The official mission of the Marine Corps as established in the National Security Act of 1947 is to be trained, organized and equipped for offensive amphibious employment. This means doing Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Inchon. The Marine Corps is also to be a “force in readiness” which is reflected in its non-amphibious role from Belleau Wood to Fallujah and now Afghanistan. But in its heart (and that of the American people) what makes the Marine Corps special strategically, operationally, tactically and morally is its dedication to assaulting hostile beaches.
But is there a future for offensive amphibious operations? The last time the Marines conducted a true large-scale offensive amphibious operation was at Inchon in 1950. The threat of such a maneuver did pin a number of Iraqi divisions down during Operation Desert Storm allowing the rest of the Coalition’s forces, including the 2nd Marine Division on the right flank, to drive Iraq from Kuwait. Battalion size Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) have been deployed frequently and to great effect around the world. But when it comes to the prospects for another Iwo Jima or Inchon, there does not appear to be one.
The capability for serious offensive amphibious operations is very expensive and very heavy. It requires lots of specialized equipment and ships. The Marine Corps has a vision for its future as an amphibious force that requires 38 large amphibious ships, the V-22 Osprey, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a new Marine Personnel Carrier and a special vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Doing offensive amphibious operations across defended beaches also requires a Navy that can operate close to shore and suppress hostile defenses.
In a speech last May to the Navy League, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized both the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ force structure and modernization plans. He raised the issue of long-range threats to large naval vessels. Secretary Gates specifically questioned the rationale for the number of large-deck amphibious ships (10) and the overall size of the Marine Corps (202,000). He is reported to also be desirous of canceling the EFV.
The two sea services, the Navy and Marine Corps, appear increasingly at odds over the future of offensive amphibious operations. Confronted with a growing anti-access/area denial capability in the hands not only of the Chinese but of Iran, North Korea and even Hezbollah, the Navy is looking at having to operate in the future from greater standoff distances, rendering moot the question of providing the necessary suppressive fires to support offensive amphibious operations. The Marine Corps says it requires 38 large amphibious ships; the Navy has refused to acquire more than 33. Also, Navy admirals are reported to be highly critical of the Marine Corps determination to acquire the V/STOL F-35.
Most recently, the Navy has proposed saving money by tying up dockside two of its three squadrons of maritime prepositioning force ships (MPF) that provide equipment and supplies for the Marines once the beaches have been taken and reducing the number of Mobile Landing Platforms it will acquire for those squadrons. While this does not mean that the capability for offensive amphibious operations would disappear tomorrow, it may be putting the Marine Corps on a slippery slope. Taken together, these moves would seem to signal a reduced role for large-scale offensive amphibious operations in the plans for future conflicts. Absent the prospect of large-scale offensive amphibious operations, the rationale for the current size, composition and equipment of the Marine Corps disappears.
Given its history of winning battles inside the Beltway, one needs to be careful counting the Marine Corps out on any of its plans and programs. Just look at its unwavering support of the V-22 Osprey. In this case, the Marines were proven right; the V-22 is proving itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, do not expect the Marine Corps to quietly give up on any part of its defining mission or the capabilities it believes necessary.
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