This piece is third in a series on the challenges facing the U.S. Armed Forces. Previous entries discussed the Army and the Air Force. As the U.S. Marine Corps winds down its operations in Afghanistan, it faces a different kind of battlefield back home, where the challenges take shape as numbers, ideas and purposes. This operational theater consists of three fronts: budgetary, cultural and conceptual.On the budgetary front, the Corps faces substantial challenges as it adjusts to the decline in defense spending that historically follows periods of war; the frustrations of “continuing resolutions”, by which it must operate under the funding level approved for the previous year regardless of the accumulation of new expenses; and the cuts forced by sequestration, which require an additional 8 percent reduction in the Corps’ annual budget each year for the next decade. Regarding cultural stressors, the Corps must deal with the implications of homosexuals serving openly and accommodating their partners or spouses; figure out how to open previously restricted “combat arms” occupational fields to women; and manage shrinking its force by 10 percent over the next four years, while keeping faith with Marines accustomed to high-tempo combat operations abroad who will now increasingly be moored to garrison and training environments in the States for the decade to come. As for conceptual matters, the Corps has embarked on a variety of efforts to redefine its role as the nation’s “911 force.” What does it mean to “get back to the sea” following a decade of sustained operations ashore? The vast majority of Marines currently serving in uniform have never set foot on a ship. How does the Corps regain a service-wide competence in amphibious operations if the U.S. Navy now has only 28 amphibious ships in its fleet, half of which might be unavailable for immediate use at any given moment due to maintenance schedules? How should the Corps proceed with plans to focus on key regions, to maintain a “persistent presence” supporting U.S. regional commanders with at-the-ready crisis response forces, when the cost of deploying such forces is steadily rising? Each front brings challenges of its own, but taken together they present a kind of battlefield occupied by the Service’s most senior officials. The outcome of these battles will shape the Corps in size, capability and purpose for many years to come. The Budget Front The Marine Corps has a baseline budget of roughly $26 billion, which represents a bit less than 5 percent of what the Department of Defense requested for fiscal year 2013: $525.4 billion. Since Congress has yet to approve an actual budget for this year, the Department of Defense is conducting business under a “continuing resolution” that limits its budget to the level of funding approved for the previous year. This means that the Corps has been unable to fully address the myriad items that differ from the previous year’s budget, such as additional losses from combat operations in Afghanistan or unanticipated increases in manpower-related costs. To make matters worse, the spending cuts mandated by sequestration require the Department of Defense to reduce spending by 9 percent, or $42.5 billion, across the board (with exceptions made for military pay and benefits). The Marine Corps has a share of this cut, combined with previously identified shortfalls in “reset costs” stemming from combat operations. This means that it will have to find roughly $1.4 billion in savings between now and September 30, the end of the fiscal year—and savings of more than $2 billion each year thereafter through 2021. General James T. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, in February 12, 2012, said that the budgetary shortfall and the extended effect of sequestration, if not adjusted, will result in a one-third reduction of ready aircraft in Marine Corps squadrons. That means less than half of ground units will be trained to minimum standards for deployment, a decrease in depot-level maintenance support of 75 percent; substantial delays in major acquisition programs, like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), which will invariably incur additional costs over the life of such programs; and major adjustments in the planned acquisition of the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. Critics and supporters alike argue the merits of reducing defense spending in general, but both tend to agree that the cuts mandated under sequestration are the worst possible approach: an arbitrary flat rate applied across nearly all elements of defense spending. There’s no regard for prioritization of programs or the effect a given cut will have on a specific program or operational capability. Rather, the Services would prefer to sacrifice less critical programs in favor of those that are more important. For example, the Marine Corps conducted a 15-year effort to develop a replacement for its aged Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV). This culminated in the 2011 cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), largely due to cost overruns that would have consumed ninety percent of the budget for ground vehicles had the EFV gone into production. Given that the AAV is now 40 years old, the Corps has reengaged with the Amphibious Combat Vehicle program. While it remains to be seen how quickly the Service finalizes specifications for the vehicle and opens