December 1, 2010  

The future of seabasing

Moving beyond the post-Cold War unilateral approach

Like a ship’s hull with too many barnacles, seabasing is laden with unnecessary conceptual debris that has obscured its central tenets and confused its core strengths. As the Navy ponders its roles and corresponding force structure for the coming decades, it is worth putting seabasing in dry dock and stripping it clean. Only then will a vision appropriate to the 21st century emerge.

2010 was an important milestone for the concept of seabasing. Eclipsed in recent years by large-scale ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, seabasing once again occupied the limelight in January when a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, closing the main seaport and limiting air traffic to an antiquated and quickly overwhelmed airfield. The Navy and Marine Corps responded quickly by dispatching considerable assets to the scene, including an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault ship and a hospital ship. By hosting extensive relief efforts offshore, the Haiti naval operation seemed to validate the seabasing concept in its entirety. Yet less than a month later, the Navy effectively canceled the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future), the most significant seabasing acquisition program to date and a pillar of the Marine Corps’ 21st-century vision. What was once billed as revolutionary and transformational met an anticlimactic end, described as a concept that is “valid but not currently within the Navy’s fiscal reach.”

This contradictory turn of events suggests it is time to take a fresh look at a pivotal post-Cold War concept.


At its core, seabasing purports to move traditional land-based functions to sea — functions such as billeting, logistics and even the employment of force. It was a concept that became popular again in the 1990s when diminishing overseas bases and politically hesitant allies created impediments — perceived and real — to military plans for force projection. Chafing at these restrictions, planners viewed the sea as a vast maneuver space on which the U.S. could position and deploy its aircraft, artillery and ground forces. A sea base uses the sea as a base, and that is a compelling vision. After all, the sea covers 75 percent of the world’s surface while approximately two-thirds of the world’s population lives within 400 kilometers of a coast. Operating from the sea, you can almost always get near the action.

Seabasing has deep historical roots. By mid-1945, for example, the U.S. was capable of landing more than 1 million troops on a foreign shore and supporting them with integrated aircraft and logistics from the sea. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union imploded and took the U.S. Navy’s central blue-water mission with it, the Navy looked to this World War II legacy to transition from a fleet that would fight on the seas to a fleet that would fight from the seas. With the seeming obsolescence of overseas garrisons and the increasing concern about the proliferation of missile technology, seabasing rose like a phoenix from the ashes to offer a basing solution for the 21st century.

But war, as Clausewitz said, is simply a continuation of politics, and seabasing also served as a remarkably accurate barometer of post-Cold War foreign policy. Specifically, while planners during the 1990s highlighted sea-based forces’ inherent freedom of maneuver, a more fundamental, thinly veiled concept of freedom lay just beneath the surface: freedom from allies. Such freedom resonated with two very different administrations during two very different decades of conflict. To a Clinton administration wary of military intervention in foreign conflicts — epitomized by the withdrawal from Somalia, the limited missile strikes into Sudan and Afghanistan, and the vow not to use ground forces in Bosnia — seabasing’s ability to choose the time and place of U.S. involvement was very attractive. Similarly, to a Bush administration that reserved the right to act unilaterally and pre-emptively — and that inaugurated the Afghanistan operation by inserting Marines and special operations forces from a sea base in the North Arabian Sea — seabasing was the epitome of U.S. strength and resolve. Indeed it was this freedom to act unilaterally that lay at the core of the president’s November 2001 proclamation, “You are either with us or against us.”

Such confidence in American conventional capability gathered steam in the early years of the last decade, bolstered by the apparent quick and decisive victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. As secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld used these successes to push an aggressive “transformation” agenda that impacted every aspect of defense — from bases to personnel to equipment. At its core, transformation involved smaller and lighter military formations, the extensive use of air power and information technology as a replacement for the cumbersome military of the previous decades. It also relied heavily on rapid mobilization and the use of forward-deployed expeditionary forces in an insatiable “need for speed.” All of this was music to a seabasing advocate’s ears.

As this heady optimism ground to a halt in the protracted insurgencies overseas, however, seabasing’s allure began to wane. Starting with the 2005 National Defense Strategy, official language about U.S. allies became very conciliatory — a marked shift from the almost condescending tone of the 2002 National Security Strategy (often labeled the “Bush Doctrine”). Subsequent documents followed suit. In addition, the troubling wars overseas seemed to turn a decade of consensus on its head: Instead of the “smaller, lighter, faster” mantra of the transformation years, counterinsurgency doctrine ruled the day — along with its need for large ground forces, the use of heavily armored vehicles, and a focus on long-term stability and governance. In this environment, seabasing’s claims to revolutionize 21st-century warfare seemed about as credible and relevant as the “Mission Accomplished” banner that flew aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln in May 2003.

