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The Future of the Marine Corps; They’ve Fought This Battle Before

by Greg on September 9, 2010

The Marines are in the news today battling (Barbary) pirates, good on ‘em; talk about getting back to their roots. As I read the news reports, and this post at Tom Rick’s blog on the future of the Marine Corps, I recalled a recent conversation with some department of the Navy types who expressed just how bad the relationship is between the sea services. Like most troubled relationships, the soured feelings revolve around money, or the lack thereof.

The Marines want to maintain a robust amphibious assault, enough to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades, and get them ashore via their Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) armored amphibian. The Navy wants capital ships and intends to cut maritime prepositioning force ships, possibly amphibs and the EFV. A real battle is brewing and it’s bound to get ugly as budget realities sink in.

The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned the Marines into a much smaller and more poorly equipped version of the Army. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made it clear he thinks the U.S. has too much amphibious assault insurance. Few defense watchers believe Marine numbers won’t come down in the near future; the question is will they go lower than the pre-2007 175,000 level.

Given all that, it was a bit amusing to hear Undersecretary of the Navy Bob Work declare at a forum at CSIS recently that “the future of the Marine Corps is bright.” One thing the Marines have going for them is they’ve been here before. As Ronald Spector writes in, Eagle Against the Sun, the Marines emerged from World War I with tremendous prestige, yet the budget knives were sharp in the economically depressed 1920s and early 1930s.

“At the end of the 1920s, a secret study by the army staff suggested that the army could well assume most of the Marine Corps functions. The chief of naval operations reportedly concurred in this idea, “recognizing that by shifting the Marines [to the Army], the Navy could save money.”

The Hoover administration, always interested in saving money, also greeted the plan with enthusiasm. Between 1929 and 1933, Hoover imposed a 24.4 percent manpower cut on the Marine Corps, as compared to 5.6 percent for the navy and none for the army.”

How did the Marines respond to attacks from the Hoover administration, and the army?

“[W]ith an impressive public relations campaign. Retired army and Marine Corps generals were mobilized to “speak for the Corps,” and influential Congressmen like Carl Vinson, Melvin J. Maas, and Fiorello La Guardia threw their weight behind restoring the cuts. In a showdown vote, the House Appropriations Committee voted down Hoover’s proposed cuts and held the strength of the corps at a little over 15,000 men. The corps had been “saved” – but all concerned realized that it had been a close call.”

The Marines have already embarked on a public relations campaign to sell themselves and are reaching out to influential pundits and making the rounds at Washington, DC think tanks. Yet, as Spector wrote, Marine leaders back in the 1920s knew a PR campaign would only get them so far. The corps needed a new mission; so began the Marine’s specialization in amphibious warfare.

Outgoing commandant Gen. James Conway has said the Marines must get back to their expeditionary and amphibious roots. Is that enough? Do the Marines need a new mission to win in the coming budget battles? If so, what?

– Greg Grant

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