ABOARD THE USNS 1ST LT. BALDOMERO LOPEZ IN AQABA, JORDAN — The vehicles are parked so tightly in the cavernous hold of the giant cargo ship that it’s difficult to walk between them. In some places it’s actually impossible — although the ship’s 38 civilian mariners take pride on how tightly they can park them.
The Lopez, and other maritime prepositioning force ships like it, is the Marine Corps version of a well-packed piece of luggage. There are seven levels aboard the ship, with everything a Marine Expeditionary Brigade might need to conduct a humanitarian assistance mission or fight a war.
The ship was carrying 386 vehicles, including Humvees, tanks and howitzers, and 563 20-foot containers, stocked with ammunition and supplies. All of it carefully positioned aboard the ship, like a puzzle, so that essential equipment can be offloaded first — a sort of nightmare game of Tetris in which a mistake can add hours to the task.
There is enough equipment, fuel, ammo and supplies aboard to sustain 16,000 Marines for up to 30 days. And most of it can be offloaded in as little as 16 hours in a port.
Across the globe, there are 10 of these self-sustaining maritime prepositioning force ships. Military Sealift Command operates the ships with civilian crews, with space aboard to embark approximately 100 military personnel to provide security or offload the gear.
“It’s a national strategic asset that allows us to rapidly deploy a force anywhere in the world, whether it be for humanitarian assistance or for a regional conflict,” said Col. Bruce Pitman, in charge of the embarked San Diego-based Marines tasked with offloading and onloading the equipment. Pitman’s experience with these ships goes back to his days as a young lieutenant in the 1991 Gulf War.
Reinvigorating the concept
Today, the MSC operates 26 prepositioning ships in support of the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Defense Logistics Agency.
But the maritime prepositioning force ships were used relatively little in more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now however, with Navy and Marine Corps officials deeply concerned about the health of the Navy’s amphibious ship fleet, there is a resurgence of the prepositioning concept within the Marine Corps as the service plans alternative strategies to respond to potential future conflicts.
With so much military hardware aboard a ship like the Diego Garcia-based Lopez, the ship is well-suited for use in an invasion or a large-scale humanitarian relief operation.
President Barack Obama announced this week that 275 US troops will be deployed to provide security for the US Embassy in Iraq, as religious militants push closer to Baghdad. If the need arises, a prepositioning ship could hypothetically offer military planners the ability to quickly bring large amounts of U.S. military hardware into Iraq.
At a multilateral exercise in Jordan earlier this month, the Lopez practiced a more tailored scenario, one that involved deploying a crisis-response force to reinforce security at the U.S. embassy. This appeared to be part of broader effort to plan and prevent the next Benghazi-style assault — a hot-button issue for the U.S. military.
The Marines involved in that exercise received a rare opportunity to practice offloading the equipment, said Pitman. He said the Marine Corps is “reinvigorating” the effort to conduct more exercises as the Corps transitions from its focus on Afghanistan.
Brig. Gen. Gregg Olson, commander of Task Force 51/59 and in charge of the amphibious forces deployed to U.S. 5th Fleet, called the maritime prepositioning force ships complementary to the amphibious force capability. They are complementary because unlike amphibious ships, maritime prepositioning force ships cannot conduct forced-entry operations into a hostile environment. Instead, the ships require a friendly or secure port to offload its equipment.
But the ships also have the capability to dock with other transports to transfer equipment at sea.
Olson said there are number of different ways to increase the utility of the prepositioning force.
The Marine Corps has been experimenting and exploring several platforms, like littoral combat ships, joint high-speed vessels, the mobile landing platform, and high-speed transports.
The new mobile landing platform ships are afloat-staging bases — essentially piers in the ocean — capable of transferring equipment from prepositioning ships onto landing crafts. As mobile landing platform ships enter service beginning in the next fiscal year, the Marine Corps intends to assign one to each maritime prepositioning ship squadron, according to the service’s Expeditionary Force 21 report, which outlines the Marine Corps vision for designing and developing the force.