Is Amphibious Warfare Obsolete?

When Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal watched the Marines raise the flag over Mount Surabachi he turned to General Holland Smith and said, "Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years." Recent articles describing the demise of the amphibious mission suggest Forrestal may have been off by more than four centuries. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recently addressed the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition on May 10 to lay out his vision of Naval warfare and seemed to suggest that amphibious warfare, if not obsolete, was no longer central. Loren Thompson at Lexington Institute sat up and noted that "policymakers are openly questioning the relevance of amphibious warfare to future strategy, and trying to water down the requirements of "forcible entry" -- capabilities that are at the core of the modern Marine identity."

Gates began by appealing to the departed spirits of military visionaries past and asked what would they think of the Navy and Marine corps mission today. Getting the missions right was the key, Gates argued, because in comparative terms the material dominance of the sea services was as great as ever. But was this material being used correctly?

It is important to remember that, as much as the U.S. battle fleet has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, the rest of the world’s navies have shrunk even more. So, in relative terms, the U.S. Navy is as strong as it has ever been. ... Potential adversaries are well-aware of our overwhelming conventional advantage – which is why, despite significant naval modernization programs underway in some countries, no one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the us to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought race before World War I.

What America's enemies planned to do, he argued, was to create capabilities outside of the mission parameters of the US military. "We know other nations are working on asymmetric ways to thwart the reach and striking power of the U.S. battle fleet. At the low end, Hezbollah, a non-state actor, used anti-ship missiles against the Israeli navy in 2006. And Iran is combining ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles, mines, and swarming speedboats in order to challenge our naval power in that region." They were going to go 'outside the box'. And to prevent that, Gates said, the Navy and the Marines had to look closely at two sacred cows: amphibious warfare and aircraft carriers.

Considering that, the Department must continually adjust its future plans as the strategic environment evolves. Two major examples come to mind.

First, what kind of new platform is needed to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore under fire – in other words, the capability provided by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. No doubt, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore. On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?

Second – aircraft carriers. Our current plan is to have eleven carrier strike groups through 2040 and it's in the budget. And to be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away. But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.

And that bring me to the third and final issue: the budget. I have in the past warned about our nation’s tendency to disarm in the wake of major wars. That remains a concern. But, as has always been the case, defense budget expectations over time, not to mention any country’s strategic strength, are intrinsically linked to the overall financial and fiscal health of the nation. ... mark my words, the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to reexamine and question basic assumptions in light of evolving technologies, new threats, and budget realities. We simply cannot afford to perpetuate a status quo that heaps more and more expensive technologies onto fewer and fewer platforms – thereby risking a situation where some of our greatest capital expenditures go toward weapons and ships that could potentially become wasting assets.

Loren Thompson argued that it has always been about amphibious warfare vs aircraft carriers. The services weren't going to give up their sacred cows. It was just that simply wasn't enough money to maintain the status quo among the different services and any dispute would be won by the admirals.

The cover story for these changes is that Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the joint force lessons that the Marine Corps must assimilate, but the real story is that the Navy doesn't want to spend all the money needed to field a robust expeditionary warfare capability. Among other things, the Corps wants about 38 amphibious warships, more robust surface fire support, greatly enhanced vertical agility in its air wings, and a more versatile landing vehicle. ...

In fairness to those Navy leaders, there are legitimate questions about how successful future amphibious landings can be against well-armed adversaries. The advent of precision munitions and networked warfare has made opposed landings a tougher mission than they used to be. But the larger story is that there is chronic disagreement between the Navy and the Marine Corps about budget priorities, with the Navy preferring to fund what used to be called capital ships over amphibious systems. It's handy to have the Marines around when politicians question the relevance of the Fleet to future warfare, but that doesn't mean that admirals are willing to give up a couple of aircraft carriers to keep them happy. So General Amos will have his hands full trying to defend Marine Corps priorities against a Navy Department leadership that would prefer to spend increasingly scarce budget dollars in other ways.

As if to refute the charge of obsolescence, the Marines held "a two-week operation called Dawn Blitz, the largest amphibious landing exercise that the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, and the Navy’s 3rd Fleet have staged since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks." The Marines pointed out that while Gates was questioning the amphibious mission, countries like Australia have purchased LHDs instead of aircraft carriers. Whether for disaster relief or warfare, nothing could match the cost-effective mobility of armed force at sea. Least of all that other obsolete method of going into combat, airborne assault.

In reality the littoral areas of the world have become more important to the West than ever before. From the Taiwan Straits to the Persian Gulf great littorals of the world are more vital than ever. Since successfully operating in the Brown Water will require both appropriate Marine and Naval forces. The Navy is already beginning to rethink what it will take to dominate crowded waters thronged with tankers, criss-crossed by armed speedboats and covered by anti-ship missiles. The Marines are likely to do the same. Forrestal was probably right. There will be a Marine Corps for the next few centuries -- at least in some form.

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