Sustainment of the Stand-In Force
After a congressional visit to Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China rapidly and without warning begins to ramp up military activity. Beijing launches missiles into the South China Sea and deploys ships around the island. In response, Washington reaches out to key partners in the region such as Japan and Australia to negotiate storage, sustainment, and port and airfield access agreements. The Department of Defense also begins stand-in force operations, augmented with smaller collaborative forces, to begin conducting reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance activities. The U.S. Marine Corps rapidly deploys several stand-in units across the Indo-Pacific Command to support sea-denial operations. As this situation begins to escalate, logistics planners quickly try to coordinate the long-term sustainment for an unknown and potentially extended period. Soon, logisticians are struggling to sustain these forces afloat and ashore in a complex and contested environment.
This is the kind of scenario that Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, likely had in mind last December when he released his notion of stand-in forces. This concept describes how the Marine Corps intends to operate in contested areas, like the South China Sea, where the threat of long-range precision fires is augmented by increasingly ubiquitous sensor networks. The concept was designed to provide the joint force commander with options for sustaining forward positioning in these hostile environments. Gen. Berger expanded the concept to say that these forces will provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, support targeting, and conduct sea denial within naval campaigns. As Task Force 61/2 recently demonstrated, stand-in forces are designed to be employed as a naval expeditionary force in the littorals. In order to sustain this force, the commandant envisions an approach built around “avoidance.” This calls for a minimization of logistics personnel and traditional logistical capabilities, such as large, wheeled trucks, fuel supplies, and chow halls. The goal is to reduce the force’s visible and electronic signature and thereby increase its survivability. As such, the avoidance concept creates major challenges for the Marine Corps. It also complicates the joint force’s traditional understanding of logistics sustainment, which involved logistics units operating behind, yet still relatively close to, front-line fighting units. Without logistics units in close proximity, it remains unclear how stand-in forces would be sustained in competition and especially in conflict.
The biggest challenge for the stand-in forces concept right now is that it puts marines inside high-threat areas with minimal logistics sustainment. This requires the Marine Corps to develop and train for a sustainment concept that is light, flexible, responsive, resilient, and redundant. This plan should enable decreasing replenishment time and maintain each stand-in force unit’s low signature. In the commandant’s words, “To persist inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone, our Stand-in Forces must be set and sustained by logistics capabilities designed for distributed operations over long distances in a contested environment.”
How can the joint force replenish supplies, maintain equipment, and restock combat losses while keeping stand-in forces in the fight? The concept calls for “new approaches to existing techniques and the development of new capabilities.” Task Force 61/2’s recent experiences in the Baltics provides a way forward. Logisticians and operational planners should expand the distribution network, enhance the sustainment system, and explore new distribution platforms. The Marine Corps should utilize a combination of shore-based, maritime, and air distribution assets to achieve a sustainment web utilizing military and commercial means. The alternative is to leave the Marine Corps unable to perform its vital duties in a future conflict.
Expand the Distribution Network
The Marine Corps has always maintained a unique ability to rapidly respond to any crisis or contingency around the world. To achieve this, the service has positioned supplies and equipment either on ships at sea or at forward-deployed land installations across the globe. Various programs like the Marine expeditionary units and the Maritime Prepositioned Force were developed to accelerate response options for the combatant commander. However, these traditionally operated in a position of maritime sanctuary with minimal threat from adversaries. As the threat has increased and this sanctuary has vanished, the Marine Corps laid the foundation of a new strategy with the “Global Positioning Network.” This expanded network of supplies prepositioned both ashore and afloat will provide the operational commander with logistical resilience. The following proposals could help to make this network more responsive, survivable, and effective.
Redefine Forward Storage
The Marine Corps should look to store equipment and supplies not just in military bases but also in commercial and private facilities connected to sea and air terminals. Through the use of contracting, the service could maintain a small, flexible, low-signature basing footprint within the weapon engagement zone. If practical, these equipment stocks should be maintained by Marine Corps Logistics Command and regularly used for exercises and training by the stand-in force.
