Small Wars Journal

The United States Should Rethink Power-Projection Abroad

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 12:05pm

The United States Should Rethink Power-Projection Abroad

Jeong Lee

I get tired of rehashing the same old argument time and again but feel that I must do so yet another time. Of late, I have been getting a lot of feedback on my ground forces merger piece— some positive but mostly negative.

Lest I be misunderstood, I welcome heated and passionate exchanges of ideas. Such discourses are evidence of healthy democracy at work which help to keep things in perspective. In short, robust discussion is what keeps the national security establishment on the cutting edge.

However, it seems that many of my strident critics tend to focus on the operational and tactical minutiae and quaint service traditions when advocating the need for maintaining two separate ground forces. One blogger seemed miffed that my piece does not fully take into account the fundamental differences in raisons d’être and functions between an Army Brigade Combat Team and a Marine Regimental Combat Team. And furthermore, he declaimed in a condescending manner that my piece overlooks the importance of “ability to fight combined arms and services” which enables the troops to possess “overwhelming combat power, both to quickly achieve objectives, and minimize losses to our force.”

To this, I should point out that even though both the United States Army and the Marine divisions successfully delivered a crushing blow to Saddam Hussein’s ragtag army in the early days of its invasion of Iraq through “shock and awe,” they found themselves ultimately mired in  protracted  and unwinnable counterinsurgency campaigns, not necessarily because of insufficient boots on the ground or the failure to execute counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, but because policymakers were incapable of accurately gauging the desire of the “the inhabitants of the Islamic world…[who have become] increasingly intolerant of foreign interference.” Also, his assertion is intrinsically flawed in that it overlooks the unpleasant truth that “the size of the armed forces is not the most telling metric of their strength.”

Worse still, in a risible attempt to rebut my arguments, one reserve Marine captain cites as one of his counterarguments the Marine Corps’ invention of the vertical envelopment tactics during the Korean War to justify his purported “truth” that “a market place of defense ideas is better than a command economy for strategy.” However, the captain blithely ignores in his tired recitation of historical precedents that air mobile warfare, wherein armed gunships provide tactical fire support for the infantry troops, was perfected by the Army and not the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

This does not even take into consideration the fact that many of my critics fail to understand the difference between expeditionary warfare and costly protracted occupation of sovereign territory. As I pointed out in my response to my readers, expeditionary warfare is of short-term nature meant to shock the enemy into submission while a protracted occupation of a foreign territory entails a long-term commitment. As recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show, however, Marines have been performing anything but expeditionary warfare. Instead, they have served as an adjunct to the Army. The same was true during the Vietnam War where regiments from 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions established firebases all over South Vietnam.

Most importantly, many of my critics do not understand that in times of waning national power, there is a better alternative to strident militarism which only alienates the global citizens from the United States. Indeed, Professor Andrew Bacevich, Colonel Gian Gentile, and Tom Engelhardt are correct when they advocate that the United States should pursue “a strategy that accepts war as a last resort and not a policy option of first choice.”  This requires that the United States focus on defending the homeland first before seeking to project its finite military might abroad. Given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have discredited the efficacy of finite military power, it would suit America’s interests to reorient its military towards homeland defense and perhaps pare down its size and functions through a service merger.

Indeed, sorely lacking in criticisms levied against my piece is any discussion on the need to redefine and reorient America’s strategic interests. It shocks me that none of my critics even bothered to ask if the United States really needs to police the world when it doesn't even have the wherewithal to fix its own dysfunctional government. Contrary to the argument that globalization dictates that the United States should continue to maintain military bases abroad to safeguard its commercial interests because “security, prosperity, and vital interests of the United States are increasingly coupled to those of other nations,” it should be noted that many advanced, industrialized maritime nations such as China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Britain are interconnected but are capable of safeguarding their economic interests without stationing their Marines and soldiers on foreign soil. 

Even more important, the United States should make good use of its soft power—its traditional strong suit.  It used to be that people around the world admired what the United States stood for: economic justice, wealth, high quality education as represented through its prestigious research universities and think tanks, high-tech inventions and tolerance for others. However, after having traveled all over Asia, I am not sure that our Asian allies even take the United States seriously.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Secretary Kerry who recently complained about “jokes [emanating from our allies] about whether because we weren’t being paid, one country or another could buy our meals.” This should serve as a sobering reminder to the defense establishment as to what America’s true priorities should be.

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. Lee’s writings on U.S. defense and foreign policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including East Asia Forum, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the World Outline, the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), the Naval Institute’s blog,  RealClearDefense and Small Wars Journal.

