What’s in a name? A lot, especially for the military.

Over the next decade, the Navy will take delivery of at least 32 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); 10 Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV); three Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP); several Afloat Forward Staging Bases; and new versions of amphibious assault ships and Ship-to-Shore connector craft. New riverine boats, upgraded patrol craft and new versions of Lewis and Clark-class T-AKE ships may also be added to this interesting platform mix.

T-AKE 3 and LHD-2

Unlike prior ships, where advanced technology posed the greatest obstacle, these new types could be most hobbled by language. That is not a typo. What the sea services call these new ships and how they are classified could present a far larger bureaucratic issue to surmount than learning how to operate these innovative platforms in different ways.

At the Navy League’s 2014 Sea-Air-Space symposium, a panel of Marine generals spent the better part of two hours talking about the Corps’ innovative, new Expeditionary Force 21 (EF;”>-21) capstone concept and how important the role of Expeditionary Ships will be in the successful execution of this concept. Yet the term they used to refer to these innovative platforms was “alternative” ships. Not inspiring or illustrative.

Even Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, the most vocal and articulate advocate for these new ships and their capabilities, could only come up with very boring and opaque term “ancillaries” during an otherwise rousing January speech to the Surface Navy Association’s annual meeting when he urged the Navy to embrace these ships

LCS 10 Gabrielle Giffords with helicopter landingMy former boss and mentor, the late-Vice Adm. Art Cebrowski, who led the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, was a huge proponent of understanding that the key to changing culture was rooted in the language one used to champion new ideas.

So here’s their new name: the Expeditionary Fleet. These are ships fully capable of operating in that petri dish mix of missions that constitute the vast majority of what Navy and Marine forces do on a daily basis. This includes missions such as presence and stability operations, humanitarian assistance/disaster response, security assistance and maritime training, counter-piracy, countering transnational crime and search and rescue operations. The Expeditionary Fleet can shoulder the majority of missions that fall into what the military categorizes as Phase 0 (shaping the environment) to Phase 2+ (when combat actually begins). This is not a small set of missions.

Senior Navy and Marine Corps leaders have been strong and vocal advocates for the capabilities these Expeditionary Ships bring and how important they are to future operations. They have repeatedly talked about these ships in public forums and advocated their acquisition before Congress. But in promoting their capabilities and touting their need, these same leaders have repeatedly stumbled over what to call these ships and their earnest efforts to properly “label” them is undermining the very operational advantages they are attempting to promote.

Culture Change

To successfully achieve cultural change, Cebrowski was acutely aware that one had to change the words being used or that goal would not succeed using conventional words. Thus, labels like “alternative” or “ancillary” connote a second-rate status or that these platforms are not real warships. This language is not particularly helpful when the goal is to mobilize innovative thinking across the sea services and generate new concepts of operations for this expanding fleet.

The term expeditionary, on the other hand, conveys a firm operational purpose and is more readily understood by those who read it. It connotes being deployed overseas and rapidly conducting operations––ready where and when needed. Both the Navy and Marines have long-cited their expeditionary roots and even the Army is touting its intent to become more expeditionary. Moreover, the term expeditionary is amply cited in the Pentagon’s current collection of strategic documents, which places the term Expeditionary Fleet firmly in the center of today’s strategic dialogue across the joint force. For example, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasizes that boosting the numbers of forward-deployed naval forces to critical regions is key to both increasing presence and reducing the time required to respond should a crisis erupt. Moreover, the QDR talks about deploying “new combinations of ships, aviation assets and crisis response forces” to provide more options for regional commanders. This new emphasis encapsulates the exact types of innovative capabilities possessed by the Expeditionary Ships fleet.

This innovative impulse to fully explore and exploit the new types of capabilities resident in these ships is also embedded in the Marine Corps Expeditionary Force 21 concept. This 10-year vision, approved by Gen. James Amos, Marine Corps Commandant, details how the Corps will operate in the future and is intended to guide experimentation, force development and inform program decisions. Key to this concept is a focus on the ships and their capabilities that help enable the Marines to deploy overseas and get ashore if required.

Amphibious warships provide the full range of capabilities necessary to meet the critical needs of America’s combatant commanders. To meet current operational demands would require a force of 50 or more amphibious ships, which today’s resource-constrained force of 30 operational ships cannot hope to fully meet.

