Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fuggedaboudit!

When it comes to its military preparedness, the United States seems caught in a repetitive boom and bust loop. We are entering the bust backstretch at a time we can least afford to.

At the close of the Second World War, a nation that had almost miraculously mobilized for (and won) a global total war and built the most incredible fighting force ever assembled on the planet, before or since, just as quickly de-mobilized and dismantled the vast majority of its land, sea, and air forces. In the short three and one half years that marked the United States' active participation in the great mid-20th Century conflagration, that nation took several unproved warfighting theories from the drawing board to practical application, combining theoretical vision, technical know-how, and an unmatched industrial base to build a strategic air force, a carrier battle group-centric navy, a mechanized/armored army, and amphibious forces. The latter, viewed as wasteful in terms of manpower and irrelevant in future warfare, and the Marine Corps whose stock in trade had become amphibious warfare, were placed on the chopping block of defense downsizing and efficiency.

Here we are again.

The Colonel has been blessed to work for many fine leaders and mentors over the years and one of the best of them, John Keenan (in whose regiment the Colonel served as a battalion commander and regimental executive officer), now Editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, writes http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/august-editorial in the August issue of that fine professional journal, that our Corps faces challenges to its existence today as great as those it faced in the post-WWII years. Colonel Keenan references the earth-shattering news that for the first time in its storied 235 year history, the Marine nominated to be the next Commandant is not a ground combat officer, but (gasp!) an aviator. In the classic Brooklynese for which he was beloved by his Marines, Keenan dismisses the uproar over this "break with tradition" with "fuggedaboudit!"

Now, there's some fratricidal fog-clearing for you!

General Granville (callsign: "Granny") Amos will, if confirmed, inherit the reins of a Marine Corps faced with hard questions about its relevance and place in an "efficient" U.S. military establishment. While Marines like to boast that we provide nearly 15% of U.S. combat power for 5% of the Defense budget, the need for the primary mission (amphibious operations--i.e., opposed landings on hostile shores) for which the Corps equips and trains, is once again up for debate.

MacArthur's master-stroke amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea, 60 years ago this September, helped put down the anti-amphibious movement for a time, but the exigencies of our oft-warned against "land war in Asia" (Vietnam; where, from a macro view, the Marine Corps' battlefield activities were scarcely distinguishable from those of the Army) and the fearsome capabilities of our primary enemy (the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact) during the Cold War, relegated amphibious capabilities to the back burner. After Vietnam, the Navy did build some new, more capable, amphib ships, and Marines did get some new battlefield weapons systems, but fielding of actual ship-to-shore systems has been, for all practical purposes, non-existent. The amphibious vehicle with which the Marine Corps would conduct an opposed landing on a hostile shore today, is (with some up-gunning) the same vehicle Marines have had since the early 1970s. Ditto the vast majority of the Marine Corps' helicopter fleet.

And, that's the problem.

The Marine Corps has greatly-improved ship-to-shore systems in the pipeline. The amazing and revolutionary tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey is slowly replacing the CH-46 helicopter (introduced in 1964!). But, the Osprey is very expensive. And, don't get the Colonel started on the mis-information campaign that has been waged by the conventional helicopter lobby, who would have you believe that the Osprey is too dangerous and not very effective. Suffice it for the Colonel to say--t'ain't so! In the Colonel's not-so-humble opinion, the Osprey is magic.

To replace, the aging, 7 miles-per-hour in the water, amphibious assault vehicle (AAV-7), the Corps has been developing a new high-speed (40 knots in the water and capable of keeping up with the speedy M-1 tank on land) Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV)--the cost of which makes the Osprey look cheap, by comparison. The EFV is still years away from operational service--if ever.

We won't even talk about the enormous cost of the V-STOL Marine version of the still-in-development F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, needed to replace the aging AV-8B Harrier.

So, the real quandary for defense planners and budgeticians is, even if one can make a very good case for the need for the Marine Corps specialty of launching from ships and kicking the bad guy's door down to allow the Army to enter and do what they do best (and, nobody does it better), how does the United States afford to field a state-of- the-art amphibious capability?

The short answer is, surprisingly the Colonel is sure, for the five of you who regularly waste rod and cone time perusing posts hereon and know of the Colonel's feelings for his beloved Corps, No.

No, the United States cannot afford to maintain a credible modern amphibious capability, and a Marine Corps dedicated to, and trained and equipped for, that mission.

But, the Colonel will argue, not-so-surprisingly for the five of you who regularly waste rod and cone time perusing posts hereon, that the United States cannot afford not to maintain a Marine Corps equipped and trained for amphibious warfare.

First, while the Colonel can quickly and easily draw up on a napkin the plan, organization, and training required for subsuming the Marine Corps into the United States Army as the 1st Amphibious Corps, the truth is that America wants there to be a separate and distinct Marine Corps. Marines have a place in the American psyche. No efficiency study will ever include that fact, but that doesn't make it any less so.

Second, the Colonel is one of a dwindling few, it seems, who still believes in American Exceptionalism. Attendant to that belief is the sure knowledge that America, with the responsibility for guarding the principles of freedom, as only America can, must never succumb to the miasma of defeatism, also known as "isolationism." We must keep all of the capabilities needed to keep the peace, or restore it by force of arms. We must be ready to answer any call for help. When we find ourselves incapable of answering those calls, we will no longer be exceptional.

So, to those who will in the coming months and years, in the name of cost-cutting, argue for elimination of unpopular and expensive military capability (such as amphibious warfare), the Colonel, with apologies to his mentor, says, Fuggedaboudit!
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