Marines: We Don’t Just Storm Beaches, We Do Everything Else
QUANTICO, Va. — The Marine Corps is one of the nation’s most highly regarded institutions. But prestige alone isn’t enough to keep the troops motivated and ready to fight, or to stave off budget cuts.
The Marine Corps over the past decade has devoted most of its training and combat resources to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, with at least 21,000 troops currently deployed in South Asia. But as the U.S. military gradually withdraws from both war zones, Marine Corps leaders worry that their 202,000-strong force may be seen as an expendable luxury, particularly when the nation faces crushing budget deficits. Even the perception that the Marine Corps might not have a vital role in the nation’s security post-Afghanistan is bad for troop morale and makes the service more vulnerable to budget cuts, senior officials believe.
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, recently assigned a group of officers to help define the Corps’ future missions. The messaging campaign is intended to convince the nation's policy makers that Marines can do more than ground combat and counterinsurgencies.
The “amphibious capabilities working group,” a small think-tank within the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, was created Sept. 12 and has only 90 days to put together a vision for how the Marine cog will fit into the national security machine over the next decade. The group also includes Navy officers, as both services see their future roles intrinsically tied.
Many Americans might be aware that 21,000 Marines are fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, but may not realize that thousands more are elsewhere around the world, aboard amphibious ships in every major ocean, doing important missions, says Col. Christopher Naler, co-chair of the amphibious capabilities working group, or ACWG.
“This is the part of the story that is not being told,” Naler says in an interview. The policy makers often become “infatuated with quantity,” such as how many troops are deployed in Afghanistan, but often neglect to notice the diversity of missions the Marine Corps carries out, he says. Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, regularly are involved in disaster relief, anti-piracy operations, or simply stay aboard ships offshore, waiting for instructions in case a crisis erupts. Besides the 21,000 troops in Afghanistan, nearly 10,000 other Marines currently are involved in missions that fall under the rubric of “amphibious” operations.
“Afghanistan is our focus, but we have the skills to do more than one thing,” he says.
Naler recognizes that “amphibious” can be a loaded word at the Defense Department these days as it is associated with World War II beach assaults. “It’s very Pavlovian,” says Naler. “When people hear amphibious they envision the Battle of Tarawa, they envision Iwo Jima.” Marines are not storming beaches anymore, but they are still showing up to hotspots aboard ships, and are capable of organizing ashore quickly, if necessary. The value of being able to do that often is unappreciated, Naler says. “Political and diplomatic maneuvering [can go on] while we are on the scene ready to respond,” he says.
Amphibious operations these days could be assisting countries after natural disasters, evacuating civilians from lawless states or training allied nations’ forces.
The ACWG will seek to make a case for the value of “forward presence.” Showing up to help allies during crises and training friendly forces are small investments that pay huge dividends, Naler says. “These are the missions where we gain relationships, access, allies,” he says. Nobody can predict when a port or airfield in any given country may one day be the “lily pad we may end up using for a major theater war,” he adds. “Post-Afghanistan, the requirement to stay engaged with partners is critical.”
Over the next three months, the ACWG will conduct academic war games that will seek to forecast how the Marine Corps might hone its skills in preparation for an uncertain future. Naler says the group will not be advocating for any particular weapons systems, and only will focus on “concepts of operations.”
The outcome of the war games, however, might eventually shape the design of a new armored amphibious combat vehicle that Corps leaders have sought to acquire, unsuccessfully, for the past two decades. The ACWG analysis also might help bolsterAmos’ efforts to protect the F-35B Joint Striker Fighter— a vertical takeoff strike/attack aircraft — from the budget axe.
The upcoming war games also should reinforce the Marine Corps’ goal to be perceived as a “middleweight” force that brings more staying power than light infantry but can move much faster than Army brigades.
With the Pentagon facing possibly $330 billion in budget cuts between now and 2021, Corps leaders ultimately are looking to make a convincing case that Marines provide unique value to the nation.
“When you respond to today's crisis a week from now, you're irrelevant,”Amos told a national security conference in Washington, D.C. “The nation can't afford to have all four services be a crisis response force.”