Military & Veterans

Roles & Missions: Time For A Change

March 1972
by Capt. James H. Webb, Marine Corps Gazette

mc gazzete - rolesLimited by law to implementing exclusively its traditional amphibious capability places the Marine Corps in a rather tenuous situation.

The past few years have produced a previously uncontemplated number of changes in our society, some of them revolutionary and many long overdue. Almost every facet of American life has been affected to some extent, including the highly publicized and widely debated liberalization of much of our military. There is, however, another more crucial area of the military in which change is long overdue. That area concerns the outdated roles and missions of the Services, in particular the Marine Corps, which remain in effect. It was partially concern for this that led writer George P. Hunt, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, to muse in Life Magazine recently that “the U.S. military establishment is in ragged shape . . . undermined by inflation, by worn-out strategies, [and] by entrenched old ways of top direction.”

In the article that followed, LtCol Hunt unwittingly identified the basic problem facing our Corps when he optimistically described the following mission for us:

“Readiness for anything that comes along, planned or unplanned, including full-scale amphibious assault.”

This mission statement, which most Marines would probably agree with, holds to the tenet that the amphibious role is contained within the greater mission of providing a force in readiness for any situation. It is ironic that our history and day to day tasks substantiate that fact, while our assigned mission in both the National security Act of 1947 and the Key West Agreements ignores it. This situation has had little effect on daily FMF responsibilities; however, such a limitation of our assigned mission serves to limit the scope of the Marine Corps’ influence in Department of Defense policy, as well as among the other services.

Most Marines know that the authority for establishing the Department of Defense and its Military Departments rests with the National Security Act of 1947. However, surprisingly few have heard of the document which is the definitive source for the specific missions and functions of each of the services, or are aware of its importance as it relates to the existence of the Marine Corps. Commonly known as the Functions Papers, or the Key West Agreements, it originated in March of 1948, and has been updated through 1969 with only a few minor changes.

The Marine Corps derives its primary function of amphibious warfare from the Agreements. Indeed, as a result of this document, we are limited to the following functions:

(1) To provide Fleet Marine Forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the Fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.

(2) To provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels of the Navy, and security detachments for the protection of naval property at naval stations and bases.

(3) To develop, in coordination with the other Services, the doctrines, tactics, techniques, and equipment employed by landing forces in amphibious operations. The Marine Corps shall have primary interest in the development of those landing force doctrines, tactics techniques, and equipment which are of common interest to the Army and the Marine Corps.

(4) To train and equip, as required, Marine Forces for airborne operations, in coordination with the other Services and in accordance with doctrines established by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

(5) To develop, in coordination with the other Services, doctrines, procedures, and equipment of interest to the Marine Corps for airborne operations and not provided for in Section V, paragraph Alc(2).

It can be seen that, with the exception of a brief reference to airborne activities, the Marine Corps has been bound by law to a strictly amphibious role. Although our Corps has traditionally been involved with amphibious doctrine, to be limited exclusively to its implementation could place us in a rather tenuous situation, for at least two reasons.

First, the Army is assigned a similar function under the Agreements. The only real difference between the amphibious missions assigned the two services is that it is pointed out in the Agreements that “the Marine Corps shall have primary interest in the development of those landing force doctrines, tactics, techniques and equipment which are of common interest to the Army and Marine Corps.” This stated duplication of roles could ostensibly lead to the abolition of the Marine Corps.

Secondly, if limited to a primary amphibious role, in order to survive the Marine Corps must convince the “powers that be” of the absolute importance of the role, over other considerations. This has become increasingly difficult to do, especially since the Navy evidently does not hold to this belief, as evidenced by her recent de-emphasis on amphibious shipping. In 1951 there were 278 amphibious ships in the active fleet. In 1967, there were 162. By the end of this fiscal year, that figure will have dropped to only 76 ships. While it is true that the Navy has been forced to reduce most ship levels, it is interesting to note that these figures represent a 53 per cent drop in amphibious shipping since 1967, while other naval vessels have suffered a comparative drop of less than 28 per cent. (See chart #1) The amphibious Navy which has survived these cuts is for the most part old and depleted, with those ships which would be most directly involved in an amphibious effort suffering the worst cutbacks. (See chart #2) Additionally, contracts for our so-called hope for the future, the LHA, were cut from an original order of nine ships to a current contract for five.

ships in active fleet 67, 69, 71, 72

Chart #1


ships in active fleet 67, 69, 71, 72

Chart #2









These developments are certainly cause for grave concern, especially considering the nature of the Marine Corps roles previously outlined. As a result, the Corps could very well find itself once again fighting for existence, when by all rights it need not. In this regard, it is interesting to examine the circumstances surrounding just how the Marine Corps was assigned such a limited role in our National Defense.

