Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26th MEU) conduct electronic checks

Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (26th MEU) conduct standard electronic checks on a CH-53E Super Stallion Helicopter before taking off to rescue a downed Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot and weapons officer. (SHNS photo by Staff Sgt. Danielle M. Bacon / U.S. Marine Corps) March 29, 2011

The debate over whether the U.S. should have intervened in Libya and how things will ultimately turn out in the troubled country will linger for some time. The issue of who will control the country is far from resolved.

For the U.S. military, however, there are lessons that are already becoming abundantly clear: If the U.S. and its NATO allies want to sustain a capacity to apply military power around the world, amphibious forces are essential.

In a May 2010 speech, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned whether it would ever be “sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again.” Before he left office, Gates effectively answered his own rhetorical question in the affirmative. It happened when he ordered U.S. forces to intervene in Libya. The backbone of the initial response: the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group. A three-ship formation led by the USS Kearsarge, the group includes some 2,000 Marines and their aviation assets—Harrier attack jets, helicopters, and the V-22 Osprey that carry cargo and personnel.

More evidence continues to emerge of just how important amphibious capabilities were to the U.S. response. A series of recent interviews with some of the participants in the operations are revealing.

It is hard to dispute the conclusion that amphibious forces “are among the most responsive and cost-effective means to project U.S. power around the world. In fact, we don’t have enough of them. The Pentagon should be buying more assets like the America-class amphibious assault ships, and speeding the purchase F-35Bs, the short-takeoff, vertical-landing replacements for aging Harriers.”

A recent Heritage report, “A Strong National Defense: The Armed Forces America Needs and What They Will Cost,” makes the case that the U.S. does not have amphibious assets now to meet all the military’s responsibilities around the world to protect U.S. interests.