Marines Riding On Cargo Ship To Pacific Exercises A Sign Of A More Flexible Deployment Strategy

Using the cargo ship helps reduce demand on warships and puts more Marines in more places at any given time. 

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Members of the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy are conducting the latest iteration of a set of regional exercises throughout the South Pacific while embarked on a container and roll-on-roll-off cargo ship, the USNS Gunnery Sergeant Fred W. Stockham. This isn’t the first time the Marines and sailors have used this mode of transportation for these drills, but it reflects an increasingly important option for deploying Marines and other American forces during various types of combat and non-combat that also helps ease the strain on traditional amphibious vessels and surface combatants.

The embarked elements of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific and U.S. Pacific Fleet, kicked off the first of their exercises, known collectively as Koa Moana, or “ocean warrior” in Hawaiian, in French Polynesia in September 2018. They subsequently traveled to Vanuatu nearly 3,000 miles further west. The drills will run through December 2018, with additional stops in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, the last location being a U.S. commonwealth.

“The task force's continued multilateral engagements are designed to strengthen and enhance relationships among the United States and partner nations in the Indo-Pacific and South Pacific regions,” a statement from the I Marine Expeditionary Force, which contributed personnel to the deployment, explained. “Koa Moana promotes regional security and stability, and improves interoperability between security establishments by preparing to respond effectively to crises, and maintain a flexible and effective maritime force in readiness.”

These exercises cover a range of military, law enforcement, and disaster response skill sets and are valuable for forming relationships with security forces in these small island nations and territories that would be useful in the event of any future crisis. They also include civil-military engagements, typically pop-up medical and dental clinics and community construction projects, which provide an immense, if often intangible benefit in promoting American interests abroad.

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A French Army soldier, in shorts, speaks with Marines during a training exercise as part of Koa Moana in French Polynesia in September 2018.

Exercises such as Koa Moana are cost-effective tools to counter the influence of potential opponents, such as China, which is seeking to expand its influence and ability to project military power in the region. Though Chinese and Ni-Vanuatu authorities subsequently denied it, there were reports earlier in 2018 that the People’s Liberation Army Navy had sought to establish a base in the country, underscoring the outsized geopolitical significance of that island nation. Vanuatu's government later asked for a more permanent U.S. military presence.

But Koa Moana, which has occurred regularly since at least 2015, and the use of the Stockham in particular, also highlight important developments in the U.S. military’s own ability to conduct expeditionary and distributed operations in the region. Around the same time that the drills first began, the Marines and Navy were exploring increasing the use of non-combatant cargo ships and their civilian merchant marine crews from Military Sealift Command (MSC) to help support various operational demands.

“We will evaluate and experiment with Marine detachments on ships other than amphibious vessels such as afloat forward staging bases, destroyers, littoral combat ships, mobile landing platforms, and joint high-speed vessels,” Former Marine Commandant General James Amos and then-current Chief of Naval Operations U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert had argued in a 2013 article in Proceedings magazine. “[The Marine Corps needs to] modify traditional employment methods and augment amphibious warships by adapting other vessels for sea-based littoral operations.”

Shipbuilder National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO), now part of General Dynamics, originally delivered Stockham, which displaces more than 54,000 tons with a full load, to the Maersk Line shipping company as the M/V Lica Maersk in 1980. The Navy picked her up in 1997, originally naming her the USNS Soderman.

The Navy withdrew her from service in 2000 to convert her into an “enhanced prepositioning ship,” which involved modifications to improve her ability to load and unload cargo simultaneously, either using her roll-on-roll-off features or rear helipad, and do so both while in established ports or sitting offshore. In the latter case, the ship can employ temporary floating docks to transfer cargo to smaller ships and landing craft who would then ferry it ashore. The ship returned to service in 2001, at which time the Navy rechristened her the Stockham.

This makes the Stockham, one of three Shughart-class ships, a cost-effective option for shuttling the Marines and sailors around to their various ports of call in the South Pacific during Koa Moana. It can easily unload their vehicles and other equipment thanks to its roll-on-roll-off configuration. These same capabilities, plus its “enhanced” features, would make it a valuable tool in responding to any humanitarian disaster, as well.

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USNS Stockham, at rear, performs a "skin-to-skin" operation with the expeditionary transfer dock USNS Montford Point. A ramp connects the cargo ship to the other vessel, allowing vehicles to drive straight out onto the deck and then onto waiting landing craft.

