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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 access. Some of that access can be garnered through sustained engagement with allies. But in other cases access may have to be obtained at risk in contested space. Conducting forcible entry operations from the sea, viewed as part of a Joint effort, thus remains necessary. 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. With the drawing down of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines seek to return to their naval roots and burnish their core competency. 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.