Oh boy it’s time to talk about the Wet Soldiers.
That’s right folks, as we return to the “What Should it Look Like?” series, it’s time to take aim at everyone’s favorite maritime themed crayon munchers: the United States Marine Corps.
To make sense of the Marines as an institution, you firs have to understand that the modern-day Marine Corp is an inherently political institution in every sense of the term – be it domestically, internationally, and inter-service wise. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they served as foot soldiers for American imperialism in Asia and Latin America, famously described by revered and controversial Marine Major General Smedley Butler as “racketeers for capitalism” as they trampled on the sovereignty of numerous nations and people for American business interests. Pearl Harbor would give the Marines a chance to put that imperialist gangster phase behind them, and after gaining their modern-day image storming beaches and hopping islands in World War II, they mustered a political lobbying machine in Congress (rivaled maybe only by the National Guard) in order to preserve themselves when faced with assimilation into the Army.
This fear of being made irrelevant or being disbanded has been at the core of the Corps’ psyche ever since, with the Marines going so far to ensure their role in national defense going forward, that they successfully utilized that lobbying machine I mentioned previously to convince Congress to codify the Marine Corps’ force structure in law (specifically Title 10 U.S. Code, Section 8063). Politics and defense are very clearly entwined (regardless of what some naïve or lying folks will tell you), but the Marines have made politics in this realm a way of life throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The modern-day Marine Corps and its force structure, missions, and way of doing business is born mostly out of politics more than true, practical needs (though those do exist and we will talk about them soon enough).
But now, after years of such political maneuvering, the Marines are suffering from an internal political war of their own making, pitting the old guard and their boosters against a new generation of Marine thinkers.
This Marine Corps Civil War has been sparked by the current Commandant of the Marines Corps – General David H. Berger – and his plan to restructure and retool the Marines Corps for the war that he thinks its most likely to fight in the future, entitled Force Design 2030 (which is being continuously updated as the Marines Corps throws the proverbial spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks). The design encompasses some of the most drastic changes to the Marines in decades, shedding what Berger considers unnecessary or obsolete units and systems for ones more likely to assist the Marines in the type of fight that he sees potentially looming on the horizon – chiefly, a large-scale war with China in the Western Pacific that is largely dominated by the air and maritime domains and utilizes a host of burgeoning military capabilities). This had includes cuts to infantry, tube artillery, aviation, with things like the Marines few tank battalions being completely disbanded. Meanwhile, new units like drone squadrons and missile battalions are being added.
Bergers moves immediately sparked outrage from Marine traditionalists. The main shock troops of this old guard in the Marine Corps Civil War have been dozens of retired Generals and other Marine Corps boosters who have unleashed their heavy artillery in the form of a ongoing barrage of numerous op-eds screeching that the Marines need to stick to the old ways. In their eyes, Berger is going against the cult of the Marine Corps, not only challenging the narrative they’ve built up for themselves but ceding hard won missions used to justify the resources they consume and the capabilities and forces they have amassed over the years. Of course, they don’t couch it like that. Instead, these Marine relics – who are now so salty they may as well have been Lot’s Wife looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah – are squealing that proposed FD 2030 jeopardizes US national security and interests by overly narrowing the Marine Corp’s role. They also seem to like to use Ukraine as a reason for the Marines to reverse course on FD 2030 – while sidestepping the fact that, you know, the United States Army is still a thing.
Berger’s own boosters have returned fire, and in this ongoing Civil War I largely side with them – with some caveats. My main disagreement with FD 2030, frankly, is while I think it’s on the right track, I don’t think it goes quite far enough. I think the Marines need to be even smaller and more focused on a specific mission set than Berger has laid out (hell, maybe he wants to go as far as I do but just knows in the current political environment that it’d be suicide for him). I think they need to shed a more of the excess they’ve grown out of politicking all these years if they are going to be most effective for the type of scenario we’re thinking of. That being said, I’m going to rely on FD 2030 as the basis for my vision for the Marines in this series and point out the aspects I would go further on and do differently to better suit my purposes.
Now that this very lengthy intro is over with, let’s begin!
Splish, Splash, Taking a Bath
When the Marines were originally founded, around the time of the American Revolution, their purpose was simple and limited: to act as naval infantry – i.e., fighting much as soldiers would on land, only doing it in ship-to-ship combat at sea, or conducting landing operations from the sea. These would continue to be the Marines chief functions – with some small deviations – up to and through World War II, where it arguably reached its apex with the Marines large scale amphibious landings throughout the Pacific Theater against the Empire of Japan. A last hurrah for this kind of battle came for the Marines not long after in Korea, with the much-touted landings against North Korea at Inchon.
