Rethinking the Amphibious Task Force: Digital Interoperability and the Transformation of USMC Aviation


By Robbin Laird

With the transformation of Marine Corps Aviation, the older notion of the ARG-MEU is being replaced by a much more flexible concept of the amphibious task force.

And with the central importance of dealing with full spectrum crisis management, the capabilities resident in the task force as well as its enhanced capabilities to reachback to capabilities not organic to the task force is changing the concept of operations as well.

With the coming of the Osprey, the tyranny of helicopter range was broken, which allowed for the expansion of the core ARG-MEU to be able to cover a much wider range of operations.

With the addition of the F-35B to the force, and the building of a new class of large amphibious ships, the combing of Ospreys with F-35Bs has allowed the emergence of a new ampbhious based assault carrier concept.

By committing Marine Corps Aviation to shaping a digital interoperability capability, and with the coming of the CNI enabled F-35, the amphibious task force can add other new capabilities to extend its operational approach and envelope.

And enhanced capabilities to move data throughout the force to enable its capabilities to operate as an integrated distributed force means that the amphibious task force can be tailored to the threat and leverage reachback assets to the wider Navy fleet or Air Force assets as well.

USS America F-35B Operations from on Vimeo.

Envisaged more than a decade ago, the Lightning Carrier concept is becoming a reality.

In an article by Megan Eckstein published by USNI News on October 23, 2019, the test of concept was highlighted.

The Navy and Marine Corps recently tested out the “Lightning Carrier” concept of packing an amphibious assault ship with F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets, and they will likely continue to expand and exercise this capability.

On Oct. 8, USS America (LHA-8) was photographed with 13 F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 122 on its deck. America is one of two aviation-centric amphibious assault ships in the fleet, eliminating a well deck from its design and instead using that vast space for aviation maintenance areas, greater jet fuel storage and more.

Knowing that America and sister ship Tripoli (LHA-7) would have the capability to support so many F-35Bs, the services have long talked about the Lightning Carrier concept as a capability that would be useful in a high-end fight.

The jets’ stealth, ability to collect and distribute vast data and strike targets would make them ideal for the opening of a fight: they could come off a ship at sea and take out enemy defenses with jamming and missiles, collect information and share it with the rest of the fleet at sea and Marines on the ground or heading ashore.

Still, though the jets routinely operate on the forward-deployed big-deck in Japan and have conducted a deployment from the U.S.-based Essex Amphibious Ready Group, operating so many at once is much different than previous operations with about six jets onboard and supplemented by tiltrotors and helicopters.

With the ampphibious task force concept, the Marines and the Navy can rethink what constitute the platforms which can become part of the task force going forward as well.

During a National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference held last October, several panels and speakers addressed the idea of what comes next for the mix of ships in the amphibious fleet.

Megan Eckstein in her article published on October 29, 2019 reported on some of those discussions.

Under a “think exercise” explained by Congressional Budget Office senior analyst for naval weapons and forces Eric Labs, some LPD funding would be diverted to pay for the alternate ship. Labs made clear this was not a recommendation but rather an exercise to show what other kinds of fleets could be bought for the same money.

Under the long-range shipbuilding plan today, the Navy over the next 30 years would buy eight America-class LHAs and 20 San Antonio-class LPDs, which gives it a force of 37 ships in 2040 and just 35 in 2049. This current plan comes with a $75 billion price tag.

Under a new plan that diverts some LPD funding and invests in ships that cost $600 million to $700 million apiece, that same $75 billion could instead buy the eight LHAs and 60 to 70 alternate ships. That would create a force of 57 to 61 ships in 2040 and 83 to 93 ships by 2049.

Labs said the $600 million figure is more than an Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) and more than an LCS but less than an amphib. What that alternate ship looks like is unclear, but it could be a modified EPF with greater range, it could be a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) connector that is modified to support other missions beyond tank transport ashore, or it could be a commercial ship modified to support the movement of Marines from ship to shore and island to island.

Other speakers during the conference kicked around other ideas; John Berry, the director of the concepts branch at the Marine Corps’ Combat Development and Integration directorate, suggested something akin to an Australian stern landing ship or a Danish Absalon-class support ship.

While many speakers focused on this new alternate amphib ship, one was highly focused on how to modernize or adjust today’s LPDs and LHAs to better support operations. Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle, who until recently commanded Expeditionary Strike Group 3 and now serves as the commandant of the National War College, is focused on how today’s ships can be better optimized for the fight he sees coming.

