Monday, March 2, 2020

Marine Corps Manning

A reader, who generally prefers to remain anonymous, mentioned Marine Corps manpower in a post comment some time ago and pointed out that it has not always been at the current level.  In fact, it’s varied greatly.  The reader posed the question whether the current levels are justified when considered against historical levels? 

A further comment was the suggestion that a smaller Corps might provide the core for ramping up when necessary (war) while allowing the organization to be more agile, flexible, and adaptable in addressing substantial changes in warfighting requirements and methods during peacetime.

I think it’s worth pondering those questions so let’s start by taking a quick look at historical Marine manpower levels, as shown in the table below.

Marine Corps
Manpower History (1)

Note the massive and rapid buildup in manpower from pre-WWI (1900) and pre-WWII (1930) levels to the end of war levels in 1918 and 1945.  Note also the extreme reductions that took place post-war.  That trend of small peacetime levels and rapid buildup for war was the norm until around1955-1960 which was post-Korean war.  From 1960 until now, levels have stayed elevated and fairly steady.

Why have levels stayed elevated and constant since 1960?  What has changed to invalidate the pre-1960 practice of smaller peace time levels?  I have no definitive answer to these questions but they are very good questions that I hope Marine Corps leadership has an answer for.

One partial explanation is that since the Sep 11, 2001 (9/11) terror attacks we have been in a constant state of ‘war’ (the global war on terror – GWOT) and manpower requirements have been elevated and consistent, as a result.  However, that does not explain why the manpower levels were elevated for forty years prior to 9/11.

Another possible answer is budget competition.  No service wants to downsize because that means a subsequent smaller budget and, short of war, it’s very difficult to regain lost budget.  Of course, budget competition has been around since 1776 so, while competition is undoubtedly a factor, it offers only a partial explanation and does not explain why once considered much smaller peacetime manning to be acceptable.

Moving on, one of our initial questions involved the act of ramping up manpower levels for war.  The obvious question is whether that can be successfully done, today.  It certainly was done, and done successfully, in response to WWI/WWII manpower demands.  Can it be done today or has technology advanced to the point that it takes too long to train a Marine to make rapid buildup a viable war response.  For example, a Marine computer/cyber technician can’t be mass produced in an abbreviated, three week boot camp.  It takes years of training to become competent.  An F-35 or MV-22 maintenance tech, unlike a WWII Hellcat/Corsair aircraft mechanic, requires a good deal more time to train.  On the other hand, a basic Marine rifleman can still likely be produced in fairly short order.  So, what does this tell us about the optimum peacetime manning level?  Honestly, I don’t know.  One thing it does tell us is that we should be cautious about committing to technology so advanced that only a Ph.D genius with 20 years of experience can maintain and operate it.

The most interesting aspect of Marine Corps manning levels is the suggestion that a smaller peacetime Corps might be more agile, flexible, and adaptable in recognizing and adjusting to changes in warfare.  Are smaller organizations more flexible and adaptable than larger ones?  I don’t know that that would inherently be true.  While one could argue that a smaller organization has fewer people who need to be ‘convinced’ to change, it should be noted that ‘smaller’ is a relative term.  Even 20,000 people is still a lot of people to convince.  One could, conversely, argue that a smaller organization is likely to be an older organization in terms of average age and that older people are more set in their ways and less open to change.

One aspect that I suspect is true is that a smaller organization has less inertia once they decide to change.  For example, it’s easier to abandon 100 heavy tanks in favor of a lightweight tank than it is to abandon 10,000 tanks.  In other words, the ‘structural’ costs of a large organization may make significant change much more difficult to implement.  In another exaggerated example, the current Marine Commandant has suggested that he wants to move away from the typical amphibious ship and move towards smaller, distributed transports.  Well, it’s going to be difficult to get Congress to agree to abandon thirty-some multi-billion dollar amphibious ships than it would be to abandon a single large amphibious ship.  So, it is reasonable to suppose that a smaller organization has less inertia, however, this is relevant only after the organization has decided that change is needed.  Less inertia does not, itself, promote change.

So, what did we learn from the preceding discussion.  Honestly, not a lot.  It raised more questions than answers but at least we’re better informed to ponder those questions.

