The November issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine contains an important article about the future of amphibious warfare by Navy under secretary Robert O. Work and longtime military analyst Frank Hoffman. The vision of future warfare it provides is deeply flawed because it reduces a diverse array of amphibious operations to a single generic scenario, but given co-author Work’s current position, it probably reflects the official thinking that drives plans to scale back the forcible entry capabilities of the Marine Corps. The thesis of the article is captured in this excerpt:
The Navy-Marine Corps team thus needs to think in terms of a joint approach that seeks to gain entry then develop and secure a lodgment of sufficient breadth and depth as part of a joint campaign. Indeed, any theater-entry effort will necessarily be a major joint endeavor, relying on Air Force space and air support, Army airborne, and joint special-operations forces…
The Navy-Marine Corps team will never contemplate littoral maneuver until an enemy’s battle network, capable of firing dense salvos of guided weapons, is suppressed. Consequently, the initial phase of any joint theater-entry operation will require achieving air, sea, undersea and overall battle-network superiority in the amphibious objective area. Air Force bombers, naval strike assets, Marine reconnaissance and special-operations forces would work to degrade and destroy enemy antiship capabilities and to reduce the guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missile threat ashore.
Once the [Joint Force Commander] judged the risks to be acceptable, Marines would then land at a time and place of their choosing, perhaps supported by Army airborne forces…
Unlike the past, then, no JFC will equate a theater-entry operation with a rapid, decisive operation conducted along tight timelines… A joint theater-entry operation will be a deliberative undertaking with weeks of pre-landing shaping operations. Only after these have successfully identified, isolated, and sanitized access areas would littoral maneuver begin.
This is a fine approach to executing forcible entry — excuse me, theater entry — operations along the coastline of Iran, but it isn’t relevant to many of the amphibious maneuvers the Marines will likely need to carry out in the future. First of all, relatively few littoral countries will have the technology or training to sustain dense barrages of smart munitions against U.S. warships and troops coming ashore. Second, the nearby basing needed to enable Army or Air Force participation in a joint campaign will often be absent, leaving the sea services on their own. Third, the luxury of having plenty of time to execute a carefully sequenced attack plan may also be missing — U.S. forces could need to get ashore as fast as possible with whatever units are available in-theater, because the stakes are too high to wait for other forces to arrive.
What Secretary Work and Lt. Col. Hoffman have constructed in their Proceedings essay is the scenario for a specific type of amphibious operation in which the U.S. has plenty of time and abundant forces nearby suitable for executing a phased assault against a well-equipped adversary. Their approach is too complicated for many of the real-world challenges Marines will face, and too leisurely for situations in which urgent action is required to avert enemy success. By describing future amphibious operations the way they have, the authors have provided an intellectual rationale for trimming expensive programs like the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. But that rationale will not survive contact with some real-world challenges.
Like it or not, the Marines will sometimes have to struggle ashore with little help from the other services despite the likelihood of suffering heavy casualties, because we will not always be able to wage war on our own terms. We’ve already seen one concept of military transformation crash and burn on the streets of Fallujah in this decade. Isn’t it a little early for the return of wishful thinking in our war plans?
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