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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, occupation and 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 irregular conflicts.
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 to today.
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.