United States Power Projection Capability: A Time For Change
AUTHOR Major Henry W. Mauer, USAF
SUBJECT AREA Operations
TITLE: UNITED STATES POWER PROJECTION CAPABILITY: A TIME FOR
THESIS: As the United States seeks to redesign its strategy for
military power projection in the face of a rapidly changing
domestic and international political environment, it should
restructure its military forces with an emphasis on strategic and
ISSUE: In a rapidly changing world, the time has come for the
United States to consider fundamental changes to the structure of
its power projection forces. The force structure that exists
today is limited by shortfalls in strategic lift capacity and
hampered by agreements governing the use of United States forces
forward based overseas. The changes in Eastern Europe in 1989,
coupled with fiscal problems in the United States are proving a
catalyst for change in the United States defense establishment.
At the same time, the future of forward basing for United States
military forces is becoming more and more uncertain. The
American people and their political leaders have embraced the
idea that the time is now for major cuts in the country's defense
establishment. It is paramount that the nation's military
leaders take an active role in this debate with more than just an
eye toward defending the status quo. Military leaders need to
provide a viable, strategically sound blueprint for change which
not only ensures the nation's security but also provides for an
improvement in power projection capabilities.
CONCLUSION: A restructuring of United States' power projection
forces is necessary. Strategic and operational mobility should
be the basis for the force structure and a realignment of air and
ground forces would best satisfy that requirement.
United States Power Projection Capability:
Time for a Change
Thesis Statement. As the United States seeks to redesign its
strategy for military power projection in the face of a rapidly
changing domestic and international political environment, it
should restructure its military forces with an emphasis on
strategic and operational mobility
I. Factors Affecting the Current Debate
A. Change in Europe
B. U.S. Budgetary Problems
C. Uncertainty over Forward Basing
II. Present Power Projection Force: Structure and Limitations
A. Threat Basis
B. Forward Basing
C. Shortfall in Lift Capability
III. The Need for Restructuring and How to Accomplish It
A. Restatement of the issues
B. Need for military leadership on the issue
C. A proposal for change
D. How to pay for it
United States Power Projection Capability
A Time for Change
Anyone who watched the headlines in 1989 could not help
but notice that the world was changing in a very dramatic
fashion. The face of Eastern Europe changed almost
overnight with the collapse of the Berlin Wall on XX Oct and
the emergence of non-communist governments in the majority
of previously communist eastern European countries. This
"outbreak of peace" has led many countries, including the
United States, to a serious reevaluation of domestic and
international political priorities. Foremost among these
considerations in the United States has been fiscal
priorities which, in turn, have focused attention on the
nation's large military budget. Over the past year pressure
has steadily increased for a major reduction in US defense
expenditures. Recognizing that the defense budget will not
be funded to the levels of past years, Department of Defense
planners have sought to "plan down" the force structure over
a period of the next several years to bring it in line with
current political and fiscal realities. 1
As the United States seeks to redesign its strategy
for military power projection in the face of a rapidly
changing domestic and international political environment,
it should restructure its military forces with an emphasis
on strategic and operational mobility. In this paper I will
first discuss how the changing international and domestic
political environment has affected the debate over the size
and structure of the U.S. military. I will then address the
reasons for our present power projection force structure and
the shortfalls that currently exist. Finally, I will cover
why the force structure needs to be changed, what emphasis
that restructuring should take, and how it can be
Influences on the Force Structure and Strategy Debate
For over 40 years the nations of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact have faced
each other across the borders of central Europe. Tension
between the two alliances has usually been a reflection of
the relationship between the United States and the Soviet
Union. If relations between the two superpowers warmed, the
tension lessened and vice versa. Efforts at the bargaining
table to reduce the tension by reducing the military threat,
bore little fruit until the late 1980s when Mikhial
Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev came to power with a different point of view
toward both the Soviet Union's internal political situation
and toward the international community. After almost five
years in power, Gorbachev's reforms have resulted in an
almost complete restructuring of the political face of
eastern Europe. Every member of the Warsaw Pact, save the
Soviet Union, has seen the demise of their communist
government in the past year. The emerging non-communist
governments are seeking closer ties to the west and many
have already asked the Soviet Union to remove their forward
deployed troops. These changes have led many experts in the
United States, both in and out of military circles, to the
conclusion that, at least for the present and foreseeable
future, the Warsaw pact is defunct as a military alliance. 2
These rapid and dramatic changes have led to unexpected
concessions by the Soviet Union in the Central Forces Europe
(CFE) talks which are aimed at reducing the size of US and
Soviet forces stationed in central Europe. 3 It matters not
whether this new flexibility on the Soviet's part is simply
recognition that the new governments of the Warsaw Pact
nations will likely ask them to leave, or that they truly
seek to reduce the tension level that has prevailed in
central Europe for decades. The result is the same: the
Warsaw Pact no longer presents the level of threat to
western Europe that it once did and its probability of
launching a credible surprise attack against NATO is almost
These events, and how they will and should affect US
military requirements, have dominated the recent political
debate over military spending within the United States.
