Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fine, Get There First--But Stay

The Marine Corps is returning to their amphibious role, first embraced before World War II and enshrined by that war in the Pacific and at Inchon in the Korean War:

After spending nine years heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Marine Corps has most of its troops again training for duty at sea and the kind of raiding operations the marines have long specialized in. While some marines will remain in Afghanistan until next year, most are now regaining their seagoing and raiding skills. The marines also believe that there will be more need for short term operations, where getting there fast is more important than staying around for a long time. To that end, the marines and the navy are scheduling a lot of amphibious exercises over the next year, something there has not been a lot of in the last decade.

I can understand why the Marine Corps doesn't want to be thought of as a "second Army" that does what the Army does. With budget difficulties, Congress might wonder why we have a Marine Corps as big as we have (even though it will drop to 23 infantry battalions--8 regimental combat teams, I assume). And the Marines know from a decade of fighting next to Army volunteers that the Army's troops are every bit as skilled as the Marines. The Marines no longer have the edge that their volunteers provided over draftees.

So it is fine that the Marines are relearning amphibious warfare. Like the Army relearning conventional warfare, this is a logical response to the end of large-scale counter-insurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have doubts that we'll need large multi-brigade assaults (maybe on Hainan Island), but company- or battalion-sized amphibious missions are certainly useful in different locations.

Yet I think it is a mistake for Marines to focus on the getting their first mission and assume they just leave after handing off the mission to the Army. One, the Army has lots of units that can get there fast, too, by airlift. Rangers, paratroopers, or airmobile or even Stryker units in battalion or brigade sized units can be airlifted at least as fast as a Marine battalion afloat can reach many places. So banking on being there first might not pay off as a reason to exist.

Second, trying to avoid staying on the ground for long ignores the reality that since 1950, the Marine Corps has been the most significant ground force to fight alongside the Army in our wars. The Army needs the Marine Corps. The Marines will be ordered to fight with the Army if needed regardless of whether the Marines would like that mission.

The Marines would do better to focus on being the bridging force between a rapid response of a battalion-sized task force and a large-scale multi-division campaign. I wrote about this idea before 9/11, and as our COIN campaigns wind down, that strategic environment is returning. Building on their amphibious skills, the Marines could also work to be the assault force that can pierce enemies dug in like an amphibious assault without water, allowing the Army's heavy forces to exploit that hole. And the Marines can use their infantry for city combat, freeing Army heavy forces for mobile warfare. Illustrations supporting this idea were not published but are available here.

The Marine Corps can't save itself from budget cutters by focusing on a niche mission that only it sees as valuable. The Marines surely need to regain competency in amphibious warfare. But they need to be ready to do what the nation needs them to do--even if that means fighting next to the Army in a long conventional or unconventional campaign.

The Marines can't afford to just stay long enough for the meet and greet, and then leave the Army to stay for the entire party and the clean up after.