In 2013, the U.S. Marine Corps continued operations in Afghanistan, even as they performed their traditional role as the nation’s expeditionary crisis response force in other parts of the globe. In historic terms, however, their most noteworthy achievements last year will likely be recorded as successfully negotiating the government’s budgetary crisis and defense cutbacks. They did so by making their relevance—as an element of sea power—clear in an era of strategic uncertainty. In the process, they have outlined a way ahead that will reshape their force organization and posture in coming years.
Continuing Mission in Afghanistan
General John R. Allen relinquished command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces Afghanistan to General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. on 10 February 2013. The first Marine to command a theater of war, General Allen’s 19-month tenure with ISAF can be characterized as a herculean effort to maintain a fragile relationship with the Afghan government while initiating the transfer of security responsibilities. Despite receiving a nomination to become the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, he elected instead to retire. In his departing remarks he noted that this was not the first time he’d passed organizational colors to “one of my oldest and dearest friends,” having previously “handed the battle color of the famous 2d Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment to then-Lieutenant Colonel Joe Dunford. I couldn’t have chosen a better replacement today.”1
Like his predecessor at ISAF, General Dunford has a stellar professional reputation. Tactically aggressive, as demonstrated by his command of the 5th Marines during the march up to Baghdad, he “does not fit the cinematic stereotype of a blustering, ego-driven general” but instead comes across as “soft-spoken, cerebral, even humble.”2 Tasked with improving the effectiveness of Afghan security forces while simultaneously overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops and equipment, his selection was a testament to his military, diplomatic, and organizational skills. The fact that two Marines were consecutively appointed to the ISAF command—which presumably would go to an Army officer given the preponderance of forces and land-locked operating area—also reflects well on the Marine Corps’ approach to professional development and the smaller service’s standing in the halls of government.
The majority of Marines serving in Afghanistan do so within Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW). On 28 February 2013, Major General Charles M. Gurganus, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD), turned over command of RC-SW to Major General W. Lee Miller, Jr., commanding general of II MEF (FWD). In keeping with the shift in the Marines’ mission from combat operations to security force assistance, Major General Miller commanded a much smaller force. Whereas the Marines had previously maintained six infantry battalions organized under two regimental combat teams, the force was reduced to two battalions under a single regimental headquarters, along with similarly reduced air combat and logistics combat elements. Their focus was on advising the Afghan National Army’s 215th Maiwand Corps and the Afghan police, along with communications, intelligence, and logistics support.
This was a considerable change for the Marines who, since 2008, had rotated units through RC-SW and conducted some of the most aggressive offensive operations of the Afghan war. Although more than 500 Marines were killed and another 4,500 wounded, they had decimated the Taliban and denied them the sanctuary of their birthplace along the Helmand River. Now it would be up to the 20,000 Afghan soldiers and 9,000 police in RC-SW to build on the secure environment the Marines had created and prevent a Taliban resurgence.3 The enemy attempted to do just that via a spring offensive, but the Afghan forces showed a willingness to hit back hard despite sustaining more than a 100 casualties a week in June. Meanwhile, the Marines found themselves in the unusual position of coaching from a distance. Colonel Austin Renforth, commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 7, observed, “I think they’ve actually done pretty well overall. I think they’re certainly giving more than they’re taking.”4
In August, after ten months in the country, the RCT 7 headquarters handed over its area of operations to a much smaller headquarters provided by elements of 2d Marine Regiment, another indication of the ongoing drawdown of U.S. forces. As the turnover was conducted, there were about 7,000 Marines in RC-SW, roughly a third the number present two years ago.
It has been a number of years since the Navy and Marine Corps were able to maintain the continuous presence of an amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit (ARG/MEU) in the Mediterranean, as was once the norm, given the shortfall in amphibious ships and the demand for them in higher priority theaters. Following the tragic events in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September 2012, the Marine Corps sought other means of providing crisis-response options in the Mediterranean.
One solution was to establish a shore-based Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response (SP MAGTF-CR). On 18 March 2013, the government of Spain agreed to temporarily host it at Moron de la Frontera Air Base. Built around a reinforced rifle company and an aviation detachment of six MV-22 Ospreys and two KC-130J Hercules aircraft, the 500-man unit is designed to provide rapid crisis-response capability in Africa and the Middle East. Likely missions include noncombatant evacuations and embassy reinforcement. The SP MAGTF-CR is not as capable or flexible as an ARG/MEU and therefore has a more limited mission portfolio. However, the range advantage of the Osprey over rotary-winged aircraft, along with the ability to extend that range through inflight refueling by the Hercules, does give the SP MAGTF-CR significant operational reach.
