Sea Basing in Haiti: A Transformation Phoenix Rising from the Ashes?

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in the past week have dispatched considerable forces to assist in the ongoing humanitarian operation in the wake of last week’s earthquake in Haiti. Some of the more notable assets include the USS Carl Vinson, a 95,000 ton Nimitz-class aircraft carrier; the USS Bataan Amphibious Assault Ship and corresponding vessels, together carrying a 2,200-member Marine Expeditionary Unit; and the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms and 1000 beds. With Haiti’s primary airfield overwhelmed with traffic, and with the main sea port disabled by the wreckage following the quake, the ability to stage relief efforts at sea has given new impetus to a concept that flourished in the post Cold War 1990s and reached new, heady heights during the early “transformation” years of the Rumsfeld Department of Defense. Sea Basing, despite a recent fall from grace, deserves a fresh look.

At its conceptual core, sea basing purports to move traditional land-based functions to sea – functions like billeting, logistics, and even the employment of force. Sea-based assets are nothing new to the Navy and Marine Corps, of course, but even large-scale amphibious assaults have traditionally involved moving an “iron mountain” of material and supplies onto the shore to support ground forces. Sea basing proposes to float this iron mountain and do all arrival and assembly, supply, and sustainment at sea and from the sea. Rather than merely serving as a one-way launching pad for operations ashore, a sea base really is the base. And, as the Navy loves to remind everyone, that base can go wherever it wants.

Sea basing has historical roots in the World War II push across the Pacific, and the concept was resuscitated in the 1990s when diminishing overseas bases and politically hesitant allies created impediments – both perceived and real – to military plans for force projection. Chafing at these restrictions, planners viewed the sea as a vast maneuver space on which the U.S. could position and deploy its aircraft, artillery, and ground forces. Early “sci-fi” conceptions of sea basing were discarded relatively quickly in favor of a more traditional assemblage of naval vessels augmented by a new, dramatically-increased capability to perform logistics at sea.

But the defense establishment largely lost interest in sea basing in recent years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan focused the nation on counterinsurgency and as the Navy struggled with the fiscal demands of its own shipbuilding priorities. Content neither to be an adjunct land army nor a small-scale amphibious raiding force utilizing half-century old tactics, the Marine Corps has clung vigorously to sea basing as the vision that would usher in a new era of large-scale, maneuverable amphibious capability for the 21st century – and thereby place the Corps at the forefront of modern warfare doctrine. To fulfill the vision, the Marines proposed a new squadron of vessels called the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future), or MPF(F). Part at-sea logistics, part prepositioning, part amphibious lift, and part launch platform, the collective 14-ship MPF(F) is designed to deliver the third of three 15,000-member Marine Expeditionary Brigades while enabling all supply and sustainment to remain at sea rather than rely on the deep water port facilities so necessary to current prepositioning ships. Presented with a price tag of more than $14 billion for the MPF(F) vessels, however, the Navy exhibited all the classic symptoms of sticker shock, and the press surfaced leaked reports in the waning months of 2009 – after years of discussion – that the squadron had been deemed unaffordable. The official DOD position is due out next month in conjunction with the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Navy’s revised 30-year shipbuilding plan.

Ironically, the great humanitarian disasters of recent years – from New Orleans to Indonesia to Bangladesh and now to Haiti – have perhaps best illuminated the possibilities of a sea basing strategy that was initially propelled by unilateral visions of power projection. Despite all the hyperbolic descriptions about its transformative potential, sea basing’s really unique capability lies in the movement of traditionally land-based logistics functions to the sea: arrival and assembly, supply, sustainment, reconstitution, etc. It is, at its core, a port and airfield at sea – with associated billeting, medical, and command-and-control facilities – and it is therefore useful to the joint force rather than just the Navy and Marine Corps. And it is when the port and airfield on land are unavailable or disabled – as has been the case in Haiti – that sea basing shows its strength. Often criticized for being vulnerable to attack, reliant on Cold War platforms, and unrealistic in its focus on large scale amphibious assault, a sea base is still an extremely adaptable entity for a variety of missions involving the land near the sea – or the littorals, in Navy terminology – that don’t involve a serious threat of attack on the sea base itself. From Haiti to Yemen to Somalia, these littoral areas will likely occupy the nation’s attention for years to come. The numbers alone are compelling: the sea covers 75% of the world’s surface and carries 90% of the world’s trade while approximately two thirds of the world’s population – 4 billion people – lives within 400 km of the coast.

The Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and civilian agencies are all playing important and complementary roles in Haiti, and when the airfields and ports return to capacity, the logistics focus will rightly return to those points of entry. But Haiti serves as a reminder that the world’s littorals are unpredictable. Today’s sea base off the coast of Haiti is not the sea base of the Marines’ vision: lacking the at-sea logistics capability of the MPF(F), the joint services are collectively building that iron mountain ashore amidst a devastated infrastructure and widespread chaos. In the future, that may not be an option, and in the face of an enemy, that iron mountain represents a critical vulnerability. Perhaps after nearly a decade of focus on counterinsurgency, it is time to dust off a transformation concept rooted in the ability to defeat any foe and rebrand it as an adaptive capability suited for missions ranging from disaster response to amphibious assault. Perhaps it is time to resurrect the sea base – and send foreign policy back to sea.