About the Author(s)



Fri, 11/15/2013 - 10:52am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


I tend to find it surprising that you cite Walt and Mearsheimer in an argument about understanding the local dynamics better. Both are, in political science parlance, realist theorists who focus on the international system and power rather than internal dynamics of countries, their institutions, or the historical nature of relationships. Not to say that they aren't occasionally right, but they've been challenged to explain a greatly globalized world.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 11/15/2013 - 10:46am

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon


You might be interested in this Stephen Walt post at Foreign Policy which somewhat underscores your points:

<blockquote>More importantly, given all the potential frictions between a rising China and a reigning U.S., what else is he going to do? Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other's red lines and resolve and some agreement on those issues where national interests overlap.


The basic problem is that the two state's core grand strategies are at odds, and good rapport between these two particular leaders won't prevent those tensions from re-emerging down the road.


By contrast, China faces a decidedly unfavorable regional environment. Its relations with India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and several other neighbors are wary at best, and many nearby countries have close security ties or formal alliances with the United States (Imagine how we would feel if Canada were allied with China and Chinese warships had a base in Acapulco). Unlike the autarkic Soviet Union, China is also increasingly dependent on foreign trade to supply with raw materials, energy, and export markets, and this trade must travel through various ocean straits and choke points that leave it vulnerable to blockade. Moreover, its growing dependence on outside resources means that China's interests are increasingly global in nature; in the future, it will not be just a land power worrying mostly about events close to home.

<strong>Here's the rub: as long as the United States retains a significant military presence in Asia and a network of Asian allies, Beijing will have to worry a lot about security in its own region and it won't be able to interfere as often or as effectively in other parts of the world. And as long as this is the case, the United States will have a freer hand in the other places that it cares about.</strong></blockquote>

I think John Mearsheimer made similar points in a talk to the Army War College? It's on YouTube.

If ever a shift from the typical focus on technology to understanding other peoples is needed in the American military, this is the time. And I don't mean the technocratic sociology mumbo-jumbo which failed badly during the whole COIN "era".

I mean, this is REALLY the time. Geez, even with the budget cuts I hope you give some interested young ones a chance to read and study and think and travel within the whole regional set-up. I feel kinda bad for you, I know some would like to do that but it's low hanging fruit, cutting those programs.


Thu, 11/14/2013 - 8:24pm

In my opinion, the reason you have the power to project power abroad is to maximize the likelihood that the war takes place on your enemy's terrain, not yours. America has been largely successful in that arena. The reason you can't merge the Army with the Marines is Constitutional. We can maintain a Navy (with the Marines) and are only supposed to raise an Army when we require one.

As for people who believe that the military will only fight short, decisive conflicts in the future it would be wise to remember that we do not go to war for war's sake. There is a political objective that the military continues to pretend that we can divest ourselves from. As long as spreading democracy is part of our national defense policy there will be long occupations and turning these responsibilities over to State is not an answer.


Sun, 11/17/2013 - 1:43pm

In reply to by Condor

I had a feeling. You were centrally managed, even though your boss was the MEU commander.

My problem with the 53K is, again, it's going to be expensive. The 2011 SAR listed the APUC at $104 million each.

The Army is buying new CH-47Fs for $30-40 million. So you can buy two or three for the price of one CH-53K. Otherwise the K sounds like a fantastic lifter.

Boeing is working on a Block 2 variant of the Chinook that adds another ton of lift, and has thrown out various longer-term options to significantly increase the Chinook's performance. If both services were to get behind it, the cost for either would be lower.


Sun, 11/17/2013 - 1:38am

In reply to by B.Smitty

I'm not sure I can argue with your logic there though I'm a little biased on the 53 since I was a 53 bubba. To be honest though, a 47 will never be able to lift what the 53 can, especially when the K model becomes operational. The Marines actually decided against the mid-life rebuild of the E model after Sikorsky came up with a proposal to build a brand new helo (K) at just a couple million more than a rebuild on the E so not sure on the cost savings to go with a 47. The H-60 would have been the correct choice over the MV-22 IMO.

As far as when I was in Iraq, both times I was with a MEU and therefore our "boss" was the MEU commander. Our tasking came from the Air Tasking Order which was theater wide and came out daily. Of course, our mission could change at a moments notice, even when airborne, if the "eye in the sky" gave us direction that we needed to divert. Long story short, the MEU commander was not calling all the shots. We supported the MEU, but a lot of our tasking involved supporting other units.


Sat, 11/16/2013 - 12:06pm

In reply to by Condor

I'm not a fan of the MV-22 either for the Marines. I would've like to have seen, a navalized CH-47. Pair it with the MH-60S and you don't really need either the MV-22 or CH-53K. Much more money for recapitalizing the AAV, and so on. And upgrade costs can be shared between all of the services.


