This post is part of a series that will continue over the course of the next few months. The series will look at the future of the Marine Corps after the end of Operating Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It was inspired by Robert Kosloski’s article in the Naval War College Review, “Marching Towards the Sweet Spot: Options for the Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity,” (Available Here) Mr. Kosloski has also written for this blog. It will include guest posts and posts by Gazette blog authors. This series is being organized by Capt Jonathan Rue, USMCR, who writes at Gunpowder and Lead and the Guardian, and Capt Brett Friedman, USMC, who writes here and at Grand Blog Tarkin.
Even before the Marine Corps began drawing down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) began planning for a post-Afghanistan future. Concerned that a decade of inland ground combat operations left the USMC vulnerable to the charge of being a “second land army,” and thus a redundant and unnecessary Department of Defense asset, HQMC leadership began to seek ways to ensure that such a charge could not stick.
Naturally, the first response was to seek ways of returning to our amphibious roots as the USMC has primary responsibility for amphibious operations as stated in Title 10. Then Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) Gen James Conway released a message to all Marines in Summer 2008 calling on Marines to reestablish their traditional role as fighters from the sea. The current CMC Gen James Amos has continued the emphasis on amphibious operations, most recently penning an article with the Chief of Naval Operations continuing the theme and backing up words with actions like reconstituting the Bold Alligator amphibious exercise series.
But amphibious operations aren’t an end unto itself; it’s simply the vehicle (no pun intended) through which the USMC traditionally deploys assets. The end state for the Marine Corps, and what has always set us apart from the Army and other services, is our higher “proportionate emphasis on rapid mobility.” In Marine speak, this means the Marine Corps is “America’s expeditionary force-in-readiness; in civilian speak, it means being the nation’s 9-1-1 force.
Although many commentators and analysts see this as a new role for the USMC, it’s actually one that the Marine Corps has fulfilled for 15o years. Since the end of the Civil War, the USMC has been the go-to force when U.S. embassies around the world are threatened. Between 1865 and 1900, the Marine Corps participated in over 30 foreign interventions, including expeditions to secure embassies in Korea and Japan, and anti-slavery operations off the coast of Western Africa. This first era of Marine response force missions culminated in the relief of the foreign embassies in Beijing, China during the Boxer Rebellion.
The Navy-Marine Corps team might be the most well-known, but equally as important is the Marine Corps partnership with the U.S. Department of State. Part of being the nation’s 9-1-1 force means rapidly deploying to locations where DoD has no major presence. In such places, it’s a safe bet that State Department Foreign Service Officers are serving alongside Marine Embassy Security Guards. Acting as the State Department’s Army is also not a new mission for the Marine Corps.
Although we suspect this shift back to the future is more a response to stimuli like the attack on the Benghazi consulate and threats to various other embassies than it was a pre-planned strategy on the part of HQMC, the results remain the same. The Marine Corps isexpanding its capability to deploy Embassy guards and there is even a new proto-MAGTF that maximizes responsiveness at the expense of firepower. The concept, tailor made for AFRICOM, has only recently been announced but there is already talk that SOUTHCOM will be the next to get one and PACOM is interested too.
Part of being a 9-1-1 force, however, means a robust forward deployed presence in order to conduct Phase 0 and steady state operations. Deployments will not end with OEF; in fact, they will increase above what was typical for the pre-2001 Marine Corps. In addition to normal MEU commitments, the Marine Corps will have to source units for Australia, the new MAGTF-CR units, and more robust theater security cooperation plans for the combatant commands. HQMC will need to take a look at the end strength requirements needed to sustain the new deployment cycle with an appropriate dwell time and a minimal supporting establishment focused solely on training and education.
Still, in order to seamlessly capitalize on this back to the future moment, the Marine Corps will need to retool training and education of Marine officers and recruits. The officer and NCO corps possesses a totality of combat experience not seen in a generation, but some skills, like amphibious operations, atrophied, while others, working alongside civilians, was developed ad hoc and not institutionalized.
HQMC must refocus training and education on the naval aspects of amphibious operations. Certain aspects, such as the aforementioned Bold Alligator exercise, are necessary, but not sufficient in and of themselves to refocus Marine culture. Marine Corps schools are still largely focused on land warfare. Except for the Expeditionary Warfare School, they are ignoring the naval aspects of amphibious operations. This clashes with the Single Naval Battle concept espoused by the Ellis Group. The naval “blindspot” in the current Marine Corps culture will have to be illuminated as an essential aspect of a renewed focus on amphibious operations.
Meanwhile, a decade of counterinsurgency operations gave Marines an unprecedented level of exposure to working alongside civilians. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines worked alongside and supported civilians from the State Department, US Agency for International Development, the intelligence community, and non-governmental organizations. But such experience wasn’t taught nor institutionalized at the training and education level. HQMC should rethink joint operations to include our civilian partners.
 Eric Chase, “Rethinking Joint,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 2013.