Augmenting the Capability of the Amphib: A Key Element in the Evolution of the Seabase

In mid-March, SLD talked with Jim Strock, Director, Seabasing Integration Division, Capabilities Development Directorate, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration based at Quantico.  Jim Strock is one of the nation’s leading experts on seabasing and an innovative thinker with regard to the evolution of U.S. Naval and Marine Corps forces.  In this interview, Strock highlights innovations in the decade ahead in augmenting the capability of the seabase, notably under the impact of the Osprey and the F-35B.

SLD:   There has been a recent Navy document that’s looked at the role of sea basing in low and mid-intensity operations.  What are the findings of that report?  What’s the significance for someone who works with sea basing?

Jim Strock: This report was put together by Commander, Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.  It’s a tremendous effort representing three or four years worth of work, taking the seabasing focus and looking at it in terms of what can the Navy operating forces do today. So the conops is not something that’s looking way out into the future.  Instead, it’s a comprehensive overview of what today’s Navy forces are capable of doing in a seabasing operational environment.  It’s a solid first step in setting the foundation for framing our future seabasing capabilities.

SLD:   Let’s turn to the question of the evolution over the decade ahead.  What new capabilities could be added to the sea base effort?

Jim Strock: In a general sense, the capabilities that we need in the sea base are the ability to conduct at-sea transfer of personnel, equipment, and supplies between large vessels and maneuver those capabilities ashore via all forms of surface craft.  The last time we talked, we talked about the MPF future program and how we were going to have the LMSR, the large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship coupled with a fully functional mobile ending platform.  With such platforms in the seabase, you’d be able to transport troops to the seabase by aircraft and the Joint High-Speed Vessel and conduct at-sea arrival and assembly of troops, equipment and supplies, transforming them into an operationally capable unit able to maneuver ashore by both aviation and surface landing craft.

We’re clearly heading in that direction, but we’re not getting there as fast as we want to.  We’ve had tremendous support from the Under Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Bob Work, who clearly understands the need to develop seabasing capabilities, even under the most intense fiscal pressure we’ve seen in years.  Secretary Work was very influential this summer in reiterating  that MPF future is not cancelled, but rather is being deferred and restructure.  He made it clear that investing in near-term seabasing enhancements to today’s Maritime Prepositioning Ships program will help illuminate how we recapitalize that program in the mid-term as part of attaining the MPF Future capabilities we originally envisioned.

The MPF future program originally had three big deck amphibious ships, three new construction LMSR’s outfitted with troop berthing and other seabasing capabilities, three new construction TAKE’s, and three new construction mobile platforms complete with troop berthing, substantial vehicle stowage, and six Landing Craft, Air-Cushioned (LCAC) spots.

But, for now, that program has been deferred.  So what are we going to do instead of that?  The answer comes in three parts.

First, the Marine Corps fortuitously, for other reasons, acquired three LMSRs from U.S Transportation Command to replace some of our aging MPS ships.  While those LMSRs are not outfitted with the MPF Future enhancements we were seeking, they are LMSR’s nonetheless, and they are extraordinarily capable ships.  The Marine Corps went to Transcom and said we would like to acquire the operating rights of three of those ships and put them in our MPS program.

The LMSR’s are nearly a thousand feet long with three to four hundred thousand square feet of rolling cargo space.  They were built in the mid 90s as part of the Army’s overall strategic mobility program.  That’s a story unto itself, but we wound up acquiring 19 — half of them are the Bob Hope class, the other half are the Watson class.

The vessels are very good utility infielder, 24-knots, and you can load substantial amounts of cargo.  Those ships were one of the principal means for getting combat equipment in theater for OIF and OEF.

We still have the AMSEA and Waterman class dense-pack ships in our MPS program, but with the addition of three LMSRs, we now have the beginnings of at-sea transfer capabilities.

Secondly, the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2011 shipbuilding budget contains funding for three revised Mobile Landing Platforms.  These MLPs will initially have two basic seabasing capabilities:  at-sea, sea-state three transfer of personnel, cargo, and equipment between the MLP and the LMSR, and the ability to transfer those assets from the MLP to LCAC’s for maneuver ashore.

Finally, the original MPF Future program called for three T-AKE supply ships, carbon copies of the T-AKE’s that are being acquired for the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force.  The MPF Future T-AKE’s were funded in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010, and we were able to retain the commitment for those ships to become part of our MPS program.  By adding one T-AKE to each of our three MPS squadrons, we’ll be able to convert 20-25 percent of supply stocks, previously packaged in 20-foot containers, into pallet-level stowage configuration, thereby enabling selective offload of small-unit sustainment packages for pinpoint delivery ashore by aircraft for surface craft.