This debate has covered the entire spectrum of viewpoints,
from those who feel there is no longer any need for large
standing military forces to those who plead for caution in
down-sizing the force structure until we can be sure of long
term Soviet intentions. The debate is further fueled by
those who seek the "peace dividend" that would supposedly
result from dramatic cuts in the United States' military
budget as force size is reduced. According to its
proponents, this dividend would be used for everything from
reducing the national debt to funding social programs long-
delayed due to fiscal restraints.
An issue overshadowed by the events in eastern Europe
and the Soviet Union, but which holds as much potential for
dramatically affecting United States' military strategy in
the future, is that of forward basing. Notwithstanding the
uncertain future of United States bases in NATO, US hold on
forward bases elsewhere in the world is tenuous at best. At
present, negotiations are underway, and not going well,
concerning the continued use of bases in the Philippines. 4
Over the past three years the United States has encountered
tremendous difficulty in negotiations with Portugal, Turkey,
and Spain. 5 In each instance the issue has been tied to
demands for increased monetary aid and in at least two
nations, the Philippines and Spain, internal political
pressures have forced the governments to seek a lowered
level of U.S. presence. 6 The issues of monetary aid and
internal political stability are ones not easily addressed
by the United States. Present U.S. budgetary problems make
increases in foreign monetary aid almost prohibitive and any
attempt to affect the internal political environment in
countries already experiencing anti-U.S. sentiment would be
laden with dangers.
The changing domestic and international political
environments of the 1990s offer many challenges to United
States' military strategists and national policy makers. As
they seek to reach a consensus on U.S. military needs in the
decade ahead and into the next century, they will have to
carefully balance the potential threats to national security
against the present-day military structure and blend them
with present day political realities to both protect the
nation and see it prosper.
Present U.S. Power Projection Force Structure:
Its Emphasis and Limitations
The threat postured by the Warsaw Pact is the primary
basis for the present structure of United States' military
forces. The majority of US forces stationed overseas are in
NATO nations (over 300,000 military personnel presently in
central Europe alone) 7 and US military strategy has centered
on how to first deter, then, if necessary, win a war against
the Soviet-led alliance. This standoff in Europe has
provided the stimulus for shaping US military strategic
policy over the past four decades and has served as the
justification for a large standing military and the hardware
to give it the necessary firepower.
Though not of the same magnitude, the ongoing problem
on the Korean peninsula has occupied United States' military
attention almost as long as the Warsaw Pact. As a result, a
sizable US military force is also permanently stationed in
South Korea with the mission of defending that country in
the event of a North Korean invasion.
While Europe and Korea are not the only two places in
the world that US military forces maintain a presence, they
are the best examples of the cornerstone of United States
power projection strategy - forward basing against the
The United States is heavily dependent on forward
basing to confer credibility to its pledge to deter Soviet
aggression, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. The
basing of powerful and mobile ground troops, along with
tactical aircraft, close to the forward edge of the battle
area (FEBA) have served to overcome the formidable obstacles
presented by both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The
permanent presence of troops and equipment have not only
underscored U.S. commitment to its alliances, but they have
also greatly reduced response time in the event of a crisis.
