Defense Media Network

State of the Corps

The Final Interview with Gen. James T. Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps

Gen. James T. Conway, as the 34th commandant of the Marine Corps, has navigated the Corps through a period of significant change and growth. From the creation and deployment of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) to major enhancements in individual Marine training for counterinsurgency (COIN) and urban warfare to the beginning of an all-STOVL (short take-off/vertical landing) aviation force, it has been one of the most transformational periods in Marine Corps history.

As a lieutenant colonel, Conway commanded 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He returned to Iraq a decade later as commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, taking part in the 2003 invasion and Operation Vigilant Resolve, the first battle for Fallujah, in 2004.

An honors graduate of the Army Infantry Officers Advanced Course, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the Air War College, his service awards and decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with palm, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with two Gold Stars, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, and the Combat Action Ribbon.

Shortly before his retirement, Conway agreed to one final “State of the Marine Corps” Q&A for this Marine Corps Outlook edition with Faircount senior writer J.R. Wilson.

J.R. Wilson: How would you describe the “State of the Corps” today?

Gen. James T. Conway: To answer that question, I first have to talk about our Marines – and the answer is: incredible. They really are. As I’ve traveled through the Corps from Okinawa to Afghanistan, morale is high and the Marines are doing great. Both recruiting and retention are off the page. There are currently about 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan and the biggest problem I have as commandant is trying to figure out how to get the other 183,000 of them to the fight. They all want to go – and this is a good problem to have.

Lance Cpl. Cody J. Stickels, a radio operator with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, patrols through farmland to the east of his company’s newly established observation post in Southern Shorsurak, Helmand province, Afghanistan, during Operation New Dawn, June 20, 2010. Conway feels his Marines are fighting in the toughest area in Afghanistan. Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga.

As far as the institution, we are also doing very well. We are fighting and winning in the Long War; we’ve grown the force to 202,000 Marines, which has enabled most units to achieve a 1:2 deployment to dwell ratio; our family readiness programs have been vastly improved to be on a wartime footing and we’re proud of the programs we have instituted to take care of our wounded warriors.

I am concerned that we have, due to operational requirements, gotten away from our amphibious roots. We’ve heavied-up in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the enemy and, in some ways, we have become a second land army. That’s OK – if there’s a fight to be in, we want to be there. I get it and my people get it.

We’ve been flexible enough to morph in and out of those conditions, but I am eager for the Corps to return to the sea in partnership with our Navy brothers and sisters. After we finish the fight in Afghanistan, we need to return to being the fast, lethal, and austere naval expeditionary force afloat. I feel that we best serve our nation’s interests in this role. The bottom line is that we do whatever the nation asks us to do.

How does that compare with 2006, 2001, and Desert Storm?

That’s a good question and I think I addressed some of this in my previous answer, but in Desert Storm, we heavied-up alongside the Army. In 2001, after 9/11, U.S. amphibious forces, from a seabase, led the first conventional strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And from 2003 to the present day, we once again find ourselves heavied-up alongside the Army. The common denominator is that at each milestone you mentioned, our Marines and sailors have performed magnificently.

What were the most important Marine deployments and operations from January 2009 to today?

In my mind, it’s leaving Iraq under a victory pennant and surging into Afghanistan. When the president needed another 30,000 troops to fight the enemy in Afghanistan, within 24 hours, the lead elements of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines were on their way. Shortly after Christmas, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines deployed. We now have about 20,000 Marines and sailors in Regional Command Southwest who are doing a tremendous job in what, I think, is the toughest place in Afghanistan. They really are. We’re in a tough fight there. Like Iraq, it’s another close fight, but we have the best NCOs and the best company-grade officers in the world, who are clamping down on the bad guys and bringing security to the region, so that’s a good thing.

How did the Corps fare in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and DoD budgets – any significant changes?

Well, we didn’t get everything we wanted, but we rarely do. What we found in the QDR is that the demand signal from the COCOMS [combatant commanders] for amphibious ships and Marine Expeditionary Units is increasing. They’ve expressed their operational needs, which are almost the same as we would need to put two brigades ashore – and that’s 38 amphibs. The SECNAV, CNO, and I all agree that 38 ships is the operational requirement. Below that number, we start to accept risk as a nation.