Refocus on Shipping
The Marine Corps should think beyond fixed, land-based sites and instead couple its basing with the Maritime Prepositioning Force’s remaining shipping assets. This means re-learning how to employ existing maritime capabilities and tie them into existing and expanding land-based networks. Planners should leverage and experiment with smaller commercial ships such as leased offshore surface vessels. Smaller and faster ships provide a more survivable maritime platform that could conduct intra-theater surface lifts and coordinate with the Global Positioning Network. Ships could serve as part of a larger network of floating warehouses that have the benefit of maneuver and connections with smaller logistical platforms at sea. This global network would reduce the need for building “iron mountains” that not only are operationally untenable but could lead to strategic miscalculation with America’s adversaries due to the perception of increased American presence in the region.
Rethink Sea Bases
The Indo-Pacific region, comprising over 35,000 islands within 60 million square miles of water, offers the Marine Corps, in partnership with the U.S. Navy, a unique opportunity to expand sea-basing. One possible approach would use non-mobile platforms, such as an offshore oil rigs, that could take advantage of vast amounts of water while positioning capabilities near or close to key geographic locations. Oil rig platforms could be expanded into floating piers to store supplies. They could also be used for floating transfers and replenished with commercial and Navy ships. These sea-basing platforms have been studied before by the Naval War College and have recently been considered by Japan as possible firing positions for Aegis Ashore systems. This approach would also spare the State Department the cumbersome task of negotiating access, overflight permissions, and basing rights. The cost of oil rig platforms could be as low as $21 million.
Enhance the Sustainment System
In recent conflicts, the Marine Corps, along with the Department of Defense, operated with relative command and freedom. During the military buildup for Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, sea and air lines of communication were uncontested. However, today this can no longer be taken for granted. Among other things, this means that the government can no longer count on logistics support from the private sector. Whatever defensive measures the military provides, commercial carriers are never going to risk platform and material loss coupled with increased insurance rates to conduct deliveries in high-threat areas.
This vulnerability has led the Marine Corps to develop the “spider web of sustainment” to create greater redundancy and flexibility. The following measures would help to bolster this web.
Plan Stand-In Forces’ Self-Sustainment
Most active re-supply efforts would disrupt the signature footprint of the stand-in forces. The service should acknowledge that the commandant’s vision of “avoidance” means that logistics and sustainment will be the limiting factors for stand-in forces’ future operational endurance. Forces can operate successfully and independently with low signatures as long as their organic capabilities can sustain them. Organic capabilities include being able to locally source sustenance, fuel or other alternative energy options, and Class IX repair parts (possibly through 3D printing). Any additional external support could potentially compromise their presence and require displacement to a new location for resupply, equipment maintenance, or securing Class VII parts.
Establish Forward Intermediate Supply and Distribution Capabilities
Forward-deployed intermediate supply and distribution subject-matter experts would also facilitate improved sustainment. As the Marine Corps expands operations in distributed and contested environments, stand-in forces require forward-positioned and responsive logistics hubs. Marine expeditionary forces should have standing supply and distribution detachments in the form of teams of two or three people embedded across their area of responsibility. These teams would have the ability to source requisitions, expedite shipments, and coordinate the distribution of supplies and equipment. Integrating these detachments into standing Navy Supply Systems Command fleet logistics centers would be a good first step. These teams would serve as initial logistics hubs and work with strategic-level logistics agencies and commercial vendors. These standing teams would also provide a more flexible, responsive, and resilient model without having to saddle the stand-in force with additional personnel.
Upgrade Logistics Automated Information Systems
Currently, Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps is the program of record used for ordering supplies and managing equipment. This system was originally intended to be used for all classes of supplies, but due to funding shortfalls and development challenges it now primarily focuses on requisitioning Class IX repair parts. The management of Class I, V, and VIII repair parts, currently handled by three separate automated information systems, should be incorporated into the program.
