Fighting with the Force You Have: Moving Forward with Mobile Expeditionary Basing


By Robbin Laird

As noted earlier, a key contribution which the USMC can provide for the joint and coalition force is afloat or ashore is mobile and expeditionary basing.

In an earlier article, built around a discussion with Lieutenant Colonel Barron, ADT&E Department Head at MAWTS-1, we focused on what is required to do mobile basing effectively.

In effect, the discussion highlighted what one might refer to as the three Ss.  An insertion force operating from a variety of mobile bases needs to be able to be sustainable, survivable, and signature manageable.

It is clear that as the joint and coalition force shapes greater capabilities through C2/ISR innovations and integratability of the sensor-strike kill web, that capabilities will be enhanced to operate distributed expeditionary basing for the insertion forces.

But one fights with the force one has and builds forward from there.

So where are the Marines currently with regard to mobile basing capabilities?

In the discussion with Major Brian Hansell, MAWTS-1 F-35 Division Head,  that the coming of the F-35 to the USMC has expanded their ability to operate within a broader kill web and to both empower their expeditionary bases as well as to contribute to the broader kill web approach.

The Marine’s F-35s are part of the broader joint and coalition force of F-35s, and notably in the Pacific this extends the reach significantly of the Marine’s F-35s and brings greater situational awareness as well as reach to other strike platforms to the force operating from an expeditionary base as well as enhancing the kill web reach for the joint or coalition force.

As Major Hansell put it: “By being an expeditionary, forward-based service, we’re effectively extending the bounds of the kill web for the entire joint and coalition force.”

The F-35 brings a unique capability to the Marine Corps as it works mobile basing but reworking the assault force more generally is a work in progress.

The digital interoperability initiative is a crucial one as the assault assets will have integratability they do not currently have, such as the Viper attack helicopter getting Link-16.

And the heavy lift element, which is a bedrock capability for the insertion force, is older, not easily integratable, and is in diminishing numbers.

The CH-53K which is to replace it will provide significant capabilities enhancements for an insertion force operating from afloat or ashore mobile bases, but needs to be ramped up in numbers capable of raising the combat level of the current force.

In a discussion with Major James Everett, head of the Assault Support Department at MAWTS-1, we discussed the force that we have and some ways ahead for enhanced capability in the near to mid-term.

The Assault Support Department includes a number of key divisions: CH-53, MV-22, KC-130, UH-1, and AH-1.

I had a number of takeaways from that conversation, and am not quoting Major Everett directly, as I am highlighting some key elements from our discussion but am also adding my own judgments with regard to what those key elements mean going forward.

The first point is that indeed we need to focus on the force we have now, because we will fight with the force we have now.

The Marines by being in the land wars for the past twenty years, have become part of the joint force, and have relied on elements from the joint force, that they would not necessarily have access to when doing force insertion in the Pacific.

This means that the digital interoperability effort under way within Marine Corps innovation is not just a nice to have effort, but a crucial one to ensure that the insertion force package can work more effectively together and to leverage other key support assets which might be available from the joint or coalition force.

After all, a mobile base is being put on the chessboard for a strategic or tactical objective and survivability is a key requirement.

The second point is about sustainability.

And sustainability is a function of the lift assets which can bring the kit and supplies needed for the duration of the mission.

For the Marines, this is defined by KC-130J, CH-53E, MV-22, and UH-1Y lift support. And it is also defined by air refuellable assets to the assault force as well.

The Marines have limited indigenous assets to provide aerial refueling which, dependent on the mission and the time scale of the force insertion effort, might need to depend on the Navy or Air Force for this capability.

The third point is about C2. With the shift from the land wars, where the Marines were embedded within CENTCOM forces, C2 was very hierarchical.

This clearly is not going to be practicable or efficacious with a distributed insertion force.

Working mission command for a force operating in a degraded environment is a key challenge, but one which will have to be met to deliver the kind of distributed mobile based force which the Marines can provide for the joint and coalition force, and not just only in the Pacific, but would certainly provide a significant capability as well for the fourth battle of the Atlantic.

The fourth point is the clear importance of the coming of the CH-53K to the force.

It is not only a question of a modern lift asset with significantly enhanced capabilities to provide for assault support, it is that it is a digital aircraft which can fully participate in an integrated distributed mission.

The fifth point is that the digital interoperable initiative will not only provide for ways to better integrate assets but will enhance what those assets can do.

A key example is the nature of what a Viper assault asset can do afloat as well ashore when operating with Link-16 and full motion video.

My next interview will highlight this aspect of change in more detail, but the point is that integrability is not simply about connectivity, it is about changing how the force can operate.

The sixth point is that the coming of remotes whether air or maritime can expand the situational awareness of the insertion force, as long as signatures can be managed effectively.

And for the insertion force this can be about remotes transported to a base, operating from an afloat asset, or tapping into various overhead assets, such as Triton.

Or put another way, as digital interoperability is worked there will be expanded effort to find ways to support the insertion force operating from a mobile base.

This will be an interactive process between what C2/ISR assets are available in the kill web, and how the Marines ashore or afloat can best use those resources.

We have seen such a migration with the US Navy as the CSG and fleet is adding MISR or Maritime ISR officers, and this change actually was inspired by the operations of 3rd MEF in Afghanistan.

What we might envisage is simply the next iteration of what was done ashore with now the afloat and insertion forces in the maritime environment.

The seventh point is the key emphasis on timeliness for a mobile basing option.

It is about the insertion force operating within the adversary’s decision cycle and operating to get the desired combat effect prior to that adversary being successful in getting his combat result, namely, eliminating or degrading the insertion force.

This is another way to understand the key significance of how C2/ISR is worked between the insertion force and the wider air-maritime force.

In short, the Marines will fight with the force they have; and as far as near term modernization, ensuring that digital interoperability is built in and accelerated, full use of what an F-35 wolfpack can bring to the insertion force, and the continuing modernization of the assault force staring with the coming of the CH-53K in sufficient numbers, these are all key ways ahead.

And as the C2/ISR kill webs are built out and remotes folded into these kill webs, force insertion via mobile basing will clearly be enhanced as well.

The featured photo: CH-53K, K3, 1st CH-53K Aerial Refueling, NAS Patuxent River, MD 6 Apr 2020