Boxer Mike Tyson famously observed that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Unfortunately, over the past several decades, the United States planning for future conflicts and the force structure and defense industrial base necessary for such support has had to adjust to many “punches” from adversaries. The events of 9/11 once constituted such a blow, as did the rise of great power competitors, culminating in Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Hamas’ monstrous 10/7 attack on Israel and the prospect of a multi-front war between that state and its regional adversaries looks to be a third such punch.
The Department of Defense has repeatedly come up short in predicting future conflicts. Unfortunately, the realization of its errors only occurs after the Pentagon has made major changes in force structure, acquisition programs, and support for the defense industrial base. In some instances, the U.S. military can rapidly respond to such strategic shifts. Much of the time options for change have been limited, or else the timelines associated with reversing changes made in forces and equipment require years and major costs.
The reality that the future is uncertain and that threats can readily morph puts a premium on flexible forces that can address a broad array of potential missions. This is the direction amphibious warfare should take for the U.S. going forward.
Designing forces for a single type of conflict, be it high-end wars or counterterrorism, carries enormous risks. Time after time, the U.S. military has had to pivot to fight different adversaries, often in regions that had not previously been front and center in military plans.
But despite the U.S. military’s need to respond to major geopolitical perturbations, alterations of force postures, divestments of assets deemed to no longer be relevant, and acquisitions of new platforms and equipment, some capabilities have demonstrated their enduring utility. One of these is amphibious warfare forces. The combination of amphibious warfare ships and tailored Marine Corps ground and air units embarked on those vessels has been in continual demand by theater commands for some 70 years.
For more than 40 of those years, the Sea Services have generated a unique formation called an Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU), that provides highly responsive forces to meet a wide range of regional and even strategic contingencies. The ARG/MEU is highly desired by Combatant Commanders (COCOMS).
Make Amphibious Warfare Capable of Adapting
Recent events have once again demonstrated the value of flexible military capabilities, especially naval forces. One of the Biden administration’s first actions in response to the events of October 7 was to move the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group (CSG) into the eastern Mediterranean. Because the threats to U.S. forces are increasing, a second CSG was moved into the region.
While CSGs deploy enormous power through the carrier air wing and the missiles aboard the accompanying surface ships, they primarily perform strike and air/missile defense capabilities. Recognizing the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and the potential need to deploy forces ashore, the Pentagon also is moving the Bataan ARG/MEU into the Mediterranean.
The ARG/MEU constitutes a unique capability only available to the U.S. military. The ARG consists of specially designed amphibious warfare ships, typically three. One of these ships is either a Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ship or Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), essentially a smaller carrier with the ability to operate a combination of aircraft such as the F-35B, as well as helicopters and the Marine Corps MV-22 tiltrotor Ospreys. The remainder of the ARG consists of amphibious ships specifically designed to carry and support Marine Forces. These are either the older Landing Ship Dock (LSD) or its planned replacement, the Landing Transport Dock (LPD) 17. The LHAs, LHDs, and LPD 17s offer great mission flexibility, with enormous internal space for equipment, supplies, and Marines. They also offer state-of-the-art medical and intelligence facilities and the ability to operate fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
The MEU usually consists of a reinforced Marine Corps infantry battalion with dedicated command and control, combat support, logistics, vehicles, indirect fires, and aviation elements, including both attack and transport helicopters, the MV-22 Osprey, and F-35B. It can be reinforced by additional Marine units, Special Forces, and even Army personnel.
The Bataan ARG/MEU is in the region precisely because of the wide range of threats to U.S. personnel and interests that may emerge. The ARG/MEU is uniquely valuable due to its ability to deploy forces ashore from a sovereign base in international waters, the breadth of its capabilities, and its ability to not only support the full range of military missions day-to-day but also transition to a wartime footing seamlessly and without delays.
ARG/MEUs in Action, and Delays
For decades, U.S. Sea Services sought to continuously maintain three ARG/MEUs abroad. Today, even as the Pentagon needs to respond to a change in the strategic environment, the Navy is only able to generate sufficient forces to maintain two ARG/MEUs. There are now protracted gaps between deployments of ARG/MEUs to specific theaters. Four out of the last five ARG/MEU deployments were delayed because of unready ships. The reason for this is a lack of modern, ready ships. Indeed, the Navy faces a chronic shortage of available amphibious warfare vessels. As a result, not only can it not meet the demand for ARGs but there are few ships available for the MEU to train on, limiting their ability to generate at-sea forces.
Building in the Wrong Direction
This situation will only get worse if the Department of Defense is allowed to go forward with its plan to halt production of the LPD 17s. The defense department wants to halt the building of LPD 17s because this class of ships does not fit with its vision of the future, which is centered around a high-end war with China. Yet, as recent events have shown, the future is unpredictable. Events short of a major conflict with a near-peer adversary are likely to still dominate U.S. security concerns. At present, and likely into the future, the ARG/MEU is one of the best tools available to the Pentagon. But for this capability to respond to the rising demand for them, the Navy needs to continue to build amphibs and do so on a steady, predictable schedule.
Congress established a floor of 31 large amphibs, essentially 10 LHAs/LHDs and 21 LPD 17s. The Marine Corps also has stressed that 31 larger amphibs is the absolute minimum number they need to address current and projected demands. But if production of LPD 17s is stopped, the fleet will rapidly shrink to as few as 24 ships. Shrinking the fleet would also negatively impact the industrial base needed to support the broader Navy and make it enormously difficult and expensive to later reverse course. This is unacceptable. Instead, the defense department needs to build five LPD 17s and 2 LHAs over the next 10 years to ensure a viable 31-ship amphibious fleet.
Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.