Today, I sat in on a discussion about the Marine Corps' future and how to define that role. (Disclaimer: I had exactly zero role in that discussion, but the thoughts represented here are my own as spurred by the topics they discussed. I'm not representing anyone else's views here).
While Marines feel that the Marine Corps is relevant, I don't believe there is agreement on how to define that relevancy. A lot of the debate revolves around buzz phrases and what those buzz phrases really mean: middleweight force, expeditionary force in readiness, nation's 911 force, forward deployed crisis response, amphibiosity/expeditionary, applicable across the ROMO (range of military operations), working in a ROMO sweet spot of crisis response, interoperability (with special operations, with coalition partners), etc. I think that there is a sense that we need to fit the Marine Corps back into a box, and that box is defined roughly by amphibious lift capacity in terms of weight, cube, etc. This box will also be defined by what the Corps sees as its relevant role in what it can deliver to the nation in the way of capability. I have what is likely a contrarian view of this.
I'm reading a book called Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters by Richard Rumelt. I'm just getting started on it, but the first example in the first chapter is Steve Jobs' paring down of Apple when it was on the verge of disaster. Rummelt summarizes, "He shrank Apple to a scale and scope suitable to the reality of its being a niche producer ... He cut Apple back to a core that could survive." This is precisely what the Marine Corps should be looking to do today. Before the budget cuts force our hand, we should pare back to a core that will survive. Not only is this a good survival strategy, but it will focus and improve the institution as well.
First, the Corps must define the niche that it intends to fill in a competitive market. That niche is primarily defined by its amphibious nature, but it is also defined by highly mobile, lightweight infantry forces, task-organized (MAGTF) and scalable to conduct independent operations (to a defined upper limit), utilizing combined arms and robust command and control capabilities to "punch above its weight", and capable of expeditionary operations in both littoral and inland areas (through use of strategic maneuver). The Marine Corps is prepared to operate independently to the extent that it is forward deployed and prepared to conduct crisis response (i.e. a MEU and nothing larger). This statement requires some work, but this should be what the Marine Corps does, period. Strip away everything that does not contribute to this niche and either trash it or hand it off to other services.
Why do we need to strip everything else off? Foremost among the reasons is that readiness is costly. If we are to be our nation's force in readiness, we will soon find ourselves making trade-offs between equipment procurement and organizational costs on one hand, and training and equipment maintenance costs on the other. Within the personnel and equipment readiness costs there will be competition, as well. If we are bigger than our market share merits, we are going to be using resources to pump blood through vestigial limbs we don't need, meanwhile atrophying the limbs we do need.
In stripping things off, we need to limit ourselves to our core missions and to a defined upper limit of independent operations. As an example of stripping off capabilities outside of our core missions, I would argue strongly that we do not need a Marine Corps Cyber Command. We are not resourced for that and it is not a core competency. Someone else should be doing that. As for capabilities that range above our ability to operate independently, I think that we should set the MEU as the highest level of truly independent operations. Can anyone truly envision a MEB-sized operation in which we would not have joint support? If the answer is no, and I think it must be no, then we should plan to leverage joint assets for support in MEB-sized operations and above and shed all duplicated capacity back to our sister services.
I am most knowledgable about aviation capabilities, so I will use them as an example. I think we clearly must retain all of our rotary-wing (RW) capabilities. On the fixed-wing side, we should keep only that which supports the statement above (expeditionary, combined arms, mobile) independently at the MEU level. Consideration must be given to shedding capacity required for MEB-level ops or above. I believe that our MEU level close air support (CAS) needs could best be filled by a combination of RWCAS and armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The unmanned platforms, with their lighter weight could more easily operate from amphibious shipping than manned CAS platforms. Their precision guided munitions are excellent for CAS. The fact that they are unmanned makes survivability less of an issue in more robust threat environments, within limits. We should limit our manned fixed-wing CAS to land-based platforms that could be flown in for larger operations, and of those only enough to make our combined arms doctrine work at the CAS and limited deep air support levels. In this, we must have some armed utility turboprop airframes so that we are not using our Ferraris to take the trash out (i.e., flying armed overwatch for hours in a permissive threat environment). Beyond defensive requirements, we should rely on Navy and Air Force assets for air-to-air roles. We should no longer participate in carrier based aviation, although we must be ready to work with carrier-based Navy aircraft for MEB-level ops or higher. We also must be ready to work with Air Force assets for our aviation requirements other than CAS. An obvious target for transfer to other services are our EA-6B electronic attack squadrons. This is already treated as a joint asset, so we should make it so in reality. As for the KC-130, these could be much more limited in number if we gave away more of our jets requiring refueling. As for the assault support role of the KC-130, this has significant utility for our expeditionary operations, so some could probably be retained, but more mundane missions should be shifted to the Air Force so these airframes could be reduced.
This is a cursory treatment, but provides some indication of a possible way ahead that would be far less costly and would best preserve our core missions, our niche. We would have to scrub our entire force for such savings. I would liken it to a multi-use tool that can be used in certain scenarios, but has to be folded into the larger joint force without significant duplication of capabilities for operations above the MEU level. Some may say that this is gutting the Corps and would ultimately kill it, but I disagree. I think this is the best way to save it and prove its utility. People never would have gone to Apple for printers, so Jobs killed their peripherals. Likewise, the Marine Corps should not hang on to capabilities that others can do better and it must plan to rely on those capabilities for any scenario that requires more force (and thus more time and deliberate preparation for other forces to flow in) than a MEU. This is the case for our tactical level units, as well as our headquarters and supporting elements. We must get rid of duplicated capabilities and commands.
A few more thoughts. As we try to figure out how to get our stuff to fit back into the amphibious box, we must consider the balance between risk to the individual and weight of vehicles. While it sounds callous, we are much more willing to accept risk to the individual when a conflict is of greater core interest to the nation. We should use that in planning for future operations. All the armor in the world won't help us if we can't get the vehicles to the fight.
And the final thought, in other discussions, someone brought up the fact that our force generation processes have shifted completely to making forces available with no consideration of costs. We have no "battle rhythm" to enforce cost considerations and spending discipline when we are staffing our requirements. I am not enough in the know on these processes to know if that is true, but I do know of many instances where people are fighting over who pays and how much it will cost at the last minute because it was not discussed up front. This is another dysfunction that years of easy OCO money have emplaced in our system and that will need to be worked out.