Recognizing this looming gap in amphibious ships, the EF 21 concept places a premium on experimenting with new platforms and adapting traditional employment patterns to help “stretch” the amphibious force while still providing a robust level of overseas presence to meet regional operational needs. JHSVs, Mobile Landing Platforms, LCS and other high-speed transports and various Maritime Prepositioning Force ships are all specifically listed within the EF 21 concept as candidates for “exploration and experimentation.” It should be emphasized that EF 21 clearly states that building more amphibious warships is the preferred course of action—if sufficient funding was available.

Navy and Marine Corps leaders should be given credit for their willingness to compile a growing list of “explorations and experimentations.” The expansiveness of this list demonstrates a commitment to seriously assess the mission boundaries offered to the sea services by this collection of ships and to fully wring out their operational capabilities. Here are the ongoing or proposed experimentations, demonstrations or potential missions that Navy and Marine Corps officials have already articulated for these ships:

  • Assessing the deployment of small force packets of Marines on LCS, JHSV and MLP
  • Deployed USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) to the Mediterranean for stability operations missions in North Africa and Gulf of Guinea before transiting to Caribbean to support 4th Fleet operations
  • Use former USS Ponce, (Interim) Afloat Forward Staging Base, as test platform for sea-based laser defense system in summer 2014
  • Deploying Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force—Southern Command aboard USS America to conduct training with Chile and Columbian military’s as ship transits to San Diego for commissioning
  • Use a JHSV as test platform for electromagnetic rail-gun tests in 2016
  • Used T-AKE ship as base for Marine Expeditionary Brigade command element in the Ssang Yong 2014 exercise with South Korean forces
  • Deployed USS Freedom to Singapore two years ahead of schedule to accelerate concept of operations learning
  • Integrated Griffin missiles on Patrol Craft deployed in Arabian Gulf
  • Assessing MLP, AFSB, T-AKE and other ships use as “lilly pads” to support MV-22 Osprey and F-35B operations
  • Developing adaptable mission packages for MLPs
  • Deployed Marine Force Recon Platoon on Freedom for training mission

This rather impressive list is just the beginning of what the sea services can do when the Expeditionary Fleet arrives in greater numbers and the Navy and Marine Corps really begin to understand their true operational capabilities and capacities.

To secure that greater understanding and ensure these ships are fully integrated in surface operations Navy and Marine Corps leaders need to think more about their language and what they call these ships. Expeditionary Ships are not “ancillary” alternatives. They are not second-tier ships and they are not all warships and should never be confused as such. This is the force that will be most heavily engaged in the messy day-to-day business of naval forces, meeting what CNO Greenert calls “the relentless, high demand for naval forces.” The Expeditionary Fleet allows the Navy and Marine Corps to enhance presence in many regions, freeing-up destroyers, cruisers and large-deck amphibious ships to be re-deployed to more critical areas of the globe. Without the Expeditionary Fleet the Navy will be hard-pressed to maintain even a modest forward presence in many of the world’s oceans.

Robert Holzer is a senior national security manager with Gryphon Technologies LLC in Washington. He  worked for the OSD Office of Force Transformation. The views expressed here are his own. 


  • James Freeborn

    Good and interesting article

  • BW

    Spot on… the marketing of innovation in DC is probably more important than the actual innovation.

  • Horn

    We’ve already started to see a shift in this direction. I like the idea of the MLPs and AFSBs, and for roughly $500M a piece I’d say that’s a good bargain.

  • Don Bacon

    This is exciting — expeditionary forces like we had a hundred years ago to fight Germans and Austro-Hungarians but this time expeditionary fleets “to meet the critical needs of America’s combatant commanders.” Whatever would they do and where would they do it ? one might ask.

    The sketchy list of “missions” includes only testing and training, and no threats to national security are mentioned here (nor elsewhere, for that matter). It’s merely an attempt to use language to appear relevant employing ineffective ships at a time when the American people have no interest in foreign wars. And the combatant commanders have no “critical needs,” really.

    PS: There is an implied suggestion here that expensive carrier fleets are not needed in this “cultural change” to expeditionary fleets. That’s interesting.

