National Review online
December 10, 2001
Marines Turned Soldiers
The Corps vs. the Army.
By Mackubin Thomas Owens, professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College
The United States Marine Corps is a separate service within the Department of the Navy. Marines traditionally operate "from the sea" in conducting expeditionary tasks. The traditional focus of the Marines and of its sister service, the United States Navy has been on the world's littorals. So why were Marines the first major contingent of U.S. conventional ground forces sent into landlocked Afghanistan?
According to some news reports, as well as Internet traffic, this is a topic of great concern among officers of the U.S. Army. According to Katherine McIntire Peters in the issue of Government Executive Magazine dated November 29 ("Marine Deployment Irks Soldiers") the fact that the Marines have carried out what appears to be a textbook Army mission the seizure of an airfield in a theater of operations far from any shoreline has "sparked fury among many mid-grade [Army] officers." Many soldiers see the Marine deployment as further evidence that their beloved service has become increasingly irrelevant since the end of the Cold War.
This is an overreaction. There will be plenty for the Army to do, both in Afghanistan and in the phases of the war against terrorism that will follow it. But the episode does illustrate the degree to which the security environment has evolved over the past decade, and the fact that responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability are the characteristics most necessary in military forces of the future. The Army is adapting, but given what that service was asked to do for 50 years, it has further to go than the other services.
The problem the Army faces is geopolitical. To protect its worldwide interests, the United States must be able to project power globally. But given its geographical position, the United States can project power only by overcoming what the former commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak, has called the "tyranny of distance." The tyranny of distance creates a dilemma for ground forces a tradeoff between rapid strategic deployability on the one hand, and lethality, sustainability, and self-protection on the other. Thus, an airborne unit can deploy more quickly than any other ground force but it lacks the killing power and sustainability necessary to win once it gets on the ground. On the other hand, an armored unit, though it possesses the latter characteristics, takes a long time to get into the theater of war.
During the Cold War, the United States handled the tyranny of distance problem by identifying the most likely theaters of war and stationing Army and tactical Air Forces there during peacetime, as a deterrent. Of course, the defense of Europe required more forces than the ones already there, so equipment for reinforcing forces was prepositioned in theater. In the event of an emergency, troops would be flown from the continental United States (CONUS) into theater, where they would "marry up" with their equipment. This approach worked as long as we were planning against an identifiable adversary, the Soviet Union, but became less relevant as the security environment became less certain.
On the other hand, the Marines focused during the Cold War on "contingencies," short-fuse emergencies that could arise anytime or anyplace. The Marines effectively sold their role as a flexible, adaptable "force in readiness," ready to respond with tailored, task-organized forces to any crisis across the spectrum of conflict. They evolved from a stress on amphibious assault to a broader understanding of amphibious operations, developing such capabilities as maritime prepositioning and what is now called "operational maneuver from the sea." Marines never claimed to be the only land force necessary, but they did organize and plan to deploy rapidly with a force capable of holding the line until heavier forces could arrive.
As part of this role, the Marines developed an "operational concept" that exploited a flexible Marine organization, the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). An MAGTF combines a command element, a ground-combat element, an air-combat element, and a logistics-support element that can provide a flexible, task-organized force ranging in size from a few hundred Marines to a multi-division, multi-air wing force of over 100,000.
For the Army, the tyranny of distance manifested itself during the Gulf War of 1990-91, when it took the United States nearly six months to deploy the ground-combat power thought necessary to defeat Iraq. The problem only became more acute as time went on.
One response to the tyranny of distance problem was to increase the nation's reliance on airpower. Indeed, airpower advocates seized upon the Gulf War to argue that force planning models were biased in favor of land power. They claimed that the actual conduct of the war demonstrated that land power was now less important than it once had been, and that the balance of U.S. forces should thus be shifted to emphasize airpower.
The war in Afghanistan seems to have refocused attention on land forces. The combination of airpower, special forces, and surrogate ground forces provided by anti-Taliban Afghans has worked extremely well, but it increasingly looks like ultimate success against al Qaeda will require forces beyond SOF on the ground.
So once again, why are "soldiers of the sea" the first conventional ground forces in landlocked Afghanistan? The short answer is that the Marines were in theater and the first ones available to the unified commander, General Tommy Franks. Two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), MAGTFs built around a reinforced infantry battalion and a composite aviation squadron, had been moved into the region as the United States made plans to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan. These units possess substantial tactical mobility and firepower. The most rapidly deployable Army organization say, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division lacks both.
The fact is that the Army is in a state of transition from a force designed to fight and win the nation's land wars to a more adaptable, more easily deployable force capable of a greater range of missions. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has been pushing hard to transform the Army, but he faces a difficult job. An important part of the resistance he faces is cultural. According to one online account, posted by a mid-grade Army officer, the Army has "tied itself culturally to the theory and practice of Second-Generation War. This focus centers on requirements to mobilize heavy forces for massive wars of attrition in Western Europe what the Germans used to call Materialschlacht... [Thus], the Army's high-cost offensive crown jewels armor and mechanized infantry units have trouble getting out of Fulda Gap psychologically as well as physically. One Army wag recently summed up the current situation... 'We have the world's fastest strategically immobile Army.'"
The types of missions for which land forces will be needed in the future will be expeditionary in nature. As former Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy was fond of saying, "'Expeditionary' is not a mission. It's a mindset." The Marines have developed an expeditionary mindset over decades; the Army is only now coming to grips with it. As Tom Ricks wrote in his excellent book, Making the Corps, "The Marines tend to display a kind of funky joie de vivre, especially in the field. In their own parlance, they know how to 'pack their trash,' something the Army is learning slowly and painfully as it too becomes 'expeditionary' in hellholes like Somalia and Haiti."
Whether we like it or not, the United States has embarked on an era of "imperial policing." Although the U.S. does not possess a formal empire, the liberal world order we seek requires that we take the lead in underwriting the global security environment. The Marines have developed the culture and mindset necessary to play a major role in this world. The Army is still working on it. But as Gen. Shinseki admonished those in his service who were not enamored of his transformation plan, "If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more."