THE PAPER | Response to “Revisiting the Roles & Missions of the Armed Forces" : Land Power vs Sea Power

THE PAPER | Response to “Revisiting the Roles & Missions of the Armed Forces" : Land Power vs Sea Power

By Michael Belil
Contributing Analyst, IndraStra Global

Image Attribute: US Marine Corps (USMC) Lance Corporal (LCPL) John Ideus, Marine Wing Support Squadron  Three Seven One (MWSS-371) waits to fuel a AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter at a Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP), at Tallil Air Base, Iraq during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (USAF PHOTO BY SSGT SHANE CUOMO 030507-F-2034C-003) / Public Domain


Admiral J.C. Wylie wrote, “The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This man is the final power in war. He is Control. He determines who wins. There are those who would dispute this as an absolute, but it is my belief that while other means may critically influence war today, after whatever devastation and destruction may be inflicted on an enemy, if the strategist is forced to strive for final and ultimate control, he must establish, or must present as an inevitable prospect, a man on the scene with a gun. This is the soldier.”[1] Along similar lines as JC Wylie, this response paper argues that land power is the most important form of military power, with the navy and air-force being indispensable support elements. I focus on: 1) the core security interests Mr. McGrath deems most important; 2) His reasoning for shifting spending and priority in favor of a maritime strategy; and 3) His argument in favor of increased defense spending across the board. I posit that the historical record of sea-power and air-power; scholarship in the fields of security studies, international relations and strategy; and modern realities preclude confidence in a maritime strategy like the one McGrath outlines.

Core Security Interests 

Grand Strategy is best defined as a set of ideas for how a state should employ its resources to pursue long term objectives. Here, the focus is on security objectives. Mr. McGrath doesn’t explicitly define what our core interests are. He does, however, state that our interests, “…are global, and protecting and sustaining them requires the projection of power and influence across thousands of miles.”[2] These interests include, preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in Eurasia, returning “in force” to the Mediterranean to fight ISIS, AQ and other jihadi groups in MENA states, protecting Israel from foreign threats, deterring Russia and deterring China. I agree with McGrath that preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon, continuing our fight against the Islamic State, AQ and others, deterring Russia and deterring China are our most significant national security interests. I disagree that protecting Israel is a core interest of the US military. Israel is shielded from conventional attack by states because of its nuclear deterrence. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “estimate(s) that Israel has a stockpile of approximately 80 nuclear warheads for delivery by two dozen missiles, a couple of squadrons of aircraft, and perhaps a small number of sea-launched cruise missiles.”[3] Israel’s most significant security threat comes from within its borders and the Palestinian Territories. Terrorist groups like the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Palestinian Islamic Jihad pose the most urgent threats to Israel. It is the responsibility of Israeli military, police and intelligence forces to protect its people from terrorist attacks of this nature, not America’s. Moreover, Israel is not a member of NATO, and Article 5 of the NATO charter does not apply to it. Thus, the four main security interests for the US are: preventing the emergence of regional hegemony in Eurasia, deterring Russia and China, and fighting ISIS and AQ. In the next section, I’ll argue that it is unlikely that higher defense spending and a maritime strategy will place the US in a better position to achieve these objectives.

