May 15, 2010

A Marine Corps for the 21st Century

Is the Marine Corps just another army?

By Robert Haddick
This Week at War (
May 14, 2010

On May 7, during a discussion with students at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, Defense SecretaryRobert Gates revealed that he is interviewing candidates to replace Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, who will retire this fall. Gates said he will expect the candidates to explain to him what in the future will make the Marine Corps unique and not just a second - and by implication, wastefully redundant - Army. "We will always have a Marine Corps," Gates said. "But the question is, how do you define the mission post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan? And that's the intellectual effort that I think the next commandant has to undertake."

The Marine Corps has long sought to differentiate itself from the Army by specializing in amphibious operations -- the ability to project military power from ship to shore. But during his talk to the students, Gates wondered whether large-scale amphibious landings would ever again be practical in the age of relatively cheap, numerous, and precise anti-ship missiles. If not, then what will make the Marine Corps unique?

Some analysts have already attempted to answer Gates's questions. Many of these analysts have concluded that security assistance, with numerous small detachments of Marines providing training and support to allied military forces, will be a major mission in the future. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Novack, then a staff officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, described a plan for Marine Corps regiments to each specialize in a particular region of the world, learn its culture, and then deploy security assistance training teams to build partnerships and indigenous military capacity. Analysts at Rand Corp. called for the both the Marine Corps and the Army to permanently designate up to a third of their combat units for security assistance work. Echoing Lt. Col. Novack's plan, Steven Metz and Frank Hoffman suggested assigning Latin America and the Pacific Rim to the Marine Corps and the rest of the world to the Army. Alternatively, Metz and Hoffman would have the Marine Corps be the Pentagon's primary assault force, with the Army specializing in stabilization, security, and counterinsurgency.

By contrast, Dakota Wood, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, thinks the Marine Corps can still perform offensive combat operations from its traditional naval platform. Wood believes Marine units deployed on Navy ships and equipped with air power and landing craft will be useful for counterterrorism raiding and for direct action against nonstate adversaries. Against nation-state adversaries, Wood concludes that Marine Corps operations against adversary shipping lanes are feasible. However, Wood thinks that the Navy and the Marine Corps need to adopt a more decentralized structure to be effective against the most capable opponents.

Gates's candidates will no doubt explain why the Marines' sea-based tradition will remain relevant into the future. But as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, that argument for what makes the Marine Corps different from the Army will not stop the Marines from jumping into any kind of land war. Even when far from the ocean and appearing to be just another army, the Marine Corps has its own particular way of doing things. That, more than sea-basing, is what makes the Marine Corps unique and a value to the country

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