For the Want of a Nail: Surface Connectors in Expeditionary Operations


Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs [Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel], we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.

-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1964 interview


Since World War II, a core tenet of guaranteeing the security of the United States and ensuring the advancement of its vital national interests has been to project power abroad. The United States has developed globe spanning infrastructure — in many cases hosted on the territory of allies and partners — to support forward deployed forces. These forces serve both as shapers of events and guarantors of America’s commitment to a given region. By themselves, this away team is often insufficient to deter a capable adversary bent on achieving an objective inimical to American interests. In these instances, deterrence is achieved by the prospect of overwhelming force arriving from elsewhere in the world. Critical to credible deterrence are readily deployable units, pre-conflict stockpiles of materiel, transport aircraft and strategic sealift to transport these elements to distant lands, and deep-water ports or airfields to facilitate their arrival. This is what the United States planned for during the Cold War, executed successfully during the Gulf War, and cannot afford to take for granted in planning for a future Pacific war.

What happens when those airfields and ports aren’t available? In recent years, China has developed the ability to heavily interdict America’s extended sea lines of communication, targeting U.S. logistics both afloat and ashore. In response, the U.S. armed services have opted to embrace disaggregated operations. While this may be necessary to win a fight in the Western Pacific, it will likely strain logistics capabilities beyond the breaking point. If the United States is to prevail in such a conflict, it will have to rely on an underappreciated and under-resourced element of its maritime fleet: the small ships and vessels of the Army and Navy watercraft fleets. After all, mountains of iron aren’t formidable if the U.S. military cannot move them to where they are needed.

To understand this unenviable position for the U.S. military, I shall first explore the challenge posed by both China and geography to American expeditionary logistical efforts in the Pacific. I then discuss the ability of existing platforms and capabilities to enable disaggregated future operations. Finally, I offer several recommendations to establish these capabilities on a sounder footing, such that the armed forces will be better able to deter great power threats in the Western Pacific in the near term, while redesigning their logistics forces for the future.

The Hard Part of Fighting a War

The war has been variously termed a war of production and a war of machines. Whatever else it is, so far as the United States is concerned, it is a war of logistics … It is no easy matter in a global war to have the right materials in the right place at the right times in the right quantities.
Fleet Admiral Ernest King

The Pacific theater today bears many similarities to the dark days of 1941: a handful of large bases supporting far-flung forces nearer to the homeland of potential adversaries than the continental United States. Now as then, the tyranny of distance plagues operational planners: It may take vessels weeks to reinforce the theater from the U.S. West Coast, while regional navies may be a few days steam from their bases.

Figure 1: The Tyranny of Distance in the Pacific (Source: The Heritage Foundation)

Compounding this problem is the ability of potential adversaries — such as China with its large stockpile of conventional ballistic missiles and long range cruise missiles — to bombard America’s regional bases in Japan, Guam, Kwajalein, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere, degrading the flow of reinforcement and resupply. As has been repeatedly noted, these facilities “lack sufficient active and passive defenses against [the] high-volume air and missile attacks” that are projected to occur during any great power conflict in the western Pacific.

Figure 2: Chinese Anti-access/Area-Denial Complex (Source: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments)

Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of usable infrastructure — such as long runways and established deep water ports — in the central Pacific beyond these static bases. Restoring damaged runways and harbors — along with the supporting fuel farms, storage facilities, and munition stockpiles — to operation while under periodic bombardment via difficult-to-intercept long-range missiles is a daunting prospect. An adversary successfully able to suppress this vital infrastructure may well be able to deny their effective use by American air and maritime forces, crippling the response long enough to achieve limited objectives.