Sat, 11/16/2013 - 1:36am

In reply to by B.Smitty

Despite being a Marine and a Winger to boot, I'm a huge fan of the A-10s. Having worked with them multiple times I'll tell you that their pilots "get it" when it comes to CAS or CSAR escort duties. I really wish the Marines had got the A-10 and it's a shame the big AF never appreciated it for what it was. The Marines are by no means perfect and I think it was huge mistake to go with the MV-22 as a primary medium lift replacement and the F-35 as a replacement for the AV-8B and F/A-18C aircraft. Both these programs are immensely expensive. The Marines sorely need replacements but I don't think those were the correct choices at the time. I'll answer your operating questions tomorrow when I'm on a computer as iPads aren't the most conducive to big responses. :)


Fri, 11/15/2013 - 1:59pm

In reply to by Condor


Wait, I thought everyone preferred USAF A-10s! ;)

Honestly, I'm sure everyone works to the greatest extent to support their sister services. Recently, we have been lucky that our air resources have been numerous enough to meet most needs.

I'm just pointing out flaws and potential friction in the idea of Penny Packeting out airpower to brigade and below commanders who don't understand the big picture. Even among CAS requests, some are more urgent than others. And some may have a greater impact on the overall campaign than others. Is a Marine Brigade commander going to give up his CAS sorties to another unit if his Marines could use them? What if the other unit was in danger of being overrun and wiped out? What if the Marine CAS needs weren't as dire at that moment? Who should get the sorties?

My point is, that's really for the joint forces commander to decide, not the Marine ground commander. Sometimes choices aren't easy. Maybe it costs Marine lives to divert CAS sorties to another unit. But if it saves that unit from annihilation, then maybe it's worth the cost.

Were you dedicated to a particular Marine ground commander when you were diverted? Or were your missions defined as part of the overall joint air plan?


Fri, 11/15/2013 - 11:24am

In reply to by B.Smitty

First off, you're making assumptions about a future scenario that has yet to play out. If USAF/USN air assets are available for the "deep strike/interdiction" and the USMC assets have been tasked with providing CAS, then it stands to reason that a Commander would choose to let the assets already assigned to the strike mission to go forth while keeping his CAS assets on standby because you never know when the enemy will show up and start the fight with your ground forces. If you commit everything and then suddenly the enemy shows up at your doorstep (maybe another unit that wasn't detected) you're going to need those CAS assets now not later.

Major Rod was correct, if you ask any Army or Marine grunt who they prefer providing CAS, you'll most likely get the answer "Marine Aviation". So doctrinally, if the question is how do we want to allocate our sources, then let the USAF/USN get the missions they prefer and let the Marines keep the missions that they've been executing so well (CAS) since the island hopping days of the Pacific.

And for the record, as a Marine aviator, not once did I ever see a unit (of any service) in contact get denied the support of Marine aviation if it was available. I'm not saying it hasn't happened, but it's rare. Yes, I know there are examples where people have been denied the fire support they were requesting but usually that involves other circumstances such as ROE and politics other than some Marine commander just plain refusing to support the other service in need. Personally, there's been many times I was diverted from my mission to go support a unit in need and not once did it have anything to do with who that unit belonged to. And for the record, I respect the other services aviation assets as they are excellent at what they do and extremely professional in my experiences.


Fri, 11/15/2013 - 10:21am

In reply to by B.Smitty

A third example, same situation only instead of immediate CAS needs, recon assets detect a corps-sized movement of enemy forces towards friendlies, still fairly far away. USAF and USN aircraft are diverted to interdict them but USMC aircraft sit on the sideline. Again, the Marine commander doesn't want to lose HIS sorties because he might need them later. As a result, some enemy forces go un-struck.


Fri, 11/15/2013 - 8:45am

In reply to by major.rod

Penny Packets, Then and Now…

Penny Packeting air power has been a bad idea since air power's inception, and nothing has changed.

For example, an Army brigade comes under assault from enemy forces. The closest air assets belong to Marine brigade operating nearby. Will the Marine brigade commander release his aircraft to support the Army? Nooo. He needs protect his CAS sorties in case he MIGHT need them later. Plus, he doesn't want to give up operational control of HIS assets. Even if he decides to allow their use, the convoluted chain of command takes additional time to clear their use.

Second example, same situation as before only there are USN/USAF air assets available. However, the Marine brigade commander has declared a restricted operating zone over and in front of his forces to allow his aircraft free reign without need to deconflict. Unfortunately this means the USAF/USN aircraft going to assist the Army brigade have to fly AROUND the ROZ, or wait to coordinate overflight rights through the zone. This delays vital CAS to an Army unit.

Air power can influence an entire theater. Fighter aircraft can be anywhere in a 500 mile radius in an hour. This unique ability to rapidly concentrate fires is air power's main benefit. You take that away when you penny packet it out to brigade/battalion commanders.

Vietnam was over 40 years ago. A lot has changed. OIF wasn't high intensity? OEF was WON with integrated CAS and small packets of ground forces. The USAF and Navy have been there for the Army AND Marines in modern times.

The right path is still centralized control but distributed execution.


Fri, 11/15/2013 - 2:52am

In reply to by B.Smitty

It's never a waste when it's your butt on the ground needing air support.

One thing we have seen again and again is that in higher intensity conflicts and non permissive environments (e.g. Korea & Vietnam) the Air Force has had a tendency to not be there for the Army. The Marines have never had that problem. Afghanistan and Iraq will not be the only kinds of fights we'll be engaged in, in the future.

Goldberg's Rand Study, Army-Air Force Relations: The Close Air Support Issue is a seminal work on the subject and we saw many of the same issues arise with the recent effort by the Air Force to seize proponency of all UAV's with the same "efficiency" argument. In the end, the Air Force doesn't want to understand the importance and advantages of organic control of some air assets by the ground commander.


Thu, 11/14/2013 - 2:42pm

In reply to by B.Smitty

Besides, the USMC air power integration is really just rehashed "Penny Packetting" that has been shown time and again to waste an extremely valuable resource.


Thu, 11/14/2013 - 2:16pm

You mean the Army can't fight using combined arms and integrate across services? When did this happen?! I guess the USAF can stop recruiting and training JTACs.

I assume the commenter meant that fixed wing aviation isn't integrated into Army formations the way it is in Marine formations. To that I would say the cost of said integration is too great for the benefit. A Marine MEB requires almost 15,000 Marines to deliver what amounts to a reinforced regiment. The ACE has more Marines in it than the GCE! There are entire Army DIVISION structures that are smaller than 15,000 soldiers. The 101st Airborne Division Ready Brigade used to be around 4,000 soldiers, and that included helo pilots and maintenance, IIRC.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 1:16pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Mark Safranski at War on the Rocks has an interesting piece:

<blockquote>We should exercise great care before we help China train its nascent Navy personnel to be better warfighters. This is historically something a maritime great power does only for a close ally—and then only out of necessity. China is not an ally of the United States; it is basically an important, but unfriendly mercantilist trading partner that would like PACOM and our military alliances to get the hell out of their neighborhood. This is a fundamentally a problem of internal Chinese elite politics and the unrealistic ambitions they generate and one that cannot be solved by continual American military gestures of goodwill that are never reciprocated by Beijing.</blockquote>…

For discussion.


Sun, 11/17/2013 - 11:02am

In reply to by Jason.T

I agree.


Fri, 11/15/2013 - 10:54am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Here, here.

I definitely tend to think leading the relationship with our military presence is a bit over-the-top and should be closely examined through the lens of our potential allies.


Thu, 11/14/2013 - 9:31pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 1:09pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

I always thought the US was over-invested in the Middle East and welcomed a rebalancing to Asia based on changing demographics and economic realites, etc. But I had imagined a larger diplomatic overture within which various specific proposals, including military-to-military relations, would be embedded.

Now I'm worried as I watch a certain vacuum (or drift) being filled with military planning and overtures in place of a larger diplomatic focus.

I hope a militarized pivot doesn't become the Carter Doctrine of the 21st century.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 12:50pm

<blockquote>If you don’t believe me, just ask Secretary Kerry who recently complained about “jokes [emanating from our allies] about whether because we weren’t being paid, one country or another could buy our meals.”</blockquote>

Distance and wealth once created a certain American glamor. Now they see us up close and we are not at our best at the present moment. It has its effects.

<blockquote>Contrary to the argument that globalization dictates that the United States should continue to maintain military bases abroad to safeguard its commercial interests because “security, prosperity, and vital interests of the United States are increasingly coupled to those of other nations,” it should be noted that many advanced, industrialized maritime nations such as China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Britain are interconnected but are capable of safeguarding their economic interests without stationing their Marines and soldiers on foreign soil.</blockquote>

I suppose the standard rebuttal is that without the US, international trade wouldn't happen in a smooth way. It would be a free for all that raises transaction costs for all and the risk of miscalculation.

While I think there is some truth to all of that, such behavior on our part also allows a lot of buck passing. The US is increasingly getting a bum deal in the cost/benefit calculus, IMO. In particular, while we were busy, the Chinese worked the system (and how!), worked hard, and became wealthy. Nationally, anyway, if not always distributed equally. Sounds familiar.

*On having to make the same arguments over and over, I felt like that for many years with my constant complaining around here about the emotional and psychological "crazy" of DC/academia (hawks and doves alike) toward "South Asia". If anything, Washington Consensus doesn't go far enough. Weirdly, sometimes our domestic doves have a US domestic understanding of regions that also creates problems, not just the interventionists of either neoconservative or liberal variety.

I have no explanation for any of it except that a person has to be emotionally ready to accept an argument if it runs counter to everything previously held dear. I know that's been true for me where I've been wrong. A person just has to be emotionally ready or the argument doesn't take sometimes. OTOH, I have a tendency to view everything through a messy human non-rose-colored lens.