“We may in fact be entering what could be called the post-power projection era in which traditional modes of power projection may no longer be as viable as they’ve been in the recent past. It’s going to be harder for us to operate once we’re there, especially in traditional modes of operation.”
A leading American strategist, James Thomas of the well-respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), has suggested that one of the foundations of U.S. primacy, its incomparable reach and power projection capability, is crumbling. He has gone on to suggest the emergence of a “Post-Power Projection era.”[i] Mr. Thomas was not suggesting that American power projection capabilities, in their broadest meaning, were less important. Power projection can include long-range missiles, bombers, and strikes from aircraft carriers. The interpretation that I, and others, took away from his remarks was that the introduction of ground maneuver forces by amphibious means were going to be harder if not impossible. This short essay explores the potential strategic implications of such an emerging development.
Thomas is not alone nor the first to point out that several regional powers are acquiring capabilities that appear to be designed to target U.S. naval and aerospace assets and their supporting bases with greater precision and lethality. This difficulty has been echoed by earlier comments made by Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, also from CSBA. He noted that the Defense Department was overly invested in “wasting assets” based on outdated operating concepts including those for power projection and amphibious landings.[ii] Much of this assessment is based on the growing anti-access threat in general and the diffusion of precision missiles in particular.
Such commentary, in the midst of the Pentagon’s efforts to make budget priorities in an era of declining resources, has led to recommendations that would reduce if not eliminate the amphibious component of the U.S. power projection arsenal. One such comprehensive report, conducted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), suggested that one of the targeted areas for defense reductions could be amphibious warfare since the United States had not conducted an opposed landing for 60 years.[iii]
These reports all contribute to the conception that future power projection operations will be hotly contested. There is little doubt that technological proliferation is a reality and that strategists should be acutely aware of evolving trends. The same strategists need to be alert as well to the introduction and dissemination of disruptive technologies and countering operational concepts. Military history is littered with the detritus of empires slow to recognize powerful forces of change.
At the same time, however, warfare is always evolving in character, and new technological shifts often produce offsetting changes in concepts, doctrine and maneuver.
The rifled musket and smokeless powder, in the U.S. civil war or in South Africa, did not make infantry attacks impossible, just different or harder. The introduction of the machine gun and barbed wire further complicated ground combat, but did not make it obsolete despite the horrific consequences in Flanders’ fields. Radar was a fascinating new technology and arguably invaluable in winning World War II, but it did not make the airplane a wasting asset. Likewise, sonar made the stealthy depths of the sea less opaque, but did not force the submarine to go the way of the chariot or trireme. The dialectic we know as war is a violent exercise of continuous and interactive action/counter-action. So too will the dynamic between power projection and anti-access capabilities.
We need to rethink the problem of modern amphibious warfare and reassess the benefits that accrue to amphibiously agile states. History, as Liddell Hart once intoned, suggests that this strategic capability has enormous strategic utility if not outright necessity. DoD’s leadership has given clear indications that the Nation faces challenges in ensuring that U.S. security interests can be met far from its shores. The Pentagon realizes that potential adversaries can easily acquire new systems or enhance legacy systems and platforms to radically enhance their combat power.
As noted in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of 2010, these capabilities will increasingly be used to deny us access to regions where our interests are threatened. The QDR stressed the importance of overcoming the anti-access challenges as a major mission area with the clear objective of being able to “Deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments.”[iv] Thus, the priority of the mission is clear but the solutions have not yet taken form.
Defense Planning Crisis?
Faced with potentially crippling budget reductions and number of analysts have proposed strategy-driven choices to reshape America’s military for what many, without any irony, call an Age of Austerity.[v] America allegedly faces a “perfect storm” in defense planning, saddled with an extended range of threats but a narrowing defense budget.[vi] After a decade at war, there is a serious need to reset priorities and narrow the yawning gap between policy ends and security means. Numerous reports are calling for “hard choices” given the need to reduce America’s deficit spending levels, which will no doubt impact the Pentagon’s budget.
Should amphibious capabilities be reduced or increased? This is a perfectly logical question. U.S. taxpayers should not be expected to support missions and expensive capabilities that do not have relevance to projected U.S. security demands. Even the Marines do not want to retain a mission purely for nostalgic reasons or because they simply have sharper uniforms. But the logic of strategic capabilities needs to get past the surface level, so as to explore the true historical record and assess the strategic implications if truly hard choices must be made. Hard choices will have to consider hard facts.
