View from the Cheap Seats: The USMC and the Budget Battle
The pages of this publication and many others are overflowing with discussions of the roles of the Air Force, Navy, and especially the Army, as the services look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each service has made its own effort to define itself, but the Marine Corps has gotten less attention. For perhaps the first time in its history, the Marine Corps is leaving a period of major wars without facing any significant threat to its existence.
The Marine Corps owes much of its good position to faithful service in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as usual, good public relations. The American people are justifiably shy of waging long-term land wars, but do not seem to associate the Marine Corps with those endeavors – even though the service has participated in every one. The service has successfully portrayed itself as a forward-deployed, quick-reaction force that is not designed to be a second land army. It has maintained currency as an amphibious force while not limiting itself solely to that mission. In fact, the Corps is looking forward not just to a return to the missions it performed before 9/11, but also to a significant increase in missions. The service is currently setting up reaction forces for EUCOM and AFRICOM, PACOM, and SOUTHCOM independent of ongoing Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) rotations as well as expanding security cooperation efforts around the globe. While the other services seem to be fighting their budget battles with new concepts and new papers about their strategic contributions, the Marine Corps seems to be focusing on getting back to being a forward-deployed force in readiness. The Corps’ budget will certainly shrink, but it also has an opportunity to increase its relevance.
But, while the Marine Corps is in the midst of an opportunity, it may yet fail to capitalize. Former Commandant General Conway’s push to “return to the sea” seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the Navy as the sister service cozies up to the Air Force. Although the Chief of Naval Operations is vocally supportive of the Marine Corps, the Navy cannot provide enough amphibious shipping to support the demands of operations and training. There is simply no good way to train amphibious operations without ships, so the Marine Corps is dependent on the Navy not just for operations, but for keeping its amphibious operations skills sharp in peacetime. The availability of amphibious shipping for training now that the Marine Corps is less focused on deploying to Afghanistan is a prerequisite for any return to the sea. The lack of amphibious shipping for operations was highlighted in stark relief during the Benghazi incident in 2012. That same incident prompted the formation of new Marine crisis response task forces around the globe, but would those new forces even be necessary if the Navy had sufficient amphibious shipping to meet the demand? These forces are much less flexible when it comes to strategic mobility than they would be if they were based at sea vice on land: they are tied to air bases in foreign countries, more limited by overflight restrictions, and beholden to longer supply lines than would be the case if they had a seabase from which to operate. How good of an investment are crisis response forces that lack strategic mobility and flexibility? The new Marine crisis response forces, based on land around MV-22s and C-130s, are simply not as capable as a MEU and are only necessary because the Navy can no longer support enough MEUs.
On the acquisitions side, the Marine Corps still has a serious problem caused by the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. While HQMC has already begun a program to acquire a replacement, the requirements are not very different from the EFV and the cost may well be just as harsh in 2020 as it was in 2011 when the EFV was cancelled. It is unlikely that the Department of Defense will accept another run at developing a new system that produces another massively expensive vehicle. The current Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV), procured in 1972, is 41 years old and has been upgraded twice. It cannot last forever. To be sure, it has been decades since direct amphibious assaults have been the preferred method of entry and the Marine Corps has other effective assets to perform the mission . But, in the event that an opposed amphibious landing becomes necessary, the lack of a modern, armored ship-to-shore connector may become the single point of failure for joint expeditionary operations. This is an issue not just for the Marine Corps. Historically, the Army has been called upon to conduct amphibious assaults as much or more than the Marine Corps, and if troops cannot gain a lodgment ashore, there is little need for Navy and Air Force efforts to overcome A2/AD systems. When discussing maneuver and movement, the Joint Operational Access Concept makes no distinction between Army and Marine forces. Gaining and Maintaining Access, an Army and Marine Corps concept, lists “amphibious ships and surface connectors” as “must possess” capabilities to conduct opposed and unopposed landings. Thus, a replacement for the AAV is a problem for, and should be seen as an investment for, the joint force as a whole.
Another worrying budgetary issue for the USMC is the high cost of the F-35B. Organic air is essential to the way the Marine Corps fights and vital to any crisis response force, and the Corps’ budget should reflect that need. A Marine Expeditionary Unit is typically the first Marine unit on scene at any crisis point, but it carries with it very little in the way of heavy firepower: organic mortars, a battery of field artillery, and maybe a platoon of M1A1 Tanks. It makes up for this firepower deficit with tightly integrated air support from the MEU’s Air Combat Element. In the event that a MEU has to execute a spoiling attack or seize key terrain while other forces are still being deployed, the presence of on-scene USMC air may be the difference between holding out and being overrun for the battalion landing team. Integrated aerial support remains a potent capability even in the era of precision guided munitions. Joint air must contend with overflight, basing, and coordination issues before it can support a Battalion Landing Team on the ground, but the air assets organic to the MEU and under the same commander as the ground forces can support now. The massive amount of money necessary to fund the F-35B, however, will force the Marine Corps to assume risk when it comes to other aerial enablers that it depends on, like rotary and fixed wing transport aircraft. Additionally, the F-35B falls on the Navy’s tab and the Navy will probably have less enthusiasm for supporting the program than HQMC. As vital as air support is to the way Marine units operate, the F-35B may be too large of an investment.
While the Army, Navy, and Air Force try to sell a new vision of themselves to Congress and the public, the Marine Corps is fortunate that few questions remain about its purpose and its contribution to US national security. As Lieutenant General Victor “Brute” Krulak famously said, “The United States does not need a Marine Corps… the United States wants a Marine Corps.” That want is one that seems to have been settled and the Marine Corps is well positioned to continue to provide the American people with the service it expects. The Marine Corps’ budget will certainly contract, but the desired end-strength of 175,000 Marines still provides for a robust and effective crisis response force that maintains the ability to expand and contribute to any future large-scale conflict. This all depends, however, on the service’s ability purchase what it needs without sinking itself in the process.
Captain Brett Friedman, USMC is a field artillery officer stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. He normally writes for the Marine Corps Gazette blog. His views do not represent the USMC.
Photo credit: Okinawa Steve
Correction: The article originally described the USMC as the smallest service, but that honor goes to the U.S. Coast Guard.