Initial impressions of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ defense budget were that the Marine Corps was particularly hard hit. Not only did the Secretary cancel the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) but he also put the Marine Corps’ variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on two-year probation. If the short-takeoff version of the F-35 were cancelled this would be a serious blow to the Marine Corps’ concept of amphibious operations since it is the only jet aircraft in development that can be launched from large deck amphibious ships. Finally, he announced a reduction in Marine Corps end-strength of 15-20,000 personnel beginning in 2015.
Some observers have set the EFV decision in the wider context of the Secretary’s past criticisms of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps programs. Last year, the Secretary publicly questioned the former’s retention of 11 large deck aircraft carriers and the latter’s commitment to amphibious warfare. As a result, there has been speculation that the Secretary would also announce cutbacks or even the outright cancellation of other major Sea Services’ programs such as the V-22 Osprey and the LPD-17.
The EFV decision begs the larger question; does the United States still require a major amphibious warfare capability? The cost of maintaining such a capability is substantial. If it is to be continued then there must be additional investments to modernize this capability, including ships, vehicles, aircraft and helicopters. Critics of amphibious warfare point out that the United States has not conducted an opposed amphibious landing since Inchon in 1950. In addition, the proliferation of so-called anti-access/area denial capabilities will pose new challenges to future amphibious operations.
The principal argument in favor of maintaining a significant amphibious warfare capability is that it provides an unparalleled flexible response capability to deal with a range of contingencies in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world. Large deck amphibious warfare ships have become one of the best platforms from which to conduct humanitarian operations or develop partnership capacity. A related argument to be made is that it is increasingly difficult for the United States to maintain its existing overseas basing structure, much less acquire new bases. As a result, the requirement to deploy expeditionary forces from the sea can only grow over time.
An amphibious warfare capability includes the means to move forces overseas, the capacity to rapidly transfer such forces from ships to the shore, including under fire, and the ability to support them once they are ashore. The EFV was intended to move Marines from ship to shore rapidly and then to support them in combat once there. Even if the EFV is cancelled, the requirement will persist. The V-22 has a similar mission, one it is now doing in Afghanistan. The F-35B will provide unparalleled air support to units ashore without the requirement to have large deck aircraft carriers or land-based airpower in proximity to the theater of operations.
If the U.S. needs a significant amphibious warfare capability it will also need to invest more in enablers. This means continuing the LPD-17 program, finishing acquisition of the V-22, replacing the Landing Craft Air Cushion, upgrading the AAV (the platform the EFV was supposed to replace) and figuring out how to provide enhanced naval fire support for Marine units deploying across defended beaches. It also means developing a new Marine Corps armored vehicle strategy.
There are important reasons to maintain an amphibious warfare capability in the 21st Century. Therefore, the Pentagon needs to invest in modernizing this capability. If Secretary Gates cancels the EFV, somebody will have to invent its replacement.
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