The Future of Marine Corps Amphibious Operations and Expeditionary Forces
SGT Jason D. Grose
March 10, 1997
With the death gasp of the Cold War earlier this decade, everything
changed. No longer does the United States have an “evil empire” to defend
against. The break up of the Soviet Union marks a true turning point for
how we as Americans prepare for and engage in war. With this monumental
change comes our own revolution and renovation of mission structure to
fill the gap left by the old superpower vs. superpower environment. Because
change spurns more change, the old weapon systems and technologies are
no longer able to support the new missions. As a result, a new generation
of hardware is necessary to accomplish what Marines have always done: accomplish
any given mission. The Marine Corps was not totally taken aback by the
changes because the very nature of the Marines is a force in readiness.
Regardless, some change was due and true to its history, the Marine Corps’
latest changes started at the top.
The current Commandant, General Charles C. Krulak, is considered by friend and foe alike as a forward-looking visionary. On the day he took office, he introduced The 31st Commandant’s Planning Guidance which describes what he sees as the future of the Marine Corps. Within this document, General Krulak describes what needs to change and how those changes should be developed. Basically, he came up with Sea Dragon which is a series of advanced-concepts experiments conducted in his newly formed Commandant’s Warfighting Laboratory (Damren, 30). Although General Krulak is looking at the future battlefields and the Marines that will have to fight on them in the 21st century, many stumbling blocks lie ahead. In an organization built on tradition, the overhaul of formerly successful strategies and tactics does not sit well with many warriors. Additionally, budget constraints hamper funds being diverted to future technologies when current systems are in such great need of attention. The shortsightedness of this situation is not lost on the Commandant.
General Krulak’s vision, in his own words, is “...the lance corporal ... is going to have technology applied to him as a warrior. That he is going to have operational concepts that take advantage of technology, take advantage of new training and education that is equipping him. [It’s all about] equipping the warrior versus having the lance corporal man the equipment” (Lawson, 13). Armed with this vision, the Marine Corps must evolve with its surroundings.
What do we do now that we no longer have an arch enemy? Following the trend set after both World Wars, the political answer is scale down the military now that it is no longer in such high demand. We can all now hold hands and revel in the New World Order, right? Wrong. There are still missions to cover, different missions, but nevertheless, important missions.
It does not take a political analyst to see that the break-up of one of the largest countries ever known to mankind results in many smaller, disorganized, and hostile offshoots whose borders are on a first-come first-kill basis. Examples of such splinter countries that might eventually become hallowed names within the Marine Corps include Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Armenia.
Consider the point of view of such small countries that see the demilitarization of one superpower and the scale down of the other. For these countries that have been waiting for years under the fear of massive military retaliation if they step out of line, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the softening of the United States affords them an opportunity a generation in the making.
A good example is a little desert get-together called the Gulf War. This local conflict with international repercussions erupted in 1990, causing the American war machine to kick into high gear. Here we see into the crystal ball of our military future. No longer can we prepare solely for large scale, sweeping world wars reminiscent of WWII. From here until further notice, we have to prepare for the smaller engagements. These engagements, as I will call them, need not even be traditional “gloves off” diplomacy. They include escalation control, security and humanitarian missions, and United Nations sponsored engagements. These are the types of missions we will see in the future.
One central theme to all of these types of missions is time. The speed at which a force can interdict in a situation defines the power it will posses within that situation. This universal combination, speed with power, makes the Marine Corps’ MAGTF organization specially suited for all of these missions. It just so happens the world affairs caught up with the way we do things. With a little tweaking to its concept, the Marine Corps can cope with the new global environment.
The Marines’ secret is the forward deployment concept adopted by the Marine Corps. Because the MAGTF structure provides versatility and reliability in such a small package, Marines in such a formation can provide a powerful punch, or the threat of one, within a small time frame. By having Marine units deployed on ships and on overseas bases near hot spots all around the world, small conflicts can be taken care of while they are still small, potential conflicts can be cut off through the presence of American power, and large conflicts can be contained until more power can be applied from bases or ships further away. The Marines can provide all of these missions but the best fight is the one they never have to actually engage in. If they can either scare the enemy into submission or stunt aggression when it is forming, the reward is success with minimal human cost on both sides. And this is not limited to one engagement at a time. Just because a major conflict is happening in one place in the world does not mean that evolving conflicts elsewhere do not need attention. If ignored, these neglected conflicts would escalate requiring more Marines than if it was nipped in the bud.
Take for example the Gulf War. While 97,000 Marines were deployed to the Middle East, the Marines also provided the mainstay in crisis response in Liberia, Mogadishu, Bangladesh, Northern Iraq, and the Philippines (Linn, 17). Most of these missions were examples of humanitarian relief. When a typhoon hit Bangladesh, the Marines were called in to help the survivors and clean up the dead. When a volcano erupted in the Philippines, the Marines were called in to evacuate Americans stationed there. When the Kurdish people were forced into the mountains of Northern Iraq, Marines were called in to help them survive. And when chaos ruled in Somalia resulting in violence and disarray, Marines were called in to restore peace so that relief supplies could be brought in.
Why were Marines picked in these examples? It comes back to the facts that they are always present, can react quickly, and are flexible to carry out any mission given to them. This is why they were called upon and it is why they will be continued to be called upon in the future. Ever since the colonial days, America has known that when the Marines land, the situation is well in hand.
