UPDATE: Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work sent me a response to this essay. You will find his response in the comments below.
Yesterday I attended a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies delivered by Robert Work, the Undersecretary of the Navy. Work, a retired Marine Corps colonel and a former analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, discussed the prospects for the U.S. Marine Corps after Afghanistan (see also this SWJ entry).
Work made it clear that he and the Navy Department are planning to return the Marine Corps to its naval roots. Most important, Work defended the amphibious assault mission and asserted that the Navy Department will ensure that the Marine Corps will be prepared to execute a two-brigade amphibious assault even as adversaries acquire more sophisticated precision weapons.
Work explained that the United States needs to maintain substantial power projection capabilities -- including the ability to execute large-scale amphibious assaults -- if it wishes to maintain the credibility of its security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region. Work dismissed the argument that large opposed amphibious assaults are obsolete because the United States hasn't performed one since Inchon. Work explained that the circumstances of the Cold War resulted in large forward deployments of U.S. ground and air forces, thus temporarily removing the requirement for large combined arms power projection capability. In the future by contrast, the closing of overseas bases will renew the requirement for combined arms power projection capability, including large amphibious assaults. Work believes that large amphibious assaults will be extremely rare events. But, according to Work, allies will not consider U.S. security guarantees to be credible if the U.S. does not retain and exercise this capability.
In his speech earlier this year to the Navy League, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wondered how opposed amphibious assaults will be viable when adversaries possess precision munitions, known as "G-RAMM" -- guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles. Work said that he and his colleagues are preparing a formal response to Gates.
Work gave a brief outline of that response. First, an adversary G-RAMM capability requires sensors (radar) and an electronic command and control network. Work expressed confidence that U.S. joint forces will be able to achieve electronic network dominance over an adversary in an amphibious objective area. Second, Work noted the difficulty of defending against a modern amphibious assault. Concentrated adversary forces, either at a landing site or in a mobile reserve, will be vulnerable to U.S. precision attack. U.S. landing forces, by contrast, aided by platforms such as V-22, LCAC, and EFV, have a very wide variety of insertion options. In addition, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed the Marine Corps to perfect distributed operations, which will also be an effective technique during amphibious assaults. Finally, Work is counting on the participation of Air Force long-range strike and Army parachute BCTs as force multipliers in a joint campaign.
A panel discussion that followed shed a little rain on Work's presentation. Dakota Wood, also a retired Marine Corps officer and Work's former colleague at CSBA, discussed the growing gap between the Marine Corps's operational dreams and the Pentagon's budget realities. Wood noted the Navy's mounting problems with amphibious ship-building; the severe cost overruns with F-35, EFV, and V-22; the Marine Corps's new weight problem; and the Pentagon's general problem with personnel costs which particularly hurt the manpower-intensive Marine Corps. Wood predicted that budget pressures would cause the Marine Corps to shrink from 202,000 heads to 175,000 with proportional cuts in infantry battalions and acquisition programs.
The QDR Independent Panel called on the Pentagon to increase its attention on Asia-Pacific and to bolster the Navy. If the U.S. is to maintain its credibility in that region, it needs to show that it can project power there. The Marine Corps is a major part of that display of credibility. What remains to be seen is whether Robert Gates and the Congress agree with Robert Work's assessment.