This week, two significant military-type events are happening in Hawaii. One is an exercise, called Culebra Koa 15 (CK 15) and hosted by the US Pacific Fleet, which will give the US Navy and Marines a chance to work on a concept called "Seabasing." At the same time, the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC) will be hosting the inaugural Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium (PALS).
For some, the fact that these things are being held in the same place at the same time may raise an age-old question: So what? Well, it turns out that they may yield a very important glimpse into the way wars will be fought in much of the world for decades to come. Both CK 15 and PALS will explore new developments in how military force is brought to bear, as well as what kinds of forces can be employed in the event of a crisis.
Normally, both of those topics fall under the heading of power projection, the ability to reach out and touch someone militarily in a very decisive way, anywhere in the world. In a lot of traditional thinking, power projection involves big-ticket, sexy stuff like aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and amphibious assault ships.
But what matters just as much - if not more - than any of that flashy stuff is logistics. Military campaigns depend on the ability to keep armies equipped, fed, and armed. That hasn't changed since the first protohuman bands of warriors scrounged around for suitable hittin' sticks with which to bludgeon foes and hunt dinner in between bouts of foe bludgeoning. Effective logistics may not ensure winning the war, but f'ing up logistics would surely mean losing it.
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In the Portal video game franchise, the player uses a techno-doohickey called a portal gun, which can create two concurrent portals on flat surfaces. These allow instantaneous movement from one portal to its counterpart no matter how far away from each other they are. (If the concept is blowing your mind, the helpful video below can help explain.)
A real-life portal gun would be among the most disruptive, destabilizing military technologies ever because of its impact on logistics. Arguably, it would be even more disruptive than the development of gunpowder and nuclear weapons.
There would be no point in maintaining overseas bases, as distance would basically become irrelevant. Imagine the US Army driving tanks and artillery from a base in Texas directly to a battlefield in Iraq - or, for that matter, the Islamic State popping heavily armed nutters straight onto the White House lawn. It would be a world in which logistics and power projection would be trivially easy.
The point isn't that the military should be developing this technology - that would be fighting a losing battle with thermodynamics - but that sufficiently dramatic changes in logistics can have profound military implications.
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Seabasing, the focus of CK 15, isn't as disruptive as a portal gun. But it may end up yielding some very dramatic changes in the way the world's militaries handle logistics, and therefore project power. What is seabasing? Simply put, it's… actually, seabasing isn't simply put. It has a messy institutional history and there are large disagreements over its fundamental definition. As retired Navy captain and naval strategist Sam Tangredi writes in the Naval War College Review: "We see the term rendered as 'seabasing,' 'sea basing,' 'Sea Basing,' 'Enhanced Networked Sea Basing,' 'seabased,' 'sea base,' and other variants. Each connotes a specific nuance designed to distinguish it from the others."
As experts at sea hammer away at CK 15, the Marine Corps will be hosting PALS (the acronym makes it sound slightly more adorable than it is).
When a simple attempt to define the term results in 50 Shades of Seabasing, it's a good indication that the idea of seabasing is still evolving. But here's the gist: When getting an army and/or its supplies off of ships and onto land, you generally need big chunks of fixed infrastructure - like ports and piers. Take, for example, an LMSR (Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-on/Roll-off ship), which can carry 58 tanks, 48 other tracked vehicles, and more than 900 trucks and other wheeled vehicles. Loading or unloading an LMSR is something that happens at a dock. There are some clever bits of gear that allow for the creation of a temporary pier or causeway, which helps get around the need for some big infrastructure, but setting that up still takes time.
Seabasing seeks to bypass the need for infrastructure.
The key bit of equipment for seabasing is the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP). It's possible for an MLP to cozy up next to a big ship like an LMSR loaded to the brim with vehicles. The tanks and trucks can then drive onto the MLP, and from there meet up with a surface connector, a smaller vessel that carries vehicles to shore, no pier required.
The sea allows for all kinds of crazy strategic mobility. But translating that ability to move vast armies over huge distances by sea doesn't translate very easily back into power on land. Seabasing could change that equation, and that's what CK 15 is about.
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Fate, luck, and the Department of Defense are lending a hand to the challenge of deciphering the many implications of seabasing. As experts at sea hammer away at CK 15, the Marine Corps will be hosting PALS (the acronym makes it sound slightly more adorable than it is). The symposium will bring together senior leaders of amphibious forces from 23 nations around the Asia-Pacific region - from Australia all the way around to Chile - plus countries like France and the UK, to address the challenges of working multilaterally in disaster relief, crisis response, and other contingencies.
For more than a decade, the US has been meeting its various global military commitments by utilizing both active and reserve components of the military. But even with this mix, the best-funded military in the world still doesn't have the full range of equipment and capabilities necessary to meet all the challenges of a world going slightly crazy - after all, a well-funded military isn't an infinitely well-funded military. There will always be things that the US is not the best at, or in some cases, even any damned good at. This is where the international component comes in. There are a lot of countries whose military forces are better or more skilled at taking on certain challenges. For example, if you want units skilled in jungle warfare, it doesn't hurt to employ units from countries with jungles that are full of soldiers who grew up in and around those jungles.
So if a nation can work effectively in a coalition, it allows that nation to get access to extra tools without paying the entire procurement tab. A country like South Korea might want a handful of aircraft carriers, B-2 bombers, and high-altitude air defense systems. As it happens, those are things the US owns. Likewise, should the US and North Korea ever end up going to war, the US would be able to call on (effectively) a half-million strong army with excellent Korean language skills to help defeat the DPRK. In both cases, there are capabilities that are exceedingly desirable that neither country really wants to pay the overhead to obtain on their own; South Korea is probably no more enthusiastic about dropping a couple billion dollars per plane for B-2 bombers than the US is about picking up the tab for a half-million soldiers fluent in Korean.
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Of course, spooling up an international component to augment active and reserve forces is a hell of a lot more complex than waving a magic wand. For starters, those international components answer to different governments, operate differently, and have gear that may not be compatible with your gear.
Events like PALS are key to working out all those kinks and developing the professional relationships necessary to make international cooperation a viable option in times of need. And while they're at PALS this week, attendees will get a chance to see what's going on at CK 15, which will undoubtedly be helpful in figuring out this whole seabasing thing. And as CK 15 explores how to project power, PALS will expand the range of power that can be projected.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via US Navy