Friday, January 14, 2011

Forrestal was right: Why the Marine Corps isn't going anywhere, EFV be damned (UPDATE)

There's been a lot of hand-wringing and heavy breathing from some corners in the wake of last week's announcement that the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program will be terminated. Despite the Commandant's insistence that he'd not only consented to but recommended cancellation of the too-heavy, too-slow, too-expensive, and generally too-problematic (pdf) next-gen amtrac, the defense defenders are coming out of the woodwork to eulogize the sea service and lament the destabilizing effects of its passing (or in the case of A#1 douchebag Loren Thompson, suggest investment in body bags). Without the obsolescent forcible-entry capability offered by the EFV, some said, the Marine Corps was being stripped of its primary purpose and its existential identity. But by Jim Forrestal's count, the Marines have just a bit more than 435 years of beach-storming and ass-kicking left in 'em thanks to that famous flag on Suribachi. Gen. Amos seems to agree; if his remarks to the Surface Navy Association this morning are any kind of signal -- and I think they are -- then reports of the devil-dogs' demise seem tad premature.

So is Tom Donnelly right that cancellation of the EFV "calls into question the future of the Marine Corps, whether the Marine Corps can function as it has since World War II as a kick-down-the-door force"? Nah. (As a matter of fact: "Naw. Naw, man. Shit, naw, man! I believe you'd get your ass kicked sayin' somethin' like that, man.") Can the USMC keep doing kick-down-the-door missions without the EFV? Sure, just like they could today or yesterday or ten years ago. But amphibious assault is a wasting asset, and everybody from the Commandant to Bob Work to Andy Krepinevich to the SECDEF knows that (no matter what they're saying in press conferences). What that means is that this capability will be neither particularly useful nor tremendously relevant in the future: there will come a day where neither the Marines nor anyone else are kicking down a whole lot of doors from the sea, but that's going to be a result of operational realities and the threat environment, not cancellation of a luxury weapon system.

But as for the future of the Marine Corps... they're on the ropes now, right? Down goes amphibious assault! Down goes amphibious assault! Down goes amphibious assault! Not gonna recover from that one. What the hell good is a Marine Corps that can't perform a forcible entry on a fortified beachhead? We all know a Marine's only as good as his extremely sophisticated, wildly expensive tactical vehicle, right? Yeah, I thought so too, but then here comes Amos just in time to prove us wrong.

The Marines have always been really, really good at public and Congressional relations. Maybe it's the flashy uniforms (uh, yeah, uniforms!) and the excellent recruiting posters and ad campaigns. Whatever the secret, they've needed it: I've yet to meet an active-duty or prior-service Marine who fails to mention how the Corps has had to justify its existence to every new administration and Congress for as long as they can remember. And should we be all that surprised? If you're wielding the budget ax, first on the block is going to be that duplicative 200,000-man ground force, that redundant "second army," the really-not-all-that-apparently-useful naval infantry formation (hell, the Army did D-Day!). But they've worked their pitch to the circumstances, and they've always stuck around.

The 35th Commandant inherited a proud tradition -- not just of leadership, but of salesmanship. He and his speechwriters didn't disappoint:
The Marine Corps is America's Expeditionary Force in Readiness-a balanced air-ground-logistics team. We are forward-deployed and forward-engaged-shaping, training, deterring and responding to all manner of crises and contingencies. We create options and decision space for our Nation's leaders.  Alert and ready, we respond to today's crisis, with today's force.TODAY.  Teaming with other services, allies and interagency partners, we enable and participate in joint and combined operations of any magnitude.  Responsive and scalable, we operate independent of local infrastructure.  A middleweight force, we are light enough to get there quickly, but heavy enough to carry the day upon arrival.  We operate throughout the spectrum of threats-irregular, hybrid, or conventional-or the shady areas where they overlap.  Marines are ready to respond whenever the Nation calls.wherever the President may direct.
The bulk of Amos' speech, recounting the many ways in which Marine forces have been employed of late, reads like a nearly exhaustive laundry list of recent and ongoing DoD missions: combat deployments (division-sized presence on the ground in Afghanistan, not to mention air operations), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, security cooperation and capacity-building -- activities across the spectrum of conflict and the range of military operations. 

