Archive for June 26th, 2012

By Frank G. Hoffman

The Global Trends effort has captured key trends about the proliferation of precision weapons and WMD.   Several regional powers are acquiring capabilities that appear to be designed to target US naval and aerospace assets and their supporting bases with greater precision and lethality.  The potential impact was noted in the last Quadrennial Defense Report in 2010: “In the absence of dominant US power projection capabilities, the integrity of US alliances and security partnerships could be called into question, reducing US security and influence and increasing the possibility of conflict.”

The assessment of the threat to US power projection is in large measure based on the perceived impact of the growing anti-access challenge in general and the diffusion of precision missile architectures in particular. There is little doubt that the proliferation of relevant technologies is a reality and could accelerate.В  Strategists and policy makers need to be alert as well to the development of new operational concepts by potential adversaries. The US Marine Corps has a well-earned reputation for never being complacent about its obligations in the face of emerging threats.

The current leadership of the Corps recognizes the need to rethink the problem of modern amphibious warfare and reassess the benefits that accrue to amphibiously agile states.В  History, as Liddell Hart once intoned, suggests that this strategic capability has enormous strategic utility if not outright necessity. That said, even the Marines do not want to retain a mission only for nostalgic reasons or simply because they have sharper uniforms. It is necessary to explore the historical record and go beyond the surface to assess strategic implications if hard choices must be made.

One cannot deny the fact that the United States has not had to conduct a large, fiercely opposed landing across a beach head since 1950.В  But the United States has conducted over 108 operations with amphibious assets since 1991, according to statistics maintained by the Marines, from combat situations in Kuwait and Afghanistan to relief missions in the Indian Ocean, Haiti, Japan, and the United States itself after Hurricane Katrina.В  In fact the usage of amphibious capabilities has doubled since the end of the Cold War.

Looking forward, the United States has not lost its need to rapidly insert combat forces inland and violently strike against adversaries far from its own shores.В  In fact, critical Department of Defense and Joint planning documents argue for greater access challenges, not less, given large reductions in overseas bases and political considerations that may restrict casino access.В  Some of that access can be garnered through sustained engagement with allies.В  But in other cases access may have to be obtained at risk in contested space.В  Conducting forcible entry operations from the sea, viewed as part of a Joint effort, thus remains necessary.В  Such operations provide the United States with a distinctly asymmetric capability.

Recognizing the importance of this asymmetric option and the challenges introduced by the diffusion of precision strike, Marine planners responsible for thinking with vision have for some time been pursuing an intellectual renaissance in amphibious warfare.В  With the drawing down of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines seek to return to their naval roots and burnish their core competency.В  Naval journals reflect a significant increase in analytical efforts to preserve the capacity to conduct amphibious operations.

Of course, the proliferation of precision means will impact ground forces at the operational and tactical level. Some Marines have been exploring concepts involving the use of robotics in both waterborne and aviation maneuver.  The Marines will need to reassess their ground mobility procurements to ensure that their troops have the force protection and active protective measures that they need. Future threats will present lethal and precise missiles, mines and munitions, which will mandate new defensive systems that Marines do not currently possess.  Nonetheless, recent exercises and war games like Expeditionary Warrior 2012 suggest that innovation remains alive and well in the nation’s smallest but most expeditionary service.

Frank G. Hoffman is a retired Marine officer and Washington, DC-based national security analyst.

By Owen R. Coté, Jr.

Modern military technology can make fixed, non-hardened land targets essentially indefensible from conventional attack. US forces have already exploited this revolution by embracing standoff weapons with guidance that integrates signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and miniaturized inertial navigation systems (INS). China is emulating this development with the mobile missiles of its Second Artillery Force deployed along the littoral of its Inner Seas. More recently, spurred on by the demands of the War on Terror, US forces have also greatly increased their ability to detect, identify, and locate a variety of land-mobile targets by creating networks of persistent sensors that can cue attacks by precision weapons. Today, these networks depend on non-stealthy, air breathing sensor platforms and relatively insecure communication links, and debate has already begun regarding how, if at all, to replicate these capabilities in a peer competition with an opponent that possesses modern air defenses and electronic warfare capabilities. At the same time, China, like the Soviet Union before it, is taking the first serious steps toward a mobile target capability of its own, albeit one that is focused on anti-ship attacks to deny access by US naval forces to the Western Pacific.

Beginning from a very low base in the mid-1990s, China’s rapid military modernization has consistently been informed by the realization that fixed targets have become terminally vulnerable. By contrast, much US force structure, and particularly land-based tactical aviation, is a legacy of an era when alliances and geography enabled the construction of many hardened and dispersed bases near the opponent, and in which precision, conventional attack by weapons like Tomahawk were not a threat. Neither condition applies in the Western Pacific today or will apply in the future.

Two significant but different doctrinal challenges result, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy. The Air Force is in the midst of a phase where it’s internal organizational hierarchy, and therefore resource allocation, is out of synch with the demands of the future military competition. Fighter pilots, and particularly those who specialize in air-to-air combat, still dominate the Air Force, while longer range bombers and surveillance platforms, whose pilots and operators have much lower status in the organization, are under-funded relative to demand. As Thomas Ehrhard has shown, these hierarchies within the Air Force tend to be more pronounced and self-sustaining than in the other services. Thus, the bomber community retained control of the Air Force long after the switch from Massive Retaliation to Flexible Response made the fighters of Tactical Air Command its most important contribution, and the reverse is happening now when long range strike and persistence surveillance are central to answering the A2/AD challenge.

The Navy’s challenge is different. The Navy needs to make the transition back to a force equipped and trained first and foremost to gain command of the sea from a force that has been able to take command for granted for almost 25 years. Contrary to much current debate, this does not threaten the continued viability and relevance of aircraft carriers, surface ships, or submarines. Rather, it requires that those platforms adopt new sensors and weapons, and more intensely combine their arms in order to achieve traditional ends under modern conditions. One example of the type of doctrinal innovation envisaged would be for the submarine community to embrace the destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) mission.  This would require two sets of developments.  First, submarines would need to possess and deploy organic networks of electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensors to identify and precisely locate the mobile radars necessary to the functioning of modern air defenses. Second, they would need to deploy tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) that can quickly strike those radars after the briefest emissions and before they relocate (for more on this particular concept, see Together with cruise missile strikes against discrete ocean surveillance systems such as over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, submarines could create the conditions needed for carriers and their air wings to operate safely within the outer rings of an advanced A2/AD network.

In general, the emerging Air Sea battle concept will likely involve intensifying combined arms operations across different domains.  (This will certainly be an aspect of future anti-submarine warfare operations – see New cross-domain combined arms operations will require innovation in both technology and doctrine, and it is the obstacles to doctrinal innovation that likely will pose the largest challenge.

Owen R. Coté, Jr. is Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at MIT.