These are valid questions of prime importance. The National Security Strategy is less specific on the “who” or “where” but it does mention that challenge of access in the 21st century and it does define of role of global leadership and global interests that need to be secured.
The supporting defense strategy in the Quadrennial Defense Review and the more recent strategic guidance of February 2012 are all consistent about the impact of regional powers acquiring capabilities that appear to be designed to target U.S. naval and aerospace assets and their supporting bases with greater precision and lethality. The implications of such anti-access strategies were not lost on the Pentagon, as they undercut our conventional deterrence and our ability to reassure allies and appear to limit our ability to project power. As noted in the last Quadrennial Defense Report in 2010, “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.”
The last QDR stressed the importance of overcoming the anti-access challenges. In fact, in terms of priority it was listed as the fourth major mission area with the clear objective of being able to “Deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments.” But while the priority of the mission may be clear, the programmatic solutions needed to ensure it can be accomplished have not yet taken form.
Likewise, the Joint warfighting community also addressed the importance of the problem in their assessment of the future in the last Joint Operating Environment. That forecast concluded “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.”
Most recently, this difficulty has been highlighted by Defense Policy Board member Dr. Andrew Krepinevich. In his latest Foreign Affairs article, he stresses the need for the United States to focus its limited investment options on assuring access. Much of this assessment is based on perceived impact of the growing anti-access threat in general and the diffusion of precision missile architectures in particular. A future campaign against an adversary armed with precision-guided missiles, rockets, and mortars may more closely resemble the Normandy invasion and Iwo Jima than the relatively unopposed attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. We can hope that some form of secure access is granted by a host country, but that’s only part of a solution, and in any case, “hope” should NOT form the basis for U.S. strategy. We should be generating real options, not wishing away risk.
We need to rethink the challenge 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 made it clear that the Nation faces serious future 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 QDR, we must expect that these capabilities will increasingly be used to deny us access to regions where our interests are threatened.
We might be able to purchase or negotiate intermediate basing access in overseas theaters, and they may even be robust or mature enough to support major U.S. operations. But ultimately, this holds U.S. interests hostage to the whims or internal political dynamics of third party states that may not consistently share our interests. Ultimately, without the ability to project decisive combat forces into an area where its national interests are at stake, and sustain them there, the United States will not have an independent security strategy.
Does this mandate putting forces at risk in a contested landing? This is a perfectly logical question. Given the long-term fiscal pressures facing the Nation, U.S. taxpayers should not be expected to support missions and capabilities that do not have clear and compelling relevance to projected U.S. security needs. Certainly, the Marines do not want to retain such a taxing mission merely for tradition’s sake. The logic of our choices about strategic capabilities needs to get past the surface level. We must explore the true historical record and look clear-eyed at the strategic implications of the decisions to be made. Projecting combat power across a contested shore is not cheap, in treasure or potential human cost, but neither is nuclear war. If capability investment is guided solely by the metric of low probability/high cost, we could just as easily discard Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, as neither of them has been used in anger for the past seven decades. Yet the Nation is prepared to invest more than $100 billion to recapitalize a ballistic missile submarine fleet, a force which has a far narrower range of strategic and operational utility than our amphibious forces.
Eliminating the modernization of our “boomers” would make a large dent in the Pentagon’s projected budget crunch. But those capabilities are to be retained because they are presumed to have a strategic effect on the behavior of states and contribute to deterrence. History is equally compelling in supporting this same argument with respect to our amphibious forces. In addition to deterring bad behavior from potential aggressors, amphibious power projection capabilities reassure allies and would be partners, underwrite stability, and provide key options across the entire spectrum of crisis response challenges, from major wars to humanitarian and disaster relief.
As the Under Secretary of the Navy so cogently noted in the Marine Corps Gazette in 2010:
…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.
In the simplest terms, an amphibious forcible entry capability assures access. We can hope that allies of long standing or other foreign governments will provide overflight rights or port and airfield access. Yet as we have seen in recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are inevitable political dynamics at work that can constrain or completely eliminate access to countries and facilities when they are most needed.
Some might contend that the United States need not risk its ground forces in contested zones, and that we should in the future rely on our extraordinary ISR and precision strike capability. This would narrow America’s power projection options to “Stand Off Warfare.” Some have alleged that with such powerful and precise strikes we can offset investments in littoral maneuver, and preclude the need to place our young men and women at risk in the “contested zones” of the world’s increasingly urbanized littorals. True, laboratory and field testing suggests that precision strike can shatter the adversary’s networks and fielded forces with multiple kinds of kinetic and non-kinetic weapons, but these have yet to be proven as decisive in the absence of a combined arms approach. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq 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 limited to punitive objectives and entirely short term (something we have had historically little true control over). Enduring, decisive results emerge only from a combined arms approach that creates continuous operational and strategic dilemmas for our adversaries.
Our amphibious capabilities provide the United States with a distinctly asymmetric and disruptive option all of its own. Without such capabilities, no global power can exert its influence nor can its military leadership assure their policy masters that it can effectively gain access to and act promptly at some flashpoint where security interests are at risk. If we allow ourselves to reach the point where we have to concede “no go” zones to other regional powers, that will be the day this country will have to admit that it is no longer a superpower, and is neither interested in nor capable of defending its allies and friends.
1. Gates, QDR, p. 16.