The Dark Side of Expeditionary

By Commander T J McKearney, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The rapid atrophy of our antisubmarine warfare capability is a prime example of the shortcomings creeping into our ability to fight at sea. Although there is much hand wringing as to our ability to engage the contemporary diesel submarine threat in the littorals, we have largely written off the ability to track and engage opposing submarines operating in deep water. A similar situation exists in antisurface warfare, where improvements have been restricted to modest upgrades to the Harpoon missile.

Restoring our capability to control the seas need not require a dramatic redirection of resources. We certainly have the basics: powerful new surface combatants such as the Aegis cruisers and the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)class destroyers, as well as a few less traditional wrinkles, such as antiship missiles on helicopters. What is required is a recommitment to fighting at sea, beginning with a careful look at likely threats we may have to face in the next 10 to 20 years and the weapons we may need to defeat them. A good starting point would be a dose of some of the same medicine we have given the battle ashore. The land-attack Tomahawk has evolved into the weapon of choice for land strikes; it is time to revive its dormant antishipping cousin, a long-range, sophisticated weapon that would have outclassed any other surface launched antiship missile in the world. Our P-3 force, decimated by decommissioning at a fire-sale pace, needs to be bolstered and updated to take on both surface and subsurface threats in blue water and the seaward littorals. New tactical concepts for fighting the carrier battle group at sea also need to be given priority. Strike missions in a joint environment have held center stage for battle group and carrier air wing tactical development for several years now; the time is ripe for a renaissance in new, sophisticated integrated task force tactics against naval threats.

Good old-fashioned sea control lacks the photogenic qualities needed for our present budgetary process. It is not likely to get much coverage on the Cable News Network, and it suffers from a distinct lack of jointness. Nonetheless, its importance should be obvious-and it's the Navy's story to tell. Now that we've spent a few years concentrating on the battle ashore, it is time to take stock of our capability to engage and defeat an emerging generation of worldwide naval power.

Counting Redundancies

The rush to become expeditionary has affected not just the Navy and Marine Corps but the other services as well. The "go-anywhere-fight-anywhere" mentality is reasonable, considering the shape the world is in, and the Army and Air Force have done fairly well at recasting themselves as rapidly deployable expeditionary forces. Army divisions have gotten lighter (as well as scarcer) and the Air Force has learned to turn dirt landing strips into jet air bases. Unfortunately, the rush to transformation has taken on an air of keeping up with the Joneses: capabilities relative to expeditionary operations are duplicated throughout the four services, supposedly giving decision makers a "range of options" but looking more like competing fast-food franchises along Main Street.

The question to be asked of our expeditionary planners is, Why are we wasting Navy and Marine Corps money on things the other services already have? For example, if a hospital is needed in some remote hole in the wall, we can pick from an Army, an Air Force, or a Navy deployable hospital. Civil engineering capabilities are another area where each of the services feels a need for an extensive expeditionary-related capability. Not to begrudge the Seabees their legacy, but John Wayne joined to build Navy bases for island hopping, not Army barracks in Bosnia. Flexibility is great, but the mantle of expeditionary warfare has been used by the services as a reason to develop similar capabilities. The cost of these excesses may not seem exorbitant, and it is somewhat comfortable to have the redundancy they bring, but each represents a tradeoff in today's budgetary environment.

This discussion touches only on issues that would be called combat support or combat service support, because it is in this realm that the Navy and Marine Corps are arguably too expeditionary, having invested in capabilities that have little to do with conducting naval missions and duplicate those of the other services. How many ships, steaming days, or antisubmarine torpedoes should we trade for the ability to send sailors ashore in cammies to build roads and airfields?

The Wrong Direction for the Corps?

Paradoxically, our increasing emphasis on expeditionary operations threatens the apparent leader (and programmatic benefactor) of such a mind-set, the Marine Corps. Consider the trends: about 18 years ago, the Corps decided to emphasize an "expeditionary" strategy that would always allow the first American footprints on foreign soil to be U.S. Marine Corps. The maritime prepositioning force (MPF) was the vehicle for implementing this new expeditionary twist: Marine Corps gear, prestaged on leased commercial shipping, would be standing by in the world's trouble spots, with Marines available to fly out and marry up with this equipment when U.S. presence was needed.