Should we have a smaller peacetime Marine Corps?  My feeling is yes, but I can’t offer any substantive reasons why.  I can offer this thought:  a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) has around 2000 men and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade has around 14,000 men.  Normally, we have one or two MEUs deployed so that puts around 4000 Marines on the ‘front lines’.  Currently we have 5 MEBs which accounts for 70,000 men.  Compare those numbers to the current manning level of 186,000.  That’s 116,000 ‘unattached’ Marines that are doing what?  I know, there’s a certain required level of support personnel but have we grown inefficient in our ‘tooth to tail’ ratio?  I’m sure we have.  I strongly suspect we could cut 50,000 personnel without drastically affecting our peacetime combat capability especially since we normally only deploy one or two MEUs at a time.  Using 186,000 people to deploy 4000 (2x MEU) seems entirely out of whack.  To be fair, someone who knows exactly what those 186,000 people are doing would have to address my supposition but I’d be surprised if all 186,000 were absolutely vital to our peacetime security.

Is a smaller organization more flexible and adaptable?  Inherently, no, but it is logical to assume that it has less inertia once a decision to change has been made.

This is one of those rare posts that examines an issue but fails to offer conclusions.  I simply don’t have the requisite information and understanding.  At least we now know more than we did.



  1. Here's the full list of active Marine battalions.

    There are 32 Marine infantry battalions and numerous artillery, tank, armor, recon, HQ, engineer, logistics, and misc other battalions.

    If you want a smaller Marine Corps, you'll either have to revoke or ignore Title 10,

    It stipulates the minimum size of the USMC (at least three divisions and associated air wings). Or change the definition of a "division" and an "air wing".

    1. "If you want a smaller Marine Corps, you'll either have to revoke or ignore Title 10"

      That's not even remotely true. T10 specifies 3 divisions plus air wings. The Marines don't really use divisions in the organization and operation but, regardless, a division is somewhere around 20,000 so for three divisions that's 60,000 people. I have no idea how many people are in an air wing - perhaps 5000? So, another 15,000 for a total mandated manning of around 75,000. THERE'S LOTS OF ROOM TO CUT MANNING WHILE STAYING IN COMPLIANCE WITH T10!

    2. @Anon2

      Title 10 is absolutely not an issue.

      Congress can change, ignore, or reinterpret Tittle 10 at any time, and frequently does so. Each new Congress has zero responsibility for budgets or laws a previous Congress enacted. In fact, Congress’s only real Constitutional obligation is to account for public funds actually expensed, something they do a terrible job at.

      Per the Constitution, all authorizations are subject to appropriation, the House Appropriations Committee could defund the USMC manpower lines of accounting at any point during budget execution, which would legally compel the SECNAV and Commandant to RIF Marines.

      Although it would create a political firestorm, this could be done by a voice vote in subcommittee, with pen in pencil changes to the appropriation.


    3. There are 186,000 Marines in the active force.

      Around 118,000 are assigned to Expeditionary forces.

      The three divisions account for perhaps 20,000 each. Marine aviation accounts for another ~20,000. That's 80,000. Presumably misc logistics, engineering and other units account for the remaining 38,000.

      The other 68,000 are related to generic Marine Corps "infrastructure" (i.e. overhead).

      11,000 - Force infrastructure
      11,000 - Personnel
      38,000 - Training
      6,000 - Department management
      ~2,000 - Misc

      Page 9.

      Presumably if you scale down the Expeditionary Forces, the Infrastructure forces could scale down proportionally. There may be political issues with this if it requires shutting down bases (BRACs are very unpopular).

      There is probably some fat you can cut off the Infrastructure side as well, but you can't completely eliminate it. You need people to manage installations, run personnel, train new Marines, and so on.

      So I think you'd be hard pressed to get down to 75,000 without giant cuts to the Expeditionary force.

    4. Correction from above,

      11,000 - Force infrastructure

      should read

      11,000 - Force Installations

    5. "There are 186,000 Marines in the active force. Around 118,000 are assigned to Expeditionary forces."

      Nice link. I hadn't seen that one.

      You've summarized the breakdown of personnel categories. There are two problems/limitations with the cited report:

      1. The Expeditionary Forces manning doesn't add up - not even close.

      2. The report doesn't justify the existence of the various categories and manning levels. To be fair, that wasn't the purpose of the report.

      Let's address the Expeditionary Force numbers. From the 1998 USMC Organization and Equipment report (p.4-1), we see that a Marine division consists of a total of 16,911 people which includes 3x infantry regiments, a tank battalion, an assault amphibian battalion, a combat engineer battalion, an artillery battalion, light armored recon battalion, and HQ battalion. According to the report, logistics support is organic to the division but can be supplemented from the Force Services Support Group (FSSG), if needed. Thus, the division is largely self-sustaining at least for moderate time frames. There are three divisions, thus, the total manning requirement is 50,733.

      Each notional air wing requires 18,166 people. There are 4x air wings for a total of 72,664 people.