While it can be successfully argued, judging from the recent
events in eastern Europe, that this strategy has been an
overwhelming success, the luxury of forward basing does not
come without problems.
With nearly half-a-million troops based outside its
borders, 8 the United States' capability for strategic
military power projection is still limited outside Europe
and parts of Southeast Asia. This limited capability is the
result of several factors. The first of these involves
international agreements allowing the U.S. to base forces in
other nations. While the agreements normally allow the use
of U.S. military forces in actions to defend and protect the
host nation or its alliance partners, they rarely allow for
unrestricted use of these same bases and forces for military
action outside these parameters. The operations to resupply
the Israeli government during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and
the Libyan air strike of 1986 provide excellent examples of
how these agreements can hamper U.S. efforts to project
military power from forward bases. In both cases, most
European governments denied the United States the use of
NATO facilities to conduct operations, even though these
facilities were manned and maintained by US forces. These
denials even extended to aircraft overflight rights. The
notable exceptions were Portugal during the 1973 war,
allowing the use of the Azores, and Great Britain in 1986,
allowing the use of bases there for launching the Libyan
raid. Even with these exceptions, US forces had to resort to
extraordinary measures to accomplish their mission. Without
the cooperation of these two foreign governments, it is
likely that neither operation could have succeeded on the
scale that they did.
Negotiations with foreign nations over the past several
years indicate that the United States will run into
increased opposition to its continued presence, the
Philippines being only the most recent example. It is also
likely that nations which continue to allow the stationing
of US forces within their borders will be very reluctant to
permit the use of those forces for actions outside the
defense of the host nation. The increased interdependence
of nations for raw materials and finished products, coupled
with emerging Third World alliances among nations
sympathetic to one another's causes, make it increasingly
difficult for a country to take unilateral actions which
might offend a nation or group of nations.
The most widely recognized problem with United States
forward basing strategy is an insufficient number of
strategic lift assets to reinforce and supply already
deployed forces. 9 Forward deployed forces have been
maintained at levels thought sufficient to counter the
initial assault by Warsaw Pact forces against NATO. It is
an accepted fact that these forces will have to be rapidly
reinforced if NATO is to drive back and defeat a Soviet-led
The United States has committed to increasing its
force commitment to 10 divisions on the ground in Western
Europe 10 days after any conflict with Warsaw Pact nations
begins. To accomplish this, U.S. plans call for airlift
assets to bring in the initial wave of reinforcements,
followed closely thereafter by sealift assets bringing in
the bulk of the equipment. Clearly, the United States' plan
to accomplish reinforcement hinges on strategic airlift and
sealift assets. 11 At present, even with U.S. forces forward
deployed to NATO at FY 89 levels (approximately 350,O00),
the U.S. does not have enough airlift or sealift assets to
carry out its stated reinforcement plan. The lack of
sufficient strategic lift assets is the definitive shortfall
in U.S. power projection capabilities and the shortfall has
existed for a long time.
In 1978 the Department of Defense conducted an exercise
called Nifty Nugget to simulate a mass mobilization of
forces. 12 The results were unimpressive--the United States
was not capable of mobilizing or sustaining the forces
required to support its own war plans. 13 One result of that
exercise was a Congressionally Mandated Mobility Study
(CMMS) issued in 1981. The CMMS concluded that the U.S.
should establish an airlift capacity goal of 66 million ton
miles per day (MTM/D) (the ability to move one ton of cargo
by air a distance of one mile in one day) in order to
fulfill its mobility commitments. Though the CMMS looked at
four world-wide scenarios, determining that actual
requirements ranged between 73 and 125 MTM/D, the study's
authors settled on 66 MTM/D as the fiscally possible one.
To put this in perspective, consider that to move a
mechanized Army division to Europe would require about 150
ton miles to make it there. 14 In other words, it would
require all US airlift assets (see chart), over two days to
move one mechanized division to Europe if the United States
were capable of moving 66 MTM in one day which it is not.
