New Commandant Dunford Wants to Keep the Marine Corps 'Relevant'

By Sandra I. Erwin

By Sandra I. Erwin

As his first message to Marines on the day he became the 36th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Joe Dunford issued a one-page letter where the word “relevant” appears twice but the word “combat” only once. 

Every Marine knows the phrase “prepare for combat,” but few have ever been told to “prepare for relevance,” says retired Marine and contracting attorney Jeff Bozman. Dunford's Oct. 17 message, he says, offers intriguing hints about the commandant's thinking on how he will guide the Corps as it downsizes its ranks, struggles to modernize its aging equipment and reevaluates its role in the defense establishment.

The commandant's letter seeks to reassure Marines that they are "relevant and in high demand." But he also warns that, in order to stay on top of its game, the Marine Corps will need to step up its training and its investments in technology. Dunford says his goal is to "ensure that the Marine Corps remains an innovative, relevant, naval, expeditionary force-in-readiness."

The Marine Corps is headed for a period of "profound change," Bozman writes in a blogpost with co-author Susan Cassidy. They are both attorneys at the Covington & Burling law firm. 

"Not since 1999 has an incoming commandant taken responsibility for a Marine Corps that was not heavily committed to land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia," Bozman notes. The takeaway for military contractors is that they need to understand how the Corps intends to define its niche in U.S. military strategy. The authors suggest that contractors that support Navy and Marine Corps operations can "profit from understanding these developments."

A more elaborate depiction of Dunford's vision of the future will emerge next year when the sea services — Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — unveil a new joint maritime strategy for the first time in seven years. 

Dunford's concerns about relevance are not new in the upper echelons of the Marine Corps. His predecessors Gen. James Amos and Gen. James Conway beat the relevance drums for years as they worried that Marines were becoming a "second land army" and losing their identity as a maritime force. Once the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations ended, Marine leaders reasoned, the nation's smallest military service would have to reaffirm its raison d'être.

One major cause of anxiety in recent years has been the Corps' failure to acquire a new "amphibious" swimming combat vehicle to move Marines from ship to shore. Marine leaders have been ribbed for wanting to relive their glory days of amphibious warfare, although they insist that a new vehicle is entirely about the future. Using the ocean and coastal waters as "maneuver space" is part of what makes the Marine Corps unique, Bozman says.

The Corps has been trying for nearly three decades, and failed so far, to buy a modern replacement for its aging amphibious assault vehicle. This is a problem because the AAVs would not survive a long "swim" from ship to shore if the enemy is armed with long-range artillery and missiles. As a result, the Navy must position ships far offshore. "The Marine Corps continues to struggle to find the right replacement vehicle," Bozman says. Amos was forced to terminate the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle because it was too expensive and complex. The next attempt, called the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, is in early development. Bozman cautions that the program is at risk as the "entire premise of that vehicle family has been challenged." At issue is the central question of how to put Marines into a fight quickly and effectively, he says. "Some observers have even called for scrapping the entire sea-based maneuver and adding more heavy-lift helicopters to ferry Marines and their fighting vehicles into battle."

Also looming large for Dunford are key trials of the Corps' most expensive weapon acquisition, the F-35B vertical-takeoff Joint Strike Fighter. Marines view the hovering attack plane as essential to their future because of its unique features. The F-35B can be deployed from large deck amphibious ships and can land in short runways. The aircraft is supposed to enter service in 2015, but many technical and budgetary hurdles still lie ahead.

Concerns about how the Marine Corps is positioning for the future are real, says Col. Stephen Liszewski, a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "With the completion of the mission in Afghanistan and a new commandant, many Marines and observers are asking what next," he writes in the CFR national security blog.

Budget cuts are hitting the Corps hard, he says. "In a time of fiscal austerity, the Marine Corps must carefully balance readiness, manpower and modernization." The force is getting smaller, from a wartime high of 202,000 to 182,000. Liszewski notes that the Marine Corps, even at a reduced size, will continue to deploy traditional Marine Expeditionary Units and rotational forces to the Western Pacific, and has assigned new Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces for crisis response in Africa and the Middle East. 

A priority in the coming years should be to ensure the Corps has enough ships to move forces around the world, Liszewski adds. A shortage of amphibious warships has been a constant complaint by Marines. "The use of other types of shipping has been suggested to mitigate scarce amphibious warships," says Liszewski. "But these alternative platforms do not remove the requirement for a healthy amphibious ship building program."

The Marine Corps, he says, should be prepared for the unexpected. It does not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on either “small wars” or on traditional combined arms campaign.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Leadership, Expeditionary Warfare, Procurement

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