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The U.S. Marine Corps Year in Review

For the Marine Corps, 2010 began with the last infantry units leaving Iraq and ended with discussions of a drawdown in the near future.

In the middle, the Corps not only wrestled with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but here at home over its future.

There were disappointments: the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program and the delay of the Marine version of the Joint Strike Fighter.

But the Corps won some hard-fought battles during 2010, both in and out of combat.

They successfully took back parts of Afghanistan from the Taliban in tough fighting that reached a crescendo as the year ended – and prompted officials to order the deployment of even more Marines to the country immediately – before the gradual withdrawal of combat troops begins.

But they also began, yet again, to formally define their role in the U.S. military as yet another force structure review got under way, and by year’s end it was announced that the Corps would get smaller – once the war in Afghanistan was over.

All this started in a year when the Corps saw a new man step into the service’s top spot.

The new boss took over on Oct. 22, 2010, when Gen. James F. Amos replaced Gen. James Conway, becoming the 35th commandant of the Marine Corps.

Lance Cpl. David Ortega and Lance Cpl. Miguel Travino, both members of 2nd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, kneel in a group of trees in the southern Sangin district of Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2010. The platoon was on an operation to secure a new patrol base in the area. Although the Marines encountered several firefights and found several improvised explosive devices during the first three days of the operation, they also secured the compound and established a new patrol base. Cpl. Daniel Blatter

Amos was nominated by President Barack Obama after being recommended for the job by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in mid-June. He was nominated by Obama in July.

Amos’ rise to the top of the Corps has a historic footnote, too, as it marked the first time the Marine’s top general wasn’t also an infantry officer. Instead, Amos is a career aviator who has flown both the F-4 Phantom and the F/A-18 Hornet – and commanded aviation units in combat.

He takes over as the Corps is still engaged in battle but also looking to the postwar future. A large-scale review of future Corps needs – mandated by Gates and put into motion by Conway – will have to be managed and implemented by Amos over the next few years.

Shifting Focus
In 2010, the Marine Corps remained engaged in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but its focus narrowed early in the year as the last Marine Corps infantry units began to pull out of Iraq in January – eight months before the last Army combat units made the same trek out of the country.

The move came after seven years of fighting in Iraq, during which 850 Marines were killed in action. But in that time, the Corps added to its lore with a series of hard-won victories that helped bring down Saddam Hussein; helped a new government get its feet on the ground; and quelled the following insurgency.

The Marines’ departure was made formal in late January, when Maj. Gen. Richard Tryon, then the Marine commander in Iraq, transferred Anbar province to the Army’s 1st Armored Division, ending the Corps’ large-scale commitment in the country.

The last combat unit, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, a Reserve battalion based in St. Louis, Mo., deployed in September 2009 to conduct convoy security, guard border crossings, and train Iraqi troops. They left in February 2010.

While searching a compound in the Sangin district of Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2010, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Marcusen and Cpl. Jon Andujo look over a wall into the next compound before Marines with 2nd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, enter and clear the area. The Marines of 2nd Platoon were on an operation to establish a new patrol base in southern Sangin. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris

That departure closed the book on nearly seven years of war in Iraq. It all started March 20, 2003, when 40,000 marines moved into Iraq’s southern Basrah province and set out for Baghdad.

Over the years, there were some intense battles. The now-famous fights for Fallujah and Ramadi, early in the war, have become part of Marine Corps battle history. But even as late as 2007, there were more than 20,000 Marines engaged in the embattled Anbar province – the scene of a tough insurgency.

The focus has shifted now to Afghanistan, where 21,500 Marines were engaged with the Taliban as 2010 ended.

But a year ago, the Corps was already in the thick of fighting in southern Afghanistan, part of the 20,000-troop surge ordered by Obama, and things just didn’t slow down. As the year progressed, the Marines did well, securing former Taliban strongholds in Helmand province, including Marjah, Garmser, and Nawa.

