The United States may be winding up over a decade of war, but the military is facing significant challenges -- in no small part because it is expected to prepare for a wider range of contingencies at a time of shrinking budgets. Among other things, the Department of Defense's 2012 report, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, asserts that the U.S. military must strengthen its power-projection capabilities to assure access to contested regions and unfettered freedom of movement.
Protecting such freedom of movement has been a near-constant mission of naval forces since strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan first defined the "wide commons" in the late 19th century. But, confronted with such an ambitious task, it may be useful to conceive of the wide commons more narrowly. Consider that an increasing majority of the world's population, more than 80 percent at last count, resides within the littorals -- that narrow strip of coastline that rings the world's continents. Increasingly, this is where the world's transactions and interactions occur. This concentration of people, political power, and economic dynamism means that the littorals are where the world's future crises will take place.
Since World War II, the United States has sought to avoid the tragedy of war. There has been a continual effort to find technological solutions to deter our adversaries (nuclear weapons) or to fight a "clean" war (precision strike). Yet the nation has repeatedly called on its Marine Corps to protect its citizens and interests. In particular, the demand for amphibious forces to engage forward and respond to crises has risen dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The critical employment of these forces in uncertain and austere environments where access is challenged is exemplified by the more than 50 amphibious operations that have taken place since Sept. 11, 2001.
Ongoing budget constraints and force reductions will test the ability of all the military services to meet today's missions while preparing for tomorrow's threats. As access to the littorals is further complicated, expeditionary naval forces must be able to respond with what is immediately within reach and available -- "come as you are." And that in turn means that the Marine Corps -- which, among other things, specializes in projecting power in coastal areas -- is going to be increasingly central to U.S. national security. But it must adapt to the new environment.
The United States has entered an expeditionary era, one in which it does not enjoy ready access to overseas bases in the regions where conflict is most likely to occur or unchallenged access to all regions -- not unlike when the nation first began trading globally and lacked the capability to adequately protect its foreign trade. The United States remains a global power, but it now competes in a world where many regional powers, nation-states, criminals, and extremists are expanding their influence. This challenge requires Marines to engage forward and build partners, create access where adversaries challenge us, and protect U.S. interests and citizens when necessary.
Today, new threats emerging in the littorals include piracy, area-denial weapons, and competition among populations for scarce resources, to name only a few. The littorals are where the action will be in the coming years -- indeed, they will only become more important as the global flow of commerce increases. Specifically, a handful of strategic maritime chokepoints scattered across the world's littorals must remain free and open to all commerce. For example, consider what impact closing the Suez would have on the world's economy when the shipping of two to three million barrels of oil was interrupted or trade from Asia was delayed from reaching the Mediterranean.