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The Maritime Prepositioning Force: Floating Warehouses and Flying Marines

CNA and Maritime Prepositioning satisfy the need for speed.

In August of 1990, the Iraqi Army amassed on the border of Saudi Arabia. Many believed that Saddam Hussein — who had just barreled through Kuwait — would overrun the Saudi Kingdom before the United States could assemble an adequate deterrent force. So when President George H. W. Bush gave the order to send in the Marines, speed mattered.

Marine Corps Expeditionary Forces traveled via two methods. Some sailed the traditional way, in amphibious ships that embarked from North Carolina and Virginia. They reached the Persian Gulf more than five weeks later. But the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade of Camp Pendleton, California, arrived using a novel approach that had never been a tested in a time of war. And in just 12 days, they put more than 15,000 Marines, their tanks, helicopters and artillery, into position and ready for combat.

The “new” way of moving Marines — known as the Maritime Prepositioning Force, or MPF — had actually been in development for well over a decade. A squadron of five ships designed as floating warehouses had been waiting nearby in the Indian Ocean, one of three such supply squadrons prepositioned across the globe. The Marines themselves flew from California to Saudi Arabia to meet up with the shiploads of equipment and supplies meant to last for 30 days of combat.

Iraqi forces never did dare to cross into Saudi Arabia. But CNA analyst William Morgan of CNA’s Resources and Force Readiness Division counts the rapid deployment itself as an early victory in the war. Morgan, who spent substantial time during the 1980s and ‘90s studying how to maximize the speed and efficiency of MPF, notes: “If the situation had been different, those initial troops might have got pushed into combat very quickly.” 

Not surprisingly, a CNA analyst, Doug Skinner, flew in with the Marines to gather data on the offload. He was soon joined by three others from CNA — Katherine McGrady, Mark Geis and Morgan — who also spent as least part of Desert Shield studying the implementation of the MPF concept. They, in turn, stood on the shoulders of a generation of CNA analysts who had been there from the time that this concept was still an experimental notion. Together they helped move an idea from pie-in-the-sky to boots-on-the-ground.

The History of the Maritime Prepositioning Force

The Maritime Prepositioning Force was born in the desperate days after Iranian revolutionaries took hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown realized his options for rapid deployment were very limited and asked for a new concept. In the late 1970s, the Marine Corps asked CNA to determine the feasibility of storing vehicles, weapons, ammunition, fuel and water for long periods on ships harbored near conflict hotspots, and of bringing that materiel together rapidly with airlifted Marines.

There were plenty of skeptics. The Army had already rejected the notion, “and it wasn’t the way the Marines were used to going to war,” says Morgan. But a team led by CNA’s Arthur Maloney refined a concept that relied on dehumidified freighters equipped with barges for beach landings. After their analysis indicated that it could work, the first, interim variation was launched within a year.

Since then, CNA has produced more than 50 studies on prepositioning over nearly four decades, and the Marines have launched three more generations of prepositioning ships. In the 1980s, Morgan led teams to analyze nine exercises around the world in which MPF ships were offloaded. “We’re a data-driven organization,” he says, “and the one thing we could get was reams of data if we showed up to collect it, which we did.”

Collecting Data on Maritime Prepositioning Force Offloads

“We had data on how long it took to put every one of those vehicles off the ship and onto that barge ferry. We knew the sequence that it came off, we knew how long it took once it got to the beach to offload, whether it was containers or it was vehicles. We had people at the airfields watching the sorties, we had people at the assembly areas watching the process of assigning the stuff and getting it loaded and moved in the right positions. I mean, we had tons of operational data.”

Like the troops, CNA data collectors worked shifts of noon to midnight and midnight to noon, rain or shine. Morgan knew their feet ached after 12 hours on a steel deck, but his sympathy had limits. “They would say, ‘I am so tired.’ And I’d say, ‘Wait a minute. You’re standing here with a clipboard, writing down data. That young sailor, that female sailor has been pulling on a tagline for 10 hours. She’s tired.’”

With their data and mathematical models, analysts identified ways to speed up the offload. They observed that drivers could reposition vehicles on a barge faster than cranes could. Their models demonstrated that keeping the modular barges in configurations that were equal in size avoided delays as they rotated from ship to shore. They calculated that offloading times would not suffer if hatch crews on ships were reduced, but greater numbers of container handlers on the beach would significantly speed the process.

One logistics officer had his own idea for accelerating the offload. Rather than move vehicles from the beach to intermediate sorting areas for distribution to individual units, his just-in-time process would assign vehicles from the ship and relay messages to the unit’s drivers to directly collect their vehicles on arrival at the beach. The scheme required substantial ship-to-shore wireless connectivity. But communications repeatedly broke down, and most drivers arrived late. Vehicles waited on the beach for an average of three hours. The offload rate of three vehicles per ship per hour was less than half the rate of the best-run exercises.

“It was a colossal failure,” recalls Morgan. Fortunately, based on CNA’s varied experiences observing different brigades in exercises, the team could prove to the officer that keeping a pool of randomly assigned drivers at the beach was a faster method. And that was the method used by the same brigade when it landed in Saudi Arabia one year later. Says Morgan, “If Desert Shield had been a replication of that exercise, it wouldn’t have been pretty.”

Dr. William Morgan describes CNA analysis of the Maritime Prepositioning Force

Amphibious Landing Forces and Maritime Prepositioning

Traditional amphibious landing forces still have their place. Only they can forcibly take a hostile beach, rolling off in combat formation. A Maritime Prepositioning Force requires a safe zone for delivering the ship-borne equipment on shore—or better yet at a port—and for landing cargo jets at an airfield.

In one major study, Morgan proposed mixing the two forces so that the forcible-entry capability of an amphibious unit could be backed up with the heavy weaponry, manpower and 30-day endurance of a Maritime Prepositioning Force. “It was fairly contentious at the time, mixing multiple kinds of forces,” he recalls.” But the Marines were won over by the logic. “Today it’s a very common thing,” he adds.

“CNA is less constrained by the way the Navy and Marine Corps have done things in the past,” says Morgan, who has accumulated 48 years of analytical experience since earning his Ph.D. in economics. “We’re almost always looking at, ‘How can you change what you’re doing to improve it?’ or ‘What can I suggest to you that would make your life easier or better?’ Sometimes you can’t convince people,” Morgan says with a chuckle as he leans back in his chair. “But sometimes you can.”