the program for competitive bidding, its ability to do so will be hampered by the arbitrary cuts imposed by sequestration. The same goes for the Marine Personnel Carrier program and replacement of various combat losses across its inventory of ground equipment. While the budget pressures on Marine Corps accounts are significant, they are of secondary importance to what the Corps values most—its people. Manpower costs account for sixty percent of the Marine Corps budget, and these costs are rising every year, in large measure due to the substantial increases in pay and benefits over the past fifteen years and the ever-rising costs of health care. Since the attacks of 9/11, the American public has rallied behind its military in both tone and substance quite unlike anything seen since World War II. Increased pay, long-term health care, education, family support, transition assistance, and a multitude of “quality of life” programs have been initiated and supported in recognition of the service these young men and women provide to the nation. But these all come at a cost, and as our national economic situation has become strained so too has the ability of the Services to sustain them. Some forms of support can be reduced or eliminated while others, such as medical care, cannot. As of March 1, 2013, over 50,000 servicemen and women have been wounded during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, each requiring various amounts of care, some of which is extensive in magnitude and duration. Even our honored and noble dead, 6,657 at last count, generate costs that while irrelevant when compared to such ultimate sacrifice nevertheless must be accounted for in budgets. The immediate impact of all these expenses can be seen in the reduced size of the Marine Corps (which is shedding 20,000 Marines over the next few years), less training, fewer deployments, and older, more worn equipment. The only thing likely to increase in the coming years will be the Corps’ challenge to meet its commitments. The Cultural Front An aspect of the Marine Corps (indeed of all the U.S. military Services) that is routinely acknowledged but not really appreciated is the discipline it instills in its Marines and what this means in terms of “obedience to orders.” Perhaps I am overstating the case, but it is important to note how dedicated Marines are to carrying out orders to the best of their ability. With respect to the cultural issues noted at the beginning, the Corps will fully implement the recent changes in law that repealed the prohibition on openly practicing homosexuals serving in the military and policies that previously barred women from serving in ground combat-arms units—because the Corps has been told to do so. (Note: women have served in military organizations and on battlefields around the world for about as long as mankind has engaged in war. The important distinction with respect to the policy change announced by former Secretary Panetta is to change the involvement of women in combat actions incidental to their service in support organizations—e.g. responding to an ambush while participating in a convoy or helping to repel an attack on a support base—to offensive combat action as their primary function while serving in an infantry, artillery, armor, or similar “combat arms” ground unit.) Marines are completely committed to the principle of civilian oversight and control of the military. In their commissioning or enlistment oath Marines swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, thereby committing themselves to upholding and carrying out the laws of the land. It is not in their ethical code to refuse a lawful order regardless the perceived wisdom or foolishness of that order. Thus, the Corps will implement the “law of the land” as enacted by duly constituted legal authorities regardless of any reservations, preferences, beliefs or convictions of individuals within the Corps. Whether removing the barriers to full service for homosexuals and women is wise or foolish as it pertains to military effectiveness on a battlefield will be determined through operational experience in the years to come but, for the here-and-now, the Corps’ leadership echelons from senior General officers to small unit leaders (the Corporals, Sergeants, Lieutenants and Captains working at the front lines of action) will have to contend with the frictions that will result from these changes. The Corps is an inherently conservative organization, one deeply imbued with a ‘warrior ethos’ that prizes individual and small unit achievement on the battlefield especially when in the context of direct engagement with enemy forces. All Marines, male and female, receive training in the fundamentals of basic combat skills such as marksmanship, first aid, small unit leadership, an appreciation of and high tolerance for rugged living in austere conditions, and developing what Marines call an “expeditionary mindset”, meaning a mental attitude that prepares one for deployment to and employment in distant theaters of operation, on short notice, and with a decidedly aggressive intent to succeed regardless of the challenges encountered. Implicit in Marine Corps success on the battlefield is cohesion among tightly knit groups of Marines forming the small units that execute tactical missions. Every Marine has a high expectation that his or her fellow Marines will shoulder their share of the load and be