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Defining the Marine Corps’ Strategic Concept

29 September 2010

Summary:  Finding a new strategic concept for the US military services becomes imperative.  The army rots from within under the stress of endless deployments without the prospect of victory.  The navy faces no strategic opponents, only regional opponents establishing control of littoral zones we cannot penetrate.  The Air Force faces obsolescence in its present form from the evolution of unmanned vehicles.  As for the Marines, here we see a vision of its future from FM contributors GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) and H. T. Hayden (Lt Colonel, USMC, retired).  This builds on their post from August.  At the end are links to other sources of information.

As the Nation begins its reevaluation of our national security interests and seeks ways to downsize the military’s budget, it would be wise to consider the complementary role naval forces, particularly amphibious forces, play in the future.

The euphoria of the Gulf War’s 100-hour ground combat action was short lived and is now reminiscent of  our measured exit from Iraq.  Although the Navy and the Marine Corps still enjoy the grassroots support of the American people, it is foolhardy to expect that this sentiment to automatically translate into continued Congressional funding to support Navy and Marine Corps programs. Congress and the Secretary of Defense are targeting Navy and Marine Corps programs and do not be surprised with attempts to pit the Navy against the Marines.

Congress bailed on the Marines by not supporting the renaming of the Department of Navy to Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. Despite that this works to the benefit of both the Navy and Marines by correctly refocusing our government on the fact we are a maritime Nation. Unfortunately, with the “combat mission” completed in Iraq and surge in Afghanistan comes the resurgence of inter-Service rivalry, a redefinition of roles and missions, and competing requirements for budget dollars.

Historically, the Navy and Marine Corps’ contribution to national defense has been characterized by our readiness, sustainment, and forward-deployed carrier and naval amphibious task forces with Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTF; Wikipedia) embarked. The naval contribution to the Gulf War, Somalia humanitarian mission, , the Iraqi  War, Afghanistan War, Haitian, and Pakistani relief mission, epitomizes the Navy and Marine’s  historical contributions to our national defense. Even today this is still not been fully recognized. It is time this contribution is re-emphasized, put in perspective, and acknowledged for its foundation for the future.

The naval focus of effort has always been on getting to the crisis by the most expeditious means; be it by sea, air, or maritime pre-positioning force (MPF). Today, our enormous successes are being overshadowed by others who are now entering the strategic lift equation to include new requirements for the Army and new evaluations of roles and missions.

The Army’s top logistics officer has told a House sea power subcommittee that his Service needs at least 20 large, fast ships to be kept at key U.S. ports ready to start loading tanks, trucks, and armored vehicles within 48 hours. “The ships should be ready to ‘Pull up anchor’ and sail within 4 days of a Presidential order for the Army to deploy,” said MajGen Fred E. Elam, the Army’s assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, according to an article in the Navy Times.

The Army must be able to move two armored divisions from the United States to anywhere in the world in 30 days, said Elam. Two armored divisions include approximately 600 tanks and supplies and equipment for 35,000 soldiers.  Roll-on/roll-off ships like the Army wants are sold for about $40 million apiece on the international market. Unfortunately, they would cost S200 million apiece to build in a U.S. shipyard and that would take years to build.

Richard Sharpe, the British naval expert, in his introduction to the 1991-92, edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, stated that the allied naval forces were the “enabling factor” behind the success of the air and ground forces in winning the Gulf War. “I don’t think the media gave the navies the predominance they deserve,” said Sharpe at a news conference on Jane’s assessment of world naval forces. In praising the coalition naval “enabling factor,” Sharpe listed the various ways in which naval support was vital:

1.  Naval presence. The immediate dispatch of two U.S. carrier groups after Iraq’s 2 Aug invasion of Kuwait provided ‘clear and immediate signals’ that the United States would resist intrusion into Saudi Arabia, a dramatic increase over previous ‘ambiguous and inadequate’ diplomatic warnings.

2.  Rapid deployment. Fast cargo ships and naval auxiliaries were able to bring U.S. Marines and their supplies to the Gulf within days.

