ESG amphibious capability boosts US, allied Euro-Atlantic presence

The US Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (foreground) works with French and Italian ships during an exercise in the Mediterranean Sea in June 2020. The United States and European NATO member states are looking to increase integration levels in amphibious training and operational capability.

Published in the October/November 2020 issue – Rear Admiral Robert Katz, Commander explains how expeditionary strike groups are central to how the United States and its allies are building amphibious capability.

Expeditionary Strike Group 2 “dynamically or deliberately employs combat-ready amphibious forces able to fight and win across the spectrum of conflict and competition, in support of national, theatre, joint, and maritime commander requirements,” stated Rear Admiral Robert Katz, Commander ESG 2, in a discussion with Armada International.

A primary role for COM ESG 2 and its staff, Rear Adm Katz explained, “is to provide enduring amphibious warfare expertise and advocacy” across the operational spectrum from high-end tasks down to supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. “This is a shift from the past as, traditionally, ESG 2 has focused on the force generation aspect of the commands within our ‘claimancy’,” the Admiral continued.

Rear Admiral Robert Katz (Commander Expeditionary Strike Group 2 [COM ESG 2]) opens an Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit Staff Planning Course (AMSPC) hosted by Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic.

Great Power Rivalry Arises

The maritime dimension of the returning great power competition in the Euro-Atlantic theatre has seen NATO collectively and alliance member states individually respond by developing a range of different capabilities across platforms, sensors, and weapons.

What NATO has done, though, is generally bring these various capabilities together into task groups. Perhaps one defining feature of NATO’s at-sea response to increasing Russian maritime activity across the theatre is the increasing presence of such task groups.

A dominant risk for NATO is Russia’s apparent development of a strategy and incumbent capabilities to establish anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubbles’ across the Euro-Atlantic theatre. Such ‘bubbles’ appear designed to deny NATO, and especially US forces, access to certain waters and regions.

One key response capability NATO possesses in large scale and at the high end of the operational spectrum is the concept of ‘amphibiosity’. Amphibious warfare capabilities provide capacity to project deterrence, wider influence, and kinetic effect across the seam between the maritime and land domains. Several NATO member states – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Spain – provide the core of the alliance’s amphibious capability. Several others including Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Turkey contribute regularly and significantly.

Many of these countries combine their amphibious capabilities for exercises and operations, and largely in task groups. In such NATO amphibious task groups (ATGs) operating in the Euro-Atlantic theatre, US forces often provide the ‘framework’ within which to combine such capabilities. The US contribution would be two-fold: the US Navy (USN) could provide the power projection platforms in the form of amphibious shipping; while the US Marine Corps (USMC) could provide the power projection and combat capability in the form of marine expeditionary ground forces.

The primary US operational constructs that integrate such amphibious platforms and ground forces are its Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs). The US currently operates three numbered ESGs – 2, 3, and 7 – based at: Virginia Beach, Va (ESG 2); San Diego, Ca (ESG 3); and White Beach, Okinawa and Sasebo, Japan (ESG 7).

The East coast-based ESG 2 located at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Virginia Beach, makes a significant contribution to US Euro-Atlantic theatre presence. This presence is further reinforced by the recent co-location of several other US and NATO commands in Norfolk, including US Second Fleet and NATO’s Joint Forces Command Norfolk (JFC Norfolk). The processes of operationalising and integrating such commands are essential to generating increased effect in theatre. 

ESG 2’s 28 subordinate commands within this ‘claimancy’ encompass: the East Coast-based amphibious shipping (including four dock landing helicopter [LHD] amphibious assault ships, four amphibious transport dock ships [LPDs], and six dock landing ships [LSDs]); the three O-6-level staff squadron commands these forces report to; tactical air and assault craft units; and broad mix of supporting assets. One of the most notable recent additions to ESG 2’s inventory has been two expeditionary sea base (ESB) ships, ESB 3 and ESB 4.

One of the latter, USS Hershel Williams, sailed in July 2020 for its inaugural deployment. Highlighting a growing trend within the USN for forward deploying assets to reduce transit time, the ship is intended to provide long-term presence at sea for US Africa Command (AFRICOM). Rear Adm Katz noted that the hybrid (civil-military) crewed ESB platforms will spend significant time forward deployed, for example to the US Fifth and Sixth Fleet areas of responsibility (AORs) in the Gulf and Mediterranean regions, respectively. Their forward deployment will be supported by a dual-crewing model for their military component, with the two military crews rotating in theatre.

