Last Thursday, the current commandant of the US Marine Corps, Gen. Joseph Dunford, was stuck in one of the world's gnarliest job interviews: persuading members of the Senate that they should stop being cranky for one damned minute and confirm his nomination for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Should he succeed, he'll have the top post in the land for anyone in uniform: military advisor to the president of the United States.
Because the chairman has the job of providing the president with sound military advice, there's always some speculation about what particular words of wisdom he'll be sharing with his boss. There is no way, of course, to predict every sweet nothing that will pass from Fightin' Joe's lips to the commander-in-chief's sweet, tender ears, but it is instructive to look at what's been on Dunford's mind these last few weeks.
After he was nominated for the chairmanship, Dunford spoke to the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus, giving an overview of the direction of the Marine Corps going forward, including the development of a concept known as "seabasing." Granted, his speech touched on a lot of issues that are at the top of the USMC to-do list, but the timing on seabasing is an interesting vote of confidence for an elusive, emerging, and potentially game-changing way of fighting wars.
It's interesting because it means he chose to promote something that, frankly, the Marine Corps doesn't do that well… yet. In other words, the top marine and soon-to-be-advisor to the president thinks that even if it's not ready for prime time today, it will be soon enough, and it's worth betting on right now.
Almost exactly a month before that talk, the US Navy and Marines simultaneously completed Exercise Culebra Koa 15 and wrapped up the inaugural Pacific Command (PACOM) Amphibious Leaders Symposium (PALS 15). Culebra Koa was an exercise to test and develop technologies and concepts related to seabasing, while PALS invited the Marine Corp's professional peers and counterparts from all over the world to watch the Navy and Marine Corps try to get their act together.
Culebra Koa wasn't showing off something that had already been mastered; the exercise was the walk part of a "crawl, walk, run" evolution. The "run" phase for seabasing, the point at which the USMC has a reasonable operational handle on all this stuff, isn't scheduled until next spring, at another exercise. Bringing in professional colleagues from around the world to watch something that's not quite ready for prime time says a lot about how excited they are about seabasing.
This all leads to the obvious question: What the hell is this "seabasing" I am talking about?
Seabasing inherently involves a lot of getting two very big, unwieldy ships to come together, skin-to-skin, and move very gently and carefully in unison — like two massive but delicate and arthritic whales trying to have sex.
Well, US Navy Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore and Marine Lt. Gen. Edward Hanlon said in 2003 that "Twenty-first century Sea Basing will be our nation's asymmetric military advantage, contributing immeasurably to global peace, international stability, and warfighting effectiveness." Hanlon also wrote, along with Rear Adm. R. A. Route, that "[Seabasing] is a quantum leap forward in naval power projection capabilities… across the range of military operations." More recently, Lt. Gen. Ken Glueck, in an interview with VICE News during Culebra Koa 15, described seabasing, in turns, as a "paradigm shift," "timeless," and "disruptive." (And I'm pretty certain he wasn't just spitting out jargon-speak bullshit either).
Or as one senior marine officer put it, "If seabasing were a powdery substance, Clausewitz would have snorted it."
"Yes, fine," I hear you saying, "the marine brass think it's swell, Ryan, but what the hell does it do?"
Seabasing is the ability to actually use the ships at sea as an honest-to-God base (hence the clever name "seabasing"). This is basically about the ability to shift vehicles, people, and supplies from one ship to another, or even to a landing craft, without having to go to a port to do it. One ship, the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), is part loading dock and part beach, and allows cargo ships to unload as if it were a pier, but landing craft to load and unload as if it were a beach. It's an adaptor plug that connects amphibious landing craft to a ship that otherwise must use fixed facilities to load and unload. Beyond that, there's a high-speed vessel that gives commanders new ways to move more stuff faster, kind of enhancing the operation of other ships. These two developments work together to provide the very first baseline capability to use the sea as a base to project ground combat power, rather than just as a launching point for a force that needs to seize or build a base on shore.
Seabasing, when you peel away all the hype, is about doing the entire to-do list for a ground combat force (e.g. logistics, communications, fire support, intelligence support, etc.), but not doing it on the ground. In other words, it concerns how seapower is applied on land to places ships can't go. But really, seabasing is like love and long division: incredibly simple and dauntingly complex at the same time. Yes, it's super simple in that it applies seapower across the shore. But the complex take is that it really is a timeless, disruptive paradigm shift. Seabasing has been around since the Vikings were raiding English villages, but it's also something never seen before. It's about naval power — except when it's about ground combat power, or maybe even airpower. It's… vexing.
