Marines Look to Return to Maritime Roots

Marine Corps leaders are preparing for more sea basing as the U.S. defense strategy pivots to the Pacific.

As the Marine Corps winds down ten years of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more fully returns to its amphibious and expeditionary origins, service planners are vigorously  preparing the service for more sea basing and operations spread across wide swaths of ocean, senior Corps leaders explained.

“As we pivot to the Pacific and start looking at how we are going to operate in a very maritime environment — and the Anti-Access/Area-Denial things we have to deal with — we see that sea basing becomes incredibly important,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Wise, Commanding General, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Quantico, Va.

The “tyranny of distance” characterizing the large waterways and geographical expanse that comprises the vast Pacific region, coupled with the capabilities of potential adversaries in the area, create a circumstance wherein the Corps will need superior command and control, logistics and fires capabilities, Wise explained.

“We will be driven off the coast a little bit further than we are used to, so now we start to look at doing distributed operations where we are not going to have a Forward Operating Base. We will be sustaining and controlling operations from a sea base that could be over 200 miles away,” Wise told an audience last month at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 14th Annual Science & Engineering Technology Conference/Defense Tech Exposition, National Harbor, Md.

Wise detailed a series of recent and upcoming exercises aimed at refining the Marine Corps ability to succeed in conducting missions across vast distances, which the Pentagon likes to call distributed operations.

The main thrust of the exercises is to demonstrate and strengthen the Corps’ ability to aggregate forces through superior command and control while improving unit logistics and leveraging emerging technologies.

ADVANCED COMMUNICATION

Distributed maritime and maneuver operations involving sea-basing and forces spread over longer distances can only be effective with sustainable command and control, Wise explained. Part of this could involve successful collaboration with U.S. coalition partners and increased cooperation with special operations forces.

One analyst agreed that increased security cooperation with allies in the region could substantially improve the U.S. military’s strategic posture in terms of command and control and addressing A2/AD issues, among other things.

“I think its essential that we, the United States, have an honest conversation with our allies in the Pacific region — not just our formal allies — but other countries in the region about what roles and responsibilities we will expect them to play moving forward,” said Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Wise explained that long-range communications technology will be key to the Corps’ defense posture and sea basing strategy in the region.
“If I have a force over 200 miles inland from my command and control outlet, I’ve got to be able to do over-the-horizon and on-the-move communications,” he added.
With this in mind, the Corps has experimented with a small, handheld satellite radio able to network forces with voice and data over 16,000 channels at ranges up to 700 miles, Wise said.

Called the Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS), the satellite radio system consists of a small antenna, headset, cable and hand-held display screen. It uses GPS, satellite and software programs to establish beyond-line-of-sight and over-the-horizon communications networks. Phase three of the DTCS will allow for global communications and data transfer over 64,000 channels, Wise added.

LOGISTICS

Wise emphasized the crucial value of logistics when it comes to projecting and sustaining distributed operations. He spoke about improved battery technology designed to lighten the load for Marines on the move as well as small, compact autonomous ground vehicles able to travel on-board aircraft and haul cargo.

For instance, Wise cited the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate, an internally transportable, optionally-manned vehicle able to load onto and fly in the back of a CH-53 or MV-22 aircraft.

“This brings a maneuver element that starts to take the load off of a Marine who is maneuvering in the battlespace,” said Wise.

Another key asset anticipated to impact the Corps’ ability to succeed with dismounted, sea based operations is the now-in-development Marine Corp variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, a short-take-off/vertical-zlanding fighter jet being engineered to take off and land without an airfield, Wise said.

“The F-35B will be able to maximize digital interoperability, collect a lot of data and push that data to a squad or platoon leader on CH-53 or MV -22,” said Capt. Richard Ulsh, Marine Corps spokesman.

The F-35B is slated to enter service in the Pacific region in 2017, Ulsh added. However, the program has been littered by delays and cost overruns.

TECHNOLOGY

Wise mentioned ongoing experiments with a small tablet with a digital display screen providing Marines with a real-time look at feeds and information from a host of ISR assets.

“With this tablet, a young Marine in the field can now see the ISR assets and task them dynamically. He can see and pull down the imagery and also drop in targets and coordinates. Now he can digitally call in fires on a position where he was never able to do that in the past,” Wise said.

All of these various elements to sea basing will be integrated together in a large, joint advanced warfighting experiment slated for the summer of 2014, called “Rim of the Pacific” international maritime exercise.

“Ultimately, when you talk to any Marine – if we make him as capable as he can be, he is going to win the day. That amphibious green monster will win the day when you turn him loose,” Wise said.