In 1989, a full eight years after the study was published,
the United States was capable of airlifting only 46 MTM/D
even after adding 50 more C-5B aircraft to their aircraft
inventory and stretching the entire C-141 fleet gaining the
equivalent of 30 more aircrafte. 15 Using the present
capacity to move 150 ton miles worth of equipment would take
over three days. The plan for finally attaining the 66
MTM/D goal by the turn of the century is the acquisition of
210 C-17 aircraft. The program, however, is almost two
years behind schedule however and is the subject of intense
scrutiny by congressional lawmakers looking to trim the
defense budget. 16
Airlift is not the only strategic lift asset employed
by the United States to move forces and equipment forward to
the battle. Sealift is, in fact, the primary mover of the
vast quantities of supplies and equipment necessary to
sustain the forward deployed forces. Sea convoys can
deliver a much greater quantity of supplies for the time
expended than can airlift because of a ship's much larger
volume. While airlift is critical in the first ten days
after mobilization begins, sealift will carry the lion's
share of the load after the ten day point. 17
All that said however, one must note that US sealift is
suffering from the same shortfall in assets that is
affecting the airlift force and in many respects sealift is
in much worse straits.
Compared to forty years ago the United States' merchant
fleet is 70% smaller, the nations National Defense reserve
fleet has declined by 85%, US ships carry over 80% less of
the country's ocean-borne foreign cargo and there are less
than 14,500 personnel engaged in the maritime industry, down
from more than 60,000. In the same time frame the nation's
fleet has declined from first in the world to tenth. The
actual carrying capacity of the fleet has increased by 25
percent due to the addition of large tankers and container
ships, however the military usefulness of the fleet has
declined significantly. 18
A thorough discussion of the problems faced by the U.S.
merchant fleet and the efforts to correct them are outside
the scope of this paper. It is necessary however to briefly
touch on the current outlook for merchant shipping to
provide the proper perspective for the present discussion.
The sealift goal for the United States is one million short-
tons and the nation is presently capable of moving only
797,000 -- 20 percent short of that goal. The most recent
effort to increase that capability to 839.8 million short
tons failed to receive congressional and DOD support. 19 The
sealift portion of the nation's deployment planning relies,
in part, on World War II cargo vessels now over 50 years old
and on substantial use of foreign flagged commercial vessels
that are expected to be made available by U.S. allies.
Presently, these foreign flagged vessels are in no way
controlled by the United States' government. 20 To further
aggravate the situation, there are no shipyards in the
United States actively engaged in building merchant ships. 21
As of this writing there is no concrete plan, such as the
C-17 for airlift, for correcting the myriad problems
suffered by the maritime industry. Several proposals are
under consideration by the current session of Congress, but
nothing has become law.
Consider the above in light of a former Military
Sealift Commander's estimate in 1987 that 95 percent of the
dry cargo and 99 percent of the liquid cargo needed to
sustain land combat must go by sea. 22 The bottom line is
this--the shortfall in present United States' sealift
capacity adversely affects the nation's capability for power
projection and there is no consensus on how to solve the
While airlift and sealift are vital components of the
United States' force projection strategy, they are virtually
impotent without seaports and airports to conduct
operations. The present United States' strategy of forward
basing assures, at least initially, the availability and use
of air and seaports should the U.S. have to come to the
defense of an ally. Clearly the luxury of a forward base in
or near areas of vital interest to the United States greatly
simplifies force projection problems. When this is not the
case however, i.e, no friendly port or airfield available, a
forced entry would be required to establish a forward base
to support the introduction of follow-on forces and their
Since World War II, the United States has had very few
occasions to conduct forcible entry operations, which I
define as landing forces in a foreign country against armed
opposition. In fact, of the three major operations since
1945, all of which were successful, none of the three
matched the magnitude of the landings against the Japanese
during the Pacific war. Inchon, in Korea, was conducted
against light defenses, due in great part to McArthur's
ability to tactically and operationally surprise the
enemy. 23 While the invasions of both Grenada and Panama
were forced entries, neither was a formidable test of U.S.
capability to conduct forcible entry operations. In fact,
in Panama the United States actually had forward deployed
forces in the invaded country.
