Marine Corps’ Strategy Stresses Regional Culture

By Matthew Rusling
A deeper understanding of culture has become an official part of Marine Corps strategy.

Indeed, the recently published Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025 says that, to be successful in future wars, Marines will need to gain a deeper understanding of the most volatile regions of the world.

The strategy assumes that, after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan slow down, Marines will be able to prepare for future conflicts under a new organization called the Security Cooperation Marine Air Ground Task
Force. These units will routinely train foreign forces in areas of the world that the U.S. military describes as the “arc of instability” — a swath of territory running from the Caribbean Basin through most of Africa, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia. Many countries in these areas are often referred to as “failed states” because of
their unstable governments. U.S. officials consider them “safe havens” for terrorist groups.

“What the Corps is saying is that to be more effective, it needs to have more than a cursory familiarity with local conditions, something more than what you’d get from a travel brochure,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“From an outsider’s perspective this may seem like splitting hairs,” Wood said. “But I think there is a great deal of difference in quality and quantity of effort and the mindset that is being called for.”

It’s easy enough for any Marine to grasp that different cultures have their own unique characteristics. Working with a tribe in Africa may not be the same as working with a clan in Iraq or an indigenous people in the Philippines, Wood said.

So while a Camp Pendleton-based unit, for example, might focus on the specific attributes of groups in the Middle East, those Marines will learn that equally unique attributes are associated with a tribe in Africa, Wood said.

And if that unit ever finds itself in Africa during a crisis, those Marines will not try to blindly apply specific Iraq-models to African tribal problems, he added.

The same goes for Marines’ on-site experience, which could establish an intimacy with a region that could come in handy in a clinch. It will take a few years to figure out how to do this, Wood stressed. But that’s the direction the Corps is headed, he added.

Habitual deployment also boosts troops’ level of exposure and experience, which can lead to regional expertise.

“The only way you can get to know a region is if you repeatedly go to that region,” Wood said. “You have to engage in that locality to really understand the nuances (there).”

The former one-size-fits-all thinking toward Marine battalions reflected a mindset that Marines need only be concerned with combat, Wood said. A Marine battalion in Hawaii that would normally deploy to Okinawa could have just as easily been deployed to Saudi Arabia for operations against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, Wood said. Now some
Marines will have to focus on those idiosyncrasies that compose a population.

Despite a sharpened eye on culture, the 2025 document does not step away from the need to maintain basic war fighting skills, nor the option of swinging Marine forces from one theater to another. While the units will be training foreign forces in one area, they will still have the skills to fight along more conventional lines if a war breaks out
on the Korean Peninsula, Wood noted.

The Marines will break down the globe into 17 micro-regions under the
newly established Career Marines Regional Studies Program.

The intent is for the officers, non-commissioned officers and senior NCOs to study one of these micro-regions for the rest of their careers, said Col. Keil Gentry, head of the national plans branch for the Marine Corps.

Starting when they are lieutenants, the officers will be assigned micro-regions at the Basic School, at which all new Marine officers receive training. The enlisted Marines will be assigned these regions as sergeants, Gentry said.

But it is still a nascent program, as the Corps is still fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gentry said. The Marines are still hammering out the best way to implement such a program, he added.

In the past, the Corps took a hodgepodge approach to training foreign
forces. It might have been done by an infantry company, a battalion or
a small detachment, Gentry said.

Now, these more culturally attuned task forces will routinely deploy, instead of in spurts and halts as before.

“The idea here is it becomes a more standardized unit that deploys regularly to do security operation activities,” said Gentry.

Host country forces will be trained in a variety of ways, such as naval infantry, artillery, mortars, close-air support, logistics and aviation, Gentry said. That would leave them in a better position to take on crime, drug trafficking and religious fanaticism before they
snowball, Gentry said.

“It’s better to train a country’s security force to deal with those problems themselves than to let something build to a crisis situation,” Gentry said.

Although still in the planning stages, the Security Cooperation Marine Air Ground Task Forces are estimated to comprise anywhere from 400 to 1,200 troops, Gentry said. The force could also break down into the platoon level, or about 30 to 50 troops, for training exercises, Gentry said.

The Corps intends to have three MAGTFs deployed at any one time — one oriented toward Africa, one toward Latin America and one toward the Middle East. They would likely come from bases on the East or West Coast of the United States, Gentry said.

Right now, the plan is to source the infantry units from regionally oriented regiments. Those units would form the ground forces of the MAGTF. They are unlikely to change their orientation — an African regiment would stay geared toward Africa — though they are not immune to change, Gentry said. And Gentry doesn’t discount that a Marine could
be reassigned to a different regiment at some point in his or her career. There will also be regiments without a regional orientation.

