Marine Corps has drifted away from the Navy over the last two decades. Shortages of amphibious shipping combined with a need to justify force structure gave birth to shore-based SPMAGTFs.
The new Commandant of the Marine Corps said in his planning guidance, “…there is a need to reestablish a more integrated approach to operations in the maritime domain.” By virtue of their range and speed, aviation assets are inherently able to bridge gaps. Amphibious forces usually take this as meaning between the sea and the land, but it also bridges gaps between forces at sea.
Amphibious ships can no longer serve merely as transportation for their embarked Marines. In the future anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment, they have to be part of the open-ocean kill chain. If the naval services are to enhance their survivability and lethality against the medium- and high-threat fights of the future, they have to combine their efforts and their assets. The keystone of that effort will be the aviation assets of the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). They must be reconfigured to better exploit aviation platforms such as the V-22 and F-35B, and turn the Corps into a force for sea control.
The strength of the Navy and Marine Corps team is the use of seaborne mobility to achieve effects on land. New aviation platforms can reinvigorate this for the 21st century, making both the Navy and Marine Corps more survivable, deadly, and integrated.
In Marine terms, “distributed operations” mean small units scattered throughout a given ground commander’s area of responsibility. In Navy terms, distributed maritime operations are those within a naval commander’s area of responsibility. Rarely are the two domains intertwined, but now they need to be.
Marines routinely practice distributed operations within the ships of an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) – performing “split-ARG” ops at widely separated locations. But this is much less common among the ships of the larger Expeditionary Strike Group, which adds attached surface combatants and often a submarine.
It is virtually unheard of to detach Marines to other ships, such as those in a carrier strike group. The ARG typically does not integrate much with the rest of the Navy, but in the future, it will need to in order to survive. To that end, why are Ospreys tethered to ships at all, much less particular ships? Ospreys are easier to maintain on land. With the two KC-130Js normally assigned to the MEU, they can reach anywhere in most theaters within hours.
With the right preparation, much of the Navy’s fleet could become staging areas for Marines.
The Marine Corps and the Navy are sometimes working past each other.. The Marines field small tactical platforms and the Navy seeks to enhance sea control with larger systems. Neither of those efforts reaches the other, nor provides top cover for the critical period when Marines transition ashore.
In the future, we can’t assume that we will possess uncontested sea control, whether in the objective area or in transit. The ESG may have to fight its way there. Every asset aboard every ship, including manned and unmanned aircraft, whether they have “Marines” or “Navy” painted on the side, must work in concert. We need to move beyond the construct where the Navy exists only to move Marines to an objective, into one where elements of both are a cohesive fighting team from embarkation to debarkation.
Once we stop thinking of the Navy and Marine Corps as operating in distinct domains, the survivability and lethality of the ESG and the MEU, and even carrier strike groups and surface action groups will be increased. Employed correctly, emerging Marine and Navy aviation platforms, such as the F-35B, CMV-22, and MUX, combined with the assets of the MEU, ARG, and ESG, will make the integrated Navy-Marine team more capable and deadly.