The Buzz

4 Urgent Questions for the U.S. Marine Corps

In October 1957, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Randolph Pate sent Lieutenant General Victor Krulak a brief memo with a simple question: “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Recalling his work on a study in 1946, to save the Corps from “summary destruction” by Marine-hating President Harry Truman, Krulak responded simply that the U.S. did not need a Marine Corps. As he later wrote in his book First to Fight, the United States didn’t need a lot of things, but the United States wanted a Marine Corps. At a recent meeting at the Brookings Institution, I had the opportunity to take in ideas from almost a platoon of senior officers of the USMC, and many less martial-looking think-tankers from around Washington. These prompted me to devise four incendiary questions about the best future for the service.

As Krulak admitted in considering that weighty question, the U.S. Air Force flies pretty well, and the Army has shown at Normandy and elsewhere that it once could take beaches. In theory, any army or navy can train and equip landing troops without constituting a separate service. The Royal Australian Navy's helicopter carriers Canberra and Adelaide will soon carry troops of 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and helicopters of both Army Aviation and the Fleet Air Arm. The French Armée and Marine Nationale have a similar arrangement. But a look at comparative military organization worldwide suggests other models too. Today’s Swedish Amphibious Corps was once part of the Coastal Artillery, which was once part of the Army, before being amalgamated with the marine regiments and mine units, and reassigned to the Navy in 1901. Like the Royal Marines, they operate their own landing craft; U.S. Marines rely on the U.S. Navy for anything larger than a rubber boat.


More of What?

American marines know that any of these models can work, so the service maintains a healthy paranoia about how to best serve national strategy—if only, as Aaron O’Connell notes, to best serve the Marines’ Few Good Men fanaticism for being Marines. They grouse incessantly about the Navy’s failure to budget for enough assault ships, knowing that marines without ships are like paratroopers without planes. Indeed, I heard one marine officer assert that demand from the regional commanders for conventional forces can justify a fleet of 50 assault ships. That’s easy when the four-stars have wars for which to prepare, but no budget battles to fight. To start the exercise, though, what’s not in that demand? To what specifically should the Marines be comparing their own utility, with an eye towards grabbing their share a flatlining military budget? And of what should they be offering to build more?

Whether characterizing themselves as amphibious or expeditionary, as America’s 911 or crisis-response force, Marines emphasize that they’re a bit more ready most days than the National Guard. As such, the Guard is not the organizational rival. Plenty of Marines might be quite happy if the Regular Army and Air Force would focus on preparing for the Big War, so that Marines can claim authority over the small ones. Their post-Benghazi establishment of the special tiltrotors-and-infantry air-ground task forces was brilliant. Everyone seems to want them. The Army and the Air Force could have accomplished the same, but didn’t, if only because they still don’t play together quickly and seamlessly. All Marines do, and this can recommend future strategies.


On What Kind of Ships?

Second, if the Marines could budget for the ships they ride, how would the design of the individual ships differ from the pattern today, and how would it differ the overall composition of the fleet? Over time, I have garnered a few opinions from Marine officers, and most loudly about boats. The helicopter carriers America (LHA-6) and Tripoli (LHA-7), plenty insist, should have been designed with well decks. Sometimes I wonder if the Corps doth protest too much. While future Americas will be their own subclass with well decks, I am still trying to understand how this dispute arose, for the whole point was to increase hangar bay and fuel capacity for the Marines’ own rotorcraft and jump-jets. It’s a unique organization strength—getting away with complaining about getting what you want.