Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Boots or Bombs?

We’ve frequently lamented the lack of a national geopolitical strategy and the resulting military strategy it would engender.  As we’ve pointed out, without a military strategy how can we determine what force structure we need?  Let’s be a bit more specific about this.

As we contemplate possible conflicts, the obvious enemies are Iran, N. Korea, and China with Russia a rising possibility.  Let’s look at some specifics of conflict in each case, from a naval perspective.

N. Korea – This will be an Army and Air Force effort with access to the battlefield provided from secure bases and ports in S. Korea.  This will be the closest thing to classic frontal warfare with a rollback effort proceeding from south to north and with a fairly defined frontline.  The Navy’s role will be much as it was in Viet Nam with carriers providing strikes from fixed operating stations offshore.  N. Korea has neither the air, surface, or submarine assets to seriously threaten naval operations.

China – The Navy’s role in a conflict with China will depend greatly on what strategy we opt for.  Do we want to conduct a standoff blockade that will eventually starve China of raw materials and induce an eventual negotiated peace?  Do we want to retake Taiwan (presumably an early conquest in any Chinese conflict)?  Do we want to aggressively enter the A2/AD zone and attack the Chinese mainland?  Something else?

Regardless of the actual military strategy in a Chinese conflict, I can’t imagine a scenario in which we would attempt to put boots on the ground of mainland China.  I’m not even going to bother to list the reasons why that would be the height of folly;  it should be self-evident.

Iran – This is a bit of a wild card.  As with China, the Navy’s role will be determined by the strategy we opt for.  Geography dictates a much more up-close conflict.  We might or might not opt for boots on the ground.  If we opt for boots, access to Iran will be problematic.  If we can get permission we can mass in Iraq and enter Iran overland.  Alternatively, we would need to conduct amphibious landings with all the challenges we’ve discussed in previous posts.  If we opt not to commit to land combat, we can conduct strikes in an effort to effect regime change.

What’s obvious from the preceding discussion is that there are two basic strategic approaches:  boots on the ground to seize land or standoff strikes to effect regime change or dictate behavioral modifications.  Boots or bombs?  Boots or bombs? 

Think about this from the Navy’s perspective.  The naval force requirements are radically different for the two options. 

Boots – This option requires that the Navy (and Marine Corps) maintain a highly capable amphibious assault capability with the recognition that sustained, heavy combat will be required.  Unfortunately, this is almost the opposite of what the Marines/Navy are aiming for, as we’ve recently discussed.  This would also require a strong inshore protective presence by the Navy while initial forces are landing and for an extended period thereafter while follow-on supplies come ashore.  The Navy will be expected to provide initial counterbattery fire, gunfire support, anti-missile protection, etc. and then extended anti-missile protection for the follow-on period.  Note that this can’t be done from hundreds of miles offshore as the Navy seems to think.  This has to be performed near the beach.  Again, this is opposite of current trends in Navy thinking.  Further, most of the protective capability does not exist.

Bombs – This option entails inland strikes by Air Force and Navy assets.  The Navy’s role would be to provide Tomahawk and, to a much lesser extent due to range limitations, carrier air strikes.  While the Navy certainly has some Tomahawk strike capability, it lacks the numbers of missiles needed for a sustained campaign and is planning to retire the most effective Tomahawk platform, the SSGN, with no direct replacement. 

Secondarily, the Navy would provide strike protection for Air Force assets to the extent possible.  This option calls for a long range air superiority fighter which, again, is not what the Navy is pursuing.

It is obvious that the two general options call for radically different force structures.  Until now, the answer to the differing requirements has been to build both because budget was a relatively minor issue.  Now, though, budget has become a limiting factor and the answer can no longer be “both”.  This underscores the importance of a coherent geopolitical strategy from which to determine a logical force structure.

Having laid out the issue and posed the question, I’ll now provide a partial if unsatisfying answer.  As a general statement, boots are just not an option for two main reasons.

First, boots requires the political resolve to seize a land or country and occupy it for a long period of time.  The lessons of post-WWII occupied Japan and Germany are relevant, here.  Realistically, the US just doesn’t have political will for such an endeavor, at the present time.

