A Fleet out of Balance

By Lieutenant Colonel James W. Hammond III, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The noted naval theorist Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr. has pointed out that the Navy’s emphasis on a standoff precision-strike approach

is twice in error. First, to believe in the sufficiency of air and missile strikes against the land is to believe in ‘victory through air power.’ The strikes may in all instances be necessary but they will not in all instances be sufficient to achieve a national military purpose. . . . Second, a fleet is incomplete which has no elements that can operate in waters next to the enemy coast. A fleet is not worthy of the name unless it can move troops and trade through coastal waters in safety and keep the enemy out of his own waters. 2

The over-investment in strike capabilities has most acutely affected the Fleet’s amphibious capacity. To restore the necessary balance in our naval force architecture, sailors and Marines must address amphibious reluctancy and ignorance about the significant advantages derived from a robust expeditionary capability as a integral component of American naval power.

The Fleet Balance Scales

It would be easy to accept the repeatedly raised arguments meant to show that amphibious capabilities are not underappreciated:

All Fleet assets have declined since end of the Cold War.

• Amphibious shipping consistently has been sustained at 10 percent of the Fleet.

• Recent exercises, such as Bold Alligator 2012, demonstrate a commitment to amphibious capability.

Deeper analysis, however, highlights the unsettling reality. For instance, while it is true that the number of all Navy battleforce ships (commissioned warships that contribute to combat operations) capable of power projection has declined since the end of the Cold War, amphibious ships have seen the greatest decline. As Figure 1 illustrates, from 1989—just before the Berlin Wall fell—to 2012, the number of amphibious ships at the end of each fiscal year dropped by more than one-half (from 63 to 28) while the numbers of conventional power-projection warships declined on a smaller scale.

And while it is true that the percentage of amphibious ships in the battleforce has stayed steady at around the 10 percent level during that period (10.8 percent in 1989 vs. 9.9 percent in 2012), what is not mentioned is that over the past 23 years, the relative contribution to the battleforce from strike power-projection ships has increased, particularly with regard to the number of cruisers and destroyers—from 19.2 percent up to 29.2 percent. 3

Even more telling, however, is the change in capabilities within the Fleet. As seen in Figure 2, strike capacity has actually increased since the end of the Cold War, but amphibious lift capacity is well below 1989 levels. Improved aircraft-sortie rates and aim-point efficiency along with increased missile capacities have made the smaller Fleet of today a significantly more effective strike force. But our amphibious fleet has not experienced a similar capability increase. In fact, in the key amphibious capability metrics of troop lift, vehicle lift, and cargo lift, it has decreased. Additionally, critical Fleet capabilities that are needed to support amphibious operations—such as naval surface fire support and mine-warfare ships—also have decreased significantly.

Shift to an Expeditionary-Dependent Posture

The year 1989 was used for this comparative analysis because it marked a fundamental shift in the global security environment and U.S. strategy. 4 The overwhelming threat the Soviets and their surrogates posed suddenly ended, only to be replaced by chaos, instability, and uncertainty in a number of regions. The garrison posture of forward-based U.S. forces that characterized the post-World War II U.S. military—particularly Army and Air Force units in Europe—has been replaced by an expeditionary-force posture similar to the national policy of 1890–1940, when forces either disbanded or returned to the United States when conflicts ended. At the same time, the expeditionary-dependent joint force of today must be more responsive to a range of possible conflict areas and potential crises, particularly in the area often called the “arc of instability”—areas considered the Pacific Rim and the littorals stretching from Syria to North Korea.

Those factors and the insular character of the United States—along with our continuing global strategic interests and responsibilities and the growing correlation between international trade and prosperity—mean naval capabilities and campaigns (conducted in a joint context) are more critical today than during the Cold War. Success of the joint force in an expeditionary era demands capabilities that enable that force to get to the theater and to gain necessary access once there. With the shift in our force-posture strategy, the relative importance of versatile and responsive expeditionary forces that can exploit our ability to control the sea and extend that control (ranging as required from influence to greater scales of power) onto land where people live would appear to be of increased value. As described earlier, the design of the Fleet as it has evolved over the past 23 years does not reflect the new operational and strategic realities.

