The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Caught on a Lee Shore

Redefining the strategic niche of the Marine Corps may be the key to a future as glorious as its past.

Published on September 1, 2010

Currently, the United States has two armies. At least that’s the growing concern of senior leaders in the Marine Corps and a point echoed as well by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates as recently as this May.1 Their observation stems from the impact that seven years of sustained land operations have had on the Corps. Like the Army, the Marine Corps has had to increase its inventory of heavy-armored vehicles to counter the widespread use of powerful improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. The weight and size of its units have grown to the point that Marine Corps leaders worry about their ability to embark them aboard amphibious ships. The complexity of protracted counterinsurgency and stability operations has also caused the Corps to dedicate its institutional attention to these challenges almost to the exclusion of everything else, especially amphibious operations.

To counter these trends—especially increasing weight and decreasing experience aboard ship—the Corps has begun reviewing its equipping, training and exercise initiatives and is working to regain proficiency in amphibious operations. Representative of this effort is the recently concluded “Dawn Blitz”, a two-week long major exercise that took place this past June at Camp Pendleton, California, culminating in a brigade-level amphibious assault, the first such exercise in nearly a decade.

The Corps’s concern about becoming a “second land army” touches a nerve within a service perpetually worried about its perceived relevance. Indeed, its identity as an amphibious force is the feature that most distinguishes the Corps from the Army, yet the need for such a capability is being increasingly questioned. America does not need two armies in the conventional sense, notwithstanding the fact that the operational demands of Iraq and Afghanistan exceeded the Army’s capacity, thus requiring the extended use of the Marine Corps. As U.S. involvement in these conflicts winds down, the Corps will need to refocus on those characteristics that distinguish it from the Army.

For example, the Army’s primary mission is to win major land wars. As a consequence, it fields large, heavy units that require lots of lift to move. Prerequisites for their employment include secure deepwater ports and large airfields through which they can deploy to the scene of conflict. Ideally, such infrastructure is in close proximity to the crisis for which such forces are being deployed. But what does the United States do when it isn’t? What options exist when the enemy can threaten the traditional transportation nodes on which land forces are typically dependent?

Amphibious forces provide the option of deploying ground combat power to a conflict where roads, ports or airfields are not available. They also provide the U.S. military a means to complicate an opponent’s defensive calculation by multiplying the areas he must defend, thus forcing him to spread his forces thin and dedicate a portion of his limited resources to this effort that he would otherwise use for other purposes. Amphibious forces can also threaten an enemy’s lines of supply. This is particularly important when one considers how much material is transported by sea. The majority of the world’s maritime traffic flows through a relatively limited number of narrow chokepoints. Amphibious forces are well suited to the task of interdicting such commerce, thus posing a direct challenge to the ability of an opponent to sustain his combat operations over time.

But to pose such a threat, one has to be proficient at such operations and properly equipped for the task. The Marine Corps is increasingly concerned that its amphibious skills have atrophied to worrisome levels and that its selection of equipment may be both ill-suited for the task and more expensive than it can afford. Those worries are justified. The service’s acquisition efforts and operational concepts have not kept pace with changes in the operational and threat environments with which it will have to contend. In addition, the Corps has not effectively challenged the U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding program, which has resulted in a steady decline in the number of amphibious ships it operates. This latter point is most troubling; if there aren’t enough amphibious ships to get Marine Corps forces where they need to be, it won’t matter how light or well trained its forces are.

Defining “Marine”

Within the military services, debate often takes place over platform selection, the weighting of effort among various types of missions that compete for time, attention, and resources within the service, or even how best to organize for war. Just as the Army is struggling to balance the demands of high-end conventional war with those of counterinsurgency and the Navy is debating how best to arrest the spiraling costs of ships, counter the alarming decline in maintenance resources and the increasingly negative impact of overworked crews, the Marine Corps is engaged in several debates of its own. Chief among them are questions about what it means to be an “amphibious force in readiness”, and how best to equip for that mission. These questions are fundamental to the Corps’s identity and strike to the heart of its relevance within the U.S. military.2

In what is perhaps a situation unique to the Marine Corps, one piece of equipment serves as a reference point for nearly all aspects of this debate: the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), the centerpiece of the Corps’s future amphibious capability, now nearly two decades in development. To the Marines, EFV equals “future Marine Corps.” It is the one thing that most clearly represents the service’s evolution in thinking about amphibious operations, and it will be accorded the lion’s share of the Corps’s spending for ground combat capabilities in coming years. Unfortunately, it is also quickly becoming a euphemism for bankruptcy, both fiscal and conceptual. If executed as planned, the $14 billion EFV program will hold the Corps hostage for a decade or longer. Its 573 vehicles will consume 90 percent of the Corps’s warfighting procurement budget, leaving its remaining 32,000 vehicles and all other weapons systems to subsist on what’s left.