The Response

Investments will prioritize prepositioned forward stocks and munitions, strategic mobility assets, partner and allied support, as well as non-commercially dependent distributed logistics and maintenance to ensure logistics sustainment while under persistent multi-domain attack.
National Defense Strategy

In response to the counter-intervention strategy pursued by a militarily burgeoning China, the United States has embraced a series of operational concepts that promote disaggregation of forces around the periphery of the Pacific. Embodied within the Navy’s distributed maritime operations, the Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations, and various flavors of multi domain operations for the Army and Air Force, it calls for increasing survivability via the geographic and temporal distribution of assets. Rather than concentrated fighting from large and easily targetable bases, the services are instead looking at non-traditional and austere locations throughout the Pacific. Potentially operating from under-improved islands or unimproved atolls, these forces would notionally be more survivable due to dispersion and frequent rotation.

Though “mobile and low cost,” these expeditionary bases promise to enable surveillance of broad areas; create sea-denial zones through emplacement of missiles and long range precision fires; allow construction of aircraft forward arming and refueling points; and permit reloading and battle damage repair of ships and submarines nearer to the fight. Properly implemented, it might well be a panacea for a host of challenges that face the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Such a dispersal of forces would also complicate an adversary’s targeting calculus, reducing their ability to concentrate missile strikes against a number of small targets.

Resupplying concentrated forces in the Western Pacific during peacetime is difficult, in part due to a lack of available sealift. Resupplying more numerous and more widely dispersed forces in the face of determined enemy opposition does not promise to be any easier, and the system may well be unsuited for the challenge. The 400 transport aircraft of the U.S. Air Force may also be insufficient to generate the required airlift — beyond limited amounts of personnel, supplies, or medium-sized equipment — in the face of the demand that conflict against a peer adversary would entail.

The challenge of implementing these concepts lies not in the seizure of a given maritime feature — the Marines recently demonstrated their ability to rapidly deploy long range missiles via aerial insertion — but rather in the deployment of heavy equipment for construction, repair, replenishment, and rearming operations, as well as prolonged sustainment of emplaced personnel. Traditional sustainment necessitates robust piers with deep drafts to enable large strategic sealift vessels to offload their cargos. Relying on established infrastructure would constrain the scope of where the joint force could operate, in turn reducing the benefits of unpredictable and disaggregated operations.

Past as Prologue

Since the Air Force may not be able to economically or reliably fulfill this need, and deep draft port facilities may not be available for larger logistics vessels, the joint force will instead have to rely on alternative means to deliver men and materiel to these dispersed outposts. Fortunately, the United States has maintained the capability to conduct joint logistics over the shore, permitting the supply of forces ashore when port facilities are not available, are inadequate, are politically denied, are militarily unsound, or when natural disaster has struck. Emerging in the crucible of World War II, this expeditionary logistics capability sustained forces ashore until larger facilities could be established. Contextualizing the scale of the effort, American construction battalions needed to build “111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals to serve 70,000 patients, tanks for the storage of 100,000,000 gallons of gasoline, and housing for 1,500,000 men …” on over 300 islands to support their drive across the Pacific.

In the intervening years, the Defense Department has developed reliable mechanisms to deliver large volumes of cargo, ammunition, fuel, and potable water from strategic sealift ships “through inadequate or damaged ports … or over a bare beach” until port facilities are captured, created, or restored. It is a complicated operation involving both large vessels and small craft, and is jointly “owned” by the Army and Navy. Typically, the larger, deep draft vessels will remain offshore while the smaller craft bring vehicles, equipment, containers, ammunition, and other equipment into designated areas. The offshore vessels may also run large feed lines to supply fresh water or fuel to distribution points ashore. This carefully choreographed operation — difficult in the best of circumstances — only grows more complicated when under adversary fire.

Between the Army and the Navy, there are just under 240 craft and vessels which enable joint logistics over the shore and expeditionary resupply. The majority of these units are concentrated in the Pacific. With distributed operations in mind (and straying from established doctrine), they may be conceptually divided into operational sealift, tactical sealift, and specialized craft. Operational sealift vessels can independently sail long distances within a theater to deliver large volumes of supplies. Craft for tactical sealift are incapable of transiting long distances due to their shorter range or smaller size. As such, they are generally relegated to transporting goods between larger vessels and their destinations ashore. Both types of vessels are designed to operate without a functional harbor and are able to land supplies on an open beach.

