Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the value of standoff, and the Department of Defense’s emerging strategies, acquisitions, research, and intellectual debates emphasize deterring and defeating opponents at standoff range. Unfortunately, the war after next will again be fought in close proximity.
At their core, the combat forces of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps exist to close with and destroy the enemy. The joint fight with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy enabled swift initial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but stability and then counterinsurgency operations necessitated that forces get close to the populace and to the enemy. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) first exploited American reliance on ground transport and then on dismounted exposure. The harsh price paid in lives and limbs demands means to keep the warfighter out of the close fight, but that remains a tall order.
With Iraq “over” and Afghanistan winding down, DOD is preparing its forces for future missions and the next fight, which appears not to be another close fight. The majority of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), the armored vehicles procured to protect U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not being returned to the United States, and Congress and the Army just delayed the heavy Ground Combat Vehicle. Instead, the Army plans to develop new sensors, unmanned aerial capabilities, and robots to support and replace soldiers and maximize standoff while it assesses vehicle options. The Marine Corps has not decided on its next amphibious or armored vehicle as it weighs its desired amphibious expeditionary mission against the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and the capabilities of potential foes.
The Air Force is considering the retirement of the A-10, a close air support aircraft, and plans to replace it with the multi-role Joint Strike Fighter (F-35). The F-35 and F-22, the USAF’s premier fighter aircraft, are designed to engage foes at long ranges (foes should never even see the F-22). The Navy assessed the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) developments in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific, and seeks to provide capabilities at longer ranges (stealth, unmanned aircraft, rail-guns, missiles, etc.). The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is designed to operate close to shore, in the littorals, but it may be under-armed and under-armored for the task, and the Pentagon just announced plans to shrink the future LCS fleet.
Air-Sea Battle and Offshore Control propose ways to use maritime and air forces at standoff range in response to competitor A2/AD, maritime, and air capabilities. Operation Odyssey Dawn, the 2011 campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, sought to keep coalition ground forces out of Libya and relied upon air and naval forces to attack the regime and assist rebel forces. President Obama threatened air and naval strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, and the United States and its allies continue to resist providing ground forces to help calm or end the conflict. Should Air-Sea Battle, Offshore Control, airstrikes, or deterrence fail, though, U.S. forces will once again close with the populace and enemies abroad, and when they do, they will need firepower, mobility, intelligence, and survivability. Standoff is desirable, but it is expensive, hard, and it does not last.
The French hoped for a light and quick presence in Mali, but their forces remain to maintain stability. U.S. forces were rushed into South Sudan to help evacuate personnel and they took casualties from rebel fire. The Corps plans to put Marines back out to sea and forward deployed, and the Army has started to regionally align units for foreign assistance and training missions. The war after next will be fought in close proximity, just like the conflicts before it, and DOD must continue to invest in training, protection, and firepower which will carry the U.S. warfighter through the next close fight.
Patrick McKinney is an Army civilian in acquisitions. He served as an Army field artillery and military intelligence officer, and deployed as a platoon leader to Operation Iraqi Freedom IV. The opinions in this piece are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.