      The total of divisions and air wings requires 123,397 people. That leaves around 63,000 personnel for non-combat related activities which you provided the breakdown for.

      A couple of things stand out from this:

      1. Aviation far outnumbers the ground combat component and one has to question the wisdom of this given the Marines are not supposed to be an 'air force'. Title 10 requires that the Marines retain 3x divisions and 3x air wings. The fourth air wing is in excess of the statutory requirement and could be a candidate for elimination.

      2. The 68,000 non-combat personnel are doing a lot of what I would consider non-essential and non-productive activities. This is an area ripe for a deep dive analysis of value. For example, does it really require 11,000 people to manage 'personnel'? That's 6% of the total force whose job is to, what?, take care of personnel assignments for the other 94%? And so on.

      So, I can immediately see dropping the fourth air wing which would eliminate 18,000 people plus a couple thousand from the generic support pool - so call it 20,000. Then, I'm guessing, a ruthless analysis of value-added in the support pool would show we could live without 10,000 - 20,000 of the 68,000.

      So, with no impact on or from Title 10, we could eliminate an air wing and 30,000-40,000 manning slots. After that, we could start asking whether 3 divisions and 3 air wings are necessary for peacetime activities.

    6. You can probably shave some of that 68,000, but I doubt you'd be able to, say, halve it, without reducing the size of the Expeditionary force. You need those people for a properly functioning USMC, just like you need an HR department and facilities people in a company.

      So assuming you're stuck with around 36% overhead (aka Infrastructure), then to get down to a total force of 75,000, the Expeditionary force would be around 50,000. That might mean one division, one air wing, one logistics group (~10k Marines), and a handful of extras.

      Essentially one MEF.

    7. " I doubt you'd be able to, say, halve it, without reducing the size of the Expeditionary force."

      Why not? Has anyone ever tried it? We think we need that level of support because that's what we currently have. There's no actual demonstrated justification that I'm aware of. No efficiency expert (there's a term from the distant past!) has ever analyzed the support groups and concurred that all those people are needed. Your statement is a statement of inertia. We need that many people because we have that many people. That's inertia, not justification.

      "just like you need an HR department and facilities people in a company."

      No, you don't really need most of them. Most of them do something other than the core hiring, firing, and payroll. Most are involved with regulatory compliance, legal matters, sensitivity training, etc. Those functions are established as a means of avoiding lawsuits but they are not necessary functions. In the military world, most of that could be eliminated. Bureaucracy grows on its own. Most of the activities of the HR employees are things that have 'grown' into place. For the rest, if Congress would exempt the military from non-productive activities we could cut significantly. You can certainly question whether that is ever likely to happen but let's be clear about the difference between necessary to support the warfighter and necessary to meet the demands of self-growing bureaucracy.

      "Essentially one MEF."

      This discussion is about peacetime manning levels. What no one has yet done is justify the current peacetime manning levels. During peace, what do 3 divisions and 4 air wings do for us? Even Title 10 says nothing about the manning level to be associated with a division. A division could be a nominal organizational construct or Congress could be persuaded to drop the requirement altogether. The current MEF is mainly just an organization placeholder in the event that a full scale, MEF-size operation ever becomes necessary.

      So, I repeat, what to 3 divisions and 4 air wings do for us during peacetime?

    8. The demonstrated justification for what we have is that it works. We have a trained, functioning Marine Corp that has its personnel issues taken care of, facilities manned and maintained and so on. Yes, it's inertia.

      As I said before, I'm sure you could find room to cut. I'm just skeptical that you'll be able to find dramatic efficiency gains. You're free to look!

      I've seen various justifications for the current force size.

      1. Support of the required level of forward presence with sustainable dwell time ratio (~40,000 Marines in FY19)
      2. Generate the forces needed to support one major regional contingency (~15 infantry battalions and associated supporting units), plus strategic reserve
      3. The 2 MEB amphibious assault requirement.
      4. Title 10.

      I don't claim to support or dispute these justifications, merely to point them out.

    9. "I've seen various justifications for the current force size."

      Two of the four pertain to war, not peace which is the subject of this post and discussion. No one would argue against substantial force levels if we're at war. In fact, that's exactly what we've done in every war! The topic is peacetime manning. So, items 2. and 3. are irrelevant. Item 4 (Title 10) is a minor consideration and I've already pointed out that we can eliminate an entire air wing plus associated support personnel without impacting T10.

      That leaves only item 1. which has to do with time at 'home' versus time deployed. As we've discussed many times in this blog, deployment is a flawed concept. That aside, even the current deployment model typically only deploys 2 MEUs which is 4000 people in total. We obviously don't need 186,000 people to support 4,000 deployed at a time. With, say, six month deployments, that's only 8,000 people deployed for the year. At that rate, we could go 23 years without anyone having to do a second deployment!