Land Power, Sea Power and Air Power  

America’s defense budget has been decreasing, and is currently at about 3.5% its GDP. In his book Restraint, Barry Posen outlines a maritime strategy that he argues could be feasible at 2.5% of the US GDP. Posen recommends the Marines be reduced by 65,000, whereas McGrath argues they should be bolstered by an additional 20,000 (135,000 vs 220,000). As it pertains to Expeditionary Strike Forces or ESFs, Posen recommends 7 to 9 (there are currently 11) and McGrath recommends 15. Posen on the other hand admits one caveat that could impede the ability of carrier groups to perform their mission. He posits, “There may come a time when the US Navy cannot safely operate carrier groups within several miles of the Chinese coast, in the event of a conflict.” [4] In addition, he expects “carriers to have an increasingly difficult time mounting sustained air attacks against the homelands of major powers.” (Posen, 156) But, ESFs are still useful against small and middle powers and “serve as a mobile reserve to support or defend land bases under sustained attacks and as tools to prevent other states from mounting amphibious attacks against allies and neutrals.”[4] Proliferation of A2AD in Russia, China and Iran, mean that ESFs can’t operate with the same freedom of action and effectiveness we have seen in the past against weaker militaries or non-state actors like Al Qaeda or ISIS. In addition, the ability of ESFs to operate effectively hinge upon air superiority, something that will be difficult to achieve if the US was at war with Russia or China. By extension, John Mearsheimer persuasively argues that the historical record in support of maritime or airpower centric strategies comes up short.

He identifies amphibious assaults, amphibious landings, troop transport, naval bombardment and blockades as the main purposes of a navy. It’s important to note that Posen argues the Marines should shift their focus to their historical mission of conducting amphibious operations.  Mearsheimer examines nine cases in which a great power tried to coerce another great power with a wartime blockade. Within these nine cases, only one, the US blockade of Japan, is identified by Mearsheimer as successful “since Japan surrendered before its Home Army of two million men was defeated in battle.”[5] Nevertheless, Mearsheimer reminds us that Japan faced certain defeat because the balance in land power had shifted against it due to being overwhelmed by a two front war against Chinese ground forces, and US ground forces with “extensive air and naval support.” Mearsheimer argues the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet Union’s entrance in the war, were the two final sticks that broke Japan’s back. In short, “blockades alone cannot coerce an enemy into surrendering…the record shows that even blockades used together with land power rarely have produced coercive results. Second, blockades rarely do much to weaken enemy armies…” [5] Why do blockades fail? Mearsheimer asserts that 1) blockading navies are easily checked at sea; 2) Blockades can become porous; 3) Governments can ramp up production of food items and ration resources; 4) “The populations of modern states can absorb great amounts of pain without rising up against their governments”; 5) Punishment strategies through blockades or air-power foment more public ire against the attacker rather than the target government; 6) State leaders are insulated and usually insensitive to civilian casualties. Similarly, authoritarian leaders in particular are concerned with regime survival and tend to prolong wars in spite of mounting civilian casualties. Mearsheimer reviewed 14 cases of great powers employing strategic airpower to win wars. In 9 out of 14 cases, the great power utilizing strategic airpower won the war. In 3 of those 9 cases, the winner had to defeat it on the ground. In the other 6 cases of successful coercion through airpower, airpower was used to support ground invasions. Indeed it played a “subordinate role in determining the outcome of 5 of those 6 cases.” [5] America’s intervention in Kosovo is the only case in which strategic airpower played the primary role in successful coercion. That being said, Yugoslavia lacked significant air defenses, Milosevic was increasingly worried about a ground invasion, and Russia put immense pressure on Milosevic to capitulate to NATO demands. Robert Pape’s seminal study on airpower corroborates Mearsheimer’s argument against confidence in an air-centric military posture. “Over more than seventy five years, the record of air power is replete with efforts to alter the behavior of states…The incontrovertible conclusion from these campaigns is that air attack does not cause citizens to turn against their government….In fact, in the more than thirty major strategic air campaign that have thus far been waged, air power has never driven the masses into the streets to demand anything.”