Don’t Go Too Crazy, Marine Corps


The Marine Corps is embarking on a 10-year restructuring to align itself with the National Defense Strategy, but in doing so, it risks ignoring the last 70 years of its history. The commandant, Gen. David Berger, is sensibly seeking to move the Marine Corps away from its two-decade-long focus on counter-insurgency and toward the great power competition that the country’s leaders foresee as posing the greatest threats in the future. However, the commandant and other Marine Corps leaders are hinting that as part of this transition, they would eliminate capabilities for sustained ground combat that allowed the Corps to fight in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Shifting strategic emphasis is possible without hobbling the Marine Corps in the conflicts that it is most likely to fight.

The Plan

Berger’s guidance has been widely discussed, so there is little need to repeat it here. The guidance lays out many bold goals and concepts, though the only specific change explained is that the Marine Corps will no longer use a requirement of two Marine expeditionary brigades and 38 large amphibious ships for force structure decisions. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Berger is more specific. He writes that the Marine Corps is “over-invested” in such capabilities and capacities as the maritime pre-positioning force, manned anti-armor ground and aviation platforms, manned ground transportation, traditional towed artillery not adaptable to high-velocity projectiles, manned ground reconnaissance, and short-range mortar systems.



Although the National Defense Strategy talks about great power “competition,” the department’s focus is on preparing for conflict. The Defense Department’s FY 2020 budget overview makes this point by stating that it “executes the [National Defense Strategy] by reprioritizing resources and shifting investments to prepare for a potential future, high-end fight.” Berger is particularly focused on China. He asks, for example, if the Marine expeditionary force that commands Marine Corps units in the Western Pacific will “be able to create a mutually contested space in the South or East China Seas if directed to do so.”

There is uncertainty about exactly what Berger’s guidance means for programs and forces. Berger’s guidance and his subsequent statements imply that the Marine Corps will divest itself of tank units and perhaps other armored vehicles like amphibious tractors, light armored vehicles, and armored trucks (such as Joint Light Tactical Vehicles and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), reduce long-distance ground logistics, and cut artillery on the theory that long range, precision and new capabilities can substitute for mass.

The Wartime Risks

These changes would indeed prepare the Marine Corps for the great power conflicts, particularly in the Western Pacific, that strategists focus on. The problem is that great power wars are not what the United States has fought since the end of World War II. During the Cold War, the fear of massive casualties in an East-West conflict and the possibility of escalation to nuclear weapons meant that great powers, then the United States and the Soviet Union, were extremely careful to avoid direct confrontation. Instead, both became involved in regional conflicts. Thus, the United States fought in Korea (1950–1953), Vietnam (1965–1975), and Desert Storm (1990–1991).

John Vrolyk recently made a similar argument that “insurgency, not war, is China’s most likely course of action.” He argued that the Marine Corps should not divest itself from capabilities geared toward low-intensity conflict. This article broadens that argument to look beyond insurgencies and include wars against regional and local powers and their armies. Dan Gouré of the Lexington Institute made a similar argument in apocalyptic terms. He argued that because “what has primarily occupied the Marine Corps over the last seventy-plus years are crisis response and low-to-medium conflicts against smaller regional powers,” it needs a full-spectrum amphibious capability.

These critiques arise from the same concern. If the National Defense Strategy is successful in that it leads to the deterrence of China and Russia, then this history is likely to continue: avoiding great power conflicts and fighting regional and counter-insurgency conflicts. Yet, a Marine Corps that is custom-designed for distributed operations on islands in the Western Pacific will be poorly designed and poorly trained for the land campaigns it is most likely to fight.

Such a Marine Corps will lack the firepower to take on armies armed with armored vehicles and artillery. The Iraqi army, for example, had hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, so the Marine Corps had to create its own mechanized task forces to counter them and win in Desert Storm. Although there has been a longstanding argument that tanks are obsolete on modern battlefields, armies are not moving in that direction. The U.S. Army, having done extensive wargaming, added two armored brigades. The Russians have also modernized their armor. Even in counter-insurgency fights like Hue City and Fallujah, armor support gave friendly infantry a major advantage. Leaving infantry to face tanks alone — even infantry with enhanced equipment and training from the Close Combat Lethality Task Force — would be highly risky and not the “best chance for victory“ envisioned by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