But leveraging MSC's cargo fleets also gives Marines, as well as other American forces, added flexibility to respond to a wider variety of crises abroad where a maritime deployment may be the most effective option, but when no surface combatants are in the immediate vicinity or available on short notice. A roll-on roll-off ship such as the Stockham would be a good tool for delivering Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) Companies into a hotspot where the nearest military airfield or civilian airport may be off limits. These units are on call at various locations around the world to reinforce American embassies and rapidly respond to other overseas contingencies, such as a major terrorist attack or violent political upheaval. 

Special operations forces also benefit from the additional deployment capacity cargo ships offer. Special operators already have at least one dedicated converted roll-on roll-off ship themselves, the M/V Ocean Trader, that acts as a mothership and sea base for covert operations. Ships such as Stockham might not have all the features of purpose converted vessel, but could still provide a useful capability for less intensive, lower-priority operations.

Having more Marines afloat at any one time, regardless of what units they come from, only increases the service's ability to respond quickly to global crises in general. In the Pacific, in particular, distributed and expeditionary operations could easily see U.S. personnel spread across a broad area full of high- and low-risk environments, and everything in between, increasing the need to be able to rapidly and flexibility respond to new developments. Using MSC ships means the service can provide this enhanced presence that without the Navy having to buy additional ships. 

In using MSC's ships, the Marines and sailors also don’t have to rely entirely on larger, traditional amphibious ships, or other surface combatants, especially for those low- or no-risk missions. This eases the operational demands on those vessels, which are limited in number, always in high demand, are more expensive to operate, and are suffering from Navy-wide maintenance backlogs that are limiting the availability of all surface warships and submarines.

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The USS John P. Murtha, a San Antonio-class landing platform dock, a type of amphibious ship that Marines more typically rely on to get around.

The latter issue is “a sucking chest wound,” U.S. Marine Corps Major General David Coffman, in charge of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operation's Expeditionary Warfare Division said during a talk at the Hudson Institute think tank on Nov. 9, 2018. As such, the flexibility offered by MSC’s fleets is only of increasing importance, especially in the Pacific, where tensions with the Chinese have been ratcheting up all throughout 2018 as relations have cooled due to a number of different factors.

Using cost-effective bolt-on launchers for over-the-horizon anti-ship and land attack missiles, such as the Navy's newly acquired Naval Strike Missiles, MSC's ships, including the Shughart-class roll-on-roll-off ships, can be more active players in future combat operations. The Navy has already been exploring simply embarking Marine Corps truck-mounted High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) or other ground-based, mobile missile launchers on various ships to give them an immediate boost in stand-off strike capability. Either option would give forces ashore extra firepower without the Navy necessarily needing to employ more expensive surface combatants or submarines.

Previous deployments have shown that embarking Marines and other uniformed military personnel on the cargo ships is something of a morale boost, as well. Merchant mariners usually “get pretty fancy meals and places to eat and meals and lounges that are pretty unheard of in the Navy,” as well as more luxurious crew quarters and recreational facilities, retired Navy Captain Bob Sweeney, formerly commander of MSC’s Far East division, told Marine Corps Times in 2015.

Of course, using MSC’s ships for more varied roles isn’t an all-purpose solution. In their present state, the bulk of the command’s ships have, at best, very limited defenses and would be extremely vulnerable even in medium-threat environments, an issue that came to the forefront just recently when the Navy admitted it did not have the necessary ships to adequately protect maritime logistics operations during a high-end conflict.

Increasing the offensive and defensive capabilities of MSC’s cargo fleets may be more complicated. The ships' non-combatant status and civilian crews present doctrinal and legal obstacles to using them in more serious conflicts, to begin with. There’s also the matter of age and the total number of cargo vessels, which may be under increasing strain themselves in the near future. Still, the added capabilities and capacity that ships such as Stockham offer Marines and other uniformed personnel when it comes to various mission sets is definitely another argument for expanding and improving MSC’s inventory, though. 

All told, the Stockham transporting a relatively small number of Marines and sailors around to exercises in the South Pacific is a pretty mundane task for the ship. But it’s also an important demonstration of the less visible options available to the U.S. military to move personnel around the region, which may be vital for responding to future regional crises.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com