Drones, Not Marines? The Changing Face of War

President Barack Obama’s military strategy cuts the Army and Marine Corps in favor of air and naval forces.

President Barack Obama on Thursday unveiled a new defense strategy that prioritizes air force and navy spending at the expense of the Army and the Marine Corps.

In order to trim military spending by $487 billion over the next decade compared to present budget projections, the Army and Marine Corps between them could lose up to 100,000 personnel.

An entire combat brigade is likely be withdrawn from forward deployment in Europe as the focus shifts to the Pacific realm. The Pentagon will lose its theoretical ability to wage two wars simultaneously, instead preparing to win one conflict and deny an enemy victory in another.

How this strategic shift will specifically impact force posture and procurement remains to be seen but with a renewed focus on cyber warfare and unmanned aerial vehicles, there is a clear movement away from counterinsurgency toward a rapidly deployable and flexible air and naval force.

Sea power is certainly critical to American superpower but the era of big naval confrontation, and with it, the era of the supercarrier, may be drawing to a close. Amphibious assault ships, particularly of the landing helicopter dock type, able to deploy fighter jets, helicopters and Marines anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, can project American military force faster and at much lower cost.

Construction of the Nimitz carrier averaged $4.5 billion per ship. The new USS Gerald R. Ford will probably come in over $13 billion. A Wasp class amphibious ship, by contrast, costs $750 million to build while the Navy could buy three America class amphibs for the price of a supercarrier. America is basically a light carrier, the size of France’s Charles de Gaulle.

The recent NATO intervention in Libya was a case in point for the amphibious assault ship. None of the US Navy’s eleven supercarriers was involved in the operation. Instead, the American contribution to Operation Odyssey Dawn was spearheaded by the USS Kearsarge and its four Harrier jump jets. Its capabilities may pale in comparison to the fifty fixed-wing aircraft that a carrier brings to the fore but for a military effort that was supposed to be limited in time and scope, it did the job.

Light interventions like Libya are likely to happen again when tumult in failed or failing states threatens regional stability and trade; when nations become a breeding ground for international terrorism; when shipping lanes are menaced.

Nearly all of America’s wars since the end of World War II have been of the light intervention kind or they started out that way. Vietnam and Iraq escalated and became prolonged ground wars. President Obama himself intensified the battle in Afghanistan to wage a deadly counterinsurgency campaign there. Does it make sense to shed the ability to do what used to be called guerilla in favor of a massive Pacific war that’s unlikely to happen?

After Vietnam, the armed forces dismantled their counterinsurgency capabilities. Humanitarian interventions in Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s were handled relatively well in spite of reductions but when the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq morphed into protracted ground campaigns during the middle of the last decade, the Army and Marines had to learn on the job and invest massively in training and rapid procurement to turn the tide of the war.

There is a real danger that if these investments are now discarded to prepare for a war with China that will not happen, they will have to be made again, at far greater expense, if ever an intervention takes longer than expected.