Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Myth of the Post-Power Projection Era

These were Frank Hoffman's kickoff comments at the Expeditionary Warrior game Mar. 5, 2012.
There is a myth in this town that power projection in the traditional sense is obsolete. Let me be precise, there is an emerging but erroneous sense among the Defense Illuminati of Washington that what we call expeditionary power projection or classical amphibious operations are passe. James Thomas of the well-respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has said we face the prospect of a “Post-Power Projection era.” He was not talking about global strike or virtual Stand Off warfare, he was talking about one of the foundations of our American primacy and influence; our forward bases, our incomparable reach and assured operational access.

Thomas is not alone nor the first to point out that several regional powers are acquiring capabilities designed to target U.S. naval and aerospace assets and their supporting bases with greater precision and lethality. This difficulty has been echoed Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, also from CSBA. He noted that the Defense Department was overly invested in “wasting assets” based on outdated operating concepts including amphibious power projection.

Such commentary, in the midst of the Pentagon’s efforts to define 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 study, conducted by the Center for a New American Security concluded that Amphibious Warfare could be eliminated as a mission since we had not conducted an opposed landing for 60 years.

Now, there is little doubt that technological proliferation is a reality and that strategists should be acutely aware of evolving trends. But the same strategists need to be alert as well to the introduction and dissemination of disruptive technologies and countering operational concepts by our side. Warfare is always evolving in character, and new technological shifts produce offsetting changes in concepts, doctrine and maneuver. After Gallipoli, the Marines put their thinking to work and helped develop the capabilities and operating concepts needed for World War II.

They did not rest on their laurels. 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. 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 now emerging Anti-Access Era.

This search for competitive advantage in the battlespace, the recognition that war is a competition in learning and adapting is what the Expeditionary Warrior wargame is all about.

Now some historical context is needed in this debate. 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. 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 away. No one called for the Post Naval or Post-Submarine Era when sonar was introduced. The dialectic we know as war is a violent exercise of continuous and interactive action/counter-action. So too will be the dynamic between power projection and anti-access or area denial capabilities.

My panel today is constructed to explore that dynamic including missile defenses, mine warfare, and electronic warfare.

We need to put our investments in power projection into some strategic context. 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 those requirements would make help balance the Pentagon’s budget. But those capabilities are being retained and modernized not because they were employed recently (and they have not thankfully) but because they are presumed to have a strategic effect on the behavior of states. This same argument can be made plausibly to amphibious and other conventional power projection capabilities. They produce a powerful deterrent to adversaries, as well as present the need to establish a wide array of defenses. This makes our amphibious power projection forces an element in a Cost Imposing Strategy that dilutes the defensive strength of aggressors and dilemmas for them.

In the simplest terms, a forcible entry capability assures access. We can hope that foreign governments will provide overflight rights or port and airfield access. We might be able to negotiate and purchase intermediate or theater basing to support major U.S. operations. But ultimately, U.S. interests should not be held hostage to hope or the whims of others.

Moreover, in addition to deterring bad behavior from states, amphibious power projection capabilities have strategic positive effects in reassuring allies and in underwriting stability and crisis response operations, including humanitarian and disaster relief. As noted in the last QDR observed, “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.”

Let me wrap up my remarks this morning. The purported End of the Power Projection Era is a myth. But the call to update our traditional approaches is spot on. We should cherish our past as Marines and Sailors but the future won't be found in the archives. It is in events like this where ideas and counter-concepts will emerge, be tested and refined to preserve our ability to support the national security interests of the United States.

The United States has not lost its need to rapidly maneuver combat forces into theater and violently strike against adversaries far from its own shores. This is why the Chairman issued the Joint Operational Access Concept. The many benefits of conducting operations from the sea, viewed as part of a Joint operation, are clear and reflect a very necessary capability in the strategic sense. We should not be conceding no-go areas to potential regional powers in areas where we have friends, allies or interests. General Mills was correct this morning, we do need “party crashers.” The day that some American President finds we cannot effectively gain access to and respond promptly at some potential flashpoint where our security interests are at risk--that will be the first day of a new era---a very chaotic Post-American World.

Mr. Hoffman is a retired Marine officer, and is now employed as the Director, NDU Press, at the National Defense University. These remarks are his own and do not reflect U.S. government, DOD, or NDU policy.


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  2. Great article! My favorite line is when he speaks regarding our nuclear armed ballistic missle submarines, and says they possess "a strategic effect on the behavior of states." It gets to the heart of the affair.

    My least favorite is at the end where he says that "the future won't be found in the archives." That is a strong statement with an obvious implication that "history can teach us little." I'd argue we often don't look enough into the archives.

    If we did look to the archives more often, we'd discover that most of what we do is hardly new in spite of our advancements in technology. Take, for example the British involvement in northern India around the turn of the 20th century. From what very little reading I've done, it appears the British Royal Artillery were dispersed, and about as static as our Marine cannon artillery in Afghanistan.

    The same war, with the same technology? No. But knowing the past would help us avoid believing that PGMs and indepedent platoons of 2 or 3 guns are the unassailable future. Knowing history allows us to distinguish between true innovation, and tried and true answers to particular and recurring types of situations.

    Looking to the 'archives' also keys us into the unchangeableness of human nature. We are no different than the Romans. They practiced power projection within their means, and for us to fail to do so would be evidence of our inability to grasp human nature.

    Otherwise, a great piece, if you don't mind the unabashedly imperial tone. Personally, I have nothing against empire, but I was definitely getting the feel that Mr. Hoffman believes the sun never sets, and never should set on the US.

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  4. From Frank Hoffman the author of the speech

    The comment is an extremely valid one.

    A little background on that quote. I fully subscribe to Churchill’s concept that the further one digs into the past, the further one can see forward. But I included that line to argue that the Marines needed to stop looking at storming Pacific atolls and a narrow window in our history and to expand our thinking to new solutions.

    I asked General Mattis in his speech later in the week to link his talk to mine by suggesting that my comments were incomplete since while its true that the answers to our future could not be found in the archives, THE RIGHT QUESTIONS most certainly to be found by a rigorous study of history.

    V/r Frank

  5. Great article; restores some backbone to the hand-wringing in the operational access debate. The idea that the enemy gets to shoot back is not exactly a revolution in military affairs. Speaking of archives, today's A2AD dialogue is a pretty compelling parallel to that which accompanied the rise of atomic weapons. What good were armies and navies when all warfare would be nuclear? Like the other examples cited, threats and nations adapted to that reality pretty well.

    'Power projection' when it means protecting US citizens or interests abroad, reinforcing allies, removing threats to global commons, a mandate for the world's largest economy, and the one perhaps most dependant on global trade. We operate inside threat A2 range rings every day...we have to.

    Interesting...if amphibious ships are vulnerable to A2AD methods, then larger ships are even more so. Fixed airfields, ports and massive assembly areas for ground forces in nearby allied nations are the most vulnerable of all. How is it that the first salvo is launched at the one multi-domain power projection methodology that offers the best strategic mobility and survivability in an A2AD environment?