The Key West Agreements

By 1948, it had become apparent to the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, that the guidelines set down in the National Security Act of 1947 were too general and, as a result, were causing much bickering between the different branches of the service concerning specific roles and missions. To rectify this, he assembled his Joint Chiefs of Staff at Key West, Florida in March of that year to participate in a series of secret talks. His purpose, as he related in a later statement, was to “produce an effective, economical, harmonious, and businesslike organization.” It was his desire to prevent unnecessary duplication among the Services and to fully utilize and exploit the full capabilities of each service. What resulted was an agreement which, although workable, has kept the services in a somewhat uneasy peace since its inception. Insofar as Marine Corps objectives are concerned, this Agreement has three very serious flaws:

* The American military at the time of the Agreements was still very much on the rebound from WWII. Consequently, the assigned functions for the Services contained in the Agreements ended up being little more than carbon copies of the roles and missions played by each service toward the end of that war. The Marine Corps accordingly landed its strictly amphibious role. This point caused Capt Robert P. Beebe, USN, to lament in the September 1961 Naval Institute Proceedings that “the Key West Agreement gives validity to the oftenheard criticism about the military always preparing to fight the next war like the last one.”

* The primary military concern in the United States in 1948 was the projection of strategic airpower loaded with nuclear bombs in the event of war. As such, the Air Force played a dominant role in the talks and subsequent Agreements. The position of the Air Force was so strong, in fact, that it was generally felt that the other Services would play mere supporting roles in future wars. This feeling led the then Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall, while speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March of 1948, to describe the other Services’ involvement in future wars thusly:

“Offensive (air) bases which we would need to use in the event of war-to use, of course, with the consent of the nations involved-must be on the mainland of the oversea land mass, much nearer to the enemy than to our own country. These bases would be in locations insulated from America by sea, but reachable overland by mass armies of an enemy. Such bases cannot be held and cannot be defended without ground troops-all supplied by the Army.

mc gazzete - roles 2“In addition to men at and around the bases themselves, we would have to have supporting troops in America, to provide the supplies and equipment and to train the reserves and replacements. Nor could we support or hold these bases without a great and unbeatable Navy, which could protect from air and submarine attack the necessary movement of men and supplies across the sea.”

It is significant that a Secretary of the Army would limit the role of his own Service in such a manner. It is equally significant that he did not mention the Marine Corps at all.

→As it turns out, the Marine Corps was not even directly represented at Key West! The Marine Corps’ interests were represented, in the same manner as naval aviation’s, by the three admirals present: Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, the Chief of Staff to the President, Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, Chief of Naval Operations, and Vice Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Vice CNO. The Commandant of the Marine Corps was not allowed to sit on the Joint Chiefs until 1952, even on matters concerning the Marine Corps. As such, one can but wonder what the Corps’ position would have been if we could have bargained for ourselves.

As a result of these considerations, the Marine Corps came out very poorly compared to the other Services represented at Key West. In a military establishment concerned with the projection of strategic airpower during a potential conflict, the Marine Corps was not assigned a responsibility in that area. At a time when the newly formed Department of Defense sat its members down to hash out differences and assign specific tasks, the Marine Corps was not even allowed to represent its own interests. And at a time when the United States was still refighting WWII, the Corps was forced to accept a strictly amphibious mission which, although important, is limited to the point of insult when compared with proven Marine Corps capabilities.

mc gazzete - roles 3In spite of our assigned missions, only two years later (2 Jul 50) the Marine Corps was once again called upon to plug the dike. The call for help came, and the Marines answered by sending a brigade to the Far East within three weeks. Names like Chosin Reservoir and Hagaruri, and Davis and Barber were logged into Marine Corps annals. And although there was one bitterly opposed amphibious assault at Inchon, Gen MacArthur did not ask for the Marines because he was planning to prosecute a naval campaign-he called on us because we were the ones who were ready to go. And so it took only two years for the functions assigned the Marine Corps at Key West to be proved incomplete. However, if the admirals representing our interests in 1948 had listened to history instead of the echoes of WWII, they would have known this.

The Marine Corps should be remembered for developing the amphibious concept, but the fact that we are capable of amphibious operations and continue to develop doctrine does not make us unique, nor does it justify our separate existence as a service. We have pursued other important missions throughout our history, all of which point us toward a different uniqueness, and all of which have both deeper traditional roots and more timeliness than our amphibious role.

