For decades, the U.S. Marine Corps has attempted to tweak its force structure to enhance performance within a constrained funding environment. Rather than continuing to make changes around the margins, we would be better off revisiting a debate started following World War II and prematurely truncated during the Korean War. Does the United States need a light infantry force specializing in amphibious operations as a separate service, or should the Marine Corps be resized to the small police force it was prior to World War I and the amphibious organization incorporated into the Army?
The discussion after World War II was primarily prompted by President Harry S. Truman, along with General of the Army George C. Marshall (who later served as a Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense) and General of the Army and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While admittedly all three were Army (President Truman was a captain in World War I and rose to colonel and regimental commander in the reserves), they were clearly knowledgeable about the U.S. defense requirements. Although the discussion ceased with Korea, the question was effectively answered in 1957 by Brigadier General Victor Krulak in a letter to then Marine Corps Commandant General Randolph Pate, “The United States does not need a Marine Corps. However, for good reasons which completely transcend cold logic, the United States wants a Marine Corps.”
Krulak was right in 1957, and what he said is even more true today. The Army, Navy, and Air Force are fully capable of performing the Marine Corps’ missions. The Army can assume the light infantry and amphibious assault responsibilities. The 1944 invasion at Normandy, the largest invasion in history, was solely an Army effort for the United States. As far as Marine Corps air, the Navy and Air Force are fully capable of close air support, while the Army can also execute the needed rotary and tilt wing missions. The nation wants the Marines. The question may be how to keep the aspects the nation wants, while eliminating the Marines as a separate branch and reaping the benefits of a simplified chain of command, smaller overall force, and another base realignment and closure (BRAC) evolution.
Deconstructing the Marine Corps
So, what aspects does the nation want? If the Marine Corps answers that question, the answer will probably be what it currently has, but with better funding. The informal Marine Corps propaganda apparatus, which President Truman begrudgingly complimented as second in the world only to Joseph Stalin’s, will demand the status quo. For the first time in a generation, the lack of significant numbers of former service members in Congress—coupled with national fatigue after fighting an unsuccessful, two-decade-long war—may allow this topic to be discussed seriously.
Perhaps the easiest part of the current Marine Corps to remove is aviation. There is unlikely to be a huge support community with the nation for Marine aviation, especially the fixed-wing aspects. For most Americans, their knowledge of Marine aviation is likely limited to watching Flying Leathernecks (1951) and The Great Santini (1979). Likewise, the average citizen may see no difference between Marine rotary and tilt-wing aviation and its Army equivalents. The average citizen likely sees no difference because the differences that do exist—primarily the ability to fly from ships—are minor. The nation does not need a separate Marine Corps aviation force and few in the nation likely know enough about it to want it. Eliminating Marine aviation by incorporating it into the Army and Navy would halve the size of the service, which currently is around 184,000 active-duty members.
The U.S. public is far less likely to accept the complete disappearance of the Fleet Marine Forces, the ubiquitous “Mud Marine.” Stripped of aviation, the Marine Corps would resemble the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, both in size (approximately 88,000 troops) and capabilities—both are light infantry, both are air-mobile, and both are capable of airborne and amphibious operations. Both consider themselves to be “elite” forces with strong esprit de corps. Transition of the Fleet Marine Forces into the Army’s yet-to-be created XIX Marine Amphibious Corps would retain the needed amphibious expertise, simplify the chain of command, and could be done in a way that retains many of the unique elements that make a Marine a Marine.
Establishing the Army’s XIX Marine Amphibious Corps at Camp Pendleton on the west coast would give the nation a light infantry “center of excellence” on each coast. Reducing the Marine Corps Commandant to a three-star general, mirroring the XVIII Corps commander, would help reduce the gradual increase in rank structure seen over the past 50 years across the Department of Defense (DoD). Army traditions are likely flexible enough to retain many of the cherished Marine Corps’ accoutrement, like the dress blues and the eagle, globe and anchor emblem. The Army airborne troops currently have their maroon berets and cavalry units have their cowboy hats and spurs. Also, if the XVIII Corps can informally use the term “top” for the command first sergeant, the XIX Corps might well use “gunny” for E-7s. Likewise, young men and women could enlist to be Marines and continue to go through Parris Island for boot camp.
Incorporating the Marine Corps into the Army would significantly simplify the DoD chain of command and eliminate the need for the Commandant to go to the Army and beg for future armor and artillery support. Likewise, the Marines of the XIX Corps would have an equal chance of obtaining any new capabilities integrated into the Army, while potentially allowing Army leaders to reduce the operational tempo of both Corps, although both will still be rapid-deployment units.
To say that Marines would resist incorporation into the Army and Navy is a gross understatement. However, there are concessions that might make it slightly less toxic for the Marines and less objectionable to the public and Congress. Allowing Marine fixed-wing pilots inducted into the Navy to finish out their career using Marine Corps ranks and uniforms would likely help and given the Navy’s history of mixed uniforms, would probably go unnoticed by the public. Similar concessions for the generation of current Marines incorporated into the Army could potentially ease their transition. But regardless of how successful these mitigation efforts are, the DoD would likely be looking at a decade of angst and occasional confusion. The key will be Congress, which will have to rewrite legislation, including U.S. Title 10. As mentioned previously, there are fewer Marines in Congress today than at any time since the early 1950s (there are 15 Marine Corps veterans in the 117th Congress). This, coupled with the inevitable savings from another round of base closures, might be enough to see the initiative championed by President Truman and advocated by Generals Eisenhower and Marshall completed.
General Krulak correctly stated the United States does not need but wants the Marine Corps. For the best interests of the nation, the DoD should at least learn if the U.S. public and Congress will accept a XIX Marine Amphibious Corps. If the answer is yes, then a myriad of questions will have to be answered: Does the nation need two separate light infantry corps? Which Marine Corps installations will be closed or reduced? How many Marine Corps military and civilian personnel, made redundant by the changes, will be discharged? And what, if anything, will remain as a Navy police force? If the topic is given a fair hearing, the answers may surprise us all.