Marines Go Back to the Amphibious Future

May 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine


An MV-22 Osprey makes a historic first landing aboard the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE 5). The Osprey landed aboard the Robert E. Peary while conducting an experimental resupply of Marines during exercise Bold Alligator 2012. The experiment was part of Limited Objective Exercise One (LOE-1) conducted by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

With a technology refresh, the Corps is returning to its roots as a sea-to-land fighting force.

After a decade of fighting throughout deserts and mountains, the U.S. Marine Corps is in the midst of a multiyear effort to re-establish itself as the nation’s primary amphibious military force. Senior service leadership is directing the Marines to take the lessons learned fighting the ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan and return to its core competencies of amphibious operations, sea-based forward presence and crisis response.

These competencies are “the stock-in-trade for the U.S. Marine Corps,” says Col. Vincent Goulding, USMC (Ret.), director of the experiment division of Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. Col. Goulding is leading the program to modernize Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) operations.

MAGTF dates back to the 1970s when leaders outlined the goals of future amphibious forces. The mission changed in 2001 when the Marines were sent to fight two ground wars and were, for the most part, taken away from sea-based military. In 2010, a naval exercise in Oahu, Hawaii, tested the current state of Marine amphibious capabilities. Col. Goulding characterizes that exercise as a shaping event for follow-on MAGTF operations because it revealed key capability gaps in the Corps’ amphibious strategies, including in logistics and casualty movement.

After the Oahu exercise, Col. Goulding explains that the Warfighting Laboratory approached the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to ask to test newly developed equipment and procedures during Bold Alligator 2012 (BA12), a joint multinational amphibious exercise involving the 2nd Marines and the U.S. Navy’s 2nd Fleet. The exercise took place between late January and mid-February this year at Fort Pickett, Virginia, and was conducted from Navy ships stationed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida, Virginia and North Carolina coasts.

Col. Goulding explains that the laboratory’s testing—Limited Objective Exercise 1 (LOE-1)—which was embedded primarily with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, had a number of goals for its experiments during BA12 (see box, page 42).

Perhaps the most important objective of LOE-1 was to overcome a major logistics hurdle. The resupply of water to Marines ashore was one area which in the earlier Hawaiian exercise proved difficult. “We wore out the Marines’ aviation combat element during the experiment in 2010 moving bottled water around the battlefield to keep those Marines hydrated,” Col. Goulding reports.

To remedy that, the Marines participating in the BA12 exercise were equipped with tactical water purification systems. Col. Goulding states that the Marines produced their own water onshore during the course of LOE-1, and aircraft were freed for other duties because they did not have to fly water to troops from supply ships.

During the BA12 exercise, the laboratory also tested a new configuration for a logistics ship that, paired with a V-22 Osprey aircraft, was able to provide on-demand, as-needed supplies to troops onshore, decreasing the amount needed for ground transport.

Col. Goulding says another priority of the exercise involved testing improved command and control (C2) capabilities at an extended range. “It’s pointless to put troops on a battlefield if you cannot command and control them,” he explains. “We wanted to make sure that the MAGTF commander could collaborate with the units ashore for those things they needed to accomplish their mission.”

Key to improving C2 capabilities for amphibious Marines is communications. Col. Goulding says the Warfighting Laboratory had an opportunity to test an experimental suite of communications gear during LOE-1.

Limited Objective Experiment One
(LOE-1) Objectives

1. Examine the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) command and control (C2) at extended range.

2. Examine MAGTF C2 organizations (LFOC/SACC/TACC/TACLOG) and relationships to facilitate sea-based extended range operations.

3. Examine MAGTF/Special Operations
Forces (SOF) integration.

4. Examine traditional and nontraditional means for sea-based MAGTF sustainment of ground forces conducting kinetic
operations at extended range.

5. Examine fire support issues related to extended-range, sea-based operations.

6. Employ/assess experimental command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and
reconnaissance (C4ISR) enablers.

7. Employ/assess “lighten the MAGTF” initiatives for a dismounted infantry force.

(Source: the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory)

Part of that suite included the Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS). Col. Goulding describes it as an Iridium satellite telephone-based radio system, which was installed on three Navy amphibious ships serving as BA12 command vessels. The DTCS primarily provides push-to-talk voice communications, with some limited data communication capability, and it has a practical range of 300 miles.