Non-combative roles aside, the original concept of a Marine Corps as the premier fighting force in the world is still the Corps’ main mission. To keep the sword sharp, new technologies must be introduced. You can’t fight a tank with a horse. Ask Poland. But you also can’t expect the missions to change without changing the hardware needed to successfully accomplish them. Two things happened recently that sent the Marine Corps in a tailspin when it came to the equipment they use. As mentioned above, the demise of the Cold War changed the rules about warfighting. With new rules comes the need for new toys to bring to the fight. Second, the useful life of some of the Marine Corps’ tried-and-true systems went from glaringly outdated to galactically outdated. By combining these two events you get a real need to update the Marine Corps arsenal and ironically, at a time when defense dollars earmarked for the Marine Corps are about as common as ice cream parlors in Hell. But there are a few systems that the Marine Corps sees as the future warrior’s tools of trade.
The old Vietnam-era CH46 helicopters have been the medium-lift workhorse for the Marine Corps for over five decades. But after numerous conflicts and countless training cycles, the old horse is ready for the glue factory. The Marine Corps is hoping that the V22 Osprey is the young buck to take its place.
The Osprey, a vertical takeoff turboprop that can also fly as a normal fixed-wing aircraft, is intended to move Marines faster and farther than conventional helos. With a top speed of 460 kph and a range of 1000 km (3900 km ferry range), it can carry 24 troops or three tons of cargo and even handle external loads. Because the Osprey can be deployed world-wide on short notice, the Marine Corps ordered approximately 900 of these versatile aircraft for transport and rescue missions.
But the Osprey is not without its problems. With a price tag more than twice the cost of current helos, the need for the Osprey in a time of serious budget cuts is in serious question by the current money conscience bureaucracy. So why the gamble? Because along with its problems, the V22 fits the bill when it comes to vertical envelopment, a mission formerly held by the CH-46. With its long range and quick speed, the Osprey can perform Over The Horizon (OTH) operations, meaning that it can come in fast and hard which limits the forewarning and therefore the defensive reactions of an enemy.
The Marine Corps should have already had these birds but with setbacks in the 1980’s involving two prototype crashes, the Secretary of Defense canceled the entire order in 1989. The Clinton administration revived the program but procurement is slow and General Krulak is worried that the planned procurement rate will interfere with the next big-ticket item, the Joint Strike Fighter (Clancy, 148).
If it lives up to its reputation, the Osprey will provide Marines with the medium-lift capability together with speed and long range. These factors fit neatly within the new missions involving small, limited engagements in far-off lands. With its shipboard capability, the Osprey can be used by the forward deployed units enabling quick response time during a crisis. The Osprey will help Marines succeed in war but will not eliminate future conflicts completely. Another technological development, nonlethal weapons, is viewed by some as a promising way to humanitize the battlefield.
War is ugly. You try to dress it up and even try to romanticize it, but the fact remains that the one thing that has not changed over the evolution of man, much less in modern times, is the ugliness of war. Some people think that with advanced technology comes increased civilization. They map these two concepts together until the public actually believes that even war can be sanitized and that messy engagements are a thing of the past. With the introduction of nonlethal weapons, the public sees a promise of just such a scenario. Draft DOD directive of June 26, 1995, states that nonlethal weapons such as sticky foam, anti-traction agents, and pepper spray are “explicitly designed and employed so as to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimizing fatalities and undesired damage to property and the environment” (Stanton, 59). But are these the weapons of a future Marine Corps?
For domestic riots and other low-intensity conflicts, these weapons could have a purpose. But a battlefield where lethal weapons are being used introduces a very different set of circumstances. First, using nonlethal weapons does not obligate your enemy to use them. Second, leaving an enemy soldier incapacitated for a short time, say in sticky goo, does not take him out of the war. He will return to fight again and next time might not be stopped. The alternative to him getting away alive is to leave him to dehydrate, starve, or lie as vulnerable prey to any indigenous beast ready for a free meal. Third, as Lieutenant Colonel Stanton points out, the boomerang effect of having our own technology used against us is a real concern (Stanton, 60). It does not seem that any enemy the Marines might fight soon would stop at nonlethal incapacitation. More likely substances such as the sticky goo or the super lubricants would turn into a non-mobility weapon combined with an NBC attack.
The bottom line remains that war is dirty. It will always be dirty. To expect two sides to agree to nonlethal weapons is preposterous. If they could agree to something so civil, they probably would not be fighting in the first place. The interest in non lethal weapons is a knee-jerk reaction to make the public more comfortable with what Marines do. The time, effort, and money used on such research could be better used on more practical weapon systems for the future battlefield.
So what is the overall future of the Marine Corps? According to General Krulak, it is to increase training for the dwindling numbers of Marines allowed to serve and let technology pick up the slack so that one future Marine can do the work of ten “Old Corps” Marines. On the mission level, the Marine Corps is looking at smaller engagements from more technologically primitive enemies whose technology gap is dwindling every year. The Corps will also see more non-combative roles such as humanitarian relief for the simple reason that Marines have proven themselves experts through experience and their MAGTF organization is configured to accomplish such missions effectively.
The tools we use to accomplish the above missions will also change. With the Commandant’s Warfighting Lab and the paltry government dollars allotted to the Marine Corps, the Marines will decide for themselves what they need. What they can’t make or afford themselves, they will borrow from the other services. With the Osprey as but one example, replacing outdated equipment will be of the highest priority. Hopefully, the innovators in Quantico will not be led down the wrong path and invest precious resources into politically-driven technologies such as non-lethal weapons.
The above assessment might appear to paint a precarious situation. Aspects such as low budget numbers, outdated equipment, shoestring inventions, evolving missions, and high commitment expectations with decreasing force strength all might seem overwhelming. But consider that just such a situation existed earlier in this century and out of the ashes came a series of amphibious victories that crushed the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. It is truly amazing what a few Marines can accomplish despite the odds against them.
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