A force optimized for operations on small islands will also lack the mobility to operate over the wide battlefields seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. On Guadalcanal in World War II — a classic island forward operating base in an anti-access/area denial environment and perhaps a model for future operations — the operations area was a semi-circle 15 miles across. In Iraq, by contrast, the Marine Corps’ area of operations stretched 200 miles along the Euphrates River valley. During Operation Desert Storm, the Marine Corps repositioned itself 100 miles into the desert before attacking 40 miles through Iraqi defenses to the outskirts of Kuwait City. Finally, a Marine Corps optimized for island campaigns could lack the logistics to sustain itself in a long fight. The war in Korea lasted three years, Vietnam seven, and Iraq eight. All required extensive fortifications and bases and long lines of supply.

The risk is twofold. First, since the national command authorities will use the tools that they have available, they will employ the Marine Corps in whatever conflict that arises regardless of the Marine Corps’ capabilities or design. Overspecialization will waste lives until the Corps can adapt and risks mission failure if adaptation is too slow. It is the phenomenon that bedeviled the Army in Vietnam, where Andrew Krepinevich argued the Army was “a superb instrument for combating the field armies of its adversaries in conventional wars but an inefficient and ineffective force for defeating insurgent guerrilla forces.” The fact that the U.S. Army of 1965 was designed to fight Soviet tank armies in Europe did not stop President Johnson from sending it to Vietnam to fight insurgents and a regional power (North Vietnam).

Second, the Marine Corps does not want to be in a position where it cannot go to war without Army support for tanks, heavy firepower, logistics, and mobility. That undermines the Marine Corps’ expeditionary nature, which has traditionally been its most useful feature. Indeed, the Marine Corps has long claimed that “one call gets it all,” that the ground-air-logistics-command elements of the Marine Corps can be combined to meet any threat that arises. Though this may be a slight exaggeration — the Army provides niche capabilities like psychological operations units and theater-wide logistics to all U.S. forces, not just the Marine Corps — the point is valid: The Marine Corps has been able to deploy and fight a wide variety of adversaries using its organic capabilities.

The problem with relying on the Army for support beyond these niche and theater-wide capabilities is not a lack of faith on the Army’s part but a lack of capability. The regular Army is at the smallest size (480,000) since the post-Cold War drawdown of the 1990s. It will need all of its scarce rapidly deployable capabilities just to support itself.

These capabilities are scarce because the Army has 52 percent of its total force in its reserve components. This reserve component includes a disproportionate amount of the Army’s support and logistics capability as a result of a deal in the 1970s whereby Gen. Creighton Abrams, then Army chief of staff, built three additional active-duty divisions by putting most support into the reserve components. As a result, the Army cannot deploy more than about a division without calling up large numbers of reservists.

Marines may remember the Army’s Tiger brigade supporting I Marine Expeditionary Force in Desert Storm. That was a helpful reinforcement but resulted from a unique circumstance. As the regular Army shrank from its Cold War level of 770,000 to its post-Cold War level of 484,000, the Tiger brigade’s parent division (the Second Armored Division) was in the process of being deactivated, so the brigade was an “orphan” that could be sent to support I MEF. The brigade deactivated after the war.

Today the regular Army remains at that low personnel level and there are no independent combat brigades. All such brigades are an integral parts of Army divisions. Indeed, although the Army programs forces for theater-wide logistics — port operations units, fuel distribution, long-haul trucking — that it provides to all services, it does not program forces for other kinds of support that the Marine Corps might need. Any such support would have to be taken from Army units that rely on it.

Relying on jointness to force the Army to provide units is a thin reed upon which to rest war plans. Absent specific direction by the secretary, one service does not need to build capabilities desired by other services. Of course, a secretary of defense or combatant commander could override Army force planning and direct that Army units support the Marine Corps rather than the Army, but that is a lot for the Marine Corps to ask, especiallyseems unlikely in the early stages of a war.

Any Army support for the Marine Corps, if provided at all, will likely come from the later deploying elements of the Army’s reserve components after the Army’s own needs have been met. These units will require 90 days or more to activate, muster, train, and deploy; their equipment is often incompatible with that of the Marine Corps; and unit quality is uneven. The resulting delay and coordination challenges are the antithesis of a rapidly deployable Marine Corps.