The concept may have worked too well. In Desert Shield, Marine Corps equipment was first on the scene and was parceled out to Army forces flown into Saudi Arabia by the Air Force lift the Corps had counted on to bring Marines to the fight. Although the Marines eventually caught up with their equipment by the time the shooting started, the lesson was not lost on the Army, which has taken to prepositioning its own gear in modern roll-on/roll-off ships. And because the Persian Gulf region has all the makings for another military crisis, the Army has staged a considerable cache of equipment in Saudi Arabia, a good deal closer to the likely action than the Marine Corps MPF, still steaming around Diego Garcia.

It could be argued that the Corps gradually has abandoned its traditional-and legislated-dedication to amphibious warfare. In its place is a less defined role: Marines can move infantry forces anywhere on short notice, but so can the Army; Marines have prepositioned main battle tanks in the Mideast, but so has the Army; Marines can build and operate expeditionary airfields, but so can the Air Force. As the Marine Corps operational paradigm blurs with those of other services, it is time to get back to a few simple rules for what Marine forces should be able to do: get on scene as soon as possible, carrying what's needed, and complete an urgent and limited mission independently. No forward operating bases, no joint airlift, no waiting in line at some staging base for your number to come up on the time-phased force deployment list.

The Marine Corps (with some help from its often reluctant partners in Navy blue) needs to strengthen the amphibious Marine expeditionary unit (special-operations capable), the heart and soul of our amphibious capability. Today's Marine Corps should be able to conduct multiple raid-type insertions from relatively far out at sea with only other naval forces-such as a carrier battle group, a destroyer squadron, or a replenishment oiler along for support. While the current 12 amphibious ready group (ARG) structure probably is adequate on paper, the three- or four-ship amphibious squadrons that the ARGs are built around are too short winded to support more than a bare-bones Marine force. Beefing up the ARG to a point where it can do this won't be cheap, requiring at a minimum that the present plan for 12 new LPD-17s be increased by 6 to 8 additional hulls.

Paying for an enhanced amphibious capability will require the Marine Corps and the Navy to rethink priorities, and some of the beliefs underlying contemporary expeditionary planning, as well as resulting force structure, may have to go. Plans to deploy a full Marine expeditionary force (MEF) should get the full brunt of an extensive soul searching. Do we really expect to deploy a full one-third of the Marine Corps at one time? Probably not, and the realization that such an event would be rare should lead to questions such as, Does the Marine Corps need such an extensive deployable air-control capability, or a deployable medical capability beyond that required by the Marine expeditionary unit (MEU)? With the exception of perhaps one or two ships per theater, which should be retained as direct support for amphibious MEUs, the MPF should be dismantled and recapitalized for a stronger amphibious capability.

Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak reportedly was miffed by the use of Army troops in a deployment to Saudi Arabia last year in response to one of Saddam Hussein's perennial aggressive spasms. Although it is understandable that the Commandant would want to see his Marines as the first choice for such reactions, it is hard to argue against the choice of a "mech-heavy" Army force. The lesson for the Corps-and for our naval forces overall-is that the expeditionary cachet is no longer the exclusive property of the Navy Department. As the Army and Air Force draw up plans to make themselves rapidly deployable to the godforsaken corners of the world previously only accessible to the Navy and Marine Corps, the Corps must realize that being first is no longer enough, and that the future of the Corps is in Liberia and the early days in Mogadishu, not in Saudi Arabia or Bosnia.

Here When You Need Us?

How we are building and deploying forces would suggest that our national military strategy goes something like this: The demise of the Soviet Union has ended the great struggle that called us off our secure shores to join ideological battle in the remote regions of the globe. It is no longer important to strut our stuff on the world stage on a continuous basis. The world is turning to democracy and only needs our occasional support, which can be delivered by expeditionary forces, deployed when needed. The result is that our overseas permanent presence, from Europe to Japan, is cut back, and military strategists instead are looking to ways to move forces rapidly in response to emerging crises. This is, of course, cheaper and even has something of a nostalgic sort of isolationism that popular culture says is truly American. We are again free to pursue our own prosperity, pick allies and causes carefully, and avoid foreign entanglements.

