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The US Navy and Marine Corps are building a new fleet of “Sea Basing” ships capable of transporting Marines, launching Special Operations attacks, controlling drones, supporting air operations and performing wide-spanning command and control functions across dispersed areas of maritime operations.
The service has now laid the keel for the future USS John Canley, the Navy’s fourth Expeditionary Sea Base ship, built by General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (GD-NASSCO).
Sea Basing continues to take on greater significance for the Navy due to a number of interesting, interwoven variables. Of course the maritime combat focus itself continues to take on new urgency in the Pacific given the vast geographical expanse and ongoing Chinese provocations and Naval modernization efforts.
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Longer range sensors, targeting technologies and precision weaponry continue to enable and inform the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy, a specific effort to expand the envelope of Naval operations to incorporate stronger networking, multi-domain connectivity and disaggregated operations across otherwise disconnected combat areas.
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Yet another critical element to Sea Basing pertains to the reality that in places like the Pacific, there simply are not of options when it comes to land basing or land-launching helicopters, expeditionary forces such as Marines and launching targeted Special Operations attack or rescue operations in a maritime environment.
Land launched operations in the Pacific could simply be too far away for critical, sensitive naval warfare operations. This is likely of great relevance to the Navy’s move to modernize and adapt its amphibious warfare capabilities to expand its reach, strengthen command and control and deliver effective combat power like Marine Corps Expeditionary Units in close proximity to island chains, coastal areas or other maritime targets.
Sea Basing, and ESBs in particular, could greatly support amphibious operations by adding critical command and control dimensions to off-shore operations.
The ESB’s support MH-53H helicopters, supply and logistics support capability and have an ability to launch Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats critical to Special Operations missions, according to a report from Naval Sea Systems Command.
Perhaps of greatest significance, this added command and control functionally could help support the Navy’s growing fleet of unmanned systems, a fast-evolving dynamic already reshaping concepts of operation for maritime warfare. Expeditionary Sea Bases and big-deck amphibious assault ships could, for instance, function as “mother ship” command and control nodes operating entire fleets of interconnected air and surface drones.
These unmanned systems could venture into high risk areas to conduct surveillance, operate as targeting nodes, hunt for mines or even conduct attacks when controlled by human decision-makers.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.