We’re Not Going to Need a Bigger Boat

The problem with the Navy and Air Force's belief that they can do it all.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch

After over a decade of large-scale stability operations, the U.S. military is looking for a new vision to guide the future development of the force — one that does not involve many boots on the ground or the risk of numerous casualties. To that end, the Pentagon is preparing to meet emerging threats that demand high-end capabilities and involve fighting from a comfortable distance. At the same time, however, it is discounting threats that require capable ground forces.

The U.S. Navy and Air Force have focused in particular on preparing for "anti-access" challenges — in essence, challenges to America’s ability to go where it wants. The goal is for the United States to retain its ability to project power and respond to any contingency, anywhere in the world, while protecting free movement through international waters and airspace.

The military’s answer to anti-access threats is the concept of "Air-Sea Battle," laid out by the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force in a recent article in Foreign Policy. Air-Sea Battle calls for integration of naval and air forces to destroy enemy missiles and other high-end capabilities intended to deny freedom of movement to U.S. ships and aircraft. These plans call for over-the-horizon precision strikes with long-range missiles, bombers, and stealth fighters.

Embedded in the concept of Air-Sea Battle is the assumption that, because anti-access threats can be dealt with at a safe distance, there will be no need for ground forces — be they soldiers, Marines, or special operators. If future wars demand any boots on the ground at all, it will not be until after the Navy and Air Force have decimated the enemy’s defenses with long-range strikes — or so the theory goes. But that’s where Air-Sea Battle goes wrong: It is just as likely that ground forces will be needed to ensure access for air and naval forces as the other way around.

Ever since the Gulf War in 1990, when the U.S. military demonstrated its ability to decimate anything visible from the air in a matter of days or hours, potential adversaries have been developing innovative ways to conceal key weapons and military infrastructure so as to protect them from long-range precision strikes.

States like Iran and North Korea — as well as guerrilla forces like Hezbollah — have adapted by concealing weapons in jungles, forests, mountains, and in populated areas where they cannot be seen from the air. Iran has reportedly buried much of its missile and nuclear infrastructure deep underground, where, even if it can be located, it may be beyond the reach of precision bombs.

Among the many lessons of Israel’s botched war against Hezbollah in 2006 was that airpower alone is not sufficient to halt rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. Hezbollah had dispersed its rockets and other high-end weaponry and hidden it in hills, forests, and populated urban areas — blunting the effects of advanced airpower.

Locating Hezbollah’s rockets required placing forces on the ground backed by close air support — a task for which the Israeli military was woefully unprepared. Israel had for years focused on strategic airpower and neglected its ground forces. When the time came, it proved unable to locate or defeat Hezbollah’s many small units and rocket sites. Even the country’s vaunted air force performed poorly when it came to integration with ground forces. The Israeli defense establishment had underestimated its technologically less advanced but resourceful and adaptive adversary — a blunder that cost the country dearly in terms of blood, treasure, and credibility.

Likewise, the leaders of the U.S. Navy and Air Force today underestimate the degree to which the enemy gets a vote. Future adversaries — be they North Korea, China, Iran, Syria, or non-state actors such as Hezbollah — will not leave their weapons out in the open where they can be quickly destroyed from a safe distance. They will hide them in difficult terrain, underground, and in populated areas in an effort to neutralize the effects of precision bombing.

Locating the right targets to strike will be the main challenge of the future. Meeting it will require deploying ground forces to conduct deep reconnaissance, collect intelligence, call in airstrikes, and destroy weapons and military infrastructure that cannot be targeted from the air.

Advances in surveillance technology will no doubt play a role in helping locate hidden weapons sites. Yet much of this capability is limited to what can be seen from above or picked up on the airwaves. Surveillance drones flying through hostile airspace are likely to be shot down. Smaller drones that might fly beneath the radar have shorter ranges and have been employed most successfully by ground forces.

In the face of more advanced anti-access threats, it may be necessary to insert troops covertly from low-signature ships or aircraft. These troops will need to move quickly and quietly, fan out in small formations, leave a light footprint, and sustain themselves logistically — all of which will require high levels of training and technological support.

U.S. troops did something similar in the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan — spreading out across the country in small units, identifying Taliban targets, and calling in airstrikes. These forces also engaged groups of Taliban fighters, resulting in a fair amount of ground combat. Air power played a key role in decimating the Taliban’s military capability, but only because it was guided by precise intelligence gathered by troops on the ground.

The U.S. military had little trouble gaining access to Afghanistan because the Taliban did not have the capability to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Clearly, this will not be the case in all future conflicts. As the Air-Sea Battle concept implies, such conflicts are most likely to occur with more technologically advanced adversaries. Still, ground troops will be necessary because remote naval and air assets will be unable to locate and destroy enemy military hardware from afar.

Against adaptive adversaries, land forces will be needed to identify key nodes of enemy firepower and command and control. Once identified, they can be destroyed from the ground or by precision strikes called in by land forces, thereby ensuring access for naval and air forces and, if necessary, larger formations of ground forces.

The idea of fighting from afar with advanced weaponry while keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way will never cease to captivate the imagination of military planners and civilians alike, especially after years of ground combat that have claimed thousands of American lives. Unfortunately, war cannot be fought at a safe distance or in a sanitized manner. Like past wars, future conflicts will require more than a few brave men and women to go out and see the lay of the land.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps will most likely see deep cuts in the coming years. Both forces expanded as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and need to be brought back down to size. At the same time, America’s ground forces need to be transformed to meet emerging threats, not merely cut across the board to save money for standoff warfare. They will also need to be integrated better with the Navy and Air Force after years of irregular warfare on land.

Achieving this will require new investments in training and education, as well as research and development. Otherwise, the United States could end up like Israel in 2006 — without capable ground troops in a war that can’t be won from the air.

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