Magazine article National Defense

Military Bases at Sea: No Longer Unthinkable

Magazine article National Defense

Military Bases at Sea: No Longer Unthinkable

Article excerpt

Staging a military campaign the size of Operation Iraqi Freedom entirely from ships at sea--with no access to land bases--would seem inconceivable to most defense planners.

Nonetheless, the notion of "sea basing" forces has gained momentum at the Pentagon in recent months. Advocates point to the decision by Turkey to deny staging rights to U.S. Army units preparing to invade Iraq last year as the reason why sea bases should not be viewed as extravagances, but as necessities, if the United States is to remain a global power.

An August report by the Defense Science Board endorsed the sea base idea, dubbing it a "critical joint military capability" that should be supported by all the services.

So far, however, it appears unlikely that a large-scale sea base could be deployed for at least 20 years, given the technical hurdles and multibillion-dollar price tags associated with a project of this magnitude, experts said. Another issue that may deter future efforts is the potential vulnerability of massive seaborne platforms to missile or submarine attacks.

A sea base, notionally, would combine a carrier strike group, an amphibious ready group (with augmented firepower from submarines and destroyers) and a flotilla of sophisticated cargo vessels that also would serve as both warehouses and maintenance facilities for ground combat vehicles and aircraft. The ships would be staged about 25 miles offshore, but 2,000 miles from a major land base, such as Guam, covering the East Asian theater, or Diego Garcia, supporting the Middle East theater.

Every ship would he part of a multi-service command-and-control network, noted the DSB study. "Special operations forces, soldiers and Marines would assemble together with their equipment, on the sea base.... This combination would enable rapid force projection over the shore."

Among the staunchest advocates of sea bases are Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee. Clark made "sea basing" one of the pillars of his vision for the Navy of the 21st century, called "Sea Power 21."

In the future, "access is going to become more difficult," Hagee told an industry conference in Panama City, Fla., hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

He said U.S. forces must be able to "project combat power from the sea, to enable major operations ashore." To a degree, that is done today, with carrier strike groups and amphibious ships. The Marine Corps has been doing sea basing for a long time, he said. "It may not always have been elegant."

But the latest concept of "sea basing" goes much farther, conceivably to where the entire buildup and preparation for an operation equivalent to the Iraq war could be achieved without any land bases.

Hagee stressed that none of the military services could do that today.

As to whether the goal is realistic, Hagee said, "it's a challenge, but not impossible."

The most difficult hurdles will be logistics-related--transporting enough fuel to support ground and air forcers, and having a large enough aircraft that also can land on ships. "The long pole in the tent is the bulk fuel," in addition to the massive amounts of generators and batteries consumed by military equipment, said Hagee. That level of logistics support may over-stress the sea base.

The ideal aircraft in this scenario would be a vertical takeoff C-130-size vehicle that can land at sea, on a short runway, and has enough range to deliver supplies inland, Hagee said.

Regarding self-defense capabilities, it is too early to say exactly what weapons might be needed to protect the sea base. "We haven't solved that yet," he said. The most pressing concerns are threats posed by sea-skimming missiles, enemy small-boat swarming and diesel submarines.

The Navy plans to allocate funds for sea-basing programs in its fiscal year 2005 and 2006 budgets, said Clark. …

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