Maritime Prepositioning Is Necessary for Effective Global Response

Maritime Prepositioning Is Necessary for Effective Global Response

History informs us that this capability is well worth keeping and should only be modified to better meet Marine Corps global response requirements across the spectrum of conflict.

If nothing else, we should have learned from the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that wars are unpredictable. No one can know with certainty where or when fighting will break out, who will be the belligerents, or how quickly the conflict will spread and engulf others. As the Nation’s emergency or 9-1-1 force, the Marine Corps must remain capable of responding quickly and decisively to these unforeseen threats. Our national security demands it.

For almost forty years, the Maritime Prepositioning Force has provided the Marine Corps and the United States with the rapid deployment and sustainment needed to deter potential adversaries or defeat them in combat. The best examples are our wars with Iraq in 1990-1991 and again in 2003. How many potential adversaries have been deterred by a global, robust maritime prepositioning capability is impossible to know, but potential adversaries have witnessed the rapid insertion of overwhelming combat power made possible by this capability in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They know that Marine Corps prepositioned supplies and equipment can be quickly moved to almost any location in a matter of days and married up with combat troops deploying by strategic airlift.

Deterrence is a combination of perception and fact. Maritime prepositioning gives our potential adversaries pause before taking hostile action. They know U.S. Marine Corps forces have the combat power and sustainment to quickly counter their actions. Warfighting is as much about sustainment as about the number of combat forces and equipment deployed. A widely accepted statement in the Marine Corps has long been: “Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics.” Sustainment matters. Maritime prepositioning brings sustainment.

Unfortunately, the United States’ maritime prepositioning capability is under attack, not for national security reasons but for budgetary considerations.

The Mediterranean maritime prepositioning squadron, which consisted of six ships, was quietly deactivated in 2018, ostensibly because Europe was regarded as a relatively low area of risk for future conflict. Today, only two squadrons of maritime prepositioning ships are available to support Marine Corps global commitments.

One squadron currently consists of seven ships stationed at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Instead of being immediately available to deploy, this squadron is at risk of being put in a reduced stage of readiness to get underway if the Department of the Navy’s recently proposed budget for 2023 is approved. The argument for increasing the period necessary for the ships to get underway is “due to an assessment of operational needs which found these (ships) to be of a lower priority in light of the current strategic environment.” The department’s budget documents do not reveal if the time to get underway is thirty to sixty days or longer; however, the decision represents a significant reduction in warfighting capability because the squadron will no longer be able to respond quickly to a developing crisis or contingency. Even worse, four of the squadron’s seven ships may be deactivated, leaving only three ships at Diego Garcia.

The second squadron also consists of seven ships and is stationed around Guam. This squadron is also under consideration to have three of its seven ships deactivated. Two ships, prepositioned with future contingency packages, may be added back but homeported at Blount Island, Florida, ready to respond to contingencies as needed.

Any reduction of ships in the two remaining squadrons, or a lengthening of the time required to get underway, needs to be reconsidered in light of global contingencies, not just in the Pacific region but also in Europe and the Middle East. Maritime prepositioning has proved its value in two previous wars with Iraq when combat equipment and logistical sustainment from three squadrons were deployed. Changing the prepositioned equipment aboard the ships to accommodate changes in Marine Corps force structure makes sense and has been done repeatedly in the past. Eliminating or reducing the number of ships does not.

The deployment of a balanced Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force to Europe should not be discounted. In the event of hostilities involving NATO, Marines would almost certainly be called upon. Without robust maritime prepositioning, the Marines would be much slower getting to the fight and unable to sustain themselves until supply lines could be established.

The senior leadership of the Marine Corps apparently believes maritime prepositioning is not as important today as previously. The commandant of the Marine Corps’ 2019 Planning Guidance stated: 

For several decades the Maritime Prepositioned Force (MPF) represented a competitive advantage for the Marine Corps. That is less the case today ... We must be prepared to fundamentally alter this capability, as well as the inventory currently programmed for inclusion with the MPF, as we rethink the future of this capability.

