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Saturday, January 19, 2002

Military Impotence with Maritime Prepositioning
With the recent speculation that the corrupt and not so friendly Saudi Arabians are contemplating asking us to leave the military bases in their territory, the United States military may be about to learn of one of its most glaring weaknesses. Since the late 1980's our military stopped pretending that they have the ability to force their way into where we are not wanted and began a new way of thinking. That is, since some time after the Korean War the US Navy and the US Army have had a dearth of amphibious shipping. These ships cost a lot of money after all, and they don't have the same panache as submarines and aircraft carriers. We need more of those as well, but when it comes time to work on the budget, it's easy for Congress to dismiss amphibious shipping, and it's easy for the Admirals to dismiss amphibious shipping to protect their vital carriers and submarines and cruisers. It was mostly the Marine Corps that kept shouting about the need for amphibious shipping.
So I said that they stopped pretending. In the late 1980's they completely gave up the pretense of having a forced entry capability and started relying on Maritime Prepositioning in the Marine Corps. The Army had a slightly similar program. A Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) was the idea that we can take all the tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, tools, parts, food, fuel, etc. that a regimental landing team would ordinarily use and buy an extra set and load it onto a squadron of civilian ships. Then if the US ever needs to respond rapidly to an overseas conflict all we do is fly the troops into a port facility and have their gear offloaded in that port at the same time from squadrons of ships. I recall that we have about four of these squadrons located around the world.

There's nothing really wrong with this plan, and I'm proud that I was one of the ones assigned in the early days to create the aviation logistics plans for this deployment scenario. The MPF concept worked very well in the Persian Gulf War.

But notice the weakness yet? All of this gear is kept on civilian, non-combatant ships. They must land in a port that we already control, or is controlled by an ally. If we do not control the landing point, we cannot use our only large force projection plan! We can't go to war unless no one is shooting at us.

The only way we can land Marines in a hostile country is at the Battalion level. Notice how in Afghanistan we had no troops in large numbers except for two battalion landing teams. That's not so much because that's all we want there as it is likely because it is all we are capable of sending.

Observe also that we may become unwelcome guests in Saudi Arabia. If we also lose the support of Kuwait and Bahrain, the nearest friendly port will be Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and we will have no land based tactical aircraft anywhere near the middle east, except in Turkey.

So what am I getting at? If we need to kick doors down, we can't. Our military power is weakened significantly by relying on others to help us. For decades the insane arguments of the US Air Force have been that we don't need aircraft carriers, and the Elder Bush administration using Dick Cheney's stewardship of the Defense Department killed the navy's A-12 attack aircraft program and curtailed carrier construction. Our air campaign over Afghanistan, primarily by the press-relations-deficient Navy, was adequate for such a small foe, but in the face of a capable, or even large enemy, we would have strained to get the aircraft needed for the job.

What do I recommend? First, as always, disband the US Air Force and return it to operational and administrative control by the US Army. This will make the main US air power more supportive of the ground forces. Next, build more carriers. Lots of carriers. Next we need the ability to land forces in large numbers onto hostile shores or hostile lands. We need the ability to land two or three Marine Corps and Army divisions with all their equipment, backed by sufficient sea-based air power, onto enemy soil and hold the landing area until re-inforced by the very heavy forces of the army's heavy divisions. We may never need to use this capability, but all the better. We cannot afford to be without this capability. We cannot continue to rely on the graciousness of erstwhile allies when the security of our nation is at stake.