Second, boots requires a large commitment of ground troops and we no longer have those types of numbers.  The days of WWII troop levels are long gone and our ground forces are trending smaller, not larger.  Admittedly, we could free up significant numbers of troops by pulling out of Europe and, to an extent, Korea, however, we would still lack the numbers for a successful extended occupation.

The American way of warfare has, for better or worse, become one of attempting to effect regime change followed by nation building and, finally, abandonment.  Thus, the bombs option is the only viable path for future conflicts.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m writing.  I’m describing the reality of our current approach to “war”, not the approach I advocate.  Regardless, it is the current reality.  Accepting this, it becomes apparent that our naval forces are not optimized for the bombs option.  We need a high speed Tomahawk replacement, an SSGN replacement, a long range air superiority fighter, and greatly reduced amphibious capability among other needs.  Again, though, it all flows from a coherent geopolitical strategy which we currently lack.


  1. What about a third? 'Blue Water'?

    with the seeming proliferation of longer ranged sea denial assets from China (SSN's mainly, with some bombers with long range anti-ship missiles) does the Navy need to consider being able to deal with that threat on its own?

    1. Jim, always keep in mind that, "The seat of purpose is on the land".

      Activities like ship to ship combat are not an end unto themselves but merely a passing event that allows us to affect events ashore.

      This post is addressing higher levels of strategy. Sea combat is an operational means to an end rather than an end in itself.

  2. Seems to me that the range of options you list are fine. But we do not have to be able to deal with them all within the same timeframe. We can plan for and have forces that can meet the smaller ones while providing for scaling up of forces and equipment to meet the larger ones (boots, etc.).

    Trying to maintain an military that can meet ANY threat ANYWHERE will bankrupt the nation.

    Also look at Rome - they called the citizens up when needed and then sent them back to their farms. Once they started having to maintain a large standing Army things went South.

    Designing equipment to be easily producible, testing it out completely, and not chasing every new tech is the way to go.

    We also need to get rid of the all volunteer concept and go back to a draft. We cannot afford the pay and benefits system that competes with industry.

    If we go to war with Iran it is either a draft or nucs, we cannot afford the mercenary forces that would be needed to fight that war.

    1. "Also look at Rome - they called the citizens up when needed and then sent them back to their farms. Once they started having to maintain a large standing Army things went South.

      We also need to get rid of the all volunteer concept and go back to a draft. "

      I support a re-examination of the size of our standing military forces. That said, it is simplistic to call for a largely draft based force which is called up as necessary (and, to be fair, that's not exactly what you said - I'm putting words in your mouth to some extent). That approach might have worked with soldiers wielding swords and spears but modern combat requires highly trained technical experts. A draftee does not appear on day one and operate an Aegis system or ASW suite or whatever.

      Think about that and if you still like the draft idea, tell me more about how it would work in our modern military.

  3. This might be a bit OT... but...

    I was reading Foxtrot Alpha last night, and they had an article on how many old Soviet jets had rough field capability. Not A10 type craft, though those had it too... but things like the MiG -21 and MiG-29.

    One of the things that, IMHO, has compromised the Lightning II has been the Marine's requirement for VSTOL to support a strategy they've never been able to use to great effect; and are unlikely be able to use to great effect, especially considering the heat output of the F-135.

    I wonder if the rough field capability might have been a more robust strategy? The Russians showed you can make high performance planes capable of taking off on lousy surfaces. The Marines want something that can prevent their Guadalcanal scenario; I.E. portable jets they can take with them.

    Wouldn't it have been easier to make a fighter with real performance specs have a rough field capability? And then you don't hamstring the Navy and AF with the compromises for VSTOL? And you might actually have something that works! There is little to no chance the F-35 will get used by the Marines on an expeditionary force. Its highly FOD phobic, kicks up a ton of stuff in VSTOL mode, and melts things it lands on. On the other hand hey might get something to work on a beachhead where they can level out a long enough field; and they wouldn't have to cut way back on ordinance for the thing to fly.

    Just a thought.

