The Marine Corps Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow

Summary:  G.I. Wilson and H. Thomas Hayden explain why America needs a Marine Corps.  As GW said before, “The USMC’s future lies its creative intellect, professionalism in the study and application of maneuver warfare, and delivering what the Nation needs most in a crisis be it humanitarian relief for disasters or launching forcible maritime operations from sea to attack in the littorals or several hundred miles in land to rescue civilians.”  At the end are links to other valuable articles about the future of the USMC.  This is an expanded version of their article published here on 23 August 2010.  Note the comment by William Woods (LtCol, USMC, retired) at the end.


The Pentagon budget machinations continue to heat up while DOD and Congress evaluate the Nation’s national security interests, seeking ways to downsize and right size the military. As global agitation unfolds in the littorals — places such as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia, Iran,Yemen, Bahrain, and North Korea — perhaps we should reconsider the role of naval forces, particularly amphibious forces, play in our Nation’s security needs. Despite all the political posturing amidst this growing global unrest, the Marine Corps continues to focus on being relevant to the Nation.  Today, tonight, and tomorrow.

Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution reminds us to raise an Army when needed.  But Article I Section 8 tell us to always maintain a Navy. Nevertheless, with any review of a Service’s raison d’être comes the resurgence of inter-Service rivalry.  Plus the extraordinary pressure from lobbyists, congressionals, and contractors to funnel the diminishing flow of defense dollars to their favored constituents.  It is all about awarding contracts, not national security.

Naval Focus

Historically the contributions of the Navy and Marine Corps to national security are characterized by readiness, sustainment, forward-deployed carrier groups, and naval amphibious task forces with Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs) embarked aboard ships. The naval contribution to the Grenada, Beirut, Gulf War, Somalia humanitarian mission, the Iraqi War, the Afghanistan War, and the Haitian Pakistani disaster relief operations, epitomizes the Navy and Marine Corps’ contributions to national security.

Even today few fully recognize or appreciate the maritime contributions to national security by the Navy and Marine Corps. We have lost sight of the fact that we are indeed are a maritime Nation.  We need to re-emphasize this maritime contribution, put it in perspective, and acknowledge its role as the foundation of our national security framework.

The naval focus of effort has always been and is on getting to the crisis by the most expeditious means; be it by sea, air, or maritime pre-positioning force (MPF). Sadly, according to Inside Defense (24 November 2010) Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future), was axed in the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan.  Nevertheless, the Marine Corps has run sea basing tests searching for alternatives. Fortunately for the nation, the Marines (unlike the Navy) have not lost sight of the utility of using the sea as maneuver space when faced with “geographic impediments.”

Sea Maneuver

However, there is good news concerning sea maneuver.  Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work reports that ” We gave up on one Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future) to get three Maritime Prepositioning Force squadrons with enhanced sea basing capabilities. Each squadron will have Large, Medium, Speed, Roll-on/Roll-off Ship (LMSR), a Dry Cargo/Ammunition Ship (T-AKE); and a Mobile Landing Platform (MLP). Far more flexible force across the Range of Military Operations (ROMO). All in all, combination of amphibs, MPF, High Speed Vessels (JHSV), and sea lift is quite capable.”

If we are to meet future requirements with fewer resources in both the Navy and Marine Corps then we must be creative ( i.e. combination of amphibs/MPF/JHSV/sealift ) 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.

About the National Security Act

The amended National Security Act of 1947 clearly 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. Aggregate utility is succinctly defined and historically demonstrated as: sustained presence, sequencing, complementing, enabling, and enhancing.

  • Briefly, a purposeful or sustained presence is one being able to send and keep a credible force where and when needed (when we chose) for an extended period without the need of ports and airfields. This is either a forward-deployed naval expeditionary force with a forward deployed Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF; see Wikipedia).
  • 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.
  • Capitalizing on unique Service capabilities is especially characteristic of the Navy and the Marine Corps. 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 of 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.

Diminishing Resources

With a diminishing Defense budget, the Marine Corps and Navy are now forced to review structure (personnel, equipment, and ships) 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 lay in wait. This Marine-Navy investment gives the NSC adaptive/scalable options ranging from pre-emptive, to shaping, to influencing and even reacting. Eventually this means dramatic changes and requires looking at force structure in different ways. It is evident that without the appropriate shipping mix DOD cannot be poised for crisis response or swiftly respond. As General Jim Amos, the Marine Corps Commandant, notes he has to be able to build a force, source that force, and fight that force under a very stringent spending environment. General Amos clearly grasps that the Marine must start thinking about what Marines really need to remain agile in any fight instead of what they simply want. While we may see a smaller Corps, the Marine Corps’ maritime agility should not be sacrificed but enhanced with the right shipping mix determined.

Maritime agility has enabled the Navy-Marine Corps team in the past 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 Afghanistan for the opening rounds of Operation Enduring Freedom;
  • rapidly shelter, provide medical care and feed thousands of Haitians
  • and conducting within a 48 hour period by the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and PELILU Amphibious Ready Group team offensive air operations in Afghanistan while also doing disaster relief in Pakistan to flood victims, in addition to seizing 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.