A second initiative was to expand the size and mission of the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group. Historically, Marine security guards (MSGs) have been tasked with preventing the compromise of national-security information and equipment at diplomatic posts. In June 2013 their task list was formally expanded to include protection of diplomatic missions and their personnel. Congressional direction to add another 1,000 Marines to MSG duty provided the manpower to establish ten new detachments, revise the force structure at posts the State Department considered high risk, and create a 120-man Marine Security Augmentation Unit (MSAU).
These initiatives were soon put to good use. In late June 2013 elements of SP MAGTF-CR were moved to Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, and placed on a 60-minute alert status for potential employment during political unrest in Egypt. This gave the combatant commander an immediate response capability while elements of the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) ARG/26th MEU moved into the northern end of the Red Sea. As the anniversary of 9/11 neared, the SP MAGTF-CR was put on standby again while elements of the MSAU reinforced several embassies in the region. Later in September, other elements reinforced the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, following the deadly terrorist attack on a shopping mall. The SP MAGTF-CR was put on standby a third time when Libyan protests erupted following the 5 October capture of the al-Qaeda leader linked to the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
In mid-December, in the face of growing ethnic violence in South Sudan, the State Department requested additional protection of the U.S. Embassy in Juba. Elements of the MSAU deployed there directly from Quantico, Virginia. As the security situation continued to deteriorate, aircraft and 150 Marines from SP MAGTF-CR moved to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, in preparation for the possible non-combatant evacuation of U.S. citizens from South Sudan. That evacuation took place on 3 January 2014 as two KC-130Js and Marines from the SP MAGTF-CR moved the U.S. ambassador and members of her staff to Entebbe, Uganda.
While this series of crises was unfolding in Africa, Marines in the Pacific were dealing with a natural disaster. On 7 November 2013 super typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, impacting an estimated 4.2 million people in the central part of the archipelago. The initial death toll was reported at about 1,000, but officials feared the total would increase tenfold once contact was restored to outlying areas. The next day an initial contingent of 90 Marines and sailors from the 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade based in Okinawa arrived via two KC-130Js. Commanded by Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, they set about the business of making initial coordination with Philippine officials and assessing the damage.
As Brigadier General Kennedy identified the magnitude of the crisis, U.S. Pacific Command started vectoring assets to what became known as Operation Damayan—“mutual aid” in Tagalog. Amphibious ships, with their flight decks, well decks, and connectors, along with their medical and command-and-control suites, were especially high on Brigadier General Kennedy’s list of priorities. The USS Ashland (LSD-48) and USS Germantown (LSD-42), with more than 900 Marines and sailors from the 31st MEU, would soon be there to help, along with the USS George Washington (CVN-73) Carrier Strike Group and USS Freedom (LCS-1).
With the size of U.S. commitment growing, on 13 November Admiral Samuel Locklear III, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, ordered the creation of Joint Task Force 505. Lieutenant General John Wissler, commanding general of III MEF, was assigned to command JTF 505, which was activated on 18 November. This transition exemplified an idea that has been germinating in the Marine Corps for some time, wherein a small fly-in command element from the MEB quickly arrives at the epicenter of a crisis—even before the actual operating forces, in this case—in order to gain situational awareness, identify solutions, and provide the foundation for, and continuity to, a larger MEF, naval, or fully joint headquarters.
While the Philippines are frequently subject to severe weather—and Operation Damayan was by no means the first instance of U.S. humanitarian assistance in the wake of such disasters—there was one novel aspect to that aid in 2013. Having replaced the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters in Japan with MV-22s the year before, the Marines had an exponentially greater capability to respond. The first four MV-22s arrived at Villamor Air Base on the outskirts of Manila on 11 November, having self-deployed all the way from Futenma. Within a few days, they were followed by ten more Ospreys. This gave Marines the ability to deliver relief supplies and evacuate casualties from even the most remote and otherwise inaccessible areas of the country, which include more than 7,000 islands extended over 115,000 square miles. The benefits of extended operational reach have not been lost on those who study strategic dynamics in the Pacific.