Our traditional functions

On 11 July 1798, the Fifth Congress passed an act “for the establishing and organizing of a Marine Corps.” Contained in this act under Section 6 was the sentence “. . . the Marine Corps, established by this Act, shall, at any time, be liable to do duty in the forts and garrisons of the United States, on the seacoast, or any other duty on shore, as the President, at his discretion, shall direct.”

This Section gave vent to one of the Marine Corps’ most vital missions: preserving the peace on foreign shores, and protecting American lives abroad. The massing of an army near a foreign shore or boundary has always been tantamount to a declaration of war. In contrast, the use of the Marine Corps to perform this function has become, in political spheres, an acceptable alternative to war. During the earlier part of this century alone, Marines were called upon to perform this mission in Cuba, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Since the inception of the Key West Agreements we have continued in this tradition in Lebanon and once again in the Dominican Republic. Both of these latter actions bear out the contention that the Marines engaged in a political action short of war, as indicated by the quickness of the withdrawals once order was restored and by the very orders given the participating Marines, which were strictly defensive in nature.

Lebanon is a case in point. After the overthrow of the Iraqi government during July 1958, Lebanon was infiltrated with arms and men from nearby Syria, and there was a resulting threat of “civil” war. Lebanon’s President Chamoun, realizing that his country’s home forces, which consisted of an Army of less than 9,000 soldiers and a police force of 4,000, were incapable of handling a major uprising, requested aid from the United States. Eisenhower predictably sent in the Marines, again for the dual purpose of aiding the Lebanese government and protecting American lives in that country. The President, in an address to the American people concerning the Crisis, stated;

“We reacted as we did within a matter of hours because the situation was such that only prompt action would suffice . . . I believe that the presence of the United States forces now being sent to Lebanon will have a stabilizing effect which will preserve the independence and integrity of Lebanon. It will also afford an increased measure of security to the thousands of Americans who reside in Lebanon.”

mc gazzete - roles 4The emergency, again, was a political one, failing to reach anything near war proportions, and the organization which maintained the political objectives of the United States was the Marine Corps. The intention of our country not to initiate a war was reiterated by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, when he addressed the United Nations Security Council concerning the crisis as follows:

“Our purpose in coming to the assistance of Lebanon is perfectly clear . . . our forces are not there to engage in hostilities of any kind; much less to start a war. Their presence is designed for the sole purpose of helping the Government of Lebanon at its request in its efforts to stabilize the situation brought on by these threats from outside.”

The Marine Corps, then, has a very definite and important role in the carrying out of United States foreign policy. It is the institution which is at the President’s fingertips, designed from its beginning to answer his call for immediate service anywhere.

Another important traditional role of the Marine Corps has been its participation in extensive land campaigns, as evidenced through our involvement in WWI, Korea, and most recently the Republic of Vietnam. These periods of bitter fighting were not in any way related to the prosecution of a naval campaign, and took place merely because Marine units were ready and needed. Similarly, we have fought insurgents throughout our history.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that WWII was the only war which the Marine Corps has fought according to the principles assigned us by our Navy counterparts at Key West. This causes serious doubts concerning the validity of our assigned roles, and leads to the logical question of what would be a more accurate mission for the Corps to be assigned.


The answer, of course, is readiness. While it is realized that all Services must maintain a continual state of readiness in order that the nation remain secure, the unique feature of Marine Corps readiness is its capability of immediate reaction on a tactical level, with only internal coordination necessary to wage a fight. It might even be called “tactical readiness.” We are a package deal, the only Service which sports every tactical branch of combat arms. As such, we require a minimum of coordination in order to perform our mission. It was readiness which put us into Lebanon and the Dominican Republic. It was readiness which prompted MacArthur to ask for us in Korea, and it was again readiness which caused us to be assigned to critical tactical areas in Vietnam. All we require from the Navy or any other Service is the transportation to put us into the fight and the logistical support to keep us there.

mc gazzete - roles 5The Marine Corps has performed the role of the “shock force” throughout its history. It is the Service which always has provided the initial reaction in any disturbance critical to the national interest. Our former Commandant, Gen Leonard F. Chapman, Jr. indicated in many of his speeches the Corps’ intention to continue this role in the future. On 1 May 1971, while addressing the Annual Conference of the Marine Corps Reserve Officers Association, he stated:

“We can and will maintain our tradition of readiness. And with such readiness, we can meet any emergency with confidence, because we know two things: First, whenever, a crisis comes, those who are ready will go. Second, such a crisis will more than likely be a surprise. So Marines will be ready. Every Marine, every piece of equipment, every unit-regular and reserve, will be ready with the Navy to mount out on short notice and at the direction of our Commander-in-Chief go anywhere, take on anybody-and win.”