And there’s no end in sight. In October, Marines began to push even deeper into Sangin, a notoriously violent district in northern Helmand province.

The Corps took over the lead in Sangin from the British, who had patrolled the region for years. It’s always been considered a dangerous area and ambushes still occur quite frequently.

For the last part of 2010, the Marines in Sangin shared the work with 40 Commando, a Royal Marine unit, but as 40 Commando headed home in late 2010, there was no plan to replace them, leaving 3/7 Marines alone to handle what many consider the most violent region in Helmand province.

Now, the Marines have changed from the strategies used by their British allies. They are destroying some forward operating bases in an attempt to have fewer “fixed bases” in favor of more combat outposts. The strategy of sending troops to smaller but more numerous combat outposts was started by then-Commandant Conway before he retired.

“We believe that we need to challenge the enemy where he thinks he has strength, and we are less prone, I think, to move into a forward operating base and simply use that as a basis for operation,” Conway said during an Aug. 24 news briefing at the Pentagon. “Our mentality is there’s no place in a zone where we’re not going to go.”

Camped out aboard Outpost Athens West, Lance Cpl. Kevin Sullivan, an artilleryman with India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, wears the new Flame Resistant Organizational Gear (FROG) as he peers through his newly acquired Nokia “Big Eye” binoculars. The FROG problems are being addressed while new gear is issued more frequently to replace the faulty clothing. U.S. Marine Corps photo

But it’s come at a price for the Marines, who lost nearly 20 of their own during the last three months of 2010. That’s because, officials say, the 3/7 Marines have encountered many mines and hundreds of insurgents holed up in an area known as the “Green Zone,” which stretches to the neighboring community of Kajaki.

Many strategists believe enemy forces have had a staging area in this area to support the insurgency in Kandahar province. But officials also plan to use some different strategies in Sangin soon, as they announced in late 2010 a plan to augment the Marines there with Delta Company, 1st Tank Battalion, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., in early 2011.

As this report went to press, officials had just announced yet another plus-up: Nearly 1,400 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit will be sent as temporary reinforcements to help Marines and allied forces combat an expected spring 2011 offensive by the Taliban.

Hardware Issues
After making steps forward in 2010, the Marine Corps’ embattled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle looked to have become a casualty of budget cuts early in 2011.

The move came from within the service as the Department of Defense looked to make a total of $150 billion in cuts across all the armed forces.

An Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle executes testing maneuvers off the coast of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., in October 2008. The embattled program will be cancelled, unless Congress reverses the move. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald

“After a thorough review of the program within the context of a broader Marine Corps force structure review,” said Amos in a written statement, “I personally recommended to both the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy that the EFV be canceled and that the Marine Corps pursue a more affordable amphibious tracked fighting vehicle.” Nevertheless, some in Congress have vowed to fight the cancellation.

In the meantime, the service will look to overhaul its existing tracked amphibious vehicles until a suitable replacement can be developed and fielded, something that Amos said was a priority for the Corps.

Meanwhile, another important Marine program, the development of a Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) variant capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, will be delayed for two years, mostly because of problems in testing. That fact became increasingly obvious during 2010 and was made formal by Gates in the same announcement at the beginning of 2011.

The delay means the Corps’ ability to provide its own close air support to Marines engaged on the ground will erode further before it can improve. JSF is currently slated to eventually replace three Marine aircraft currently in inventory – the F/A-18 Hornet, the EA-6B Prowler, and the AV-8B Harrier II.

The JSF wasn’t supposed to be ready for the fleet until 2012 initially. Now that will push back to 2014 at the earliest. Considering the service hasn’t purchased fixed-wing aircraft in the past decade, getting its aging aerial fleet to that date will be a challenge.

But there is a bright spot for the Corps, as the Department of the Navy plans to use part of its savings to repair and refurbish Marine equipment worn out by combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the Corps’ 2010 report to Congress, the supply rating of units in Afghanistan is near 100 percent, but the supply rating of units at home is less than 60 percent.

