Sea Basing

July 1, 2004

In an effort to adapt maritime strategy to changing conditions, the Navy and Marine Corps have embraced a new concept that they hope will help overcome “access denial” threats in world hot spots.

The emerging concept is known as “sea basing.” Put in simplest terms, the US would construct a system of large, mobile, seagoing logistics platforms able to launch and sustain a combat force far inland. The force could be Marine or Army. It could number thousands of troops with supporting equipment.

Backers say this large direct-intervention capability would provide insurance against a loss of US access to local airfields, bases, and port facilities.

Skeptics—and there are many—say sea basing could prove to be an expensive mistake. “Sea basing is a rich man’s approach to solving the [access denial] problem,” said retired Marine Col. Robert O. Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. He favors use of long-range airpower.

US leaders long have worried about losing access in a crisis. The movement of naval, land, and air forces to a theater, they warn, could be blocked by a foe’s use of missiles, mines, quiet subs, advanced air defenses, and chemical weapons.

Some years ago, USAF responded with its Global Strike Task Force (GSTF), a concept of operations to defeat anti-access threats. It calls for using theater-based and long-range airpower and modern information systems to create a “massing of firepower effects” without an actual massing of forces in vulnerable areas.

GSTF would rely on stealthy B-2 bombers and F/A-22 fighters to attack from afar and clear a path for more forces.

“The Only Answer”

Now, the naval services are offering sea basing as their alternative, which they obviously think is superior to others. Marine Col. John Pross, director of sea basing integration in the Navy’s expeditionary warfare office, said the Navy and Marine Corps leadership consider the sea base to be the optimal way to exploit America’s control of the seas.

Sea basing gained status in 2002 with the release of the Navy’s latest warfighting vision, Sea Power 21. That paper puts sea basing on a par with “sea strike” (offensive capabilities) and “sea shield” (defense of forces at sea and ashore).

Said Navy Capt. Steven C. Rowland, director of concepts and capabilities for the Navy’s expeditionary warfare office: “The sea base is, in fact, the foundation for all the offensive and defensive power projection capabilities.”

Adm. Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations, believes it is not so much a system as a way of thinking. “Now some people may see sea basing in a very restrictive way—it’s a particular platform and it’s a thing,” said Clark. “To me, sea basing is about the ability to exploit the freedom to maneuver. That’s what it’s about.”

Clark went on, “We need to think about sea basing in a very joint construct and what it does for the entire military structure, and we need to figure out how to invest properly, focus our investment stream so we maximize that advantage.”

Despite sea basing’s inherent naval orientation, the Navy and Marine Corps tout it as a joint capability that will affect operations of the Army and, to some extent, the Air Force.

Before he stepped down last year, Pentagon acquisition czar Edward C. Aldridge Jr. directed the Defense Science Board to conduct a study of sea basing. “Undoubtedly situations will arise where US interests require having boots on the ground,” Aldridge said. “Accomplishing that in today’s warfighting context bristles with difficulties.” He thought sea basing might be one answer.

The DSB report, issued last fall, endorsed sea basing as a promising idea. Chairman William Schneider Jr. flatly declared it to be “a critical future joint military capability for the United States.” He added, “It will help assure access to areas where US military forces are denied access to support facilities.”

However, there are some problems. To begin with, sea basing as presently conceived requires a panoply of new ships, aircraft, weapons, and integrated sensor and command networks, most of which do not exist.

What, in fact, is a sea base

Key features of a sea base are described in the DSB report and in presentations made by the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Starting points are today’s big-deck aircraft carrier and amphibious task forces. Formations of existing warships would provide offensive and defensive power as part of a sea base.

The DSB report said, “One must think of a sea base as a hybrid system of systems consisting of concepts of operations, ships, forces, offensive and defensive weapons, aircraft, communications and logistics, all of which involve careful planning, coordination, and exercising to operate smoothly.”

It added that the sea base “must be robust enough to operate in a range of sea conditions and must be able to receive supplies from the sea without the support of in-theater land bases.”

Such a capability does not now exist, although the US does have some precursor amphibious capabilities. The DSB said the United States could have an operational sea base by 2020.

Into Afghanistan

Navy and Marine planners are more optimistic that their current capabilities will prove useful. “We’ve done sea basing for many years,” said Rowland, who cited recent operations in Afghanistan, where Army, Marine, and special operations forces were launched and supported from the sea for extended operations more than 400 miles inland.

Rowland did not mention it, but these Marine forces were heavily dependent on support from land-based USAF tankers, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, and transports, as well as space systems.

To make sea basing viable in a major combat operation, the Navy must have effective ship-based theater missile defense systems to protect both the floating platforms and the forces taken ashore. Such a shield is years from reality.

The sea base also must be able to provide fire support for troops far inland, perhaps without heavy artillery. Carrier-based strike aircraft can offer some support, but studies emphasize the need for long-range, precision fires from weapons such as the advanced gun system in the Navy’s future land-attack destroyer, the DDX. The first model won’t be in the fleet until 2011.

Studies emphasize the need to protect the sea base from submarines, mines, and small attack craft armed with fast-flying missiles. The Navy believes this duty will fall to the proposed littoral combat ships, which won’t debut until 2008.

Most critical is the need for a fleet of mammoth new logistics vessels called Maritime Pre-positioning Force, Future—or MPF(F)—ships. They would replace the current fleet of pre-positioning ships used over the past decades.