3.  Blockade. Ships from 14 nations participated in the embargo, scrutinizing thousands of suspect ships and boarding hundreds in an operation that ‘weakened Iraq over a long period’ because the Baghdad regime ‘ceased to be able to trade with the rest of the world.’

4.  Reinforcement. About 78 percent of vital supplies reached the coalition forces by sealift, guarded by naval forces. The United States alone landed 2.5 million tons of equipment and 3 million tons of fuel at Saudi ports,

5.  Amphibious operations. ‘By using the threat of massive amphibious landings as a key deception to cover the intended direction of his ground assault, the coalition commander achieved tactical surprise, cut casualties to a minimum and shortened the war . . . the long awaited amphibious attack on Kuwait proved to be a successful feint.

In the initial phase of the Gulf War the amphibious demonstration or feint made it possible for the success of the assault on the Iraqi front. They were looking the other way.

If we are to meet future requirements with fewer resources in both the Navy and Marine Corps then we must be creative in the way we project sea power and organize our naval expeditionary capabilities for maritime missions and sea-based intervention to include redefining amphibious operations. Whenever U.S. forces are deployed in the world with little or no logistics in place, only sea-based ground forces can offer sustaining combat power ashore from the inception of an operation to its conclusion. By maintaining a close relationship with the Navy and developing innovative sea-based initiatives/capabilities, both the Marine Corps and Navy will truly remain this country’s force-in-readiness.

International waters provide the only available forward-deployed staging areas unhampered by territorial and over-flight restrictions. Only when we have adequate sea control coupled with expeditionary forces like those used early in the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan, can intervention capabilities be credible and guaranteed.

The amended National Security Act of 1947 clearly conceptualizes and envisions the Marine Corps as the Nation’s force-in-readiness with both expeditionary and maritime aggregate utility. The Navy leadership must fully embrace this to do otherwise is to invite disaster and narcissism. Aggregate utility is succinctly defined and historically demonstrated as:  sustained presence, sequencing, complementing, enabling, and enhancing.

Briefly, a “sustained presence” is one being able to send and keep a credible force where and when needed (when we chose) for an extended period. This is either a forward-deployed naval expeditionary force with a forward deployed marine air-ground task force (MAGTF). “Sequencing” is taking advantage of other Service’s capabilities to augment the Nation’s maritime capabilities. Timing is the key consideration in sequencing. “Complementing” is the recognition that each Service has unique capabilities that accompanied the unique capabilities of another.

This is especially true for the Marines and the Navy. “Enabling” is the ability to utilize the unique capabilities of one Service to facilitate the introduction or use of another Service’s capabilities. Finally, “enhancing” is the comprehensive understanding of how each Service is designed to contribute rather than oppose, duplicate, or compete directly with the capabilities of another Service. Again, this is especially true for the Marines and the Navy.  Enhancement comes from decades of lessons learned in force structure and organizational evolution.

As we undertake the task to conceptualize the force structure of the future and fit it to a smaller number of personnel, weapons systems, and platforms, we must first look at what’s onboard today. Keep and use what we have. Our existing naval expeditionary forces are designed for the sequential employment and accelerated projection of combat power ashore.

A MAGTF has all the characteristics inherent to a naval expeditionary force: balance, flexibility, recoverability, reusability-strategically, operationally, and tactically mobile and sustainable. Our expeditionary capability also is enhanced if our fly-away forces are used in conjunction with an array naval expeditionary forces. Air contingency forces in each of the Marine expeditionary forces (MEFs) on each coast and on Okinawa are able to make long-range reinforcing deployments on short notice.

With a diminishing Defense budget, the Marine Corps and Navy are now forced to review structure needed to meet global commitments. Let’s hope Navy and Marine Corps leadership will avoid running into each other as the Army and Air Force lie in wait. Regrettably, the authors see the Marines having to drag the Navy into the NFL with Congress supplying the muscle and cajoling, coupled with a return on the Nation’s invest in maritime capabilities that give the National Security Council (NSC) adaptive/scalable options ranging from pre-emptive, shaping, and even reactive. Eventually this will lead to some dramatic changes and requires looking at force structure in different ways.

