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Ten thousand Marines and sailors will stage a mock invasion in North Carolina in early February 2012, the biggest U.S. display of large-scale amphibious warfare in 10 years. The target: Capitol Hill. While all the armed services are fighting for their budgets as the Pentagon looks for $450 billion in cuts over the next decade and possibly more, the Marine Corps in particular needs to prove its strategic relevance. Its specialty of wading ashore under fire, as they did with distinction in World War II, hasn’t played a decisive role in battle since the Korean War.
Marine Corps Commandant James Amos is trying to reposition the service, which was founded in 1775 as an infantry unit serving on Revolutionary-era naval vessels. Two recent land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan blurred the roles played between Marines and the Army, which often conducted near-identical missions. That has led some Pentagon officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to question whether Marines’ historical role as a large-scale beach assault force still makes sense in this era of rapid-response, high-tech warfare. “The Marine Corps has to think really seriously about what its mission really is,” says Gordon Adams, a foreign policy professor at American University in Washington and a former White House national security budget official under President Bill Clinton.
Amos says there’s still plenty of value in having a manned force that’s available on ships as America’s rapid-response force, even if you’re not wading ashore, guns blazing. “All you’ve gotta do is look at all the things that have happened in the last 12 months—Tunisia, Libya, Egypt,” he says. “The world in the future is not going to get any nicer.” In the case of Libya, Marine-piloted jets conducted the first U.S. strike missions and rescued a U.S. Air Force pilot.
Amos has already moved to reduce personnel to 186,000, from 202,000 over five years. He will get by mostly with refurbished Humvees, made by AM General, instead of buying new vehicles. He’s asking budget-cutting lawmakers to spare programs the Marines say give them unique capabilities, including a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version of the Lockheed Martin (LMT) F-35 fighter jet and the V-22 Osprey, an airplane that takes off and lands like a helicopter.
To emphasize how valuable the Marine Corps remains, Amos points to a recent mission of the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Assigned to conduct training exercises in the Middle East and Africa, the deployment launched a month early, in August 2010, to help provide humanitarian aid for flood-stricken Pakistan. Members of the group split off for duties ranging from providing security in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province to rescuing an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot downed in Libya. Marine Colonel Phil Ridderhof, senior Marine Corps adviser to U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., says it’s a mistake to think the U.S. military can always strike from a distance at sea or from land bases. “You’re going to need to put people ashore,” Ridderhof says, even if “it’s not necessarily lining up and going against machine gun nests.”
John Nagl, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, says the Marines’ role in a slimmed-down future military might be defined by geography. There’s a “global division of labor shaping up” with the Marines focused on the Pacific and the Army on the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, says Nagl, a retired Army officer and president of the Center for New American Security in Washington.
In a sense, the two recent land wars in the Middle East have been the Marines’ “worst nightmare,” Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now retired, told Business Executives for National Security in Washington in a Sept. 22 speech. Mullen thinks Marines need to get back to their sea-based roots. That’s the direction Gates favored in a speech last year when he cast doubt on the future need for large-scale beach landings. “New anti-ship missiles with long range and high accuracy may make it necessary to debark from ships 25, 40, or 60 or more miles at sea,” he said. Before leaving the Pentagon, Gates canceled a Marine plan for a new amphibious armored vehicle.
With cuts looming, the Marines’ rear-guard bureaucratic maneuvering is sure to intensify. “The proclivity, when faced with budget challenges, is to batten down the hatches and try to protect what they have,’’ says retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, a former Air Force commander and F-15 pilot. “This is the time period where the military really needs to exploit new technologies, ideas, concepts of operation.”
The bottom line: High-tech warfare and $450 billion in defense cuts over the next decade threaten to marginalize the U.S. Marine Corps.