Let me back up a bit.
Military power is projected from bases. The further away you get from a base — that is, the longer you have to fly, sail, drive, or march to get to the fight — the less able you are to kick ass when you actually get to fighting. Navies get around this by using ships, which (when they're in good repair and fully stocked) act as miniature bases.
Navies are also entirely about land. Land is where all the people and countries and politics are. Since war is basically about affecting people, countries, and politics, navies therefore exist to affect people on land or defend against someone else trying to mess with folks on your land. The fact that a navy has a hard time driving a strike group a couple hundred miles inland to act as a base presents obvious challenges for a navy trying to affect things on land.
There are three primary options that a navy has to reach out to places it can't get to: aircraft, bombardment (i.e. guns and missiles), and various sorts of ground combat forces. Aircraft carriers are portable bases for aircraft. Surface vessels and submarines can act as portable bases for ordnance used to blow stuff up on land. But as it turns out, amphibious assault ships are only kinda, sorta bases for ground forces. I guess you could argue that point either way, but if you say that amphibious assault ships are bases for ground forces, I will insist you put a pretty goddamn big asterisk next to that. Most of the time, an amphibious force is a way to deploy and employ a ground force either limited in size or for a limited amount of time. If they want to stay longer or get bigger, they either have to nab someone else's base (i.e. port infrastructure) or set up an on-shore pop-up base of their own.
Technically speaking, yes, a navy can already use ships at sea as a base for ground operations. Kind of. There are three basic restrictions on when a seagoing amphibious force is a base, and when it's just a way to stage the takeover or construction of a base. The first is location. If an amphibious force wants to open the door for a really big follow-on force, it needs to capture a seaport to offload ships full of gear and people — which means that an opponent really just needs to defend the ports, not the entire coastline. The second limitation is time. A force needs to seize a port or build a port of their own before their supply situation gets too heavily taxed. If they screw around too long, supplies run out, and they get pounded flat. The third limitation is size. A force on shore can extend their time on the beach almost indefinitely, just as long as there aren't very many people that need food and vehicles that need fuel.
What seabasing promises to provide for the big brass in the US military is options. Generals and admirals love options the way that Wall Street loves money, the way that politicians love being told they're believable, or the way that Madonna loves being complimented for her youthful looks.
For military planners, more options for you means more problems for the guy whose ass you're trying to kick. A lot of planning and thinking at the most senior levels of military command is, therefore, about creating more options for yourself and limiting an enemy's options. Seabasing dramatically shrinks the limitations on location, time, and force size that live in that big asterisk hanging off the shoulder of the word "amphibious." Dramatically reducing those limitations to amphibious assault is the same thing as creating lots and lots of shiny new options.
In practice, seabasing means that a navy can land and support huge forces anywhere up and down the entire coastline, with far, far fewer restrictions on location, scale, and duration. If an enemy has to defend the whole coastline with some major firepower, they're hosed. Any attempt to defend an entire coastline with a ton of combat power will tie up a lot of forces, the vast majority of which will never be able to get to the fight.
A regiment stuck in coastal God-knows-where defending against a hypothetical invasion that never comes is, in some ways, a bigger burden than if they'd just been killed outright. Units stuck in the middle of nowhere still need food, fuel, and supplies. Moreover, it's pretty unlikely that someone will be able to actually defend their entire coastline. A major effort like that is bound to have gaps, seams, holes, and other weak spots big enough to drive a couple armored brigades through.
And if seabasing provides options (which military planners absolutely love), what's the one thing they love more than seabasing? It would be even more seabasing options. Which is what the seabasingist seabasers of the USMC are feverishly working on in anticipation of next spring's exercise and beyond. Glueck, head of Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration, told VICE News that "on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best, we're probably at a three to four."
A fair portion of that concept development is going to be flat-out unplanned.
"Seabasing is an open-source architecture. The thing now is to get it out in the hands of the young lance corporals to see what they figure out to do with the stuff," Jim Strock, director of the Seabasing Integration Division at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told VICE News. "Seabasing relies on discovering a lot of solutions that are already sitting right in front of you." But beyond running these technologies and concepts through some real-life experimentation to figure out what does and doesn't work, there are some more formal efforts underway to add breadth and depth to the seabasing concept.
The first big limitation on seabasing is what's called the sea state. Sea state basically refers to a scale for how choppy, stormy, and generally crappy the ocean is at any given point. Seabasing inherently involves a lot of getting two very big, unwieldy ships to come together, skin-to-skin, and move very gently and carefully in unison — like two massive but delicate and arthritic whales trying to have sex. A big stormy sea means a lot of delicate bits get mashed; everyone gets sore and embarrassed, and nobody ends up happy.
