Op-Eds by Jim

The Future of the U.S. Marine Corps

The Future of the Marine Corps
Former Senator Jim Webb
May 7, 2020

On September 4, 2002, five months before the invasion of Iraq, this writer warned in an editorial for the Washington Post that “China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall… An ‘American war’ with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.”

Eighteen years later we are struggling with the bitter leavings of that unfortunate result. We have spent trillions of dollars from our national treasury on wars and frequently amateurish nation-building projects in the Middle East. We have lost thousands of good people to deaths in combat, and tens of thousands more to wounds and debilitating emotional scars that will stay with them throughout their remaining lives. Our military leaders have conducted numerous fruitless and often feckless campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria that in the end have only further destabilized one region while decreasing American prestige and influence in another. Our larger foreign policy has degenerated from post-Cold War transitional to post-Iraq situational, without the guiding principles of a clear national doctrine. The leadership in the Department of Defense, both military and civilian, has been reduced to feeling its way from one day to the next, simply reacting to crises large and small rather than guiding the international narrative, which America’s global leadership managed to do even during the most difficult days of the Cold War.

The Iraq War is largely behind us, having blown apart that country and empowered Iran. Afghanistan is no better than it was when we first committed military forces there nineteen years ago and indeed is probably worse, consolidating Afghanistan’s firm position as a narco-state that is by far the world’s largest producer of opium. Libya has deteriorated into a full-blown failed state. Syria is a devastated riddle, clouded by our own government’s lack of transparency regarding the level of our national involvement. And the stability of East Asia, whose waterways carry the world’s most vital sea lanes, has become increasingly fragile. After two decades of being treated by American leadership as something of a second-tier strategic backwater, it comes as no surprise that the region is in danger of steadily drifting into the autocratic and economic orbit of an increasingly powerful China.

In the wake of two decades of costly strategic blunders and an inability to accomplish our national objectives it is nonetheless remarkable that along the way a trusting America consistently has given our top military leaders huge deference and frequent free passes. Our Post-911 generals and admirals are treated with a reverence approaching the esteem of those who led the country to victory during World War Two. At the top they are the most educated generation of officers in our history, the result of mid-career opportunities for advanced degrees at some of our most prestigious universities while receiving full pay. As a prerequisite for promotion to flag rank they spend at least one tour on a “J” staff, interacting with their interservice peers and frequently learning the budgetary, programmatic and political nuance that prepares them for high level military positions and lucrative post-career employment. And their judgments are rarely put to serious test by a congressional leadership and major media whose members risk backlash since so few have actually served in the military.

The convergence of these two realities is at the center of a growing unease with the implications of the recent announcement by General David Berger, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps, that the Corps will move from operational concepts in the Middle East and will re-engage in Pacific Asia. The decision to shift priorities back to this region comes as no surprise to those who closely follow national security issues, since by now there is little argument that the United States should never have disengaged from Pacific Asia in the first place. What is surprising is that the new Commandant should be using a predictable re-emphasis on East Asia to propose changing the fundamental force structure and operational doctrines of the Marine Corps.

Interestingly, when citing his philosophical inspiration at the outset of his proposal, General Berger chose to ignore two centuries of innovative and ground-breaking role models who guided the Marine Corps through some of its most difficult challenges. The giants of the past – John LeJeune, Arthur Vandegrift, Clifton Cates, Robert Barrow and Al Gray, just for starters – were passed over, in favor of a quote from a professor at the Harvard Business School who never served. Many Marines, past and present, view this gesture as a symbolic putdown of the Corps’ respected leadership methods and the historic results they have obtained.

Much more important is the potentially irreversible content of the proposal itself. If authorized, appropriated and put into place, this plan would eliminate many of the Marine Corps’ key capabilities. It could permanently reduce the long-standing mission of global readiness that for more than a century has been the essential reason for its existence as a separate service. Its long-term impact would undo the value of the Marine Corps as the one-stop guarantor of a homogeneous tactical readiness that can “go anywhere, fight anybody, and win.” And after the centuries it took to establish the Marine Corps as a fully separate military service, it could reduce its present role by making it again subordinate to the funding and operational requirements of the Navy.

General Berger bases his proposal on guidance in the 2018 National Defense Strategy which “redirected the Marine Corps’ mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power / peer-level competition with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific… Such a profound shift from inland to littoral … will also demand greater integration with the Navy and a reaffirmation of that strategic partnership.” He then concludes that “Our current force design, optimized for large scale amphibious forcible entry and sustained operations ashore … are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps.”

In making his conclusions, Berger emphasizes two principles. The first is that the future force should be formulated based on “approved naval concepts.” The second is that its operational practices should heavily emphasize a “hider versus finder competition” that exists in many of the highly structured DOD “war games” that he has experienced, calling the “reconnaissance / counter-reconnaissance mission an imperative for success.”

