A primary structure for rapid United States power projection from the sea is the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), typically comprising a three-ship U.S. Navy amphibious task force (ATF) and a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the smallest configuration of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF).
Although the 2012 deployment of the USS New York (LPD 21) on its maiden voyage as part of the Iwo Jima ARG brought some significant changes to the group, the ATF component generally includes:
- an amphibious assault ship (LHA or LHD) as the primary landing ship, carrying both troops and transport helicopters to get them ashore, as well as AV-8B Harrier II jump-jets and anti-submarine helicopters
- an amphibious transport dock (LPD), also used to transport Marines and their equipment into a war zone, primarily using conventional landing craft (Landing Craft, Mechanized – LCMs and Landing Craft, Utility – LCUs), Landing Craft Air Cushion hovercraft (LCACs), MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, and helicopters
- a dock landing ship (LSD), carrying a third part of the MEU and additional LCACs, LCMs/LCUs and helicopters
“The structure of the ARG really hasn’t changed a lot in the past 10 years or so,” Cmdr. Darren Nelson, first commanding officer of the USS Arlington (LPD 24), said just prior to the ship’s commissioning in 2013. “But by replacing the LPD 4 [Austin-class] with a larger warship [San Antonio/LPD 17-class, such as the Arlington and New York], we have longer on-station time capability with less frequent replenishment. Our larger fuel tanks and modern engineering plant also mean fewer maintenance requirements, enabling us to stay on station longer. We use diesel instead of steam, which reduces the heat in the engineering section; those engines also can run a long time without human interface.
“The command and control functions within our combat suite are on par with the LHD, so we can pass more and better quality information between our ships and units. We have the same LINK system [military tactical data exchange network] as our cruisers and destroyers, so we can pass information there to protect the ARG, enabling them to use their big weapons systems to protect the ships.”
With state-of-the-art command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capability and additional dedicated intelligence, mission planning and command and control spaces, the new LPDs bring significant C4ISR enhancements to the ARG. In addition, its automated combat system is designed to meet the evolving threats in the littoral environment in which it will operate and enable it to carry out independent missions farther from the protection of the ARG or other ships.
“The LPD 17-class ships are really designed to replace four of the older amphibious ships, including the LST [Landing Ship Tank], LKA [Attack Cargo Ship] and LPD 4 class.”
As the first of the three “9/11 ships” to enter the fleet, the USS New York (LPD 21) deployed in 2012 with twice as many Marines, equipment and supplies as the legacy LPDs. Its larger flight deck allowed more aircraft to take off and land simultaneously and enabled the MEU and ARG commanders to more easily reposition aircraft among the three ARG ships as missions and circumstances required.
“The LPD 17-class ships are really designed to replace four of the older amphibious ships, including the LST [Landing Ship Tank], LKA [Attack Cargo Ship] and LPD 4 class,” Nelson said. “Those were very single-mission oriented, while the -17 is designed with an enormous amount of flexibility. We also have a better communications suite, probably rivaling that of an aircraft carrier. And we can conduct more missions independently, as well as with the ARG.
“For vehicles and cargo, we have 35,000 square feet, compared to only 25,000 or less on the older ships, which is a marked improvement, almost the same as the old LHAs [Landing Helicopter Assault]. We are 684 feet long, compared to 600 for the LSDs, and have markedly more and better-utilized space inside.”
As the Marine component of the ARG, a MEU typically deploys with about 2,200 warfighters split among four primary elements:
- Command – Led by a colonel, who controls the MEU’s operations from the largest of the ARG vessels, an amphibious assault ship, such as the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7)
- Ground Combat – A Marine infantry battalion and the vehicles and equipment the MEU commander selects for the known mission at the time of deployment
- Aviation Combat – Now centered around an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor squadron (about a dozen aircraft) and a complement of helicopters; the rotary-wing aircraft mix currently is in flux, but the 2012 deployment of the 24th MEU included four CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift, four AH-1W Super Cobra attack and three UH-1N Huey attack helicopters in addition to the Ospreys
- Combat Logistics Battalion – Supports the MEU commander’s tactical mission and concept of operations and, as needed, conducts non-combatant evacuation, medical treatment and evacuation of casualties on a large scale, and humanitarian aid and assistance operations
The extra space and better interior design also enable the San Antonio class LPDs to incorporate higher quality-of-life standards for the Marines and sailor onboard, with sit-up bunks, a ship services mall, exercise and training facilities – including a martial arts room – and a learning resource center/electronic classroom. It also is the first class of Navy ship designed from the outset to accommodate women crewmembers.
“The more space you have, the less cramped and the better the quality-of-life deployed,” CWO3 Darren R. Flint, the Marine Corps combat cargo officer aboard Arlington, noted. “We have multiple gyms compared to the old LPD 4-class, which had no dedicated gym space. There also is an onboard improved simulated marksmanship trainer – a computer-based weapons firing range, for everything from an M9 pistol up to a .50-cal machine gun. And we can bring a lot more medical capability aboard, both corpsmen and equipment.
“It also means you can mix up mission sets. The mission commander can bring more Marines, including a MARSOC [Marine Forces Special Operations Command] detachment, or other forces on top of the MEU. They did that with Libya, bringing in Air Force helicopters and crews without taking any Marines off the Mesa Verde [LPD 19]. In addition, we have greatly improved communications between the Navy and Marines, increasing our ability to coordinate the requirements of the MEU and ARG commanders and COCOMs [combatant commanders] and maintain greater contact among ships if we need to split the ARG into different areas.”
The San Antonio-class’ larger medical ward – with 24 dedicated and 100 casualty overflow beds, two surgical operating rooms and two dental operating rooms – is a major improvement in providing care for its own crew, other ships or during combat medical evacuation or humanitarian assistance missions.
“With the ORs and our own medical and dental officers, we can support the health needs of the ARG or a cruiser or destroyer, if needed,” Nelson said. “The LSDs also carry medical and dental officers, as does the LHD, so the only improvement for an ARG is helping those ships that don’t have those.”
Although the Navy and Marine Corps asked for 12 of the new LPDs, only 11 have been funded.
While there is no “typical” MEU/ARG deployment, during its nine months at sea in 2012, the Iwo ARG/24th MEU covered 55,000 nautical miles, flew more than 2,800 sorties (logging some 4,800 flight hours), performed more than 300 small boat operations, participated in bilateral exercises and operations in both the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility (AORs) – including African Lion 2012 with the Moroccan military, Eager Lion 2012 with the Jordanian navy and International Mine Countermeasures 2012 with more than 30 international partners – and spent a total of 150 days on some form of alert.
The San Antonio-class LPDs will replace 41 aging Navy ships: Austin-, Cleveland- and Trenton-class LPDs, Anchorage-class dock landing ships, Newport-class tank landing ships and Charleston-class amphibious cargo ships (which already have been retired from service). Although the Navy and Marine Corps asked for 12 of the new LPDs, only 11 have been funded.