The U.S. response to the human tragedy along the Indian Ocean littorals provides the world with two important lessons. The first is the unparalleled generosity of the American people. The second is the value of sea power. Less than a week after the event, the United States Navy had moved the Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group and an expeditionary strike group of amphibious ships into the region. Some forty helicopters from these two units are providing round the clock transportation of relief supplies to the hardest hit parts of Indonesia. Twelve ships of the Maritime Preposition Force (MPF) loaded with supplies and fresh water have been dispatched to the region.
All the Services are participating in the tsunami relief effort; it is the Navy that is carrying the bulk of the load. What is remarkable is the ease with which the U.S. Navy all-but instantly transitioned from a wartime posture to the initiation of a massive humanitarian relief operation.
The U.S. Navy can simultaneously support the global war on terrorism and provide humanitarian assistance because of something called Sea Basing. Sea Basing, as the Navy defines it, is “a national capability for projecting and sustaining naval power and joint forces that assures joint access by leveraging the operational maneuver of sovereign, distributed and networked forces operating globally from the sea.” Elements of such a capability are being amply demonstrated in the current tsunami relief effort.
However, today, the Navy conducts the full range of its Sea Basing activities with a force largely designed for war, and for the Cold War at that. It does not have a robust Sea Basing capability, one that can flexibly meet the full range of potential contingencies. For example, the experimental HSV 2 catamaran was sent to the area to provide fast heavy lift to shallow waters, something the Navy currently lacks. The carrier, amphibious assault ships and MPF fleet are being pressed into service because the Navy lacks a means to provide selective support for humanitarian missions.
To be fully responsive to future security and humanitarian requirements, to have a true Sea Base, the Navy needs new capabilities such as rapid at-sea arrival and assembly of units, indefinite sea-based sustainment of forces ashore, selective offload, underway cargo transfers in relatively high sea states, and rapid long-range ship-to-shore logistics. One possible solution is the conversion of large commercial carriers. Such ships could form the core of the future MPF. Such a vessel could be specially configured for medical assistance, water production and rapid delivery of supplies ashore. New connectors between the Sea Base and the shore are needed, including a replacement for the short-range LCAC.
The future of the Navy is in Sea Basing. To achieve this future, the Navy needs to start investing now in ideas, technologies and experimentation. It also needs to explore options available from the commercial shipbuilding and maritime transport world.
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