[6] Leadership decapitation through strategic bombing against state actors like Russia and China is unlikely, and is fraught with risks of escalation to nuclear war. America’s experience with Al Qaeda and ISIS demonstrate that jihadi groups can adapt to changes in their organization and strategic environment. Michael Horowitz, Evan Perkowski and Philip Potter’s study “show robust support for the notion that tactical diversification is a response to organizational stress stemming from state repression and organizational rivalry.”[7] To be sure, leadership decapitation has been a core element of America’s war against ISIS and Al Qaeda, but new capable leaders emerge and replace killed ones. In short, one cannot rely on leadership decapitation as the sole means of defeating non-state actors let alone great powers. Troop transport is still an efficient means of transporting troops across oceans to friendly states, or to areas of operation where they face weak defenses. That being said, “Navies are at a significant disadvantage when attempting amphibious operations against powerful land-based forces, which are likely to throw the seaborne invaders back into the sea.” [5]   In addition, when conducting an amphibious assault against a great power, “…A territorial state should be able to control the air and use that advantage to pound amphibious forces on the beaches, or even before they reach the beaches.” [5] Furthermore, even if a Navy possesses sea-superiority, it cannot attempt a successful amphibious invasion on enemy territory unless it possesses air superiority, “…which is difficult to achieve with aircraft carriers alone, because land based air forces usually outnumber sea based air forces by a large margin.”[5] A state possessing a capable submarine force will surely make any amphibious invasion by America a hard task, and one replete with casualties. Naval mines are another obstacle to amphibious invasion. Indeed, amphibious invasions are easier if land based defense forces are spread thinly or concentrated elsewhere.  For an amphibious invasion to be successful, “the invading force should have clear cut air superiority over the landing sites, so that its air force can provide close air support and prevent enemy reinforcements from reaching the beachheads.”[5] If requirements of a successful amphibious invasion—air superiority, sea-superiority and insufficient land defense—are met, amphibious invasions can be successful. However, Mearsheimer’s study of amphibious operations shows that, “there is no case in which a great power launched an amphibious assault against territory that was well defended by another great power.”[5] For example, the cases of successful amphibious invasions during WW2 were successful—albeit costly—because of air-superiority and “limited resistance.” Allied intelligence and deception operations were also instrumental in diverting German forces to the wrong locations. As it pertains to the 52 amphibious invasions against the Japanese, “Virtually all seaborne invasions were successful, although the price of victory was sometimes high.” [5] The US Strategic Bombing Survey corroborates the reasoning behind Mearsheimer’s outlined conditions for successful amphibious invasions, and found that landing operations were successful because air superiority was established near the beachhead prior to an invasion. Other factors including choking off Japanese supply chains, Japan’s two front war leaving its economy was in ruins, and “more than half of Japan’s ground forces were stuck on the Asia mainland.”[5] The Pacific Campaign is the only great power war in modern history in which land power was not the main determinant, “…and in which one of the coercive instruments—air-power or sea power—played more than an auxiliary role.”[5] Finally, seven other great power wars fought from 1853-1939 were determined by “rival armies on the battlefield,” without the support of strategic bombing. [5]

