When the Cold War ended, the U.S. military was the biggest, baddest and most sophisticated in the world. It had the world’s only deployed stealth fighters and bombers, the sole blue water Navy with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, missile firing cruisers and destroyers and advanced nuclear attack submarines, unequalled and untouchable access to space, a large and sophisticated fleet of airborne intelligence aircraft, hundreds of aerial refueling tankers and large cargo aircraft, the best tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and an arsenal of precision-guided weapons. Only the United States could conduct large joint and combined operations across the world.
Today, it is a military in decline. For a second time since 1991, the size of the military is being slashed even as demands on that force are increasing. Its equipment is aging, readiness is suffering and recruitment is at risk.
Even more alarming, this is a military in serious danger of losing its technological edge. The defense media is replete with stories about the concerns on the part of high level Pentagon officials that the U.S. military is losing its long-held operational, organizational and technological advantages. In a speech to defense industry representatives this fall, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared that “Our military could arrive in a future combat theater facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that thwart our technological advantages, limit our freedom of maneuver, and put American lives at risk.” Alan Shaffer, Principal Deputy in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering openly admitted that “we have lost the electromagnetic spectrum.” No less a figure than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey stated that he expected “the risk of interstate conflict in Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, [and] our technology edge to erode…Nearly any future conflict will occur on a much faster pace and on a more technically challenging battlefield.”
Adversaries big and small are working assiduously to develop military capabilities to compete against or counter those of the United States. Russia is building advanced aircraft, combat helicopters, attack submarines, sophisticated air defense systems and several long-range nuclear ballistic missiles. China is developing or deploying stealth aircraft, aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, ship-killing ballistic missiles, space control systems and integrated air defenses. Both of these nations have employed advanced cyber attacks on other nations, including our own. Rogue states are acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Rockets and missiles, advanced anti-aircraft weapons, tank-killing missiles and even drones are now in the hands of terrorists and insurgent groups. State and non-state actors alike are demonstrating increased capability to conduct sophisticated combined arms operations.
It is worth asking the question what military capabilities the U.S. will have in the future that will be both unique and relevant. One that comes immediately to mind is the Navy/Marine Corps amphibious warfare force. Even in their reduced state, the Sea Services are able to maintain three Marine Expeditionary Units/Amphibious Ready Groups (MEU/ARG), able to project tailored and sophisticated power ashore to perform missions that span the spectrum of crises and conflicts. With the addition of modern amphibious assault ships, the MEU/ARG can project significant air power, including AV-8B Harrier jump jets (soon to be replaced by the F-35B), MV-22 Ospreys and various attack and transport helicopters. The capabilities embodied in the MEU/ARG are in such high demand that the three ship formations are often broken up so that individual units can be deployed separately to simultaneously perform multiple missions.
But equally important for the future is the ability of this amphibious force when concentrated to deploy brigade and even division-size forces across hostile beaches. Operating in conjunction with naval strike assets and long-range aviation this is a powerful military capability, one particularly well suited to a security environment marked by few forward deployed U.S. forces, growing regional threats and complex, rapidly evolving crises.
No other military in the world possesses the organization, experience, systems and platforms to operate amphibious forces like the Navy-Marine Corps team. It would take any of the leading powers decades to duplicate the power projection capability of today’s U.S. amphibious force. The combination of flexibility, agility and sovereign basing at sea that U.S. amphibious forces provide is likely to be of increased value not only to the United States but its allies and coalition partners as well.
Find Archived Articles: