First, international political realities and the internationally agreed-to sovereign rights of nations will increasingly limit the sustained involvement of American permanent land-based, heavy forces to the more extreme crises. This will make offshore options for deterrence and power projection ever more paramount in support of our national interests.
Second, the naval dimensions of American power will re-emerge as the primary means for assuring our allies and partners, ensuring prosperity in times of peace, and countering anti-access, area-denial efforts in times of crisis. We do not believe these trends will require the dismantling of land-based forces, as these forces will remain essential reservoirs of power. As the United States has learned time and again, once a crisis becomes a conflict, it is impossible to predict with certainty its depth, duration and cost.
That said, the U.S. has been shrinking its overseas land-based installations, so the ability to project power globally will make the forward presence of naval forces an even more essential dimension of American influence.
The triumvirate of used-to-be’s characteristically laud the maneuver space of the sea, which offers unparalleled access to vast swathes of the world’s population. The expressed desire to counter “anti-access, area-denial efforts” is the current code language for the military threat represented by rising China.
Where the Chairman is visiting to re-assure Beijing that the US has no interest in “taking sides” in any regional struggle for dominance, but rather seeks only to ensure that differences are settled amicably:
The United States will maintain its presence in the South China Sea but will show no prejudice toward any side involved in the territorial dispute there, the top US military officer said on Sunday.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, also expected the US and Chinese militaries to develop “more tangible relations” that match Beijing’s rising role and its deepening relations with Washington.
“The worry, among others that I have, is that the ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation, and an outbreak that no one anticipated,” Mullen said at a news conference at the start of his four-day visit to China on Sunday morning, referring to rising tensions in the South China Sea, where several nations in the region hold territorial claims.
“We have an enduring presence here, we have an enduring responsibility. We seek to strongly support the peaceful resolution of these (differences),” he said.
The visit came after the US and the Philippines held an 11-day joint naval exercise in the South China Sea.
The Marine Corps, for its part, is re-tooling itself back to its maritime roles and missions in preparation for reduced occupation and COIN responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan:
While the public focus since 9/11 has remained on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military at large has continued to provide the global public good of keeping the international system humming by, among other things, protecting the international seaways, building indigenous capacity to take care of security challenges, and responding to brewing problems to make sure they don’t get out of hand. Some call this policing the American empire; others call it managing the security aspects of globalization. Whatever your preference and mindset, it may be fair to describe the Marines as, to borrow a term from Robert Kaplan, imperial grunts.
All this provides the raison d’être for Exercise Mailed Fist. While the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years is understandable (it has been, after all, the national priority since 9/11), the Marine Corps worries that Iraq and Afghanistan missions have not only made the Corps too heavy and bulky but also that the counter-insurgency fight have splintered the force, and that this has left each and every part of the Corps focused on supporting its specific role in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. Mailed Fist is designed to bring all of the components back together, and allowing them to exercise their capabilities from soup to nuts, ranging from logistics and flight operations support in austere locations, to conducting air strikes in a forced entry scenario. Ultimately, the Marine Corps is seeking to recreate that slimmer, expeditionary, and pre-Iraq and Afghanistan force that can go back to the fleet, integrate with the Navy, and respond to emerging crisis scenarios around the world.
The Marine Corps has never been an organization to dodge a fight, even if that meant going in heavy in land-locked Afghanistan. But as the public support for wars in distant lands wanes, and mushrooming national deficits cry out for trimming, the service is intent on once again differentiating itself from the US Army by focusing on its expeditionary roots.
Taken together, this is a conversation of many parties: The retirees are speaking to policy elites in the US about the importance of naval power in an attempt to ensure that the coming restructuring of the Department of Defense takes into account our island status, dependence upon the sea lanes for commerce , emerging threats to those sea lanes, and the resources that travel upon them and – increasingly – lie beneath them.
The Chairman is manfully attempting to reassure China that the US does not pick sides in regional differences while telling regional allies that China’s rise can be managed peacefully and that the US still has a role to play. It’s a delicate balancing act meant to ensure that China does not pick off regional actors one by one, engage in a regional provocation and – perhaps most importantly – to prevent China’s neighbors from sniffing the winds and deciding to realign with the emerging hegemon, closing Washington out.
And finally, the Corps is speaking to Congress, to shape perceptions that the American people are not, in fact, paying for two land armies, when one ought to suffice.
The first and last conversations are about spending cuts. The central one, both literally and figuratively, is about roles and missions.
We are retrenching, and difficult choices will have to be made. Meanwhile, a near-peer competitor is rising, former certitudes are being swept away and new ones are eager to assert themselves. Everything trembles in the balance.
We continue to live in interesting times.