If one simply dismisses capabilities with strategic or operational value based on their usage over the past several decades, one could just as easily discard Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, as neither of them has been launched for the past 70 years either. The United States is prepared to invest more than $100 billion to recapitalize its nuclear submarine fleet in the next decade, and another $85 billion to modernize its nuclear infrastructure. Eliminating that requirement would make a large dent in the Pentagon’s projected budget crunch. But those capabilities are being retained and modernized not because they were employed recently because they are presumed to have a strategic effect on the behavior of states and contribute to deterrence. This same argument can be made plausibly to amphibious and other conventional power projection capabilities. Moreover, in addition to deterring bad behavior from potential aggressors, amphibious power projection capabilities have strategically positive effects such as reassuring allies and underwriting stability and crisis response operations, including humanitarian and disaster relief.
Of course, one cannot gainsay the fact that the CNAS report is correct if it meant that the United States has not had to conduct a large, fiercely-opposed landing across a beach head in recent history. But the United States has conducted over 108 operations with amphibious assets employed over the last 20 years (since 1991) according to statistics maintained by the Marines. In fact, the usage of amphibious capabilities has doubled since the end of the Cold War.[vii]
Some operations, like the deception operation poised by embarked Marines offshore of Kuwait in 1991, were valuable in pinning down numerous Iraqi divisions. Other operations, like the amphibiously-based Task Force 58 led by then Brigadier General James Mattis, did launch combat forces from the sea deep inland into Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in late 2002.[viii] Those same capabilities were used to respond to tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, to hurricane Katrina in the United States, to Haiti’s humanitarian disaster, and to Japan’s more recent tragic earthquake and subsequent relief operations.[ix] Arguably the United States could have found other means to transport its civilian and military assistance to these crises. Yet while the human toll of all those disasters was high, but they would arguably have been higher without the strategic reach and mobility afforded by amphibious ready groups and the skills of the Sailors and Marines that man them.
For these reasons, the U.S. defense policy community is acutely aware of how valuable the amphibious and other expeditionary components of the U.S. Navy fleet are. They appear to recognize myriad strategy and operational advantages gained by a state’s possession of versatile amphibious forces.
A robust forcible entry capability affords any nation numerous strategic advantages. These include:
Produces credible deterrent. The capability of conducting powerful joint entry operations at a time and place of our choosing produces a credible deterrent against would be aggressors. This deterrent is more lasting than just the impact of long-range fires because it threatens regime survival or the loss of something the adversary holds dear. As U.S. naval leaders have recently noted:
…the historical evidence of strategic advantage that accrues to maritime powers with amphibious capabilities is significant across the full range of military operations. Moreover, the strategic/political costs of allowing adversaries to prevent access or to be perceived as having created ‘no go’ areas for U.S. forces are high and unacceptable.[x]
Power projection is certainly getting harder. However, in a world with many destabilizing areas and with increasingly urbanized littoral regions, we have not seen the end of the need to deter aggressors, preserve stability or respond rapidly to crises.
Negates adversary anti-access strategy. To the degree that a robust forcible entry capability can avoid defensive systems or slice through or over littoral regions, it contributes to negating an adversary’s anti-access strategy. Since anti-access strategies and capabilities appear to be on the rise, this advantage is increasing in value in today’s strategic calculus. If we ignore the need for overcoming anti-access strategies and techniques or assume away access challenges, future operations could become “the Omaha beaches of the 21st century” in the words of Dr. Andrew Krepinevich.
Generates a cost imposing strategy. At the strategic level, a forcible entry capability can be part of a cost imposing strategy. Our investment in power projection forces and littoral dominance requires an adversary to invest in a host of surveillance and defensive systems. Conversely, if we did not pose the potential for decisive forcible entry operations, future aggressors could invest more intensely in a narrower sphere perhaps focusing on theater missile or anti-air defenses exclusively and successfully. For example, if an adversary was not concerned about preserving his territorial integrity or preventing the introduction of U.S. ground forces, he could invest heavily in surface-to-air systems to counter our air superiority and impose heavy costs on U.S. air assets.
Thus, the presentation of our forcible entry capability serves to extend an adversary’s investment portfolio, and dilutes his overall effectiveness relative to U.S. full spectrum capabilities.