Russia and China 

In 2014, Sydney Freeberg Jr. recently reported, “The new Corps concept, Expeditionary Force 21, predicts long-range threats will force the fleet to stay at least 65 nautical miles offshore, a dozen times the distance that existing Marine amphibious vehicles are designed to swim.” [8] The 65 nautical mile standard is based on the Chinese Silkworm anti-ship missile. The Russian made P-270 Moskit has a max range of 76 nautical miles. Freeberg discusses how Marines might circumvent anti-ship defense, “in at least some cases, they see small landing teams as the cutting edge of the joint force, slipping in by boat or V-22 aircraft to destroy key enemy sensors or anti-ship weapons so the larger force can approach.”[8] A 2016 RAND report by David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson concluded that it is unlikely NATO could successfully defend the Baltics. In addition, it demonstrates that Russia would be able to seize Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours. Likewise, Professor Luis Simon persuasively asserts that, “The proliferation of Russian A2/AD capabilities across Europe’s eastern flank poses a serious operational problem for NATO. In the event of a conflict or crisis, it might be risky for the Alliance to try to move aircraft and ships into the frontline states…” [9] To counter Russian A2Ad, “…frontline states should concentrate primarily on hedging, while the western European allies could deploy some of the more offensive, deep-strike capabilities aimed at defeating A2/AD altogether. The countries closest to Russia’s western perimeter do not possess the military resources to pursue similar deep-strike “shoot the archer” strategies on any meaningful scale.” [9] Consequently, my review of previous literature, disconcerting historical record of blockades, strategic air-power and amphibious invasions, and modern military, geographic and technological realities precludes confidence in a maritime strategy described by either McGrath or Posen. Russian A2/AD prevents sufficient ships, Marines and aircraft being deployed to Europe’s eastern flank. Given Shlapak and Johnson’s assessment, it seems logical that forward deployed Army units in sufficient, but not excessive numbers in support of our European allies are a more credible form of conventional defense. Richard Betts supports bolstering conventional defense, but argues that confidence in conventional deterrence by defense is precluded by poor rates of success in history. Defense by denial or dissuasion by defense are inherently weaker forms of deterrence because there is no threat of punishment. The cost of failure for an aggressor is much smaller when faced with conventional defense versus conventional defense plus nuclear deterrence. Hence, nuclear deterrence, given its success at deterring major great power war thus far, should be given renewed emphasis as a means of deterring Russia or China. In May 2016, the US transferred an Aegis missile defense system to Romania, at the Deveselu air base. A second Aegis system is to be constructed in Poland by 2018. Robert Work announced that the Aegis systems being put in place in Romania and Poland were not to bolster defense against Russia, but to intercept ballistic missiles coming from the Middle East. It is hard to believe given the timing, geography and proximity of Romania and Poland to Russia, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Iranian interests, and Iranian technological capacity that these Aegis systems are meant to defend against a missile from the Middle East and not from Russia. In fact, building Aegis systems in states on the Eastern Flank seem to be in accordance with recommendations made by Luis Simon to invest in more effective defenses including electronic warfare and advanced missile defense. Bolstering land based conventional defense on the Eastern Flank is essential, but so is Russian strategic culture and domestic politics. It would behoove the US and NATO to avoid presenting Russia with a situation that might invite pre-emption and engage in constant diplomacy with Russia, all while helping frontline allies’ develop their defensive abilities and avoiding a dreaded fait accompli.

As it pertains to China, Michael Auslin tells us, “China is contesting for control, not of the high seas like Germany in World War I or Japan in World War II, but of the marginal seas and skies of Asia, even while the United States remains dominant on the high seas of the Pacific.” [10] It is doing this through bolstering its A2AD capabilities, establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), building artificial islands to increase the range of its power projection and through aggressive diplomacy with its neighbors. How should the US cope with these developments? Luis Simon tells us, “Defeating China’s A2/AD capabilities presents both an offensive and a defensive dimension…most offensive thinking revolves around Air–Sea Battle…draws on the principle of ‘shooting the archer rather than the arrows’, i.e. striking missile launchers and command and control systems in Chinese territory…defensive strategies focus on ‘the arrow rather than the archer’, and embrace the promise of laser technologies and electromagnetic rail-guns to make missile defense both increasingly reliable and less costly.” [11] Hedging against, “…China’s A2/AD threat assume that it will be…difficult for the US to project military power within the first island chain. According to a hedging logic, ‘turning the A2/AD tables against China’ may be a more realistic objective for the US. A good example of this sort of hedging thinking is Offshore Control, a strategy that encourages the US to work with its regional allies to try to constrain China’s own movement within the first-island chain.”[11] In order to deter China, the US should focus more on controlling the marginal seas than the high seas through a combination of offensive, defensive and hedging strategies. Because of this, I agree with McGrath’s naval recommendations to the extent that we need more CSGs, but with an emphasis on “mobile short- and medium-range surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, anti-ship and anti-satellite missiles, undersea, cyber and electronic warfare and sea-mining, and…tactics of hardening and force dispersal.”[11] I disagree with Posen’s recommendation to reduce the size of the Marine Corps, but argue that we shouldn’t increase its size either. A sea-centric strategy in the Pacific makes sense, but deterrence depends more on navy, air, and land based air defense than amphibious operations. Maintaining an ability to conduct amphibious operations, despite their difficulty is still important because it is the core competency of the Marine Corps.