Figure 3: Navy Expeditionary Craft Numbers     

Figure 4: Army Expeditionary Craft and Vessel Numbers (Source: This compilation is the author’s own from various budgetary and public briefing documents)

While this force has changed little since it was established to enable American forces to island hop across the Pacific during World War II, the combined watercraft fleet nonetheless has the ability to support Defense Department objectives in the emerging era of great power competition. Rather than permitting the sustainment of Normandy style landings, this fleet of logistics vessels and small craft may become the key enablers for distributed operations.

These vessels may be dispatched days or weeks in advance of a planned establishment of an expeditionary base, rendezvousing with supplies and heavy equipment to permit the Marine Corps to rapidly construct a forward arming and refueling point, or else entrench batteries of coastal or air defense missiles. Perhaps they could function as floating armories, ferrying missile reloads to austere locations for surface combatants that have run out of easily expended munitions or Army ballistic missiles to remote launch sites. The smaller craft could be staged in small groups at sites where port construction is unfeasible, allowing forces to receive supplies from offshore strategic sealift assets. Dispersal of the watercraft fleet in advance of a conflict would also indicate American resolve and preparedness. The potential of these assets is constrained only by the creativity of operational planners, recapitalization requirements, and limited numbers.

Buying Time

We must also explore new options, such as inter-theater connectors and commercially available ships and craft that are smaller and less expensive, thereby increasing the affordability and allowing acquisition at a greater quantity. We recognize that we must distribute our forces ashore given the growth of adversary precision strike capabilities, so it would be illogical to continue to concentrate our forces on a few large ships.
-Marine Corps Commandant Berger’s
2019 Planning Guidance

Utilization of these legacy vessels and craft — many of which are in need of modernization or life extensions — in a logistics role is a short-term, comparatively inexpensive expedient to hardening the American position in the Pacific until longer-term solutions are devised, funded, and implemented. These small investments will be required in order to ensure that the combined watercraft fleets will remain fit for task until these new solutions are ready.

First, the Congress should preclude the Army from prematurely divesting from its watercraft fleet until completion of a Defense Department-wide watercraft and sealift requirements study. This study is scheduled to be completed at the end of the current fiscal year. Second, the Army should continue funding the service life extension programs for their LCU-2000 (currently being overhauled at two-per-year for a sum of $19,787,000) and command and control upgrades for the LCU-2000 and Logistics Support Vessel ($8,387,000). Both of these line items were included in the Army’s FY2020 budget submission.

Third, the Defense Department should study the utility of procuring additional expeditionary logistics equipment — such as modular or elevated causeway systems at a unit cost of $43 and $60 million, respectively — for prepositioning at austere locations.

Finally, the Navy should join the Army in accelerating procurement of the Logistics Support Vessel replacement, the Maneuver Support Vessel (Heavy). This replacement vessel is not projected to begin delivery until FY2025, and its delay represents an impediment to recapitalizing or expanding American operational sealift capability.

No Detail Too Small

Sealift may not be sexy, but without it, America stands little chance in a protracted peer-state conflict overseas.
Tyler Rogoway

When the U.S. military goes overseas to slay monsters, it has to take most of its supplies with it, especially when the fight is in the backyard of a large regional power and established sources may not be available. Transporting men and materiel over extended distances to support an expeditionary campaign in a non-permissive environment is inherently difficult. In the face of an adversary that is actively seeking to interdict your lines of communication, it would be folly to rely on a handful of large and lumbering sealift assets or emplaced assets ashore to sustain the fight. Nevertheless, confidence that the United States will send superior forces into theater is a critical element of deterring hostile powers and guaranteeing American security abroad. Therefore, the Defense Department should sustain and expand its existing intermediate sealift and expeditionary logistics capability until it either has a plan to replace these vital assets — or a concept of operations that doesn’t require it — lest the fight be lost for the want of a nail.


Lt. Elee Wakim (@EleeWakim) is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any other organization.

Image: U.S. Navy