The EFV also represents the difficulty the Corps is having in re-envisioning ideas of naval warfare and the role of amphibious operations. The Corps’s dogged commitment to the EFV is as much a function of conceptual stagnation as it is the natural result of the institutional commitment needed to shepherd a major procurement program from the drawing board to the battlefield. The precursor to the EFV, the Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV), was originally conceived as a critical enabler for Operational Maneuver From The Sea (OMFTS), an operational concept developed in the 1990s.3 With a fast, sea-skimming amphibious tractor, the Corps believed its forces could deploy from a sea base directly against objectives far inland, avoiding the time-consuming and inherently dangerous pause normally experienced at the beach.4 Further, OMFTS acknowledged emerging trends (not least the proliferation of anti-ship cruise missiles) that threatened to push naval forces farther from a coastline. The idea was that an AAAV/EFV platform would enable Marine forces to overcome the widening ship-to-shore gap and select coastal penetration points that avoided enemy defensive positions. OMFTS proved so compelling a concept that it has shaped the Corps’s thinking about amphibious operations ever since.

The Corps’s consistent advocacy for the EFV through a succession of Commandants, Congresses and Administrations has by now painted it into a corner. In various forums before veterans’ groups, the defense industry and congressional committees, senior officers have repeatedly emphasized the critical importance of the vehicle to the Corps’s ability to conduct amphibious operations. Like the Ancient Mariner and his albatross, the Corps finds itself encumbered with the EFV, its institutional reputation tethered to the fate of the vehicle. In fact, the Marines are at risk of having drawn too tight a linkage between the platform and the service’s viability as an amphibious force.

The EFV is problematic in several areas. During the course of its long development, the strategic, operational and threat environments have all changed. Large states like China and Iran and sub-state entities like Hizballah have now acquired long-range precision weapons, indicating that future conflict environments will increasingly feature robust anti-access and area-denial architectures that incorporate a variety of guided weapons designed to threaten ships, aircraft and armored land forces at greater distances than the United States has had to contend with in the past.5 This evolving threat environment will force U.S. Navy amphibious ships to operate farther from shore than the EFV program originally assumed, and the more robust anti-armor threat on land will pose increasingly difficult challenges for the EFV itself once it makes its way ashore.

Worse, the at-sea performance requirements dictated by the Corps to address the former will exacerbate the challenges posed to the EFV by the latter. For instance, the EFV has a flat bottom, flat sides, low ground clearance, little interior space and high-pressure hydraulic lines throughout it. All of these design features are the product of the program’s requirement that the EFV be able to get from ship to shore at high speeds.6 Once the EFV is ashore, however, these features are just the opposite of what one would want in a vehicle designed for ground combat. In effect, the importance placed on the vehicle’s ability to get to shore turned out to be more important than its suitability for ground combat once on shore. This is a rather odd outcome considering that the whole point of placing an amphibious force ashore is to fight in a land battle.

Proponents of this requirement argue that high-speed ship-to-shore movement minimizes the vulnerability of the amphibious force to enemy fire while in transit and enables the force to rapidly build up combat power ashore. But if the Corps’s intent is to land where the enemy is not, one could argue that the need for speed is not as critical as the need to have a ground-combat vehicle properly optimized for the threat environment it will encounter once on land.

While fielding the right amphibious combat vehicle is important to the Corps’s ability to undertake such operations, perhaps of greater importance is the Navy’s contribution to getting the Marine Corps to the theater of operations in the first place.

Currently, the U.S. Navy has 31 amphibious ships, with plans to expand the total to 33 by 2016.7 The Corps would prefer a number in the mid- to upper 40s, but the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, at least as it is currently structured, simply cannot support more. These 31 ships will just barely support the embarkation of a reduced-assault echelon of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs). A MEB is composed of three reinforced infantry battalions, a mixed group of attack aircraft, helicopters and the new MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor, and enough logistics support for thirty days of operations. In a standard MEB configuration, two battalions would be equipped with EFVs while the third would be transported by air, meaning it is essentially foot-mobile once ashore. The light-armored vehicles, tanks, trucks and artillery reinforcing the MEB’s infantry battalions would be carried to shore by landing craft. Consequently, in a situation serious enough to warrant deploying every amphibious ship in the Navy, the Corps would be able to project ashore just six battalions of ground combat power, two of which have limited mobility.

