Robert Gates knows how to manage bureaucracies. He began his career as a Sovietologist in the intelligence community during the Nixon-Kissinger era, at a time when America’s national-security apparatus was an arena of byzantine intrigue. So you can’t always take what he says at face value. The speech he gave to the Navy League on Monday may have seemed like a shotgun blast aimed at both of the sea services within his department, but it probably will prove in the end to be a rifle shot aimed squarely at the U.S. Marine Corps. Now that Gates has set the proper ecumenical tone by assailing everyone, he can focus in on his real target, and most sea-service insiders will realize they can breathe easier because the attack is aimed elsewhere. In Stalinist fashion, likely survivors will go along to get along while their sister service is condemned to the gulag.
Gates has been signaling for some time that his real target is the Marine Corps. In public, he has repeatedly questioned the future value of amphibious warfare, which is the core competency of the Marine Corps. In private, he has worked out an arrangement with navy secretary Ray Mabus to kill off the Exeditionary Fighting Vehicle that is crucial to conducting future ship-to-shore landings. Gates probably recognizes that there is no suitable alternative to the EFV, but he has undercut the case of EFV defenders by arguing there will be little need to do the mission in the future anyway. His reasoning is specious, because the future is unknowable, most of our enemies live near the sea, and a lack of amphibious capability will provide options for tomorrow’s enemies where none exist today. But this isn’t really about warfighting requirements, it’s about who succeeds in doing what to whom in the bureaucratic struggle for power. Who-whom in the vernacular of former Sovietologists like Gates.
So here’s what the Marine Corps can look forward to in the months ahead. First, Gates will go public with his plan to kill EFV. Then he will bless a long-term shipbuilding plan that reduces the number of warships in the amphibious fleet to well below the minimum of 33 that the Corps says it must have to project an adequately sized force. Then he will eliminate what’s left of the sea-basing programs once intended to provide an alternative to reliance on vulnerable overseas land bases. And finally he will formalize a dilution of the current “forcible entry” capability at the heart of Marine warfighting concepts, substituting a much less demanding “theater access” capability. The latter move will save lots of money on items like surface fires and countermine warfare. But when the smoke clears, the things that made the U.S. Marine Corps unique in the world will be largely gone.
And now for the good news. This is probably Robert Gates’ swan song as a military reformer. He isn’t likely to stay much beyond the mid-term elections, because he and his staff have grown very weary. So if the Marine Corps can hold on for just one more budget cycle, it can rescue itself from irrelevance. Whoever follows Gates — Leon Panetta, John Hamre, et. al. — won’t have the clout or inclination to continue waging war with Congress over which programs to fund. So the Marine Corps could dodge the rifle bullet that Gates is about to squeeze off in their direction. But in order to do so, it will need to stake out a defensive perimeter on the nearest high ground, which happens to be Capitol Hill.
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