Sustaining Distributed Forces in a Conflict with China
Headquarters Pacific Fleet just sent out an alert after recent days of observing a few Chinese Type 075 amphibious assault ships amassing in the China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps launched an unannounced brigade-level landing exercise near Taiwan, in order to practice amphibious landings. A total of six Luyang III destroyers also participated, launching multiple surface-to-air missiles to demonstrate their capacity for fire support. Concurrently, as part of exercise STEEL DRAGON, U.S. Navy ships launched over two dozen amphibious assault vehicles and assault boats carrying U.S. marines and Japanese soldiers headed towards the target area while helicopters conducted reconnaissance and raids on key terrain. The proximity of the Chinese to U.S. and Japanese training exercises had leadership in Taiwan nervous about what this meant for defense of their sovereignty. As tensions continued to escalate in the area, Pacific Fleet ordered all Navy ships to pull back to avoid any miscalculation. The U.S. Marine Corps’ stand-in forces, as well as the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, currently distributed around several key areas for training and counter-reconnaissance missions, have been left to sustain themselves for an undetermined amount of time.
How are the United States and partner nations preparing for this potential scenario? The United States can no longer count on primacy in all warfighting domains during a near-peer conflict, making freedom of movement increasingly challenging. The People’s Republic of China has a number of options to contest U.S. movement, ranging from missile defense systems radiating into the air domain to degradation and disruption of sea lines of communication through a naval blockade under the guise of an integrated naval exercise. As a result, forward-deployed forces both ashore and afloat, as well as extended lines of communication in the air and sea, will be increasingly vulnerable.
In response, Washington should embrace global positioning to achieve logistics endurance that will better sustain forces in a highly distributed and undeveloped theater. This means rethinking how equipment and supplies are positioned to support operating forces and incorporating the air, land, and maritime domains. Currently, most of the equipment and supplies needed to support operating forces are either co-located at the home station of the unit or afloat on a prepositioned vessel. This model places a tremendous amount of stress on strategic lift platforms during a crisis when the joint force collectively will require these assets to position strategic deterrence capabilities. Global positioning would expand relationships with allies and partners to place equipment and supplies ashore and afloat, and drastically reduce the force closure window.
To realize this goal, we propose a new concept: dynamic maritime sustainment. This concept would bring together the Marine Corps and Navy in utilizing existing capabilities and expanding the network to include partner nations like Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore. Specifically, dynamic maritime sustainment calls for a fresh logistics concept for the naval fleet to effectively integrate distributed maritime operations, littoral operations in a contested environment, and expeditionary advanced basing operations while simultaneously sustaining the remainder of the fleet. These operational concepts are a form of expeditionary warfare that involve the employment of rapid, mobile, low-signature naval expeditionary forces in austere and temporary locations ashore or inshore within contested maritime environments for the purpose of conducting sea denial and reconnaissance. These efforts all serve as part of a larger naval campaign intended to help deter or influence an adversary’s decision calculus — logistics as deterrence.
Dynamic Maritime Sustainment
Perhaps the biggest challenge to realizing dynamic maritime sustainment is the lack of ready-to-issue logistics sustainment to support the distributed stand-in force units at the point of need. Moreover, in a contested environment, the traditional logistics support required will be forced to recede back to a protected area within the region and will likely be too far from the forces they are tasked to sustain. This makes traditional approaches obsolete in any future conflicts with a near-peer adversary. The distributed maritime sustainment concept is an operational approach through an expanded and flexible distribution architecture that can better sustain forces in both uncontested and contested environments as indicators and warnings elevate and the main fleet begins to pull back.
While stand-in forces operate within the weapons engagement zone, they operate with limited organic sustainment and lack endurance once the region becomes contested. Currently, there is no combined joint theater sustainment plan designed to sustain forces inside the weapons engagement zone in a contested maritime environment. The initial basis of dynamic maritime sustainment starts with the Marine Corps’ foundational concept of the global positioning network that connects with the joint theater sustainment concept. The global positioning network consists of joint, overt, and covert land sites and afloat sea bases that are all connected through manned and unmanned aerial and maritime platforms. This network should not be developed in service isolation — rather, it should be developed jointly and multi-nationally to gain economies between the services and allies and partners and support the joint requirement.
