As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, and the United States increasingly shifts its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific theater, each branch of the armed forces is trying to more clearly define its roles and missions in the new defense posture. The Marine Corps is no exception. Over the last decade-plus, many have come to regard the Corps as a “second land army” during its arduous campaigns in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. As a result, there is concern that the service has drifted too far from its Sea-Service origins and perhaps lost a bit of its amphibious edge.
Getting the Marine Corps back to its roots as America’s sea-going “first-responders” is a theme that undergirds many of our features in this issue. And who better to lead this discussion than the Commandant, General James F. Amos, who returns to our pages this month. A changing security environment, fiscal belt-tightening, and potential conflict scenarios will require fresh thinking on America’s naval expeditionary capabilities. Those evolving factors, General Amos points out, “require the nation’s forward-deployed crisis-response forces to aggressively innovate.” Aggressively innovate—truly a call to action that fits our times.
The much-heralded shift to the Pacific presents the Marine Corps with the best opportunity yet to “get back to the sea,” writes retired Major General Thomas Benes. With its future effectiveness hinging on the ability to operate forward of fixed bases, the service must overcome the logistical reality that access to ports and airfields will not be as readily available as in years past—even without a threat stymieing its efforts. Moreover, forward-positioned forces still must cover significant ground to engage in possible conflict areas: It is 1,500 nautical miles from Guam to Manila and 3,000 from Guam to Jakarta. To overcome these challenges, the author says that the Corps should include sea basing in its operational concepts, with a focus on maritime prepositioning forces.
But naval expeditionary warfare is still a team sport, as retired Marine Reserve Lieutenant Colonel John T. Quinn II, Deputy Director of Marine Corps Headquarters’ Strategic Initiatives Group, dutifully reminds us. “The Navy and Marine Corps are now confronted with critical decisions regarding amphibious capabilities and capacities,” he writes. America’s blue-green team must work together toward creative solutions in a global arena “where hybrid conflict is the new normal.” He advocates a “system of systems” approach featuring several new task units with discrete responsibilities that could be brought together quickly in response to an unfolding crisis.
The success of tomorrow’s expeditionary campaigns will rely heavily on the Sea Services’ ability to maneuver and operate in the world’s littorals, which are often contested spaces. According to the Ellis Group, a Marine Corps organization responsible for creating guidance for the development of expeditionary force, ensuring that the United States’ maritime advantage continues will require an integrated approach that blends sea control and power-projection, as well as a thorough analysis of what the future environment requires for optimal performance.
There’s been much hand-wringing among defense experts the past few years over anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats that could prevent our naval forces from operating freely when and where they are needed. Maybe too much. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Freeman, Deputy Executive Assistant N95 (Expeditionary Warfare), contends that the Sea Services are so preoccupied with A2/AD, which “makes our potential adversaries out to be ten-foot giants when they really may just be three-foot munchkins,” that they forget the U.S. military wields incredible power of its own. Instead of fretting over a presumed enemy’s disruption capabilities, we should be taking stock of the our “unprecedented dominance” with an approach Lieutenant Colonel Freeman calls “assured assistance, anytime, anywhere.” Concentrating too much on what one cannot do instead of what one can “is dangerous and can have detrimental effects on military hardware procurement and operational strategy,” he warns.
Any naval expeditionary campaign would require the Navy to first establish sea control. But quite a few things are wrong with the Navy’s understanding of sea control and sea denial, notably that the service often considers them to be one and the same, according to Naval War College Professor Milan Vego. In reality, they are two distinct objectives accomplished through different means. Dr. Vego sees this problem stemming from the lack of well-developed theory, and the fact that “for the most part the service’s current doctrine and posture statements do more to obfuscate than clarify the purpose, attributes, and primary methods for obtaining, maintaining, and exercising sea control.” A nuanced study of these concepts is not a mere exercise in semantics, though. Such a misunderstanding could have deleterious effects on the development of operational doctrine.