It has become something of a meme among military planners that we are living through a period in international relations marked by unparalleled complexity, uncertainty and even chaos. As a consequence, the military finds it hard to know how to respond or what kind of forces to build. Force planners go back and forth, vacillating between capacity, which is current forces and operations, and capability, a shorthand for modernization.
But as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out last week in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, having to deal with a challenging security environment is nothing new: “While it is tempting – and conventional wisdom – to assert that the challenges facing the United States internationally have never been more numerous or complex, the reality is that turbulent, unstable and unpredictable times have reoccurred to challenge U.S. leaders regularly since World War II.”
There is one major difference today from the environment of the past seventy-odd years. It is that the U.S. military has never been smaller, older and more stressed. The Army has shrunk to a size not seen since 1940. The Navy has fewer ships today than at any time since World War I. A substantial portion of the Air Force’s fleets of fighters, bombers and tankers are older than the men and women who fly them, often by decades. As a result, the military is finding it all but impossible to meet current demands for forces to support an expanding set of missions across the world.
Another difference is that the U.S. military can no longer rely on technological superiority to counter numerically superior adversaries that also have the advantage of proximity to theaters of concern. In area after area – air defense, long range strike, space conflict, cyber, electronic warfare and information operations – prospective enemies have caught up or actually surpassed the United States. The Pentagon has called for a major effort to develop new capabilities. As a result, the military is being asked to fund both capacity and capabilities but with shrinking defense budgets.
A capability area that epitomizes the challenges facing the U.S. military is the Navy-Marine Corps’ amphibious warfare force. Today the Navy-Marine Corps have a requirement for 38 amphibious warfare ships – sufficient to deliver two Marine Expeditionary Brigades across a hostile shore – but are forced by budget limitations to plan for only 33. The number of deployable amphibious ships tends to hover around 29.
The size and character of the amphibious fleet also are critical to the Sea Services’ ability to maintain an adequate number of Amphibious Ready Groups/ Marine Expeditionary Units (ARGs/ MEU). The MEU/ARG is unique in the world due to its ability to operate from international waters, the breadth of its capabilities and its overall flexibility. The MEU portion of the team consists of a reinforced infantry battalion with its own command and control, combat support, logistics, vehicles, indirect fires and aviation elements. The ARG half of the combined capability typically consists of three ships – a LHD, LPD and LSD – which not only provide transportation for the MEU’s air and ground elements but can serve as a sovereign base at sea with advanced medical care, intelligence capabilities and support facilities.
The demand for ARG/MEUs exceeds the supply. In 2014, the former Commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Admiral Samuel Locklear III, warned that there were not sufficient amphibious forces to meet worldwide demand. “I’m not the only combatant commander that desires amphibious shipping or the Marines that are on them. So there is a global competition among us as the world situation kind of moves around. [And] the global demand signal today is … greater than what we can resource.” As a result, combatant commanders have taken to breaking up these units, sending individual ships on different missions. In addition, the Marine Corps has established a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, an ARG/MEU without the ships, in Moron, Spain to provide a crisis response capability in the Mediterranean.
The Sea Services need both more and better amphibious ships. In particular, the Navy needs to procure the LX(R) to replace the aging LSDs. Based on the proven LPD-17 design, these new ships will have greater space for critical equipment, a well deck for the movement of forces and material from ship to shore and enhanced command, control and communications. Commonality with the LPD-17 will reduce the construction and life cycle costs of the LX(R).
The United States should build a larger amphibious fleet. Given events in the Middle East and North Africa, there needs to be an ARG/MEU regularly deployed in both the Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea. These plus two forward deployed in the Western Pacific means a requirement for no fewer than 38 amphibious ships. The unraveling of the post-World War II international order fairly cries out for a larger and modern U.S. amphibious warfare capability.
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