Ultimately, the force placed ashore has to be robust enough to defend itself, defeat enemy forces encountered and seize and hold whatever objective the force was put ashore to obtain in the first place. By extension, the military objectives assigned to the force cannot exceed what the force is equipped to handle. One must also assume that any situation serious enough to demand every amphibious ship in the Navy would feature a serious opponent. So the key question, then, is whether six battalions—four motorized/mechanized and two foot-mobile—can carry the day in such circumstances. It may be that the number of U.S. Navy amphibious ships has dipped below a critical “capability threshold”, such that a single, large-scale amphibious landing in various higher-end scenarios now appears unrealistic. Indeed, alhtough the Navy plans to maintain a total of 33 amphibious ships, the normal shipyard maintenance requirements for them make it highly unlikely that any more than thirty ships will be operationally available at any given moment. Add to this the lack of Navy investment in mine-countermeasures, naval gunfire support and the logistical support ships that enable naval operations, and one can reasonably doubt whether amphibious operations are a priority for the Navy at all.

Redefining “Marine”

No wonder, then, Secretary Gates has challenged the Marine Corps to think again about its core mission. Perhaps there are different ways to think about the value of amphibious forces in the current threat environment. The Corps would be wise to consider anew what a 21st-century naval campaign might look like compared to the circumstances of the past twenty years.

By one count, the Marine Corps has conducted 120 amphibious operations since 1990. These have included the provision of humanitarian relief in the wake of natural disasters, demonstrations of force off the coast of an opponent, reinforcements of U.S. embassies caught in the crossfire of civil war, evacuations of non-combatants from conflict-ravaged areas, and offensive raids launched from amphibious ships to objectives hundreds of miles inland.8 In addition, forward-deployed amphibious forces are increasingly in demand by U.S. Regional Combatant Commanders as operational elements of their respective regional engagement strategies. These efforts benefit the country engaged by improving its ability to deal with internal and local security challenges. They also help the United States by creating opportunities for U.S. forces to gain familiarity with the geographies, cultures and security issues of specific areas and, perhaps, bolster general deterrence by maintaining combat-credible forces close to scenes of potential conflict.

Amphibious forces clearly have enduring value across a broad range of military activities. But what about the current troubling trend in their decreased capacity for offensive amphibious operations? The evolving threat context for such operations mentioned earlier should prompt the Marine Corps to reconsider how best to employ amphibious forces. Ironically enough, the past may be the best guide to the future.

The Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, first published in 1934, states that amphibious operations can secure bases for use by U.S. forces, deny such facilities to the enemy, bring an engagement under favorable conditions, cause the enemy to disperse his forces by threatening areas vital to him, and create options for other land operations that might be required in the prosecution of a naval campaign.9 We should add to this list that such operations can position forces to control sea lines of communication essential to the enemy. This multifaceted rationale for amphibious forces should still guide the Marine Corps today with respect to its role in the future Joint Force. Just as Marine forces seized advanced naval bases across the Pacific in World War II to bring U.S. forces within striking distance of the Japanese home islands, modern amphibious forces can perform a similar role today.

A naval campaign emphasizing distributed naval maneuver or operations along the periphery of a theater opens up many possible missions for amphibious forces. So, too, do scenarios involving a long list of potential opponents that may possess only a limited inventory of advanced weapons. Even for those cases in which an adversary may possess advanced weapons, he may not have them deployed in the right places within the context of a specific crisis. Further, the threat posed by such weapons would certainly be mitigated by a host of preparatory actions undertaken by U.S. forces prior to any offensive operation. And as already mentioned, amphibious forces could substantially benefit U.S. operations in a broader context by complicating an enemy’s resource allocation problem by expanding the number of areas he needs to defend. In other words, opponents with better weapons are not invincible by default. But it is incumbent on the Marine Corps to account for such evolving capabilities in its conceptual and equipping efforts.

The ability to achieve local superiority against a limited opponent, as opposed to operating in a single large assault against a well-equipped enemy able to defend in depth, is implicit in a campaign of distributed naval maneuver. The rather limited number of amphibious ships currently available to the Marine Corps would be a problem in a larger assault, but in a distributed naval warfare context against smaller outposts of enemy forces, they would likely be sufficient. With respect to ground operations ashore, a properly equipped Marine force embarked aboard ship would possess sufficient combat power to prevail against the type of enemy units likely to be found in geographically isolated settings. In this case, speed in getting ashore matters less than having the right equipment for the land battle that follows.

