Yesterday, a few people alerted me to this Time Battleland blog post, USMC: Under-utilized, Superfluous Military Capability, by retired US Army Colonel Douglas A. Macgregor. There’s not much to say, it’s an example of another Army take on Marine forces that simultaneously misunderstands both the Marine Corps and the Army.
Macgregor starts out with an old mistake: he assumes away an enemy capability. Avoiding this pitfall is one of the first things future military planners are taught at resident schools, like, say, the US Army Command and General Staff college, for example. Macgregor assumes that any enemy will not defend a beach because they will be blown up by US Navy and Air Forces, forgetting perhaps that well after the advent of aircraft and naval surface fires capable opponents could, and did, establish robust shore defenses.
His evidence is a strange list of complaints:
I’m not sure if Macgregor realizes this, but that description applies to all ground forces. An M1A1 Main Battle Tank can take a few standard artillery or mortar rounds. But any advanced anti-armor indirect fire is just as lethal to an Abrams as it is to an infantryman, the tank is just easier to find. Citing susceptibility to indirect fire as the definition of a “soft target” applies equally to any ground force. It’s not called the “King of Battle” for nothing.First, like the Marines ashore, Army airmobile and airborne forces are “soft targets,” extremely vulnerable to long-range air and missile attack, as well as heavy weapons in the form of self-propelled artillery, mortars and auto-cannon.
Macgregor gets a few things right. Namely, that future enemies will shy away from defending beaches and instead focus on counterattacking the beachhead. This is certainly right, but it’s also, contra-Macgregor, exactly what current Marine doctrine expects the enemy to do. We just do not plan on attacking defended beaches anymore, we plan on bypassing them and attacking forces inland before they can counterattack. The Marine Corps figured this out in the 1980’s and has planned accordingly since.
What Macgregor is actually arguing against, poorly, is light infantry; he just uses Marine and Army Airborne forces as marionettes in an attempt to distract the reader from his thesis. This is a mind-boggling argument after eleven years of light infantry combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he does dismiss those wars. It does not change the fact that they were fought and any future war will have a stability operations component. One wonders if Macgregor wishes to take armored divisions into sandbrick hamlets on cordon and knock operations during Phase IV operations since they are apparently the only “hard targets” our ground forces employ. Even in conventional operations, light infantry provides vital reconnaissance and screening functions to heavy armored forces, as per both Army and Marine doctrine.
The article also betrays a profound ignorance of the joint force. All of the so-called weaknesses Macgregor points out are directed at a Marine infantry or Airborne unit alone as if they will never be supported by joint assets.. His statement that “most of today’s Marine force consists of airmobile light infantry” is just factually incorrect. Subjected to Macgregor’s doomsday scenario, any lone combat unit would be hard-pressed to function. Of course, that’s why neither the Marine Corps nor the Army ever employs units as such. A Marine battalion ashore takes with it artillery, armor, and aviation units in direct support and under a single commander. It’s also supported by naval fire support and joint air assets. The use of a variety of forms of combat power is known as combined arms. Check out this U.S. Army Command and General Staff thesis for a good explanation of combined arms. The reality is that while the Marine Corps may be built around light infantry, it never operates with light infantry alone. Macgregor claims that “Marines cannot confront or defeat armored forces or heavy weapons in the hands of capable opponents.” This might be true if Marines didn’t, you know, bring armored forces and heavy weapons of its own as they always do. In wars against capable opponents, such as those Macgregor is focused on, Marine and Airborne forces will not operate independently, but in support of those heavy armored forces that Macgregor fantasizes can gain access and win the war by themselves.
Macgregor’s myopic focus on a conventional war with a peer competitor causes him to ignore the other functions that the US military provides to the nation like humanitarian aid/disaster relief. Marine units afloat are specifically trained to conduct HA/DR on short notice and are normally the first responders on the scene. If hurricanes and earthquakes ever begin to employ ballistic missiles and self-propelled artillery pieces, Macgregor may have a case that a MEU is anachronistic. Until then, the Marine Corps will remain the best placed units to provide aid to disaster victims.
This analysis might pass for compelling in the feverish fantasy of a young child playing with GI Joe figures on his parents’ living room floor, but that’s the only scenario where a commander of troops would employ forces in the simplistic manner Macgregor argues against. Even math is against Macgregor. I’ve cited this before, but combatant commander requests for amphibious forces are perennially unfulfilled. Less than half of these requests can be met with the current force. That’s not the definition of a superfluous capability, but an overstretched one. While it’s true that Macgregor’s Tarawa strawman is unlikely to occur anytime soon, his “future war with real armies, air forces, air defenses, and naval power” will still be fought, in part, by real Marines and real Airborne units. Not by Macgregor’s toys.