The Marine Corps has been renowned for being a tough fighting force with certain skill sets that make it unique. Individual Marines have traditionally been considered tougher, more formidable fighters than Army soldiers – at least, if you ask a Marine. The Corps has mastered (and now forgotten) skills such as amphibious assaults that the Army can’t perform. However, times have changed. The effects of social experimentation (women in service), technological emphasis (digital and electronic capabilities over close combat), and doctrinal changes (aviation combat emphasis and tactical mobility have trumped brute force combat) have significantly altered the characteristics of the “ideal” individual Marine or, at least, the perceived requirements. Similarly, the Corps as a whole has changed.
For example, in WWII, women could not have passed the Marine Corps training program and, even if they could, would have been an absolute detriment in the field being unable to perform the basic activities such as climbing over the side of an attack transport in full gear, humping a battlefield load of equipment, carrying injured comrades to safety, etc. Now, though, with the “gentling” of the Marine training program, gender norming, and the previously mentioned trends, women are deemed capable of serving, including front line combat. This is not a post about women in service/combat. I’m merely illustrating one of the ways in which the Corps has changed over time. The Marines are no longer the Few, the Proud, the Marines. They are now an equal opportunity, social organization that is the farthest thing from exclusive or unique.
As a whole, the Corps has moved away from the concept of frontal beach assaults in favor of inland, airborne assaults. That’s fine (well, no it isn’t – a word or two on that, below) except for the fact that we have another group that does that and, at the moment, does it better – the Army. In fact, the Army is aggressively moving to conduct operations from Navy ships and is aligning their future platform acquisitions with naval requirements.
The Corps is also moving away from the heavy end of the combat spectrum with recent announcements that tanks and artillery will be cut along with personnel.
The Corps lacks a modern, effective amphibious battle vehicle and has spent many years dithering over the AAV replacement. They’re no closer to an answer now than they were when they began the ill-fated EFV program.
We’re left with a Marine Corps that is currently only capable of short duration, small, light infantry operations. The entire aviation assault concept that the Corps seems to be moving towards has some potentially serious weak points such as the survivability of the MV-22 and helos in an inland, opposed scenario and the questionable ability to adequately resupply an inland assault.
Further, the Corps’ apparent movement towards an expeditionary air force role is logistically and tactically suspect, at best. They seem to want to take part in the high end, aerial combat, distributed lethality type of war that so many of our professional warriors seem to believe, incorrectly, will be the future of combat. The problem with this, aside from the incorrect nature of the very concept, is that that is not the Corps’ fight. That is not their job. That is not their war. We have a very high tech Air Force whose job it is to do that. We have a Navy whose job, partially, is to do that. The Marines have another job, though they seem to have forgotten what it is.
Finally, the Marine’s main unique attribute, their ability to execute an amphibious assault is highly suspect, now, from both a doctrinal and strategic point of view.
Doctrinally, the Marines cannot execute an amphibious assault. They lack the landing craft to transport troops from 25-50 miles offshore to the beach in fighting condition. They lack the ability to put heavy firepower ashore with the initial wave, when it is most needed. In short, the Marines have no ability to execute an opposed landing against a peer. They have no ability to execute their own doctrine.
Strategically, the need for amphibious assaults against foreseeable enemies over the foreseeable future is highly suspect. Consider the likely cases:
The overall strategic likelihood of amphibious assaults is very low for the foreseeable future. Combined with the inability to actually conduct an assault, I see very little need for such a capability.
So, given the preceding, what is it that the Marines bring to the table that the Army and Air Force don’t already have? The unfortunate answer is less and less, bordering on nothing.
Having posed the question and acknowledged the disappointing answer, let’s turn our attention to what the answer ought to be.
The Marines have two primary missions:
- Conduct short duration, high intensity, inland actions (raids, rescues, diversions, disruptions, first response, etc.).
- Seize entry points into enemy territory for follow on forces. This includes port seizure and landing points (beach or near-shore airfields).
It’s that simple. It’s that simple and yet the Marine’s have lost their focus. It’s that simple and yet the Marines are floundering.
Everything the Marines do and buy should be run through the filter of “will it support or enhance the primary missions”? If so, do it. If not, don’t. It’s that simple.
Now let’s look a bit closer at the primary missions and what’s needed to accomplish them.