Explore New Distribution Platforms
The Marine Corps’ current distribution system relies on watercraft, connectors, fleet ships, and aircraft alongside commercial carriers that fly from commercial terminals and fixed site bases. This network can be effective when the lines of communication are open, but is unsuitable for a contested environment. For distribution to expeditionary locations, planners cannot count on mature infrastructure or the necessary air, sea, and ground terminals. This challenge will be coupled with the lack of watercraft that serve as maritime surface “connectors” in the Department of Defense inventory. These challenges will cause significant problems to any sustainment plan for stand-in forces. In order to mitigate these challenges, the Marine Corps should use its current inventory of maritime assets to expand this distribution network.
Repurpose the Limited Connector Fleet
The Improved Navy Lighterage System is central to the Maritime Prepositioned Force program. This system is currently utilized by the Navy and Marine Corps exclusively for ship-to-shore movement in an expeditionary environment. Some of its modules were designed to serve as a “lily pad,” including forward arming and refueling points that could be established at sea for refueling, generating and distributing fresh water, or operating as littoral replenishment sites. This Improved Navy Lighterage System capability has been used with success in expeditionary environments where the Maritime Prepositioned Force ships cannot dock. For inter-theater distribution, this system depends on landing craft that are mostly affiliated with the Amphibious Readiness Group, Army Watercraft, and the U.S. Navy Expeditionary Fast Transport. This arrangement is viable, but has some limitations due to geographic positioning capability and quantity. The Marine Corps should look at using unmanned surface vessels as assigned logistics carriers to help move supplies and parts around the area of responsibility. While next-generation logistics ships and the light amphibious warship could be future possibilities, they remain decades away from practical use in the fleet.
Consider Sea Planes as a Distribution Asset
One of the great challenges in any area of responsibility is access, basing, and overflight. This limitation can impede the ability of military and commercial carriers to fly in personnel and cargo. Another challenge is the physical limitations often associated with military and commercial runways or fixed bases. The lack of access to host-nation airports and the shortage of strategic mobility assets make it harder for conventional wheeled planes to carry out distribution activities. Given that Indo-Pacific Command includes the largest body of water in the world, the Marine Corps should consider the use of seaplanes as a means to support stand-in forces. These planes can operate over long distances at high speeds in inclement weather, and can carry cargo or act as aerial refuelers. America’s adversaries have already realized the utility of these airframes. China’s AG-600 is likely to be used as such a logistics resupply asset, and Russia is starting to replace its turbo-prop Beriev Be-120 with the jet-powered Be-200ES. In a water-dominated theater like the Indo-Pacific Command, seaplanes could be a game changer.
Revolutionizing Marine Corps Sustainment
In order to sustain the stand-in force, the Marine Corps should be prepared to revamp its entire approach to logistics. Logisticians should begin to rethink the corps’ distribution network, improve sustainment, and expand the use of distribution assets. While these changes will require a near term fiscal investment, they will provide long term benefits. Marine Corps Headquarters and the logistics enterprise should focus on 2022–2030 as the window of competition to better develop capabilities within the Fleet Marine Force to support stand-in forces. In the context of Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps logistics enterprise faces not just an inflection point, but an opportunity to redesign how it will support the Marine air-ground task force in the future fight.
John Sattely is an active-duty colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps who is currently the Commanding Officer at Blount Island Command in Jacksonville, FL. He has previously served in HQ, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, II Marine Expeditionary Forces, 4th Marine Logistics Group, Headquarters Marine Forces Europe and Africa, U.S. Central Command, and previously held command at 2nd Transportation Support Battalion. He is also a 2019 graduate of the Naval War College.
Jason A. Paredes is an active-duty major in the U.S. Marine Corps who is currently the supply branch head at Blount Island Command in Jacksonville, FL. He has previously served in 2nd Intelligence Battalion, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1st Marine Logistics Group, and 1st Supply Battalion. He is also a 2020 graduate of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Joshua Brittenham