White Elephants and the Defense Budget

McGrath calls for a broad increase in defense spending to better respond to today’s security challenges. I disagree. Instead we should seek to reduce white elephants such as: the problem-ridden F-35 (originally one JSF, now three separate planes, will cost at America $1.5 trillion) [12] ; the RQ-20A Puma drone (failed tests by Special Operations Forces, but SOCOM still purchased $45.3 million of units) [13]; and the Navy LCS which according to Navy testers, “…lack the speed, range and electronic-warfare capabilities” to operate in Pacific littorals (costs were $12 billion as of 2014) and instead develop fleets of Mark VI raiding detachments that can swarm and penetrate A2AD defenses and deliver Marines, SEALs, JTACs or Navy EOD to disrupt enemy defenses. [14] Lastly, DOD should significantly reduce the general and flag officer staff. The Senate Armed Services Committee found that, “Over the past 30 years, the end-strength of the joint force has decreased 38 percent, but the ratio of four-star officers to the overall force has increased by 65 percent.”[15] The Times reported that on average, four-star officers earn $181,500 per year.  [16] Similarly, the Congressional Research Service reported that, “The ratio of officers in the military to the total force size has grown from 15.69% in 2000 to 17.54% in 2015.” [17] As of 2011, the US paid for 75% of NATO’s defense budget, and today, only Greece, Estonia, Poland and the UK meet the minimum 2% GDP requirement. Robert Gates put it best, “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the…the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” [18]


One of McGrath’s main points is that he is, “concerned that as we look at roles and missions, we do so not as an exercise in efficiency, but in the quest for the allocation of resources and forces best suited to deter and if necessary, win great power war.” [3] Moreover, “Jointness has ill-served this country is at the level of strategy-making” as well as budgetary allocation. [3] Finally, American security is best served by increased defense spending, and a sea-Power centric strategy. This paper disagrees with that assessment, and argues that land power is still the most effective from of military power, and will be the main component of deterring Russia, fighting ISIS and AQ, and other non-littoral based threats. However, in the Pacific, a sea-power centric strategy is logical. Defensive and offensive naval and air capabilities, and land based air/sea defense underpin this strategy. Therefore, we should increase the number of CSGs, but not the number of Marines. Setting priorities is important in order to efficiently spend on defense, and this paper argues that a more precise set of commitments enables better budget allocation. White elephants like the F-35, RQ20A, and Navy LCS should be eliminated or reduced. The general and flagship officer staff should be reduced in order to allow for more NCOs and Petty Officers, what General Dempsey calls, “Backbone of the Armed Forces.” [19] This would free up plenty of funds, and lead to a more effective fighting force.  As Robert Gates told a NATO audience, our European allies must not be dependent on America for defense funding. NATO members can afford to spend more on their own defense. According to CSIS, personnel costs accounted for 51.9 % of European defense spending in 2013. [20] By contrast, America spent 38% of its defense budget on personnel. Put differently, where the Europeans collectively spent $113.9 billion on personnel, America spent $44.6 billion. [21] This is a major problem that can lead to a “dim if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.” [19] To ameliorate this situation, European allies need to stop cutting their defense budgets and re-allocate funds to enable proper functioning of their militaries. If these budgetary recommendations are executed, sufficient funds will be freed and budget increases won’t be necessary. In sum, this paper reviewed existing literature and empirical evidence which precludes confidence in a sea-power centric strategy. Strategy should reflect our core security interests, economic and political means, regional physical geography and geo-politics, and technological realities. Consequently, a land-centric strategy works best in Eurasia and the MENA region, and a sea-power centric strategy works best in the Pacific.

About the Author:

Michael Belil pursuing his Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from City University of New York-Hunter College.

Cite this Article:

Belil, M. "THE PAPER | Response to “Revisiting the Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces" : Land Power vs Sea-Power" IndraStra Global Vol. 002, Issue No: 06 (2016) 0019 "" | ISSN 2381-3652


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