This statement is vitally important to the Marine Corps’ future for two reasons. First, Gen Chapman spoke of the “tradition of readiness.” And it is just that. Marines have served the readiness concept much longer than the amphibious. In fact, the development of amphibious doctrine was begun to insure our readiness to fight that particular type of conflict, and the amphibious role which we perform is actually but one of the areas where we maintain our quick-reaction posture.

Secondly, he maintained that we will “go anywhere, take on anybody-and win.” This in itself expands our role beyond those hot spots bordering the high seas, and in so doing encompasses roles which are more than amphibious or extensions of a naval campaign. In addition to being amphibious, we are, and always have been, the nation’s stopgap.

An examination of today’s world situation lends even more credibility to the cruciality of the Marine Corps’ readiness mission. Nuclear weaponry has progressed from exclusive United States ownership in 1948 to universal possession among the Big Powers. As such, it has become a tool in the preservation of power balances, and in all likelihood will not be used by anyone except in a last-gasp, utter desperation situation. The day-to-day political and military issues of the world are being handled through traditional channels, and this fact alone gives greater import to such organizations as the Marine Corps. It is entirely feasible that the Corps will be assuming a huge proportion of the Department of Defense’s workload in the coming years through the execution of its traditional mission of readiness, and as such will assume a greater posture among the services. With brushfire wars and necessities for immediate reaction possible daily, Marine Corps readiness assumes a new perspective-we are the only service which can effectively handle such requirements.

mc gazzete - roles 6The Army is not designed to handle an immediate reaction mission, nor should it be required to do so. In order that a readiness mission of this scope be carried out, it seems logical that two conditions must be met: first, the organization must exist at a continual high state of readiness; and secondly, when a force is committed, all tactical arms must be immediately available to it, with a minimum amount of coordination.

The Army’s readiness for an immediate reaction is not good, and the expense of instituting such a state seems prohibitive. In an article in Army (July 1971) Lloyd Norman, a veteran Pentagon newsman who covers the Department of Defense for Newsweek, was openly pessimistic about the Army’s state of readiness. He wrote that “only one division (the 1st Infantry at Fort Riley, Kansas, which backs up NATO with two brigades) was able to conduct field exercises this fiscal year.” Norman also pointed out that due to limited funds and personnel turbulence, the following other situations exist:

*The US Army in Europe is 20,000 men under its authorized strength of 185,000, with many of the actual fighting elements operating at half-strength.

*The Strategic Army Force, consisting of 4 1/3 divisions, has not carried out division-level exercises for four years in a row.

*Some major commands have had to curtail use of tactical vehicles due to fuel restrictions.

*The 82nd Airborne Division, considered by many to be the highest-priority, most elite combat-ready unit in the Army, was able to muster only two brigades for possible action during the Jordanian crisis of September 1970.

In spite of these discouraging facts, one might maintain that, with the prospect of an all volunteer Army, and the wind-down of the Vietnam War, this situation must improve. Not so, maintains Norman. He states that the “future is dimmed by coming budget reductions which may cut Army strength as much as 50,000 below planned levels for fiscal 1972, and may carve even further in future years. This scaling-down process may bring new turbulence and further erosion of combat readiness.”

The second stated requirement for the proper execution of an immediate reaction mission concerns the coordination of tactical arms. Although the Army sports considerable tactical weaponry, it must nevertheless rely on aircraft from other services, predominately those of the Air Force, for heavy close air support. At a time when minutes and hours are of utmost importance, a requirement for coordination in this regard could significantly affect performance. While the continued existence of the various unified commands has worked to simplify these coordination problems, our unique situation in the Marine Corps completely eliminates that necessity.

Again, then, the question seems to evolve: With personnel and budget difficulties, why should the Army be tasked with an immediate reaction mission which would sorely tax increasingly restricted resources, especially when this mission is a duplication of one which the Marine Corps already performs? Freeing the Army from this type of a readiness requirement could actually serve to improve her overall combat readiness, as emphasis could then be placed on other difficulties.

