Below is a guest post from LCDR Benjamin Armstrong, USN. Lieutenant Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong is an active duty naval helicopter pilot who has served as an amphibious search and rescue and special warfare pilot and an advanced helicopter flight instructor. He is currently assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28. He holds a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University and has written on irregular warfare and naval history. A frequent contributor to Proceedings and Naval History magazine, he also writes for Small Wars Journal, and his articles have appeared in The Naval War College Review, Defense & Security Analysis, and Strategic Insights. LCDR Armstrong is also a panelist in the United States Naval Institute History Conference 2010 on piracy next week.
Last week Galrahn, USNI Blogger and skipper of Information Dissemination, wrote an article on his home blog about operationalizing the Influence Squadron. It was an important next step in the discussion started by Captain Henry J. Hendrix in his Proceedings and Armed Forces Journal articles introducing and developing the concept. Anyone unfamiliar with the Influence Squadrons should read CAPT Hendrix’s articles for USNI, “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris” and “More Henderson, Less Bonds.”
Galrahn’s plan for a Horn of Africa squadron is well reasoned and the capabilities included would provide a solid foundation for the success of the squadron. However, deployment of an Influence Squadron to the Horn of Africa would do little to impact the debate over the importance of these squadrons or demonstrate their effectiveness on a wider scale.
Opponents of the Influence Squadron point out that the expense of developing the platforms required, and the changes in training and deployment methods, would result in little benefit compared to the current strategies used by the USN. They are more interested in “non-material” solutions that would allow the current fleet constitution to be “jacks of all trades.” The most common criticism of the Influence Squadron is that these task forces, while capable in constabulary missions like Somalia, would have no use in regions with near peer-competitors. Despite the importance that smaller vessels have played throughout naval history to convoy protection, scouting, and blockade forces in full scale conflicts, these critics will require a modern 21st century example of a squadron operating in a region with a potential near-peer competitor.
A Theater In Need of Partnership and Security
There is another region of the globe, an area for a test deployment of an Influence Squadron, which would prove the value of these task forces to countering the naval and diplomatic maneuvering of near peer-competitors. Currently the United States Navy provides an “all-in” diplomatic option to America’s foreign policy. Either a Carrier Strike Group or other major warfighting force sails within striking distance of the disputed area, or nothing happens. In the example of the recent exercises off the Korean coast, the point was made by sending a carrier but only for a short period of time and not without increasing the level of rhetoric. The Influence Squadron offers another option, a less bellicose choice that can also improve theater security and build partnership relationships while at the same time demonstrating the long presence mission embraced by the United States Navy. Where would this option be valuable today? The South China Sea.
Chinese rhetoric over claims to the South China and East China Seas has become more aggressive within the last year. Serious conflicts appear on the horizon both with traditional American allies like Japan and the Philippines and also other nations like Vietnam and Indonesia that are vital to regional security. In South East Asia, all nations are maritime nations and therefore able to benefit from partnership with the United States Navy. An Influence Squadron for South East Asia could not only be made to test the capacity of the U.S. Navy, but could also be a combined, multinational operation that would leverage the regional maritime strength of American allies and friends.
Call it the Pacific Security and Assistance Squadron, or just label it the next iteration of the Pacific Partnership Station, but a multi-national squadron coordinated and supported by the United States to develop maritime security in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Pacific archipelagos would benefit the entire region.
A South China Sea Security and Assistance Squadron
The flagship for the squadron, as suggested by Galrahn, should be an LPD. Despite the ever present drumbeat against the Navy’s amphibious fleet, these ships provide the greatest versatility not just when it comes to capabilities but also in the adaptability of Gator sailors. These units are experienced in irregular warfare, humanitarian assistance, as well as full kinetic operations. A San Antonio Class vessel is not required. As we have seen over the last several years the older LPDs of the Austin and Cleveland classes, despite their slow march to the boneyard, still have a contribution to make.
A U.S. Marine Corps unit based on the Company Landing Team (COLT) model is a solid foundation for the embarked units aboard the LPD. This would be augmented by detachments from the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command including Sea Bees and Maritime Security Detachments, as well as a medical detachment and a U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment. A single LCU in the well deck, with the Stiletto on the other side (obviously dependent on the beam and area of each), could provide amphibious lift, with NECC RHIBs on trailers in the ship’s vehicle storage area. On the flight deck a detachment of MH-60S Knighthawks, with Block III Armed Helicopter airframes, from the Helicopter Sea Combat community’s expeditionary squadrons could provide everything from Hellfire missile/gunship kinetic capability to medical transport and humanitarian operations. These pilots and aircrew, trained in special operations support and anti-surface warfare as well as classical logistics and search and rescue missions, would easily be able to integrate with the USMC units while bringing their vast experience in overwater and littoral operations.
