Expeditionary or Forward Based?

July 23, 2019
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During the 20th century, the U.S. Navy developed and fielded (floated?) a truly expeditionary navy.  Efforts began during the First World War, where at-sea refueling was developed to allow destroyers of the era to cross the Atlantic.  This was expanded on in the post-war years with the addition of the ability to transfer stores, ammunition, and personnel, all while ships were underway and making way, in a wide range of sea states and weather.  The necessity of this capability was underscored by pre-World War II wargaming conducted at the U.S Naval War College in Newport, RI, which highlighted the logistic challenges of conducting a maritime campaign against the distant Japanese Empire.

During the Second World War, this capability was expanded even further, most notably by the Service Squadrons (SERVRONS).  Employing fleet tugs for combat salvage and floating drydocks for hull and structural repairs, entire floating shipyards and logistic bases were established in remote atolls across the Pacific, able to be moved and kept relatively close to the operational Fleet as the fight moved westward.

This capability – featuring floating drydocks, fleet tugs and salvage vessels, repair ships (AR's), submarine and destroyer tenders (AS/AD's), oilers (AO's), ammunition ships (AE's), personnel barges (APL's), and various other craft – was maintained throughout the Cold War.  However, towards the very end of the Cold War, the expeditionary nature of the U.S. Navy began to erode…

The first change was subtle: the advent of the Vertical Launch System (VLS).  Before the introduction of this system, many of the Navy’s weapon systems had launching systems that were independent of the ship’s magazine for these weapons.  This includes the Standard missiles (the mainstay of the U.S. Navy’s anti-air warfare capability, and now ballistic missile defense capability) and the Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC).  For those weapon systems where the launching system was also the storage magazine – the Tomahawk land-attack and anti-ship cruise missile (Armored Box Launcher – ABL) and the HARPOON anti-ship missile (canister launched), the weapons could at least be replaced by the transfer of containerized weapons at sea.  In addition, the Standard missiles and ASROCs could also be transferred at sea in a container to replenish empty magazines.

The VLS combines launcher and magazine, and cannot be reloaded at sea.  Furthermore, while efforts are underway to demonstrate an expeditionary capability to reload VLS in port, and not at a specialized naval weapon facility, it is generally true that there are relatively few places in the world where a U.S. Navy ship equipped with VLS can be re-armed.

Another erosion of the Navy's expeditionary capability came with the failure to replace the AR's, AD's, and AS's that were decommissioned in the 1990s.  This eliminated the ability of the U.S. Navy to conduct intermediate-level maintenance in protected anchorages virtually anywhere in the world.  Even more insidious than the failure to replace these afloat Intermediate Maintenance Activity (IMA)-level platforms was that it was coupled with the dis-establishment of Sailor-manned Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activities (SIMA’s).  These two steps virtually eliminated the Apprentice-to-Journeyman-to-Master Technician professional development path that made U.S. Navy Sailors the technical envy of any navy in the world.

The professional development of Sailor technicians was highly dependent on the technical career path they followed.  In the past, these Sailors would leave their first sea tour and rotate to an IMA – a SIMA or an AR/AD/AS - and would continue to work on ship systems.  There they would be exposed to ALL of the ways ship systems could break and would learn to repair them all.  Today, a Sailor who goes to a technical school and then reports to the Fleet will work on his or her equipment for a few years, seeing some of the ways that equipment can break.  However, that Sailor will only see a small percentage of the ways that equipment will break, but not ALL of the methods and their maintenance experience will be correspondingly limited.[1]  Sailors mostly go to tours dis-associated from intermediate level repair.  When they return to a ship as a “senior” technician, work center supervisor, or leading petty officer, they have little more technical experience than when they left their first ship.  Along with a shift in the 1990s towards "just in time supply support,” which resulted in fewer repair parts being carried in ship storerooms, ship systems that have been in the fleet for decades often require both technical support and repair parts to fix.  End result: in too many cases, Sailors don't know how to fix their systems, and they don't have the necessary parts to repair them.  The Navy is invited to compare equipment casualty reports (CASREPS) and ship maintenance records from 1988 to those of 2018 to see the effect of these decisions.

The picture that has been painted here has been done so with broad strokes; there are certain details and inaccuracies that a knowledgeable critic can identify.  Those comments and corrections are welcome, but they don't change the overall narrative: a navy that cannot re-arm itself at sea, that cannot conduct ship system repairs organically, and cannot conduct IMA-level repairs outside of a friendly shipyard at home or overseas is not an “expeditionary” navy.  Such a navy is, at best, a “forward-based” navy.  For those who are devotees of Rear Admiral John C. Wiley, and especially of his essay “Why a Sailor Thinks Like a Sailor," the U.S. Navy will always believe in carrying the fight to the enemy and fighting its fights "over there."  The United States needs an expeditionary navy, and that is not what it has.

Captain Anthony Cowden is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy.  The views represented here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


[1] The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has taken this to an even more extreme level, where ship's force personnel doesn't perform periodic preventative maintenance (monthly and above) and any necessary corrective maintenance: the work must be done by CONTRACTORS in a secure port every month, which severely restricts the operational range of the ship.

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