Any real test of U.S. ability to launch a major forced
entry operation would highlight many of the problems already
touched upon in the discussion of sealift and airlift. Both
the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps possess capabilities
to conduct such operations. The Army's likely scenario is
an airborne invasion subject to the limitations of airlift
and forward basing operations already discussed (over 3 days
to move 1 mechanized division with present lift capacity).
It is difficult to imagine Army forces being able to rapidly
mass the firepower required under such a scenario given
The Marine Corp's scenario is a landing from the sea --
a "Normandy" type invasion -- for which they have trained
for decades. Once again however, the lack of assets to
accomplish the mission bring into question the Corps ability
to successfully prosecute a forced entry operation against
a potent opposing force. Marine Corps doctrine states that
the force will fight as a Marine Expeditionary Force or MEF.
The notional makeup of such a force consists of one division
of infantry, with associated tanks and artillery, plus an
air arm which adds a potent source of offensive firepower.
A report on Strategic mobility published in December 1989,
by the Association of the United States Army points out that
under the very best conditions the Navy could lift only the
assault echelon of 1 and a third MEF. The remaining
portions of the assault follow on echelon would have to be
moved by commercial shipping and the last elements would not
leave home ports until the 14th day. While this would
provide a landing force capable of an amphibious assault
with 60 days of supplies and ammunition it is still
relatively light, in terms of firepower, when you consider
the potential size and capabilities of opposing forces, such
as the Soviets or Soviet trained and well-equipped third
world nations. The assets necessary to provide for a
favorable force ratio against a well-armed enemy are not
available now and don't look to be available in the
The facts speak for themselves. The United States does
not have the strategic or operational assets to make its
present power projection strategy a credible one. The
threat upon which the strategy is based has changed. The
foundation of that strategy, the forward basing of forces,
faces a very uncertain future. A change is coming and the
only question left to answer is how much impact United
States' military leadership will have on the final outcome.
The Need for Restructuring and How to Accomplish It
As the United States enters into this period of
uncertainty, defense planners and national policy makers
alike must come to grips with the idea that a change in the
structure of U.S. military forces is going to take place.
For now, the United States' military force structure is out
of sync with the perceived threat. The most likely scenario
against which US forces might be deployed is widely
recognized, even in military circles, as one involving Third
World nations in a Low Intensity Conflict. War with the
Soviet Union and Warsaw pact is considered unlikely and
troop reductions, both forward deployed and overall, are
just a matter of time. Uncertainty surrounding forward
basing, the political realities in Eastern Europe today and
the fiscal constraints in the United States are providing
the justification for the proponents of change. Whether the
result of a mis-perception of the threat by the American
public and its political leadership or a real, fundamental
reduction in the threat to the nation's security, change is
Now is the time for U.S. military leadership to take
the initiative in developing a new structural framework for
the nation's defense forces. The task cannot be left solely
in the hands of political leaders. The military must make
an input and it must be a viable one that addresses the
world as it is, politically, strategically, and fiscally.
What follows is an outline for that structure which
emphasizes mobility and fire power while seeking to take
into account the limitations already addressed in this
The United States military of the 1990s and into the
next century should be one capable of projecting forces to
areas of vital national interest with enough combat power to
ensure these areas can be protected and defended. This
military structure must continue to have powerful air, sea,
and ground forces. As a prerequisite, these forces must
have minimal dependence on forward basing and equipment,
with maximum flexibility in terms of roles and missions.
A single, mobile, yet powerful ground combat force,
trained in both airdrop and amphibious operations for forced
entry missions, capable of conducting sustained operations
once deployed, is absolutely essential. Such a combat force
would be strategically sound and fiscally viable, ensuring a
potent force projection capability, while eliminating
redundancies in capabilities and weapons systems. This
ground combat force would be complemented by an air arm that
would also undergo a change in structure. Air power in the
future must have the same mobility as the ground forces it
works with. If this is to happen, the United States must
reduce its dependence the forward basing of tactical
aircraft. The only feasible way of doing so, while still
maintaining a credible force, is to centralize US tactical
air capability under the Navy.
U.S. Air Force tactical air assets should be limited
to that required to defend the continental United States.