Such forward-deployment constructs reflect the USN’s wider focus on more effective force employment. “We have recently begun the task of operationalising our staff to shift away from force generation and instead focus on force employment,” Rear Adm Katz explained. Building on this shift, which has been taking place over the last few years, today the ESG commands and their partners “are working closely … to develop an education and training cycle that will enable us to operate as a globally deployable, integrated command element available to execute Fleet Commander requirements”, he added.

USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB4) pulls into Naval Station Rota, Spain during a routine logistics stop, 9 Sept, 2020. This ship is on its inaugural deployment in the US Naval Forces Europe-Africa area of responsibility.

Amphibious Roots and Branches

ESG 2 was preceded by Amphibious Group (PHIBGRU) 2, which was established as a command intended to administer the ‘man, train, equip’ functions but also to provide amphibious warfare command and control (C2). In the latter context, PHIBGRU 2 deployed for Gulf War operations in 1991 and 2003.

“The shift to an ESG in 2006 was a nod to an operationalisation that needed to occur,” said Rear Adm Katz. “It’s important that, as a navy, we keep adapting to meet the current challenges of the security environment.”

During his time in post, Rear Adm Katz will oversee continuing adaptation of ESG 2. “We are working towards a model of operationalisation that will take place in two phases. Similar to what US Second Fleet recently completed, ESG 2 will first achieve initial operational capacity (IOC) and then eventually full operational capacity (FOC).”

“Moving from IOC to FOC will require additional manpower support, and we are working through this now,” the admiral explained. “We have identified and prioritized billets, and we are developing a training cycle and continuum that will certify our staff as FOC in the next year or so.” Beyond this, he continued, the ESG will then enter a cycle of periodic recertification.

“A big challenge we face will be the mindset shift from force generation to force employment, as well as ensuring we are not leaving our commands without the subject matter expertise and advocacy needed for us to employ these units operationally.” “We cannot divest ourselves of the advocacy piece without first ensuring it is adopted elsewhere,” the admiral explained. “So, this creates a bit of friction as we find ourselves moving in a new direction while still retaining and eventually turning over the force generation reins [to the subordinate commands].”

Within the overall transformation of USN – and, more widely, NATO – strategic- and operational-level command structures, operationalising ESG 2 will give US Second Fleet and the Naples, Italy-based US Sixth Fleet additional flexibility, Rear Adm Katz explained. “I look at the co-ordination between [these] two fleets since Second Fleet was re-established, and how they’ve created – as Admiral James Foggo [then Commander US Naval Forces Europe-Africa and Commander JFC Naples] said, a few months ago – a seamless Atlantic Ocean.” “Given the location of ESG 2, we can and should expect to report to both Fleet Commanders, and that means co-ordinating with each of those staffs …. I can imagine that, in the future, we’ll participate in exercises led by US Second Fleet and by JFC Norfolk.”

More broadly in strategic and operational terms, Rear Adm Katz noted that the very nature of amphibious warfare also is evolving. “The role of the amphibious force is changing with the nature and speed of warfare,” he said. Although large-scale, aggregated amphibious landings may be less likely, the “core mission of putting marines and their capability ashore in support of the Fleet Commander is still very relevant.” What may change, the admiral continued, is that “the forces we employ in support of that mission will likely grow smaller, faster, and lighter.” In this context, he said, “We are currently exploring the applicability of emerging concepts, such as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO).”

The move towards using lighter, faster, and more distributed force packages underlines the need to improve C2 integration. Across NATO currently, C2 integration of amphibious units at task group and task force levels is an increasingly important area of command and operational focus. This is reflected in developments at ESG 2. In September 2020, ESG 2 began a new staff training round, designed to enable the staff to “learn how to conduct deliberate planning and develop the administrative products needed to [conduct C2 of] multiple task groups or a large Amphibious Task Force (ATF) in support of operational requirements beyond traditional amphibious operations,” said Rear Adm Katz. Defining the function and role requirements in such training is something ESG 2 is working on in partnership with its sister ESGs in San Diego and Japan.

