A s the smallest of the nation’s uniformed military services, the Marine Corps is most susceptible to tight budgets, but also can restructure itself more quickly to adapt to any new threat or requirement, which makes predicting what a Marine Corps of 2030 might look like extremely difficult, despite the production of “future status” and “vision” reports every five years or so.
Despite not having been called on to conduct a major, heavily opposed beach landing since 1950, Corps statistics report some 108 amphibious operations since 1991 – double the rate during most of the Cold War. Many of those were in support of relief missions, including the United States itself in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
But even as the Corps has responded more frequently for non-military missions, combat operations remain its primary focus for the future. That is especially true as the Marines continue their drawdown from entirely inland missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and begin a reset to their historic naval roots and core competencies.
“The current leadership of the Corps recognizes the need to rethink the problem of modern amphibious warfare and reassess the benefits that accrue to amphibiously agile states,” national security analyst and former Marine officer Frank G. Hoffman wrote on the National Intelligence Council-sponsored Global Trends 2030 website. “It is necessary to explore the historical record and go beyond the surface to assess strategic implications if hard choices must be made.
“Looking forward, the United States has not lost its need to rapidly insert combat forces inland and violently strike against adversaries far from its own shores. In fact, critical DoD [Department of Defense] and Joint planning documents argue for greater access challenges, not less, given large reductions in overseas bases and political considerations that may restrict access. Some of that access can be garnered through sustained engagement with allies, but in other cases access may have to be obtained at risk in contested space. Conducting forcible entry operations from the sea, viewed as part of a Joint effort, thus remains necessary [to] provide the United States with a distinctly asymmetric capability.”
A Decade-plus of USMC Restructuring
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) led to perhaps the most substantial changes in Marine training and equipment in a single decade or conflict in Corps history. The Marines in Afghanistan today are far more heavily trained in combat medicine, local languages and culture, even diplomacy. Their combat uniforms and personal gear also are significantly different from those who first went in theater in 2001.
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), networked systems and communications, body armor, increasingly heavier vehicle armor, and new equipment – from the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to the mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, fielded as a Marine Corps urgent requirement – were part of a continuous transformation, as was creation of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) as part of the joint Special Operations Command (SOCOM) – the only Marine component scheduled to grow rather than shrink in coming austerity budgets.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos said the recent Marine Corps Force Structure Review is leading to a “purpose-built” Marine Corps that is smaller “but in many ways more capable” than it was on 9/11.
“We have acknowledged the changing nature of the battlefield by increasing our contribution to special operations and cyber warfare and have lightened the Marine air-ground-logistics task forces by reducing the number of heavy armor and artillery units and through streamlining our organizational hierarchy,” he said.
“As our nation turns its attention to the Pacific, the Marine Corps looks forward to reorienting our focus west to this historic area of operations; in doing so, we will continue to respond to crises and contingencies throughout the world as the president may direct. In line with the strategic guidance, we will recommit ourselves to our long-standing forward-deployed and forward-engaged partnership with the Navy, while returning to our fundamental role as America’s expeditionary force in readiness.”
Amos has referred to the Marines as America’s “middleweight” force, able to respond faster than the other services to unexpected crises, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to full-scale combat. In that role, the Corps provides an initial projection of U.S. military power, in tandem with the Navy, pending arrival of larger, more land- and logistics-dependent Army and Air Force units. Amos and other Marine leaders see that becoming even more important in a multipolar world in which non-state aggressors, such as al Qaeda, can demand a major U.S. military commitment.
More than a decade of constant combat on two fronts has pushed Marine Corps platforms, many already approaching the end of their intended useful lives, beyond the point of life extension. For Kevin McConnell, deputy director of the Capabilities Development Directorate’s Fires & Maneuver Integration Division, that means not being overly influenced by that conflict while still using the knowledge gained from it to help determine future requirements and capabilities.
“What comes out of that is, mobility is important, the key premise we’re working on with all our vehicle programs, particularly off road, which also includes pretty complex urban terrain,” he said. “Without a doubt, a replacement for our current amphibious assault vehicle is our top ground priority. The AAV [Amphibious Assault Vehicle] is a key enabler of ship-to-objective or forcible entry operations from the sea.
“Some upgrades aside, the current AAV is, in design and technology, about a 40-year-old vehicle. Its replacement has to be a very seaworthy vehicle, account for new technology and, for operations ashore, where we spend most of our time, be highly mobile and have increased protection over what the current vehicle has, particularly against mines and IEDs.”
Ship-imposed size and weight limitations, which also affect its ability to move through the water, and the need to carry 17 fully combat-ready Marines as safely as possible lay the foundation for the next Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV).
“We’ve spent the better part of two years making sure we understand those factors, drawing on lessons learned from the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and ongoing ops to make sure we can do all we need to do. And I’ll tell you now, you can’t have an MRAP-level protected vehicle that also is shipboard transportable. So you have to make some very careful trades,” McConnell said. “With one of the new vehicles – the Amphibious Combat Vehicle – that means providing protection that makes sense, given the mission it has.
“The Marine Personnel Carrier [MPC], which in concept is operated by the same units that operate the AAV and will operate the ACV, is designed to be much more of a land vehicle, with amphibious requirements limited to rivers and lakes. It is required to be a wheeled vehicle and really represents the absolute modern focus of most militaries around the world. We will continue to work those so, in the next 20 years, we will be able to field the ACV and a complementary MPC that, combined, will provide the required lift for our infantry.”
In a “perfect world with unlimited funding,” he added, the Corps would procure both vehicles at the same time. But current budgetary realities prohibit two simultaneous big programs, so the procurements will be sequenced, with the ACV taking precedence due to its unique military capabilities.
“Nobody else possesses it,” he pointed out. “It provides us with a very specialized way of gaining access around the world. So as part of a naval force, it is a key enabler to America’s access wherever we need to have it.”
Marine Corps aviation has always been subject to attack from those looking to reduce defense spending or shift funds to other programs.