Academic journal article Naval War College Review

MARCHING TOWARD THE SWEET SPOT: Options for the U.S. Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

MARCHING TOWARD THE SWEET SPOT: Options for the U.S. Marine Corps in a Time of Austerity

Article excerpt

B efore leaving his position as Secretary of Defense in 2010, Robert Gates offered a wake-up call in a speech to the Marine Corps Association in 2010: "It [is] time to redefine the purpose and size of the Marine Corps." The perception even then was that the Marine Corps had become too big, too heavy, and too far removed from its maritime roots.1

Gates further noted, "I directed them [the Secretary of the Navy and Commandant of the Marine Corps] not to lose sight of the Marines' greatest strengths, a broad portfolio of capabilities and penchant for adapting that are needed to be successful in any campaign. The counterinsurgency skills the Marines developed during this past decade, combined with the agility and esprit honed over two centuries well positioned the Corps, in my view, to be at the tip of the spear in the future when the U.S. military is likely to confront a range of irregular and hybrid conflicts." He concluded, "Ultimately, the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved."2

The Commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, General James Conway, shared a similar concern that many Marines, although battle hardened by nearly a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, had never stepped foot on board a ship. In response to Gates's challenge, Conway established a Force Structure Review Group to examine what the force in readiness should look like in the twenty-first century. The group's findings were aligned conceptually with Gates's observations. The internal assessment concluded that the Marine Corps should reduce the size of its active component to about 186,000 personnel (a figure nearly twelve thousand larger than when the recent wars began) and identified its joint-force operational "sweet spot" as providing formations larger than specialoperations teams but smaller than traditional army units.

Getting to this sweet spot will be a challenge for the Marine Corps, as it will have to overcome institutional resistance, generated in no small part by a long, proud history of operational readiness and combat effectiveness. However, the Marine Corps must face current realities and adapt both to the changes in the geopolitical environment and to the dire fiscal problems facing the nation. In fact, the Marine Corps will likely become even smaller than the size recommend by the Force Structure Review Group. Therefore, it is critical for the Corps to find and implement innovative solutions to meet future demands while continuing to be America's crisis-response force.

To achieve these ends, the Marine Corps should carefully consider each of Dr. Gates's concerns, as they will help it shape the problems it will face as it attempts to innovate. A constrained defense budget and changes in the operational environment must stimulate efforts to define realistically the Marine Corps purpose and role within the joint force. There are several options to consider that will help the service as it prepares for the operational challenges of the twenty-first century by moving toward organizing for and operating within the newly recognized sweet spot-all within the context of a shrinking defense budget.

The Proud-but Not So Few

The U.S. Marine Corps may be the smallest of the four U.S. military services, but it is significantly larger than any other marine or naval infantry in modern history. For the sake of comparison, figure 1 illustrates how the size of the current Marine Corps compares to those of other naval infantry forces and even capable military forces of foreign states. The Marine Corps has evolved into a self-contained military force, the like of which many developed nations might wish to possess.

It is difficult to make a direct comparison to foreign naval infantries, because the U.S. Marine Corps is an independent service and therefore must maintain an appropriate level of overhead in order to execute the requirements of U.S. Code Title 10, which establishes the legal basis on which the roles, missions, and organization of each service rest. …

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