For example, Pringle said during the conference, “how do we actually get the LPD-17-class ship to give fuel to some of the smaller ships that are operating in the littorals? So right now the LCS, the Mk-6, all of the EPFs, as well as a lot of other assets that are being developed at speed; we have a lot of great assets that are coming online – the expeditionary staging base, the expeditionary staging dock – all of those assets will operate in the same battle space as our amphibious ships, who are already there, who are already delivering Marines to the mission set, who are already providing that command and control,” he described.

“Why not have that integrated command and control? Why not figure out how to have the ships integrated, so that when the smaller ships need a drink of gas, so to speak, they don’t have to go to the big-deck amphib, which currently is the only ship that can give fuel?”

He said he had the chance to speak to students at the Naval Postgraduate School in California during the course of his last assignment, and he told them he wanted to see thesis papers on these kinds of topics. Another he gave as an example is how to update today’s steam-powered amphibious assault ships to include more modern hybrid propulsion systems that reduce operations and maintenance costs: would it be better to backfit the hybrid propulsion system onto existing ships, or build new ones to replace them ahead of the end of their service lives?

“My personal opinion is, it’s probably cheaper to build a new ship from the keel up, because that gives you that foundation of technology that you can then build upon. And to me – and I’m biased, having commanded Makin Island,” which is the first hybrid propulsion drive amphib that runs on electric auxiliary propulsion motors at low speeds and gas turbines at higher speeds.

“I think that as we start looking at directed energy weapons systems and some of those things, we have to look at the underpinnings for those systems as well. And Makin Island has a high-voltage electrical system; why can’t we have something similar to that on future ships?”

It is clear that the digital interoperability piece is crucial to any such operational remaking of the amphibious fleet to become an effective full spectrum crisis management task force.

And at the heart of this capability is the transformation of the Naval aviation, from the Osprey, to the F-35B, to the modernization of the attack helicopters, the Venom and the Zulu, to the coming of the CH-53K, to the preparation to integrate a new air remote system to the force (MUX), to operating an ashore radar system which can call in fires from a variety of combat sources (G/ATOR), and doing so with a core focus on integratability and ability to operate in a full spectrum combat environment.

It is not just that there are new air platforms added to the force which open up new combat capabilities, but it is the ongoing modernization opportunities for the force to leverage those new capabilities through interactive modernization cycles.

A good case in point is the next phase of Osprey modernization, which is clearly driven by the coming of the F-35B to the force and anticipating the coming of the CH-53K and the MUX.

As  Col Matthew Kelly, who is in charge of the V-22 Joint Program Office (PMA-275), put it in a recent interview with us:

Col. Kelly has come to the program with a major shift underway for the Marines.

That shift requires the aircraft not simply to be a robust distance runner but to become smart in the digital battlespace.

This requires major modifications to the aircraft in terms of its ability to work with data, generate data and to work in the evolving C2 and ISR infrastructure which the Marine Corps is building for its approach to building an integrated distributed force.

Coming from the F-35 program provides Kelly with a leg up in terms of understanding what that aircraft can contribute to the Osprey and how, in turn, the V-22 aircraft needs to be modified to a more useful member of the integrated distributed force.

“With the Marine in the back of the Osprey working with his MAG-Tab (tablet), he or she is able to gain access to information flowing in from other platforms in the battlespace.

“And that is one key aspect of what we are focused on as we rework the program.

“Indeed, we have already done exercises at MAWTS-1 and VMX-1 where the Marine in the back of a V-22 can be looking on his MAG-TAB at a video generated from an H-1 or an F-35 operating in the same battlespace.”

And the V-22 working with the F-35 is a key element of being able for the Marine Corps/Navy team to work a Lightening carrier approach whereby an LHD like the USS America can operate a significant number of F-35s with accompanying Ospreys.

And this approach clearly is about changing dramatically the nature of what a Marine Corps assault force looks like as well as the combat effect it can achieve.

Col. Kelly, in language reminiscent of how the ADF describes the impact of the F-35 on its combat transformation, refers to what he calls a fifth-generation assault force.

And that process this means changes need to and are being made to the Osprey itself….

The interactive modernization piece driven by integrative dynamics is clearly seen with regard to the next phase of Osprey modernization.

The aircraft which replaced the CH-46 became a physically wondrous asset that changed how the Marines could operate in the Middle East land wars to now becoming part of the fifth-generation revolution.

See also, the following:

USS America’s Test: Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration

The Marines Onboard the USS America: The Remaking of the Amphibious Strike Force

The Way Ahead with the F-35B: A Discussion with the Deputy Commandant for Aviation

Another F-35 First: USAF F-35 Pilots Operate Onboard USS America