The U.S. military is the only one in the world that can actually conduct operations across the political-military spectrum from building partnership capacity to global conflict. It is also uniquely positioned to employ an array of instruments, including so-called soft power tools, to influence positively the security situation in nations and regions of interest. The three keys to this unique U.S. military role in the future will be its ability to do forward presence, crisis response and expeditionary operations. A question of growing significance to defense planners is how best to maintain these capabilities in an austere budget environment. There is an ongoing debate in defense circles, coincident with the start of the new Quadrennial Defense Review, that tends to see all three of these missions (and the forces needed to perform them) as somehow in competition. This is a mistake; instead, it is critical that defense planners, government leaders and members of Congress appreciate the importance of all three missions and the ways they are mutually reinforcing.
Forward presence serves a number of critical functions, most significantly placing U.S. military forces in the regions and countries where the nation has interests, investments, friends and, sometimes, enemies. Forward presence provides both deterrence and reassurance. By being both forward deployed and on land, U.S. forces establish special relationships with local militaries, governments and populations. This helps build an understanding of host countries, their cultures, politics, values and problems that will support the management of peacetime security issues. Although all U.S. forces can perform the presence mission, it is particularly important for the Army and Air Force to invest in this mission.
Forward presence can prove insufficient to preventing crises from occurring. The military must have flexible, adaptable, rapidly deployable capabilities that can respond to a wide range of crisis situations. Navy and Marine Corps units are particularly well-suited to this role in part because they are highly mobile and operate with sovereign freedom from the sea. The quintessential example of a flexible crisis response force is the Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group (MEU/ARG). This consists of a reinforced Marine infantry battalion supported by additional command and control, logistics and aviation elements moved and supported by the three-ship ARG which provides not only transportation but also serves as a sovereign base at sea with advanced medical care, intelligence capabilities and support facilities. The MEU/ARG is unique in the world not only due to the breadth of its capabilities and its overall flexibility but because of the close working relationship that exists between the Marine Corps and Navy elements. MEU/ARGs are particularly well suited for operating in the spaces between forward deployed forces; beyond their reach, so to speak. The MEU/ARG, together with Special Operations Forces and Army airborne units, provides the U.S. with powerful crisis response capabilities across the threat spectrum.
Finally, there needs to be powerful expeditionary warfare capabilities that can be projected into distant theaters to achieve decisive results in the event of armed conflict. Land-based air power and Army heavy formations are the core of such an expeditionary warfare force. Falling in on forward deployed units or merging with crisis response formations, the expeditionary warfare force is what deters major theater conflicts or, in the event one occurs, provides the necessary heavy combat power to deny an adversary his objectives, defeat his military forces and, if necessary, break his will.
Today, the U.S. military has all these capabilities. Maintaining them in the future will require not only the smart expenditure of increasingly scarce resources, but an appreciation of which of the military services or components are best suited to supporting each of the three missions. What the services need to avoid is competition amongst themselves over the same mission spaces.
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