America’s Pacific Force Structure Takes Shape

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America’s Pacific Force Structure Takes Shape

Through new capabilities like the Osprey and F-35, the U.S. and its allies are building a 21st century attack and defense enterprise.

The U.S. Navy-U.S. Marine Corps team is at the heart of a strategic evolution of 21st century U.S. military forces, notably in the Pacific. An inherent characteristic of many of the U.S. military’s new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support offensive strikes or defensive actions within an integrated approach.

In the 20th century, surge was built on the notion of signaling. One would put in a particular combat capability – a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – to put down a marker and warn a potential adversary that you were there and ready to be taken seriously. If one needed to, additional forces would be sent in to escalate and build up force.

With the new multi-mission systems, the key is presence and integration able to support offense or defense in a single operational presence capability. What is emerging is a 21st century attack and defense enterprise.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously. This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). By shaping a C5ISR system inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets – which can honeycomb an area of operation – an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter adversaries or to conduct successful military operations.

Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reach-back. By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.

The 21st strategic naval environment demands forces the U.S. Navy to conduct distributed operations. The evolving capabilities of Marine Corps and U.S. naval aviation provide key enablers for meeting that demand. The V-22 Osprey has begun this process by giving the USMC-USN team a revolutionary capability for speed, range and an ability to operate on sea and land.  In a recent interview with The Diplomat, Lt. General Terry G. Robling, the highest-ranking Marine in the Pacific, MARFORCPAC, underscored this point:

“Speed, range and presence are crucial to the kind of operations we participate in throughout the Pacific. The Osprey clearly fits perfectly into the types of missions we are tasked to perform.

“To illustrate hypothetically, if we were tasked to counter challenges in the South China sea, such as to bolster the defense of Ayungin Shoal, also known internationally as Second Thomas Reef, with one of our treaty allies, the Philippines, the U.S. has several options, but not all are efficient or even timely. We could use USAF assets, such as B-2 bombers or B-52 aircraft from Guam, or Navy surface or subsurface assets that are patrolling in the South China Sea, but the location of those assets may not provide timely arrival on station.

“But using the Osprey, we can fly down quickly from Okinawa with a platoon of well-trained Marines or Special Operations Forces (SOF) forces, land on difficult terrain or shipping, and perform whatever task that may be required in not only a timely but efficient manner.”

Coming soon is an even more revolutionary asset – the F-35B and F-35C – which will allow the networking of USAF and allied forces through the F-35 deployed global fleet, which will dramatically enhance the power of the distributed force. Add in a number of new capabilities for ISR and C2 – the P-8, the new Hawkeye, the Growler, and a variety of new UAVs – and the power of the distributed fleet will be extraordinary indeed.

And these assets will operate with a new fleet of combat and support ships – the USS Ford, the USS American, the USS San Antonio, the Joint High Speed Vessel, and the Mobile Landing Platform – to name a few that will allow for effective distributed operations over time.

Besides transforming its own capabilities, the USMC’s ability to do distributed operations will depend on its interactions with key allies such as Australia and Japan. Notably, both of these militaries are undergoing reform as well, as illustrated by two recent exercises.

The first is the Bold Alligator, conducted on the eastern U.S. seaboard, which included many allies including Australia and New Zealand. It was aimed at shaping a more flexible force structure to operate deep inland from seabases.

As Brigadier General Michael Love, the Marine Expeditionary Force Commander in the exercise, told me in a recent interview:

“I think the Navy and Marine expeditionary force like this is probably the best suited of all the combinations in the armed forces to arrive on the scene, and be ready to respond to a full range of missions. We can operate literally from the very low end of the range of military operations, all the way up to an enabling force for the high end of military operations.

“This allows you to arrive on the scene, conduct an estimate of the situation – all the political factors, all the military factors, the mission, – and then customize the force.

“And you can put just the force that is required ashore and then you can build on that force as the situation escalates, or you may choose to conduct distributed operations in in multiple locations from the sea base.

“Because we are uniquely well suited for ship-to-shore movement our flexibility is enhanced as well. The MV-22s and the LCACs are especially important tools that enable this flexibility. This allows you to aggregate the force at sea and then disaggregate the force ashore as the situation dictates. And that’s just very unique, I think, to this type of force.”

The Dawn Blitz exercise is doing much the same thing in the Pacific, and this year included Japan’s participation. The testing of the Osprey on Japanese ships, as well as shaping an ability to more flexibly move capabilities across allied ships (operating as seabases), is clearly a foundation for 21st century operations. It is about 21st century capabilities to deal with missile threats in the region, operate widely in the Pacific, and use distributed forces instead of adopting a posture for sequential operations.

In other words, the USN-USMC team is shaping a new approach to landpower for the 21st century. Lt. General Robling again:

“All of our forces are important to the security of this region, but I believe the USN-USMC team is strategically more important than any of the others.

“While seven of the 10 largest land armies in the world reside in the Pacific region, many of those Armies are now concentrating on their territorial borders. Many of their territorial defense lines are bordered on oceans or sea-lanes. This requires them to have a capability to police their borders in the littorals and they are looking to the USN-USMC to help them to either fill in capability gaps or train or equip to do this on their own successfully.

The Japanese and Australians, among others, understand that the future of their Armies lie in shaping more expeditionary capabilities to enable them to operate as a maneuver force. 

Dr. Robbin F. Laird is a military and security analyst, the co-founder of Second Line of Defense, and a Member of the Editorial Board of Contributors, AOL Defense.