International Partnering

US amphibious forces also partner and integrate with other countries around the world – both those with and without amphibious forces.

ESG 2’s Bataan amphibious ready group (ARG) recently returned from an extended deployment across the US Second, Fifth, and Sixth Fleet AORs. The ARG included: the Wasp-class LHD USS Bataan, the San Antonio-class LPD USS New York, and the Harpers Ferry-class LSD USS Oak Hill; the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and Amphibious Squadron 8; and embarked elements from Tactical Air Squadron 22 and Naval Beach Group 2 and its subordinate commands.

During the seven-month deployment, ARG force elements worked with Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates forces in the Gulf; Albanian, French, and Italian forces in the Mediterranean Sea; and Bulgarian, Georgian, Romanian, and Turkish forces in the Black Sea. Oak Hill conducted the deployment to the Black Sea, where it worked alongside the USN’s DDG 51 Flight II Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Porter – one of four DDGs homeported in Rota, Spain under the USN’s Forward Deployed Naval Forces – Europe (FDNF-E) programme.

“We always learn something new when we work with our allies and partners,” said Rear Adm Katz. The current global Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the type of integration with allies that can take place during such deployments. However, the admiral explained, “ships can still come together to conduct manoeuvring exercises at sea to practice some of the bread-and-butter skills of the surface community. It shows that even during this time of uncertainty, we’re committed to our allies and partners, and that we will continue to work with them – even though the ‘how’ might look a little different right now.”

Oak Hill’s deployment to the Black Sea demonstrated the flexibility amphibious ships bring to operations across the Euro-Atlantic theatre. Oak Hill also has worked with Romanian forces previously, but outside of the Black Sea: during the ‘BALTOPS 2018’ exercise in the Baltic Sea, the LSD embarked Romanian Naval Infantry Battalion forces.

Across the Euro-Atlantic theatre, Rear Adm Katz explained, amphibious forces play a key role because they are flexible, manoeuvrable, and scalable, and allow commanders to launch forces ashore from the sea at the time and place of choice. What he referred to as ‘the Blue-Green team’ “can be dispatched to fill a multitude of roles, not to mention the fact that these forces do not require basing or overflight support”.

Blue-Green integration

Of course, effective integration of the USN and USMC amphibious force components is critical to that force delivering effect.

“We have several Marines who are a part of the ESG 2 staff,” said Rear Adm Katz. “This naval integration of our own provides us with the insight to better understand the ‘ins-and-outs’ of how the ‘Green’ side of the ARG-MEU team works.”

Rear Adm Katz said the USMC and the USN are looking to integrate more closely still, with the ESGs playing a central role. In February 2020, for example, USN and USMC forces worked together at the ‘Maritime Pre-positioning Force Exercise’ (‘MPF EX’) in Florida. The exercise, he explained, provided “a unique States-side opportunity to practice the offload of an MPF ship that would ordinarily supply Marine forces ashore.” Marine Expeditionary Brigade personnel may also be integrated into ESG 2’s current staff training period, to provide realism and insight into how the USN and USMC force elements would conduct deliberate planning together, Rear Adm Katz added.

Such ‘Blue-Green team’ integration is also evident across both individual NATO member states and the alliance collectively. One emerging collective capability concept is the NATO Amphibious Leader Expeditionary Symposium (NALES), designed to improve amphibious C2 integration between ATGs and ATFs and between US and allied amphibious forces. The NALES C2 construct, which was first demonstrated on ‘BALTOPS 2019’, “is incredibly important because it’s a deliberate and co-ordinated effort with our allies to increase [amphibious] training and proficiency within the NATO realm,” said Rear Adm Katz. Integration concepts like NALES not only present opportunities for collective training but also for participating partners to learn from each other in how best to deliver such integration.

From the USN’s perspective regarding improved integration with allies, Rear Adm Katz noted that the navy will “continue to seek every opportunity to work with our allies and partners”. “There will always be more exercises that we’d like to participate in than we have the capacity to do so, but it’s important that we continue to show up when we can.” “In terms of technical and tactical integration, that will continue to improve as we move through the ‘reps and sets’” done in such exercises, he added.

by Dr. Lee Willett

Note: Dr. Lee Willett is an independent writer on naval and maritime matters