But the Corps has more to commend it than high OPTEMPO and eagerness for a fight, and the Commandant isn't afraid to be explicit about the advantages his service offers the nation. Let's think about this for a second: if you're trying to preserve force structure in the face of inevitable budget cuts and the prospect of an extended, indefinite era of austerity, what's your pitch? Well, you probably don't want to be pigeonholed into just one mission area, like, for example, amphibious assault. (How do you know Donnelly, Thompson, and Goure don't give a shit about the Marine Corps but care a lot about expensive acquisition programs? Look at the way they find it impossible to imagine meaningful missions for the pointiest end of America's pointy spear in the absence of the amphibious-landing mandate.) Now we're on to something: flexibility. We're not interested in an airplane that can only dogfight, only attack ground targets, only operate in good weather, or only be flown by human pilots, and the same principle applies to ground forces: if you only offer a niche capability, we're just not going to be able to afford you absent special circumstances. The best life insurance policy: operational adaptability, something the Commandant was happy to demonstrate when talking about all the different missions accomplished by the same Mark 1, Mod 1 Leathernecks.

But that's not all! Marines have another advantage over their ground-force counterparts in Big Army: they're relatively light, having been built to deploy aboard ship with their entire complement of equipment. Marines don't require expensive and complicated logistical arrangements, as they spend their time at sea both in war and peace. As such, they serve as the nation's "force in readiness": this means they're agile and responsive, rapidly deployable to crises and contingencies, able to show up in Haiti or New Orleans or Afghanistan or West Africa or Kuwait at the drop of a hat. As Gen. Amos said, "You're either ready to respond to today's crisis with today's force, today, or you're late and risk being irrelevant." In an oblique shot at the Army's force-generation model, he also commented that "crisis response is incompatible with tiered readiness" -- in other words, how the hell do you expect to put boots on the ground in a hurry when half your damn force is in RESET at Fort Stewart?

And what if it's not just flood relief or a quick show of deterrent force -- what if they need to stick around? Well, the devil-dogs have you covered there, too. Marine units are scalable and self-sustaining, so they're easily tailored to the required mission and able to operate in austere environments without external support. This is a big bonus when they're the first guys to show up, particularly when you're trying to secure a lodgment for a larger force to conduct protracted operations. When they're relieved by follow-on forces or need strategic mobility, they can just helo out to their ever-present "Swiss Army knives of power projection": amphibs on station off the coast.

Taken together, that's a hell of a pitch. Amos puts it like this:
Factoring all aspects of our role in the Nation's defense, the United States Marine Corps affords the following three strategic advantages: 
  • We provide a versatile 'middleweight' ability to respond across the range of military operations (ROMO).  
  • We provide an inherent agility that buys time for national leaders.  
  • We bring an enabling and partnering capability to joint and combined operations of any magnitude.
Here's what they called that in the good ol' days: any mission, any fight, any place on the globe, alongside whoever else you can bring to the show. From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. Just makes you want to sing a damn song, don't it?

A Marine Corps for another 435 years, I say! Or how about this: a Marine Corps 'til we don't need what they have to offer anymore, or until someone else can do it and everything else. I think the Commandant did a hell of a job showing that day's a good ways off yet. Breathe, Donnelly... breathe.

UPDATE: I was away from the computer on Friday, but I wanted to share Philip Ewing's commentary from Morning Defense, which I think totally misses the point.
BULLISH ON THE CORPS – In true gung-ho fashion, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos on Monday put an optimistic spin on the future of a service that could’ve just sulked after the cancelation of its beloved EFV and more delays for its new fighter jet. But the Marines are still America’s ready crisis-response force, Amos said, and America uses ‘em all the time for their specialty: Amphibious operations.

Amphibious work isn’t obsolete, Amos said – the Navy and the Marines have responded to “crises and contingencies” at least 50 times just since Sept. 11. (Marine Corps leaders have cited a range of numbers for this factoid, depending on how you slice it.) So even though the EFV didn’t work out, the Marines’ basic purpose in life – to appear from out at sea, kill people and break stuff – remains intact and vital, he said.
The Commandant's pitch was smarter than that, though: everyone knows the Marines can "appear from out at sea, kill people and break stuff," but this EFV drama has underlined the need to justify their existence with a bigger, broader set of roles and missions. By emphasizing non-traditional missions like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, security cooperation, and defense support for civil authorities, then also giving us a reminder about persistent presence, strategic mobility, rapid deployability, operational adaptability, and combat power, Amos was saying "hey, we're not just about killing people and breaking stuff these days." That's why the Marine Corps remains relevant -- not just because the world still has oceans and beaches.

Another related note from the weekend: in a moment of tragic irony, 27-year old Iraq vet Sgt. Wesley Rice died Friday when his AAV sank in the Del Mar boat basin off the coast of Camp Pendleton. The other five Marines aboard were able to escape the vehicle safely.

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