A Marine trains a Ugandan soldier. (U.S. Mission Uganda photo.)
“Any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”- Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
“Compounding the stress on the force is the reality that the demand for SOF [Special Operations Forces] continues to exceed supply.” - ADM William McRaven
The above quotes are illustrations of two trends that should act as left and right lateral limit markers for Marines as we plan for our future missions. The first illustrates the sense that, after long, expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, future U.S. leaders will be reluctant to commit to taking and hold ground from rogue governments. The second shows that, due to the proliferation and increasing capabilities of irregular threats around the globe since the end of the cold war, special operations forces will be engaged beyond their capabilities. As conventional ground forces draw down from Afghanistan by 2014, SOF forces will be in even higher demand. These trends will converge at a point where SOF forces will have to be augmented by other military assets. The best option to augment SOF forces in the persistent, low level conflicts that the U.S. will face is, of course, to send in the Marines. Fortunately, this is not a complete departure from how we operate as a Marine Corps. As Dan Trombly has pointed out, shifts in U.S. strategy are in actuality a return to the “small wars” era of Marine and Navy history.
So how will these modern day “small wars” look? Well, they’ll look an awful lot like what we’re doing in Yemen. Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for the Nation, recently described U.S. efforts in Yemen in an interview on NPR.
Well, in the past week, Terry, the United States military announced, quietly, but announced that it was sending U.S. trainers back into Yemen. Somewhere between 50 and 100 U.S. soldiers are going to be on the ground in Yemen operating alongside of Yemen's military and security forces.
The U.S. basically created a counterterrorism unit in Yemen made up of Yemeni soldiers, and U.S. Special Forces troops for years have been in Yemen building up these units, and the idea behind it was that the U.S. didn't want to send troops into Yemen but believed that there was a substantial threat posed by al-Qaida figures in groups in Yemen, and so they wanted to encourage the Yemeni government to start taking a more active role in actually hunting down and killing these people…
And then you have U.S. airpower in the form of drones, as we've mentioned, but also cruise missiles that are being launched off the coast of Yemen from vessels or submarines that are there ostensibly to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and there have been a number of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. In fact, the most deadly strike that we know of in Yemen to date, authorized by the Obama administration, was his first strike in Yemen, and that was on December 17, 2009, and it was not the CIA, and it was not a drone.
It was cruise missiles launched from the sea, and it slammed into this village called Al-Majalah, which is in south Yemen, and the U.S. had intelligence that was given to it by the Yemeni government that there was an al-Qaida training camp there and storage facilities for weapons…
…I think that we're seeing the future of U.S. war fighting in Yemen. I think this is the model that has emerged over the past decade, where President Obama wants to draw down large-scale military occupations, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are going to be, for decades to come, fighting special operations forces, CIA war of attrition against terrorism or against anyone determined to be an enemy of the United States. And I think Yemen is very symbolic of the direction we're heading in terms of U.S. national security policy.
The whole transcript is a good read. Scahill raises some troubling issues with U.S. efforts in Yemen, but I won’t get into those here. What the interview offers us as Marines is a snapshot of how the U.S. will wage small wars in the future. A low number of ground troops, allied with a local government (or some other type of organization) will advise and fight alongside indigenous security forces against irregular enemies while being supported by naval and aerial assets. The gear we will use in these operations may be different, but the outline of the operations could have been cut and pasted from Nicaragua in 1912, Haiti in 1915, or the Dominican Republic in 1916.
There are a few things the Marine Corps can do to position itself to participate in these operations while retaining an identity distinct from Big Army and SOF.
1) End the MEU(SOC) concept as a special program.
I don’t mean discontinue the program where a MEU receives additionally training and is evaluated in order to become Special Operations Capable. However, this practice should instead be the standard. Every MEU that is not a SPMAGTF or SCMAGTF should go through MEU(SOC) training and evaluation. When the Commandant reports to the President or SECDEF that a MEU is available, it should be understood that the MEU is Special Operations Capable. In short, every MEU should be SOC, capable of performing direct action raids or boarding operations when SOCOM forces are unavailable or overextended.
2) Embrace Security Cooperation across the Corps
The Marine Corps has already expanded its security cooperation capabilities by standing up MCSCG, but they remain distinct from the “norm.” One only has to look at the Banana Wars era to see that security cooperation was frequently utilized to augment our own forces. In recent years, coalition operations have become the norm. Even conventional wars on a global scale like World War II involved security cooperation, especially in the Burma-India-China theater of operations. The heavy requirement for advisors and partnering in Iraq and Afghanistan should not have come as a surprise. The Marine Corps as a whole, not just MCSCG and MARSOC, should get used to the idea of security cooperation and prepare for it. For more on security cooperation and the initial mistakes made in Iraq, see the book The Snake Eaters written by Owen West. The book was also reviewed by Marine Captain Jonathan? Rue here.
3) Send in the POGs
If future wars do indeed resemble current operations in Yemen and SOF forces are already on the ground with indigenous infantry forces, infantry Marines very well may be the least likely Marines to go ashore. There are already enough shooters on the ground in Yemen but in a pinch, SOF or allies may need fire support, supplies, mechanics, EOD, combat engineers, or any of the numerous other capabilities that a MEU can provide. For example, a planned Yemeni assault could be support by an EFSS battery with an attached EOD platoon lifted onshore specifically for the assault and returned to ship afterwards. No grunts required. The idea that only the grunts will engage in ground combat has been an ill-informed fantasy for decades, and it's time we truly live up to the "Every Marine a rifleman" ideal. Frankly, the two-weeks of combat training every non-infantry Marine gets at MCT should have been expanded a long time ago and there's no time like the present. We are already re-evaluating combat training for the WISRR program and may as well look at the possibility of at least doubling the time spent at MCT. Additionally, the disruption to the training pipeline that this will cause will be easier to accomplish once the Marine Corps has finished contracting somewhere around 2017. Critical enablers that the MEU possesses can be better utilized if each Marine unit is more capable of operating independently on the ground with only joint or allied forces.
It is doubtful that future wars will resemble OEF and OIF, but there’s very little indication that those future wars will resemble conventional, Desert Shield/Desert Storm-esque operations. Fortunately, Yemen and Operation Odyssey Dawn off the coast of Libya are showing us the outlines of how U.S. military force will be used in the future. The Marine Corps only needs to better align on those requirements to remain relevant.