Based on a 2018 Department of Defense framework that is always subject to change, General Berger has thus decided to dramatically alter the entire force structure of the Marine Corps to a posture whose overriding emphasis would be short-term, high-tech raids against Chinese military outposts on small, fortified islands in the South China Sea. While it is certainly useful to develop contingency plans should Marines be called upon to conduct such limited tactical interventions, building a force around this concept is not a bold leap into the future. Rather, it reflects a misunderstanding of the past, as well as ignoring the unpredictability of war itself. Such scenarios are hardly a full reflection of “what the Nation requires of the Marine Corps.” The General seems to acknowledge that when he states in his proposal, “We need better answers to the question, “what does the Navy need from the Marine Corps?”

The new Commandant has hedged in recent interviews regarding the finality of his proposal with such comments as “this is not the end of the journey but rather the beginning,” and “at some point within a 10-year period we need to make some fundamental changes.” But his conclusions have been highly specific. They are already being passed down through the Marine Corps command structure, and soon will be reduced to hard numbers in congressional funding requests that usually cover a five-year plan.

In forwarding his conclusions the General noted that he had already decided that the Marine Corps should divest (his word) its combat structure by three full infantry battalions, a 14 percent reduction of its most important combat elements, and all of the correlative support units that would be involved. Marine Corps analytical teams were also ordered to “avoid” criteria related to the possibility of “sustained land operations,” thereby removing future considerations of the type of operational challenges the Marine Corps has predominantly faced over the past 100 years.

His proposals include the following:

–Divestment of three active combat battalions from the current level of 24 battalions, a 14 percent reduction in front-line combat strength, under the rationale that “the remaining 21 battalions will satisfy naval and joint requirements”;
–Reducing the strength of each remaining 21 battalions by 200 Marines, taking an additional 4,200 infantry Marines from the front-line combat capabilities at the outset of any conflict;
–Divestment of two reserve component infantry battalions out of the present level of 8 battalions, a 25 percent reduction of up-front combat strength;
–Divestment of 16 cannon artillery battalions, a 76 percent reduction, to be replaced by 14 rocket artillery battalions, under the rationale that this will provide “ultimately successful naval campaigns”;
–Divestment of all the tanks in the Marine Corps, such capability “to be provided by the U.S. Army.”
–Divestment of three of the current 17 medium tilt-rotor squadrons due to the divestment of three infantry battalions;
–Divestment of three of the current 8 heavy-lift helicopter squadrons, which would still “satisfy our requirements as described in approved naval concepts”;
–Divestment of “at least” two of the current 7 light attack helicopter squadrons, since current levels are “operationally unsuitable for maritime challenges and excess to our needs with the divestment of three infantry battalions”;
–Assessing the need for the F-35 aircraft, particularly in light of continued pilot shortfalls in “recruiting, training and retention as well as fiscal and industrial base factors”;
–Assessing all ground tactical vehicle programs in order to adjust them downward in light of the reduction of three infantry battalions.

Depending on how limited one views the future responsibilities of the Marine Corps, this plan is erected on a fragile house of cards: that future Marine Corps operational commitments should be shaped by the reduction of front-line infantry battalions, whose casualties in any sustained engagement would quickly require replacements that may not be available if the battle space expands; by subjecting Marine Corps commitments to the needs of the Navy; and by an unproved reliance on the augmentation of combat units such as aviation assets and tanks from other services that may not be available and who will not have trained with the Marine Corps.

The proposal was based on extensive war-gaming, in which the new Commandant has great confidence. But it is axiomatic that experimental war games (like staff studies) can be biased through subtle control of the methodology decided upon by those who design the war game. There is no greater danger in military strategy than shaping a nation’s force structure to respond to one specific set of contingencies, giving an adversary the ability to adjust and adapt beforehand. Nor would it serve the country’s long-term interests for the Marine Corps to careen from two decades of over emphasis in the Middle East to a fixation with narrow naval scenarios in places like the South China Sea.

If history teaches us anything in combat it is that the war you get is rarely the war that you game. As former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In World War I the Germans were convinced they would defeat France in exactly 42 days. Prior to World War II the French matched this folly by building a string of fortresses along the Maginot Line, leaving open the thickly forested Ardennes, which their war planners decided was impenetrable by a large-scale German attack. In 1941 the British were convinced that no military assault could overcome its shoreline defenses against an attack on their naval base in Singapore, then known as the unassailable “Gibraltar of Asia.” The Japanese army landed far to the north, then bicycled and marched its way down the Malayan Peninsula, attacking Singapore from behind and quickly smashing the stunned British and Australian defenders. Except for General Tomoyuki Yamashita the Japanese high command was not usually that brilliant. Its pre-war plan of fixed defenses on island redoubts throughout Pacific Asia backfired spectacularly, and their inability to adapt after their unexpectedly quick victories at the beginning of the war allowed American resilience and control over the sea and the air to destroy their gains.

None of these debacles were the result of a failure in new technologies. All were the failure of faulty planning and especially of the miscalculations of those at the highest levels of command.

