Distributed Operations and Logistics in the Pacific: How to Shape a Way Ahead for the Fleet


Recently, the PACFLEET Commander, Admiral Paparo, provided the keynote address at the WEST 2023 conference held in San Diego from February 14 through 16 2023. That presentation provides his perspective on joint and partner operations in the Pacific and how they are working together to address deterrence in defense. The speech can be read in its entirety at the end of this article.

Sam LaGrone of USNI News in his write up focused on the Admiral’s discussion of reshaping logistics and sustainment for a distributed maritime force. In this article, I will follow LaGrone’s lead and build out an analysis of how to do what the Admiral has underlined in this key operational area.

As reported by Sam LaGrone, this is what the Admiral highlighted:

“Operating in uncontested environments our logistics enterprises operate on business principles. Those business principles were to resupply the force at maximum efficiency so that the American taxpayer dollar could be applied to combat power at the greatest point of need

“In our operational plans for high-end combat, we’ve got to think less in terms of maximum efficiency and more in terms of maximum effectiveness.”

Considering how a distributed fleet would operate to counter the Chinese web of fire with a kill web of our own, this is how Paparo characterized distributed maritime forces operating as a kill web:

“The idea of [DMO] is this notion that we’re going to sail at such a distance and in such a formation that we don’t present ourselves as an obvious military formation that brings to their enemy fires, but while still maintaining the ability to provide mutual support to one another.”

The role of sustainment in this operational context is much broader than simply delivery of supplies. Paparo underscored: “For most people sustainment means root logistics. But It’s also repair activities. It’s also rearming activities. It’s also… medical capabilities.”

“LaGrone then added this: Answering a question on fixing battle-damaged ships, Paparo described an “arc of contested sustainment that is not precisely at the zone of fire but nor is it back way in the rear where you would normally expect to be able to execute those activities in a sanctuary.”

“For example, Paparo described flyaway repair teams that could meet battle-damaged ships for repairs “including equipment that can be transported to the point of need to execute those repairs quickly and to get units back into the fight,” he said.

“Paparo said the fleet had experimented with rearming ships at sea and flyaway repair teams at the recent Valiant Shield and Rim of the Pacific exercise series.”

How then might the U.S. Navy and USMC be able to craft such a capability?

What do they have now and what can they plus up and what can they add in the future to sustain the force with a DMO template as the core focus of effort?

The current mix of logistical support ships comes from the military sealift command, the ability of carriers and large deck amphibious ships to have enough sustainment capability onboard to be part of support to force distribution, C2As for carrier onboard delivery, the beginning of the CMV-22B as a replacement for the C2A, various rotorcraft for moving supplies, notably the Seahawks, CH-53Es operating from bases and afloat, and various fast boats to provide targeted supplies, such as the Joint High Speed Vessel.

As the current Navy Air Boss, Vice Admiral Whitesell, put it in an interview I conducted with him earlier this year:

“We are in an experimentation phase. We are working force distribution and integration. We are experimenting like Nimitz did in the inter-war years. We are working from seabed to space with regard to force integration. It is a work in progress. But being successful in operating in an environment where logistics are contested, where getting weapons to the fleet in conflict, is not just a nice to have capability but a necessary one.”

There a number of ways there could be a plus up of the kind of sustainment the PACFLEET commander highlights is necessary for combat success.

One is increasing the numbers of CMV-22Bs operating within the fleet.

The CMV-22B changes the way the COD mission can be done for the carrier and to support the fleet.

As Vice Admiral Whitesell emphasized: “What is our concept of employment for this aircraft? To answer this question will require a mindset change within naval aviation and the COD community. The expeditionary nature of the CMV-22B expands the possibilities for successful distributed maritime operations and we are determined to get full value out of the aircraft in terms of its synergy with con-ops evolutions for the fleet.”

He added: “Under distributed operations, the carrier strike group is deployed differently. We are shaping a completely different way of thinking about that and the CMV-22B can be used is part of that mindset change.”

A second approach is enhancing the size of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) fleet and deploying Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) as extenders to specific MSC ships as mother ships.

The challenge for MSC was well expressed during an interview I did in 2020 with Rear Admiral Michael Wettlaufer, head of MSC:

“We have to be able to distribute logistical support to a maritime distributed force. There will certainly be no maneuver if you do not have a solid logistics tail. You have to be able to have logistical support at the scale, the scope and scale, and more importantly, the tempo, required to support maneuver warfare.”

He emphasized the nature of the challenge by underscoring that several variables which have to be synchronized: “There’s distance, there’s time, and there’s the appropriate number of assets to be able to span the distance in the time required to meet the requirements, whatever those requirements are and then to be able to adjust to the operational realities.”

We did not discuss it at the time but the use of selected MSC ships as mother ships for USVs is one way to do this.

Clearly, the Navy needs to get on with the USV revolution and incorporate them in the systems to provide delivery options at distance from depots or to be able to delivery ship repair teams.

And the combination of delivery of key kit required by rotor or tiltorotar lift to MSC ships to have available for USV delivery is another way to mix and match sustainment support.

Perhaps its my early training as a Kremlinologist, but I note that in his speech the Admiral mentioned unmanned capabilities working with manned capabilities several times.

First, he stated: “During VALIANT SHIELD 22, we executed innovative warfighting concepts by fusing manned and unmanned capabilities, bringing to bear warfighting advancements that make us an even more lethal fighting force.”