Pivot to the Pacific
“China, Japan and the U.S. are ramping up their ability to deploy to disputed islands in the East China Sea.” That blunt assessment was made by Richard D. Fisher, Jr., a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach. Noting that this competition currently manifests itself in “shoving matches” between Chinese and Japanese coast guards, Fisher cautions that the Chinese are attempting to develop the means to “project decisive force to these islands in hours, not days.” He notes, however, that the presence of MV-22s in Japan means that currently, “the upper hand is held by the United States” when it comes to winning any race to build up combat power on the strategically positioned Senkaku/Diaoyu or Sakashima island groups.5
While many defense pundits appear over-focused on the technologies associated with overcoming challenges to access, Fisher’s assessment joins a growing body of work emphasizing that geographically informed strategy and campaign context take precedence over technology.6 This work consistently identifies the importance of key islands in the Pacific, which in turn highlights the need for amphibious forces—not to pave the way for an extended land campaign in a Normandy-like invasion, but to support a fight for sea control in a joint effort that would be fundamentally maritime in character. As noted in a San Diego Union Tribune article by Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and retired Navy Commander Bryan McGrath,
It is difficult to think of a future crisis in East Asia that would lack a critical role for the Marine Corps. . . . For instance, small islands throughout the First Island Chain (the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines archipelago) could become a mechanism for either China or the United States and its allies to contest the local sea by controlling the land. Such operations are the natural purview of a force designed for amphibious employment, and that force is the Marine Corps.7
Perhaps that explains Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s direction to posture at least 22,000 Marines west of the international dateline. By October 2013 the Marine Corps once again had three infantry battalions in Okinawa as part of the unit deployment program that had been scaled down for several years due to the manpower requirements of the Iraq and Afghan wars. That did not mean, however, that these forces resumed the prewar posture in the Pacific. As explained by Secretary Hagel during a May 2013 press conference, the United States is looking to “ensure that we maintain the right mix of capabilities on Okinawa, Guam, and elsewhere in the region” and that he and the Japanese Minister of Defense “confirmed the deployment of a second squadron of MV-22 Ospreys to Japan,” which took place that summer.8
In addition to allowing more MV-22s to be based in Okinawa—despite long-standing local political opposition—the Japanese government decided to purchase 17 Ospreys.9 It also procured a small number of amphibious assault vehicles from the Marine Corps.10 While Japanese forces have a constitutionally mandated focus on defensive operations, they have concluded that amphibious capabilities are required to ensure sovereignty of their southern islands. As a result, they are increasing their partnership activities with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. During 2013 those activities included sending units to Southern California to participate in exercises such as Iron Fist and Dawn Blitz, along with conducting more routine training with the Okinawa-based 31st MEU.
Further south, the Marines continued partnership activities with the Australians who, coincidentally, are also in the process of expanding their own amphibious capabilities by fielding two Canberra-class amphibious assault ships. Americans and Australians conducted major exercises, such as Talisman Saber, which involved more than 28,000 personnel, as well as smaller, battalion-sized events like Koolendong ’13. The Marines also deployed another rifle company through Marine Rotational Force–Darwin.
The Marines may also be expanding ties to their counterparts in the Philippines beyond the two major bilateral annual exercises, Balikatan and the Amphibious Landing Exercise, and episodic disaster response operations. News reports in October 2013 indicated that officials from the United States and the Philippines were negotiating temporary Navy and Marine Corps access to the former naval base at Subic Bay.11
Naval Integration and Innovation
As 2013 events in the Pacific and elsewhere demonstrated, the Marines’ relevance in the 21st century is based on their expeditionary readiness and membership in the Navy–Marine Corps team. While his predecessors have certainly emphasized the naval character of the service, the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, has taken that to a new level. In “A New Naval Era,” published in the June 2013 edition of Proceedings, General Amos and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert laid out their shared vision of “a future naval force that thinks together, plans together, trains together, and deploys together on a wide range of ships.” In their view, future naval leaders cannot “confront events in the littorals as carefully segregated specialists.”12 In a passage with far-reaching implications, they emphasized,
The changing set of challenges in the emerging security environment requires a naval team that is smoothly integrated and easily adaptable to new situations. We must replace rigid command structures that are ad hoc, aren’t scalable, and don’t support widely dispersed operations with more flexible structures. We will develop integrated operating concepts for our forces, field them with more compatible equipment, and then deploy them in innovative force packages. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to naval-force packaging must be evaluated against our most-likely security challenges. Creativity and original thought must be encouraged.13
Noting that the current situation resembles the interwar period of the 1920s and ’30s, during which the General Board guided a period of significant fleet innovation, General Amos and Admiral Greenert cited the recently established Naval Board as the key venue to accomplish the same purpose today. They then identified several initiatives for exploration. In this author’s view, the way ahead identified in their article could produce the most far-reaching impact on Navy and Marine Corps organization and doctrine since the 1933 creation of the Fleet Marine Force under the operational control of the fleet commander. Presumably, the article also provided a preview of the revision to the 2007 maritime strategy that is currently in progress by the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. General Amos appears intent on following through, having directed production of a capstone concept, Expeditionary Force 21, to provide a ten-year “way ahead” for Marine Corps capability development within the larger framework of the forthcoming maritime strategy. (Expeditionary Force 21 was signed by the Commandant on 4 March 2014 and publicly released the following month.)
