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
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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."
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