First response, almost by definition, will be a crisis that was unanticipated to some extent and likely be a situation where we are overmatched locally. Responding to such a situation will require the Marines to fight above their weight. They’ll have to hit hard and be able to survive on a battlefield that is not ideal and probably under unfriendly skies. What will a Marine force need to accomplish this? They’ll need as much transportable heavy firepower as possible (an M! Abrams provides firepower and survivability but currently presents a transport challenge). A medium weight, heavy gun vehicle may be needed. Possibly something along the lines of the M551 Sheridan or M50 Ontos. Of course, the preferred solution would be to figure out how to transport M1 Abrams tanks! In addition to tanks of whatever sort, they’ll need artillery and as much of it as they can get along with mortars of all sizes, including, ideally, vehicle mounted, heavy mortars (there’s that transport issue again).
Hand in hand with firepower is survivability. It does no good to show up on the battlefield and be wiped out in short order. Survivability requires armor and self-defense weapons. The current fascination with, and trend towards, light “jeeps” for mobility is a surefire recipe for defeat especially if one has to fight under unfriendly skies.
Fighting under unfriendly skies requires a robust anti-air (AAW) capability which the Marines (and Army, to be fair) have all but abandoned under the decades long belief that the
would always rule the skies. We desperately need mobile AAW platforms,
both missile and gun (along the lines of the ubiquitous Soviet ZSU). US
Entry point seizure is the other key Marine mission. The Marines have one unique feature that mobile Army units lack and that is ships – large, amphibious ships loaded with many tons of heavy equipment, munitions, and general supplies. The amphibious ships represent the kind of equipment supply and reserves that Army airborne units just can’t match. The ships are also mobile and are capable of bringing those supplies to the point of action. The ships allow the Marines to operate aviation assets in close proximity to the point of battle unlike Air Force assets that must return to distant bases between missions thus drastically reducing sortie rates.
Thus, the distinguishing feature of the Marines is the ability to bring large amounts of heavy equipment to bear on far distant battlefields via ship based transport.
The ability to bring large amounts of tanks, combat engineer vehicles, artillery, and other heavy equipment to a battle from nearby ships gives the Marines a decisive, hard-hitting capability that the Army-Air Force combination can’t match. Unfortunately, that advantage is being squandered by ill-advised changes in direction and doctrine (expeditionary air force, for example, or divestiture of tanks and artillery) and failure to develop and procure the requisite supporting equipment (armored, heavy transport connectors, for example, or LSTs, or armored combat/amphibious vehicles).
The Corps needs to take a step back, refocus on its core missions, re-acknowledge its strengths, and redirect its development, training, doctrine, and procurement efforts towards those strengths.
Unfortunately, the Marines have all but officially abandoned one of their core missons, entry point seizure, and have seriously jeopardized their other core mission, first response, by downgrading their hitting power from their traditional middle weight status to light weight. This is not just my opinion. Here’s what Lt. Gen. Gary Thomas, deputy commandant for programs and resources, had to say to a Congressional panel.
“We are a light general purpose force. One of the things that gives the Marine Corps an advantage on the battlefield is its mobility and its fires. Much of that comes from aviation.”
Well, there it is. I’ve been saying for years that the Marines have abandoned their core and now top Marine leadership is confirming that, on the record, to Congress.
A light general purpose force is fine for peacekeeping and low end skirmishes but utterly useless for executing the Marine’s core missions. A light general purpose force, by definition, is not specialized for anything and, therefore, not highly capable at any given task. This is utterly wrong. They are supposed to be medium weight, striving to be as heavy as they can be given transport constraints, specialists in first response and entry point seizure. They should not be flitting around the battlefield in ultra lightweight jeeps (what is an airburst munition going to do to the troops packed on an open jeep?) or soaring over the battlefield in $150M aircraft that have a 50% readiness rate on a good day and require exquisite maintenance and care from highly trained factory technicians dressed in surgical garb.
In summary, what do the Marines bring to the table that we don’t already have? Little or nothing.
I know the Corps has a strong Congressional lobby but if they don’t wake up soon, the Army is going to push them right out of a job.
The Marines need to get back to being the toughest, nastiest fighting force on the planet (yes, that means completely dumping women from the Corps and getting rid of the guys who don’t even outweigh their packs). A Marine carries his rifle in one hand and fires a mortar in the other without bothering to set it on the ground like some Army puke.
The Marines need to focus on their two core missions. The days of
Hollywood practice landings for the sake of public relations photo ops need to
disappear. The Marines need to focus on
brutal raids, desperate defenses, and entry point seizure. If Marines aren’t getting hurt during
exercises then they aren’t training the right way.
The Marines need to bring something unique and valuable to the table or fold up and go away. There is no middle ground. Hey, Marine Corps, that sound you hear behind you is the Army sniffing at your butt. Time to wake up!
(1)USNI News website, “Lawmaker Worries Marine Corps Investing Too Heavily In Aviation Over Ground Vehicles”, Megan Eckstein,