      Yes, there are other deployments than just MEUs but it illustrates the concept. We have hugely more people than are needed to support the required deployments. And, perhaps we should be seriously examining the value of our deployments, as I've suggested many times.

      "I'm just skeptical that you'll be able to find dramatic efficiency gains. You're free to look!"

      As I've pointed out, we can instantly eliminate an air wing and associated support personnel which is around 20,000. I don't think anyone would doubt that we could find another 10,000 support positions to eliminate without much effort so that's a total of 30,000 (16% of the total force) without even half trying!

    10. "Two of the four pertain to war, not peace which is the subject of this post and discussion. No one would argue against substantial force levels if we're at war. "

      You go to war with the military you have, not the military you want to have. If we want to be able to deploy ~15 Marine infantry battalions and their supporting units quickly to a MRC, we need to have more than 15 manned, trained, equipped, and ready to go, before the war, in peacetime.

      We didn't just have 2 MEUs abroad. Those were just the units on deployed ARGs. We had 40,000 Marines overseas in various capacities last year.

    11. "You go to war with the military you have, not the military you want to have."

      That's ridiculous. We won WWII with the military we built during the war, not the one we went to war with. You start a war with what you have but you finish it with what you build.

      "We didn't just have 2 MEUs abroad."

      Hence the statement, "Yes, there are other deployments than just MEUs"

    12. If you want the war to take years, maybe, sure. Years for the enemy to do whatever they want while you recruit, train, develop doctrine, and build equipment. NCOs aren't born overnight.

      ODS, OIF, OEF, Grenada, Panama, were all conflicts where we rapidly deployed forces that did well. We were able to do that because we had trained and equipped forces ready to fight on day 1.

      We were woefully unprepared for WWII. Not exactly a good example for how to manage a peacetime military.

      The start of the Korean war wasn't much better.

    13. "If you want the war to take years, maybe, sure."

      What real war hasn't taken years? The examples you cite weren't wars, they were single operations or semi-conflicts. Most involved only small numbers of Marines.

      ODS comes the closest to being a war and it involved a significant number of Marines. According to one history website,

      "… the corps had nearly ninety-four thousand men and women in the Gulf War — more than in the biggest battles of World War II."

      That number appears to include Army attachments (for example, an Army brigade of 170 Army tanks was attached to the Marine 2nd Div) and Navy personnel to an uncited degree. It appears to have been around 2 divisions plus two air wings so around 80,000 actual Marines would be about right, out of the 190,000 or so force level at the time. Note that the Marines were used because they were available, not because they were necessary. Had they not existed, or existed in much smaller numbers, we would have simply used more Army personnel. I would suggest that in the entire history of the Marines, ODS is the one example of using a large force on a relatively short time frame and it was a convenience rather than a necessity. Your examples actually support the premise that we don't need a large standing Corps.

      "We were woefully unprepared for WWII. Not exactly a good example for how to manage a peacetime military."

      Actually, it was a good example. A country would go broke trying to support major war forces (are you aware of how big our forces were during WWII?) during peacetime. Heck, we went broke supporting them DURING the war! Peacetime should support just enough forces to act as a credible deterrent and to buy time for wartime buildup. WWII was an excellent example of reasonable peacetime force levels that allowed a rapid and reasoned buildup of forces during war. Good example. You're really making my case for me!

    14. @Anon2 "ODS, OIF, OEF, Grenada, Panama, were all conflicts where we rapidly deployed forces that did well. We were able to do that because we had trained and equipped forces ready to fight on day 1."

      This is false - the movement of meaningful ground combat forces took many, many months; in the case of Grenada and Panama (operation "just because...") were conducted against tiny countries with microscopic and weak forces (aka irrelevant).

      The results of initial combat deployments of conventional forces post 911 is sobering and the subject of capstone reviews in the services.

      Iraq 1.0 took ~6-months to build up logistics, the “rapidly” deployed 82nd division was little more than a speed bump, and a lot of the artillery units were critically short of ammunition once the coalition actually started its ground offensive.

      Iraq 2.0 was actually worse: the army actually ran out of trucks, and had to stop because forward units could not get fuel and water. Considering the nature of the enemy, and the amount of ordnance usage, this was borderline criminal. A competent enemy would have punished such foolishness with crippling counter-attacks.


      The build up for Iraq 1.0 took ~6-months. The build up for Iraq 2.0 actually began with I

    15. The requirement is to generate forces sufficient for one MRC, Major _Regional_ Conflict/Contingency. E.g. Desert Storm.