Though it’s evident that the gear is getting to the units that most need it, it’s also degrading the ability for units to prepare for deployment as the amount of equipment remaining for non-deployed units to use for training has continued to decline.

New Troop Gear Fielded
The Marine Corps’ new M27 infantry automatic rifle began to hit the fleet in December 2010, when five units received the weapons. The new weapon is supposed to eventually replace many of the service’s M249 squad automatic weapons in certain types of units.

The weapon fires a 5.56 mm round, same as the M249. However, it’s lighter and easier to carry, making Marine automatic riflemen more maneuverable.

But not everyone’s buying it yet. Before he retired, Conway was worried that because it employs a 30-round magazine, the M27 wouldn’t have enough firepower in combat.

1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment armorers perform a function check on new M27 infantry automatic rifles under the supervision of a Marine Corps Systems Command New Equipment Trainer. The 1/3 Marines will train and deploy with the weapons to provide feedback that will help decide the weapon system’s future in the Marine Corps. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tommy Bellegarde

As a result, Conway ordered a limited fielding of the weapon ¬– of which the Corps hopes to buy around 4,100 – to deploy with selected units to Afghanistan in 2011.

The M27 will not totally replace the M249 as the Corps’ machine gun, however, said Lt. Gen. George Flynn, deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

“We’ll still leave the light machine guns in the company, and the company commander will still have the ability to employ a light machine gun if he needs one,” he said. “But they won’t be there in the same numbers.”

Flynn told reporters he was “anxious” to get feedback “when the battalions actually take it out on deployment.”

There were also issues with the new Flame Resistant Organizational Gear, or FROG. The new battle uniform was designed to reduce casualties from fire and flash burns, common injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Development started in 2006, when the Corps was engaged mostly in Iraq. With the shift to the colder weather environment in Afghanistan, the gear began to have problems. Officials discovered in May 2010 that the lack of regular laundering in Afghanistan was causing the clothes to wear out in weeks instead of the promised year.

In short, when first exposed to water or sweat, then dried, the fabric becomes brittle and stitching in the seams fails with little stress. The service is working on a solution, but in the meantime they’ll issue extra suits as an interim response.

Another priority for the Corps is to develop a new helmet that can better stop a 7.62 mm – the round fired by an AK-47. The idea took steps forward in 2010 after a second round of tests showed promise – though it’s unlikely any new helmet will deploy by mid-2011 as initially planned.

The first tests, done in 2009 and featuring initial designs of five plastic prototypes developed by four separate companies, failed to stop the rounds.

Force Structure
In mid-August, Gates ordered a thorough force structure review of the Marine Corps to determine the size and needs of the service once the current wars are over.

Already, Gates announced, he plans to cut the postwar Corps by nearly 20,000, bringing the service’s end strength down to around 180,000 from the 202,000 Marines who are on active duty today.

There are questions about the mission of the Marine Corps, he said.

Specifically, Gates said that the nation does not need a second land army. The Corps must continue to be the nation’s quick response force, troops who can deploy quickly and sustain themselves for a short period of time.

Though most of the Marines’ wars, from Vietnam to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, started as operations projected from the sea, “they soon turned into long, grinding, ground engagements,” Gates said. “Looking ahead, I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible.” The Inchon landings in Korea during the early 1950s were the last large-scale combat amphibious landings conducted by the Marine Corps.

And now, technology is making it easier for land-based enemies to get weapons that will ultimately drive the starting point for amphibious operations farther and farther out to sea – making these operations even tougher to stage.

Already the review group’s recommendations are being reviewed by Flynn, and the package is likely to be handed to Amos soon. Still, one thing’s for certain: Leadership has said there are no plans on the table currently to draw down while combat operations are ongoing in Afghanistan.

This article was first published in The Year in Defense, 2010 Review, Winter 2011 Edition.