The Future of the U.S. Marine Corps

Flickr / U.S. Marine Corps
May 8, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas

The Future of the U.S. Marine Corps

There is no greater danger in military strategy than shaping a nation’s force structure to respond to one specific set of contingencies, giving an adversary the ability to adjust and adapt beforehand.

On September 4, 2002, five months before the invasion of Iraq, this writer warned in an editorial for the Washington Post that “China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall . . . An ‘American war’ with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.” 

Eighteen years later we are struggling with the bitter leavings of that unfortunate result. We have spent trillions of dollars from our national treasury on wars and frequently amateurish nation-building projects in the Middle East. We have lost thousands of good people to deaths in combat, and tens of thousands more to wounds and debilitating emotional scars that will stay with them throughout their remaining lives. Our military leaders have conducted numerous fruitless and feckless campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria that, in the end, have only further destabilized one region while decreasing American prestige and influence in another. Our larger foreign policy has degenerated from post–Cold War transitional to post-Iraq situational, without the guiding principles of a clear national doctrine. The leadership in the Department of Defense, both military and civilian, has been reduced to feeling its way from one day to the next, simply reacting to crises large and small rather than guiding the international narrative, which America’s global leadership managed to do even during the most difficult days of the Cold War.

The Iraq War is largely behind us, having blown apart that country and empowered Iran. Afghanistan is no better than it was when we first committed military forces there nineteen years ago and indeed is probably worse, consolidating Afghanistan’s firm position as a narco-state that is by far the world’s largest producer of opium. Libya has deteriorated into a full-blown failed state. Syria is a devastating riddle, clouded by our own government’s lack of transparency regarding the level of our national involvement. And the stability of East Asia, whose waterways carry the world’s most vital sea lanes, has become increasingly fragile. After two decades of being treated by American leadership as something of a second-tier strategic backwater, it comes as no surprise that the region is in danger of steadily drifting into the autocratic and economic orbit of an increasingly powerful China.

In the wake of two decades of costly strategic blunders and an inability to accomplish our national objectives it is nonetheless remarkable that along the way a trusting America consistently has given our top military leaders huge deference and frequent free passes. Our Post–9/11 generals and admirals are treated with a reverence approaching the esteem of those who led the country to victory during World War II. At the top they are the most educated generation of officers in our history, the result of mid-career opportunities for advanced degrees at some of our most prestigious universities while receiving full pay. As a prerequisite for promotion to flag rank they spend at least one tour on a “J” staff, interacting with their interservice peers and frequently learning the budgetary, programmatic and political nuance that prepares them for high-level military positions and lucrative post-career employment. And their judgments are rarely put to test by a congressional leadership and major media whose members risk backlash since so few have actually served in the military. 

The convergence of these two realities is at the center of a growing unease with the implications of the recent announcement by Gen. David Berger, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps, that the Corps will move from operational concepts in the Middle East and will re-engage in Pacific Asia. The decision to shift priorities back to this region comes as no surprise to those who closely follow national security issues since by now there is little argument that the United States should never have disengaged from Pacific Asia in the first place. What is surprising is that the new Commandant should be using a predictable re-emphasis on East Asia to propose changing the fundamental force structure and operational doctrines of the Marine Corps.

Interestingly, when citing his philosophical inspiration at the outset of his proposal, General Berger chose to ignore two centuries of innovative and ground-breaking role models who guided the Marine Corps through some of its most difficult challenges. The giants of the past—John LeJeune, Arthur Vandegrift, Clifton Cates, Robert Barrow and Al Gray, just for starters—were passed over, in favor of a quote from a professor at the Harvard Business School who never served. Many Marines, past and present, view this gesture as a symbolic putdown of the Corps’ respected leadership methods and the historic results they have obtained.

Much more important is the potentially irreversible content of the proposal itself. If authorized, appropriated and put into place, this plan would eliminate many of the Marine Corps’ key capabilities. It could permanently reduce the long-standing mission of global readiness that for more than a century has been the essential reason for its existence as a separate service. Its long-term impact would undo the value of the Marine Corps as the one-stop guarantor of a homogeneous tactical readiness that can “go anywhere, fight anybody, and win.” And after the centuries it took to establish the Marine Corps as a fully separate military service, it could reduce its present role by making it again subordinate to the funding and operational requirements of the Navy. 

General Berger bases his proposal on guidance in the 2018 National Defense Strategy which “redirected the Marine Corps’ mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power / peer-level competition with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific . . . Such a profound shift from inland to littoral . . . will also demand greater integration with the Navy and a reaffirmation of that strategic partnership.” He then concludes that “Our current force design, optimized for large scale amphibious forcible entry and sustained operations ashore . . . are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps.” 

In making his conclusions, Berger emphasizes two principles. The first is that the future force should be formulated based on “approved naval concepts.” The second is that its operational practices should heavily emphasize a “hider versus finder competition” that exists in many of the highly structured DOD “war games” that he has experienced, calling the “reconnaissance / counter-reconnaissance mission an imperative for success.”

Based on a 2018 Department of Defense framework that is always subject to change, General Berger has thus decided to dramatically alter the entire force structure of the Marine Corps to a posture whose overriding emphasis would be short-term, high-tech raids against Chinese military outposts on small, fortified islands in the South China Sea. While it is certainly useful to develop contingency plans should Marines be called upon to conduct such limited tactical interventions, building a force around this concept is not a bold leap into the future. Rather, it reflects a misunderstanding of the past, as well as ignoring the unpredictability of war itself. Such scenarios are hardly a full reflection of “what the Nation requires of the Marine Corps.” The General seems to acknowledge that when he states in his proposal, “We need better answers to the question, “what does the Navy need from the Marine Corps?” 

The new commandant has hedged in recent interviews regarding the finality of his proposal with such comments as “this is not the end of the journey but rather the beginning,” and “at some point within a 10-year period we need to make some fundamental changes.” But his conclusions have been highly specific. They are already being passed down through the Marine Corps command structure, and soon will be reduced to hard numbers in congressional funding requests that usually cover a five-year plan.

In forwarding his conclusions, the General noted that he had already decided that the Marine Corps should divest (his word) its combat structure by three full infantry battalions, a 14 percent reduction of its most important combat elements, and all of the correlative support units that would be involved. Marine Corps analytical teams were also ordered to “avoid” criteria related to the possibility of “sustained land operations,” thereby removing future considerations of the type of operational challenges the Marine Corps has predominantly faced over the past one hundred years.

His proposals include the following: 

--Divestment of three active combat battalions from the current level of twenty-four battalions, a 14 percent reduction in front-line combat strength, under the rationale that “the remaining 21 battalions will satisfy naval and joint requirements”;

--Reducing the strength of each remaining twenty-one battalions by two hundred Marines, taking an additional forty-two hundred infantry Marines from the front-line combat capabilities at the outset of any conflict;

--Divestment of two reserve component infantry battalions out of the present level of eight battalions, a 25 percent reduction of up-front combat strength; 

--Divestment of sixteen cannon artillery battalions, a 76 percent reduction, to be replaced by fourteen rocket artillery battalions, under the rationale that this will provide “ultimately successful naval campaigns”;