In 1947–1949, there was a struggle between the Army and the Navy as they were required by law to unify themselves and a new, separate, independent Air Force under a singular Secretary of Defense.
It was high stakes and high drama as the original proponent of the merger, James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, started to have second thoughts about the merger, and then possibly had a mental breakdown and was replaced by President Truman.
Forrestal fell, jumped, or was pushed out of the high tower at Bethesda Naval Medical Center while he was recovering. Forrestal’s death is a mystery that has never been fully resolved.
The debate at the time was not only the subordination of the formerly independent Navy and Army to a Secretary of Defense, but about the mission of atomic bombing.
The new Air Force wanted a new long-range bomber for the atomic mission, the Navy wanted a new, super aircraft carrier for the same mission. The Air Force, supported by the Army won, despite high drama and intrigue by Navy staff and their opponents in Army and the Air Force.
The Air Force bomber went into production – but a few years later, the Navy did get a consolation prize and started receiving new super carriers, named the Forrestal Class, but they were not intended to replace the Air Force in the nuclear mission.
In modern times, a significant brouhaha is in progress and growing – but over a much more mundane and obscure topic. The debate is growing fierce over which Service should be the lead for smaller, amphibious warfare vessels and craft.
This topic is very important for operations in the Western Pacific to deter and if necessary, defeat Chinese actions. Until very recently, this is a topic neither the Marines, Navy, nor Army were paying close attention to.
The Marines want their own rides
There has been a growing frustration of Marine Corps leadership with the Navy. The amphibious ships of the U.S. Navy are large and capable, but are limited in number and too big to support the Marine plans for rapid movement of small units among different islands to defeat the Chinese.
The Marines have had a growing sense of being an inconvenience to “big” Navy and want their own wheels or in this case hulls to significantly supplement the Navy.
This is like a family with only one car but multiple adult family members with their own work schedules. However, this family is large, well-funded, and have life or death decisions to make in their jobs. This is not simple squabbling over resources.
The Marines are demonstrating leadership by making hard choices and divesting in capabilities like tanks which they have had for years. The Marine Commandant made a hard decision and said if they need tanks, they’ll ask Army tank units for tank support. A rare example of leadership in the partisan DOD where Services rarely walk away from long standing capabilities.
But a new capability that the Marines have never really had before are smaller amphibious warfare vessels (called the Light Amphibious Warship LAW by the Marine Corps current requirement, the Navy is now calling it the Landing Ship Medium (LSM)) and they want their own.
Currently they are communicated as a Navy/Marine requirement, but it’s clearly meant to be Marine focused and perhaps even Marine Corps operated.
Navy not meeting the Marine requirements
In current times the “larger” amphibious force levels in big Navy have hovered at just over 30 ships (down from about 60 at the height of the Reagan buildup). In the past, the Navy has placed emphasis on the Amphibious Warfare portion of the Fleet, but the Secretary of the Navy has been at odds with Congressional mandates to grow the size of the Navy.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has been accused of “…Ignoring the Law…” with his plans submitted to Congress that demonstrate 38 large amphibious ships at some vague point in the distant future (potentially 2050).
I have never seen such a mess of different plans before in my national security service. It is also not helpful that the U.S. Navy lost a key amphibious warfare ship, USS Bon Homme Richard, in a pierside fire in 2020.
Under the confusing list of different shipbuilding plans, the Navy might have six of the LAWs in service or on order by 2030. This is a long way away for what is supposed to be a relatively simple, non-developmental, off the shelf acquisition of commercial vessels painted Navy gray or Marine green.
The absolute chaos of different plans is also possibly representative of the cancerous effect of “woke-ism” on the professionalism of the Department of Defense Staff. The slow pace of new vessels for the Marines is at crisis levels.
Army surrenders the watercraft mission space, now wants back in
The tragedy of the Army saga has been the melodramatic theatrics and indecision of the Army. Since World War II, the light amphibious warfare and transport mission set had been an Army Mission in which Army would provide support to all the Services.
Army carried out this watercraft mission with enthusiasm and gusto – until the Peace Dividend of the Clinton years. This once mighty vessel and boat force evaporated.
During the disastrous Secretary Gates/Admiral Mullins tenure when the DOD budget was self-eviscerated without a commensurate cut in mission, the Army bailed on the Joint High Speed Vessel Program as a cost savings measure.
The Navy took the five Army vessels, and the now Navy-only program has expanded significantly as an intra-theater high speed transport which is very useful.
It lacks the beaching capability of the LAW so it doesn’t quite deliver the capability the Marines are looking for. Army’s poor budget decision left Army avoiding the Western Pacific watercraft role – a role traditionally encumbered by Army.
Even more fecklessly, the Army, while touting its Multi-Domain Operational (MDO) concept made the calamitous decision in July 2019 to totally walk away from the world of amphibious watercraft.
I was at a meeting with an Army General in July 2019 who gave an important briefing on MDO. Afterwards, I pointed out to him that his MDO slides looked like a 1980s tank battle in Germany – baffling for an MDO concept supposed to be oriented toward the Western Pacific.
I further pointed out that his peer Generals had just decided to sell off and totally divest of the watercraft mission set. What good would Army be to the Joint fight if they had no watercraft?
He paused, made a call, and this set off a yearlong debate in which Army decided it was returning to the light amphibious transport world (Congressional intervention helped). The Army is back in, full speed ahead, with the Maneuver Support Vessel Light as wells as a medium version and a heavy version that are more capable than the Marine Corps LAW.
What’s the way ahead?
The inter-service arguing on the way ahead on small amphibious warfare vessels is reaching a culminating point. The DOD is now at a point where multiple Services and programs are competing for the watercraft mission. I’ve never seen this level of gnashing of teeth and disagreement over who has the Service lead on a topic.
This should have been an Army mission set, but Army has been climbing out of a deep hole on this topic. Navy is doing an excellent job with the High-Speed Transport, but that’s a different mission set then what the Marines are looking at.
The Marines are leading the fight and have a clear requirement and are moving forward with strong support. The Marines are running over the Navy in their semi-revolt as the Navy tries to get some firm footing and get its shipbuilding master plan together.
The Services went from nobody paying attention to the problem set to three Services claiming the mission. Might be time for another council of Generals and Admirals to avoid any further bloodshed in a modern revolt over a topic no one seemed to care about only a few years ago. The Chinese are not waiting for an answer on this.