Now, the modern-day field of military and defense affairs is positively riddled with debates, arguments, and knock-down drag-out rhetorical fights over what is and is not relevant in a contemporary conflict in terms of capabilities, tactics, operational art, and more. One such debate is whether the amphibious assault – which has become part in parcel part of the Marine Corp’s modern identity, especially in the Pacific – is in fact, obsolete and no longer useful.
Where do I fall on this question? As usual, I have a wishy-washy cop-out “measured, analytical” response that doesn’t grab the same attention as clickbait on defense news websites. Much like with the airborne assault (as I talked about in the Army essay for this series), my view is that the amphibious assault is, not fact, obsolete. It will, however, need to become a much smaller, rarer, more niche affair if it is to retain utility and not be a disaster for all those involved. The days of massive set-piece amphibious assaults like we saw on D-Day at Normandy or throughout the Pacific Theater in World War II are firmly in the rear-view mirror when it comes to tactics and operational art (and arguably, they’ve already been there for decades now). A notable exception here may be if China ever feels compelled to resort to a combined amphibious and airborne assault across the Taiwan Strait in order to conquer Taiwan by force, but that comes with a lot of caveats and asterisks and is a topic for another day that I could on for ages about.
For the most part, amphibious operations of the future – while still present – will be much smaller out of both the necessity of not getting your shit rocked undertaking them, but also because of the changing nature of the missions for the force undertaking them. Future amphibious assaults in a contested environment fighting against a peer or near-peer adversary may be smaller scale affairs that are focused on securing key pieces of maritime terrain in order to position weapons and (arguably, more importantly) sensors to assist in sea control, air and missile defense, and other key activities in the maritime domain. In some cases, these amphibious assaults may not even be opposed, but working to seize unoccupied terrain to position forces before the enemy can act. In many ways, it’d be a return to form for the Marines, focusing on smaller scale landings rather than big Inchon style forcible entry operations.
As we talk about amphibious assault being a much smaller affair, the big elephant in the room here are the Navy’s large flat-deck amphibious assault ships – much as aircraft carriers were in my Navy piece (especially seeing that these larger amphibs are basically smaller aircraft carriers). Under such a vision of distributed, smaller scale amphibious operations, these amphibs are overkill in the best case and in the worst case are actually a liability. Much like with aircraft carriers, driving one of these into the kind of contested environment amphibious operations from now on will almost always take place in is a massive risk, leaving it open to long-range anti-ship missiles of various kinds. This is why the Marines Corps has been exploring the idea of Light Amphibious Warships (LAWs), which would carry smaller units of Marines (think platoons and companies rather than battalions) to conduct lower key distributed operations in a heavily contested environment (If you think this sounds reasonable and not a bad idea, it probably should also not surprise you that the LAWs funding has been hampered as part of one battle in the ongoing Marine Corps Civil War).
These LAWs are purportedly not intended to replace larger amphibs, but I say: why not? Like I mentioned with carriers, if you cut most or all of the largest amphibs, you dropping the need for thousands of personnel. One Wasp-class amphibious assault ship has around 1,000 officers and crew aboard, and the Navy currently has nine ships of this size for the Marines’ use. And when you cut one of them, you’re not just freeing up billets, but then there’s follow-on effects regarding the infrastructure you need in the shore establishment to help maintain them. This is to say nothing of all the aircraft aboard that you no longer need all the support infrastructure for throughout the rest of the Corps.
To prove I’m flexible in my thinking, I’ll say I’m at least open to the idea of maybe keeping two or three of these larger ships around for various purposes. Maybe the Marines hang onto some of this larger amphibs in order to act as motherships or control ships for fleets of smaller LAWs. They could focus on acting as mobile bases for the rotary wing aircraft that will support marines ashore (more on that later) rather than delivering the Marines themselves. Hell, if the Navy followed through on my idea for cutting carriers, maybe they could repurpose and put some of them to use as pure light-aircraft carriers rather than as amphibious assault ships (something that they’ve already been playing around with in various configurations). Point is, even if you hang onto a few for various purposes, you don’t need as many of these larger amphibs, and they shouldn’t be doing the original job they were intended to do if you do keep them. Like I talked about with warships in general: while bigger ones still have a place, more and smaller ones will be necessary to fight and win with how naval warfare is changing going into the 21st century.
“If God Had Wanted Marines to Fly, Mr. Wint – ”
Since we’ve talked about cutting a lot of these larger amphibs and seeing that they’re often acting as de-facto aircraft carriers, we can also talk about the Marines Corps and its air forces in general. Not only are the Marines themselves larger than many armed forces on the planet, but they also have a larger air force than many other countries on the planet – including fixed and rotary wing combat aircraft, tankers, transports and more.