      It has never been to support a peacetime force capable of fighting WWIII.

    16. "The requirement is to generate forces sufficient for one MRC"

      This is not a law. This is just a strategic goal of the overall ability of our armed forces. This is not a sole responsibility of the Marine Corps. In fact, while we would likely make use of them, there is no requirement that the Marines even participate in a MRC. Further, there is nothing that requires the MRC to be won in one day with existing forces only. There is nothing that prohibits a buildup or expansion of forces. In fact, T10 explicitly addresses and allows for expansion of Marine forces in the event of war:

      "(c)The Marine Corps is responsible, in accordance with integrated joint mobilization plans, for the expansion of peacetime components of the Marine Corps to meet the needs of war."

      For reasons that elude me, you seem to be trying to assign to the Marine Corps the ability to win a major war all by themselves on day one. Nothing could be further from reality.

    17. GAB,

      Yes, the actual deployment for some of those MRCs took months, even with the manned, trained, and equipped forces that we already had at hand.

      My point to CNO was that if we DIDN'T already have those forces, ready to go, it might've taken many times that, perhaps years instead of months.

    18. CNO,

      No it's not law, and there's nothing saying the Marines have to contribute at all to MRCs. Ground forces could come entirely from the Army.

      But right now, it's part of the rationale for the size of the USMC.

      All services are expected to contribute certain sized forces to fight an MRC. The Marines aren't intended to go it alone.

      The requirement used to be TWO simultaneous MRCs, but it's been relaxed over the years. (e.g. Win-Hold-Win)

      Search for two MRC, win-hold-win, and so on. There's a lot of literature out there on the various ideas and opinions and what it means for the services.

      I'm not defending any of these ideas. I'm just pointing them out.

    19. "Search for two MRC, win-hold-win, and so on."

      I'm completely familiar with the sequence of rationales that have been promulgated over the years.

      You seem to be assuming that the requirements are meant to achieve total victory on day one. This is completely unrealistic. ODS was the most lopsided example of a less than regional war and it still required many months of buildup by not only the US but a massive coalition.

      The true purpose of peacetime forces is not to win a war on day one but to ensure that we don't lose a war on day one. After that, we build up. History strongly suggests that we are significantly over manned, at the moment, at least for the Marines.

    20. "History strongly suggests that we are significantly over manned, at the moment,"

      History, precedent, current practice, and current observation all suggest that we are significantly overloaded on the tail side of the 'tooth to tail' ratio. For example, the Navy with one Admiral (and their staffs) for every ship is an abomination of the tooth to tail. The mere fact that we have departments and staffs devoted to gender sensitivity, eco green fuels, diversity, gender equality, cammo uniforms on ships, and similar non-combat issues is proof of an overloaded tail. No reasonable person could possibly dispute the fact that our current tail is overloaded. One might disagree about the exact extent but no one can believe that we have the leanest possible tail. During the Cold War, as I vaguely recall, we had a tooth to tail of somewhere around 1:1. Currently, we seem to have a ratio of 1:3 or so. That's a bloated tail!

    21. The requirement is merely to have the forces available to DEPLOY on day 1. There is no expectation of WINNING on day 1.

    22. It is utterly unrealistic to believe that we'll have sufficient forces available to deploy to eventually win a war on day one. For any conflict greater than a small operation, we'll need to build up forces.

      If you truly believe what you're saying then you believe we need thousands of ships, tens of thousands of aircraft, and millions of men in our peacetime armed forces.

      I think the purpose of peacetime forces has been made clear, as has the implied size. I think we can safely say we're done with this thread. If you want to believe we need massive forces during peacetime, you're welcome to your opinion - of course, you'll have to figure out how to pay for them.

    23. "The requirement is merely to have the forces available to DEPLOY on day 1."

      No - the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) does not apportion forces that way for contingency planning - *everything* is time-phased. Even Panama required substantial movement of forces in advance.

      Also, having forces in place is meaningless if the logistics are not in place to enable them in combat. Our performance against illiterate goat herders and armies designed to suppress civil populations is zero evidence of our ability to handle a well-armed peer competitor.

      The Russians and Chinese are many things, but they are not boobs; they can and will take advantage of errors like putting a single airborne division to defend Saudi Arabia, deploying to Afghanistan without heavy artillery, and not deploying sufficient trucks to manage the logistics required for a two-corps operation in Iraq.


    24. "It is utterly unrealistic to believe that we'll have sufficient forces available to deploy to eventually win a war on day one. "

      I give up.

      You're not getting the difference between what you are calling a "War" (apparently only WWII qualifies) and what the services call a "Major Regional Contingency".

