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Gates Challenges Marines' on Amphib War

Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a direct challenge to the Marine Corps vision of amphibious warfare at the Naval War College today, saying the QDR strategic review will examine if the need to get large numbers of troops from ship to shore is “realistic” enough to warrant the Marine’s new and costly amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

“No doubt, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. But we have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious action again. In the 21st century, how much amphibious capability do we need?”

Gates continued to drive home the rationale for his enormous budget changes during his tour of the service war colleges, and his continued dominance of the defense debate while Congress is away, stopping at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

As he has to Air Force and Army officers, he explained to Navy officers his rationale for the spending choices he announced two weeks ago on the now famous “Black Monday.”

Gate’s budget proposal was kindest to the Navy, particularly compared to the Air Force – F-22 production to end, and the Army – FCS vehicles cancelled. There were no huge surprises in terms of shipbuilding in Gates’ budget: he accelerated LCS production and an SSBN replacement, but slowed amphibious landing ship and sea basing programs.

Gates said the Navy’s battle fleet is far superior in numbers and quantity than that of any collection of enemies and showed that he’s a big fan of former CSBA analyst and now Navy undersecretary Bob Work. He quoted pretty much verbatim Work’s world battle fleet comparisons: “as much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet, by one estimate, is still larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners. In terms of capabilities, the over-match is even greater. No country in the rest of the world has anything close to the reach and firepower to match a carrier strike group. And the United States has and will maintain eleven until at least 2040.”

Gates said no potential adversary “intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition akin to the Dreadnought arms race prior to World War I.” Adversaries will instead challenge U.S. naval power asymmetrically, developing ship-killing ballistic and long range cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, air defense and other anti-access weapons and stealthy submarines.

Hezbollah’s ability to hit and severely damage an Israeli corvette with a relatively inexpensive, Chinese built anti-ship cruise missile during the 2006 war has weighed mightily on the minds of naval strategists and Navy officers. Gates alluded to similar threats, saying: “The Royal Navy’s greatest defeat in World War II – the sinking of the capital ships H.M.S. Repulse and the brand new Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft just days after Pearl Harbor – was due in part to a command with little appreciation for air power, and in particular the threat posed by a single, air-delivered torpedo.” He said the loss of an aircraft carrier or other multi-billion dollar capital ship would be a “national catastrophe.”

Gates repeated his desire for larger numbers of smaller ships such as the LCS for chasing pirates and other operations in offshore waters: “To carry out the missions we may face in the future – whether dealing with non-state actors at sea or near shore, or swarming speedboats – we will need numbers, speed, and ability to operate in shallow waters.”

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