Now, I’m not opposed to the Marines having any aircraft whatsoever. In some cases, I think it’s necessary for them to have them. For example: I think it’s necessary for Marine infantry forces to have rotary wing attack and transport helicopters just as its necessary for an Army brigade combat team to have them (though we may need to think of some new ways to get them to the combat zone if large deck amphibs are a bigger target and we may want to cut a lot of them). These would be useful not only for ferrying troops and supplies from ship to shore, but also in between different terrain features – in addition to providing fire support. I probably wouldn’t cut Marine rotary wing much more beyond what Berger already wants to do in FD 2030.
However, while I still think the Marines should have aircraft, I also still think that there’s no good reason for the Marines to have a lot of their aircraft. Outside of politics, it doesn’t make sense to me is why the Marines have its large, fixed wing aircraft fleet. One clear example of this is their fighter squadrons that nest within Navy air wings aboard carriers, which do nothing that Navy carrier squadrons can’t already do (and under my previous plan, there won’t be a need for as many of them anyway). For its remaining combat aircraft that are not necessarily attached at the hip to carriers, which serve mainly to support Marines on the ground, there’s no mission they can perform that can’t already be performed by Air Force and Navy combat aircraft.
The one truly unique capability a chunk of Marine fixed-wing aviation has is its Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft, like the older AV-8B Harrier and the newer (infamous) F-35B Lightning II replacing it. Aircraft like these may have once had a stronger argument for their utility (and may still have some more limited use), but with the way things are going that may not be the case much longer. For the contested conflict the Marines are preparing for, where they’re hopping between islands and other landmasses, it seems at first a STOVL aircraft would be well suited to it. Then you realize that the F-35B can’t really do STOVL operations without a paved runway or amphib deck. Then you realize just how few small islands have paved runways (or runways at all). Then you realize that many of the small islands the Marines may be looking at for expeditionary basing could be too small to host a large enough runway for F-35B operations. Then you realize a long runway could make that island a target. The case for utility rapidly starts to diminish the harder that you look (don’t tell the Marines that though).
There are some aircraft that I think the Marines should get more of that they don’t currently have and this may surprise some of you: uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs – i.e. “drones”).
I have built a reputation on being a drone skeptic – and I stand by this reputation and will continue to uphold it. But for what the Marines are trying to do – which again, I (mostly) agree with and think dovetails nicely with my overall plan. The Marines having more drones makes sense if in their role as naval infantry they are often going to be acting as eyes and ears and occasional shooters supporting the maritime domain. For those missions, having a higher proportion of drones compared to the other services makes sense. It makes sense to have drones that could be deployed and recovered without a runway in disparate locations, acting as the eyes and ears for the Marines – who are in turn acting as the eyes and ears for the Joint Force. Where necessary and applicable, they could play a combat role as well – especially when you think about loitering munitions (i.e. one-way lethal “suicide” drones) and their potential in defeating enemy landing forces or forces lingering offshore. Drones could also have an offensive role to play that doesn’t even involve firing a shot, when you consider the idea of drones acting as mobile electronic-warfare platforms that could jam enemy communications and make it harder for them to operate in a given area. The bottom line is that drones have a lot to offer as force multipliers to this specific vision for the Marines.
The Marines absolutely have a need for aircraft, but they need the right aircraft to perform the types of missions that they specifically should be doing going forward – not just whatever aircraft they want because they can get them. This may not mean buying the most sexy, exquisite, gold-plated platforms that are available, but buying a lot less exciting systems and ones that are a lot more useful and punch above their weight when put in the Marines’ hands in the right context. I would cut most if not all of the Marines fixed wing – either transferring them to the Navy or to the Air Force, or just scrapping what isn’t needed (which, as explained earlier, will have rippling effects in then cutting the support and logistics network needed to sustain these aircraft). I’d have them keep a good portion of their helicopters and then buy a wide variety of drones that would be most effective in the types of contested, distributed, austere operations that they’re likely to face. This isn’t a judgement on the cut aircraft in general (and I’ll get more into this with the Air Force), but more about specifically works best for the Marines.
“That Dictator Right There, Officer.”
The last thing I want to talk about before we wrap up is the one role that the Marines and their boosters constantly tout for themselves that is not inherently unique or exclusively maritime themed. That, of course, is their role as America’s “Force in Readiness” – often referred to unironically as “America’s 911” – one of those phrases that makes my eyes roll back into my head until you can’t see the pupils. This is yet another political machination of the Marines and one that is more a creature of the modern, post-World War II Marine Corps. In a cynical way, it could be seen as a kind of return to form to the “racketeer for capitalism” interventions that Smedley Butler described many years prior, only undertaken under the context of the Cold War and later the GLobal War on Terror and various other justifications. Obviously, not every time the Marines have been used in this fashion has been strictly “bad” – such as humanitarian intervention. But this “911” role is certainly often viewed through rose colored.