    • Mike

      On your thought, can you imagine how effectively the emerging threats in Russia and China would go away rather quickly if our President and future leaders were to follow FDR’s practice of fireside chats that encouraged America to “Buy American” and to do ONLY what was good for America….. American oil, American gas, American products…. Can you imagine America, the great successful Democratic experiment and consumptive engine of the world, looking after America first for a change….. Suddenly the need for Trillions on DOD would be quite unnecessary and America would be better off for it….. Other than a small Special Ops force to destroy bad guys before they become a threat… Just imagine……..

      • Don Bacon

        Emerging threats — let’s go there. (It reminds me of Iran’s fictitious “nuclear ambitions”. )

        How does one identify “emerging threats”? Have there been any past invasiuons by these two countries, and recent threats against other countries, and indications at all that Russia and China are “emerging threats”? Most importantly: How do such supposed threats from Russia and China affect the U.S. and the American people?

        PS: Admiral Locklear has said that climate change is the biggest threat in his theater. To Locklear, the consequences of a warming planet are likely to “cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

        • Mike

          Virtually every despotic dictator who dreamed of world domination was once an emerging threat….. That said, some our the worst “sponsors” of emerging threats were our own powerful industrialists and politicians…. Imagine if Nixon had been prevented from going to China at the behest of our own powerful Ultra Wealthy who actually thought they could use the Chinese as slave labor… Now the very powerful communist Chinese use their own people as slave labor while they are becoming a huge military power….

          Imagine if we had not let very wealthy American and European oil companies modernize Russia’s gas and oil facilities after Star Wars left that world threat in bankrupt rubble?

          We have very capable Special Ops forces that at just about anytime could stop our current Emerging Threats if we would only use them faster…. Don’t you imagine that our intelligence services have pretty well located those kidnapped girls in Nigeria?

          We did it in a heartbeat when our President gave orders to bring those kidnapped missionaries home. Heck those Seal teams had dinner, ran that operation and where home for breakfast along with the missionaries and the Emerging Threats were no more….

          Classic Special Ops. function planned and carried out in no time at all… Next job?

          • Horn

            Next job? Those Nigerian schoolgirls are still out there. They haven’t been rescued yet. And after they were kidnapped, when the Nigerian security forces of another town went to search for them, those same terrorists slaughtered a town of 300 people. If you are talking about those Dutch missionaries instead, they are still held captive, too. Those Special Ops forces, while effective, will never be able to stop every emerging threat out there. That’s just unrealistic.

            As for Russia and China, their struggling economies, demographics, political corruption, and pollution problems are most likely to keep them at bay, as long as we (China) and NATO (Russia) maintain our presence. If Japan and South Korea can finally resolve their differences and support each other, China won’t mess with either of them militarily even if we reduce our presence there.

            Now I do agree with Don, to a degree, that the military is hyping threats up. There are very few possible conflicts I see that would justify a force of 50 amphibious ships. The navy should stick with maintaining, modernizing, and replacing their current fleet numbers, with a few exceptions (MLPs, AFSBs, JHSVs, NECC MK VI PBs, and a 12th LPD.)

          • Mike

            Do you have a military background? Our Special Obs capability is huge and when used with the abilities of the CIA and our military Intelligence there are few operations we can’t undertake… The Dutch and American were rescued by our Seals in a night raid and are now home..

          • chernenko

            The global war on terrorism has degraded a moderate portion of our special operations spectrum. Operators have taken significant casualties, retention rates have dropped. Special operators have limitations. Was it Delta that had to abort a raid on Somali pirates 6 months ago, I think it was the same time that the cv-22 tried to evac Americans in South Sudan. The US has some of the best irregular forces in the world, but they are not a magic weapon.

          • Horn

            I think we are talking about two different groups of hostages. The one I’m referring to is the three Dutch and two Nigerians. The gunmen freed the Nigerians, but still have the Dutch nationals. There were no Americans in that group.

            I just did another search for whatever story you are referring to and couldn’t find anything dated within the past year. Could you provide a link or something? I think you might possibly be confusing multiple stories, or referring to something that happened more than a year ago.

            Yes, I know that our intelligence gathering is extremely capable, but they can’t catch everything. Look at every terrorist attack that has happened since 9/11. London, Madrid, Mumbai. Granted these were not against the US, but our intelligence agencies failed to stop/ warn of the threat. It took them almost 10 years to find bin Laden. I also know that our Spec Ops capability is huge. But to say that they will stop every emerging threat is pushing it. Large (in number) threats would be particularly difficult, especially if on foreign soil. How would our Spec Ops handle those situations?

