April 20, 2013

After the Wars, New Battlefronts for the Marine Corps

Thought I'd share my latest item on things-military. In the Fall of 2010, The American Interest asked for a piece on the Marine Corps as part of a collection of essays on the military Services that they ran in their Sept-Oct issue for that year. In "Caught on a Lee Shore" I attempted to describe what I believed to be key challenges for the Service at that time, most prominently among them the EFV program. A few months ago, TAI asked for a follow-up item that they've now published. In "After the Wars..." I've tried to address the major challenges confronting the Corps as it draws-down its efforts in Afghanistan amidst substantial budgetary, cultural, and conceptual pressures. 

I was intentionally descriptive vice prescriptive as my focus was to lay-out the issues rather than pontificate about possible solutions. To my mind, most pundits presume to know all the various details of any given issue as well as just what the organization should do to "fix things" even though they haven't been party to the very private discussions that take place amongst leadership at the highest levels of government. Sometimes, enough information is available in the public domain and one has sufficient, relevant personal experience to come to rather obvious conclusions. Such was the case for my recommendations about EFV and other matters in "...Lee Shore" and an earlier piece published by CSBA. When it comes to the budget turmoil created by the sequester and federal debt situation, the changes being imposed on the military regarding who can serve and in what capacity, and just how the Services will evolve their thinking about applying military power in future settings...no one really has any idea how this will all work out. My hope is that senior leaders keep their eyes firmly fixed on 'military effectiveness' in serving our national security interests and that the myriad decisions before them are decided with this fundamental objective in mind.

After the Wars, New Battlefronts for the Marine Corps
Dakota L. Wood
As the U.S. Marine Corps winds down its operations in Afghanistan, it faces a different kind of battlefield back home, where the challenges take shape as numbers, ideas and purposes. This operational theater consists of three fronts: budgetary, cultural and conceptual. 

On the budgetary front, the Corps faces substantial challenges as it adjusts to the decline in defense spending that historically follows periods of war; the frustrations of “continuing resolutions”, by which it must operate under the funding level approved for the previous year regardless of the accumulation of new expenses; and the cuts forced by sequestration, which require an additional 8 percent reduction in the Corps’ annual budget each year for the next decade.

Regarding cultural stressors, the Corps must deal with the implications of homosexuals serving openly and accommodating their partners or spouses; figure out how to open previously restricted “combat arms” occupational fields to women; and manage shrinking its force by 10 percent over the next four years, while keeping faith with Marines accustomed to high-tempo combat operations abroad who will now increasingly be moored to garrison and training environments in the States for the decade to come.

As for conceptual matters, the Corps has embarked on a variety of efforts to redefine its role as the nation’s “911 force.” What does it mean to “get back to the sea” following a decade of sustained operations ashore? The vast majority of Marines currently serving in uniform have never set foot on a ship. How does the Corps regain a service-wide competence in amphibious operations if the U.S. Navy now has only 28 amphibious ships in its fleet, half of which might be unavailable for immediate use at any given moment due to maintenance schedules? How should the Corps proceed with plans to focus on key regions, to maintain a “persistent presence” supporting U.S. regional commanders with at-the-ready crisis response forces, when the cost of deploying such forces is steadily rising?

Each front brings challenges of its own, but taken together they present a kind of battlefield occupied by the Service’s most senior officials. The outcome of these battles will shape the Corps in size, capability and purpose for many years to come.

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