As we continue to plunge headlong into shortsighted military unpreparedness driven by a strong case of strategic blindness, fiscal uncertainty and political timidity, it is worth considering the critical role played by the U.S. Marine Corps in protecting and sustaining national interests far from our shores.
In order to do so properly, the Marine Corps must be placed squarely within the rubric of American sea power, the most flexible, ready and present component of U.S. military power. Alongside the other elements of American sea power — the dominant surface and submarine forces, and the world’s most mobile and lethal form of air power (carrier aviation) — the Marines represent a middleweight land force designed to project land power from the sea.
The Marine Corps is not a second land army, although its employment since 2001 has caused it to be viewed like one. Marine leaders have been rightfully vocal about the naval roots of their service in recent years, and it is this aspect of its existence that guarantees the continuing relevance — no, the criticality — of the Marine Corps.
We believe that in light of the drawdown from the land wars of the past decade and in order to implement President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” toward Asia-Pacific, the importance of American sea power in the guise of the Navy-Marine Corps team will only increase. Geography may not be destiny, but it certainly helps define strategy.
The United States is thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean from five treaty partners and a considerable mass of American national interest. The appetite for permanently garrisoned forces in the region seems to be on the wane, even as friends and allies look to the United States for assurance against destabilizing and persistent Chinese actions.
If we hope to remain a Pacific power with the ability to assure friends, deter threats and preserve access to the global commons that tie our economies together, the logic proceeds that we will need to rely more heavily on the Navy-Marine Corps team for sea-based power projection.
It is difficult to think of a future crisis in East Asia that would lack a critical role for the Marine Corps. While the Pacific Theater is maritime in nature, there is a considerable amount of land that retains strategic value, some of which is under the sovereignty of nations with whom we have mutual defense treaties.
A desire to avoid “land wars in Asia” should not blind us to the reality that in order to protect our interests, we may very well have to conduct “land operations” throughout East Asia and Oceania.
For instance, small islands throughout the First Island Chain (the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines archipelago) could become a mechanism for either China or the United States and its allies to contest the local sea by controlling the land. Such operations are the natural purview of a force designed for amphibious employment, and that force is the Marine Corps.
To be prepared, we must take the following actions:
• We must build more ships. Specifically, we must build more amphibious ships.
The Marine Corps has a war-fighting requirement for 38 amphibious ships, while the geographic combatant commanders’ peacetime presence requirement is similar. Neither is met by the nation’s current shipbuilding plan, which provides for about 30 until well into the next decade and eventually 33.
The utility of these ships is apparent, providing for transport and power projection in time of war and crisis, and disaster response capability in peacetime. However, there is at least a $4 billion average annual gap in funding for the Navy’s planned shipbuilding budget in the decades ahead. But filling this gap and resourcing the current shipbuilding plan does not require a large shift in Defense Department resources, according to Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, but instead just 1.1 percent to 1.5 percent more of the department’s current average annual budget.
• The Navy and Marine Corps must become more integrated. Forward-deployed American sea power is poised to provide for a “bubble” of diplomacy, influence and power of a definable range, within which naval forces execute multidomain dominance.
This is not a war-winning force, and it does not operate without critical support from the Joint Force. It is, however, powerful, flexible, mobile and fully integrated, capable of providing continuous conventional deterrence and crisis response to the vast majority of cases in which military power might be called upon.
Command and control stovepipes within the task organizations of the Navy and Marine Corps must be dismantled, with a common command structure implemented that sees the land power of the Marine Corps as one of its several primary tools. With the fielding of the VSTOL variant of the F-35B, Marine tactical aviation must necessarily evolve from its singular focus on ground support to a broader mission in support of the Seapower Task Force.
The Department of the Navy should consider a variant of the littoral combat ship in which a detachment of Marines provides for maritime security missions while Marine attack helicopters neutralize targets at sea and ashore. The bottom line is that the Marine Corps must fully return to its roots and provide this nation with flexible combat power from the sea.
• We must properly size the Marine Corps. Pressures to draw down the force as a result of defense sequestration cuts should not exert undue influence on the size of the Marine Corps, which must be maintained as America’s force in readiness. The nation can and should provide for a Marine Corps at a minimum 180,000 Marines.
While no one can predict the future with clarity, one must make informed choices about future trends in order to manage current resources. Some call this strategy. We see a limited appetite among the American people for the occupation and administration of foreign lands, even as we understand the desire of the American people to remain powerful and influential wherever our interests lie.
The U.S. Marine Corps, operating as a critical component of forward-deployed American sea power, will play an increasingly important role in ensuring Americans that we can and will carry out their expectations.