A ship sailing along a lee shore in heavy weather can find itself in terrific danger as the strong winds of a storm blow it toward the shallows. As things stand today, the Marine Corps is in such a predicament. It is caught between the implications of its concepts for amphibious operations and the hard reality of its diminished ability to actually execute them. It acknowledges that its amphibious warfare skills have atrophied and it has determined to regain proficiency in this area. But its good intentions could be thwarted by a dwindling number of Navy amphibious ships, a combat vehicle ill suited for modern ground combat, and a darkening budget environment that will constrain its ambitions.

Other problems are liable to compound these difficulties. As U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and budget pressures squeeze defense resources, the services will very likely find themselves at or below pre-9/11 end-strength levels. Manpower is very expensive, accounting for 57 percent of the Corps’s Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations.10 It was necessary to expand the Corps by 27,000 Marines since 2007 in order to maintain operating force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent a similar sustained demand for such force levels, the Corps will find its manpower budget difficult to maintain. The Marines therefore need to consider what their service would look like and what its contribution to national security would be at various levels of end-strength—from 175,000 to as few as 125,000 Marines.

The Corps should also consider whether it is oversubscribed in aviation, specifically in fixed-wing attack aircraft. The Corps has 5,556 pilots and naval flight officers, outnumbering the Corps’s combat arms officers taken together (3,625).11 The Corps is critically dependent on its attack, medium- and heavy-lift helicopters and tiltrotors, but it should review its total requirement for fighter-attack jets.

Finally, the Corps should seriously (and favorably) evaluate the extent to which it should cultivate a closer relationship with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The Corps established its Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) in 2006, committing upwards of 2,600 Marines to it. Since then, the demand for MARSOC forces has steadily risen. Marine forces trained for special operations, long skilled in “small wars” and possessing specialized skills associated with amphibious operations, could make a substantial contribution to SOCOM.

But while these are important issues, they do not rise to the level of fundamental importance represented by the need to re-conceptualize amphibious warfare as a component of naval campaigns and how to properly equip and prepare the force for that role. The Marine Corps today is increasingly aware of the problems with the EFV, as evidenced by the rise of two camps— one for it and one against. Over the past year or two some have developed alternative concepts for amphibious assaults, but the Corps’s senior leadership has met these with skepticism. The Corps remains officially committed to the EFV, as its budget priorities demonstrate. If it continues down this course, it will find that it has acquired a platform intentionally sub-optimized for the modern land combat environment at a price that will starve the service of funding for all the other tools it needs to remain effective in ground operations. The Corps also needs to rethink how amphibious forces can contribute to U.S. security. A concept that focuses on use of amphibious forces as a component of a broader naval campaign would be a good place to start.

The Corps has few peers in the art of combat and possesses an enviable legacy of success in small wars, amphibious operations and even high-end combat operations alongside the U.S. Army. But if it doesn’t get the fundamentals right, if it doesn’t clearly articulate what it alone provides to American national security, or if it fails to follow through with corresponding efforts in its operating concepts and equipment acquisition, then it might as well be a specialized branch within the Army. That outcome would be a serious loss for the nation.



1See James T. Conway, “Remarks to the American Legion 90th Annual National Convention”, Phoenix, Arizona, August 26, 2008; and Gates, “Remarks to the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition”, National Harbor, Maryland, May 3, 2010.
2This is not the only debate within the Corps. Another concerns how much the Corps should invest in its contribution to U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and yet another how best to present the Corps’s case to Congress.
3See Charles C. Krulak, Operational Maneuver From The Sea, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, January 4, 1996.
4Carter A Malkasian, “Charting the Pathway to OMFTS: A Historical Assessment of Amphibious Operations From 1941 to the Present”, Center for Naval Analyses (July 2002).
5The Corps’s own top-level planning documents echo assessments made by U.S. Joint Forces Command and the U.S. Army in this regard. See James N. Mattis, The Joint Operating Environment 2010, United States Joint Forces Command, February 18, 2010.
6The EFV’s at-sea speed requirement drives much of the $22 million-per-vehicle cost.
7See Eric Labs, An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2011 Shipbuilding Plan, Congressional Budget Office (May 2010).
8U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Operating Concepts, p. 92. See also U.S. Naval Institute blog posts by Raymond Pritchett, “Amphibious Operations 1990–1999”, and “Amphibious Operations 2000–2009.” Writing under the nom de plume “Galrahn”, Pritchett records 104 amphibious operations during the past two decades.
9United States Navy, Fleet Training Publication 167–Landing Operations Doctrine, 1938, paragraph 101.
10U.S. Marine Corps, Concepts & Programs 2010, p. 281.
11U.S. Marine Corps, Concepts & Programs 2010, p. 268.

Dakota L. Wood, a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel, is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.