Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has proposed canceling production of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, an amphibious system the Marine Corps has been developing to move troops from ship to shore in forcible entry operations. The main complaint Gates has with the program is that it costs too much, but since the existing amphibious vehicle is four decades old and cancellation will result in another decade of delays before it is replaced, the defense secretary had to offer some operational rationale for his decision.
So in the months leading up to the announcement the program was being targeted for termination, Gates and several key subordinates began building the case for a new "concept of operations" in amphibious warfare. The new concept is dangerously naive, and will probably end up getting Marines killed. Let's go through the steps in official thinking as reflected in recent pronouncements by Gates and other officials, to see whether their reasoning makes any sense.
-- "We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again -- especially as advances in antiship systems keep pushing the launch point further from shore." (Gates)
-- "On a more basic level, in the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?" (Gates)
-- "The Navy-Marine Corps team thus needs to think in terms of a joint approach that seeks to gain entry then develop and secure a lodgment of sufficient breadth and depth as part of a joint campaign." (Navy Under Secretary Robert O. Work)
-- "The Navy-Marine team will never contemplate littoral maneuver until an enemy's battle network, capable of firing dense salvos of guided weapons, is suppressed... Air Force bombers, naval strike assets, Marine reconnaissance, and special operations forces would work to degrade and destroy enemy antiship capabilities." (Work)
-- "Once the [Joint Force Commander] judged the risks to be acceptable, Marines would then land at a time and place of their choosing... Unlike in the past, then, no [Joint Force Commander] will equate a theater-entry operation with a rapid, decisive operation conducted along tight timelines." (Work)
-- "The Marine Corps is not going to be defined by its programs. It is going to be defined by the capability it brings to the fight." (Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, Marine Corps Combat Development Command)
To summarize, enemy acquisition of anti-ship weapons and other precision-guided munitions has made it too dangerous to go ashore early in a war, and the Marines therefore need to rely on other services to defeat defenders before risking an amphibious landing.
So what's wrong with that reasoning?
First, few littoral nations can sustain a dense barrage of anti-ship missiles for long because they lack the technology and skills. Even those who possess such capabilities must disperse them along coastlines that measure hundreds or thousands of miles in length.
Second, the notion that we know what the most likely future warfighting scenarios are is wrong. The U.S. intelligence community failed to anticipate every major strategic development from Pearl Harbor to the Tet Offensive to 9-11. And scaling back U.S. amphibious capabilities will encourage scenarios currently deemed unlikely.
Third, planning for joint operations means relying on other services to show up in a timely fashion. What if the handful of bases that the Air Force relies on to operate in any given region are destroyed or closed by host nations? What if the Army is too far away to help, or occupied dealing with some other threat?
Fourth, the expectation defenders can be deprived of their antiship capabilities through the application of air power is optimistic. U.S. long-range strike aircraft are a decrepit assortment of aging airframes that probably cannot sustain operations for long against a capable adversary.
Fifth, war often presents attacking forces with the need to act quickly if they are to avert defeat or some other disaster. Perhaps an adversary is in danger of seizing nuclear weapons or killing hostages if action is not taken immediately. In such circumstances, the Marines can't simply wait until it's safe before going ashore, they have to move now.
Sixth, you can't separate Marine capabilities from the warfighting systems they possess. If the Corps lacks a survivable, well-equipped vehicle for conducting opposed landings, then it will be out of the forcible entry business. That's why every Commandant for the last two decades (until now) has insisted that the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was indispensable to future amphibious operations.
I could go on, but you get the point. Pentagon policymakers have invented a series of convenient pretexts for killing EFV, but those pretexts don't have much to do with the real world. In the real world, circumstances often present warfighters with horrible choices that cannot be avoided, like going ashore at Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima despite withering fire from heavily entrenched defenders.
The challenge in planning for war isn't to imagine ways we can avoid making hard choices, but making sure we are prepared when those choices arise. The Pentagon's new thinking on amphibious warfare doesn't do that, and it therefore dooms future warfighters to going ashore with less firepower and protection than they might need to survive.