Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org)
Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, USN-Ret: What can you tell me about Pacific Blitz 2019 and the Littoral Combat Force?
Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle: Pacific Blitz ’19 was an opportunity for us to demonstrate naval integration. We combined Operations Pacific Horizon, which was a Marine Corps exercise, and Dawn Blitz, which was primarily a Navy exercise, into Pacific Blitz.
We have the assets and platforms to operate in the littorals, such as our amphibious ships, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the ESB – Expeditionary Staging Base, ESD – Expeditionary Staging Dock, as well as a whole family of unmanned systems. But we don’t have a single unified commander that can actually manage all of these assets and bring forces to bear. So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to get after with the littoral combat force (LCF) model , which is what we’re employing here for Pacific Blitz 2019.
I’ve never heard of the Littoral Combat Force before.
LCF came from the Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) white paper written in 2017 and signed by Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, and Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson. LOCE talked about how the Navy and Marine Corps team would go about employing a Littoral Combat Group, which could be commanded by an O-6. As I got my arms around being the Expeditionary Strike Group Commander, it became clear to me that what we needed was someone above the O-6-level command that could actually do the management of all those assets within the littoral environment. I spoke with members of my staff who also have a lot of experience in the amphibious community about different ways to get after these problem sets and ways to synergize the efforts in the littoral environment. We looked at the Littoral Combat Force being an integrated Navy and Marine staff that manages not only U.S. Navy forces, but also U.S. Marine Corps forces, and those blended forces that are operating in the littorals.
The LOCE document talks about establishing Expeditionary Advance Bases (EABs) and Advance Naval Bases (ANBs). For Pacific Blitz we brought those concepts to life and conducted the integrated command and control from the littoral combat force. We conducted integrated planning with I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) and 1st MARDIV and we were able to demonstrate the operational littoral combat force headquarters staff concept.
The LCF commander is Major General Robert F. Castellvi, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, and I am the deputy commander of the LCF. We have a completely blended staff with 1st MARDIV and ESG 3 – a fully-integrated Navy and Marine staff that not only is taking guidance from the task force level, the fleet level, and the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) level, but we’re also turning that guidance into tasking for the Navy ships, as well as the Marine Corps elements. We have been able to demonstrate command and control of various forces, as well as support sea denial and sea control to a certain extent, from ashore.
The two-star LCF commander could be Navy or Marine Corps, with the deputy coming from the other service, and the staff is fully integrated. All the plans, orders, fires, and logistical support are fully integrated at the LCF level. We have typically deployed an amphibious ready group (ARG) with a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) embarked.
Our objective is naval integration, and showing that we can do the entire spectrum of operations. In the traditional sense, we deploy an ARG / MEU under an embarked ESG commander or PHIBRON commander and it includes three or so amphibious ships, embarked Marines, and we may have a DDG or a cruiser with us. We were going to have USS Essex ARG and the MEU be a part of this exercise until they were extended. But we do have USS Somerset, USS New Orleans and a number of other commands participating.
Pacific Blitz is the textbook model of naval integration. It’s alive and well, but just like with anything else, we have to be able to practice these type of activities. So we get the opportunity to do this during Pacific Blitz, but also later this year, we plan to conduct the Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise (AECE), where we’re demonstrating expeditionary maneuvers for Marines up in Alaska. It’s an Alaska command-hosted exercise with NORTHCOM, obviously, working with Indo-PACOM on the supported-supporting commander relationship. We’re looking at distributed command and control. The difference between Pacific Blitz and AECE, besides the environment, is that the littoral combat force commander and his staff will be afloat. We’re getting after the metrics of how to make this as effective and as efficient as possible while informing the way that we plan to fight. We’ve got elements that will be conducting expeditionary exercises and we’re also working to move logistics over the shore.
The Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps came out to see the exercise.
Both service chiefs conducted battlefield circulation together to see how Pacific Blitz was playing out. They traveled from the field headquarters at Camp Pendleton, to USS Somerset to see how operations were going afloat, to San Clemente Island where an EAB had been established and included a fueling and arming spot, and to the Advance Naval Base ANB at Point Mugu. They got an opportunity to see the scope and scale of what it would take to get those forces into theater, and, effectively command and control distributed assets to achieve the desired end state.