Without a robust and integral littoral maneuver capability, naval forces fail to deliver what Professor Colin Gray described as “the essence of seapower to function as a great enabling instrument of strategy.” He noted that a balanced naval instrument possesses “enormous flexibility” and an intrinsic capacity to demonstrate resolve through its “operational ability to loiter for long time in the region of interest without leaving one’s sovereign bases, and to project power of all kinds across the shore (from raiding parties to nuclear strikes).” 5 Rear Admiral Wylie noted the constraints imposed by relying solely on strike when he said, “We may have to do something more than try to impose our control by destruction alone. We may well need to inject troops—the classical man on the scene with a gun—to exercise the durable and continuing control that can rarely be had in any other way.” 6

The strategic and operational advantages of a force that extends influence and power across the complex sea-land interface are numerous. They include an ability to generate surprise, produce credible deterrence and coercion, create significant operational dilemmas for an enemy, dilute enemy defenses, assure access for follow-on arms of decision if needed, and force potential foes to spend much more on a breadth of defenses that imposes debilitating tradeoffs and disadvantages. 7 Those strategic and operational benefits are perhaps why military historian and theorist Basil H. Liddell Hart came to the conclusion after years of studying strategy and the art of war that, “amphibious flexibility is the greatest strategic asset that a sea-based power possesses.” 8

The Increasing Value of Amphibious Forces

The increased employment of amphibious forces over the last 23 years appears to confirm this strategic assessment. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. amphibious forces have been employed in at least 116 operations. They have ranged from support to theater military engagements, security cooperation, deterrence, crisis response, limited contingencies, and major operations and campaigns. Most telling is the fact that the average yearly rate of employment of those forces since 1989 is more than double what it was during the Cold War—even as Marines were engaged in major operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the size of the amphibious force shrank appreciably.

The stunning growth in amphibious shipping elsewhere in the world also seems to acknowledge the significance of this capability, its inherent advantages, and its increased strategic value. From 1990 to 2010, the combined number of power-projection-capable amphibious ships possessed by the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and India increased 48 percent. More significant, as those navies acquire more capable LHD- and LPD-type ships (having greater capacity and range), the tonnage of their amphibious fleets has increased by 140 percent and is projected to rise almost 188 percent by 2015—driven in large part by Australia’s acquisition of two LHDs to replace older and smaller ships. It also is important to recognize that those allies and likely coalition partners are not expanding other components of their military structures or their fleets.

The increased employment of amphibious forces and their growth within allied militaries demonstrate that they are becoming the logical option in many situations. In part, the move to an expeditionary-dependent defense posture increases the importance of amphibious forces because of the intrinsic need for access. Just the very nature of the strategic environment—characterized by a lack of certainty, order, and simplicity—means that the joint force can never assume assured access or a limited or highly scripted set of scenarios. As a maritime power, our ability to globally affect outcomes on land rests primarily on our ability to effectively exploit the global commons, especially the sea. Even at the high end of the range of conflict, we must be extremely wary of seductive reassurances regarding the inevitable advantages of technology, and the ability of our air and missile power to cause an enemy to submit to our will. As the opening hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom reaffirmed, the momentary efficiency of destruction-based “shock and awe” tactics (or rapid, decisive operations) neither “unhinge” a determined enemy as often is hyped, nor create sustainable operational and strategic conditions.

Further, amphibious forces are well adapted to support the increasingly important scope of engagement operations that reassure allies and partners through tangible presence, sustaining mutual deterrent effects. Their capacity to rapidly respond to crisis with an array of skills and capabilities creates many useful opportunities. Events have repeatedly demonstrated that amphibious forces’ versatility, agility, and responsiveness tend to moderate instability, deter conflict, and mitigate the severity of those that arise. Such forces provide the nation with this high degree of tactical, operational, and strategic utility at a very cost-effective price—currently estimated to be about 8.2 percent of the Department of Defense’s total obligation authority for Marine Corps forces, equipment, aircraft, amphibious ships, and other Navy-provided assets.

Balancing Naval Power

In assessing the current Fleet’s imbalance, historical precedent is also helpful. The last U.S. expeditionary era ended on the decks of the USS Missouri (BB-63) in 1945. The Navy entered World War II with almost no amphibious-capable ships. Based on the realities of projecting power in an expeditionary era, by the end of the war, the Navy had more than three times as many amphibious ships as surface combatants; the total amphibious displacement was 2.39 times that for all the Fleet’s battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts combined. As historian Richard B. Frank observed, “Amphibious warfare did not simply come of age during World War II; it transformed the very nature of how wars are fought. As practiced by U.S. forces, it was more revolutionary and enduring than the Blitzkrieg because it incorporated sea power as well as air and land arms.” 9 Comparing lift capacity to the size of all U.S. ground forces provides a rough, but germane measurement, of the joint force’s ability to generate its full potential and extend control from our command of the seas. Figure 3 shows this metric at the key historical points discussed here. On 15 August 1945, the United States had the capacity to lift nearly 15 percent of its non-airborne ground-maneuver units. At the end of the Cold War, that percentage had nose-dived to just more than 3 percent. Today, 23 years into an era again defined by a strategy of expeditionary dependency, the percentage is even lower than it was in 1989—slightly more than 2 percent.

