When it comes to issues of irregular
warfare and Middle Eastern conflict, there is an understandable focus on the
terrestrial domain and the problems of insurgency and terrorism. Furthermore,
given the recent record of that experience, it’s unsurprising that direct
engagement in land warfare is something of an anathema in debates about the
American strategic future. Avoiding “land wars in Asia,” whether by
substituting local soldiers for Americans or by avoiding such conflicts
altogether through a strategy of “offshore balancing” is again the new vogue.
Many commentators and analysts, particularly
those of the realist persuasion in international relations, have sought
seapower and “offshore” models of power projection as a refuge from the
problems that now seem inextricably linked with land warfare and land presence
generally – terrorism, insurgency,
nation-building. Even the rhetoric of the “pivot to Asia” and the seeming
defense policy transition from a large-footprint counterinsurgency force to a
suite of unconventional or offshore counterterrorism and counter-A2/AD
capabilities suggests an escape from the messiness of the Middle East and
Yet as the recent death of one
fisherman and the wounding of several others off the coast of Dubai should remind us, naval
operations – and maritime-centric strategies and policies – are still messy,
even if they are not as obviously costly or politically painful as those of the
past. The USS Cole bombing and Iran’s persistent use of irregular
maritime operations to harass American shipping should make it clear that the
problems of irregular conflict on land – the unclear distinction between
combatant and noncombatant, the counteraction of American conventional
superiority with unconventional platforms and tactics, and the persistent risk
of violent entanglement with American presence still remains in the Gulf.
Indeed, as a comparison of American responses to Iranian naval provocations and
its well-documented operations against American forces on the ground in Iraq
and Afghanistan shows, the risk of wider conflict breaking out appears higher
at sea than due to American land presence.
Far from being an easy extrication from
“perpetual war,” America’s maritime presence, and the sorts of missions and
political interests associated with it, has often been a trigger of major
conflicts. The Quasi-War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam all had maritime incidents as serious triggers.
As the U.S.S. Cole bombing demonstrated, even in areas where the U.S. does not
have a permanent basing presence, naval vessels pose potential targets.
“Gunboat diplomacy,” and all the political
and cultural connotations it presents, should disabuse us of the notion that
offshore power’s exercise is inherently more warmly received. Not only that,
however, but a clear delineation between offshore power projection and onshore
warfare is not likely to
remain a viable strategic concept. As the recent report of the Amphibious
Capabilities Working Group
points out, a “single naval battle” approach requires addressing challenges not
simply in the maritime domain, but in the air, space, cyberspace and on land.
Whether the maritime threat includes a state’s sophisticated land-based
defenses or home ports for pirate vessels, the arbitrary political division
between offshore assets and onshore warfare requires a competent and reliable
ground complement for operational and strategic coherence.
In cases such as Libya, the U.S. and its
allies were lucky enough to work with an irregular ground force capable of
matching Gaddafi’s military and paramilitary assets, albeit likely with support
from contractors and allied special forces. In Somalia, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and I
have noted, the U.S. has worked with a wide network of partner nations and
proxy groups within Somalia, often buttressed with private contracting, to
accomplish ground operations in support of substantial U.S. offshore assets.
Yet it’s unlikely that local allies will always be able to furnish the
requisite ground power to enable the muddier aspects of the “single naval
battle,” let alone war aims more firmly rooted in enemy soil.
As Chris Rawley has noted, war on land is not
synonymous with the modes of warfare the U.S. has charged its land forces with
in the last decade. The
offshoring of U.S. power, if it does occur, should not and probably will not
mean an end to the frequent use of land power as an instrument of U.S. policy.
Nor is such an approach ultimately incompatible with an austere, downsized
military with limited national aims. After all, the Small Wars Manual was a
product of a Marine Corps fighting in a relatively underfunded military with
low tolerance for large footprints and in a political framework under which the
U.S. enjoyed far less flexibility and international freedom of action compared
On the high-intensity end of the warfighting
spectrum, Brett Friedman argues
that even a concept such as AirSea Battle, which gives land warfare a backseat in its very
name, ultimately will have to relate to a theory of victory that addresses land
power. Ultimately the division between air, sea, cyber, land land, is one of
political convenience, obscuring a strategy reality where someone, at America’s
behest or in America’s aid, provides Wylie’s “man on the scene with the gun.”
As in the late 19th and early 20th century, after the sound of the cannons
fades, or beyond the reach of their shot, even an invulnerable offshore force
faces the problems of land warfare.
History has also demonstrated, since then,
that naval power projection and naval forces do not provide an escape from
irregular warfare or regional military entanglement. Ultimately, while an
“offshore” strategy and its supporting policies may have many reasons to
recommend them, they do not necessarily mean a low footprint, a less bellicose
foreign policy, or even an escape from the problems of land warfare. Instead
they demand a reconsideration of ways of warfare, especially amphibious
operations, that will likely prove a necessary complement to any sea and
air-based defense posture.