Our present-day Marine Corps serves as the nation’s pre-eminent expeditionary force, deployable immediately in any scenario short of nuclear war. But before World War I the role of the Marine Corps was narrowly defined to shipboard duties, small “landing party” operations, and the protection of diplomatic legations ashore. Despite its well-earned reputation in those roles, from its founding in 1775 until World War I, total Marine Corps casualties in all of our country’s wars amounted to only 332 Marines killed in action. Marines were truly “soldiers of the sea,” an important but surrogate element of the Navy itself.

World War I changed that. The Marines quickly stood up two hardened and undefeatable regiments. During six months of heavy fighting they endured 2,457 killed in action and 12,379 total casualties, earning the revered title of “Devil Dogs” from their German opponents. Their discipline, unmatchable marksmanship and ability to adapt and innovate on the battlefield also earned them a larger role among America’s combat arms, from which has come a remarkable series of forward-looking contributions to our military and to our national security. But this evolution was not an easy one. The mid-twentieth century was marked with repeated efforts by competing services and politicians to either do away with the Marine Corps or to put it back inside the Navy box.

The Marine Corps first broke out of that box through its development of amphibious warfare doctrine during the 1930’s after an intricate study of the ill-fated 1915 British landings and ground campaign at Gallipoli. The leaders of that period tested, trained and wrote the book on large-scale amphibious landings. During the island campaigns of World War II they demonstrated the Corps’ historic combination of leadership, discipline, and command accountability. But although the Marine Corps perfected the techniques of modern-day amphibious warfare, they did not own the concept. In fact, the largest U.S. amphibious operations in history, in Sicily and on D-Day at Normandy, were not conducted by the Marine Corps at all.

The most important evolution of the Marine Corps in our national security posture has been as an immediately deployable, fully capable expeditionary force, with an included mission of amphibious assault. And this has usually required “sustained land operations.”

When North Korea suddenly attacked South Korea in June 25, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur asked immediately for the Marines, not simply because they had amphibious capabilities but because he knew that whatever it took, they would be ready. By September 15th the Marines had called up thousands of World War II veterans, formed an invasion force, deployed aboard ship, crossed the Pacific and landed at Inchon. The Inchon landing was one of the most technically difficult maneuvers in American history, subject to fluctuating sea tides and well behind enemy lines. Inchon was followed by more than two years of sustained land operations, including the most memorable engagement of the Korean War, the First Marine Division’s breakout from the Chosin Reservoir against vastly superior odds after the Chinese army crossed the Yalu River and surrounded them.

During and after the Korean War, Marine Corps innovation developed and perfected techniques of close air support and helicopter doctrine. During the late 1950’s its leadership overcame intense opposition in order to retain fixed-wing aircraft so that the Corps could continue to field a fully capable, homogeneous force that could deploy immediately whenever called upon to do so, with every necessary combat component intact. This effort paid off in Vietnam with the quality of Marine Corps close-air support, a skill perfected only by continuous air-ground training.

In Vietnam the Corps fielded two full divisions and part of a third in sustained land operations, engaging a determined enemy for six years of hard combat that took the lives of 14,000 Marines and brought more than 100,000 total casualties. In the 1980’s they operated for more than a year in Beirut, Lebanon. They were among the first on the ground during Desert Storm, and again in Afghanistan and then again in Iraq. Such sustained operations as a highly integrated combat force, available to the country’s leadership on demand, has become an inseparable part of the modern Marine Corps tradition.

History tells us that in the future there will be other engagements in other places, sometimes littoral, sometimes not. If so, the Marine Corps that will be called upon to respond will be bringing with them only the weapon systems, logistics, technologies and people that our top leaders are now deciding to fund and to build and to train.

What will such a commitment look like? Where will it be? Will it involve “sustained land operations” rather than a “one and done” smack-down launched and quickly recovered by Navy ships? What kind of notice will our Marines have before being sent into harm’s way? What will be the size of that commitment – a company, a battalion, a regiment, perhaps a division – and over what expanse? Will it be urban or rural, or maybe in the mountains? How long will it last? Will there be adequate helicopter and other assets to insert, relocate, provide fire support, resupply and sustain the Marines, weapons systems, and logistical necessities required even to begin such an unanticipated call to duty? With such drastic “divestments” as those now proposed, will there be enough infantry Marines in the pipeline to replace and sustain the casualty flow and weapons replacements from battalions that are committed, not simply on the first day or the first week but over a much longer period, perhaps under conditions where our aviation assets and other mechanical systems are shot down, or crash, or wear out from such environmental erosions as heat, ice, sand, clay dust, monsoon rains, or the simple wear-and-tear of constant operations?

Technology can increase effectiveness on a battlefield but it cannot replace people or equipment. This is why these recent proposals should be examined with the utmost scrutiny. And it is for these reasons that our country needs a Marine Corps that has every conventional capability inside its proven tradition of “good to go” readiness.

Former Senator and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice and awarded the Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism.” He currently serves as the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at Notre Dame’s International Security Center.