Force in Readiness

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, counternarcotics operations, border surveillance, mobile training teams, Third World nation building, etc. The Nation will continue to need an adaptive/scalable force to perform these functions and logically look to the Marine Corps 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.  Samuel Huntington wrote in “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy” (Proceedings, May 1954):

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.

… 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.

As the Budget Ax Falls

As the budget ax falls there will be Service fights over roles and missions.  For examples see Robert Coram’s new book, Brute, which addresses the Army’s and Navy’s historical umbrage with Marine success. The world knows the U. S. Marine Corps is the best force-in-readiness on the globe. and it has clearly demonstrated this 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.

Interestingly, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in a speech at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco 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 (August 2010, transcript here). In other words, maintain a Marine Corps and raise a land Army when needed.

Amphibious Operations

According to the Los Angeles Times (13 August 2010), in ordering the Pentagon to review the 21st century combat mission for the Marines, “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. Today’s writers, political pundits, arm chair generals, and even seems the CJCS (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff) forget the first major amphibious assault into The Republic of Vietnam:   Operation Starlite (18-24 August 1965; see Wikipedia). The operation was a combined attack from land and an amphibious assault form naval shipping – Amphibious Squadron 7 and embarked Battalion Landing Team 3/3. This major military operation destroyed the Viet Cong 1st Regiment.  In 1969 alone we had 14 amphibious operations in Vietnam.

We had a major amphibious operation in Grenada and also during 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 during the first major strike in Operation Enduring Freedom in southern Afghanistan. Mattis became the first Marine ever to command a Naval Task Force in combat.  For more about this read Amphibious Assault: Manoeuver from the Sea, a British book by Tristan Lovering (Lt. Commander, RN; 2005; see Amazon).

The Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)

A Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) is all about land-air-logistics-maneuver. The MAGTF combined arms team, fully self sufficient, is a unique capability that no other country in the world posses. A MAGTF is afloat in the Pacific and the Atlantic at almost any given time, usually consisting of a battalion landing team, an air squadron of Harrier AV-8B and tilt-rotor MV-22, plus a logistics element).

The Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO, see the 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 designed to seize and maintain lodgments in the face of armed resistance.

The third edition of the Marine Corps Operating Concept (see the PDF) 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. Furthermore, during the same period forward-postured amphibious forces continually conducted sea-based security cooperation with international partners—reflecting the philosophy that preventing war is as important as winning wars.


We have a U.S. Marine Corps because we are a maritime Nation.  Perhaps the Nation’s greatest return on investment comes from naval expeditionary forces (e.g., the Marine Corps) with forcible entry capabilities. Unlike the other the Services, Marines do not rely solely on hardware and acquisition programs — many of which the Nation can no longer afford. The Marine Corps remains steadfast in staying relevant to the Nation, today, tonight, and tomorrow.

Other 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.

1 thought on “The Marine Corps Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow”

  1. William Woods (LtCol, USMC, Retired)

    I thoroughly enjoyed your “Careerism” piece. Insightful and well written. If I can, let me offer a couple of thoughts/observations on the subject.

    Young officers become “careerists” not because they start out that way but because we (the Services) teach them that is the way to survive and succeed. During my last tour at SouthCom (91-93) in Panama I learned from my Army contemporaries about a thing called “gates.” “Gates” were those career milestones (assignments/schools) that you had to achieve, starting the moment you graduated OCS, to be considered for future rank/assignments/schools. The competition was so fierce that if you missed a gate somewhere along the line your career was all but over.

    I remember junior officers (Lieutenants!) telling me they were going to get out of the Army because they had somehow missed one of those all important gates. What was a system that worked well for the assignment officer/career planners at Department of the Army was destroying the morale and hopes for so many hard charging young officers. What a shame. I kept thinking how fortunate I was to be in a service that didn’t rely on such devices but then remembered we had recently instituted a thing called the Command Selection Process. Commanders were no longer selected by Commanding Generals, but rather by some pinhead at Headquarters Marine Corps armed with an OQR and a handful of inflated Fitness Reports. The development and implementation of such promotion/assignment systems is the eventual result of increasingly bureaucratic organizations; organizations that rely upon ever increasing input from the “field.” Centralization and standardization are their watchwords.

    A well educated young man, from the upper strata of our society, who decides to join the Service, to voluntarily subjugate himself to the orders of others, is not by nature a “maverick.” There are exceptions of course and more so in those volunteering for the SpecOps outfits. Young officers are almost not to be blamed for becoming careerists when there is an oppressive, faceless, centrally controlled bureaucracy that demands they jump through hoop after hoop to stay alive. Additionally, those who have chosen main stream combat arms MOS’s (infantry, armor, artillery), even given their generally more aggressive personalities, are more likely to be intimidated into conforming because of the fierce competition they face. Mavericks seemed to be more tolerated in aviation, intelligence, logistics and the lesser populated MOS’s as well as in the Reserves vice active duty communities.

    Bottom line, our highly centralized assignment/promotion system, lashed together with an “up or out” philosophy, ensures our officers (and SNCO’s) will develop into rabid careerists right from the beginning. It’s a given.

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