Seabasing’s fall from grace has been anathema to the Marine Corps. Determined not to become a second land army, the Corps has made seabasing the central pillar in the conceptual transformation it began in earnest in the 1990s. Most importantly, the Marines want to avoid the “iron mountain” of supplies ashore that accompanies traditional amphibious landings, and they want to be free of the deep-water ports that current pre-positioning ships require. The 14-vessel MPF(F) was thus designed to support a brigade of Marines afloat and enable all supply and sustainment for two more Marine Expeditionary Brigades deployed via amphibious ships. The MPF(F) would keep the entire force at sea. It was the Marines’ vision to float the iron mountain.

By the decade’s end, the Marines had circled the wagons around “Marine Corps Seabasing,” a service-specific interpretation focused on high-end amphibious assault. The Navy fretted over runaway shipbuilding costs and instead focused its efforts on emergent missions like Ballistic Missile Defense, Maritime Domain Awareness and efforts to oppose a rising, resource-hungry China. As Congress expressed doubt over seabasing, the two services placed the $14 billion MPF(F) on hold for two years until canceling it in early 2010. By all appearances, seabasing appeared to be on the ropes.


The first step in righting this ship is to deconstruct seabasing concepts from the last two decades to determine what is salvageable and what should rightly be discarded. Significantly, Marine Corps concepts for the MPF(F) had foundations in four key areas: at-sea logistics, pre-positioning, amphibious lift, and employment. Permeating all four issues were assumptions about speed and scale. When we examine these conceptual roots, we can begin to see why the MPF(F) assumed such a strange, hybrid character — and begin to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The first area, at-sea logistics, really lies at the heart of the seabasing concept. Deployed amphibious ships have little ability to tailor their equipment while underway, meaning their pierside loadout essentially determines their capability. Additionally, the Marines’ current maritime pre-positioning ship squadron (MPSRON) vessels are dense-packed and designed to Cold War constructs in which the U.S. intended to rapidly reinforce allies by unloading equipment and personnel in prepared ports. The MPF(F), conversely, was designed to act as a port and airfield at sea with corresponding connectors. It would allow the Marines to assemble and selectively tailor forces underway and then support forces ashore without reliance on ports — or even a beachhead. Essentially, it would make operations on land independent from that land.

During the transformation years, however, the escalating need for speed led planners to equate such at-sea logistics with pre-positioning. Quite simply, there was no other way to satisfy the desire to commence combat operations in the prescribed 10-14 days without using forward-deployed (i.e. pre-positioned) vessels. As a replacement for the MPSRONs, the MPF(F) was thus designed to absorb the third of three 15,000-member Marine expeditionary brigades while simultaneously supporting two more brigades deployed via traditional amphibious ships for a major combat operation. In effect, it would move traditional pre-positioning to a position off the coast.

Such speed and scale, however, pose a fundamental question: What is pre-positioning for? If the intent is to quickly reinforce allies (as during the Cold War), is it reasonable to assume that the same speed and scale can be achieved at sea? After all, the MPF(F)’s accompanying task force of traditional amphibious ships would be hard-pressed to achieve such speeds, taking as long as 60 days to arrive from the continental U.S. Conversely, if pre-positioning is intended simply to provide speed and flexibility to U.S. forces, what scenario would call for such a rapid, large-scale amphibious assault — especially if an ally ashore had already been overrun?

Amphibious lift poses similar ambiguities. No significant study on amphibious lift has been performed since 1990’s Department of the Navy Lift II, itself commissioned during the Cold War and organized around the planning metric of the Soviet motorized rifle division. For nearly two subsequent decades, the Navy and Marine Corps agreed on paper to support the “fiscally constrained” capacity of 2.5 expeditionary brigades, but the latest consensus is for a 33-ship amphibious force to support a bare minimum two-brigade lift capacity. The MPF(F) was intended to house a third brigade on its vessels, bringing the Marines back up to their long-stated three-brigade goal. But this debate about lift is as much about strategy as about shipbuilding programs. A 20-year hiatus is too long. Certainly it is high time for a comprehensive review of amphibious lift — and of amphibious missions.

Finally, the MPF(F) was also designed to employ forces, primarily in low-end scenarios. As such, it helped make seabasing synonymous with amphibious warfare. But amphibious ships already employ amphibious forces. As civilian-military hybrids, the MPF(F) vessels blurred the line between combatants and logistics vessels, posing countless ethical and legal issues. As the nation struggles with the prevalence of contractors in war zones, a plan to launch combat operations from “up-armored” commercial vessels should warrant pause.

In short, seabasing has become tied to several critical issues — including pre-positioning, amphibious lift and amphibious employment — that are all due for re-evaluation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the concept of seabasing need be held hostage by them. Seabasing does already exist to various degrees, and seabasing of any sort relies on robust at-sea logistics. Therefore, by focusing on such logistics — and putting the base back in seabasing — we can disentangle the host from its missions and critically examine what the seabase is supposed to do.


So what is the right model for seabasing, then? Perhaps the most powerful emerging concept of naval organization is modularity, or “boxes.” Indeed, Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy and spokesman for the Navy’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, has described all of the Navy’s ships — from the littoral combat ship to the aircraft carriers — as boxes or capability containers able to individually deploy and act as motherships for wider congregations of vessels and aircraft. This emerging ethos builds on the “plug and fight” capability of the LCS, elevating it to a broader view of naval forces in general.