More immediately tangible evidence of that commitment was provided in September, when General Amos, Admiral Greenert, and Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., signed the Maritime Security Cooperation Policy. This document prescribes a planning framework for Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard headquarters and component commanders to provide more integrated naval force packages—as opposed to single-service input—in support of the combatant commanders’ military engagement and crisis response requirements.
Preserving the Force-in-Readiness
In 2013 the perfect storm appeared to be brewing for Marine Corps end-strength with the sequestration brought on by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, the Strategic Choices and Management Review convened by Secretary Hagel in preparation for the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and the QDR itself. Various think tanks were espousing drastic cuts to “land forces,” with some estimating that the Marine Corps would go from its recent wartime high of 202,000 Marines to as low as 140,000. Secretary Hagel himself estimated that the Marine Corps could be reduced to “between 150,000 and 175,000.”14
The Marine Corps had previously determined that the optimal force size to meet the requirements of the national security strategy was 186,800. That plan was subsequently adjusted to 182,100 as a result of the BCA. Concerned about future sequestration budgets beyond the fiscal year, General Amos directed yet another study in February 2013. He announced the results on 16 September, stating “we have determined that with sequestered budgets a force design of 174,000 is right sized to allow the Marine Corps to remain America’s crisis response force.” Not included in that number were the 1,000 Marines added to the MSG program by Congress, which brought the overall tally to 175,000. “This allows us to achieve a high state of readiness, while maintaining forward presence as a part of the Navy–Marine Corps team,” he said.15 That force structure is built around MEBs and uses a combination of MEUs and SP MAGTFs to maintain forward presence. It also ensures that the pivot to the Pacific can proceed as planned. If implemented, however, that force structure will change the deployment-to-dwell radio from 1:3 to 1:2.
Just two days later, the four service chiefs provided testimony to the House Armed Services Committee regarding the impact of sequestration. Their remarks were sobering, with General Amos being the only one willing to state that his service was ready to handle a major theater war.16
As the year progressed it appeared that the Marine Corps had made its force structure case, largely by successfully distinguishing itself from “land forces.” Representative Forbes and Commander McGrath noted in their Union Tribune article that any defense structure decisions should fully consider “the critical role played by the U.S. Marine Corps in protecting and sustaining national interests far from our shores” and that “to do so properly, the Marine Corps must be placed squarely within the rubric of American sea power.” The authors added that “sequestration cuts should not exert undue influence on the size of the Marine Corps, which must be maintained as America’s force in readiness.”17 While the official results were not released during 2013, unofficial reports indicated that the QDR would adopt much the same view. The significance of this outcome was summed up neatly in an opinion piece written by Marine Captain Brett Friedman: “For perhaps the first time in its history, the smallest service is leaving a period of major wars without facing any significant threat to its existence.”18
This is not to imply that the Marine Corps does not have issues to deal with. For example, on 24 January 2013 the DOD announced that the Direct Ground Combat Exclusion Rule was being rescinded and that the services must identify assignments that can be opened to women, with full implementation to occur not later than 1 January 2016. The Marine Corps opened both officer and enlisted infantry training to women, but only for the purpose of collecting data for further study. On 21 November 2013, privates first class Cristina Fuentes Montenegro, Julia Carroll, and Katie Gorz became the first women to complete enlisted infantry training, followed by ten more on 19 December. By the end of 2013, no women had completed the Infantry Officers Course.
