Features | Security | East Asia

Why U.S. Needs Amphibious Skills

Amphibious combat capabilities are vital to the U.S. military. This is no more so than in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Amphibious warfare.” To most Americans, the term conjures up images from HBO’s The Pacific, where U.S. Marines assault the beaches of Pacific islands on their way to Tokyo. Sure, it served its purpose in World War II, but are we ever going to need to fight our way onto a beach again? A decade of combat in the Middle East has only strengthened the opinion that the Marine Corps may be a muscular instrument of warfare, but its amphibious tradition is now ancient history.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Navy-Marine Corps team’s ability to conduct joint amphibious operations bestows the United States with a range of unique capabilities that will be in high demand in tomorrow’s uncertain security environment, specifically in the Indo-Pacific maritime region.

The advantages of maritime power, and specifically amphibious operations, are many. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, captured these unique capabilities best in a September 2011 letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Panetta. By one account, since 1990 the Marine Corps has conducted some 120 amphibious operations, including amphibious raids, demonstrations of force, reinforcement of U.S embassies, humanitarian relief, and evacuations of non-combatants from conflict zones.

Amphibious forces are ideal for addressing many of the challenges we face in the Indo-Pacific region. The maritime character of the region, the geographic “tyranny of distance” it presents, the range of environmental crises that often impact the region, the threat of piracy that has affected maritime traffic in the Horn of Africa and Strait of Malacca, the tensions that often inflict the Korean Peninsula, and the modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) combined with its maritime territorial disputes, all stand to raise the profile of amphibious forces in the years ahead. A brief review of some of the capabilities an amphibious force can provide makes this abundantly clear. They can:

— Deter aggression, because their amphibious nature can provide credible forward-presence to respond rapidly in a crisis;

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— Sustain operational access almost anywhere in the world, regardless of political or geographic hurdles; 

— Provide ground forces in a combat zone where roads, ports, or airfields are not available;

— Complicate an opponent’s decision-making and impose new costs by multiplying the number of theaters they must seek to defend, stretching their resources and manpower. This was used to great effect during the Gulf War in 1991 when the Marines massed a large force off Iraq’s coast, luring Saddam Hussein’s forces away from the U.S.-led coalition’s main operations;  

— Conduct counter-piracy operations;

— Conduct humanitarian and disaster response missions; and

— Assure allies of the United States’ credibility and capability to intervene decisively.

But we have work to do. In a blog post from last year, Adm. John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, wrote that the military has neglected the Navy-Marine Corps team’s core amphibious competency of: “prompt and sustained amphibious expeditionary operations from the sea” over the last decade during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To sharpen its skills, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will undertake their largest amphibious exercise in a decade, Bold Alligator 2012 (BA-12). This joint and multinational amphibious assault exercise, which I will attend as an observer, will take place this week and include participants from Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom. Over a two week period, BA-12 will include three large-scale events, including an amphibious assault at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; an aerial assault from the sea into Fort Pickett, Va.; and an amphibious raid on Fort Story, Va.

For its part, Congress must recognize the value of our Navy-Marine Corps’ amphibious capabilities in our naval arsenal, and support this team with the financial resources their mission requires. While the Marine Corps has stated its objective of maintaining 38 amphibious ships to meet Combatant Commander demands, the current FY12 30-year shipbuilding plan provides for only 33. This places the Combatant Commander demand of 18 ships well above the average of 9.2 ships the Navy was able to provide for deployment from 2007 to 2010. Even more disconcerting, despite the Obama administration’s emphasis on the Asia-Pacific theater and naval forces in its new Strategic Guidance, it now plans to cut two older LSD-41 class dock landing ships and delay the next LHA-7 amphibious assault ship. These cuts and delays represent a trend in the wrong direction. 

As we proceed into the 21st century, sea power will take on an increasingly important role in our national defense policy. Bold Alligator 2012 will provide a stage for our amphibious forces to not just hone their skills, but to demonstrate the utility of their amphibious capabilities to elected officials and the broader Nation. I look forward to being a partner in this effort to enhance the capability of the Navy-Marine Corps team and articulate its enormous utility to the American public and our friends and allies.

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Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus.