Another option would be to divest wholesale from one or more support functions. Currently the Marine Corps relies entirely on the Navy for medical support – from doctors to the front-line corpsman, and also for religious support in the form the Chaplain Corps. Using these examples as a model the Marine Corps could shift to using exclusively Navy explosive ordnance disposal, intelligence, or engineers. Doing so would also further the goal of increasing naval integration between the Navy and Marine Corps.
The Commandant has already declared that the Marine Corps is no longer wedded to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) construct. Ending the centrality of the GCE in Marine task forces and reducing its presence will clear the way for more organizational experimentation. In a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) the largest contingent is infantrymen from the GCE, where the formation is built around an infantry battalion. If that battalion is reduced in sized or removed from the structure it would open up hundreds of billet spaces in the traditional three-ship MEU/ARG for other capabilities. If Navy and Marine planners are worried about the size and expense of current L-Class amphibious ships posing a vulnerability, one way to shrink the ships is to start removing or distributing Marines. A prescient analysis of distributed, short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) operations found that support requirements for these operations would quickly outpace the organic ability of an ARG/MEU to support them. One way forward would be to move the grunts off to make room for more aviation support personnel:
“Tailoring the MAGTF to support such an unusually large complement of F-35s likely would require leaving some of its normal complements of air- and ground combat and support assets and personnel ashore…”
EABO will force planners to critically examine the contribution of personnel to their missions. Much like how in an air assault operation “Every butt must earn a seat,” is the Marine infantry going to earn a seat in EABO?
Ultimately, the Marine Corps needs to make hard choices about cuts in the near future and hopefully these choices will start to become apparent in the 2019 Integrated Force Structure Assessment. Current force structure and funding levels do not have room for the addition of new capabilities that will be essential in operationalizing EABO and preparing the Marine Corps for the future fight. The hardest part of implementing and operationalizing EABO will come only after it has become clear who the winners and losers of the new concept are. In an environment of limited resources and plateauing budgets new investments will have to come at the cost of cuts elsewhere. Officers and Marines who have developed their careers along specific tracks may be faced with the reality that their skills are no longer as relevant or valuable as those of their peers, but they may fight to maintain the status quo instead of to evolve. EABO is the right path forward for the Marine Corps, and senior leaders need to continue to push the concept forward by investing and divesting in the right places, including the infantry. Because of its size and relative lack of contribution to EABO, the Ground Combat Element and Marine infantry are the right places to start divesting to make room for the future.
Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. He has previously published commentary for the Center for International Maritime Security, West Point’s Modern War Institute, the Marine Corps Gazette and U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.
This article by Walker D. Mills first appeared at the Center for International Maritime Security.