This is just a step along the journey. It’s not all encompassing, but it provides the direction we need to get better at everything from signals management and optimizing the amount of energy that we’re radiating as we command and control those assets. We had many questions to get after – How do we manage forces? How do we optimize assets? What’s the right size of the footprint afloat? What’s the right size and type of asset that we need to bring ashore? What are the right ships and connectors to support those things? How do unmanned systems fit into that construct? So we used the Pac Blitz 2019 as a learning exercise, and I think both the Commandant and the CNO were very pleased with what they saw.
There are some gaps in our ability to execute the fight the way we would like to, so we will continue to experiment and test all of our options.
How does the LCF compare to the tradition Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit?
I don’t think there was a lot wrong with the old ARG / MEU model, but the LCF is more in alignment with the vision of doing a lot of different things simultaneously. The LCF actually evolves that ARG / MEU model to the next level. ESG 3 has three amphibious squadrons (PHIBRONs) – we’re the Navy’s largest strike group with 15 ships and 15,000 sailors, so we train up a PHIBRON and its three ships and they lash up with the MEU to go on deployment. My PHIBRON commodores have very small and junior staffs, but are doing the same basic workload that a carrier strike group (CSG) staff does, along with their assigned destroyer squadron (DESRON) staff. Granted, our assets aren’t the same as a CSG. But Essex was the first with the F-35 to go through the entire training cycle and deploy for a full seven-month deployment. We’re still capturing those lessons learned and we’re looking at how we are going to employ the F-35 in future operations. We’ve also identified a gap between the 5th generation fighters and the legacy 3rd generation amphibious ships that they’re flying off of – and that’s from a C5I, logistics, and deck spacing perspective. So we’re collecting a lot of lessons learned from the Essex ARG deployment and to actively inform what the next generation big deck amphib should look like. When we build a ship to last 40 years, we need to better integrate with the high tech systems that are being developed and fielded in the fleet.
I understand the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) requires a lot of bandwidth.
We took that into account before we sent Essex on deployment and we were able to address that. The bandwidth was not the issue for this particular deployment, but we do know that our ships still have a ways to go when it comes to integrating the combat systems capabilities of the aircraft.
You mean the downlink from the aircraft, and integrating that node of the network into the overall combat systems picture?
Correct. We still have a lot to learn there. The Marines envisioned the F-35B to be a one-to-one replacement for the AV-8B Harrier, but its capability is leaps and bounds beyond the Harrier. While the F-35 can do the close air support mission that the AV-8 did, it is also capable of doing so much more and there will likely be a demand signal from the combatant commanders for those aircraft to support missions beyond that of the ARG / MEU.
So we need to design and build our ships to be able to accept new technology as it becomes available.
I had the pleasure and blessing of being the third commanding officer of USS Makin Island, and Makin Island to me was the Navy’s first real attempt at a 5th generation amphibious ship. She was the 8th ship of the Wasp class, but we deliberately made a decision not to make it a first ship of her own class. All of the Wasp-class ships were steam-driven ships, but Makin Island was the Navy’s first hybrid-propulsion drive amphibious assault ship, with gas turbines for high speed and electric motors for loitering and low speed, and a high voltage electrical distribution system supporting the entire electrical grid. There were a lot of things that we were testing while we were on deployment simply because it wasn’t the first ship of the class, which would have followed a more traditional operational test and evaluation process. We learned a lot along the way and compressed the timeline so we could accelerate our ability to deliver USS America, which has the exact same propulsion plant and electrical distribution system. The hope was that it would advance our ability to deliver PCU Bougainville and all of the other LHAs that are currently in line.
That propulsion system gives you more flexibility with regard to future sensors and weapons.
The hybrid propulsion system makes sense because all of our Navy ships do business the same way: they sprint to the scene of the crisis, and then loiter – usually on station patrolling a TBMD box, conducting amphib ops or whatever the case may be. The other great thing about Makin Island was that we saved a lot of fuel because we did a lot of our ops on the electrical distribution system and just hanging out on the motors.