All the seabasing stuff works fine in sea state 2, but that means waves about a foot high on average, ranging up to maybe a foot and a half. The ideal is to get that operating range up to sea state 3 or even 4. Sea state 3 means an average of a little less than three feet, surging up to four and a half feet. Bumping up the operating envelope to get access to sea state 3 means that seabasing ships should be able to operate and do their little seabasing thing about 70 percent of the time in waters off most of the world's hotspots. Now, if they can manage operating in sea state 4 (waves averaging more than six feet and reaching up to eight feet), that's even better and will allow operations as much as 80 or 90 percent of the time. Unfortunately, that takes some extra cash and has been relegated to the "like to have" category instead of "must have."
To increase that operating envelope, there are a host of different naval technologies researched by the fine folks at the Office of Naval Research (natch). One of them is called the Advanced Mooring System, which, as far as I can tell, is a set of grapples and gigantic suction cups to get two ships all up-close and personal, rather than the more traditional, dangerous, and elaborate process of trying to lash and bind the two heaving vessels together. When the ships are moving according to the motion of the ocean while heaving and grinding against each other, it's incredibly dangerous and puts a huge strain on the wee delicate connecting ramps that the tanks are supposed to use to get from one ship to the next. Swapping out rope and hard effort for fancy suction gear aims to make that a safer process.
A second piece is called the Environmental and Ship Motion Forecasting System, which uses radar and cleverness to monitor incoming waves, which, in turn, tells you about the particular heaves and hoes that will bump and grind the two ships together. Thus, a tank at the top of the ramp preparing to cross from one ship to the next could get a green light/red light indicator signaling whether it is safe to traipse from ship to ship without putting so much load on a twisting, torquing ramp that it would break off.
There are a few other things that are in the mix and are either still under development or have been put in the giant archive of ideas, like a barrier of floaties to tame the waves around the ships, or a crane that can delicately transfer a shipping container from one ship to the other, but the objective in all these is the same. The idea is to make it possible to do all the seabasing logistics stuff in worse weather than otherwise possible and expand the range of things that can be moved from one ship to the next.
The other big category of options that seabasers like Strock are busily working on is expanding the menu of ships that can be connected to one another. Right now, the big focus has been on connecting massive transport ships carrying hundreds of vehicles and getting those connected, via MLP, to landing craft. But beyond that, there are a couple ideas that are in the works (even if they're far-off glimmers of experimentation that won't see implementation for years). For instance, using a transport ship to bring a whole bunch of landing craft to the scene would be super helpful. Putting more landing craft on the scene would increase the rate at which stuff can be moved from ship to shore and back again. Or ships floating off shore could use shipboard fresh-water storage and purification to provide water to folks on shore via a big rubber bag, or even a pipeline directly from the ship to the beach.
Another fascinating idea is plugging a cruise ship into all this, so you can use the ship to deliver a couple thousand ground pounders, park them next to a ship carrying tanks and other vehicles — a veritable "Rent-a-Tank" franchise — and just join crew to vehicles and send them on their merry way. Although it was never explicitly suggested, it seems like it might be possible to provide for pretty much any infrastructure needs, all the way from electricity to sewage treatment to fuel, by placing them on ships and getting creative about how the stuff was connected to each other and to the force on shore.
And as the US continues to shift attention to the Pacific, seabasing will play an increasingly important role, since the Pacific Ocean is, as you might suspect, mostly water. Mostly water means a lot of time chewing on the whys, hows, and wherefores of the ways that naval forces interact with stuff on land, including things like amphibious landings.
Now of course there are problems. There are always problems. A solution without a hitch is almost the textbook definition of too good to be true. There's still the fact that Bad Guys with missiles and submarines are getting better and better at hunting ships, seabasing or otherwise. Or the practical limits to the top-level size of a force that can be fully supported from the sea. Or, hell, any one of a dozen other unexpected disasters and complications.
But in the end, that's all fine for right now. When the early brains of airpower saw aircraft in World War I, they immediately started spooling up a whole raft of theories and what-if scenarios for using planes to win wars.
It's taken almost a century and the advent of mid-air refueling and smart bomb technologies to really start getting reality to begin to live up to the expectations of theory. Similarly, seabasing is a work in progress, and the process of shaking this all out and fleshing out its potential is going to be a work of decades, not years. That said, the future of seabasing holds a lot of promise. Enough promise that it probably won't be too terribly far from Dunford's mind as he discusses various military options with the commander-in-chief.