Assures access. In the simplest terms, a forcible entry capability assures access. We can hope that foreign governments will provide over-flight rights or port and airfield access. We might be able to negotiate and purchase intermediate or theater basing, and they may even be robust or mature enough to support major U.S. operations. But ultimately, U.S. interests should not be held hostage to hope or the whims of third party states that may not share our interests. At the end of the day, the United States should possess the capability to project decisive combat forces into an area where its national interests are at stake. As we have seen in recent operations in Afghanistan and against Iraq, there are political dynamics at work that will constrain or completely eliminate access to countries and facilities when the United States is conducting military interventions.
Likewise, the former U.S. Joint Force Command produced a highly-regarded description of the future titled the Joint Operating Environment. That forecast concluded that, “the United States may not have uncontested access to bases in the immediate area from which it can project military power…. The battle for access may prove not only the most important, but the most difficult.”[xi]
Poses investment dynamics and dilemmas. Forcible entry operations also generate a range of dynamics for our adversaries due to their combination of operational maneuver and fire. These combinations pose a series of dilemmas for the opposing commander and his forces. They can respond to our deep maneuver by concentrating and moving against us, which exposes them to our fire. If they remain fixed in place, they can be isolated and eliminated in detail. In any event, whatever the enemy does, he faces a continuing series of dilemmas for which he has limited or no respective countering options. This dilemma matches that described by Liddell Hart and American strategist John Boyd for diminished system effectiveness and collapse.
Sustains influence and reassures partners. Finally, as noted in the last QDR, “in the absence of dominant U.S. power projection capabilities, the integrity of U.S. alliances and security partnerships could be called into question, reducing U.S. security and influence and increasing the possibility of conflict.”[xii]
These strategic benefits have accrued to the West in the past century and could make similar contributions in the current tense if retained and modernized for future contingencies.
Some might contend that the United States need not risk its ground forces in contested zones, and that we should rely on extraordinary Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike capability. This would reduce America’s power projection options to “Stand Off Warfare.” Such powerful strikes, it is alleged offset the need to make the investment in littoral maneuver, and preclude the need to place Marines or soldiers at risk in the “contested zones” of the world’s increasingly urbanized littorals.
Admittedly, precision strike can indeed destroy the adversary’s networks and fielded forces with multiple kinds of kinetic and non-kinetic strike assets. However, these have yet to be proven as decisive in the absence of a combined arms approach. Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya all bear witness to the tremendous impact of air-delivered attacks, but they also demonstrate the need for complementary capabilities. Power projection cannot be just precision strike unless the mission is entirely punitive. We must create dilemmas strategically and operationally to achieve decisive results.
A need for innovative thinking
Classical amphibious assaults, with long planning cycles, extended force buildups and transoceanic deployments with massive 16” guns providing fire support to create beachheads full of troops and logistics are “old think.” The Marine Corps has recognized that for quite some time. Doctrinally, they have never sought to limit the employment of amphibious forces to scenarios that involve only assaults directly against the strongest part of prepared defenses. For the past generation Marine planners have sought to apply the tenets of maneuver warfare by seeking gaps in the enemy’s total system, by creating and exploiting vulnerabilities.
Furthermore, efforts at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command for the past decade have focused on achieving the capability to avoid enemy strengths, striking directly against critical vulnerabilities and enemy centers of gravity. Operating concepts like Ship-to-Objective Maneuver, and capabilities embodied in systems like the MV-22 Osprey were identified nearly two decades ago in anticipation of the emerging “anti-access era”. These capabilities allow potent expeditionary forces to strike directly at operational objectives deep inland instead of merely conducting costly, manpower intensive, attrition-based operations.
While U.S. amphibious expertise has been diverted to conducting protracted campaigns in the Middle East, far from shore, there has been recognition for some time for a need to stimulate an intellectual renaissance in amphibious warfare. With the drawing down of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines seek to return to their naval roots and refurnish their core competencies. Naval journals reflect a significant increase in looking forward to preserve the capacity to conduct amphibious operations.[xiii]
Some Marines have been exploring innovative concepts, including the use of robotics in both waterborne and aviation maneuver resources.[xiv] It is this kind of innovative thinking that helped the Marines and the United States debunk conventional wisdom after the British amphibious debacle on the beaches of Gallipoli in World War One. The same innovative spirit is alive and well in today’s Marine Corps, despite its recent focus on counterinsurgency campaigns far from the littorals. Since as Mr. Thomas accurately noted, the problem is even greater now than when the Marines were developing their future tactics, they will have to continue to extend their ideas and experimentation even further.
