Last month, the National Establishment Review published an utterly ridiculous screed by Jim Lacey (“Why Armies Matter”), in which Lacey dismisses sea- and airpower as never having a decisive effect and being a waste of money and mere supporting tools for ground armies, while also falsely claiming that ground armies have always been the decisive factors in warfare and wrongly implying that victory is achieved always by defeating the enemy’s ground troops in battle.
Lacey clearly knows nothing whatsoever about history or warfare. Nothing whatsoever. His pathetic screed bespeaks abysmal ignorance.
His screed basically rests on 3 arguments: 1) that historically, sea- and airpower have never been decisive, nor sufficient to win wars by themselves; 2) that future conflicts will “look a lot like those of the present”, i.e. that land armies will play the decisive role; 3) the US does not have any serious competitor in air- or sea-power and will not have one for a long time.
All of his claims are utter garbage. Let’s deal with his false arguments one by one.
1) Contrary to his claims, history is actually replete with wars which were either decided by or even won exclusively (or almost exclusively) with navies. Navies were THE decisive factors in England’s wars with the Netherlands in the 17th century, European colonial powers’ conquests around the world, the Allies’ victory over the Axis in WW2, the successful invasion of Incheon in 1950, the UK’s victory over Argentina over the Falklands in 1982, Operation Rome’s victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars, Michiel de Ruytyer’s victories, the successful wars of Peder Wessel Tordenskjold, Japan’s victory over Russia in 1904-1905, and many, many other wars. Airpower, for its part, was crucial in Operation Desert Storm (only after Iraq was thoroughly bombed and air superiority won could the ground invasion proceed), Operation Odyssey Dawn, and Operation Allied Force (relentless bombing forced Slobo Milosevic to sue for peace).
If it hadn’t been for the Royal Navy, England would’ve been ruled by a brutal Spanish Catholic dynasty to this day, and Spanish, not English, would’ve been the world language. The war of 1587-1588 was won SOLELY with seapower, which is logical, because Britain is an island, so to invade it, you have to have a large NAVY.
Seapower was THE decsive factor in many other wars. In 1982, if the RN had not established naval superiority over the Argentine Navy and had not won air superiority with its carrier-based Harrier FRS fighters, there would’ve been no liberation of the Falklands. End of story.
England’s victory over the Dutch, won in a series of naval wars in the 17th century, was a solely NAVAL victory.
England, and then Britain, managed to become a leading world power for several centuries, and to acquire the largest empire the world had ever seen – accounting for 25% of the world’s surface and present on all continents – because of its NAVY, not its army. England, and then Britain, has never had a large ground army. It has always prioritized its Navy, and rightly so – because that, together with Britain’s skillful use of alliances, has ensured that there has been NO successful invasion of Britain since 1066.
In the Napoleonic Wars, the decisive factor was Britain’s control of the sea and thus its ability to negate Napoleon’s proclaimed “continental blockade” of Britain. The purpose of that was to deny British goods access to European markets, since France could not defeat the Royal Navy at sea. But the blockade failed, because Britannia ruled the waves and thus also controlled access to European ports. This, together with smuggling and a few European countries violating the naval blockade, saved Britain and its industry. That, in turn, is why Napoleon was ultimately defeated – because Britain, the bulwark of all anti-Napoleonic coalitions, survived and won the economic battle.
In WW1, seapower was decisive both in bringing the US into the war (thanks, German submarine commanders!) and in Britain being able to starve Germany into submission. By 1918, because of Britain’s blockade of Germany, Berlin was no longer able to fight – because neither the German Army nor the German people were willing to do so, even if the next offensive had a chance of succeeding.
There were NO decisive battles in WW1. Germany lost because it was exhausted, bled, and starved into submission.
The US Navy together with the USAF was THE decisive factor in the Korean War, by a) continually resupplying the troops in the Pusan zone b) ferrying troops to Incheon, bombing the North Koreans at Incheon to prepare the invasion site, and continually shielding and resupplying all UN troops throughout the war; c) evacuating US troops from the north of the Peninsula when the Chinese invaded; d) bringing reinforcements from the US. There would’ve been NO US landing anywhere in Korea – at Incheon or elsewhere – if it hadn’t been for the Navy. Just before the Incheon landing, General MacArthur said “My faith in the Navy is bigger than the faith I have in my own forces.”
After the landing, MacArthur said, “The Navy and the Marines have never been so brilliant.”
Rome would’ve never defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars and conquered the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica if it hadn’t first built a strong navy to defeat that of the Carthage in a series of battles and to ferry its troops from Italy to North Africa to attack Carthage. Without defeating Carthage, its primary rival, Rome would’ve never been an empire, let alone the hegemon of the Med for half a millennium. It was the sea – the Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), as the Romans called it – that bound all the provinces of the Roman Empire together.
In WW2, NAVAL and AIRPOWER played THE decisive role in the Pacific theater (and even in Europe). It was the NAVY which won control of the sea from the Japanese Navy (thus making invasions of various Pacific islands possible at all), ferried thousands of Marines to these islands, supported them from the air and the sea with air and artillery bombing, resupplied them continually, and then brought them home. None of those island invasions or any other ground fighting in the Pacific was decisive, however.
It was the USN’s relentless naval blockade of Japan, starving it of supplies, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that were decisive and ended the war. Without supplies, Japan was totally unable to continue the war – and it was wholly dependent on imported supplies (just as China is today – more about that below).
In Europe, there would’ve been NO Allied invasion of Sicily or France, and thus no D-Day, no Allied armies in Germany, no European allies other than Britain, and no NATO after WW2, if it hadn’t been for the Navy and the USAAF, which ferried a million troops to France, continually resupplied them, and provided air cover for them. The Allies never seriously contemplated any landing site that was out of the range of Allied fighters operating from bases in southern England. That’s because without such air cover any such invasion would’ve been suicidal.