It is possible to think of dynamic maritime sustainment in terms of three pillars: An ashore prepositioning network, an afloat sea-basing network, and the maritime and aviation connectors to keep logistics functioning until conditions are set for a more robust sustainment architecture inside the theater.
Image: Mr. Perry Smith
First and foremost, each theater should designate a regional logistics hub ashore where it can maintain prepositioned equipment and supplies in a “ready-to-issue” status. The competition continuum and compressed timelines no longer allow for the slow-moving force build-up normally associated with the force-closure phase of an operation. This means we won’t see the six-month military buildup that occurred in the Middle East before the liberation of Kuwait or the invasion of Iraq, where just the Marine Corps offloaded 11 large roll-on, roll-off maritime vessels that require access to a deep-water port.
As a result, the naval force cannot afford to continue with an incomplete sustainment concept like Care of Supplies in Storage and therefore should maintain equipment in a ready-to-issue status. This model requires logistics sustainment comprised of uniformed personnel and a combined civilian and contractor workforce to accomplish high states of readiness for forward stocks. Equipment and supplies should be and can be used for training, operations, and support as needed to meet the requirements for naval campaigning.
In addition to the designated regional logistics hub, there should be several overt and covert contingency locations throughout the area of responsibility, possibly including those newly agreed upon during the secretary of defense’s 2023 visit to the Pacific. These sites can be comprised of something as simple as low-signature commercial warehouses that store equipment and supplies under a contract. Marine Corps Logistics Command can schedule and coordinate the rotation of stocks and equipment as necessary to sustain high levels of readiness.
Additionally, the ashore network could have “cold” sites that are designated for commercial terminals at seaports and airports but are ready to activate with military equipment and supplies as required in a contingency. Moreover, each logistics terminal location could harbor warehouses for equipment and supplies that are ready-to-issue as part of an overall global positioning network to have resources arrayed in many locations that are able to increase resiliency.
Maritime shipping is the lifeblood of sustainment in the Pacific and the cornerstone of the dynamic maritime sustainment concept. The concept employs a layered approach to delivering sustainment from a deep-sea base to the stand-in forces. At the deep-sea base, the maritime prepositioning ship provides a logistics mothership for sustainment operating outside the weapons engagement zone. Here, it would operate as a selectively configured vessel with all classes of supply and an embarked force capable of conducting limited supply, maintenance, and landing support activities. This would include transferring supplies and equipment to a fleet of both manned and unmanned surrogate maritime sustainment vessels or unmanned aerial vehicles that will penetrate the weapons engagement zone with their deliveries. From there, a fleet of smaller connectors deliver the sustainment to the stand-in forces operating in the contact layer. The transfer of supplies and equipment can be conducted through surface or aerial platforms. This provides for a lily-pad network that gives maximum flexibility for the delivery of sustainment while also protecting the large sustainment vessels.
The strength of the dynamic maritime sustainment concept is interoperability between the combat logistics fleet, merchant marine fleets, and additional connectors described in the next section. The budgetary decisions facing naval vessels necessitate utilizing existing platforms and creatively employing them. The littoral combat ship, with its impressive speed, a flight deck, and an extendable hydraulic boom crane off the stern offers one intriguing opportunity, particularly in conjunction with unmanned surface and aerial logistics delivery systems. Incorporating expeditionary sea-base ships like the USNS Puller, which offer helicopter flight decks and large sustainment decks, would provide redundancy to the network. Although these ships do not historically deploy together and have not been designed to interoperate, they could still serve as a critical, maneuverable part of a larger network of naval platforms. What’s more, expanding interoperability to include allied and partner vessels would only make the sustainment network more robust.
All these various ships and ashore sites laid out in a vast maritime basing architecture in the region can only become a global positioning network if they are connected by smaller manned and unmanned watercraft and aircraft. Manned watercraft, such as the commercial offshore support vessel, serve as today’s functioning version of the Marine Corps’ proposed landing ship medium or the Army’s proposed maneuver support vessel. Offshore support vessels contain many of the same load characteristics of the landing ship medium, while also having a low draft hull to allow for better ship-to-shore and shore-to-shore mobility.