Self-Defense & Anti-Submarine Surveillance. Any squadron deploying to the South China Sea can count on the fact that they will be monitored by the Chinese submarine force. Australia, long time American ally and a growing maritime power in the region, can provide the capability to monitor that possibility, as well as provide limited air defense protection. An upgraded Adelaide Class FFG would prove to be the perfect platform. Not only would the ship provide advanced defensive capabilities, but being a smaller vessel it wouldn’t dwarf other ships from the region while at the same time providing training to partner nations on integration with high-technology allies. In the frigate’s hangar bay would be a pair of Australian SH-60B Seahawk helicopters to help work anti-submarine training with partner nations and provide surface search and surveillance capabilities during integrated maritime security operations. Attaching an Adelaide class frigate to the squadron would allow Australia to step into their role as a naval leader in the region, while also allowing them to prove the impressive systems of the “new” frigates.
Maritime Security & Patrol. Several navies in the region have recently begun programs designed to improve their patrol vessels and corvettes. Three ships of the smaller classes would make up the core of the squadron. The United States should approach this as another opportunity for evaluation and development of the Littoral Combat Ships. Whether Freedom is sent, once repairs are completed, because it is already on the west coast or if Independence is ready for a real world operation, the squadron will be conducting exactly the type of littoral operations the ships were designed for. In the hangar bay should be a detachment made up of an MH-60S and MQ-8 Firescout UAS. This deployment will give the Helicopter Sea Combat community the chance to work with Firescout integration while continuing to prove the capabilities of the maritime vertical UAS.
Indonesia and Malaysia have each worked to procure new patrol ships over the past decade. The Indonesians could participate by providing a Diponegoro class corvette for the squadron. Introduced in 2007, these ships were built as part of the European designed SIGMA series of vessels. With a Thales combat system installed and a helicopter flight deck, integration with the other ships of the squadron would be relatively simple. The Malaysians have their new Kedah class of offshore patrol vessel. If they accept the invitation to participate the OPVs, built in Germany as part of the MEKO series of vessels, would serve as an excellent complement to the LCS and the Indonesian corvette.
Dedicated Logistical Support and Theater Lift. During Operation Enduring Freedom the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force provided reliable and regular logistical support to American and NATO ships. Political debate within Japan accompanied that mission. However, with Japan’s vested interest in the security of the South and East China Seas, such a debate is unlikely for this deployment. By providing dedicated logistical support to the squadron the Japanese would be playing a vital role in the success of the deployment, while limiting the historical concerns about Japanese designs on the region. The JMSDF provides a modern and experienced capability that would ensure timely delivery of resources.
Besides an oiler and logistical support for the vessels in the squadron, a ship to provide theater lift and movement of detachments and humanitarian supplies ashore would be required. Recently naval analyst Craig Hooper has discussed the value of the Logistic Support Vessels (LSVs) of the U.S. Army. The Philippines have been sailing LSV’s for a generation and have extensive littoral experience in the archipelagos of Asia. Inviting them to contribute the Dagupan City or Bacolod City to the squadron would provide lift within the theater, as well as a vessel capable of entering shallow or unprepared harbors.
Theater Security/Humanitarian Assistance/Partnership Development
Rather than a short term exercise, like RIMPAC, this squadron would be a full term deployment. Each contributing nation would commit to a four to six month operation. The squadron would move as a group, touching at each of the participating nations as well as others in the region. Other nations, like Vietnam, would be welcomed to participate and could be offered the opportunity to work with the squadron. With each Navy in the region they would conduct maritime security operations, training and development with the host nation’s forces, and humanitarian missions ashore. Maritime Patrol and law enforcement capabilities, EEZ enforcement, and multinational integration would be the focus of the military training missions. Medical and construction projects ashore would help to demonstrate American good will.
The South China Sea continues to see not only an increase in the disputes over territorial claims, but also a recent increase in piratical activity. Smuggling and maritime crime also continue in the region. These are problems that can not be addressed simply by sailing a CSG through the region. The deployment of a Security and Assistance Squadron, or an Influence Squadron, would create an opportunity for the Navy to return to its historical roots as an augment to the diplomatic capabilities of the United States. An invitation to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to participate would only strengthen the role of the squadron, whether or not it is accepted (thought likely not).
Deployment of an Influence Squadron to Somalia would be useful, as would a deployment to the Caribbean or the west coast of Central America. However, neither would serve to address the concerns voiced by those who focus solely on the potential near-peer competitors of the future. The deployment of a multinational Security and Assistance Squadron to the South China Sea would not only help to prove the value of such a unit in “great power” relationships, it would demonstrate that the United States Navy understands that “in no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.”