when amphibious vehicles are desired, as well as with the support of the USN Supercarrier.

Not a replacement for either, the LHA provides flexibility for the military to tailor a force most suitable for the mission at hand.

The photos in the slideshow are from the DTIII testing onboard the USS America in November 2016.

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