Perhaps the greatest danger in the current emphasis on expeditionary operations is that it provides a sense of security while cutting back on expensive forward-deployed forces. At the same time, our naval forces are finding their forward-presence missions harder to meet as the Navy's infrastructure and force structure are pared down. Under the guise of an expeditionary strategy, we have begun to confuse projecting power with wielding influence, and we run the risk of believing that expeditionary operations offer the promise of influence on the cheap. Our role as a world power is now defined as somewhere between big brother and avenging angel: we'll be watching and ready to step in when the situation gets out of hand. With strategic lift, prestaged equipment, and light divisions, we can respond anywhere in (fill in the blank) hours.

Contrast this with the recent past: our European strategy was centered on a treaty arrangement that included almost half a million Americans positioned across the face of Europe. This cocked gun aimed at Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" did more than keep the Soviets at bay; it provided the context for the longest period of peace and economic growth the continent had seen in centuries. On the other side of the globe, the Four Tigers and a litter of cubs clawed at each other and the world economy, not with weapons, but with free trade, largely insured by the presence of U.S. forces and a host of bilateral security agreements. The Cold War was the backdrop, but the important factor was our permanent engagement in the affairs of the respective region.

Now it's the new world order and the back to the pre-World War II future. Strategic spin doctors will suggest that expeditionary operations have been the traditional backbone of U.S. foreign policy and military policy, but a closer look at history offers a different slant. As a new nation, we quickly built a navy whose first mission was not spreading our influence but ensuring that we were respected enough to survive. Early expeditionary operations were against opponents who were hijacking citizens, stealing cargo, or outright blackmailing us, such as the Barbary pirates. By the time our fledgling Pacific fleet claimed Monterey and San Francisco in 1848, however, a wider vision underpinned the operation: uniting the continent under the Stars and Stripes. Political correctness has challenged the legitimacy of Manifest Destiny, but no one can deny its efficacy as a strategic engine for our naval policy. Significantly, it drove us not just to show up but to stay, permanently, in places such as California and, the following year, Japan. Our growth as a world power paralleled our development as a naval power.

Fast forward to 1997. We clearly are the world's preeminent power and somewhat uncomfortable with the role. With neither containment nor Manifest Destiny as a philosophical foundation, the American place on the world stage is murky and unfocused. Expeditionary warfare fills the void with a null solution: we may not have a vision of what we want, but we at least will be able to jump in when things clearly are not going our way. And, best of all, according to the experts, it can be done cheaper.

Can the United States' strategic plans be built around the concept of rapidly responding to any crises with a mobile force? The danger comes as we struggle with issues of force structure, or, more succinctly, the battle for scarce bucks. The call for expeditionary forces has led to new concepts-some reasonable, some silly-for those forces not previously expeditionary: Army mechanized brigades prestaged on ships so they can beat the Marines ashore and 36-hour B-1 flights halfway around the world to drop a "stick" of bombs. Our Navy, the original permanent expeditionary force, is not immune to the madness. We seem to be pursuing a policy of a few good ships at the high end of the capability spectrum, secure in the conviction that this limited force can cover the hot spots when needed. It is not so much the specific expeditionary tactics that are bothersome; it is the mind-set that says, As long as we can be there when we want, we are building the force we need.

Because the naval establishment has been so prominent in touting the relevance of expeditionary operations, it is our responsibility to speak out on their shortcomings. Is our expeditionary strategy adequate? The answer is a resounding "sort of." With it we have been able to meet treaty obligations (such as in Korea) and satisfy reluctant friends with tough domestic problems who want us hovering unseen over the horizon (such as the Saudis). However, it also places us in the position of being the sometimes ally, there to help out if it gets bad, but otherwise content to let the region get by on its own. This has the appearance of involvement, but it adds little to real regional stability. An analogy closer to home: is your community safer with the police in big, shiny cars to be summoned via 911, or are you better protected with community policing, which puts police patrols on your block full time? Expeditionary warfare, like "expeditionary policing," leaves us a little less safe.

Commander McKearney is an analyst in private industry, working on joint and naval command-and-control issues. He served in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and was assigned to the Joint Task Force staff during Restore Hope in Somalia.

 

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