WASHINGTON: Even as the Navy pursues cheaper ships such as LCS and JHSV, the Marines’ message is: Amphibious Warships; Accept No Substitutes. There’s real interest and opportunity in non-traditional ways to deploy Marines, assistant commandant Gen. John Paxton said today, but a purpose-built amphibious ship remains the Marine’s top choice to go to war with. The Navy’s two most innovative ship classes in particular, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) transport and its armed cousin the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), are “marginal” for Marine Corps purposes.
Even the Marine Corps’ own latest innovation, the land-based and air-deployed SP-MAGTFs (Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces) — the newest one officially created this week in Kuwait — are “suboptimal” compared to traditional Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) embarked on ships, Paxton said this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Amphibs are such a scarce and precious resource, in fact, that Paxton made clear he doesn’t want them training with Army helicopters until essential Marine Corps training is taken care of first.
Why amphibs uber alles? “The Marines.. are always going to focus on the most dangerous enemy course of action — not necessarily the most likely enemy course of action, but the most dangerous,” Paxton emphasized. “[We need] people, equipment, training, and readiness that can handle the most dangerous course of action.”
Amphibious warships are built with self-defense systems and highly resilient hulls. By contrast, while the JHSV is “a great opportunity,” Paxton said, “we should not delude ourselves in terms of its survivability and we should not delude ourselves in terms of the sea state [i.e. rough weather conditions] within which it can operate.”
“It is, I think, a splendid platform [for] doing exercises and building partnership capacity,” he said. “You could take a look [at JHSV] if we had to do a NEO [non-combatant evacuation, e.g. of a threatened embassy] or casualty evacuation, if the threat posture wasn’t severe. [But] I don’t see how you can legitimately put it into an operations plan for a major theater operation — unless you are doing long-term, later follow-on operations [i.e. after the main threat was defeated], nothing to do with the assault echelon.”
The Marines are “actively” looking at adding a special ramp to JHSV so it can offload amphibious vehicles straight into the water, without needing a port, Paxton said. But the JHSV is designed to carry passengers, not combat vehicles or aircraft, and its flight deck is “incompatible” with the Marines’ cherished V-22 Osprey.
What about the Littoral Combat Ship, I asked? “It’s a short answer because it’s almost identical to JHSV, he said. “We think they have marginal capability” because of limited flight deck space, room for embarked troops, and command-and-control capability to coordinate with troops ashore. (Interestingly, he didn’t mention the LCS’s oft-criticized survivability).
“Alternative platforms are just that, they are alternative,” Paxton emphasized. “We are most willing to look at them….but we should always be wary of the risks.”
In fact, Paxton said the Special Purpose MAGTFs are a response to the shortfall in traditional amphibs, not a Marine attempt to encroach on Army missions. With the SPMAGTF’s combination of ground troops, support staff, airlift, and command-and-control systems, he said, “it’s almost exactly like a MEU — except it doesn’t have Navy shipping, and that to us is a serious disability.”
“We have a paucity of amphibious shipping and many of us in the Marine Corps are not happy with it,” Paxton said. “We are not happy as an institution.”
Paxton said not to blame the Navy. “I would appreciate it if you quote this correctly,” he instructed the reporters present: “I love my Navy shipmates and they have an incredible challenge with capital investments, ok? They’ve been working very hard and very well in a really resource-constrained environment.” The Navy has to buy not only amphibs but aircraft carriers and a new model of nuclear-missile submarine, just to name its two most expensive assets.
That still leaves the Marines short of amphibious ships. “38 is the number that we have agreed to since 1991,” calibrated to two simultaneous major wars, said Paxton. “Both the CNO and the Commandant are on record as saying the steady state [peacetime presence], with the disorder around the world, the number could easily be somewhere between 48 and 54.”
Ships are in such short supply, in fact, and maintenance schedules for aging amphibs are so out of synch, that Paxton said many Marine units must train for their deployments with one ship but actually deploy on another. It’s this training crunch that is his main concern about Army helicopters aboard ship.
“We’re ok with the Army touching and going [on flight decks] provided the Marines touch and go first,” he said. “As soon as we get Xs in all our boxes and the Navy-Marine team is good to go, then open it up.”
Army helicopters aren’t “marinized” to withstand salt air and corrosion on prolonged shipboard deployments, anyway, Paxton noted. “Could you put an Apache on a ship? Absolutely, it creates a wonderful opportunity,” he said — but it shouldn’t stay there long.
Overall, with budgets shrinking even as the Marines reorient from prolonged operations inland in Afghanistan and Iraq to their traditional maritime role, “we’re going to be challenged to reassert some roles and missions,” Paxton said. “I’m being brutally honest here: Could that create tension between the Army and the Marine Corps? It could if we let it. it doesn’t need to. It doesn’t need to.”
When it comes to new land-based Army initiatives like its Regionally Aligned Forces, in fact, Paxton was outright encouraging. “There’s a lot of bad guys out there, there’s a lot of missions out there,” he said. “We ought not to worry about territoriality between the different services.”