Deploying amphibs look a lot like the future

The Navy's newest big gator heads across the Pacific in a symbol of the new U.S. strategic focus.

The amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island slipped its lines on Monday and headed out to sea on its maiden operational deployment. If you wanted a photo for the opening slide of your PowerPoint deck about the future of American power, you couldn’t do much better than this.

First, the ship: The Makin Island is the Navy’s first “hybrid” big-deck gator. Unlike the seven ships in the class that preceded it, Makin Island’s main propulsion comes from diesels and gas turbines driving an all-electric system, not enormous steam boilers. That makes the ship much more efficient, the Navy says, and it’s planning to copy the Makin Island’s plant at least on the next big amphibs, if not other future surface warships.

Second, the mission: Although the Navy already does deployments like the one Makin Island is making — along with the amphibious transport USS New Orleans and the dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor — now Washington actually is paying attention. President Obama is heading to Australia to announce the forward-deployment of American Marines there; the Pentagon is standing up its Air-Sea Battle Office; and people at the highest levels are talking about the Western Pacific.

And although it’s possible to imagine a time when American aircraft carriers don’t automatically sail to the Central Command AOR to support combat in Afghanistan, the Navy and Marine Corps are locked into WestPac deployments forever. The ships will exercise with American allies, show the flag during their port visits, and be on hand just in case anything happens — from a natural disaster to a military crisis.

That last bit — just being on hand — is at the core of what the Navy, Marines and parts of the D.C. foreign strategy smart-set see as the key to maintaining stability in the Western Pacific. American expeditionary power will be the control rod in the reactor, the thinking goes, moderating all the nations in the neighborhood and keeping the seas open and peaceful for the free flow of commerce. If there’s any unpleasantness, the unmistakeable shapes of the Makin Island and its companions will appear on the horizon, within easy reach of their main weapons system — the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Or here’s how the mission commander put it, per the Navy’s official story:

“Our Navy and Marine Corps team plays a critical role in facilitating international maritime security cooperation,” said Capt. Humberto L. Quintanilla II, PHIBRON 5 commander. “Global maritime security can only be achieved through the unity of international and regional maritime integration, awareness, and response initiatives. “The safety and economic interests of the United States and our allies, and partner nations depend on unimpeded trade across the world’s oceans,” added Quintanilla.

The big questions for the Navy and Washington are how all this new doctrinaire seriousness about WestPac will affect what the service does elsewhere in the world. Will commanders stay committed to the humanitarian and “partnership” deployments they’ve been doing in South America and Africa, for example? Or could the Makin Island’s deployment signal not just that it’ll maintain its Pacific presence, but increase it?