In an era of great power competition, U.S. forward-deployed forces face a growing threat from potential adversaries’ long-range missiles and sophisticated air defenses. These forward-deployed forces have served the U.S. as a deterrent to aggression, crisis response capability, and, in the event of war, the first line of defense. But in an era marked by the proliferation of lethal, long-range weapons, the military services are looking for ways of ensuring that forces deployed within range of these new threats can operate effectively not only in peacetime but also in the event of a great power conflict. These so-called “stand-in” forces must not merely survive the attack but use their position to engage in decisive military actions from the outset of hostilities.
To meet this growing challenge, each of the U.S. military services, particularly the Marine Corps, is looking at a combination of changes to organizations, equipment, and operational concepts to allow them to deploy stand-in forces close to a prospective great power adversary, within range of its weapons. The Marine Corps is pursuing the most dramatic changes to prepare for high-end conflict, especially in the Indo-Pacific theater. As envisioned by the Marine Corps Commandant, General David Berger, by 2030 the new Marine Corps would be “a light, self-reliant, highly mobile naval expeditionary force postured forward in littoral areas within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone.”
A premier stand-in force already exists. This is the Navy/Marine Corps’ Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU). The ARG/MEU is unique as a U.S. military formation due to its ability to operate from international waters, the breadth of its capabilities, and its overall flexibility. One of the singular virtues of the ARG/MEU construct is that it can support the full range of peacetime military missions day-to-day, but transition to a wartime footing seamlessly and without delays. In wartime, the ARG/MEU is already standing in and present in theaters of interest. Particularly if supported by one or more air- and missile defense-capable ships, it can conduct surface and air amphibious assaults, launch precision airstrikes, engage in electronic warfare, and offer logistics support to units on land.
The ARG half of the combined capability typically consists of three ships — a LHD or LHA, LPD and LSD — which not only provide transportation for the MEU’s air and ground elements but can serve as a sovereign base at sea with advanced medical care, intelligence capabilities and support facilities. LHDs offer enormous mission flexibility with their well deck, huge medical capability, self-protection, large internal volume for equipment, water, fuel, supplies and repair facilities, and ability to launch and recover fixed-wing aircraft. The large LHD and LPD amphibious warfare ships allow the ARG/MEU to deploy its own air force consisting of MV-22 Ospreys and AH-1W attack, UH-1N utility and CH-53E heavy lift helicopters, Harrier “jump jets,” and the F-35B fighter.
The MEU portion of the team consists of a reinforced infantry battalion with its own command and control, combat support, logistics, vehicles, indirect fires, and aviation elements. Once deployed, it can be reinforced by additional Marine units, Special Forces, and even Army personnel.
The ARG/MEU is an excellent capability with which to address the need for operations in the so-called “grey zone” of conflict below the level of overt hostilities. This past year, the ARG/MEU has demonstrated its unique ability to respond to crises and support the needs of the Combatant Commanders. The Iwo Jima ARG and the 24th MEU were part of the immediate response to evacuation efforts at the Kabul Airport in Afghanistan. In addition to deploying the MEU on the ground, the ARG/MEU conducted Harrier and MV-22 operations. Simultaneously, the USS Arlington (LPD-24) was sent to provide earthquake relief support for Haiti, deploying with about two hundred Marines, a Fleet Surgical Team, and a detachment of 2 MH-60R helicopters. In late 2020, the Makin Island ARG, deployed with the 15th MEU, was part of the U.S. naval force that supported the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia.
The Navy and Marine Corps have a steady-state requirement for at least 31 large amphibious warfare ships. But the demand for ARG/MEUs consistently exceeds supply. The Navy struggles to meet the goal of maintaining three ARG/MEUs at sea. As noted above, the Navy frequently breaks up ARGs, sending individual ships on separate missions to meet the demands of the Combatant Commanders for the capabilities it can provide.
The amphibious warfare fleet requires not only enough ships to meet the continuing demand for ARG/MEU capabilities, but more modern and capable ships as well. The Navy is currently investing in two new classes of amphibious ships designed to provide greater capacity and capability. The first is the America-class helicopter assault ship (LHA), essentially an aircraft carrier that can also carry troops, equipment, and supplies. The second is the San Antonio-class landing platform, dock (LPD-17) Flight II. The LPD-17 Flight II is designed primarily to deploy troops and equipment but can operate helicopters and support a range of sophisticated functions, including command and control, advanced medical assistance, and logistics support to land forces.
The amphibious warship fleet is supported by a complex industrial base encompassing thousands of workers and companies in some forty-three states. This is a critical, multi-billion dollar sector within the larger Navy shipbuilding industrial base. The health of this ecosystem and the jobs it provides is much dependent on a steady, predictable program of amphibious ship construction.
In an era of tightening defense budgets, it only makes sense to acquire new amphibious warfare ships in the most efficient manner at the lowest cost. The best way to do this is through a block buy contract for multiple ships over a number of years. Such an approach was proposed this year by Representative Rob Wittman, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee Seapower subcommittee. The Navy is saving billions of dollars by using this approach to acquire aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines. This approach should be extended to the procurement of amphibious warfare ships.
The ARG/MEU is arguably the best U.S. military stand-in force to address the full spectrum of challenges facing the nation through peace, crisis, and war. It possesses a range of capabilities essential to addressing regional instability, respond to emerging threats, provide humanitarian support, and in the event of conflict, provide a powerful air and ground offensive punch. With the continuing procurement of LHAs and LPD-17s, the force will provide vital stand-in support to U.S. national security and defense policies for decades to come.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.