A smaller Marine Corps means a great deal of flexibility will be lost. The loss of flexibility that has enabled the Navy-Marine Corps team to:

  • evacuate Americans in Liberia while mobilizing for war with Iraq;
  • execute a daring rescue of diplomats in Somalia while making final preparation to liberate Kuwait;
  • save the lives of thousands of cyclone victims in Bangladesh while aiding the Kurds in northern Iraq and Turkey;
  • provide disaster relief and security assistance in the Philippines and to Tsunami victims;
  • mount amphibious operations from the sea into Iraq and even Afghanistan for the opening rounds of Operation Enduring Freedom;
  • And rapidly shelter, provide medical care and feed thousands of Haitians and Pakistanis following their devastating earthquake and flooding.

Over a 48 hour period, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit/PELILU Amphibious Ready Group team conducted offensive air operations in Afghanistan, provided disaster relief in Pakistan to flood victims, and seized a pirated vessel, rescuing a crew of 11 hostages and detaining 9 suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia.  This may have been a busy couple of days but an impressive battle-rhythm by any standard for the Navy-Marine Corps team.

As allied nations begin to reevaluate the necessity of maintaining a U.S. presence in their countries in light of the absence of a Soviet threat, forward-deployed forces afloat are going to become more important than ever if we are to project power abroad, lest we forget that Congress is inherently obliged to from a maritime nation perspective to maintain a Navy and when necessary raise an Army. And yet the very means by which we will project our power – amphibious capabilities – is what is being considered for cuts/constrains.

 If we are to maintain our aggregate utility (construct of sustaining presence, sequencing, complementing, enabling, and enhancing to create deployment options involving all available shipping), we will be more reliant on sea-based MAGTFs than ever before. They will, however, be smaller MAGTFs deploying more frequently, covering as many or more commitments than ever before, of course unhampered by territorial restrictions and the need for large contractor cities outnumbering the troops on the ground.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the measure of a nation’s strength may no longer be reflected in its military might but rather in its technological and economic vitality. The victorious military of the Iraq War, now the target of budget cutters looking for a so-called “peace dividend” with which to revive the languishing economy, will not stand on the merit of its victory. Unwittingly, this determination has given rise to a scramble among the various Services to stay relevant as budget cuts are considered. Despite all the “pleasantries” being exchanged, the budget cuts will again see a fight for roles and missions.

As the Nation’s force-in-readiness charged with rapid response and forcible entry capabilities, Marine Corps missions have included traditional activities, such as crisis intervention, NEO rescue, humanitarian and disaster relief, counter-narcotics operations, border surveillance, mobile training teams, Third World nation building, etc. The Nation will continue to need a adaptive/scalable force to perform these functions and logically look to the Marine Corps ( and Navy though we suspect they will be dragged kicking and screaming) rather than creating new forces. To some this search for relevance in the post Iraq-Afghan eras may be a case for reinventing the wheel and layering. Nevertheless it is important for the Corps to clearly define its role and purpose in today’s world. This approach is not new for Samuel Huntington, who wrote (Proceedings, May54):

The fundamental element of a military service is its purpose or role in implementing national strategy. The statement of this role may be called the strategic concept of the service. . . If a service does not possess a well defined strategic concept, the public and the political leaders will be confused as to the role of the service, uncertain as to the necessity of its existence, and apathetic or hostile to the claims made by the service upon the resources of society.

As the budget ax falls, cutting out the budget savings, there will be Service fights over roles and missions. The world knows the U. S. Marine Corps is the best force-in-readiness the United States possesses, as it has clearly demonstrated time and time again. Policymakers need to be reminded of this and realize that a maritime nation’s best return on invest comes from naval expeditionary capabilities offered by the Marine Corps and Navy. This clearly is not lost on the Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates who in  a speech at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco (transcript) said that a review seeks to re-define a 21st century combat mission for the Marines that is distinct from the Army’s, because the Marines “do not want to be, nor does America need” another ground combat force.

