Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' proposed elimination of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk will do away with more than 6,000 jobs in Virginia. It's the beginnings of a proposed 30 percent cut in the Pentagon's budget over the next three years. This continued reshuffling of defense resources will undoubtedly alarm cities and states dependent on DOD jobs. Those payrolls aren't the only cuts that concern some military analysts.
Last June 4,000 sailors and Marines conducted a beach landing exercise near California's Camp Pendleton. Secretary Gates and other officials have publicly stated such operations are obsolete in modern warfare. He's ordered a review of the Marine Corps and said it needs to be trimmed in size and refocused.
The bipartisan Sustainable Defense Task Force bolstered his argument when they also recommended reductions in Marine Corps personnel and eliminating the $13 billion dollar Amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle project.
This modern version sought by the Marine command replaces the 40-year-old Amphibious Vehicle currently in use. It incorporates modern technology with better armor and firepower. The E.F.V. allows Marines to develop newer landing strategies. It can disembark over the horizon and keep ships away from possible mine fields or shore defenses.
Recent advancements in battlefield technology have been designed to meet the current wars' demands with little thought of conventional scenarios involving beach landings. For the last ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines have been primarily utilized as a secondary land army with economics cited as cause. The United States Marine Corps accounts for six percent of the military budget and the cost per Marine is less than that of a soldier from another branch of the armed forces. The California exercise was unbelievably the first time many Marines had been on an actual ship at sea.
Cutting the E.F.V. project comes at a time when Marine commanders are fighting to get the Corps back to their original combat role. The USMC is defined as "an amphibious force in readiness" assigned to the Navy. They are America's emergency strike-team and can be deployed immediately by the President in a national or international crisis.
Whether it's relief efforts like that in Haiti or military incursions to protect national interests, the official assertion that beach landings are obsolete in modern warfare is alarming. Obsolete is not a term taken lightly in military circles. Dismissing this uniquely American talent could mean big problems for the U.S. when crisis demands an immediate presence on a foreign shore.
The value of lost skill sets is a lesson the DOD learned in Afghanistan in 2001 when Special Operations Groups turned in supply lists with the unusual requests for horse feed. Sixty years earlier the Army's last Chief of Cavalry General John Herr had correctly predicted tactical horsemanship was not obsolete in the modern army.
Soldiers conducting missions in the northern mountains of Afghanistan suddenly found themselves needing those cavalry skills. Horses and pack animals were the only efficient means of taking the battle to the enemy in the rugged country.
The DOD was at a loss, but the soldiers adapted. They learned tactics from the Afghan rebels in the field. They began appearing in the crowds at Civil War reenactments and entering the U.S. Cavalry Association's Annual National Competitions.
The living history events featuring period correct cavalry tactics became a classroom of sorts for members of the Special Operations Forces needing to learn hands-on horsemanship. The experience has reopened the book on the use of horses in modern American combat and the role they will play in the future.
Preserving the tactics of a large or small scale beach landing is not going to be so easily done. When the skill is needed, it's going to be needed immediately. Retraining and refitting Marines on a moment's notice to perform this dangerously complex operation is out of the question.
The capability plays an invaluable role in the U.S. armed forces' arsenal of deterrence. A hollowed-out Marine Corps will greatly impede the nation's military flexibility. An immediate onshore presence in a national crisis or a natural disaster can contain or arrest problems before they become larger ones. It's the reason this most basic amphibious assault skill must be preserved.
Pentagon budget trimming is unquestionably needed, but eliminating proven military tactics is a dangerous risk. If the U.S. has learned anything from Afghanistan and Iraq, it's that modern battlefields with impersonal drones, satellite phones, global positioning systems and laser targeting equipment can be overcome by clever enemies. They are invaluable tools, but no substitute for American know-how.