The questionable future of amphibious assault

Tanks take part in the Amphibious Assault Demonstration during the Cobra Gold multilateral military exercise in Hat Yao Beach, Sattahip District, Chonburi Province, Thailand February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Just when you thought you’d heard everything, here’s a new shocker: The Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General David Berger, has just declared the obsolescence of large-scale amphibious assault. It is almost as if John Madden had just said that in the NFL, it will no longer be important to run the football.

General Berger has been the nation’s top Marine, and a member of the joint chiefs of staff, since 2019. Last summer, he issued planning guidance that suggested strongly that the Marine Corps should move away from building so many large amphibious ships, citing their vulnerability to precision-guided weapons. However, that proposal will not necessarily carry the day; Congress gets to write defense appropriations bills, and ultimately all President Trump can do is either sign or veto.

But it was still probably the single most interesting new idea in last year’s defense debate, building on the earlier overall national defense strategy of Secretary of Defense James Mattis to revitalize the nation’s attention to deterrence of great-power conflict in this high-technology era — a strategy that Secretary Mark Esper has subsequently said he will continue to seek to implement.

Now, General Berger has gone a step further. In the latest Marine Corps Gazettehe writes the following:

A focus on a pacing threat that is both a maritime power and a nuclear power eliminates entirely the salience of large-scale forcible entry operations followed by sustained operations ashore. Such operations are problematic even in the case of the lesser rogue regime threats, as both of those identified in the NDS [National Defense Strategy] are also either nuclear or near-nuclear powers.

Berger is referring to China and Russia when he writes of a “pacing threat,” and to North Korea and Iran when he describes “lesser rogue regime threats.” Berger then goes on to acknowledge that a certain degree of amphibious capability is still a prudent arrow in the nation’s collective quiver of military options:

This does not mean that forcible entry is no longer a capability the Nation might require at some level—merely that the requirement will be, for the foreseeable future, limited in scale, and focused specifically on the need to provide assured access for elements of the Naval or Joint force rather than as a precursor to sustained Marine Corps operations ashore.

But Berger intends to be a revolutionary, and he makes sure later in the article that no one will misinterpret his radical intentions with the following blunt and iconoclastic argument:

Even if there were a strong and credible requirement for large-scale forcible entry operations, such operations could not be carried out in the face of an adversary that has integrated the technologies and disciplines of the mature precision strike regime. As I noted in my Planning Guidance, the days of massed naval armadas nine miles offshore from some contested feature are long over.

Berger’s ideas almost smack of apostasy, so directly do they counter Marine Corps traditions. To be sure there is no mistaking him, Berger not only wraps his case in technical analyses of recent trends in precision-strike weaponry, but even directly challenges the service’s core culture and belief system — persuasively explaining why fabled Marine Corps battles of yesteryear will not be replicated in the future:

It has been traditional in the Marine Corps to note that “naysayers” have taken this position since the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and to point to the U.S. Naval Services’ success in the interwar period in developing techniques of amphibious warfare that would prove the naysayers wrong. It is essential to note that the true lesson of this story is that the innovators of the 1930s created a complex of then-revolutionary ideas and technologies to solve the then-salient problem of the strongly opposed amphibious assault. The force we have today, with the notable but operationally insufficient exception of rotary-wing vertical envelopment, is an incrementally-advanced, higher-tech version of that same 1930s solution. We now must recognize that time has flowed on. Our problems today, in terms of threat, geography, and technology (among other considerations) are not those of the 1930s. With respect to the effects of land-based precision fires, especially those launched from the homeland of a nuclear-armed great power, the naysayers of the 1930s are now simply the realists of the 2020s.

If Berger is right about trends in weaponry and warfare, the implications do not stop with the future of the nation’s fleet of over 30 amphibious ships (owned by the Navy, but designed to carry a total of several tens of thousands of Marines and their equipment). Each of the other services needs to rethink core priorities, too. For example, whether the Navy’s large-deck aircraft carriers are survivable or not, they definitely need longer-range combat aircraft (including unmanned variants) to operate effectively against a great power — and thus, to deter conflict from breaking out in the first place. The Air Force needs to accept that forward-positioned airfields in places like Okinawa cannot realistically escape punishing and debilitating attacks in the opening phases of any future war — making their ability to generate combat sorties from such locations highly questionable. The Army, and joint combatant commands, need to recognize that the days of long patient buildups of huge forces prior to the launch of combat operations, as in the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars, will be impractical in the future — and think of more asymmetric, indirect military concepts to achieve U.S. strategic objectives.

The good news is that, at a time of such partisan rancor in the United States, ideas like these enjoy some degree of support on both sides of the aisle. Not only Mattis and Esper, but Republicans like Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas and former Senator John McCain staff director Chris Brose — as well as Democrats like former Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller and former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter — have been pushing similar ideas for several years. But traditions are powerful things in defense circles, and institutional as well as industrial interests are very slow to change. Good on General Berger to continue to pound away at the case for major defense transformation.