The Navy retrofitted a DDG – USS Truxtun – with hybrid drive, with the goal of getting more ships with that capability, but that didn’t materialize.
As a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School, I like going back there and challenging students to take on hard topics. During one of my visits back to the campus, a topic I asked them to take on was, “whether or not it’s cost effective for us to retrofit the steam powered LHDs with a hybrid propulsion drive and a 4,160 volt electrical distribution system, or build a brand new ship from the keel up.” I don’t know the answer. I have my hunch that it’s probably cheaper to build a new ship from the keel up. I think one of the classes has taken that on for a thesis project and can do the cost benefit analysis to determine total life cycle cost and whether or not we have the capacity to do that.
We’re bringing LCS into the fleet, and will be deploying them this year. How do you look at using that ship for your operations?
These ships bring a lot of great capability with them and can be used for operations in the near-shore environment as well as on the open ocean. Part of the LCS mission is mine countermeasure operations (MCM) and MCM is definitely a concern at times when conducting amphibious operations. They deploy both manned and unmanned vehicles in support of surface warfare ops. I look at LCS from an expeditionary perspective. It’s a platform that could potentially integrate within an LCF and be used to move people and unmanned assets. Other phenomenal platforms are the Expeditionary Staging Bases (ESB) and Expeditionary Staging Docks (ESD) could potentially be used for the same purpose. With the LCF we’re really getting after distributing our capability to complicate the calculus for our adversaries. Spreading out ships and EABOs and ANBs raises questions about protecting and supplying those assets. We have not integrated the LCS, ESB, or ESD, but as we further develop the LCF concept, perhaps those are things we could look at.
Some of the mission package capability for LCS is being tested from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Mounts Bay in the Caribbean and in the RFA Cardigan Bay in the Arabian Gulf. As you said, you’re complicating somebody else’s problem when you’ve got multiple platforms that can take that capability with them.
That’s true. It’s an all hands effort. For example, I previously served as Deputy Director at Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South. During my time there, I realized that, even when we had exquisite intelligence, we just didn’t have enough surface assets to go after the illicit traffickers that we knew were coming from Ecuador and Colombia and heading towards Panama or Mexico. Our goal was to actually interdict illicit traffic at sea as opposed to waiting until the load of cocaine gets ashore where it gets broken up into a million parts and it walks or flies across our border. When we decommissioned the last of our Perry-class frigates, we no longer had enough surface assets for the mission. I made it a personal effort to really try to figure out, “How do we get more naval assets?” Fortunately, the Coast Guard had made a major effort to bring forces to support the region. So we were down there with a fleet of Coast Guard ships and mine sweepers from Canada, along with willing – and very courageous – Coast Guardsmen and sailors from El Salvador and other smaller nations that literally would go out a hundred miles in a 20-foot skiff to do an interdiction. There is a lot of opportunity for any of our ships down in that region to enhance SOUTHCOM’s maritime domain awareness while reducing the flow of drugs into the U.S.
When you were at Key West you also had some HA/DR contingencies, too.
It’s rare that a surface warfare officer gets to be a ground JTF commander. Hurricane Matthew was aimed at Key West initially, then turned and went straight for Haiti. Adm. Kurt Tidd, the SOUTHCOM commander, brought his Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) with nine helicopters from Honduras. We met up in Grand Cayman, and we literally got on the ground within 24 hours after the hurricane passed. We set up our headquarters at the airport in the domestic terminal and we started to move goods and positively affect people’s lives within 24 hours after we got there. We met with the U.S. ambassador and the leadership of Haiti to assure them that we were there on a temporary basis to save lives and alleviate suffering. We were able to do relief operations for about two weeks until USS Iwo Jima and Rear Adm. Roy Kitchener and his ESG 2 staff relieved me on station. It was a good feeling to actually go in and do a mission like that and make a difference right there at the point of the crisis. I think this was about my 6th HADR-type mission in my 32-year career.
I imagine that they’re all different, but if you’ve been through one, you have a much better idea of what questions to ask about the next one.
