The service hardest hit over the past decade by program terminations and cutbacks has been the Marine Corps. First there was the decision to truncate the Navy’s DDG 1000 program — the future fire support platform for amphibious operations — at three ships. Then there was the decision to terminate the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Most recently, questions have been raised within the Navy itself about the value of continuing to invest in the Marine variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. Even the V-22 Osprey, performing so well in Afghanistan, has been targeted for cuts in many of the deficit reduction plans bouncing around Washington.
Ironically, it may well be the Marine Corps that turns out to be the most relevant and useful service for an emerging U.S. defense strategy that can be characterized as “fielding cheap options for an uncertain world.” Even a best case budget scenario will see significant reductions in future U.S. defense spending. Yet, it is clear that no one in a leadership position in this country — save Ron Paul — is willing to dial back U.S. national security interests or commitments commensurate with a major reduction in military capabilities. This means the U.S. military, or at least the relevant portions of it, can expect to continue to be heavily used even after forces are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Marine Corp may be in the best position to provide DoD with appropriate and limited force options relevant to a broad range of potential missions. An Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) is a very capable, self-contained force package that can exert limited sea control as well as project air and land power ashore. The ARG carries a battalion-size Marine Expeditionary Unit along with its complement of landing craft, V-22 Ospreys and both attack and transport helicopters. With the introduction of the F-35B, any large-deck amphibious assault ship will be able to project airpower like a mini aircraft carrier.
Both France and Great Britain have repeatedly demonstrated how effective relatively small combinations of air and ground assets can be in dealing with instability, civil conflict, natural disasters and terrorism in the developing world. An ARG not only has the combination of air and land assets to deal with these kind of situations but also the naval platforms to support a wide variety of partnership activities. Moreover, an ARG can take advantage of the freedom inherent in operations from international waters to deploy into many areas of interest and to operate in the absence of land facilities such as airfields and communications centers.
The strategic utility of the ARG and its Marine Air-Ground Task Force would be sorely compromised if current Marine Corps modernization plans are not allowed to reach fruition. Obviously the F-35B is the most important of these programs. But the Marines also need the V-22, the UH-1Y and AH-1Z helicopters as well as the proposed Amphibious Combat Vehicle and Marine Personnel Carrier.
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