Consider Hedges

There is support in the National Defense Strategy for hedging. Although the strategy does, indeed, emphasize great power competition, it also acknowledges other threats: “The Department will sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.”

Further, the commandant’s guidance emphasizes that “The Marine Corps will be the ‘force of choice’ for the President, Secretary, and Combatant Commander – ‘a certain force for an uncertain world’ as noted by Commandant [Victor] Krulak. No matter what the crisis, our civilian leaders should always have one shared thought – Send in the Marines.” Maintaining a broad set of capabilities is consistent with this vision. (Interestingly, Berger’s article has more of a great-power conflict flavor and less of a force-in-readiness flavor than his original guidance. It is unclear whether this intentional.)

Many of the changes the commandant is talking about are sensible regardless of the conflict: Facilitating sea denial by adapting rocket artillery leverages existing systems and builds on a historical Marine Corps capability for defense of forward naval bases. Increasing precision strike helps in all tactical engagements. Moving the Marine Corps toward unmanned and less expensive aviation systems takes advantage of a technology in which the Marine Corps has fallen far behind the other services. Whereas the Air Force has 284 armed drones, the Marine Corps has three. Adding smaller but more numerous amphibious ships reduces vulnerability in wartime and allows forward-deployed amphibious forces to meet more combatant commander commitments in peacetime. “Seek[ing] the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few” accommodates a defense budget that may have peaked. “Demanding superior performance and enforcing high standards” reinforces the Corps’ reputation for individual excellence.

What changes then should the Marine Corps avoid?

The first is overspecialized training. The Marine Corps should keep training to fight “in every clime and place,” even if the balance moves toward distributed operations on Pacific islands. To do this, the Marine Corps should retain both its cold-weather training center at Bridgeport, California and its desert training center at Twentynine Palms. If necessary, both could operate in a part-time status with contractor caretakers when inactive. It would be tempting to close the facilities, arguing that they do not fit a Pacific island campaign, but the Marine Corps should not forget history. From 1950 to 1953, just five years after the World War II battles on tropical islands, the Corps had to fight three winter campaigns in the barren mountains of Korea for which cold-weather training was essential. Similarly, the extensive maneuver and firing areas of Twentynine Palms were essential in preparing Marine Corps units for the 1991 and 2003 operations in Iraq.

The Marine Corps should also avoid completely eliminating capabilities. Although the new guidance implies such eliminations, this creates gaps that might need filling in future conflicts. Instead, the Marine Corps should maintain an extensive toolkit as a hedge against an uncertain future. The reserves can provide a useful mechanism for doing this. Traditionally, the Marine Corps reserves have been structured nearly identically to the active-duty force with a division, air wing, logistics group, and command headquarters. However, it is the only service that does this. The other services use the reserves to provide capabilities that are few or nonexistent in the active-duty force.

Thus, the Marine Corps could put capabilities into the reserves that don’t fit well with a western Pacific great-power strategy, but that would be needed for other kinds of campaigns. Using tanks as an example, the Marine Corps could reduce the number on active duty to one company per division but keep an enhanced battalion of six companies in the reserves. Personnel managers will whine that they cannot sustain the skill base with such a small active-duty community, but the other services have figured out how to do this, and the Marine Corps can also.

Similarly, long-haul trucking on active duty could be reduced but enhanced in the reserves. Trucks are easy to maintain in the reserve component because of the overlap with civilian skills, and they are inexpensive to operate.

Other capabilities — light armored vehicles, heavy engineering, artillery, and whatever the Corps wants to thin out on active duty — could also move to the reserves.

A Plea to the Planners

Marine planners are now devising a new force structure through a process of analysis and wargaming. The initial results of their work will appear in the FY 2021 budget, but most will be rolled out in the spring of 2020 for incorporation in the FY 2022 budget. These planners should not get so caught up in the new strategy that they miss the lessons of history: The Marine Corps fights more regional wars than great power wars. Yet, if structured wisely, the Marine Corps can have it both ways: It can realign toward the new strategy while still hedging against other threats that have historically been more likely.



Mark Cancian (Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, Ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program where he writes about military forces, budgets, and operations. Colonel Cancian spent over three decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, active and reserve, serving as an infantry, artillery, and civil affairs officer and on overseas tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq (twice). He holds a BA and MBA from Harvard University.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Sgt. Kyle C. Talbot)