Put all that together, the MPS squadrons operating in the seabase effectively becomes a very credible new node within a much larger theatre operations and distribution network.  With those enhancements to today’s MPS, we will have far greater seabasing capabilities – at-sea transfer, maneuver ashore, and selective offload – that will enable our Navy and Marine Corps operating forces to employ our afloat prepositioning capabilities across a far greater array of military operations in support of Combatant Commander mission assignments.


The LMSR Sisler
(Photo credit : http://gcaptain.com/maritime/blog/tag/boston/)

SLD:   It seems to me that given your focus on the seabase, that the amphibious fleet becomes more important as the capabilities onboard are enhanced, namely, the Osprey and the F35-B which enable a 3-dimensional capability for the sea base that it currently doesn’t have.  Could you speak a little bit to the question about these new aviation assets interactive with the surface assets that allow one to do?  Because I just don’t think it’s widely understood.

Jim Strock: I think what the nation needs to know about amphibious ships and amphibious forces is number one; that out of all the ships in the fleet — all the ships in the fleet — the only ships that can truly extend the full range of seapower ashore are amphibious ships.  Aircraft carriers and surface warfare ships have tremendous strike capabilities, and the upcoming Littoral Combat Ships will provide enhancements to our surface combat, anti-submarine warfare, and mine warfare capabilities.  But amphibious ships are armed with operationally ready Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs).  Those ships can project and sustain those forces ashore, and can recover them to the seabase when and where required.  That’s a degree of operational flexibility that significantly the range of options available to the Combatant Commander.  That’s very important in today’s security environment.

Equally important is the fact that amphibious ships can loiter virtually indefinitely with those operationally ready forces fully capable of operating on a rheostat.  Other ships can’t do that, or they can’t do it to the extent amphib ships can.  The amphib ship with its onboard ability to care and feed and train and refresh and resupply those troops, and house and maintain their aviation and landing craft, those are critical capabilities necessary to support today’s national security strategy.

With the respect to the V-22 and the F35B, what do they bring?  With the V-22, you now have a geometric increase in your operational reach and speed of extending those forces ashore.  With a CH-53 kilo’s key performance parameter of 27,000 pounds traveling 110 nautical miles on a high hot day, that’s a level of operational reach we have never seen before.  With that elongated operational reach, you could go farther inland; you can enable that sea base to stand off a little bit more that enhances your force protection.

With respect to the F35B, we’re talking about a fifth generation aircraft with greatly expanded capabilities over its predecessors.  It’s a multi-mission aircraft.  I’m not an aviator, but it’s clear that this aircraft will bring far more than improved kinetic strike to the battle space.  It will give the commander on the ground vastly improved eyes and ears.  It’s an incredible aircraft.

We have a whole lot of ship integration work to do to get that aircraft onboard the amphibs and have it operate from the amphibs.

Sometimes I think that’s lost on the nation about the there’s loss going certain people that across the full range of military operations in the flexibility of what our amphibious ships can do.  They are exceptionally versatile platforms, and they’re always in high demand.

SLD: A final question: for ground operations, another key contribution of the sea base is to provide extended support for ground forces, notably insertion forces.  What changes do you see here?

Jim Strock: I think if you ask three people what a sea base is, you’ll get four, maybe five answers.  No two sea bases will ever be the same.  The sea base’s capability is limited only by the imagination of the lance corporal through the four-star flag or general officer who is going to organize, deploy, and employ the sea base.  You take a look at those platforms out there and what’s coming online with the LMSRs, T-AKE’s and the new mobile platforms.   In a few short years, we’ll be far better positioned to operate our maritime prepositioning ships in seabasing operational environments.  Couple that with our amphibious ship capabilities, our nations’s forward presence, engagement, and crisis response capabilities will be vastly improved over what we have today.

The platoon commander on a hilltop, 100 to 200 miles inland, doesn’t want a 20-foot container full of stocks.  He wants precision delivery of critical, unit-level supplies he can pick up and run with.  Right around the corner we’ll be able to do that with our MPS squadrons.  Combine that capability with the V-22’s and CH-53’s extended operational reach, and we’ll see a whole new dimension in our seabased sustainment capabilities.

Imagine what these MPS squadron enhancement could have done for the opening efforts in Haiti, when nothing else was there and the port was clobbered.  Your only limitation in providig support from those ships would have been the time to move the ships into position.  From there, they would have been able to provide humanitarian support in those critical first days after that tragic.  Capabilities like that can make our Nation proud.

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***Posted on May 12th, 2010

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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