Of course, without the Allied Navies’ anti-submarine warfare, their convoy system, and their continual resupply of Britain (which was as dependent on imported supplies as Japan), there would’ve been no D-Day either, as the German U-boots would’ve starved Britain to death. Again, the influence of seapower upon history is showing itself. Sea- and airpower, not ground armies, were the decisive factors in WW2.
In Vietnam, the US military was greatly restricted by LBJ in what they could bomb. When President Nixon abolished such restrictions in 1972, however, and ordered Operation Linebacker II in December 1972, Hanoi was brought back to the bargaining table and the war was ended. Again, the decisive impact of airpower.
2) Lacey’s claim that future wars will be just like those of the present is even more idiotic. All available evidence utterly disproves it. The most serious current and future threats to US national security are (other than Putinist Russia) China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. All of them are located in predominantly maritime theaters: the Pacific, the Persian Gulf, or the Eastern Med.
All of these theaters are predominantly maritime in nature due to geography. Against any and all of these enemies, sea- and airpower, not ground armies, will be decisive and will be America’s make-or-break factor. Sea- and airpower, not ground armies, will determine success or failure.
Lacey claims that to defeat these (or other) enemies, America must have a large ground army to invade them. To invade whom, pray tell? Invading Iran would be an utter folly; a ground invasion of China would be pure moonshine, as Andrew Krepinevich has said.
Or, as former SECDEF Robert Gates has said, “Any future secretary of defense who advises the President to again send a large American ground army to Asia or the Middle East should have his head reexamined, as general MacArthur put it.”
The US does not and will never have enough boots on the ground or resources to occupy Iran, let alone China. As Krepinevich rightly says, “Ground invasion and occupation is not a business we can afford to be in.” Large-scale ground wars, especially protracted ones, are MORE expensive than sea and naval campaigns or the resources needed to conduct them.
Moreover, Lacey is making an utterly foolish mistake by assuming and claiming that the wars of the future will be like those of the present. In real warfare, that is almost never the case. Warfare is a brutally competitive business. It is never constant and unchanging; it is dynamic, frequently changing, and innovative by is very nature. When a war ends and a few years pass, the next war is very likely to be significantly if not totally different, as the French and the Brits learned to their cost in WW2. Warfare is never a constant; it constantly changes, and creatures which fail to adapt to change die.
3) Yet, Lacey falsely claims that under the DOD’s plans “we will spend trillions of dollars” on “expensive, useless toys” which allegedly will never have a strategic impact. Garbage!
Firstly, the DOD currently spends little on air- and seapower, especially compared to its two large ground armies (the Army and the Marines), and even the acquisition of new aircraft and shis will not cost “trillions”. OTOH, maintaining two large ground armies and waging endless ground wars will.
Secondly, this equipment is urgently needed to replace old, worn-out aircraft and warships. The Air Force is currently flying the smallest and oldest fleet of aircraft it has ever flown, which is 24 years old on average. The Navy has enough ships to meet only 59% of combatant commanders’ requests for ships.
Thirdly, in the years and decades ahead, warships and military aircraft will have a DECISIVE impact on warfare, including America’s wars – as they have had numerous times in history. They will be the sine qua non of winning future wars, as only they will provide the means of winning control of the sea and the air, reliable on-demand missile defense, and long-range strike (not to mention continual resupply of all troops in the theater – capabilities which, together with nuclear deterrence, missile defense, ISR, and early warning (aalso provided mostly by the Navy and the Air Force) will be an absolute priority and in the highest demand in the Pacific, the Gulf, and the Eastern Med – the theaters where the US military will fight the wars of the future.
Air superiority is the sine qua non of any modern war. Without it, your ground troops and your navy will be relentlessly pounded from the air by the enemy. US military services cannot operate without attaining air superiority first – not the Navy, not the Marines, not the Army. Air superiority is the single “point of failure” of the US military – without it, the entire US military will collapse like a deck of cards, including Lacey’s Army and Marine Corps, no matter how big they may be.
Moreover, despite his denials, the USAF and the USN actually DO have serious competitors. One is China, which, contrary to Lacey’s denials, does have a high seas fleet that now includes an aircraft carrier, almost as many subs as the USN has, and as many ships overall as the USN possesses. The PLAAF (China’s air force) has hundreds of modern, very agile, well-equipped J-10, J-11, Su-27, and Su-30 fighters, and is now developing the J-20 and the J-31 as well as acquring Su-35s from Russia. It also has a large, modern air defense system composed mostly of modern S-300 and HQ-9 SAM systems; it has recently ordered the S-400 system.
Another rival is Iran which, although not standing a chance in a conventional fight, could defeat the USN in an unconventional, asymmetric one (using submarines, mines, and fast attack craft) and then close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 30% of the world’s oil goes.
Shame on Lacey for babbling ignorant garbage about issues he clearly knows nothing about, and shame on the NRO for publishing his ridiculous screed. It’s proof positive that we live in the Age of Ignorance.
Note: Lacey’s piece is apparently a response to a proposal put forward by former CNO Adm. Gary Roughead (ret.) and Hoover Institution analyst Dr Kori Schake, who urge the US military to adapt to the changing threat environment by prioritizing naval and airpower and reducing its ground force. That proposal is sound, for all of the reasons stated above, as well as the reason that, in an era of shrinking defense budgets, something has to be cut – and it’s better to cut America’s two land armies which will likely see little ground action in the future. CSBA President Andrew Krepinevich, an Army veteran, and four CNAS analysts, including retired Army LTGEN David Barno, have come to similar conclusions.