      We have sized the forces to respond to one, but not the other.

  2. Well, the obvious reasons for manning numbers in the 60s-80s is the Vietnam War and then the Cold War, what with all the preparations to fight the Soviets. We see a dip in 1995, likely related to the Clinton era drawdowns and the post-Cold War Peace Dividend.

    There's always talk about how a smaller force is more agile in its thinking, and maybe that's true. but at the same time I can't help but think that commanders are going to be more cautious in employing a smaller force, simply because you have less bodies with which to absorb attrition with.

  3. The size of the Marine Corps, or any other organization, directly depends on its assigned roles and responsibilites. As a starting point, what is the purpose of the Marine Corps today and what do you want it to do? With that, you figure out its size and how it should be equipped. Put another way, what is the concept of operations of the Marine Corps?

    Aside from being the nation's 911 force, Marines often go into harms way first, but they also provide guards (Marine Corps Embassy Security Group) at all of our embassies and consulates and have a dedicated squadron (HMX-1) to transport the President and his staff. Are these roles they should continue to have?

    That aside, the Marine Corps is basically built around three Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEF), each of which contains a Marine division, a Marine air wing, and a Marine logistics group. The MEUs and MEBs are sourced from units organic to an MEF. Since the start of the GWOT, the Army has since transitioned from a division-based army to a brigade-based army with a headquarters unit capable of commanding multiple brigades. This might be a template for a future Marine Corps.

    1. "The size of the Marine Corps, or any other organization, directly depends on its assigned roles and responsibilites."

      Of course. I've posted extensively on the Marine Corps mission(s) and concluded that the Marines, themselves, have lost their sense of purpose and are trying to expand into other areas in search of a purpose.

      So, what do you think the Marine's mission is? What size do you think they need to be to carry out that mission?

      "they also provide guards … at all of our embassies and consulates and have a dedicated squadron (HMX-1) to transport the President and his staff."

      That accounts for, perhaps, several hundred people. It's insignificant in the overall scheme of manning.

    2. @Fighting Irish "...the Army has since transitioned from a division-based army to a brigade-based army with a headquarters unit capable of commanding multiple brigades. This might be a template for a future Marine Corps."



    3. "This might be a template for a future Marine Corps."

      It depends on what we want them to do. For example, the Marines seem to desperately want to do dispersed, small unit, sea control and small forward expeditionary bases. That might suggest that rather than a brigade based Corps, the Marines would be better with a squad based Corps! :)

    4. Realistic scenarios in my head:

      Entering small countries for limited-scope, limited-duration intervention. Also Peace-Keeping duties (interim or taking turns with army units)
      1 MEU/ARG would be enough for most such scenarios, making the assumption that they are relatively close to the coast. If they aren't, then thats an army function.

      Kicking down the door/ breaking through coastal defences. Only places I can realistically see this happening would be around the Pacific Rim or on islands within the China Sea area in general. Any such operation would be done with significant air force / navy support & so I cant see an argument for more than 2-3 ARG/MEU groups to forcifully enter & occupy a given island or coastal area for a short/medium term. Anything longer than that is going to need more resources thrown at it.

      Bolstering Taiwan defenses. Well, how long is a piece of string? If you could get them there in time pretty much any amount of marines are not going to be able to stop China themselves, so what is the US willing to commit to buy time/ deter an escalation or something similar)? If the combined force of 2 MEU/ARG wont do it, 5 of them probably wont either.

      Thats my opinion, using info from another post here ( & considering that for any smaller task or location that needs 'dealing to' in the eyes of the USA, a single MEU/ARG is probably sufficient to roll up the entire military of many nations & effectively occupy them for a short time, my own included.

    5. I should have added - anything else outside of this scope can probably be more effectively achieved by the army, navy, air force, or some combination thereof.

    6. @Dale "Entering small countries for limited-scope, limited-duration intervention."

      The American taxpayer has little to no appetite for such adventures.

      By definition, these "small wars" achieve little, often go sideways right from conception, and inevitable cost disproportionate amounts of blood and treasure.

      At best these interventions are distractions from real threats like China.


    7. They might not, but they do seems to happen periodically.

      Putting that aside though, thats 1 of 3 purposes I suggested for the Marines, the others perhaps are more valid & call for a larger force anyway,

    8. "thats 1 of 3 purposes I suggested for the Marines, the others perhaps are more valid & call for a larger force anyway,"

      In war, yes. In peace … ? This is the key point. What size force do we need during peacetime? We're not going to launch assaults or save Taiwan during peacetime. So, what size force do we need during peace?

