Saturday, December 17, 2011

Amphibiosity: My View

After my last post highlighting some of the debates and trends in amphibious warfare thought, I’d now like to share some of my own thoughts.

Droning On

The biggest recent trend in warfare as a whole is the use of drones. Drones saw widespread use in Iraq and are currently being used to great effect in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The Navy and the Marine Corps have already taken great steps to utilize drones in operations in both the air and under the sea. The development and use of unmanned systems will affect amphibious operations and how they are conducted. However, I do not believe that they will fundamentally change how we conduct amphibious operations as a whole.
The reason I believe this is that the use of drones will also not affect the fundamental methods of warfare as whole. Aerial drones cannot perform any function that manned airframes could not perform twenty years ago. They are currently being used for close air support, deep air support, precision strikes, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions. In the future, they may even be able to gain and maintain air superiority. While it is true that, in most cases, aerial drones can perform these functions better than manned airframes, these are not new functions. Manned airframes could perform all of these functions as early as World War I. I suspect that undersea drones will perform the same functions that submarines can already perform, albeit cheaper, longer, and with less risk. Nevertheless, the capabilities of unmanned verses manned systems are an incremental increase in capability rather than an entirely new capability. The development of flight suddenly made impossible things possible and added a third dimension to the battlefield. Drones simply are an improvement of things already possible. The proponents of strategic bombing leading up to and during World War II, when airpower came into its own, predicted that ground warfare was completely unnecessary and a thing of the past. They were clearly wrong on this issue and drones will also need to be an integrated part of a comprehensive strategy rather than a strategy unto themselves, just like their manned predecessors. For more on this, see Weapons Don’t Make War by Adam Elkus.

Amphibious Assault versus Amphibious Operations

Ever since former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke about the role of the Marine Corps and the cancellation of the EFV, there has been debate about the raison d’etre of the Marine Corps going forward. In my opinion, this debate misses the point. Amphibious assault is not, and has never been, the Marine Corps’ sole purpose. Amphibious assault is just one of the five types of amphibious operations listed in Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations. While the Marine Corps has conducted amphibious assaults as far back as the Revolutionary War, we have conducted other forms of amphibious operations just as long. Colonial era Marines also operated as ship’s guards and conducted boarding operations, a task we still perform today. When asked about this issue at the 2011 Boyd and Beyond Conference, former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Al Grey said that, “We moved beyond assaulting defended beaches in the Eighties.” The fact of the matter is that only on rare occasions will it be absolutely necessary to conduct an amphibious assault against a defended position. The US Navy’s dominance on the seas ensures that we will usually have more options than assaulting the defense head-on. Amphibious assaults were prevalent during World War II in the Pacific Theater due to the unique geographic realities of Pacific islands. It is much easier to defend every viable landing point on a tiny island than it is on a continental coastline. Even if were to fight another war across the entire Pacific Ocean, it would be much easier today to bypass islands entirely or simply reduce them through the application of firepower. Therefore, Pacific Islands would not be as vital to power projection today as they were during World War II. The Marine Corps’ concept Operational Maneuver from the Sea does not depend entirely on amphibious assault but rather seeks to render untenable any coastal defense. This concept, married up with the emerging AirSea Battle concept to overcome Anti-Access, Area Denial defenses, is far more likely a scenario than Tarawa or Iwo Jima.

In short, I don’t think that the Marine Corps is that bad off without the EFV or that its cancellation is a threat to its existence. The importance of the EFV was conflated and became so fused with the Marine Corps’ identity as a service that it seems so. However, the events of the last few years should belie that conclusion. Not a single amphibious assault was conducted, but amphibious operations have occurred in every clime and place from Haiti to Libya, Somalia, and Japan. As I pointed out in my last post, the need for amphibious forces on the part of Combatant Commanders far exceeded the availability of those forces. Whether or not future budgets reflect that fact, it is a trend that will not decrease anytime soon.

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