The security environment has changed in two significant ways that affect the Marine Corps and the assured-access mission. The first is that the past decade has seen some erosion of certain aspects of the U.S. military’s edge over likely foes. Among the most concerning elements of that trend is the diffusion among potential adversaries of anti-access and area-denial weapons and tactics. Most notably, China and Iran are investing in antiship cruise missile and antiship ballistic missile technologies; advanced integrated air defenses; guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles (known collectively as G-RAMM); mines; and irregular warfare tactics, such as swarming small boats. 3
Those capabilities are meant to establish “no-go” zones for U.S. forces in the event of a conflict, and even to deter them from venturing into certain areas in peacetime. Anti-access strategies aim to deny the United States the ability to mass forces near a target area, disrupt basing and logistics, and asymmetrically counter high-end U.S. military capabilities that it has been able to use previously with impunity. The anti-access threat likely will force naval vessels to keep farther from the shore, increase the distance that disembarking Marines must travel to reach the shore, and inflict significant losses on vulnerable landing forces.
The effect of the proliferation of such weapons will be to reduce the confidence of U.S. and foreign military and political decision-makers in the effectiveness of America’s existing capabilities for ground-force entry, thereby further reducing its acceptability as a viable military option in all but the most permissive operating environments. Future policymakers are unlikely to call on such a capability if it carries such a high price tag and low probability of success without heavy casualties.
Growth of Capacity-Building
At the same time, a traditionally “low-end” mission—partner capacity-building—is taking on an increasingly important role in U.S. defense strategy. That new emphasis initially emerged as a component of America’s global strategy to combat al Qaeda and its network of affiliates by training, advising, and equipping the security forces of partner governments facing terrorism or insurgency. As the 2008 National Defense Strategy said, “arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves.” 4
U.S. personnel from all services have been involved in security-cooperation and capacity-building missions in a number of countries for much of the past decade. Particularly when compared with the expense and difficulty of direct military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the smaller, subtler “by, with, and through” efforts in the Philippines, Colombia, and Africa provide a more sustainable model for the U.S. military to help offset terrorism in the future.
Yet the utility of that type of military engagement is not limited to counterterrorism. Partner capacity-building and other security-cooperation activities conducted by forward-deployed U.S. military forces are desirable for a variety of reasons: they can help cultivate new political and security relationships, provide access to new bases of operation, and demonstrate U.S. presence and capabilities to allies and adversaries. 5 If matched by concerted diplomatic efforts that foster a shared political vision of threats and opportunities, U.S. military-to-military relationships can provide a crucial lever for influencing regional security dynamics.
The political signal sent by U.S. engagement with partner militaries may be more important than any improvement in host-nation capabilities it may produce by showing American commitment to security and stability in key regions of the world. For example, Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam are interested in a more proactive U.S. security role to help balance Chinese pressure; a persistent security-cooperation and capacity-building presence can help demonstrate U.S. resolve in Asia and provide reassurance to partner countries of the region. 6 Because those measures provide a useful and relatively low-cost means to advance an array of different political and strategic ends, the demand for American forces to participate in such overseas engagements is very likely to grow for the immediate future.
Shifting the Focus to ‘Balance’
As demand for increasingly dangerous high-end forcible-entry missions declines and the call for cooperative engagements with partner militaries grows, the U.S. military as a whole—and the Marine Corps in particular—should reassess its vision of the assured-access mission and the investments in force structure and posture associated with it. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for a strategy of balance, in which the desire to preserve high-end capabilities that are important for deterrence coexists with the growing need for cooperative capacity-building engagements to help secure vulnerable partners and advance U.S. interests. 7 That spirit should guide the Marine Corps to look beyond its concerns about platforms and address the first-order issue of what missions it will shape itself around for the future.
The strategic benefits of the ability to conduct forcible entry are significant enough to warrant maintaining a limited amount of assured-access capacity, though it rarely will be utilized. The major reasons for maintaining any military capability include the degree to which it provides an inherent strategic advantage for the United States and a greater range of options to policymakers in the event of a crisis, which is part of what the military exists to do.
In this case, the ability to assure ground-force access to contested or hostile zones can at least impose costs on potential adversaries, which must shift or expend additional resources to defend against it, such as when the Iraqi military in 1991 diverted its forces in expectation of a U.S. amphibious landing in Kuwait. It may also provide another element of deterrence; the prospect of ground invasion may deter some enemies who would not be deterred by the prospect of air strikes because boots on the ground could physically roll back gains achieved through aggression or hold an enemy’s territory at risk.
Not by EFV Alone
While the benefits are significant, they do not alter the fundamental calculation that this capability is not the most urgent priority for the Marine Corps to address. The high-end assured-access mission is one that seldom will be undertaken, given its cost and complexity. It requires investment across all services in a broad range of capabilities. It cannot be conducted by Marines in EFVs alone; landing ground troops on hostile shores is one of the most complex military operations imaginable, requiring contributions from other services to prepare for the ground attack. The challenges posed by the proliferation of G-RAMM technology will mean that forcible entry is more dependent on those supporting capabilities than on a new ship-to-shore vehicle.
As Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work has noted, the landing of ground forces in hostile zones will have to be preceded by persistent surveillance and reconnaissance of enemy defenses and prolonged aerial and naval strikes to roll back those defenses in advance of an entry operation, requiring further development of the Navy-Air Force AirSea Battle concept. 8 Other necessary supporting capabilities would include mine and antisubmarine warfare, as well as Army Airborne troops. All of those capabilities are necessary for success, and the capability provided by the EFV, or a similar vehicle, is not the decisive factor.
