I have often noted our military’s inability to move beyond the Cold War and the hazards we face in building weapons systems for types of enemies that no longer exist, and which will never exist again due to peak oil and climate change. There is an older, deeper flaw in our national defense doctrine which I became aware of in a piecemeal fashion, and which finally crystalized when I read How the U.S. and Its Allies Got Stuck with the World’s Worst New Warplane.
The United States Marine Corps and Navy were the forces that won the war in the Pacific, while the Army and Air Force did the same in Europe. Seventy years have passed since the Marines huddled on Guadalcanal, defended by a small number of fighters, while the Navy withdrew after the loss of four cruisers to Imperial Japan’s superior torpedoes and night fighting abilities. Our last amphibious assault was Operation Chromite, sixty three years ago.
And yet the Marine Corps wields great influence in our acquisitions for sea, land, air, and this misdirection of resources is a doctrinal problem which Congress must address before it gets any worse.
The Navy planned to build three of the America class LHA but this effort has stalled with just one ship completed. LHA, short for landing helicopter assault, is a label that has been applied to vessels which have a well deck for amphibious operations and an aviation deck accessed by aircraft elevators. The America lacks the well deck and at half the size of our other flattops the Marines of World War II would call this a “jeep carrier“. This name was slang for the escort carriers, some fifty of which were built to protect convoys and landing forces. This class is a solution looking for a problem that has not existed for two generations.
USS America LHA-6 (2008)
The America class was to be home to the deeply troubled F-35B, the VTOL version of the F-35. This aircraft is meant to replace the aging AV-8B Harrier. The idea of a fighter that can take off and land vertically is enticing but in practice they are badly compromised, carrying light loads and little fuel, resulting in the ability to provide short duration strike missions, but not the loitering support ground battles require. The design criteria forced on the F-35 in order to support VTOL make the airstrip based F-35A and the carrier based F-35C dramatically less capable than if they had been designed without the need for a lift fan.
F-35B Vertical Landing
The cancelled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was an internal Marine Corps project intended to produce an amphibious assault vehicle capable of over the horizon deployment, keeping the large transport vessels safely out of reach of mines and shore based cruise missiles. This project sucked up resources and roadblocked the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which became the single largest land system acquisition ever, after one lone Marine did the right thing for our troops. This was a system designed for a type of battle that had not been seen in fifty years when the project was initiated.
Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle
Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Ramsey, the officer that led the Army’s last cavalry charge on Bataan in 1942 died earlier this spring, seventy one years after the event and sixty three years after the U.S. eliminated the last vestiges of horse cavalry. And yet horses were pressed into service in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The horses returned because they were precisely the right thing for a small force trying to fit into a forbidding land occupied by an ancient culture largely unchanged by the modern world. This is not going to happen for the amphibious assault force.
The cure for what ails the Marine Corps is deconstruction. The Marine Expeditionary Unit is a doctrinal dead end, an artifact from a time before cruise missiles. Since the Cold War’s end the Army has evolved from divisions of heavy armor to the Stryker Brigade concept and they’ll continue that trend of smaller, faster operating units. The Army has an advantage here, as their large formations are made up of many small pieces, no larger than what a C-5 Galaxy can carry.
Stop seeing the MEU and the associated Expeditionary Strike Group as an indivisible entity. Take inventory – ships and boats, helicopters and vehicles. Put it all on the table and present experienced commanders with realistic scenarios – Beirut in 1983, Mogadishu in 1993, or the seemingly imminent Russian evacuation of Tartus. Then add relief operations into places with sketchy security and the patrol of pirate hotspots like the Gulf of Aden.
The future Marine Corps is certain to be very different than the one we have today; peak oil and climate change are going to force that upon us. Where the Army is going smaller and faster, the Marine Corps may find a niche being smaller and slower, but much more rugged than other alternatives. An LHA takes days instead of hours to reach a trouble spot, but all it needs is a bit of beach, rather than the prepared, defended runway required by our cargo aircraft. This integrated shipping aspect of our big amphibians is an under-utilized strength that will increase in importance as oil supplies decline and global warming creates more troubles in coastal areas.