Again, Samuel P. Huntington reminds us:

A Service is many things: it is men, weapons, bases, equipment, traditions, and organizations. But none of these have meaning or usefulness unless there is a unifying purpose which directs their relations and activities towards achievement of some goal of national policy.
— “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy“, Proceedings, May 1954

According to the Los Angeles Times, 13 August 2010, in ordering the Pentagon review, “Gates was deepening a long-running debate about the role of the Marine Corps, including whether one of its main missions, amphibious assaults on fortified coastlines. Again, we see the questioning the need for a Marine Corps and with that comes the questioning of the need for naval expeditionary forces period. Yet, we hear of little rebuttal from the Navy leadership who appear to be oblivious to the fact that a big part of their future may indeed depend upon MAGTF thinking and capabilities.

Today’s journalist, defense pundits, analysts, and what even seems the CJCS forget the major amphibious assault into the Republic of Vietnam – Operation Starlite (18-24 Aug 1965; Wikipedia).  Do not overlook a major amphibious operation in the Gulf War – the demonstration or feint off Kuwait which tied down 7 Iraqi divisions while the Coalition forces invaded from the south.

The first major attack into Afghanistan was an amphibious operation that landed Marines in Afghan from amphibious ships in the Indian Ocean. Brigadier General James Mattis, newly appointed CENTCOM Commander, was the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Commander of Task Force 58. This amphibious was literally the can opener of Operation Enduring Freedom in southern Afghanistan. Of note, Brigadier General Mattis became the first Marine ever to command a Naval Task Force in combat.

Read Amphibious Assault: Manoeuver from the Sea edited by Tristan Lovering (Lt. Commander, RN; 2005; Amazon).  This is a British publication that is in most military libraries in America or can be bought on line through a number of book sellers. Everyone needs to study what a MAGTF is all about:  land-air-log. Then one may learn that the MAGTF combined arms team, fully self sufficient, is a unique capability that no other country in the world posses. Additionally, the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO, PDF) points out that diminishing overseas access is another challenge anticipated in the future operating environment. In war, this challenge may require forcible-entry capabilities. The third edition of the Marine Corps Operating Concept notes that in the past twenty years, U.S. amphibious forces have responded to crises and contingencies over 120 times, a response rate more than double that of the Cold War.

The biggest reason there is a U.S. Marine Corps is the American people’s triple justification for national security relevance: Americans love their Marines, want their Marines, and demand their Marines. Why because we are a maritime Nation and a maritime Nation’s greatest return on DOD invest is in naval expeditionary forces with Marine forcible entry capabilities. Marines defend their adaptable/scalable capabilities (of course dragging the Navy kicking and screaming along) not programs. Unlike the other Services Marines do not hinge their destiny on acquisition programs that may or may not match emerging threats.

About the authors

See the bios of G. I. Wilson’s (Colonel, USMC, retired) and H. Thomas Hayden (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired) at the FM Authors Page

Recent articles about the future of the USMC

For an insightful and deep discussion of these issues see Chet Richard’s A Swift, Elusive Sword: What if Sun Tzu and John Boyd Did a National Defense Review?

  1. Amphibious Operations 1990 – 1999“, Raymond Pritchett (aka Galrahn), US Naval Institute, 25 May 2009
  2. Amphibious Operations 2000 – 2009“, Raymond Pritchett (aka Galrahn), US Naval Institute, 25 May 2009
  3. ‘Hybrid Threats’: Neither Omnipotent Nor Unbeatable“, Frank G. Hoffman (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired, bio), ORBIS (of the Foreign Policy Research Institute), Summer 2010
  4. Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) Program Faces Cost, Schedule and Performance Risks“, GAO, 11 July 2010 — Bad news for the Marines.
  5. EFV Debate Is Really About The Future Of The Marine Corps“, Loren B. Thompson, Lexington Institute, 13 July 2010
  6. The Future of the Marines and Forcible Entry in a Battle Network Regime“, DefenseTech, 11 August 2010
  7. Recommended:  ”Caught on a Lee Shore” by Dakota L. Wood (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired), The American Interest, Sept-Oct 2010 – Wood is currently at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Other posts about the US Marine Corps

  1. Why a Marine Corps?, 23 August 2010
  2. Another perspective on the future of the Marine Corps, 24 August 2010

For other relevant posts see these FM reference pages:

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