            Now since this article is about the Navy, let’s look at it from the historical angle. Look at the past for examples: Great Britain, Spain, Venice, the Netherlands, Athens. Look at how the loss of naval superiority affected each of these powers. America has learned from isolation twice already. I hope we don’t go for a three-peat.

    • Horn

      “PS: There is an implied suggestion here that expensive carrier fleets are not needed in this “cultural change” to expeditionary fleets.”

      I didn’t really see that. It seemed more like a “we need more ships (with these capabilities)” statement. I would think that the Navy knows they would need carrier fleets to escort/support amphibious forces in a major conflict.

  • Don Bacon

    Meanwhile, the HASC put a Full Stop on the LCS honeymoon with its sketchy mission modules..

    news report:

    The panel approved an amendment to its 2015 National Defense
    Authorization Act (NDAA) offered by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that
    would block all funding for LCS mission modules until senior Pentagon
    and Navy officials deliver some assurances to lawmakers.

    One would be to provide the Navy secretary’s plan for the program’s Milestone B
    costs, schedule and performance “for each increment.”

    Another would be a certification by the Pentagon’s director of operational test
    and evaluation (OT&E) “with respect to the total number for each
    module type that is required to perform all necessary operational

    The OT&E office has in the past been critical of the LCS program. In
    its latest report, released in January, the office found “performance,
    reliability, and operator training deficiencies,” and other alleged
    problems with the mission packages.

    Plus the anemic LCS annual production rate will be cut back from three to two.

    • Horn

      Oh, thank God. They really dropped the ball on the R&D and oversight with the LCS. Same with the Zumwalt, although I do like the possibilities with that ship.

  • PolicyWonk

    Assessing the deployment of small force packets of Marines on LCS, JHSV and MLP


    Given the dubious deployment of LCS-1 to Singapore, they might need the marines to help maintain the ship – if they can find the room to stow them (and supplies to feed, etc.).

    The MLP’s have zero extra room on them from what I’ve read about them so far, meaning that some kind of quarters will have to be created to house additional personnel.

    The JHSV’s are essentially ferry’s – with limited range, etc. I’m unclear on how adding marines to these is useful.

    The above taken into account, we should be building more small-deck carriers such as USS America to increase our coverage (with a ski-jump to increase the fuel/ordnance load), more San Antonio’s, fewer large deck carriers (reserve them for the nastier trouble spots), and double the number of Virginias.

    • leesea

      PW, I agree that MLP has NO troop lift spaces. The JHSV has enough troop lift (~300 troops and 600 tons cargo) for an intra-theater (1200 nmi ranges) transport mission which is what they were designed for. They can support littoral movements of less than MEB size. Using marines from an ARG to go to another discharge point. They can land in benign ports. I am NOT talking about assaults, but then again how many times have that been done by Marines recently?~

      • PolicyWonk

        Indeed JHSV has carrying capacity – but they are not designed for or intended to go into harm’s way.

        Your point w/r/t how many contested assaults is a good one – but I remain in favor of maintaining a force of amphibs, and building more America-sized carriers (with a ski-jump) to get better coverage, and patrol parts of the world where we want to maintain a presence (but isn’t as volatile).

        These would free up the large deck carriers, and allow them to be sent to more “interesting” parts of the planet.

        • leesea

          PW indeed JHSV are transports not meant for assaults, but the USMC needs LIFT capacity more so than warships to go more places and into less than opposed landings IMHO. With new amphibs approaching $2 billion you can want more warships, but the country can not afford all Cadillac SUVs?~

          Good point about using a big-deck designs to perform CV missions.

    • Gary Church

      More Virginia’s would be better than any more surface combatants. And it might be time to replace those surface combatants with diesel subs. In terms of the littorals and getting in close for these Marine operations we will not risk nuclear subs. But we can send in diesels. Even carry amtracks in dry deck shelters on them.