Move Over, “Chesty”
On 22 March 2013, General James N. Mattis relinquished U.S. Central Command to his successor and headed off into retirement. Arguably the most colorful and quotable Marine of his generation, he established a reputation as a pugnacious scholar and inspired those he served with. While Lieutenant General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller remains a Marine Corps icon, he retired nearly 60 years ago and the Marines who had a direct connection to him have long-since hung up their uniforms. In the years ahead, Marines who earned their combat action ribbons in Afghanistan and Iraq will be more inclined to pass on the Mattis legend, beginning their sea stories with, “Did I ever tell about when I was with ‘Chaos’ in…?”
Historians may easily overlook 2013 when recording the accomplishments of the Marine Corps. There were no daring landings against long-odds, no campaign-changing decisive battles, no headline-grabbing heroics that captured the public’s attention. What historians ought to record, however, is that in 2013 the Marine Corps’ once again assured itself a place in the future defense establishment.
2. Brian MacQuarrie, “Mass. native guides war in Afghanistan to a close,” Boston Globe, 4 August 2013, www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/08/03/mass-native-guides-war-afghanistan-closegeneral-from-quincy-guides-war-close/7qLm8Eqjwn4uFje7LOhioO/story.html.
3. Jim Maceda, “Marines pack up in Afghanistan as Taliban wages spring offensive,” NBC News, 12 May 2013, http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/05/12/18152503-us-marines-pack-up-in-afghanistan-as-taliban-wages-spring-offensive?lite.
4. Dan Lamothe, “Marines ready for next phase of Afghanistan withdrawal,” Marine Corps Times, 29 July 2013, www.marinecorpstimes.com/article/20130729/NEWS/307290004/Marines-ready-next-phase-Afghanistan-withdrawal.
5. Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Osprey vs. Bison in the East China Sea,” The Diplomat, 22 September 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/09/22/osprey-vs-bison-in-the-east-china-sea.
6. For example, see Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, “Asymmetric Warfare, American Style,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 138, no. 4 (April 2012), www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2012-04/asymmetric-warfare-american-style; or Jeffrey E. Kline and Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2012, www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/e3120d0c-8c62-4ab7-9342-805971ed84f4/Between-Peace-and-the-Air-Sea-Battle--A-War-at-Sea.
7. J. Randy Forbes and CDR Bryan McGrath, USN, (Ret.), “Marines’ Role Cannot Be Shortchanged,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 31 December 2013, www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/dec/31/marines-american-seapower/?#article-copy.
8. Robin F. Laird, “The US Marine Corps in the Pivot to the Pacific,” The Diplomat, 24 May 2013), http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/the-us-marine-corps-in-the-pivot-to-the-pacific/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20the-diplomat%20%28The%20Diplomat%20RSS%29.
9. Kyle Mizokami, “Inside Japan’s New Defense Plan,” USNI News, 20 December 2013, http://news.usni.org/2013/12/20/inside-japans-new-defense-plan?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=inside-japans-new-defense-plan.
10. Kyle Mizokami, “Japan’s Amphibious Buildup,” USNI News, 9 October 2013, http://news.usni.org/2013/10/09/japans-amphibious-buildup?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=japans-amphibious-buildup.
11. Gina Harkins and Sam Fellman, “Marines may see Philippine tours,” Marine Corps Times, 27 July 2013, www.marinecorpstimes.com/article/20130727/NEWS/307270001.
12. General James F. Amos, USMC, and Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, “A New Naval Era,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 6, (June 2013), www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2013-06/new-naval-era.
14. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Statement on Strategic Choices and Management Review, 31 July 2013, www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1798.
15. GEN James F. Amos, “America Needs a Robust Crisis Response Force,” Defense One, 16 September 2013, www.defenseone.com/management/2013/09/amos-america-needs-robust-crisis-response-force/70350/?oref=d-river.
16. Colin Clark, US Military Could Not Handle One Major Theater Operation If Sequester Sticks, Breaking Defense, 18 September 2013, http://breakingdefense.com/2013/09/18/us-military-could-not-handle-one-major-theater-operation-if-sequester-sticks/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BreakingDefense+%28Breaking+Defense%29.
17. Forbes and McGrath, “Marines’ Role Cannot Be Shortchanged.”
18. Brett Friedman, “View from the Cheap Seats: The USMC and the Budget Battle,” War on the Rocks, 26 December 2013, http://warontherocks.com/2013/12/view-from-the-cheap-seats-the-usmc-and-the-budget-battle.