The Navy’s six-year shipbuilding plan calls for buying the first ship of the class in 2007. Each could cost more than $1.5 billion, and the Marines want 18 to 24 of them, Work said.

Judging by how it is portrayed in concept drawings, the MPF(F) ship would be a huge affair, combining some elements of an aircraft carrier, troop ship, and high-tech floating warehouse. The flotilla could support as many as 15,000 ground troops.

Rowland said current concepts are “pre-decisional,” but it is clear that acquiring the capabilities envisioned in the DSB and Marine studies will be a daunting task.

Some Marine conceptual drawings show vessels that look like supertankers. Some have large flight decks able to support dozens of rotary wing aircraft, including the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey.

These ships—extending 1,000 feet and displacing a whopping 100,000 tons—would be bigger than a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier. The ships would be able to hold thousands of troops, along with the vehicles, heavy weapons, and supplies to equip and supply a brigade-size Marine or Army force for 30 days.

At least those functions are within current shipbuilding parameters. The problem is that MPF(F) planners have incorporated some cargo-handling capabilities that do not even exist.

Needed: More Capabilities

To sustain a major combat operation ashore, the sea base ships on the open ocean must be able to receive and distribute a vast amount of munitions, fuel, food, and other supplies while under way. That means the ships must exchange heavy loads of cargo—shipping containers, tracked vehicles, and the like—with merchant ships or other Navy vessels.

Moreover, they have to be able to do this in high winds and rough seas. Such a feat would be impossible without heavy-load cargo cranes that can compensate for the pitching and rolling of both the receiving and the supplying vessels. Naval Sea Systems Command has tested a prototype heavy-lift, computer-guided crane that might fill this need. However, no proven system is ready to go into production at this point.

The proposed ships must have another capability called “selective offload.” Today’s pre-positioning ships generally have to enter a port and unload everything to get to specific supplies and gear needed by a combat force. In the future, however, the Navy must be able to offload to other vessels or aircraft only that cargo which is needed. The technology to do that has not yet arrived.

Because the sea base must stay on station for long periods and at great distances from land, the Navy must develop what it calls “high-speed lighterage”—small, fast supply craft to shuttle troops and materiel between sea base and shore.

The Navy and Marine Corps also want to use their Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicles, capable of making 40 mph over water, and the proposed Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which could travel over water at a speed of 23 mph.

However, service studies have concluded that even such relatively fast surface craft can’t be used to move troops ashore if the threat of antiship missiles forces the sea base to operate 100 miles or more from land, as is likely. To cover that kind of distance, the force would need an aircraft. It would have to be able to carry up to 20 tons of cargo for up to 400 miles.

And it would also have to be able to operate from MPF(F) ships. As a result, the US would need to develop a very large aircraft of the vertical (or exceptionally short) takeoff and landing type. The MV-22 and CH-53E helicopter do not measure up, said Navy studies.

Aircraft manufacturers have suggested a number of solutions. One of them—a C-130-size, four-engine, tilt-rotor aircraft—would take 15 years to develop, if it could be done at all. The story is much the same with the other aircraft concepts.

Essential to the whole concept is the development of a wide-area command and control network to tie together the dispersed ships of the sea base.

Doing all of this will be very expensive, probably beyond the combined means of the Navy and Marine Corps. Perhaps for that reason, DSB said sea basing must be an all-service effort. It recommended creation of a joint sea base office. Following the DSB’s recommendation, the Pentagon in December ordered preparation of plans for a joint sea basing requirements office.

“The Air Force and particularly the Army must participate in the development and use of this joint military operational capability,” the DSB report said.

Army leaders have expressed support for the concept. Said Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff: “Not only do I subscribe to it now, … I have for years.”

The MOB Concept

Lt. Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, has appeared to be notably less effusive. Sea basing is “obviously a great concept,” he said, and “the Navy and Marines are betting on the Air Force support that is needed.” He added, “We will work out how we will support that mission.”

The Air Force actually had shown greater interest in an earlier sea basing concept, the so-called “mobile offshore base” championed in the early 1990s by Adm. William A. Owens, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Owens’s MOB concept entailed building several 1,000-foot long, 500-foot wide, self-propelled offshore platforms that could be linked together to form a floating airfield of various lengths and widths. It would have internally stored fuel and support equipment. The Air Force had some interest because the MOB could have handled C-130 and C-17 cargo aircraft and perhaps even some fighters.

Navy and DSB studies dismissed the MOB as too expensive, too big a target, and not mobile enough to avoid missile attack.

US Joint Forces Command has been testing sea basing concepts in exercises with the Navy and the Army, and the Joint Staff has been working to develop joint sea basing doctrine.

The Navy concedes that sea-based operations in a major conflict would still require the air superiority and in-flight refueling provided by the Air Force. Navy Lt. Cmdr. John J. Klein and Army Maj. Rich Morales, writing in a recent issue of US Naval Institute’s Proceedings, summed it up this way: “The full strategic advantages of sea basing can be realized only by maintaining diverse basing options, such as ports, airfields, and land bases.” They will be needed to support, defend, and exploit the contributions of the sea base.

Despite the major obstacles in their path, Navy and Marine officials are determined to push the sea basing concept as far as technology and their budgets will take them. But it is clear that anything like a fully capable sea base, as conceived, is decades from reality.

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.-based military affairs reporter for Copley News Service and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Airpower Advocate,” appeared in the January 2003 issue.