This statement is short-sighted and dangerous. Maritime prepositioning is no less “a competitive advantage” today than it was in the past.

Maritime prepositioning ships fly the U.S. flag and enjoy freedom of movement, which show U.S. resolve and assures friends and allies that America is a trusted partner. Previously, the ships in the Mediterranean squadron moved throughout the area in small groups of one or two ships, all of them never being docked at the same location. The ships around Guam regularly move in one or two ship groups with U.S. Navy amphibious ships from Sasebo, Japan on which U.S. Marines are embarked. The ships at Diego Garcia are relatively static, only moving for operational or maintenance reasons. The positioning and freedom of movement of these ships provide Marines with global support when needed. No foreign actor has ever challenged the free movement of these ships while at sea or in port.

Power projection and forward presence have been cornerstones of Navy and Marine Corps warfighting and deterrence strategy since World War II. These twin pillars of warfighting and deterrence are integral to the National Defense Strategy. The “Overview” section of the Department of the Navy’s Budget for FY 2023 reinforces this strategy by making the following statement:

Seapower’s strength comes from its inherent and pervasive mobility, self-reliance, survivability and distributability: our ability to strategically position overwhelming lethal Naval force across the globe poses a uniquely effective deterrent to adversaries.

Navy and Marine Corps forward-deployed and forward-based forces obviously meet these criteria. But so does maritime prepositioning. The forward-deployed presence of maritime prepositioning ships supports Marine Corps operations and contingency plans and contributes to deterrence. Maritime prepositioning also supports the Interim National Defense Strategy, which guides three important criteria for U.S. National Defense Strategy. The third criterion is the most relevant to maritime prepositioning.

Deterring aggression while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary, prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific Region, and then the Russian challenge in Europe.

The proper configuration and location of the Maritime Prepositioning Force supports this criterion. In a recent article in the Naval Institute Proceedings, Major Rob Malcolm, USMC, made the case that maritime prepositioning is not only viable in the future but particularly relevant in today’s environment. Comparing the utility of maritime prepositioning in the Indo-Pacific and European Theaters, he concluded:

The MPF [Maritime Prepositioning Force] is no doubt in need of renewal, upgrade and increased investment, but it is not irrelevant. In fact, as the Marine Corps divests of legacy capabilities and awaits the future development of new naval concepts of distributed maritime operations (DMO), littoral operations in the contested environment (LOCE), and expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), the MPF may be more valuable … now than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

Aside from sustaining Marines in combat, the Maritime Prepositioning Force is also a national asset for responding to critical humanitarian needs. Lifesaving supplies and the Expeditionary Medical Facilities aboard the enhancement ships of both the current squadrons play a critical role in Humanitarian Assistance or Disaster Relief. These capabilities were essential in the Philippines during the aftermath of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991. They are just as applicable today and in the future for responding to major disasters caused by typhoons, tsunamis, or volcanic eruptions in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. 

Two considerations are essential for the Maritime Prepositioning Force to remain relevant to the global deployment of Marine Corps forces in the future. First, the prepositioning ships must be positioned as close as possible to regional threats. Second, the equipment and supplies aboard the ships must be tailored for the anticipated mission or missions. Major Malcolm’s aforementioned article argues for the positioning of all ships in the Indo-Pacific region. While Guam and Diego Garcia are good locations for this region and the Middle East, Europe and NATO are left vulnerable. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a shot across the bow that Europe remains highly volatile and a potential area of conflict. The elimination of the Mediterranean squadron in 2018 virtually eliminated a strong and sustainable Marine Corps response in Europe.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats to punish Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden present the United States and NATO with new regional problems, which have no easy answers. NATO’s first priority is to deter further aggression by Russia, but also to fight and win if deterrence fails. The Marine Corps can play a significant role in both. Relocating some maritime prepositioning assets to more strategic positions in the European theater will help.