The current National Security Strategy focuses on setting the terms of the geostrategic competition between America and other major powers, notably China and Russia.
According to the National Defense Strategy, which directs how the Department of Defense will pursue the goals set out in the National Security Strategy, the key to successfully competing is to achieve integrated deterrence.
Perhaps the most critical element of integrated deterrence is shaping the security environment in peacetime. As the history of U.S. security actions shows, the overwhelming majority of military operations occur in peacetime. It is here that the U.S. can have the greatest impact on friends and allies, forging closer security relationships that help deter aggression, and preventing the outbreak of major conflict.
Traditionally, U.S. military forces were designed for conflict with major adversaries. Peacetime activities, called “operations other than war,” received less of an emphasis. Forces designed for conflict, with some exceptions, could serve in both high-end conflict and lesser operations.
This may be changing. The focus of U.S defense planning is now on long-term competition with major powers, primarily with China but also Russia. These great powers are capable of fielding large numbers of sophisticated and accurate long-range weapons systems. These capabilities have been organized to create a so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat designed to put U.S. forces at greater risk in general, but especially increasing the risk to large platforms, large land formations, and fixed infrastructure.
All the services are responding to what is viewed as a strategic shift away from low-intensity conflicts and peacetime operations and toward preparing for high-end conflict involving high-volume strikes with long-range precision fires. The most radical change has been by the Marine Corps. Commandant Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 envisions restructuring Marine formations in the Indo-Pacific into small, stand-in forces able to operate within the range of China’s A2/AD capabilities. These forces will employ advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as strike capabilities, in support of the Navy’s distributed maritime operations concept.
According to the new vision, the intensifying A2/AD threat also requires changes to the amphibious warfare fleet. Gen. Berger’s plan for restructuring the Marine Corps was seen by many as undermining the case for large amphibious warships, which he argued were vulnerable in an A2/AD environment. While he later walked back that argument, the damage was done.
The new force design the Marine Corps is pursuing comes at the expense of its ability to support its goals for integrated deterrence. The current focus is on the least likely scenario, a major war with China across the Western Pacific. Biasing the structure of the Marine Corps to a single high-end scenario is undermining the Corps’ ability to support the needs of peacetime presence and crisis response, but portends especially serious troubles for its amphibious warfare fleet. This is particularly troubling since it is the Marine Corps’ peacetime and crisis missions, not its high-end warfighting capabilities, which make the U.S. so attractive to many regional friends and allies.
The Marine Corps is in danger of losing its ability to serve as America’s “911” force, a role in which it has excelled since the end of World War II. This role depends on a robust fleet of large amphibious warfare vessels that can be formed into Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) and a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) that consists of a battalion-size infantry unit and an air detachment with F-35Bs, V-22s, and helicopters.
The ARG/MEU is the complete package, with air support, a flexible ground unit, C4ISR, and humanitarian response capabilities. ARG/MEUs have been the response force of choice in hundreds of crises, personnel evacuations, and humanitarian response missions over the past decades.
ARG/MEUs not only provide visible forward presence and immediate response in the event of a crisis, but also help forge peacetime bonds with local governments. Such relationships are critical to the willingness of these governments to permit the deployment of stand-in forces within their borders. This is the essence of integrated deterrence.
Even before Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps suffered from an insufficiency of the large amphibs needed to form ARGs. The minimum requirement for large amphibs is 31 deployable ships. In reality, the right number of amphibs to maintain continuous deployment of multiple ARG/MEUs and support training requirements is at least 38. The Navy has never supported a number higher than 31.
The Future of Large Amphibious Warships
We can already see the impact of inadequate numbers of amphibs on military operations. The recent evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum was accomplished with Special Operations Forces and CH-47 Chinooks. An ARG/MEU would have been a better choice if a larger, more capable force had been needed to protect evacuees. The Special Operations Forces were also able to take advantage of a U.S. base in the region. In other parts of the world, there might well be no facility from which to stage them.
Commandant Berger now advocates for a fleet of 31 large deck amphibs, a combination of 10 LHAs/LHDs — essentially light aircraft carriers that also can deploy land units — and 21 LPD-17s, both Flights I and II. This number also has been sanctified by Congress in recent legislation.
Yet the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan would undercut the 31-ship goal. There is no money in the FY 2023 Navy budget for the LPD-17 Flight II. The Navy proposes ruminating about the future of large deck amphibs for five years and then investing in a large amphib. Why the Navy thinks there will be a large amphib industrial base in five years is a mystery. Over the next several decades, the number of large amphibs could drop to between 19 and 23.
The future of large amphibious warships actually may be brighter than its critics are aware. There is a strong push inside the sea services to reimagine the role of the amphibious warfare fleet in the context of high-end conflict. The amphibs, either in ARG/MEUs or larger formations, could be a raiding force with the mission of attacking or even occupying critical terrain. In the current international environment, the ARG/MEU will play a vital peacetime role. But there is no way the amphibious warfare force can meet either its current or an expanded number of missions without a fleet that is robust and modern. To that end, the Navy must continue to acquire LPD-17 Flight IIs and LHAs.
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