Second, he noted: “We are building upon lessons and subsequent technical development from Integrated Battle Problem 21.1 Integrated Battle Problem 23.1 will be here in San Diego on May this year. Integrated Battle Problem 23.2 will consist of a series of experiments connected to our upcoming Manned and Unmanned Deployment to the 7th Fleet. Integrated Battle Problem 23.3 will carry these initiatives to Australia as part of our AUKUS alliance. Next year, Integrated Battle Problem 24.1 will take place in the early spring and this cycle will conclude with RIMPAC and Valiant Shield 24.”

A third approach is to accelerate the buy of the new CH-53K heavy lift helicopter. The CH-53K is a key element supporting Marine Corps and distributed operations more generally.

As I described the contribution of the CH-53K to the distributed force in 2018 article: “With peer adversaries emphasizing technological change and force modernization, focusing on strategic advantage for US and allied forces is a key element for combat success.

“At the heart of such an approach, clearly will be the ability to operate more effective distributed forces and to leverage the capability of US and allied forces to operate flexibly and not relying on a rigid centralized system with a core emphasis on combat mass.

“Working ways to distributed force but concentrate fires is at the heart of the transformation necessary to prevail in the strategic shift.

“For the MAGTF, this means taking the core approach around which a MAGTF has been crated and extending its reach with integrated fires, as is conceived of with regard to F-35-HIMARS integration or the use of the new G/ATOR system, and building effective force packages which can operate in an integrated but flexibly deployed distributed force.

“The CH-53K comes at a time when this transition is being worked.  As the heavy lift member of the MAGTF team, it will provide a key element of being able to carry equipment and/or personnel to the objective area.

“And with its ability to carry three times the external load of the CH-53E and to be able to deliver the external load to different operating bases, the aircraft will contribute significantly to distributed operations.”

A fourth approach is to ensure that the larger amphibious ships actually get built as these ships can play a very significant role in supporting and operating assets within a distributed operation, rather than just being envisaging a storming of the beach scenario.

As Jim Strock has noted ships such as the Expeditionary Sea Base could play an important role in shaping a tiered sustainment force for distributed operations and the distributed fleet. As he underscored in an interview I did with him last year:

“A core capability which the ESB can provide is for logistics support in a contested environment. If you look at the various supply packages that they could embark, and you couple that with the operational reach of both tilt rotor and rotary-winged aircraft, as well as surface connectors, ESBs can serve as a sea-based resupply and distribution hub in support of operating forces distributed over extended distances.

“With modifications to the empty ballast tanks that the ESBs already have —  remember the ships are built on a tanker platform —  engineers estimate that ESBs have the potential to store upwards of 11 million gallons of cargo fuel that could be distributed to forces ashore, or used for at-sea refueling of aircraft, connectors, and other sea-based platforms. To put it in perspective, LHA 6 and 7 carry around 1 million gallons of cargo fuel. The other big decks carry about 600,000 gallons of cargo fuel.

“But the ESB potentially could store and distribute 11 million gallons of cargo fuel without any substantial modification. ESB’s are constructed based on the Alaska Class Crude Carrier tanker design, and ESB production planners did not modify the tank rings that were part of the original ship general arrangements.  So today, selected tank rings could be returned to fuel storage capability with the addition of fuel distribution piping and pumping equipment.

“Additionally, ESBs can provide emergency health care support. The ESBs are already outfitted with container lockdown spots on the flight deck for resuscitative surgery suites. If emergency surgery for wounded is needed, you can bring them straight to the flight deck on a V22 and put them straight into an operating table.

“Another capability provided by ESB is that they can serve as an intermodal trans-shipment point. And this is really important to support the linkage between strategic, operational, and tactical logistics pipelines. The ESB could receive supplies and equipment from strategic sea lift shipping.

“Those could be commercial container ships. But this requires then reconfiguring those containerized assets into tailored support packages, and then delivering pre-planned or on-call supplies and equipment to forces ashore, certainly via manned systems and potentially unmanned systems, both vertical and surface.

“A core capability, notably with a kill web focus, is command and control. The ESBs are outfitted with three very large planning spaces that collectively have in the neighborhood of 40 individual tabletop planning desks, along with spaces to handle sensitive classified information.

“With the embarkation of modularized communication suites for additional connectivity on and off the ship, ESBs have significant flexibility in meeting increasingly dynamic afloat command and control requirements. And they can generate littoral battle space awareness through the use of embarked ISR assets, and the collection fusion and dissemination of that information across dispersed forces.

“And with regard to the ESB’s flexible mission deck, it has multiple container lock down spots and is configured with two megawatts of power. You can do a lot with two megawatts across a variety of functions.”

A fifth approach was suggested by Captain Bryant, Commander, Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Wing in North Island, in my interview with him last month. As I wrote at the conclusion of that interview: “Captain Bryant concluded by emphasizing that there might be a need to build a 21st century version of the Cold War approach the Navy once used. They had intra-theater support squadrons with several types of aircraft to support the movement of maritime forces. Now with distributed forces over significant distances, how might the Navy and the joint force do a 21st century version of such a theater support capability?”

To support sustainment of the fleet takes money; this takes commitment; this does not really show in the shipbuilding plan but ensures that what ships the Navy does have will be more lethal and survivable.

In short, support for a distributed fleet is not just that; it is about empowering the lethality and survivability of the fleet.