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Opinion: Marines Face Painful Transition in Age of Austerity

Three U.S. Marine Corps CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron One Six Six (HMM-163) provides support during the Air show’s Marine Air-ground Task Force (MAGTF) demonstration in 2005.

Three U.S. Marine Corps CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron One Six Six (HMM-163) provides support during the Air show’s Marine Air-ground Task Force (MAGTF) demonstration in 2005.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Hagel announced some of the possible effects of sequestration on the Department of Defense. Among the possibilities is the prospect of a Marine Corps with a strength of just 150,000 Marines, down from the current 202,000—a cut of more than 25 percent.

This is no doubt a daunting figure for HQMC. While the Corps has always been the smallest branch of service, it has been quite a long time since it was that small. In fact, an end-strength of 150,000 would be well below the pre-11 September 2011 number of about 172,000. If further drawdowns occur, we could see the smallest Marine Corps since the late 1940s—before the Korean War—when the post-World War II drawdown reduced the service to about 80,000 personnel.

Meanwhile, the service has taken on more missions, including the Black Sea Rotational Force, a permanent presence in Darwin, Australia, and new crisis response units.

The intersection of these two trends will force some difficult decisions for HQMC. Pledges to do more with less have become cliché, but that is exactly what the Corps will have to do.

Fortunately, it has options. One option that has been continually discussed is to move toward a more Marine Air-Ground Task Force-centric service.

The Marine Corps typically deploys units as a Marine Air-Ground Task Force that is scalable to the mission assigned. However, those MAGTFs are composed of units drawn from a parallel command structure that consists of battalions, regiments, and divisions.

For example, when an artillery battery is not assigned to a MAGTF, it resides in a parent battalion for training in between Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployments. Once a unit is deployed, the gaining MAGTF is then responsible for training, support, etc. The system works, but it is redundant. In the Summer 2013 issue of the Naval War College Review (see p. 26), Robert Kosloski makes the case to streamline the Marine Corps by moving toward a MAGTF-centric course. (I also discussed this system on the Marine Corps Gazette blog in May.)

A MAGTF-centric Marine Corps would eliminate the need to staff and maintain the redundant unit headquarters, eliminate messy unit transitions from one parent command to another, and allow the units to train in the manner in which they will fight. It will also reduce the amount of “plug and play” that occurs between traditional units and MAGTF commands by establishing more permanent relationships between subordinate units and higher headquarters. Units that are assigned to the same MAGTF will be able to train with the units with which they deploy. The MAGTF has proven itself more than once, and the Marine Corps is fortunate that it has a ready-made system that can allow it to meet mission requirements with a smaller force while benefiting the service in such ways.

However, the transition will be painful. This would be a progressive move, and HQMC is not the biggest fan of progressive initiatives. Traditional unit headquarters are not idle, in fact they are extremely busy.

The staff workload will not be eliminated, but rather transferred to already busy MAGTF staffs. Thus, the transition will require a re-evaluation of MAGTF staffs to ensure they are optimized to fill the role of traditional staffs.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock is the promotion system. Billets on traditional staffs are used for leader development and evaluation. Removing that opportunity may necessitate an entirely new promotion and development system. The second and third order effects of such a transition are difficult and will happen concurrently, but they are short term effects. Once the pain has passed, the benefits will remain for the long term.

While a purely MAGTF-centric Marine Corps is a radical idea, so were MAGTFs at one time. To be sure, the Marine Corps does not want to make the final leap away from the comfortable and familiar traditional system. However, the trends of increasing missions and decreasing forces are prodding it toward the edge. Fortunately, the service is well situated to land on its feet a leaner, more responsive force without abandoning its fundamental character.