  • Gary Church

    I am not real big on the term “small force packets” that Wonk uses in his comment below. Sending in SAS model operators in a raid to assassinate someone or rescue a small number of hostages is risky business. They often as not end badly. You better believe we pick these missions very carefully to try and make the odds better. Then there are those Special people with green berets we send in to lead more extended and covert operations. Many of them are lost during these classified spooky doings. When we try and do things like taking down warlords in Somalia- or rescuing hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls in an African jungle swarming with homicidal maniacs, then we are playing a whole different game. And that game, as we have learned, can only be won with very powerful forces. Just sending in some commandos with no armor, artillery, or any real intelligence is probably going to end bad.

    Small packets of Marines are not the answer to any problem.

    • Gary Church

      And I did not mean that to disparage Marines. On the contrary, they are the premier combat troops on planet Earth. If you want to take and hold some ground, whether it is an island or city or a small country- send them. But don’t send a dozen to do the job of a thousand. They are not supermen.

      • Horn

        Agreed. The only thing that I can think of at the moment to send two dozen marines to would be to defend an embassy from a hostile crowd.

    • DirtyPaw

      I love Marines but being Army during the VN fricassee I must remain loyal to my branch of service. My bitch is I get tired of hearing Marine kudos as if no other military branch exists. Submitted with all due respects to all branches.

      • Gary Church

        “I get tired of hearing Marine kudos”

        My only experience with Marines was at Fort Knox in the 80’s where we in the training brigade trained all the Marine Corps tankers. They made us army guys look pretty shabby. I did see occasional drama like a private telling a gunny, “what are they gonna do? Shave my head and send me to Okinawa? Stamp no dessert on my meal card?”

        I will never forget that:)

    • PolicyWonk

      Gary –

      The term “small force packets” was lifted as a quote from the article (i.e. it isn’t “my” use, so to speak). However, I’m also unclear on how littering small numbers of marines over a larger variety of ships is going to buy us much.

      I am in favor of building more amphibs, and lots more subs: more Virginias AND conventional boats (forward based). However, that said, I still believe there is a purpose for a surface fleet and for keeping a force of large-deck carriers (albeit not as many as we do now).

  • Gary Church

    Between the CH-53 and the CH-47 as the prime mover for Marines it seems the Chinook would be the better deal except for it not being as tolerant to salt water as the 53. I would recommend the Marine Corps buy a force of Chinooks which which to deliver their forces. For whatever reason the 53 has very high operating costs. The Osprey needs to be retired before any more money is wasted on it. The same for the F-35 lift fan monstrosity. It is amazing the amount of B.S. that was shoveled to sell these two pieces of junk.

    • Gary Church

      I would further recommend that the Marine Corps use groups of container ships as their base of operations. It amazes me that a 1300 foot 165,000 ton super container ship costs as much as one F-35 fighter. These ships could carry very large landing forces and deliver them by the Marine version of the Chinook (you can buy two Chinooks for the price of one Osprey and carry twice as many troops)
      That would be my idea of an expeditionary fleet.

      • Gary Church

        A flat deck on such cargo warships would allow them to operate fighters with rocket systems that allow them to take off and arrest themselves without catapults and wires.

    • Horn

      I think the reason for the higher operating costs on the CH-53E is because is uses three engines instead of two, giving it better heavy lift capability over older models.

  • Peter

    Making one of the JHSVs into a fast medical ship would be a good idea.

    The JHSV having a speed of 43 kts max or 35 kts cruising sure beats the slow 17.5 kts max of the USS Mercy and USS Comfort. Sometimes getting a medical ship fast to a disaster area would make a huge difference, not to mention that the JHSVs have a RO/RO ramp for medical, search and rescue, and construction vehicles to deploy .

  • jc

    As land bases are removed from American troops overseas the need for larger ships will be a factor in keeping Marines at sea. With the change in weather around the globe Marines and Navy cant take being on deployments with smaller ships and rough seas witch will make life miserable for all.

    • Gary Church

      I don’t think half of the defense community, being conservative, are going to agree with your global warming warning. Climate denial is much like defense spending in obvious changes in the threat environment will continue to be ignored in favor of the profit motive.

  • @notrizzo

    Heard an interesting line from a USMC-R co-worker today, a slight spin on the “you fight with the army you have, not the army you want”.
    His thought was, “You fight the war you are told to, not the one you planned for”
    Important to remember for a force still structured more for fighting the USSR in 1985 than Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq again. So when we build up our “new” force to defeat China, we have to be prepared for the wars we’ll actually be called on to fight with that “other” force.