All other tactical air assets, including any limited forces
committed to overseas alliances, should be under the command
of the Navy. Such a structure would require more carriers
and modified aircraft. At the same time however, it would
dramatically reduces U.S. dependence on forward basing in
foreign nations. It also centralizes command of US tactical
air assets outside the United States under one service --
the one most capable of operationally positioning the assets
to affect the outcome of a conflict. Its mobility would
ensure support for the ground combat arm while still being
able to carry the deep air battle to the enemy. As the
battle progressed, air assets could be moved ashore to
disperse potential targets, but such a structure would
ensure their presence, in force, from the beginning of the
conflict. The primary reason behind such a move is that
Air Force tactical air is heavily dependent on forward
basing, without which it faces formidable obstacles to
reaching the battle. The majority of areas throughout the
world that the United States looks upon as vital interests
cannot be reached by U.S. based tactical aircraft without
air refueling. Such areas are beyond the physical
capabilities of even the best Tactical Air Command pilots.
All other aircraft in the U.S. military inventory would be
under the control of the U.S. Air Force.
The key to this force structure will be the procurement
of the lift assets, both sea and air, essential to ensure
the forces and equipment can get to where they are needed.
This will require a realistic consensus on the size force
the nation needs to ensure its security and protect its
vital interests, as well as a commitment to see that the
necessary lift assets are built quickly. It is not all that
unlikely that, at least in terms of airlift, the assets to
do the job are either available or in production. In terms
of sealift however, a consensus for action will have to be
reached and then acted upon quickly.
The force structure as presented above will require an
elimination of service distinctions over roles and missions
and a consolidation of the nation's Army and Marine Corps
forces into a single ground combat force. It is necessary
that military leaders recognize that interservice rivalries
over who should have what role or capability can be
detrimental to the nation's defense effort. Often times
such fights end up blurring the real issues involved and
often lead to a duplication of efforts and weapon systems.
The nation can no longer afford such luxuries. Our leaders
need the courage to put country ahead of service and agree
upon a force structure that best meets the needs of the
nation. A proposal to restructure the military would be
incomplete without addressing the funding requirements such
a plan would generate. The plan presented above assumes
that overall funding for defense will be reduced as the
force grows smaller and certain weapons systems, both
present and planned, are cut from the budget. The plan also
assumes that personnel costs will decline as the size of the
force does the same. Eliminations of redundancies in
weapons systems and capabilities will also free up funds.
The key to success of the proposed force structure is for
the nation's military leaders to convince national policy
makers that not all of the savings from these cuts be
invested elsewhere. It is critical that enough of the
savings be invested in improving the mobility and
flexibility of the forces remaining, ensuring a powerful and
rapid force projection capability. The first step should be
an investment of this "peace dividend" in improving the
nations sealift capability by funding a revitalization of
the merchant marine. Such a program would be aimed at
providing the subsidies necessary to encourage private
industry investment in rebuilding the country's merchant
fleet. In return, private industry would build military
capabilities into the ships, yet use them for commercial
ventures in peacetime. Secondly, the nation should fund an
increase the Navy's amphibious assault assets, thus
providing for a larger and more powerful assault echelon and
reducing dependence on commercial and foreign shipping.
Finally, the C-17 should be procured as rapidly as possible.
This single asset will raise the nation's airlift capacity
by almost 30 percent and provide a critical source of
mobility to United States power projection forces. The end
result could be that the nation's military force, though
smaller, would be more capable of defending the nation and
its vital interests.
Change is coming to the United States military. The
pace of world events has overtaken even the most forward
thinking national policymakers and military strategists.
Threats that once were are no more -- at least to some.
Threats that were once considered minor, given the
possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, are now
moving to the forefront. The structure and the necessity
for a large military force are being questioned. Defense
needs will have to fight harder and smarter for funding
priorities. The only questions yet unanswered regarding
changes in the United States military are what nature and
form will the changes take. The nation's military leaders
must be the driving force behind providing viable, realistic
and strategically sound answers. The result should be a
potent and credible power projection force founded on proven
strategic and operational mobility.
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