Defense Secretary Robert Gates made it official: The Marine Corps is not going to turn into a “second Army,” nor will it have to give up its distinctive role as the nation’s 911 force.
But marines are nonetheless still obsessed about their future. It’s in the Corps’ DNA to be paranoid about becoming a smaller version of the Army which, during a budget crunch, would be seen as expendable, Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said, somewhat in jest, at a recent industry conference in Washington, D.C.
Regrowing its amphibious roots after a decade of landlocked war has become a cri de coeur for the Corps, especially following the cancelation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The loss of the EFV had been feared as the death knell for marines’ beach-storming, sea-based mission.
The program was terminated, but the Marine Corps still gets to keep the amphibious mission, and use unspent EFV dollars to buy a new vehicle.
There is still the matter, however, of nailing down what exactly that amphibious mission is about. Marines will never again fight another Inchon or Iwo Jima, and their challenge has been to articulate why assaulting a beach is still a relevant assignment for which they should be training and equipping.
“We still will have to do operations from the sea,” said Lt. Gen. George Flynn, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, in Quantico, Va.
These operations are far from what traditionalists consider amphibious assault. Marine leaders believe they must be prepared to land ashore, both under benign and hostile circumstances, and be ready to confront a wide range of threats or scenarios, including humanitarian and peacekeeping roles.
“What will we be doing in the future? Engaging forward, with friends, shaping the environment, training with other militaries,” Flynn said during a recent conference call with reporters. “We have to be ready to respond. When American citizens are in trouble, who’s going to evacuate them?” Flynn asked. Marines will assist in disaster relief, refugee crises and anti-piracy efforts, he said. “What other force has that flexibility and adaptability?”
Flynn believes that marines, to be effective, will have to arrive ashore both by air and by surface vehicles like the ones that will replace the EFV. “You need to be able to do a seamless transition from the maritime to the land domain and immediately get off the beachhead and maneuver,” Flynn said.
Because marines have spent the better part of a decade conducting counterinsurgency, including some high-intensity urban fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, outsiders have forgotten that the Corps is a maritime force that works more closely with the Navy than with the Army, noted Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Melvin G. Spiese, deputy commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Marines have been involved in more than 100 amphibious operations since 1990, he said during a conference call with reporters.
It is debatable whether Spiese’s count stretches the definition of an amphibious operation. “We have gone into a number of environments that were not benign,” he said. A large force deployed into Afghanistan over and through Pakistan “almost directly into a hostile environment [even though] we weren’t working against a prepared defense,” said Spiese. “Our thinking is obviously to avoid the prepared defense. The things that we’re trying to gain with V-22 [aircraft], the air-cushion landing craft and things like that are the ability to move around prepared defenses even though we’re going into a combat situation.”
He noted that in 2003, some 70,000 marines and sailors moved into Kuwait for the initial staging of forces that invaded Iraq. In December 2004, marines arrived in Indonesia aboard six ships after a devastating tsunami. Last summer, the Corps supported a U.S. European Command operation in Latvia. At the same time, he said, a Marine Air-Ground Task Force conducted an amphibious landing in Estonia.
Spiese contends that amphibious landings, even if they don’t occur in hostile conditions, are challenging endeavors that require significant preparation, logistics support — sometimes without access to ports or runways — and coordination with other agencies and branches of the military.
Spiese recently oversaw an exercise at Camp Pendleton that focused on how marines would respond to crises by relying primarily on equipment that is “pre-positioned” aboard ships in key spots across the world’s oceans. This training, Spiese said, “involves marines and sailors quickly gaining access to the beach, then conducting operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to contested assaults.”
The plan is to make this part of an annual training regimen that prepares Navy and Marine Corps forces to “conduct selective offload and at-sea transfer of personnel and equipment from sealift platforms to amphibious ships or directly to air and surface craft capable of ship-to-shore delivery,” Spiese said.
To be able to truly regain its sea legs, the Marine Corps also will have to downsize its equipment load because ships have limited cargo capacity. Commandant Gen. James Amos has called for “reducing the size, weight and the energy expenditure of our forces, from the individual rifleman to all components of the air ground task force.”
Years of ground wars have saddled the Corps with heavily armored vehicles and bulky hardware. Extended counterinsurgencies also have turned marines into what some leathernecks would characterize as creatures of comfort. Amos wants to move away from a “culture of plenty” which has resulted in the “acquisition of resources that in some cases are incompatible with the ethos of an agile, expeditionary force,” he said.
Deployed units will still need armor to protect themselves from land mines and improvised explosive devices. “IEDs are going to be a problem forever. … There’s no question about it,” Spiese said. “We’re not going to have a situation like we did in Somalia, before Beirut, where we’re not facing those threats every time marines get on the road.”
But instead of relying on the enormous mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) trucks that are being used today in Afghanistan, the plan is to add armor plates to the much lighter Humvee trucks, Spiese said.
As to whether losing the EFV and waiting several more years for a replacement will have any meaningful impact on future operations, the answer is, probably not. Regardless of which amphibious vehicle marines end up using in the future, the goal is to rely more heavily on the Navy for protection of those marines, Spiese said.
“The Navy has developed some superb capabilities. In fact, one of the reasons why we’re able to rethink the EFV is the Navy’s increased ability to attack, strip away and defend against anti-ship missiles,” he said. “They’re convinced that we no longer have to be on the other side of the radar horizon about 25 nautical miles away. We can get in within 12 to 15.”
The cruisers and destroyers that the Navy has today, he added, “really do have the ability to go after command-and-control systems and anti-ship systems that can give us a more sanitized environment in which to come ashore.”