    9. Ah, I see - I think I shot wide of the mark previously then. I would say that you train in peacetime for what you need to do in war.
      I get that when not in war you want to pay for less troops, but when the Marines seem to be the choice for First Response (on the ground at least), I'm not sure that logic really applies very well. And if thats true, then your peacetime force should be the same as a war-time force.
      Thats my key assumption then, if you want the Marines to be first on the ground, then no change from war to peace. If they aren't, then roles that need extensive training to gain & maintain key skills (i.e. pilots, maintenance, vehicle crews) arguably are the ones you keep during peace; the rest can be taken back to skeleton-crew levels.

    10. ""your peacetime force should be the same as a war-time force."

      If you look at the table in the post, you'll see that until recently the peacetime force has never been even remotely near the wartime force. It would be utterly prohibitive to pay for the wartime force. Remember, we're not going to launch an all-out assault on day one of a war. We'll build towards it, including building up the Marine force, if that's what we need.

      If you think we truly need our wartime force level during peacetime, I have two questions for you:

      1. How do you propose paying for it?????
      2. How were we able to successfully build up and win wars in the past with very small peacetime forces to start? Again, history says we don't need a large standing Marine Corps.

      Not trying to be argumentative, here. Just nudging you to explore your rationale and make sure it seems solid to you! Alternatively, you might decide that a smaller force is acceptable. Either way, you'll be more sure of your position if you've thoroughly thought it through.

    11. No no, I dont mind at all!
      Note though, I'm proposing a force significantly smaller than is currently maintained, something like 2-3 MEU/ARG (admittedly I cant find numbers on people in an ARG, but overall I'm confident from what I can find that it is less than the total Marine numbers currently (~180,000).

      Secondly, I am suggesting the role of the Marines is to 'kick down the door' or perform a specific mission for a limited time. Given that the Marines dont seem to have a clear plan for themselves right now, Im using my ideas in the vacuum.
      If they are going to perform this role then a build-up period isnt an option, so in the end, a smaller force is maintained through peace time with the plan to jump on the ships & head out asap when needed.

      To circle back on the paying-for-it, Im going to paraphrase a point you've made elsewhere; it isnt the cost of a military unit, its the value you get. I think a smaller, more responsive and highly trained mobile Marines force would represent good combat value for money. If the scenario faced needed more than the Marines could muster, you'd also realistically be bringing in Navy, Air Force & Army assets en masse anyway.

    12. "I cant find numbers on people in an ARG"

      An ARG consists of a MEU and three amphibious ships. The Marine portion, the MEU, is around 2000 people. We have 7 standing MEUs so we need 7x2000=14,000 to man the MEUs. The Navy ship crews are separate and not really part of the Marine manpower discussion.

      "I am suggesting the role of the Marines is to 'kick down the door' "

      We're talking about peacetime manning so what would be a specific example of a peacetime 'kick down the door' operation that you can think of? One of the problems in these types of discussions is that people want to generalize rather than consider specifics. For example, people will generalize and list all the things that a Marine force could, theoretically, do, without considering the geographical and strategic/operational realities. To offer a ridiculous (sometimes) example, if the enemy has no coastline then being theoretically capable of conducting an amphibious assault is pointless. So, to repeat, what would be a specific example of the type of 'kick down the door' operation you could envision during peacetime?

      On a closely related note, I've given considerable thought to the specific enemies we face, their geography, our strategy, etc. and concluded that there is very little (no?) need for large scale amphibious assaults. If I'm correct (I'm being modest - I'm always correct!) then the rationale for the Marines existence is either suspect or needs to be changed. I believe it should be changed to port seizure and miscellaneous minor operations.

    13. 14,000 is significantly less than currently employed!!

      Good point about specifics, when I used that phrase about kicking down doors I was specifically thinking of establishing beachheads (or fully occupying) smaller islands in the South China Sea, or that corner of the world in general. At the moment, thats most likely to be the next big conflict area, so island or port seizures there-ish seem like a perfect task for the Marines. I dont see port capture being needed anytime soon in other parts of the globe, nor full-scale amphibious assaults.

      Someone more knowledgeable than I could probably make a solid argument that these tasks could be carried out by someone else, or that they aren't actually needed because there is a better way to achieve the same military goals. In that case, goodbye Marine core!

    14. "thinking of establishing beachheads (or fully occupying) smaller islands in the South China Sea"

      Please keep firmly in mind that we're talking about peacetime manning levels, not war. The question is, do we need 186,000 Marines for peacetime activities?

      "I dont see port capture being needed anytime soon in other parts of the globe"

      One of the problems with large scale amphibious assaults is that they simply can't be sustained by resupply 'over the beach'. Even Normandy was an assault to secure the nearby ports so as to sustain the recapture of Europe.