The QDR looked at how long we think this Long War is going to last and we came down pretty much to the same conclusions about how our forces ought to be shaped. For the Marine Corps, we’re OK with that, since we consider ourselves to be a two-fisted fighter. We have the capacity to heavy-up and roll alongside an Army corps and we are also adept at the small wars, the counterinsurgencies and hybrid conflicts that are in our cultural DNA.

We find that we are unique among the services in that 100 percent of our equipment procurement goes either way – from hybrid conflict to major theater war. So we consider ourselves to be a hard, lean, fast, austere, and lethal force and we’re very comfortable in that sort of alignment. With that said, we need to get back to training for both kinds of capacities, back to live-fire, combined-arms maneuver.

As for the budget, it is probably too early for me to discuss any specifics of cuts or changes, but looking toward the future, I do see budget cuts coming and think that my successor will have some hard decisions to make. The Marine Corps will have to pay our fair share of that cost. I would hope that these cuts would come after we win the fight in Afghanistan.

Keep in mind that for 6.1 percent of the baseline 2010 defense budget, the Marine Corps provides 15 percent of the nation’s active ground combat maneuver brigades, 12 percent of the nation’s fighter attack aircraft and 19 percent of our nation’s attack helicopters. On balance, the Marine Corps is a good return on investment and provides great value to the nation.

What is the status of Corps equipment, with respect to the heavy use – and remaining useful life – of current equipment and the timing and nature of incoming new equipment, both upgrades to legacy systems and entirely new systems/platforms? And what is on your “wish list,” from individual warfighter needs to major platforms?

We’ve been engaged in two wars since 2003 and a good deal of our equipment has been ridden hard and is worn out. The tempo of operations through more than eight years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has accelerated the wear and tear on equipment. Moreover, the diversion of equipment in theater from Iraq to Afghanistan has delayed reset actions at our logistics depots in the United States. Out of necessity, we have sourced equipment globally, taking from non-deployed units and strategic programs to support our forces in theater. As a result, our non-deployed units do not have the required amount of equipment they need to train or support other contingencies.

Conway maintains that the EFV is vital to the nation’s security and that its capabilities justify its cost. Photo courtesy of PEO LS.

I’m particularly interested in three equipment programs.

First off, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle [EFV] is the No.1 modernization program in the ground combat element of the MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force]. We haven’t taken a myopic view of the EFV and are well aware of the fiscal realities and developmental challenges associated with such a revolutionary vehicle. We are convinced, however, that our nation’s security demands the capabilities of the EFV and justifies the costs.

The Joint Strike Fighter is our No. 1 aviation modernization program. Although our investment in this program may seem high, it is important to note that the Marine Corps has not bought a fixed-wing tactical aircraft in 11 years and that the Joint Strike Fighter will ultimately replace three different types of aircraft currently in our inventory – the AV-8 Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet, and EA-6 Prowler.

The Osprey. We are very pleased with the performance of the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey. Osprey squadrons have completed three successful deployments to Iraq and one aboard ship. One squadron is currently in Afghanistan. We are nearing delivery of our 100th operational aircraft and, at our current build of 30 Ospreys per year, we are replacing our CH-46E medium-lift helicopter squadrons at a rate of two squadrons per year.

How is the Corps doing in retention and recruitment?

After nine years of war, I have to tell you that the Corps is doing good – much better than I expected. What all this tells me is that our Marines enjoy what they’re doing. They feel like they’re making a difference. That is one example of some of the positive signs that we are seeing out there.

We can probably attribute those rates to our enlistment bonuses to a certain degree, but I think it is closer to the truth to say that we just recruit young men and women who want to go fight. I base that on the fact that we had to close out our reenlistment for our first-term Marines and for our career force six months into the fiscal year. We reached our numbers halfway through the year. We think those retention figures are a good indicator of the resiliency of the force, because about 45 percent of our Marines are married.

The long-awaited and transformational MV-22 Osprey has fulfilled its promise in Iraq and Afghanistan, shrinking the battlespace and delivering lifesaving speed and range capabilities. USMC photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga.