    1. STOVL also allows use on LHD/LHAs.

      Rough field capability has always been overblown. The biggest problem is keeping them sustained and supplied. F-35Bs suck down a lot of gas. Any enemy who wants to find their forward base just has to follow the convoy of HEMTT tankers.

    2. Jim, that's a great comment!

    3. "STOVL also allows use on LHD/LHAs."

      That's true. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we build STOVL because we have LXXs or do we have LXXs because we build STOVLs?

      With some modifications like ski ramps and whatnot, we could operate F-35Cs rather than F-35Bs. How much better would the F-35 program have been without the -B?

      Perhaps we shouldn't have any conventional aircraft on LXXs? Leave them on carriers (or build small carriers)?

      Just thinking out loud and wondering if the approach we've chosen might be less than optimal?

    4. You'd need an angled deck, ski ramp, and probably a longer ship overall to be an efficient STOBAR carrier.

      I personally think the F-35 program would've been far better off without the -B, but that's just MHO.

      "Less than optimal" for what?

    5. The QE class is 920 ft. The america class is 844 ft. Not much of a difference. Wouldn't take much to build a dedicated small carrier.

      Would optimal be F-35Cs on a QE/America versus -Bs on LXXs? Hmmm ....

    6. I forgot arresting gear and landing systems and a higher top speed to provide sufficient WOD.

      At that point, might as well install a pair of catapults and make it a real CTOL CV with reconfigurable spaces to operate as an LPH.

      Then it can fly the full range of existing and future carrier aircraft (including E-2D, FA-XX, UCLASS).

      I've proposed consolidating all LHAs, LHDs and CVNs down to a single, common, large-deck carrier in the past.

  4. Nothing to worry about, USMC is ready for the F35.

  5. ComNav , you forgot to mention american's naivette when dealing with regime change .. they really think that people will welcome them enmasse , yet in reality every single nation will resist foreign invaders and close up ranks.. nothing is more unifiying than facing external threat..

    the only real conflict possible in the near future will be blowback from yemen and that will slowly pit Saudi and gulf nations with Iran , with america forced to act to help their allies in the gulf..

    for american military , attacking iran will certainly be possible , be it naval / air blockade , or ground invasion.. my question is this : just how much american people will tolerate the cost of war in iran , in term of blood and lives ?

    back then there's a small nation called vietnam who fought off the french and american , even at horrible cost of lives.. can america today face such massive casualties that will be a certainity in a war with iran ?

    1. "... you forgot to mention american's naivette when dealing with regime change ..."

      I didn't forget it. I'm just examining the military aspect of things not the political. That said, your point is excellent, appropriate, and true and should be foremost in our political minds as we contemplate our political actions.

  6. Maybe what we need are the National Guard since they provide a large number if troops for a boots on ground option. This would mean that we would have to replace the National Guard with someone to take over their function at the state level. Maybe what we could do is ask for volunteers like they have volunteer police but with military training and they could get bring their own semi-auto weapons and buy their own uniforms like volunteer police to keep the cost down for the government

    1. "... they could get bring their own semi-auto weapons ..."

      You're familiar with the government's attitude towards gun control, right? I can't see the government supporting more arms for citizens!

  7. "The American way of warfare has, for better or worse, become one of attempting to effect regime change followed by nation building and, finally, abandonment. Thus, the bombs option is the only viable path for future conflicts."

    Didn't work so well in Libya, bombed to effect regime change, didn't bother with nation building and skipped right to abandonment. Now Libya's a hellhole.

    However, "nation building" didn't work in Iraq did it? It still ended up a hellhole.

    Also, you mention bombing to effect regime change in Iran. Terrorizing Iranian citizens who already hate the West won't effect regime change. It will breed terrorism.

    Engaging with Iran, as we are currently doing, is the only way to effect regime change in that country. If we can get Iran to stop its nuclear program and the West subsequently lifts its sanctions - we can build better relations with the Iranian people.

    1. Anon, please keep the last paragraph of the post firmly in mind. I am discussing what we've devolved into , militarily, not what we should be doing either politically or militarily.

      Also, this is not a political blog so I limit the political discussion to that which directly impacts military matters.


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