      Recall Desert Storm? We needed massive port facilities to build up the required supplies. Fortunately, we had a friendly port and, fortunately, Hussein was too inept to try damaging the port facilities which would have halted our buildup in its tracks!

      There is almost always a need for a port seizure unless you have the good fortune to have a friendly port nearby that the enemy chooses to ignore.

  4. " One thing it does tell us is that we should be cautious about committing to technology so advanced that only a Ph.D genius with 20 years of experience can maintain and operate it."

    This reminded me about the issues Japan faced when trying to replace pilots losses during WWII.

    1. Those were issues of their own making, though. Their aircraft weren't appreciably harder to fly than American aircraft, but their training pipeline which emphasised brutalising trainees in a misguided search for the "best ever pilots" and neglect to rotate combat veterans back to teach and pass on lessons learned is, I submit, a greater factor in why they were never able to make good their losses.

  5. What is more interesting is looking at a table of organisation for around 1998 when USMC strength was 175,000 or so. Then they had 7 MEU, , the 11th,13th,15th with the I MEF and 22nd,24th,26th with the II MEF and the 31st with the III MEF.
    So it seems nowadays they are down 2 MEU within a slightly larger force. The Force protection for Embassies and Consulates came to around 3400 marines. I didnt see if they included the naval base and facilities Force protection units.

    However the big one for unattached units is the training units, from the high end resident training unit at Twenty Nine Palms to basic training camps and technical training. Im thinking 25,000 marines undergoing non unit training at any time and maybe 5000 people to support and carry out the training, maybe others have a better first estimate ?

    1. Just to be clear, there are 7 standing MEU, 3 each to I/II MEF and 9 to III MEF. This is confirmed in the document you referenced.

    2. The 5 MEBs are just notional task forces with only a headquarters. Their components are only assigned when required, so never really train as a task force, unlike the small MEUs.

      The Corps should focus on small (MEU and smaller) ready forces for immediate response. Then move all the big war real amphib forces into the reserves since it will take months for the Navy to stage supplies and assemble all the ships to load up a MEF size force.

      I'd go for a force of 140,000 active (a 44,000 man cut) with 60,000 reserve (a 20,000 man increase). This article has details on where the Corps can cut:

    3. "I'd go for a force of 140,000 active"

      Okay. Without either agreeing or disagreeing with that, let me ask, what peacetime activity or responsibility requires a force of 140,000 as opposed to a smaller amount of, say, 75,000 or whatever? The point I'm making is that the manning we're discussing is only a peacetime concern. In war, of course we'll build up, as we always do. For peacetime, if you think we need a few active MEUs for crisis response, do you believe that requires 140,000 or could we accomplish that with a lot less?

    4. I agree, but as you know it would be miracle politically to downsize the Marines to 150,000 active. Let's get downsizing underway and see how far we should go. As you know, there is a mindset in all the services that downsizing is unfair, cause the purpose of our military is to provide career opportunities.

    5. "it would be miracle politically to downsize the Marines"

      I'm not sure that's true. Historically, until around 1960, we ALWAYS drastically downsized after a war. Today, I'm sure Congress would love to use the money saved from downsizing to fund more social programs. Congress would love to downsize!

      So, I think downsizing is very doable. We just need the services to step forward and call for downsizing if we think we don't need a standing Marine Corps that's as large as it is. I love the Marines but I can't find justification for 180,000 during peacetime.

    6. The real reason to downsize is quality. The Commandant wants Marines to score 40 instead of current 31 on the ASVAB which reduces the number of people available.
      The Marines had 3 Divisions with Air Support in 1950 and numbered 75k; we can do that again by sending Logistics to the Reserves and eliminating duplicate capabilities like cyber and weathermen.
      Let’s see what the Commandant lays out in his plans.

  6. Well whatever the Commandant intends it does seem he thinks the Marines should be running land based anti ship capability. Budget to buy both 48 of the new Tomahawks that can target ships and also use the NSM from shore based launchers.

    I assume that means thinking unfettered and unopposed offense will not be and option compared to the global war on terror. That is good worst case thinking and depressingly sure a budget pad as well.

    1. Before we can determine how big the USMC should be, it would be helpful to go back.... way back. All the way back to the 1500's and ask ourselves the question, "Why do countries even have a Marine Corps?"

      They are not simply "Naval Infantry" used for amphibious operations. They have a deeper purpose. It is why so few countries have had a Marine Corps since the Portuguese started the first one, followed by the Spanish, and then the Dutch & the English.



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