I am a fan of military science fiction. It is entertaining and sometimes thought provoking to see how others think about the future of warfare. Most military science fiction focuses on the impact of advanced technologies – set phasers on stun – on the eternal features of combat whether by a squad or massed fleets and armies. But there is a reason why it is called fiction. It takes basic facts, historical, scientific, technical and military, and extends them beyond what the facts will support in order to tell a good story.
So, it is a little surprising when a work of fiction appears in a well-respected security journal. This week, Foreign Policy carried an article titled “Can the Marines Survive? If America’s amphibious force doesn’t adapt, it’ll be dead in the water.” This article has gone viral in the defense community, in part because it was written by a serving Marine Corps officer, Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Freeman, with three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in part, because he argues that the future of warfare has no place for large-scale amphibious operations.
The author describes a future world in which warfare will be much like a popular video game. According to Colonel Freeman “. . .land forces, as currently organized, are becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is not to say that there is no use for ground troops. They are needed, but in future conflicts they will only play a secondary role. Land forces will no longer win wars. Computers, missiles, planes, and drones will.” He goes on to declare that the U.S. military will never again fight a war “in the mud.” Warfare will be dominated by aircraft, missiles, unmanned systems and precision weapons. These systems will be controlled and targeted by small, highly trained teams on the ground that are inserted into the combat zone by parachute, landing zone, or over the horizon from the sea. Air support for these new units will consist of sea-based, fixed wing platforms, long-range “national assets” and “fleets of unmanned aircraft that constantly surveil each team and the area in which they operate.” Colonel Freeman concludes his description of the future thusly: “In short, the future of warfare is in special operations, and the Pentagon will need a lot more operators. The future of the Marine Corps is as a special operations force that functions in a sustained combat mode.”
The problem with Colonel Freeman’s argument is that like many forecasts it is essentially a straight line projection of the present into the future. In fact, it isn’t even the present; his vision is of the past. Colonel Freeman takes no cognizance of some inconvenient facts that could interfere with his ability to weave a good yarn. For example, he fails to take note of the fact that our prospective adversaries have gone to school on the way the U.S. military employs air and naval power and are diligently working on ways to deny it that advantage. That is what the whole Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threat is about. How will his agile teams of special operators be deployed and sustained in the absence of U.S. air dominance? How will they flit about the countryside designating targets without continuous close air support? How will the exquisite ISR required to support precision strike campaigns be conducted in the face of triple digit SAMS and fifth generation fighters? The requirement to conduct a protracted rollback campaign of enemy A2/AD capabilities would undercut the central premise of Colonel Freedman’s vision: immediate and absolute U.S. air dominance.
The second problem with Colonel Freeman’s story is that it presumes a number of U.S. capabilities that do not as yet exist and which may never be acquired. For example, he refers to long-range, globally positioned “national assets,” by which I assume he means strategic bombers. Currently, this capability consists of a relatively small number of aging B-1s, 2s and 52s that are costly to maintain and desperately in need of modernization in order to remain relevant for another decade or two. The Air Force’s Long Range Strike (LRS) system is just beginning development. Both the modernization of current assets and the LRS could fall victim to the budget axe. With respect to unmanned systems with which to conduct exquisite ISR or strike, virtually nothing in the arsenal today could survive ten minutes in a contested air environment. The Air Force has no serious plan for a next generation, stealthy, penetrating drone. The Navy is about to let several development contracts for its unmanned carrier –launched surveillance and strike platform but no one knows what the final result will be.
The third problem with Colonel Freedman’s story is that it ignores the vital strategic and operational synergy between air and ground power. Dr. David Johnson at RAND has written an excellent study of the 2006 Israeli operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon that clearly demonstrates the limitations of an airpower only strategy. In order to defeat future technologically-empowered adversaries, the U.S. will require robust air and land forces.
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