ABOARD THE USS GUNSTON HALL IN GULF OF ADEN — During a visit to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton said “when word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: ‘where is the nearest carrier?’"
Twenty-one years later, that question may be slightly modified to include “where is the nearest Amphibious Ready Group?”
While the sight of cranes moving equipment, or the well deck slowly filling up with water, aboard an amphibious dock-landing ship may not be as thrilling as catapults hurtling jets across a bustling flight deck, amphibious ready groups — known as ARGs — are playing a critical role in modern-day operations.
In 2011, the Kearsarge ARG supported NATO-led operations to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, and last year the same ARG was parked off the coast of Egypt to potentially respond to deepening political unrest there. It also was on-call to respond to the escalating civil war in Syria.
One of the ARG’s ships, the transport dock ship USS San Antonio, was even in the headlines for its role in the capture of suspected terrorist Abu Anas al-Libi in Libya during a nighttime U.S. special operations raid in October.
The résumé for the ARGs modern-day operational contributions is long, and it includes plenty of humanitarian assistance missions as well.
“There is more focus on the ARG, and I think it’s because people are starting to realize all the benefits the ARG gives our forces,” said Capt. Timothy Kuehhas, commander of the USS Gunston Hall, which is part of the Bataan ARG currently deployed to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
But the right people might not be realizing the ARGs’ value just yet. High-ranking officials from both the Navy and Marine Corps are deeply concerned about the future of the amphibious ship fleet.
“The Marine Corps’ requirement has been pretty steady, we need 38 amphibs,” said Brig. Gen. Gregg Olson, commander of Task Force 51/59 and in charge of the amphibious forces deployed to U.S. 5th Fleet, in an interview with Stars and Stripes in Bahrain.
It’s essentially a supply-and-demand problem — and there aren’t enough amphibious ships to meet the global requirements, Navy officials said.
In March, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert informed the Senate Armed Services Committee the Navy has 29 operational amphibious ships. Greenert told the committee the requirement is 38, but that the Navy could manage with 33 such vessels.
Either way, he expressed his concern that the Navy is wearing out the existing amphibious ships. But under the current budget constraints, having 33 amphibious ships may not be possible until at least 2018, according to a Defense Department report last month on the “Estimated Impacts of Sequestration-Level Funding.”
The 'Swiss Army knife of joint forces'
An ARG is usually made up of three amphibious ships; an amphibious assault ship, an amphibious transport dock, and a dock-landing ship. It deploys with an embarked Marine expeditionary unit comprising of about 2,200 Marines.
Its purpose is to give the U.S. military a crisis-response capability that can be tailored for a wide range of situations, from disaster relief to combat.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos calls it the “Swiss Army knife of the joint force.”
An ARG essentially gives the top brass a moving base that can either work together as a whole or split apart to handle multiple situations at once throughout a region. Each ship has similar capabilities, but also some unique ones.
While the Gunston Hall can sail into shallower coastal waters and use its well deck to send Marines ashore via 15 embarked amphibious assault vehicles and two landing craft, a bigger ARG ship like the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan has a flight deck capable of launching a variety of helicopters and aircraft, including the MV-22 Osprey, AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft, CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters.
Olson explained that the goal of the ARG is to provide combatant commanders with the right force able to cope with a multitude of missions.
Sometimes the mission requires air assets, sometimes it requires a ship off the coast capable of doing an amphibious landing, and sometimes a combination of both, said Olson, who oversees the ARG and MEU when it operates in 5th Fleet.
“Together, it makes us a very formidable force,” Kuehhas said.
On this particular day, his crew was busy sending Marines and support equipment onto a beach in Djibouti as part of the initial leg of an exercise lasting several weeks, while the other ships in the ARG, the Bataan and the amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde, were operating elsewhere.
An ARG also works in international waters, allowing it to navigate to the shores of any crisis while being free from the constraints of complicated host-nation agreements or lack of infrastructure issues that might impair the Army or Air Force’s ability to operate in a foreign nation.
“We have the whole ocean as our highway and every beach is a potential landing area.” Kuehhas said.
Until a decision is made on the future of ARGs, the Marine Corps and the Navy are experimenting with alternatives in light of not having enough.
“The Marines and the Navy are working closely together to find ways to be creative,” said Olson, mentioning the Navy’s new Mobile Landing Platform, and the Military Sealift Command’s Maritime Prepositioning Ship as examples of ships that can help augment the amphibious fleet.
“We are going to take all of these capabilities and put them together to project power ashore,” he said.
However, those ships are not designed to do the kind of “joint forcible entry” that amphibious ships can achieve. Nonetheless, officials say they are capable of doing some “lower-end kind of things” normally done by the amphibious ships — to take stress off the Navy’s amphibious fleet.
Olson said, “In the meantime, we’re going to get every iota of service life out of these amphibs, because we know how to use them, the sailors know to sail them, and we know how to fight in them.”
The Navy always maintains an ARG operating in the Middle East, and one constantly in the Western Pacific.
Top Navy and Marine Corps officials have also expressed the desire to have an ARG continuously on station in the southern part of the Asian-Pacific, and another one in the Mediterranean Sea.