In order to determine which country needs what, these units will work closely with the head of whichever region they are in — be it Central Command, Africa Command or Southern Command — as well as country teams and the host country’s forces.

No starting dates are yet slated, as the Corps does not know when commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan will end. In the meantime, it is taking a piecemeal approach.

“We’re already doing bits and pieces of this,” Gentry said. “When forces become available, we’ll be able to standardize the training and deploy it on a more regular basis.”

Language will also be an important tool, and the Corps is planning specialized language programs. Such training will vary, but marines with a linguistic knack would at least be able to carry on a basic conversation, Gentry said. Native speakers would also be identified.

This has been done in Iraq and will continue with the MAGTFs, Gentry said.

Foreign language training would not just be for officers. “It would be peppered throughout the force,” Gentry said.

Col. Steve Zotti, director of the commandant’s strategic vision group, said Marines have learned a great deal in Iraq, such as phrases in standard Arabic, and the Corps can leverage that experience elsewhere.

Marines will focus on learning the languages of areas teetering toward instability. Asia tops the list. Second is the Middle East. South America and Africa are tied at third place, Zotti said.

But despite a clear eye on prospective regional tinderboxes, the Corps has yet to determine exactly which languages to study, although it has a general idea.

“It’s the harder languages, like standard Arabic, like Urdu — those kinds of languages that are hard to learn and harder to maintain” that Marines will have to learn, Zotti said.

And narrowing the list is no easy task.

Africa is home to a maddeningly complex panoply of languages. And Chinese has eight major dialects, Zotti pointed out.

The Corps has begun to sift out languages on which lieutenants should focus, Zotti said. And while pinpointing future language requirements will take time, implementation is next on the agenda, Zotti said.

The Corps’ shift toward culture has been spurred by demographics. The developing world’s population will surge and put constraints on resources, especially oil and water, Zotti said.  Swelling youth populations will gobble up jobs faster than governments can grow the economy, resulting in droves of unemployed, dissatisfied young men.

This will happen in places that lack good governance and infrastructure. A number of scenarios could spring from these conditions: non-state groups could stir locals to violence and governments could hoard resources and squeeze out minorities.

Competition for water will intensify, according to the Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025.

Zotti said: “(If) fledgling countries without adequate sources of water or clean water go to blows… that means you would have Marines deployed more often.” This goes for oil as well, which could be a key driver of instability, he added.

That could leave the Marine Corps to protect U.S. embassies in embattled capitals, as it has done before in places like Liberia and Haiti, or to evacuate U.S. citizens.
These possible crises tie into the focus on culture.

“If you can help the locals help themselves, larger problems can (possibly) be precluded,” Wood said. And if a conflict does occur, that deeper comprehension of the region will hopefully lessen its length and difficulty. “The Marines will be more effective because they’ve developed more detailed knowledge of all the factors that impact
operations,” Wood said.

The security MAGTFs have raised a few eyebrows recently, as some have suggested the Marines might be competing with the Army’s Special Forces to train foreign personnel in counterinsurgency. Some have speculated that a rift could ensue.
Wood disagrees.

No U.S. military force will be engaged in an activity with a foreign military except with the direction or consent of the regional combatant commander, he said.

Such an ambitious plan to produce thousands of culturally attuned Marines also raises questions of whether it is achievable. Exact costs are still unknown, Gentry said. The Corps hasn’t fully developed a training program. That is likely four or five years away, Wood said.

The Corps’ ability to execute the strategy will depend on the needs of the combatant commanders, as well as on available funding, Zotti said.

The plan is not for the entire force of nearly 200,000 to become cultural experts or linguists, Gentry emphasized. As long as this is understood, the Corps should have enough resources to implement it, Wood said.

“I don’t think anything is going to (necessarily) derail it,” Gentry said.  “But it is still time dependent on the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Still, the Corps already has a leg up in some regions.

“We already have thousands of Marines with a deeper understanding of Arabic and Afghan and Pakistani cultures, norms and some language,” Zotti said.

Some Marines have raised concerns that these units could become less focused on war fighting, which could dull those skills.

Gentry emphasized what will likely be a gradual shift after Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s not like a switch will be flicked and we’ll go from one to the other,” Gentry said.

But no one knows when Iraq and Afghanistan will draw to a close, which means the realization of the new strategy is far from a done deal.     

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Urban Warfare, Expeditionary Warfare, Marine Corps News

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