Don't Forget the Fleet

By Major Henry Black, U.S. Marine Corps

Marines are organized in one of a fleet's traditional type commands: the Fleet Marine Forces. Type commands are administrative subdivisions that normally provide forces to form naval expeditionary task forces for operations. The Fleet Marine Forces and other type commands also can become warfighting commands when most of the fleet is committed to operations—in a fundamentally subordinate role to the fleet commander.

The traditional Title 10 role of the Marine Corps has remained unchanged by Goldwater-Nichols or any other legislation. Nevertheless, the Marine Corps has chosen to subordinate its mandated priorities to a different pursuit—one of establishing service component commands within each combatant command. These are senior to the Fleet Marine Forces and are not subordinate to the Navy fleet commanders; they answer directly to the CinCs. This has brought the de facto result of changing the Marine Corps' primary role to one of "providing forces to the combatant commands for service as directed by the CinCs. Marine forces also shall conduct such other additional duties as the fleet commanders may direct, provided that such additional duties do not conflict with their primary duty."

This new arrangement turns the U.S. Code on its head. Perhaps more important, it neutralizes several factors that make the Marine Corps truly a separate service. By relegating fleet service to secondary priority, it undercut; the Corps' ability to contribute its unique warfighting capabilities to the fleet commanders. Separated from the fleets, Marine forces:

  • Cannot conduct amphibious operations.
  • Are no more expeditionary than Army forces, and less so than Air Force forces. By themselves, they cannot get to the fight, carry all their accompanying supplies, move their sustainment into theater, or effect resupply.
  • Are no more responsive to contingencies than Army or Air Force forces.
  • Have no more forcible-entry capability than Air Force forces, and less so than Army forces.

In addition, Maritime Prepositioning Force operations will not be possible. Without the Navy to move the Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons to the required ports of debarkation, to guarantee the security of required sea lines of communication to those ports, to guarantee the seaward and air security of those ports, and assist in the offloading of cargo, Marine supplies and equipment never will arrive in the area of operations.

The warfighting structure of the Department of Defense is designed to let our military forces succeed in their primary task: to win major conflicts. Although in recent years military operations other than war have consumed a major portion of military resources, they have not—and will not—supplant this overriding consideration. The purposes of the three military departments are to provide forces able to gain and maintain superiority in air and space, land, and sea. As a separate service within the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps is specifically directed to provide forces to serve with the fleets. Indeed, Title 10, U.S. Code does specify secondary roles for Marine forces, to include other duties "as directed by the President." But these secondary roles in themselves cannot validate separate service status for the Marine Corps, and therefore remain secondary to its primary role of service with the fleets. Therefore, Marine operating forces are organized into Pacific Fleet Marine Forces and Atlantic Fleet Marine Forces, each under a three-star commanding general, who in turn serve under their respective four-star fleet commanders. Fundamentally, therefore, the Marine Corps provides forces to the fleets. In turn, the Department of the Navy provides fleets to the force employers. Since Goldwater-Nichols the force employers have been CinCs.

Goldwater-Nichols requires that the secretaries of the military departments (not the services) assign their warfighting forces to the combatant commands, under the command authority of the CinCs. In addition, the department secretaries (not the services) are directed to ensure the proper administration and support of these forces. This has led to the development of service component commands within each combatant command. The primary responsibility of the component commands is to provide administration and support to service forces on behalf of their departments. Component commanders also can conduct operations with forces when so directed by their CinCs. Because the department secretaries have traditionally organized, trained, and equipped their forces through their services, the evolution of component commands was a logical step, even though Goldwater-Nichols did not direct their establishment. Fleet commanders within the Department of the Navy have assumed the additional title of Navy service component commanders, and Fleet Marine Force commanders have assumed the additional title of Marine Corps service component commanders. Goldwater-Nichols did not alter the primary Title 10 role of any of the services, including the Marine Corps. It specifically directed the departments to provide forces to the combatant commands, and to support those forces but it did not direct the Secretary of the Navy to alter the relationship of the Marine Corps with the Navy—nor did it direct the Marine Corps or the CinCs to organize naval forces differently from the strictures of Title 10. So the primary role of Marine forces assigned to a combatant command should be as Fleet Marine Forces, under the direct authority of the fleet commander or naval component commander. The Marine service-component role should be secondary. But the Marine Corps has reversed these priorities.

The existence of Marine components directly under the CinCs is warranted. Justification is found in the additional Title 10 role of Marine forces to carry out "such other duties as the President may direct." This clause clearly allows mission taskings to come from outside a fleet's command structure. Because Goldwater-Nichols specifies that the chain of operational command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders, and because it did not rescind the direct-tasking option for Marine forces, it is reasonable to conclude that CinCs can task directly their assigned Marine forces to execute missions directed by the National Command Authorities. What this means is that the Atlantic and Pacific Fleet Marine Force commanders have secondary roles as a CinC's Marine service component commanders, and that this role does not fall under the Navy component commander. Therefore, a CinC directly may task a Marine force commander as his Marine component for those functions that would not fall under the functions of the fleet commander. One example of non-fleet operations would be those that involve an air contingency Marine air-ground task force. However, such operations would remain a secondary priority, not interfering with the ability of Marine forces to perform their primary role.

Some rudder corrections will be required: First, for Marine forces assigned to the Atlantic and Pacific commands, declare the Fleet Marine Force command designation as senior to the Marine component command designation, in accordance with Title 10. This restores Marine forces to their primary role of serving with the fleets. Operational focus would remain on those operations required by the Navy to prosecute naval campaigns, including supporting land operations, during peace and war.

Second, specify that the commanding generals of Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic and Pacific (in their assigned capacities as Marine component commanders) are directly responsible to the CinC for non-fleet operations, to execute other duties as directed by the President (National Command Authorities). For these operations, the Marine force commander could assume the role of the supported commander. Other-service forces, such as Air Force airlift for an air contingency Marine air-ground task force executing a peace-enforcement operation, would assume the role of supporting commanders. These operations could either be enabling or terminal. Enabling operations are those designed to contain a contingency or crisis until the arrival of more robust Army or Air Force forces. Terminal operations are those designed to end or manage a contingency or crisis.

The future of the Marine Corps does not lie in seeking complete equivalency with the other services—in particular with the Navy. Nor does it lie in competing for missions already within the purview of the Army or Air Force. Rather, it lies in fulfilling its validated roles of subordinate service within the fleets, and executing such other duties as the President may direct. The Marine Corps would do well to remember this, and reorient its focus accordingly.

Major Black is Southern Region Plans Officer at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe in Boblingen, Germany.


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