We like to say, “You recruit a Marine, but you retain a family.” If you look at the indicators today in terms of what it means for our families, they’re pretty good. The resilience factor is better really than I thought it would be at this point in time. We measure suicide rates, divorce rates, UA, AWOL or desertion, drug abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, alcohol incidents – all those types of things retaining our officers and NCOs. Almost uniformly, those figures are as good or better today than they were in 2001. So you don’t see the wear and tear, the long-range effects of these deployments, except in suicide and divorce.

How would you describe the Corps’ relationship – current and changing – with other services and allies, especially when compared to pre-9/11?

This Long War we are engaged in is clearly a joint fight and we are right there with our sister services. We have integrated more with them in the current conflict than we had prior to 9/11 and things are going well. We’ve also partnered with coalition nations in both Iraq and Afghanistan and appreciate their contributions and sacrifices. We’ve never been closer to the United States Army, but we would like to get back to patrolling the high seas with the Navy. As I discussed earlier, we have become somewhat of a second land army and I am eager to see the Corps return to our amphibious roots. I think you’ll see more and more of that in the near future.

Will COIN now be a permanent part of the Marine Corps’ CONOPS?

The Marine Corps is a general-purpose force capable of operating across the spectrum of conflict. As such, what you call COIN – and we call hybrid wars – will be part of our mission set in the future. We have had a long history of participation in hybrid wars stretching back to the Banana Wars in the earlier part of the last century. We wrote a book back then called the Small Wars Manual, which we recently dusted off and re-edited for the conflicts we face today. So, yes, the Marine Corps will continue to do counterinsurgency operations whenever the nation calls us to do so.

How do you see the Corps mission in Afghanistan evolving?

Today, we are around our max of 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan and have about 183,000 Marines jealous and primed to deploy. Our numbers in-country have beefed up significantly in the past year. The plus-ups in troops are having a positive impact on the population of southern Afghanistan.

Sergeant Derrick C. Johnson, a squad leader with Company C, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, heads across a field as a CH-53 Sea Stallion lifts off behind him. Battalion Landing Team 1/7 was the spearhead for exercise Dawn Blitz, which honed traditional amphibious forced entry skills. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

Our opening volley in Marjah in the early spring required those additional Marines. It is a slow fight, crushing out the Taliban in the area. We are working to snuff out the insurgents’ ability to move freely and communicate through their traditional safe havens. We have denied the Taliban free and unencumbered access to the population centers. Right now, our forces are spreading to the more remote outlying areas to deny the enemy sanctuary and the ability to plan or operate.

We are filling the vacuums of power with a functional level of government instead of the traditional Taliban chokehold. It is going to take some time in the entire drug laden Helmand River valley to meet success. The MEF (Forward) with Maj. Gen. Rich Mills in charge is off to a great start, but there is hard work ahead.

We are exercising solutions for operating in the poppy fields and along the drug trafficking routes in Helmand province. This is where 90 percent of the world’s opium was traditionally produced.

We have been working methods to win over the farmers while denying Taliban profits. Paying farmers minimally for a destroyed crop and convincing them to grow wheat or saffron next time is one method. The actions must be in concert with larger interagency solutions so that the Marines are implementing a small piece of a bigger picture. For success, it will all come back to simple economics.

We are also working with the Afghan government programs to offer services as incentives, such as schools and clinics, as the farming population moves away from poppy production.

Although it will take time, the deployed Marines are making a significant difference.

How is MARSOC fitting into the overall Corps plan?  What is the Corps getting from MARSOC – and what is MARSOC getting from the big Corps?

Our involvement with MARSOC dates back to the previous SECDEF. We have about 2,500 of our finest Marines assigned to MARSOC and a significant number of them are doing some great things in Afghanistan. They are making a difference and we support them to the absolute best of our ability.

This has challenged us in some ways with respect to our own reconnaissance units, since we’ve pulled the cream of the crop off into MARSOC, so we’re trying to see what that means to our operational requirements.

Post-Afghanistan, I look forward to seeing our MARSOC Marines back serving with the MAGTF and our MEUs afloat. They will bring a tremendous capability to those organizations and to those MEU commanders. Having MARSOC units as part of the MEU allows us to do some things in the special operations realm that your traditional trigger-pullers aren’t trained to do. It will give the MARSOC mobility and an automatic base for support – and we think that’s really best employment in the future.

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2010-2011 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...