If we apply modularity to seabasing, the concept takes on much greater depth and power. Seabasing then is about assembling a wide variety of vessels, containers and organizations into infinite combinations. There are already signs of this emerging. The Global Fleet Station, for example, is a low-end seabase that conducts training and builds partner capacity. The middle is comprised of surface action groups, disaggregated amphibious readiness groups, ballistic missile defense SAGs and independently steaming submarines. At the high end, the Navy still deploys large, concentrated strike groups centered on major capital ships like aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. Without explicitly stating so, the Navy has begun to create a force of modular seabases that bridges the large and the small.

The Marine Corps is evolving in a similar fashion. As mentioned, the Corps designed its seabasing constructs around a three-brigade capability. In experiments, however, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab has reduced the lowest-level Marine Corps fighting unit from a reinforced battalion, as we see in today’s Marine expeditionary unit, to a reinforced company, creating a small amphibious operations force that can fit on one ship. The Marines also are planning to deploy from the LCS and the Joint High Speed Vessel. This trend toward organizational modularity mirrors the Army’s own reorganization begun in 2004, encapsulated by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker’s claim that he “had too many $100 bills and not enough 20s.” The Navy and Marine Corps, it would seem, are in need of some fives and ones.

A modular organizational focus does not necessarily entail a fundamentally different force structure. It does, however, require thinking differently about forces at sea and about ways to combine them. Much of this already exists in contemporary naval writing, but it remains to be consolidated into cohesive doctrine. In short, it’s not necessarily about building new ships, but rather about creatively employing what already exists.

Why such a force? The answer is that it is an impending geostrategic necessity. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and most of those cities lie in a coastal region only 120 miles wide. Such high population densities coupled with massive urban slums create a possibility of littoral conflict that could make current counterinsurgency campaigns seem tame by comparison. Significantly, such trends also constitute an inversion of 20th-century conflicts in which the U.S. sought to contain continentalist “heartland” powers, including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Increasingly, the littorals aren’t just the sideshow in the main conflict; they are center stage themselves.

Conflict in this area, however, promises to be very different from traditional amphibious assault. Indeed, Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak stated over a decade ago that future conflicts were less likely to be the beloved “son of Desert Storm” than the “unwanted stepchild of Chechnya.” Extrapolating to the coastal regions, littoral combat is less likely to be the son of Iwo Jima than the unwanted stepchild of Mogadishu.

When it comes to large-scale U.S. basing, however, these regions, especially in the widely discussed “arc of instability,” offer few options. Informal arrangements have emerged in places like India, Singapore and the UAE, but these are more consistent with the recent “places, not bases” philosophy than of long-term alliances. Most fundamentally, no comprehensive approach to the world’s green and brown waters has yet emerged; there is no Littoral Battle Doctrine comparable to the emerging AirSea Battle Doctrine. Thus, a concept that could provide persistent presence at some of the most troubling spots on Earth seems warranted.

The Navy in 2005 began to address this shift in geostrategy, and its staggering implications for capacity, with the concept of the thousand-ship Navy — subsequently rebranded the more benign Global Maritime Partnership. The GMP is old enough now to have lost some of its new-car smell, and it often is misinterpreted as a rebranding of “good neighbors at sea.” But the intent was something far more profound: “a free-form, self-organizing network of maritime partners.” Strikingly, such partnerships complete a tripartite model that may constitute the template for 21st-century security: modular platforms, modular organizations and now, modular regional alliances. The world has gone plug-and-play.

If this is indeed the de facto new mantra of 21st-century coalitions, the most important modules likely will be the ones external to the U.S. maritime force. In other words, the Navy and Marine Corps will need to plug and play with other nations’ assets at all levels. Seabasing concepts will need to incorporate the Army into the littorals — ideally in something like an integrated “SeaLand Battle.” The Navy’s at-sea logistics force will have to draw together partnerships that together are more than a sum of their parts. And rather than just seeking independence from the land, seabasing will need to augment and complement the shifting network of shore-based infrastructure in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

We have come full circle from those heady, post-Cold War days of unilateral power projection and obsession with strike warfare. To remain relevant, and to reflect this change, seabasing must also evolve. Rooted in World War II concepts of amphibious assault and nurtured in post-Cold War foreign policy that treasured freedom from allies, seabasing needs a total makeover for the 21st century security environment.

A revised concept of seabasing built around an emerging modular construct has the potential to be a powerful and unifying vision for global maritime forces. Formulated in such a manner, seabasing would not be about freedom from allies but about uniting allies in an innovative approach to emerging geostrategy. It would also incorporate joint forces and even bases ashore into a comprehensive framework.

As the nexus of global conflict moves inexorably toward the littorals, the Navy and Marine Corps need to unite behind a common seabasing vision that addresses this critically important region. It is time to send foreign policy back to sea. AFJ

CMDR. GREGORY J. Parker is a career naval aviator and recent Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He works on the OPNAV (Navy) staff at the Pentagon. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Defense Department.