A major forcible-entry operation would only be feasible if conducted with the full range of support described above, and even then potential losses could be prohibitive enough to discourage national decision-makers from such an undertaking. The amount of resources the United States devotes to this mission should be limited. Costly programs like the EFV, focused on the “high-end” forcible-entry mission, throw the Marine Corps out of balance by sinking a disproportionate amount of resources into a platform that will be produced in limited numbers and likely not used except in major-conflict scenarios. Continued fixation on optimizing for this mission will have the effect of making the Marine Corps, which prides itself on being America’s crisis-response force, less useable and useful to national leaders.
Adopting a New Posture
Rather than optimizing the Marine Corps’ force structure and procurement for the high-end, low-probability mission, the more immediate concerns should be to emphasize the likely steady-state operations it will be called upon to perform. The Marine Corps’ posture and capability investments should target cost-effective, versatile platforms that can be procured in large numbers and more widely distributed for capacity-building and security-cooperation missions around the world. While maintaining readiness for the assured-access mission, the day-to-day role of the Marine Corps will be in those areas.
There is no reason those functions should not be a core competency of the Marine Corps. While its popularized image is one of amphibious assault, embodied in the indelible image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, much of its heritage is in “low-end” missions in the Caribbean basin, some of which would be referred to as “security cooperation” or “partner capacity-building” today. 9 Today’s strategic environment suggests a return to that venerable history would be useful. It would not be a continuation of the focus on counterinsurgency as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a renewed focus on persistent forward engagement with the security forces of partner states to cultivate and reassure allies, contributing to overall crisis prevention. It also should appeal to a Marine Corps leadership eager to recapture the service’s naval character; persistent Marine engagement in Southeast Asia and other key regions would have to be enabled and supported by a more robust Navy “influencing” presence. 10
Encouragingly, new Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos has emphasized the importance of forward engagement “to forge partnerships and prevent crises.” 11 Likewise the Marine Corps’ 2010 operational concept includes a major engagement component emphasizing new organizational and training adjustments for security cooperation and capacity-building. 12 But rhetorical commitment to forward engagement must be followed by actions, including new approaches to force structure and posture. Current Marine Corps posture in the Pacific, for example, remains concentrated at large bases on Okinawa and Guam, with only periodic cruises to other parts of the region. The main justification is that Marine forces should be kept together in the event they are needed for a major operation—a position that contradicts the commitment to forward engagement.
The Corps should consider allowing more Marines to be distributed in smaller and more spartan bases with host-nation forces, emphasizing a persistent presence in Southeast Asia to conduct capacity-building and to provide the reassurance that partners are seeking. Additionally, in the procurement realm, the cancellation of the EFV should be used as an opportunity to invest in greater quantities of currently available, versatile amphibious craft and other vehicles that can support capacity-building missions.
Critics will deride such shifts as rendering the Marine Corps less prepared for a major war where high-end capabilities would be needed. Indeed, adopting the approach proposed here would assume some additional risk in readiness for large-scale military operations. Yet prevailing visions of assured-access and Marines storming beaches in EFVs are not compelling ones in today’s security environment, where adversaries have access to more lethal capabilities and American strategy emphasizes crisis prevention. Ultimately, U.S. security and interests will be advanced more by a Marine Corps that is more dedicated to persistent forward engagement and the fostering of relationships with partners than reinvesting in an armada of amphibious vehicles.
1. Cid Standifer, “SAC-D Skeptical of EFV, Cuts Budget and Adds Termination Funds,” Inside the Pentagon , vol. 26, no. 38, 23 September 2010. (In September 2010, a Senate subcommittee voted to provide $38.8 million for a final round of performance and reliability testing, but also supported $185 million in program termination funds to kill the program if it failed.)
See also, “Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) Faces Cost, Schedule, and Performance Risks,” Government Accountability Office, Briefing for the Subcommittee on Defense, Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, GAO-10-758R, 2 July 2010, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10758r.pdf  .
2. Loren B. Thompson, “EFV Debate is Really About the Future of the Marine Corps,” Lexington Institute, 13 July 2010, http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/efv-debate-is-really-about-the-future-...  .
3. See, for example, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Why AirSea Battle? (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010); Caitlin Talmadge. “Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz.” International Security , vol. 33, issue 1 (Summer 2008): pp. 82-117.
4. Department of Defense, National Defense Strategy (June 2008), http://www.defense.gov/news/2008%20National%20Defense%20Strategy.pdf:  p. 8.
5. See, for example, Derek S. Reveron, Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010).
6. See, for example, Edward Wong, “China’s Disputes in Asia Buttress Influence of U.S.,” The New York Times , 23 September 2010.
7. Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2009).
8. Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work, “The Post-Afghanistan Marine Corps,” remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, 3 August 2010, http://csis.org/event/military-strategy-forum-robert-o-work-undersecreta...  .
9. See, for example, the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940), available http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/swm/index.htm  .
10. Henry J. Hendrix, “More Henderson, Less Bonds,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings vol. 136, no. 4 (April 2010).
11. General James F. Amos, Written Responses to Senate Armed Services Committee Advance Policy Questions, 21 September 2010, http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2010/09%20September/Amos%2009-...  4.
12. United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Operating Concepts , 3rd ed. (June 2010): pp. 53-75.