Logistics and Crisis Management in the North Atlantic


By Robbin Laird

Logistics is often viewed as the enabler of operations. But if one is designing the force to operate throughout an extended area of operations or an extended battlespace logistics capabilities are part of the definition of the art of the possible for crisis management. In a crisis, the goal is to be able to put force up against the critical choke point in the crisis seen as a process.

Getting to that choke point or decision point with the right force with enough sustainability to achieve the desired effect is the goal. The duration of the crisis and the scope and nature of escalation then define what other pieces on the chessboard one brings to bear and with enough sustainability and lethality to get the job done. This is a function of how sustainable the crisis management force is at the point of influence.

For the USMC, the nation’s crisis management force – certainly at the initial stages – to be able to play their desired role they have built significant organic support to their force insertion capabilities. But those core assets – the Osprey, the C-130J, the CH-53 and the Yankee – have been taxed significantly in the land wars and need replenishment and augmentation to play their base line role.

This is significantly true as in the redesign of what II MEF is to do in support of Second Fleet (C2F) and Sixth Fleet (C6F) is to engage in operations from the High North to the Western Mediterranean.  II MEF is receiving the new CH-53 the K soon, but in limited quantities. The Ospreys are being cut back in the North Atlantic region, and the Viper/Yankee family is being reduced in the region as well. The venerable C-130J has seen significant engagements in the Middle East and needs upgrades and enhanced numbers as well.

This is even before we get to the duration challenge. For how long, and with what combat effect does want the initial USMC insertion force integrate with joint and coalition forces to have the duration necessary to get the desired escalation control and crisis management effect?

The first question – initial insertion – can be answered by a focus on organic assets.

The second can only be answered with regard to how robust the logistics combat enterprise is in terms of supporting the desired joint or coalition operations in the crisis area.

During my April 2021 visit to II MEF, I had a chance to speak with Lt. Col. Smith, the senior strategic mobility officer. He and his team focus on the end-to-end supply to the force, through air, sea and ground movements to deploying or deployed forces. As he noted, the Marines work end to end transportation which means that “the embarkers at the units actually do all the preparation for their own equipment, do all the certifications, do all the load planning, and move their units out.”

When I visited II MEF in June, Lt. Col. Smith was on terminal leave from the USMC but was kind enough to come into II MEF to continue our discussion.

And in this discussion, we focused on this second question.

How can we build out a more sustainable force through longer duration crises?

For the Marines, who are working deeper integration with the U.S. Navy, part of the answer is enhanced integrability with the fleet.

This means that there needs to be a combat logistics management system which encompasses both the Marines and the fleet in its entirety to provide the kind of supportability which sustained combat engagement requires.

Clearly, such a system is not yet in place, but the new approach to joint task force management between Expeditionary Strike Group 2 (ESG-2) and Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2dMEB) will certainly require such capabilities and could shape building blocks going forward.

By purposing distributed maritime operations with an overall integrated distributed force, the Navy and the Marines clearly need to focus on sustainability across a distributed chessboard.

How to get the supplies from industry to depots or prepositioned locations?

How to move those supplies to the afloat Marine Corps forces, the fleet or ashore?

How do it with the speed and effectiveness required?

What we focused in the discussion was on ways to build out such capacity to sustain forces throughout the distributed battlespace.

On one level, the fleet and afloat combat force simply needs more supplies afloat to get the job done. This requires enhanced MSC capabilities, and one way to do so might be building out the very effective T-AKE ships.

On another level, the challenge is to move supplies throughout the battlespace to the point of need. Here the challenge would be met by the tiltrotor and rotary force in terms of ship to ship and ship to shore movement or movement from pre-positioned locations to combat locations.

There are new systems in train which if plus-ed up in numbers can play this role, the CMV-22B and the CH-53K each with different but complimentary capabilities could provide a very significant combat sustainability capacity.

But a key point which he underscored throughout the discussion was the following: “You need a fleet logistics management system that is integrated into not only every naval platform but also with regard to Marine Corps platforms if you’re going to truly do integration between the Navy and the USMC.”

Another key element to shaping a re-invigorated logistics backbone is the question of tanking the fleet, both in terms of getting the new fleet tankers into the fleet, but also tanking for the lift force.

There is a tanking shortfall and when I worked for Secretary Wynne we certainly saw that and tried to get the job done.

But now the demand side on the USAF and on the USMC already exceeds demand and will be a key delimitator of the ability to sustain the combat force for the duration required for full spectrum crisis management.

How might we deal with this issue?

The MQ-25 is coming to the carrier to deal with carrier requirements, but can autonomous systems be developed to support the tiltrotor and rotary fleet working to support the distributed force?

The challenge is to shape a sustainable combat force at the point of interest and to be able to do so through the duration of a crisis. You need to have a robust launch capability and then to build up capacity throughout the duration of the crisis.

And he underscored as well that the integration with the deployable supply chain was crucial as well. “If you look at the defense of the North Atlantic, you still have several nodes that you have to create to make sure supply is moving.” He underscored the importance of building in redundancy to such an effort as well.

In short, logistics is not simply what you think about down the list of what you need; it defines what one can actually accomplish in a crisis management setting.

Featured Photo: The CH-53K King Stallion successfully plugs into a funnel-shaped drogue towed behind a KC-130J during aerial refueling wake testing over the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Erik Hildebrandt.