The View From Olympus: Did the Marine Corps Just Commit Suicide?

The new Marine Corps Commandant, General David H. Berger, recently announced a series of major changes in the Marine Corps’ mission and structure.  When General Berger released his Commandant’s Guidance last summer, I supported it strongly. But the actions he just announced are so mis-directed that I fear they may add up to the suicide of the Marine Corps.

According to the Commandant’s letter announcing the Corps’ redirection,

The Marine Corps is redesigning the force for naval expeditionary warfare in actively contested spaces, fully aligning the Service with the direction of the National Defense Strategy (NDS). . .

Some of the key changes that will shape the future force include:

  • Expansion of long-range fires.  A 300% increase in rocket artillery.
  • Marine Littoral Regiment.  These purpose-built naval combined arms units will be capable of long-range precision-fires and equipped with anti-ship missiles.
  • Lighter, more mobile and versatile infantry.
  • Ground combat units to focus on naval missions.
  • Aviation units re-scoped for naval missions.
  • Investments in unmanned systems.
  • New capabilities for maritime mobility and resilience.
  • Air defense improvements.

The Marine Corps subsequently identified the cuts it will make to existing force structure to free resources for the new programs.  These will include all tanks, sixteen of twenty-one tube artillery batteries, three infantry battalions, some F-35s, and significant numbers of helicopters.  Total personnel strength will drop by 12,000.

Most of the critical response thus far has focused on the cuts to force structure.  On the whole, I do not see them as too problematic, although I would keep three tank companies and all existing infantry battalions.  Some of what General Berger is calling for is good, including making infantry lighter and more mobile (assuming that includes becoming true light rather than line infantry) and moving toward more, smaller amphibious ships, some based on commercial designs.

Unfortunately, the mistakes here cut far deeper than fewer or more units of this or that.  The proposed changes include three strategic errors, at least two of which are sufficient alone to put the Marine Corps’ continued existence in peril.  They are:

  • Re-aligning the Corps to the NDS, which is to say focusing on war with China.  We are not going to fight a war with China, because China is a nuclear power. Nuclear powers do not fight each other conventionally because the risk of escalation to nuclear war is too great.  The whole NDS is a work of fiction, designed to justify patterns and levels of defense spending that flow out of the Cold War or in some cases (especially the Navy) World War II (a cynic might say all our services have become clubs for World War II reenactors).  Worse still, General Berger’s changes build a fiction inside a fiction, namely that when we fight China the Marine Corps’ mission will be taking Chinese-held islands, presumably in the South China Sea. In the war with Japan, Marines took Japanese-held islands to create a chain leading to air bases that put us in bombing range of Japan.  The islands now held by China, except Hainan, have no strategic significance. In World War II, we bypassed such islands (thereby undermining Japan’s strategy). Even Hainan is significant only as the base for the South China fleet. Fleets are mobile. If we took Hainan, it would simply sail north. What all this adds up to is re-configuring the Marine Corps for a campaign that makes no sense in a war that will not happen.  That great blunder puts the Corp’s existence in peril.
  • So does a second blunder: focusing on “hi-tech” war built around long-range fires.  The Marine Corps survived the 20th century because it offered capabilities the other services did not.  The U.S. military already has a vast surplus of long-range fires, courtesy of the Navy and the Air Force.  Now, with these changes, the Corps will define its capability as adding a pea-shooter to a broadside of 16-inch guns.  Even if we take our fictitious scenario as real, the Chinese would not even notice the Marine Corps was involved. Becoming like the other services, a strategic blunder the Marine Corp began making in the mid-1990s and will now carry forward aggressively, means we won’t need a Marine Corps any more, except perhaps a battalion of embassy guards.
  • A third strategic blunder will probably not be noticed outside the Marine Corps but it will nonetheless reduce the value of what the Corps offers the nation.  While the Commandant references maneuver warfare with regard to dispersing amphibious forces, a move that has merit, focusing on trading long-range fires with any opponent marks a return to a firepower/attrition understanding of war.  In effect, it says future war will be a contest between trebuchets flinging pianos at each other. If we look around the world, that is not where war is going. In almost every case, state armed services that have vast superiority in long-range fires over their Fourth Generation opponents are losing, including us in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Doctrinally, the Commandant’s vision faces backwards.

There is an obvious alternative that solves all three problems: return to the vision the Commandant first laid out in his Commandant’s guidance and focus on making maneuver warfare something the Marine Corps actually does instead of just writes about, including the changes in education, training, and personnel policies he identified.  Then, let the other services make the blunder of re-shaping themselves to accord with the fictional NDS and go instead where war is going, to become the nation’s force of choice for Fourth Generation war overseas. Just as the other services neglected amphibious warfare during the 1920s and ‘30s and the Marine Corps of that time created a unique capability the country ended up needing, so it can do the same now with 4GW.  It need not follow the other lemmings over a cliff.

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