ready and able to take on a greater share of the collective load should conditions warrant, and ability to succeed in rugged, austere, and dangerous conditions. This shared ethos is strengthened and made resilient through training that builds confidence in one’s capabilities and the capabilities of one’s team, shared hardship in tough training and operational missions, and shared baseline values. Insufficient training erodes skills and corresponding confidence. Significant variance among team members in expected levels of performance breeds doubt and generates resentment. If there’s a wide divergence in values, codes of morality, or perceptions of acceptable behavior, it introduces friction and raises the baseline level of stress within a unit that consumes some amount of a person’s ability to handle the amplified stresses of war. Again, Marines will execute the lawful orders given them. They view it as a sacred duty and a fundamental part of what it means to be a Marine. This makes it all the more important for those in policy-making positions to carefully consider the things it calls on the military to do. Success in war under the most favorable conditions is hard enough. To the extent the military must account for various social or cultural issues that introduce inherently contentious factors, it behooves leaders at the most senior levels to ensure the issue is of sufficient merit to outweigh any additional difficulties it imposes on the military organization. The Conceptual Front Like the other military Services, the Marine Corps has been focused on the immediate demands of sustained operations in the Middle East. Marines who entered the Corps in 2001 are more than halfway to earning their 20-year retirement. During this time, all that most of them have known has been the steady drumbeat of news, training, and deployments centered on counterinsurgency, irregular warfare, the threat of IEDs and how not to offend when drinking tea with a village elder. There has been little time or opportunity to address the evolving demands for different capabilities in other areas of the world where threats and conditions are dramatically different. Consequently, as operations in Afghanistan come to a close (slated for the end of 2014), the Corps has engaged in a sweeping effort to rethink how it can best serve national security interests and the specific requirements of the U.S. military’s Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCC), those four-star-level officers charged with overseeing U.S. military activities in specific regions. The effort has included papers, war games, workshops, studies and joint initiatives with other Services to define the factors and trends most likely to characterize future security environments. There is a draft concept involving the Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Special Operations Command that explores how each might contribute to the other and combine capabilities in the maritime domain. There’s also a series of forums focused on maritime operations that coordinate and integrate U.S. and partner-nation forces in order to mitigate the severity of emergent crises. In addition to providing GCCs with highly competent general purpose conventional forces, the Corps sees a renewed opportunity to develop specialized expertise in operating in coastal areas typically referred to as the littorals, that band of coastal area where sea-meets-shore and operations farther inland can be directly influenced by forces operating from a “base” maintained at sea. The Corps is also exploring options for more closely aligning its concepts and capabilities with the special operations community, such that its operating forces can better lend support to special operations forces (SOF) and also leverage SOF’s highly specialized technical capabilities, local knowledge and tactical-level access to key areas, as would be necessary in the event of a crisis of importance to U.S. interests. However, today’s budget realities impose frustrations on these efforts. Operating at sea requires the U.S. Navy, which is also feeling the combined pinch of sequestration and the continuing resolution every bit as much as the Corps, if not more so. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, has provided his own testimony to Congress on the impact budget shortfalls will have on the ability of the Navy to conduct business. Among a long list of effects are several that directly impact the Marine Corps: the cancellation of amphibious ship deployments to the Middle East and Arabian Gulf starting next year; cancellation of “most non-deployed operations including exercises [and] pre-deployment certification”; and “stop training and certification for Amphibious Ready Groups” through FY14. Intellectual exercises are critical to the development of new concepts for employment, but at some point the Service will need to actually exercise its ideas to see what works. A Navy stuck in port due to lack of money for sailing isn’t helpful to this cause. Further, current budget constraints have severely curtailed funding for studies, conferences, and workshops, so even inherently “intellectual exercises” have become problematic. Remaining Effective in an Evolving World Periods of dynamic change elicit myriad opinions as to whether the change underway holds opportunity or disaster or some degree of both in the broad space between extreme outcomes. This is the case