Listen Up Marines! We Belong at Sea, Ready for Trouble

By Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

In the global milieu, it is in the interest of all peoples and states seeking equity, justice, and stability that the United States recapture its reputation as the Shining City on the Hill. Despite past follies, our country can still promote global, political, economic, and social stability. Not as an intervening nanny, but as an anchor of principle and strength for others.

Within this context, military power is in large measure giving place to the softer and more subtle elements of national power. But the world is a dangerous place. All the services must look beyond Iraq and Afghanistan even while engaged in the current conflicts. The Army and Air Force must do their own introspection to identify and validate their roles in the emerging 21st-century world. We do not know what future conflicts will look like, but one thing is sure, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown: no rational opponent will take on the United States on its terms. Future conflicts will be asymmetrical and all the services must fight the realities of the war they will face, not the one they would like to fight. And the services must continue to learn to operate jointly.

Even in a changing world, certain factors are enduring. The U.S. Navy, as Mahan ordained, must control the seas and with it the freedom of its international lines of communication, and it must show the flag. To serve a nation whose economy, security, and prosperity are global and dependent on world-wide access from the sea, the Navy must position itself accordingly.

Soldiers of the Sea

Where do the Marines fit in? They belong at sea with the Navy from whence they sprang. The Corps remains the landward extension of naval power. Missiles and strike aircraft can influence a situation ashore, but only boots on the ground can control it. The Corps' fundamental sea-based amphibious role became fixed from the time the United States achieved international maturity. The Navy-Marine Corps team is the nation's ever-ready instrument of influence, off-shore support, deterrence, and force. It must be prepared to deal with the unexpected along the littorals where most of the world's population reside.

Organized, trained, and equipped for expeditionary air, land, and sea amphibious operations, Marines must continue to sail the high seas, prepared to assist in disaster relief and the evacuation of civilians in times of turmoil and to be ambassadors of goodwill, comrades in arms, and mentors of friendly militaries. Most important, the Marines must always be prepared to forcibly land on any hostile shore and gain control when so ordered in the national interest. Their presence as a shipborne cop on the beat can be a comfort to friends and the bane of international and transnational rogues. In the process, Marines must remain mission focused and responsive to needs within their charter. They must not try to be all things to all people.

New Requirements

As the Corps addresses its future needs in this traditional role it must also adjust to the requirements of the future. Clearly it must invest in technology as a force multiplier, particularly if it is serious about decentralized operations and decentralized command and control ashore. Enhanced investments in C4I2 minimize manpower needs, while enhancing decision-making, targeting, and the discreet application of force. The "strategic corporal" the Marine Corps touts will not be strategic without the requisite technology.

That corporal will also need skills unknown in the past. His increased responsibility as a detached team leader or trainer will demand a knowledge and maturity that are not in the sea bag of a first-term Marine. While the role of the Marines may be essentially the same as in the past, troop qualifications and development need review. It would be fatal to the Corps and its young leaders to promise a level of performance and then fall short in execution for lack of competence.

Not only must he be professionally competent in the combat arts, he must also be culturally competent. Not every corporal needs to be a linguist, but he must be attuned to his human environment and, within limits, be able to work with and train indigenous forces. Given the youth of the Corps, which almost reconstitutes itself with new accessions every 3-4 years, this poses a major acculturation requirement. The burden will fall heavily on the recruiting and training establishments, senior NCOs, and junior officers in the FMF to develop their corporals.

The Corps must also look at its organization. The battle between MEU, MEB, and MEF was perennial in the Corps until the Persian Gulf wars solved the problem in favor of the MEF. But with the renewed likelihood of small-scale employment the future norm, manpower and command hierarchies and force composition must be revisited.

So also must the air requirements for operational forces. The Corps' stable of helicopters have been workhorses for deployed Marines in and out of combat and no Leatherneck would conceive of doing without them. The activation of the MV-22B Osprey expands the stable with a new thoroughbred. But what are the requirements for expensive fixed-wing fast movers? What unique capabilities are needed for aircraft in support of ground Marines. This is a sensitive subject, but if the Marine Corps is not realistic in assessing and defining its needs there are those, less competent, outside the Corps who are more than willing to do so.

There are lean days ahead for the military. Bean-counters and analytical "experts" of the cost-effectiveness school will soon be divining the nature of future force requirements and what is needed to meet them. Nothing will be sacred. Competition for limited resources will be sharp, as will the debate over roles and missions. The Corps had better be ready to make its case.

The Marine Corps must nourish its reputation for frugality, adaptability, initiative, and unorthodoxy. By reconfirming its nautical character as a lean, no-frills 911 force, ready for anything, it will be in a strong position in any debate. In an unpredictable world, there will be new and unique requirements. Nonetheless, soldiers of the sea must never lose sight of the fact that whatever non-combat tasks they might be assigned, their core purpose remains going anywhere, anytime, under any circumstance, ready to fight—and win.

Lieutenant General Trainor spent nearly four decades in the Marine Corps. A veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, he began a second career in military analysis and journalism after his 1985 retirement. He is co-author of The Generals' War , the acclaimed analysis of the Gulf War, and Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq . He continues to write on military topics for The New York Times , the Boston Globe , and numerous professional journals.
 

Capt. Bernard D. Cole, USN (Ret.), teaches at the National War College in Washington, D.C. Cole’s previous books include The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-First Century, which was selected for the Navy Reading Program. He earned a PhD in history from Auburn University and lives in Alexandria, VA.

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