While it is obvious that the levels seen in the midst of global or total war are probably not anywhere near the same for establishing the necessary force-structure requirements today, it is equally apparent that having a smaller ratio in 2012 than existed during the garrison-based strategy of the Cold War signifies a fundamental imbalance in our naval capability. As Dean Robert C. Rubel of the Naval War College has noted, “The new logic of command of the sea suggests a kind of strategic equivalence between aircraft carriers and amphibious forces.” 10

Amphibious forces provide the nation with the most versatile and flexible capability to exploit sea control and extend influence ashore. They are uniquely suitable for a wide range of critical operational requirements—maneuvering in the littorals, injecting combat-ready forces ashore, and globally affecting outcomes on land, where in many cases the only route to durable decisions can be found. However, as the observations made here underscore, the current Fleet architecture demonstrates a lack of naval power projection “equivalence” in its actual design. In addition, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead’s statements in 2010 that the Navy was seriously considering manning amphibious combat ships with civilian mariners—coupled with remarks comparing amphibious ships with command ships and tenders—clearly demonstrate a fundamental undervaluation of amphibious forces within the Navy. 11 There are sharp philosophical differences between the Navy and Marine Corps, not only about the value of amphibious forces, but also about the purpose of naval power, their approaches to conflict and extending control, and even the nature and character of war.

It is critical that officers of both services aggressively work to correct not just the critical Fleet imbalance, but also the experiential deficiencies that have resulted in an amphibious reluctance—if not outright disdain. Last year’s extensive amphibious-focused Fleet exercise, Bold Alligator, and a subsequent article in these pages co-authored by Admiral John C. Harvey, commander, Fleet Forces Command, perhaps indicate that such a shift is beginning. 12 But much more needs to be done, and it will take many years of concerted effort. Increased mutual education and more integrated training and staff experience are essential. Doctrine that more fully integrates amphibious forces and their unique and valuable capabilities within the Fleet must be developed; the emerging single-naval-battle concept is potentially a step in this direction. Personnel policies of both services must more fully develop and reward a broader and shared perspective on the value and advantages of all the key means of exercising naval power. Marines must also take a more proactive role in the Navy’s force-development process and should not be shy about “shooting on other people’s targets.” Decisions about future requirements such as ballistic-missile-submarine replacement, theater-missile-defense destroyers, and the balance between strike aviation and various ship types have a direct effect on that piece of the pie that will remain for littoral-maneuver capabilities. It would be easy to simply accept the status quo and focus on “internal” issues as our forces return to a more relaxed, pre-9/11 tempo, but that would be unwise when viewed through a national-security lens. As Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work wrote:

The demonstrated ability of the U.S. to assemble large Joint expeditionary forces, to transport them across transoceanic distances, and to project decisive American military power ashore through and from the littorals—in all potential access conditions—marks the U.S. military as a global military super power, and underwrites U.S. regional deterrence. This capability should be retained, and exercised frequently. 13

1. RADM J. C. Wylie, USN (Ret.), Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control , ed. John B. Hattendorf (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989) 33.

2. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat , 2nd Edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 249–50.

3. The percentage of aircraft carriers in the battleforce from 1989–2012 grew to 3.87 percent from 2.58 percent; submarines grew to 20.42 percent from 17.01 percent.

4. See Robert O. Work, “On Sea Basing,” Reposturing the Force; U.S. Overseas Presence in the Twenty-first Century , Carnes Lord, ed., Newport Paper 26, Naval War College, February 2006, 95–181; Robert O. Work and Andrew F. Krepinevich, A New US Global Posture for the Second Transoceanic Era (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2007).

5. Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press–USA, 1999), 218–220.

6. Wylie, Military Strategy , 160.

7. For more on amphibious strategic and operational benefits see: Colin S. Gray, “Amphibious Operations” in The Oxford Companion to Military History , Richard Holmes, ed. (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49–52; and LTCOL F. G. Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “21st Century Amphibious Capability; Strategic and Operational Advantages,” Marine Corps Gazette , December 2011, 8–14.

8. B. H Liddell Hart, Deterrent or Defense (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1960) 128.

9. Richard B. Frank, “The Amphibious Revolution,” Naval History , August 2005, 20–26.

10. Robert C. Rubel, “Command of the Sea: An Old Concept Surfaces in a New Form,” Naval War College Review , Autumn 2012, 31–32.

11. Sam Fellman, “Civilians to join the gator fleet next year,” Navy Times , 22 November 2010.

12. ADM John C. Harvey Jr., USN, and COL P. J. Ridderhof, USMC, “Keeping our Amphibious Edge,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , July 2012, 36–40.

13. Robert O. Work briefing, “Winning the Race: A Naval Fleet Platform Architecture for Enduring Maritime Supremacy” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 1 March 2005, Slide 147.

Lieutenant Colonel Hammond served in Operation Desert Storm and commanded an artillery battery during the amphibious landing operations into Mogadishu, Somalia, in December 1992. Before retiring in 2005, he was an analyst in Headquarters Marine Corps’ Strategic Initiative Group and director of the Commandant’s Staff Group.


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