Exactly. And ironically, the following year, when Irma came through, the whole state of Florida pretty much had to evacuate. We ended up shutting down JIATF South. First, we moved up to Tampa at MacDill Air Force Base, but the storm came through there, as well, so we ended up shutting that down and moving to Orlando.
You can’t go to higher ground in Florida because there isn’t any.
SOUTHCOM ended up evacuating out of Miami as well. Then right after that, Hurricane Maria came through and really hit Puerto Rico and some of the other Caribbean islands pretty badly.
With your expeditionary perspective, how do you think about mine warfare as you approach an area for a littoral combat operation?
I think that mine warfare is the show stopper. Just the threat of mines will bring everything to a screeching halt. We’ve seen that for as long as mines have been around. I think nowadays we’re actually getting better at it. We’re not just “mowing the grass,” searching for mines going back and forth. We’ve got new and improved technology to help us find mines and make an area safe for shipping.
A typical ARG / MEU today has a big deck – an LHA or LHD – along with an LPD and an LSD. Will the next generation LSD will be based on the LPD hull?
Probably. When I was aboard Makin Island, I worked with NPS students and challenged them to find a replacement for the LSD. I helped them frame their thought a little bit and we talked through it. They came up with three different options for replacing the LSD and one option was to start with a fresh sheet of paper and design a brand new LSD model from the keel up; another was to focus on the larger LHA/LHD ships instead of the LPD and LSD; and the third was to build out and extend on the LPD hull form because those production lines were already open. We didn’t talk details at that point about whether we would scale it down or make it LPD “lite.” I’m not surprised that we actually went with the LPD Flight 2 model. The LPD, in my opinion, is one of the best-conceived, designed and constructed ships that the Navy has ever attempted. There was so much homework that went into making the spaces wider, improving the traffic flow through the interior of the ship, and making the bridge more functional. I’m a shipboard geek, and the LPD 17 bridge is one of the best-designed bridges I’ve ever seen.
I was part of a working crew that looked at the LPD 17 design. Back in 1999 we brought together the engineers who helped design the ship along with a bunch of operators who were going to be the ones to operate the ship. We looked in all the key spaces – we looked at their CIC, the bridge, the well deck design, the upper and lower vehicle decks, and all those other functional spaces on an amphibious ship. We discussed them and made recommendations on changes. The result was a natural evolution to the older Austin class. In my opinion, we did that right. And today at ESG 3 we’re also trying to inform what the next generation big deck amphibs, the LHAs, will look like. We’ve invited ourselves to a few conversations about how the deck is designed, among other things. The Marines now employ the MV-22, which is bigger than the CH-46, and the F-35, which is bigger than the AV-8.
Both of those new aircraft have a lot of heat coming out of them.
Right, so when you build the deck, heat resistance is also a factor as far as ship size goes. I’m not advocating that we should build the big deck amphibs to be the size of our CVNs, but I do think we need to take an intellectual approach to L-ship designs. We need to plan for the fact that embarked assets are getting bigger. This isn’t to say anything against the Marines, but the equipment they’re bringing aboard has grown while our ships haven’t.
But don’t they get a vote in what the next amphib should be like?
I think they do. The Marines can inform the discussion as dimensions go, but I think it takes someone from the surface Navy who has been around amphibious ships for a long time to see what the next-generation ship should look like. I think it has to come from a surface warfare officer. Our staff is also looking at how we design the command and control spaces on the LHD. I think the bridge is really compressed which makes it difficult to see and operate the ship. The visibility is not really good at all. An LPD has big windows, lots of space, and watchstanders are not tripping all over one another. So I’ve asked my staff to see if we can make the next generation LHAs more efficient. For the size of teams that we put on the bridge – especially when you do special evolutions like sea and anchor detail, or replenishments at sea, or something along those lines, the population on the bridge triples.
What else did you want to talk about that I didn’t ask you? Maybe this is a great opportunity to talk about what a great staff you have.
My staff is phenomenal. Every single idea that I come up with, big or small, we discuss it and they just literally get right after it. We take on some pretty audacious goals and we look at different concepts and ways of doing things. If we don’t lead the conversation about evolving to 5th generation ships, who will? As you can tell by some of the things I’ve talked about, we don’t dream small dreams at ESG 3.