FROM THE CHEAP SEATS: The Current Marine Corps Public Display of Discourse
The Marine Corps is currently enduring another round of a very public discourse about how the service should be structured, equipped and focused for the future. This is not a new stage for the Marines, in fact, this is just the most current emergence of a discussion that has been on-going since the 1970s. There have been a lot of Marines, currently serving and retired, who have taken up the quill or placed themselves in front of the camera and let the world know their opinion about the new focus of the Marines.
For those who may not know, or haven’t paid much attention to this backyard fight, there are a number of issues that the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, is trying to enact during his time at the top of hill. The biggest issue, from my seat on the sidelines, is he wants to focus the Marines on China, and more broadly on the Pacific as whole. Again, this is not new. The Marines have a long, glorious history based on wars, both small and large, in the Asian Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere (this is what the Japanese military colloquially called their expansionist efforts in Asia from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s). From the Boxer Rebellion, to the island hopping campaign from Tarawa to Okinawa in World War Two, to the bloody advance and retreat up and down the Korean Peninsula from 1950 to 1953, and then in cities and highlands of Vietnam from the 1965 to 1973, the Marines presence in Asia has quite literally defined their recent history, Afghanistan and Iraq being an exception (although technically still in Asia, just the Central and Southwest portions of the continent). With the rise of the PRC as competitor number one of the United States, and with designs on becoming a global counterbalance to the U.S. within the geo-political order, the question of Marine organization identity is critical to understand and appreciate, because it drives a great deal of their thought towards China, Asia and the entire Western Pacific.
Organizational identity is an understudied and therefore, underappreciated and misunderstood more often than not. The concept wasn’t even created until 1985, but some work has been done, almost all in the corporate world, on what organizational identity means and how an organization’s identity is perceived from both within and from outside the organization. I would offer the Marine Corps organizational identity is so strongly integrated and intertwined with the Pacific that there is no other way to think about China. The Marines HAVE to focus on China, because the Marines have always focused on the Pacific, and for the better part of the last 125 years, have won their greatest victories and bled across countless islands, on top of nameless mountains, within ancient cities, and in fetid swamps and jungles. China has to be the next focal point for the Marine Corps, it is so deeply embedded with their identity as the Pacific focused fighting force for the United States that it is unfathomable to think otherwise.
But what if they are wrong? What if China can’t, or won’t, initiate an aggressive military campaign across the western periphery of the continent and into the archipelagos scattered from Malaysia to Indonesia to the Philippines, and then beyond into the scattered islands of the central and southern Pacific Ocean? This is one question a number of retired, and a smaller number of active, Marines are asking. It’s a critical question, because if China is the actual number one public enemy of the United States, and they decide that the bellicose diplomacy, weaponized economics and strong-arm propaganda isn’t meeting the desires of their leadership and decide to go on a large-scale military offensive, then the Marine Corps needs to be structured, equipped, manned and trained properly to meet that threat. Here’s the issue, though. The Marines are the nation’s quick reaction force, and that means they have to be a general purpose force that can quickly adapt to the evolving operational environment as it is at the moment, not the future. The absolute genius of the Marine Corps is in their incredible ability to quickly form battalion through Corps-sized “Marine Air Ground Task Forces” depending on the mission. The Marines are responsible for a number of short or no-notice responses to conduct humanitarian actions across the world, or rapidly execute Non-Combatant Evacuation Mission(NEOs) to get American citizens and diplomats out of areas which have turned decidedly bad for the United States. Having this combined arms capability, all the way down to the Company level, allows for an immense degree of flexibility of the tactical commander to execute and succeed in this mission. Will the tactical commanders of the future have that capability with the new force structure? It’s a question that needs to have an answer, after a lot of experimenting, training and refining of doctrine and lessons learned.
So this internal tension, and this absolutely mind-bogglingly difficult philosophical divide, is driving this discourse within the ranks of former, retired and current Marines. General Berger has already started changing the force structure of the Marine Corps, and as one of the more vocal and charismatic retired Generals, LtGen Paul Van Riper has stated, ““It will be a force shorn of all its tanks and 76% of its cannon artillery, and with 41% fewer Marines in its infantry battalions,” Van Riper wrote. “To make the situation even worse, there will be 33% fewer aircraft available to support riflemen on the ground.” This is being done in a belief that better communications, better concealment and deception efforts, and longer, more lethal weaponry will be required for the possible future fight in the Pacific against China. There is an old belief, and personally, I thought this was obsolete before Afghanistan and Iraq and those two wars made it even more obsolete, that if you structure, man, equip and train against your most dangerous enemy, you can do anything else relatively easily. At this point, the current Russia-Ukraine war should be placing a huge restrictor plate on the Marine force structure changes until a series of lessons-learned can be written, disbursed to the force, and understood by everyone from the Lance Corporal to the Commandant. I seriously, seriously hope that’s the case, but I am not certain it is actually in effect at the moment.
The lack of tanks and cannon artillery is especially problematic for the Marines, because they either have to conduct other operations, such as the NEOs mentioned before, or something similar to Operation Iraqi Freedom, with augmented forces from the Army. This support should not be written as gospel in the future. Marine forces in World War Two were routinely task-organized with Army, Army Air Corps and Navy units, from Army National Guard Infantry Divisions to independent tank battalions to Navy Construction Battalions (the famous CBs). But it’s not a given that the Army, who will be asked to focus on Russia and Europe as well as the North Korean threat in the future, will be so willing to divert combined arms battalions (the Army doesn’t have pure tank battalions anymore, they have been gone since the Modular Force changes in the 2004–2011 timeframe mixed mech infantry and armor companies under a single battalion) or cannon artillery battalions if they are confronted with a simultaneous threat from China and Russia. Or North Korea and Russia, or pick any two possible adversaries the nation may need the Army to fight at the same time.
There is a real good news story to all of this, and I am being 100% dead serious when I write this next sentence. I am extremely happy that this discourse has bled into the public sphere. This happened with the post-Vietnam reform efforts in the Army and the Marines, and I think it’s fantastic. There is a great deal of truth about the old saw “Sunlight makes for the best disinfectant” and getting all of this into the public eye is critically important. What would be even nicer, and I am not getting my hopes up here, is that Congress would start taking a real and present oversight role in all of this, primarily out of the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees, but everyone in Congress who cares about the future of one of the nation’s services should weigh in as they see fit. As this debate and discourse continue over the following months and years, it is good to see such passion, intellect and concern emerge about OUR Marine Corps. To those that have served or currently serve as a Marine, I can only say thank you. Keep muddling along, keep questioning the truth, keep struggling to define and find what the future might become, because the nation will depend on you sooner than you realize.