for the Corps and national defense capabilities in general. Some have rightly observed (in my opinion) that substantive change really only comes in the wake of rather large, disruptive events. Absent such a stimulus people and organizations tend to do the things with which they are most comfortable and which have proven effective, or at least good enough under a sustained set of conditions. Some commentators have stated that the budget stresses created by the CR, sequestration, and general reductions in defense spending will actually be quite good for the Services in that they will have to apply critical thinking and not just dollars against the security challenges they are called upon to address. History clearly shows that periods of conflict are followed by steep reductions in defense spending, something that seems to make perfect sense without any further need for validation but is also easily proved with publicly available federal budget data. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a short paper last autumn illustrating this trend, citing a 43 percent reduction after Korea, 33 percent after Vietnam, and a 36 percent decline after the Soviet Union collapsed and Reagan-era military spending came to an end. CSIS projected that the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration, if left unchanged, would result in a decline of 31 percent. While this is well within the post-WWII pattern, it would nevertheless leave the Marine Corps with nearly 10,000 more Marines than it fielded prior to 9/11—a planned 182,000 versus 173,000 in 2001. Critics of a sustained high level of spending on defense contend that our war objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan have been met: Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are both dead and Iraq and Afghanistan have both been given the strategic opportunity, via American blood and treasure, to chart new paths for themselves. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that the U.S. Department of Defense can return to its pre-9/11 posture. On the surface it is a compelling argument. But what it does not account for is the relentless evolution of the global security environment. Since the attacks of 9/11, Iran has aggressively pursued its nuclear program; Syria has descended into civil war; Islamists have taken control of Egypt; the “Arab Spring” quickly devolved into an “Islamist Winter”; Pakistan’s stability has become quite fragile; Russia has become more assertive under the stern control of Vladimir Putin; China has tripled its spending on defense during the first decade of the 21st century; and North Korea is rattling its nuclear saber once again. The issue of reducing spending on defense to pre-9/11 levels now that Iraq and (nearly) Afghanistan are behind us should not be isolated to 9/11-related factors. Rather, spending on defense should be determined by the character of the extant security environment and related trends as they pertain to U.S. interests, careful assessments of what the future might hold, and determination of the capabilities the United States would want to have at hand to ensure its interests are protected. This type of approach is the one the Marine Corps is taking, and its annual budget submission reflects what it concludes it needs to execute the responsibilities it has been given. In his February testimony to both the Senate and House, General Amos had this to say about the implications of our current budget situation on the ability of the Marine Corps to fulfill its duty: [The] combined effect of the continuing resolution and sequestration will have a significant effect on the global security climate, the perceptions of our enemies, and the confidence of our allies. In a new normal of brushfire instabilities, violent extremism, non-state threats and struggling sovereign entities, the role of the United States as a leader in the protection of the international order is central. The effects that our armed forces create in this global environment are measured in ready crisis response forces, ships at sea, planes in the air, partnerships on the ground and trust among our allies. In a word, our propensity to remain a global leader in a challenging world is measured in READINESS. Readiness is the aggregate of the investment in personnel, training, and equipment to ensure that units are prepared to perform missions at any given time. Effectiveness in combat depends on realistic and rigorous training, unassailable unit cohesion, and an approach to war that is relevant to the environment and the threat in question. Training depends on sufficient time, materials, and resources. Unit cohesion derives from a shared identity forged and tempered by shared experiences. Effective doctrine that truly captures best practices can only be developed though serious analysis, experimentation, and testing in real world environments. The triad of budgetary, cultural, and conceptual challenges facing the Corps will make “READINESS . . . to perform missions at any given time” a challenge all its own. The Marine Corps has proven throughout its 237-year history that it is at its best when the challenges are greatest. I am confident the Corps will once again show its mettle in these new battles, but it’s going to be one heck of a fight.
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Published on: April 12, 2013After the Wars, New Battlefronts for the Marine Corps