Differing Army and Marine Corps exercises regarding coastal artillery show the continued value of inter-service rivalry.

At the AUSA’s “Land Power in the Pacific” symposium in Hawaii last month, Admiral Harry Harris of US Pacific Command told an audience that he wants the US Army in the coastal artillery business. Specifically, he wants the Army to deploy its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Paladin 155mm mobile howitzers to support the Navy around the South China Sea. His remarks followed an exercise in the Crow Valley on Luzon, and on the surface, he offers an interesting, team-oriented, and very joint idea. The trouble is that by the time howitzers on Philippine shores are firing at Chinese warships, something will have gone very, very wrong. The Army is not, however, offering to meaningfully change its structure to support this security challenge, and that’s an indication of why inter-service competition remains important for the US Defense Department.

First, some context. Back in October 2014, I wrote an essay on this question—“Can Coastal Artillery Backstop the Navy?” I followed that around the turn of the year with an argument for a “Cheaper Way to Bottle Up the Chinese Fleet,” arguing that shore-based missile batteries could (mostly) do this more cost-effectively than ships. In another essay on “Organizing the Coastal Artillery,” I suggested that this mission was not destined to be lie with the Army. Any service could handle it—even the Air Force, the only US military service ever to field ground-based cruise missiles. Finally, I responded to some critical comments about this would-be “McNamara Line in the East China Sea.” So I have been thinking about the issue.

Last November, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory at Quantico spent a few days considering how to organize coastal defense forces for the Ryukyus. The wargame report from just last month is interesting. The terminology was clumsy, using the awkward phrase “Expeditionary Advanced Bases” to describe what are really mobile field forces. Otherwise, the concepts were well-considered: coastal defense forces need not just mobile missile launchers, but reasonable allotments of supporting arms too. Anti-aircraft batteries discourage ingressing air strikes. Reconnaissance drones find surface targets over the horizon. Boats and rotorcraft resupply the troops across the archipelago. Logisticians offload the fuel and ammunition that they bring. Infantry provide security against enemy raiding forces. And yes, some howitzers could keep their landing craft from easy access to the shores.

But take note—it’s the Marine Corps that’s thinking about how to help the Japanese defend the Ryukus. Perhaps that’s part of the “seizure or defense of advanced naval bases” laid out in 10 US Code 5063. The Marines don’t have mobile anti-ship missile launchers yet, but one could argue that their statutory responsibilities point that way. Howitzers and HIMARS are what the Army has today, and has programs to keep buying, so that’s what the Army is bringing to field exercises. The HIMARS can fire ATACMS missiles with 500-pound unitary warheads as far as 100 miles, and those could put big holes in ships. But ATACMS are ballistic rockets; sea-skimmers are much more likely to penetrate enemy defenses. The Army also has that “Advanced Hypersonic Weapon” program, which would be very hard to stop. But this errs in the other direction. So far, the program has a 1950s feel: our [hypersonic] rockets always blow up. What the Army lacks is the proven and relevant. How hard is buying a bunch of coastal radars and RBS-15s from Saab, like the Polish Navy has done?

The Marines specifically mentioned that weapon and allied service in their wargame report, and I do commend them for  thinking this through. Tabletop exercises like these are important, as they can forestall the over-enthusiasm that led to the Task Force Hawk debacle of 1999. Back then, the Army lacked a hip-pocket plan, and so tried to fly a mechanized brigade into Albania to defend a helicopter squadron against the possibility of Yugoslav commandos crossing some inhospitable mountains. That sort of excess was part of what led then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki to observe to recalcitrant officers that “if you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” And that’s why I find the Army’s disinterest remarkable. I don’t detect much discussion within the Army on how it could organize forces for this mission. Maybe howitzers and HIMARS would be important, but I’d rather scoot about Luzon or Okinawa with braces of cruise missiles on trucks. They’d be much more likely to punch big holes in enemy warships.

I do remember hearing something recently about a “rebalancing to the Pacific,” so there might still be something to this coastal artillery idea. Eventually, for fighting forward of the Ryukus or the Philippines, political leadership may wish it had options besides surging aircraft carriers forward. When one military service isn’t responsive, another sometimes can take the lead in the bureaucratic competition. So the next time some pundit complains about duplication and rivalry, don’t immediately assume that those are bad things. Limited budgets require choices, but too much jointness and oversight in the name of economy can foreclose future options.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.