An additional point along these lines is worth considering. In 1961, due to the absence of a written immediate reaction mission for the Armed Forces, former Defense Secretary McNamara initiated the ill-fated “Strike Command,” with the following stated mission: “To furnish rapidly deployable, combat-ready forces in an emergency situation calling for a response on a scale less than all-out nuclear war.” The Command, consisting of the 115,000-man Strategic Army Corps, drawn from the Continental Army Command, and the 50,000 men of the Air Force Tactical Air Command, was supposedly kept in a high state of combat readiness, to be prepared for overseas deployment within 24 hours of call. Although it encountered coordination difficulties and problems resulting from the possibilities of double commitment of the same forces, Strike Command managed to exist, on paper at least, for a decade due to the considered need for such a force. One subsequently is led to wonder whether Secretary McNamara truly understood the role of the Marine Corps when he authorized Strike Command, or if he would have at all if the stated mission of the Corps in the National Security Act and Functions Papers was accurate. The mission assigned to Strike Command was essentially that of the Marine Corps, while the Corps exists with none of the coordination or commitment difficulties which were inherent in Strike Command.


mc gazzete - roles 7In consideration of these points, then, we obviously should be allowed to expand our “paper mission” to include the traditional “real life” missions which we have carried out. Or is it so obvious? One might ask why this would be necessary when the Marine Corps continues to produce in spite of its stated missions.

It is admittedly doubtful that changing our mission thusly would have any great effect on the day to day operations of our FMF units, since they are already carrying out the duties included in the proposed expanded missions. However, it is felt that official sanction of the vital function we play as a Service would naturally precipitate the following major changes at higher levels:

* First, it would give us a greater measure of autonomy, since we would not be totally dependent on the needs of the Navy for our own survival. As policies now stand, a reaction requiring Air Force transportation is normally met with Army troops. Given the proper circumstances, it would make just as much sense to fly Marines into a critical area aboard Air Force transports as it would to fly Army personnel, and the difference in unit readiness is likely to be significant. Although the Navy would be used under the same circumstances as it is now, we would not be so strictly limited to that service.

* Secondly, a written statement of our readiness mission would serve notice to the civilian officials in decision-making places of this tradition which belongs to our Service. Although we in the Marine Corps are fully aware of our historic roles and missions, it becomes bad business to expect a man who has spent his life away from the military to agree with a principle which is not documented in appropriate laws and directives. Once again, Strike Command is a good example of what can easily happen.

* Thirdly, an expansion of our stated missions would give the Marine Corps greater bargaining power in higher echelon planning and decision making. The Commandant of the Marine Corps is still not a full member of the Joint Chiefs, sitting as a member only on matters concerning the Marine Corps. He must “declare interest” in order to voice his opinions. Although he currently sits on a great majority of issues through this process, a proper statement of Marine Corps missions would obviously expand those matters which concern the Corps to include those which concern the Defense of the United States, and hence give the Commandant a rightful full membership on the Joint Chiefs.

An additional point concerning our influence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the various unified commands is worth mentioning. A Marine general officer has never headed a “J” staff on the Joint Chiefs. Furthermore, of the 41 flag rank officers currently serving on that Staff, only one is a Marine! The Air Force supplies 15 generals, the Army 12, and the Navy 13 admirals. This lack of representation is paralleled on all unified commands, as only three other Marine generals are serving in any capacity on all other unified commands; one on Pacific Command, one on European Command, and one on MAC-V. Considering the world situation today, and the vital role the Corps is playing in it, this tokenism is inexcusable. In this regard, the recent passage of a bill in the House to allow the Marine Corps more general officers would seem to go hand in hand with this suggestion.

* And finally, it just does not make sense to assign to a Service one specific, very limited mission, and then require that same Service to perform a myriad of other functions. True, the National Security Act states that the Corps “shall perform such other duties as the President may direct.” However, most people laud that “catchall” phrase and ignore the next sentence of the Act, which states that “these additional duties may not detract from or interfere with the operations for which the Marine Corps is primarily organized.” This is clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog, and is misleading. The Marine Corps is primarily organized, as LtGen John R. Chaisson recently pointed out in Life Magazine, as “amphibious shock troops, emissaries, police, whatever comes up.” In short, as a force in readiness with an included amphibious mission. Since WWII, however, we have been known, oh paper at least, as an amphibious force with an included mission of readiness. As our country strives to put the military back on its feet and headed in the proper direction, it would be quite unfortunate if it failed to realign the Marine Corps’ roles and missions with the policies and traditions it has always followed.

Secretary Forrestal recognized the periodic need for change when he placed the following statement in the original Key West Agreements:

Technological developments, variations in the availability of manpower and natural resources, changing economic conditions, and changes in the world politico-military situation may dictate the desirability of changes in the present assignment of specific functions and responsibilities to the individual Services. This determination and the initiation of implementing action are the responsibility of the Secretary of Defense.

Perhaps it is time that present Department of Defense officials recognize this need for change, and act accordingly.