Col. Goulding describes the DTCS as the voice backbone that gave exercise commanders the ability to have voice communications with units ashore. The limited data communications capability allowed the DTCS to provide ship-bound commanders with geolocation information down to the squad level.

In addition to the DTCS, the Marines also tested the MAGTF Enabler Light (MEL), a package of digital communications equipment mounted on a lightweight vehicle that could be transported on a V-22 Osprey. MEL is a giant leap in tactical communications, according to Col. Goulding, because it has the ability to give onshore commanders nonsecure Internet protocol router network (NIPRNET) and secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET) wireless network connectivity with their shipboard counterparts, including the ability to transmit photos as email attachments. MEL is similar in concept to Network on the Move, a mobile C2 capability developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan (SIGNAL Magazine, March 2012, page 39).

The BA12 communications suite also includes a Trellisware Radio (TWR), which provides a satellite-like communications capability without the battlefield vulnerability of a satellite. In this case, Col. Goulding says, a small unmanned aerial system provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency provided a limited mesh network that allowed a secondary tactical communications capability.

The LOE-1 experiment also examined the state of C2 facilities available onboard amphibious ships, including the landing force operations center, supporting arms coordination center and the tactical logistics center. Many of these facilities were designed and built decades ago, but the goal was to examine their applicability to modern amphibious operations. Based on experience in the BA12, the Marines have determined that the C2 facilities are adequate but suggest that some improvements may be warranted in the future, according to Col. Goulding.

Another important objective of LOE-1 was to examine how well MAGTFs were able to integrate their operations with the special operations forces (SOFs) community. In most parts of the world, SOFs might have a presence in an operational area where Marines have been deployed.

SOFs can provide the MAGTF commander with information that can be used before deploying the force, Col. Goulding explains. He adds that once the Marines make landfall, they may be able to bring capabilities that would be helpful to SOFs and other conventional forces. In one case, a coordinated team of SOFs and Marines staged what he describes as a high-value target takedown onshore in an operation planned from one of the Navy amphibious command ships.

Col. Goulding says LOE-1 also explored other ways to, as he put it, “reduce consumption at the pointy end of the javelin.” Reflecting the commitment to reduce their dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy, the 2nd Marines staging the BA12’s 160-mile sea-to-shore advance on Fort Pickett came equipped with portable solar panels originally developed to support Marine operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was part of the effort to wean Marines from carrying heavy pocketfuls of batteries for their growing arsenal of computers, radios and other portable electronic tactical equipment.

The laboratory worked with the Marine Expeditionary Energy Office to test the Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System, or SPACES, one of two models of solar panels developed in the last five years for use by Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan during the BA12 exercise. The energy office received critical data from LOE-1 on how to improve the performance of the solar panels (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2012, page 51).

With an eye to the future, Col. Goulding deems LOE-1 a good first step on the incremental road to making significant changes in MAGTF. That road, he says, will include at least three more amphibious exercises.

The LOE-1 findings are being digested by top-level Marine Corps officials who form what is called the Ellis Group. The group, which is named in honor of Lt. Col. Earl H. Ellis, USMC, the man who helped design the Marines’ amphibious capabilities prior to World War II, is now shaping the next exercise, LOE-2, with an eye toward including cyber operations, and a war game next year.

Col. Goulding says plans for LOE-3 are on the drawing board, and it will include tests of a new suite of joint tactical communications equipment now under development. In 2014, the colonel says, the MAGTF effort will “invade the entire Hawaiian Island chain.” This exercise will take place in conjunction with the joint Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2014 (RIMPAC 14), which is expected to include numerous U.S. coalition partners.

While still in the planning stages, Col. Goulding hints that the Warfighting Laboratory envisions multiple MAGTF operations, including more robust C2, a bigger battlespace and an effort to tie together everything learned over the last decade into a new doctrine called the Future of MAGTF Operations.


U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory:
U.S. Navy Bold Alligator 2012 Exercise:


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