Moreover, the Marines and Army will have to operate within and be supported by a Joint operational framework. Much intellectual work is now going into this challenge. The Navy and Air Force effort to generate greater synergies for combating anti-access threats via the widely-touted Air-Sea Battle concept is part of that framework.[xv] The larger framework has been shaped by the recent promulgation of the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), signed by General Dempsey.[xvi] The JOAC reinforces many points made in this brief essay. Both concepts show promise but they are still paper documents, and require serious implementation and continuous investment to achieve the substantial results needed.
Thus, this assessment concludes that amphibious capabilities are well worth the investment required even in this so-called age of austerity. No doubt that this is why China, Russia and Australia are expanding their amphibious fleets. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has come to the same conclusion in a recent report.[xvii] Calls to reduce amphibious capabilities are conceding “no go” areas to aggressors, and failing to grasp the strategic effect on future crises.
The United States has not lost its need to rapidly insert combat forces inland and violently strike against adversaries far from its own shores. In fact, critical American interests argue for greater access challenges, not less, given large reductions in overseas bases and increased political considerations that may restrict access. Some of that access can be garnered with sustained engagement with allies. But sometimes access may have to be obtained at risk in contested space.
The many benefits of conducting operations from the sea, viewed as part of a Joint operation, thus remains both a viable and very necessary capability at the strategic and operational levels of war. This capability provides the United States with a distinctly asymmetric capability and disruptive option of its own.
Without these capabilities, a global power cannot extend and exert its influence, and nor can its military leadership assure its policy masters that it can effectively gain access to and respond promptly at some potential flashpoint where its security interests are at risk. The day that an American President finds himself out of these options, it will herald the dawn of a chaotic “Post-American” world.[xviii]
[i] See Thomas’ comments at the 4th Annual CNAS Conference, “Shaping the Agenda: American National Security in the 21st Century,” Washington, DC, June 10, 2010, p. 7. Accessed at http://www.cnas.org/files/multimedia/documents/Future%20of%20the%20Force%20transcript.pdf.
[ii] Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets; The Eroding Foundation of American Power,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009.
[iii] David W. Barno, Nora Bensahel and Travis Sharp, Hard Choices Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity, Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, October 2011.
[iv] Robert M. Gates, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010, p. 16.
[v] The irony is that U.S. defense spending almost equals the rest of the world combined according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.
[vi] Paul K. Davis and Peter A. Wilson, “The Looming Crisis in Defense Planning,” Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 63, October 2011, pp. 13–20.
[vii] Lieutenant General George J. Flynn, USMC “Versatility in the Age of Uncertainty,” Naval Institute Proceedings, November, 2010, pp. 22–27. LtCol John T. Quinn, USMC (ret.)“The Tried, The True. Assault from the Sea,” Naval Institute Proceedings, November, 2010, pp. 28–32.
[viii] Colonel Vince Goulding, USMC (ret.) “Task Force 58,” Marine Corps Gazette, August 2011, pp. 38–41.
[ix] For more background on some of these operations see LtCol John C. Berry, Jr., “U.S. Marine Corps in Review,” Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2010, pp. 82–84.
[x] Robert O. Work, “Post-Afghanistan Marine Corps,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 2010, pp. 106–121.
[xi] General James N. Mattis, USMC, Joint Operational Environment 2010, Suffolk, VA: U.S. Joint Forces Command, February 2010.
[xii] Robert M. Gates, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2010.
[xiii] Colonel Douglas King, USMC (ret.) and LtCol John Berry, USMC (ret.) “National Policy and Reaching the Beach,” Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2011; LtCol John T. Quinn, USMC (ret.), “The Tried, The True. Assault from the Sea,” Naval Institute Proceedings, November, 2010, pp. 28–32.
[xiv] LtCol John Noel Williams, USMC (ret.) “The Next Wave, Assault Operations for a New Era” Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2011, pp. 32–36.
[xv] The official concept has not been released, although a joint office has been established. Critics are already commenting, see John N. Williams, “Air-Sea Battle, An Operational Concept in Search of a Strategy,” Armed Forces Journal International, September 2011. Accessed at http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2011/09/7558138.
[xvi] Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Operational Access Concept, Version 1.0, Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 17 January 2012. Accessed at http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/JOAC_Jan%202012_Signed.pdf.
[xvii] See Nathan Freier, US Ground Force Capabilities through 2020, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2011, p. 16.
[xviii] Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, New York: Norton, 2009.