However, the imperialism angle isn’t the one I really want to hone in one here, as we’re talking about a hypothetical better future where we’re trying to use military force in a less imperialistic way to show solidarity with victims of aggression. I wanted to take some time to talk about the “America’s 911” image of the Marines because this role is a major justification by the Marines for why they should keep all the force structure and capabilities that I’ve mentioned that I think are superfluous and wanted to cut (and more) – such as having its own air force, having a fleet of large deck amphibs, having as many Marines as it currently does (especially when you look at the relative size of Marine forces for other countries’ militaries), and etc.
Now, much like with the Marines and aircraft, it’s not necessarily that I think the Marines should have no role to play in being a rapid reaction force under the types of scenarios and overall grand strategy we’re thinking of. I think they should still be an integral part – both in the type of way that FD 2030 is imagining, but also just in general as a light infantry force where needed (I don’t think the Marines should lose their ability to fight just as regular infantry, only that they don’t need to be a dedicated second land army for the United States).
With that disclaimer out of the way, my main point I want to bring up here is that this role as “America’s 911” that the Marines have built up for themselves is by no means unique. It is not something special to them that only they are properly trained and equipped to carry out. It is not their birthright. It’s just a role that they’ve somewhat been able to most effectively latch onto in order to justify many of the toys and structure they have.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean that’s still fresh. When nearly 6,000 U.S. troops arrived at Hamid Karzai International Airport just over a year ago to conduct the Kabul Airlift as the country fell to the Taliban, two battalions of Marines and their support troops were admittedly among them. Of course, they were accompanied by an entire brigade from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, along with units from the 10th Mountain Division and even a battalion from the Army National Guard – that outnumbered the Marines significantly. And while some of the Marine units that showed up did so from a nearby amphibious group, a number of them were airlifted in directly from a US land base in Bahrain.
The point I’m trying to make here is the Marines absolutely have a role to play as being part of a broader rapid reaction capability in the Joint Force when crises and conflicts arise. But that this ability to act as a “911” force is not something inherently Marine. It is not something only they can do or should do, and definitely not something that they need the extensive force structure and capabilities they have now in order to do. They are just one part of a broader Joint Force all contributing elements to that response mission.
As for cutting Marine forces somehow affecting this rapid reaction capability, I would just point to the broader points of the grand strategy underpinning this series – a key one being that we would be working to better support allies and partners and allow them to more effectively defend themselves wherever possible and make it, so they only have to ask for our direct support as a last resort. If we are carrying out the grand strategy I’m envisioning holistically, then hopefully they’ll be fewer crises and conflicts overall, meaning we’ll need fewer forces on hand to constantly respond to “911” calls worldwide if and when our help is requested. This really drives home that the choices we make in regards to defense need to be in service of a larger vision and not just disjointed and isolated decisions made based on short-sighted policy prerogatives.
Something Something “Hoo Rah”
I’ve gone on for a long time in this essay, so I’m gonna try and be short and sweet with this conclusion.
I know that people are going to be particularly sore at me for this one – even some folks who are on the Left with me. Something about the Marines stirs up a fire in the bellies of certain people no matter what. It arouses a certain dander when people talk about whittling it down or changing it. I think it’s an enduring sign of how effective their political wrangling and propaganda have been over the decades.
The fact of the matter is, when you cut through those politics and focus in on the traditional purpose of a Marine Corps (modified for the 21st century’s challenges), you can cut out a lot of redundant or outright useless force structure to craft a Marine Corps that is much smaller but more effective in an outsized way in contributing to an overall Joint Force by taking on more specialized roles.
At the end of the day, there’s no need for the Marines Corps to be a second land Army – or, arguably, a second Joint Force within the Joint Force. Most of the roles and capabilities they’ve acquired for themselves have been through political maneuvering and are largely redundant. What results is a Marines Corps that says it can do it all, but really only creates the illusion it can do it all while becoming a mediocre Jack of All Trades, Master of None.
Naval infantry definitely have a place in modern warfare (if that weren’t the case, China wouldn’t be growing theirs exponentially). But you could cut the Marines total end strength by a third and we’d still have the largest Marine Corps in the world by far. Don’t worry Jarheads, you’ll still have a place in war in the future, but you’ll just have to do it differently (and hopefully will be doing it for reasons that are more altruistic and not reverting to your imperialistic past).
That’s it for this one. If you think I’ve been too harsh on the Marines, just wait until I get to special operators – you ain’t seen nothing yet my friends, believe me. In the meantime, our next installment in this series will be on the Air Force. For now, hope you all stay safe out there. Peace.
Photo Credit: United States Marine Corps