The Marine Corps for the past four years has committed its people and assets to the war in Iraq. But as the possibility of a force drawdown looms on the horizon, Marine strategists are grappling with fundamental questions about the future.
Among the topics of debate are how quickly the Marine Corps can return its focus on its traditional sea-based amphibious role, and whether it should continue to emphasize land-based counterinsurgency missions of the sort it has been fighting in Iraq.
“We’ve got people taking a close look at that,” said Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.
One major unknown is the “environment,” Conway said at a recent conference in Washington, D.C.
Iraq will continue to consume the Corps’ resources in the near term. Meanwhile, planners are trying to figure out how the Corps should prepare for conflicts after 2020 to 2025, Conway said.
No matter who the enemies of the United States might be two decades from now, it is a safe bet that the Marine Corps will continue to deploy forces in both maritime and land scenarios, Conway noted. Among the assumptions that are being factored into the planning is that Islamic extremist groups will keep on challenging the United States, he said.
Another prediction is that weapons of mass destruction “will be more prevalent,” said Conway. The Middle East will still be a volatile region in the future because of its oil supplies. “Oil still will be important in 2025, and water will become just as important as oil,” he said.
Years of fighting in Iraq to some extent has muddied the picture of how the Marine Corps sees its role in U.S. military operations. The Corps’ missions in Iraq in many ways overlap with the Army, and the frequent deployments have kept Marines away from their traditional training in amphibious warfare and other areas.
“The Marine Corps was designed and intended to operate in a large maritime type environment,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Its history stretches back to naval infantry and small wars and the kinds of things the Army wouldn’t necessarily be well suited for.”
The Corps would be wise to not let itself be perceived as a second land army, Wood said. The biggest value that the Corps brings to the nation is its role as a naval service, he said.
The war in Iraq, however, will have a lasting impact on the way Marines train for combat and groom future leaders, Wood added. “They realize that more attention needs to be paid on educating the force on the complexity of these kinds of situations.”
The Corps expects to be fighting in the so-called “arc of instability” — extending from Africa through the Middle East and portions of Asia — where the common themes are urbanization and civil wars. “It’s very much clan based, tribal based, local identity based, religion based and it’s not necessarily state based or nation based,” Wood said. “It’s a messy world.”
As part of a major expansion of U.S. ground forces announced last year, the Corps will be allowed to add 27,000 Marines to its current force of 177,000 during the next five years. Conway said he does not expect the additional troops to only backfill rotations to Iraq. He wants to be able to give Marines more training time in between deployments so they can regain some of the conventional skills that have atrophied during four years of counterinsurgency operations.
Michael Scheiern, a Marine reservist and researcher at Rand Corp., said that the Marine Corps will not change its core functions.
“The Marine Corps will continue to have to be prepared for a broad spectrum of short-notice contingency operations,” he said. “The way Marines fight is not substantially different from the way that they fought 50 years or 100 years ago. The tools have been updated … but fundamentally it’s still based on a smart and agile rifleman.”
The emphasis in the training, however, has shifted to smaller units. “The unit of maneuver and the fire support element all of a sudden is at the platoon, company or battalion depending on the type of activity,” Scheiern said. “This lowering of the center of gravity in the campaign changes the capabilities that you need as a force to be able to most effectively execute those operations.”
This new doctrine, known as “distributed operations,” essentially makes sergeants the new lieutenants. The company is the new battalion, and functions that were previously only at the battalion level are being scaled down for individual companies.
Scheiern echoed the opinion of other experts that even though the Corps has served as a “second land army” in Iraq, the nature of the Marine Corps will remain a maritime force.
“The focus on Iraq belies the fact that there are still ongoing crises throughout the world and that most of these nations and most of the world’s population are still located in the littorals. So the importance of being able to conduct sea-based operations ashore will not change,” Scheiern said. “The way that I see Iraq within the context of the Marine Corps is that Iraq has accelerated fielding and familiarization by Marines to many technologies that otherwise may not appear for years, if not a decade.”
These technologies include small reconnaissance drones, biometrics systems that help identify individuals based on fingerprints or iris scans, improved body armor and weapon sights. Marines now recognize that these unglamorous technologies are essential for the complex environment in which they envision fighting in the future.
As it seeks to modernize its weapons systems, however, the Corps faces tough dilemmas. Most of its weapon acquisition dollars are tied up in a few, highly controversial programs such as the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the expeditionary fighting vehicle, or EFV.
The vehicle has been in development for more than a decade, but the prototypes have failed critical tests and costs have soared to an estimated $12 million to $20 million per vehicle. Marine officials said their goal is to buy about 500 EFVs, but the future of the program is now uncertain, and the Corps recently shifted EFV funds to pay for the mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicles that are needed in Iraq.
Critics have questioned the Corps’ dogged commitment to the EFV, which was designed for amphibious warfare. “If you look at the EFV, it’s just a big box. The tall, flat sides and the very flat bottom present the same vulnerabilities that vehicles in Iraq already had and for which they are trying to find a solution,” Wood said. “So while the EFV has been in development, the threats in the battlefield have been evolving in a way that makes the EFV problematic.”
The Osprey, for its part, has seen its share of problems, including deadly crashes and budget overruns. “Whether it is worth the effort will be known in retrospect,” said Scheiern. “I think the first deployment of the Osprey to Iraq this fall will be a great litmus test on whether that investment makes sense.”
Another concern for the Marine Corps is whether the Navy will build enough amphibious ships to meet the expected deployment needs, Conway said. “We’ve had meetings with the Navy to come to grips with our requirements for amphibious ships and maritime pre-positioned forces.”
Conway said the Corps needs 34 amphibious ships to meet the Defense Department’s global deployment strategy, but the Navy’s long term shipbuilding plans only include 30 ships. “The next generation of the Navy’s shipbuilding plan will take that into consideration,” said Conway.
In a sign that the Corps intends to emphasize its maritime mission, both Marine and Navy officials are studying options to deploy large cargo ships that would serve as floating bases. That would allow Marines to bypass ports and airfields and launch forces directly from the sea.
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