Is the future of the Marine Corps at stake?

Some people claim that the US Marine Corps (and its multifarious “naval infantry” bretheren the world over) are too specialised for the operational requirements of the 21st Century. 

This “specialisation is for insects” crowd would have us believe that the days of the amphibious landing, or ‘seaborne forced entry’ as the Marines like to call it, are long gone.  These people get two things wrong though; first of all, they don’t grasp the real meaning of that famous quote by Robert A. Heinlein; second, they don’t understand the realities of global geography – or conflict – in the 21st century.

Regarding my first point; the full quote by Robert Heinlein is:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

 As you can see, many of the things in that list of what a human being should be able to do are core skills of the Corps.  I wonder how many of the Corps’ detractors can do more than one or two things in that list?  So, perhaps they are in fact the insects and the Marines are the human beings…

Reagarding my second point, the following op-ed piece landed in my email yesterday from and I thought it was worth sharing:

EFV Debate Is Really About The Future Of The Marine Corps

Inside the U.S. Navy, a defense newsletter, reported last week that Pentagon policymakers have decided to take the advice of the Government Accountability Office and review whether the business case for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) is still valid. EFV is being developed by the Marine Corps to replace a 40-year-old amphibious vehicle that is the main way Marines move from ship to shore in combat. The leadership of the Marine Corps says EFV is its top ground-combat modernization priority, but the program has seen big cost increases and schedule delays leading some analysts to question whether it makes sense to proceed with the program.

For people who don’t follow military affairs closely, EFV is just the latest in a series of impenetrably arcane program debates brought on by the need to rein in Pentagon spending. But within the Marine Corps, senior leaders understand that the fate of their entire service hinges on the outcome of EFV deliberations. If they don’t field a successor to their obsolete Cold War amphibious vehicles soon, they will have to begin abandoning the mission that has long been at the core of their identity. That mission is usually referred to as forcible entry, meaning the capacity to gain access to contested coastlines despite the efforts of enemies to keep U.S. forces out.

After nine years of fighting in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, a fashionable idea has taken hold in policymaking circles that amphibious warfare is largely a thing of the past, and that the Marine Corps needs to focus on other missions more vital to the prosecution of unconventional conflicts. It’s true that Marines have been spending less time afloat and more time away from the sea — see Frank Oliveri’s cover story, “Beyond the Beachhead,” in this week’s Congressional Quarterly Weekly — but that is probably just a temporary phenomenon. Most of the world’s population still lives within a one-day ride from the beach, and America’s security (not to mention its prosperity) depends on having assured access to that narrow band of littoral real estate.

But technology is advancing quickly, and the Marine Corps can’t credibly conduct amphibious operations today with weapons designed for the Nixon era. That’s why it is replacing its legacy aircraft with systems such as the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and F-35B fighter that have the vertical agility to takeoff and land on a dime. A similar transformation is required in its ground vehicles, so that instead of being sitting ducks that require warships to deposit them within range of enemy guns ashore, they can use the sea as a maneuver space to hit the beach from over the horizon whenever and wherever it is most advantageous.

EFV was designed with that need in mind, so it has three times the water speed and twice the armor of existing amphibious vehicles. A single EFV can transport an entire 17-person rifle squadron ashore, and then quickly penetrate inland at the speed of an M-1 tank without having to use the roads where improvised explosives are often planted. That’s a complicated mission profile requiring a versatile vehicle, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps is adamant that no suitable alternative to EFV exists. Government testers previously complained that the vehicle needed to be more reliable, but it is now exceeding reliability goals, so the question is whether the Obama Administration is going to spend the money necessary to keep America in the amphibious-warfare business. If the answer is “no,” it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what that means for the future of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.


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