The Navy and Marine Corps should rethink the improved navy lighterage system and warping tug that are loaded on maritime prepositioning ships to move equipment and supplies during in-stream operations. Currently being employed as a ship-to-shore connector, the lighterage is modularized and can serve as either forward arming and refueling point afloat or a logistics hub to operate as a lily pad for sustainment of forces ashore. Another asset or capability on maritime prepositioning ships that could be additive to the connector portfolio is the roll/on and roll/off discharge facility. This capability serves as a barge to conduct afloat transfers for equipment and supplies between ships. Ships such as the joint high-speed vessel can connect to the roll/on and roll/off discharge facility and take selective equipment items or supplies to be delivered to an ashore location or afloat.
The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated that unmanned surface vessels can provide a kinetic capability and will have a role in future conflict. Future roles should include sustainment missions and these vessels offer tremendous opportunity within the dynamic maritime sustainment concept. The Navy has even recently established a command focused on unmanned surface vessels — Unmanned Surface Division One. Although originally created to provide electronic warfare, countermine, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, they could be built as small or medium-sized unmanned distribution platforms going from ship to ship or shore to shore delivering sustainment to landing forces. Unmanned aerial vehicles are another capability that should be incorporated into the dynamic maritime sustainment concept. As technology improves, these systems will likely be able to operate in vast open water environments and replace the need for manned logistics delivery equipment.
Dynamic Maritime Sustainment in Action
It’s 0340 and 7th Fleet’s Maritime Operating Center receives a report that a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel has collided with a Taiwanese frigate, alongside intelligence reports of dozens of Chinese amphibious vessels being embarked along China’s eastern coast. The six Luyang III destroyers have positioned for a blockade along the northern and southern coastlines of Taiwan. Sensing an escalation of conflict, the commander for the Marine Littoral Regiment requests an immediate increase in supplies and critical repair parts for his forces. The regiment’s logistics officer promptly submits a supply request. The afloat USNS Dahl receives the request, and the embarked marines immediately begin loading supplies into the 35’ unmanned surface vessels on the weather deck. Six hours later, an offshore support vessel pulls alongside the USNS Dahl, which transfers over the loaded unmanned surface vessel with its organic cranes. The offshore support vessel immediately transits east toward the Marine Littoral Regiment. Approximately 400 nautical miles from their operating site, the offshore support vessel uses its organic crane to deploy the unmanned surface vessel into the water, and it proceeds to a beach where the regiment receives the supplies. The unmanned surface vessel then returns to a predetermined rendezvous site at sea where it is recovered by the offshore support vessel. Two days later, the offshore support vessel links up with the USNS Dahl, which recovers the unmanned surface vessel and resupplies it for another future mission.
The systems exist to make this vision of dynamic maritime sustainment a reality. The next step involves the necessary exercises and training. By leveraging existing Pacific exercises, the joint force can rapidly demonstrate this concept, enhance interoperability with other navies, and show off the strength of America’s logistics enterprise. These exercises should be done not as part of a long-term predictable schedule, but rather as “snap exercises.” Fleet marine forces should be able to quickly activate a node, operate from a maritime platform, pull equipment and supplies out of global positioning or prepositioning stocks, and move out to execute a task. Dynamic maritime sustainment can provide marines and naval forces with a consistent and frequent exercise cycle with the coalition and joint maritime team to learn, gain efficiencies, and refine their procedures so they can work through some of the friction points associated with forward-deployed operations. Additionally, these rehearsals create new distribution innovations and “spokes” for the global positioning network.
The dynamic maritime sustainment concept is more than just a flexible network for the Navy and Marine Corps. It serves as a strategic insurance policy that enhances maritime maneuvers and increases options for sustaining forces ashore and afloat. In this way, dynamic maritime sustainment mitigates against the critical vulnerabilities of distance and time. Without survivable logistics, no strategy or operational concept is effective or feasible.
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 headquarters, 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, and U.S. Central Command, and has previously held command at 2nd Transportation Support Battalion. He is also a 2019 graduate of the Naval War College.
Jesse Johnson is an active-duty lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps who is currently the director of operations at Blount Island Command in Jacksonville, FL. He has previously served in 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, Headquarters Marine Forces Pacific, Combat Logistics Regiment 27, Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group, and Marine Corps Tactics & Operations Group. He is a 2015 graduate of the Marine Corps Command & Staff College.