What Will Happen To The Marine Corps?

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

Reader and friend Joefour sends this think-piece from a Navy author about the MAGTF being the downfall of the USMC.

The MAGTF took the Marines from a specialized force (amphibious operations) and attempted to turn them into an all-purpose, do everything, force.  It’s not hard to imagine that the genesis of the concept was budget driven with the idea being that the more versatile the Corps, the more it would be called on and, therefore, the more it would be funded.

Unfortunately, the lack of focus led to the Marines being employed in all manner of situations for which they were not specialized.  They became just another army unit.

There was also an enormous opportunity cost associated with generalization.  The generalization and loss of focus on the core amphibious mission cost the Marines their institutional knowledge about amphibious assaults as they embarked on a decades long turn towards purely land warfare.  In recent years, Marine generals have proudly announced that the Marines are taking the first steps towards relearning amphibious assault.

Relearning?!!!?  It was your core mission.  How could you have lost it?  This is a sad commentary on Marine Corps leadership over the last couple of decades.

The loss of focus also meant that the technology, doctrine, and tactics of amphibious assault languished or was lost.  We wound up with doctrine calling for 25-50+ mile stand off assaults coupled with AAV/ACV landing craft that only had an effective range of a few miles – a mismatch of colossal proportions, to say the least.  By not maintaining focus on the core mission, the mission atrophied and was lost.

MAGTF also began the myopic focus on the aviation side of the Corps to the great detriment of the ground side.  Huge, questionable investments were made in the MV-22 and the F-35 with little or no supporting doctrinal or operational underpinning.  Again, it was a budget grab, pure and simple – an attempt to be all things in all situations instead being proudly specialized.

The Marines were once something special and respected.  Now, they’re just a poor, small copy of the Air Force and Army.  MAGTF destroyed the Marine Corps.

Or I should have said, “purported” think piece.  There is a lot of confusion in this analysis.

First of all, saying that the USMC is a poor copy of the Air Force and Army is beyond stupid, and could only be said by someone who has never been in ground combat with the Marines, Army or Air Force.

Second, I don’t think the author understands the concept of the MAGTF.  It isn’t, and was never intended to be, a tool to turn them into another massive ground force, if you will, the “big army.”

The MAGTF was always intended to keep control of all assets – Force Recon, infantry, armor, artillery, air support, other spec ops – under the complete control of a single chain of command, all reporting to a Colonel or Lt. General.  What the Marine Corps doesn’t like to do is rely on assets NOT under their immediate control to achieve the mission.  The MAGTF remedies that weakness.

That can even be true of assets not assigned to but not formally part of the USMC.  When the Marine Corps launched their operations into Helmand in earnest, army spec ops also participated, but it was made clear to them that they didn’t report to JSOC or SOCOM.  They reported to a Marine Corps general.  As long as they were fine with that, they could participate.  They were, and they did, and they reported only to the Marine Corps chain of command while assigned to that operation.

When the author says that the MAGTF caused this or caused that, he’s just making things up.  With all of that said, the author does hit on the major tingling nerve in the Marine Corps today, i.e., mission statement.

The Marine Corps Commandant has just recently stood down the Marine Corps tank battalions – completely.  They are no more.  I have no particular commitment to Marine Corps tank battalions, so I won’t comment in the positive or negative about this.

But he does indicate that he intends to go back to the amphibious roots.  But this, he means heavy-laden, large scale, and foolish beach assaults.  The author we cited also apparently wants the Marines to return to such a paradigm.

I’ve argued for years that the Marine Corps has never been able to get past their silly romance with Pacific beach landings in WWII, a romance that would prove deadly and ineffective in modern warfare.  It would be deadly for the Marines, and would be effective for nothing more than sending LCACs to the bottom of the ocean.

But they are “solders of the sea,” don’t you see, so for years they tried to push their ridiculous notions of the EFV (Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle) on Congress, after they had blown a wad of cash finally getting the Osprey off the ground and somewhat reliable.  Congress (correctly) refused to fund such a concept.

The idea was that they would use  Amphibious Transport Ships carrying F35s, LCACs, Ospreys, and a battalion of infantry, and be able to land anywhere within reach at the president’s order.  But why this concept?  That’s never explained.  Near peer states would easily be able to manage such a threat, and with drones, surface to ship missiles and air assets, the ships would be sunk before ever getting within reach.  The LCACs could be taken out with nearly commercial grade equipment, and if the EFVs ever did make it ashore, they would be alone.

If not a near peer actor, then who?  A troubled or failed state?  A place like Somolia?  Why would they outfit the Marines with such a heavy footprint (like they’re going to battle against Japanese in the South Pacific) for a failed state?

Specialized operators, UAVs, MilStar uplinks, and a whole host of other developments have made the sort of battle fought in the South Pacific irrelevant today.  Such a strategy would involve deaths on a scale not seen since then, and it’s improbable that the public would support such an adventure, likely seeing it as a misadventure instead.

To date, MEUs have been used primarily (or perhaps exclusively) for training and medical relief on humanitarian missions.  The claim is that they stand in ready should the president ever call.  The reality is that they have turned into a gigantic waste of money, resources and talent.

How did we get here?  As the demands of modern warfare caused development in training, equipment, TTPs, electronics, weapons systems and small arms, the Marine Corps got stuck in the South Pacific battling imaginary enemies.  And no, they aren’t going to engage in massive landings on or near China in disputed territory.  The public will not support something like that.

A half century ago, the Marine Corps could have seen this coming and jettisoned their romantic notions of massive beach landings.  They could have shrunk the size of the Corps and focused on more specialized missions.  Posted at TFB, “The Marine Corps Scout Sniper Schools are the best combined precision marksmanship and observation packages in the United States Military, Period.”

Every branch of the military has a combat diver course and qualification, and the Marine Corps Recon school is storied.  My own son took Scout Sniper training, as well as months of shoothouse and CQB training before deployment to Iraq.  Airborne school is still an option, and at least MARSOC is getting assigned to specialized schools like high altitude shooting in Nevada.

Four year enlistments could have been jettisoned in favor of six years or more, and specialized schools could have been pursued and developed in lieu of the idiotic EFV, Osprey and F35.  Insertion of troops could have been designed around improved air assets and HALO or LALO jumps.

Finally, the Marine Corps Commandant could have gotten his panties out of a wad over Marines being deployed in groups of under company size units (You see, they don’t trust their people without the proper chain of command, and don’t like mission failure, and so Marine Corps doctrine has always been opposed to distributed operations of fire team or squad size).

Instead of this, the country has turned to the Navy, and more specifically, the SEALs and then DEVGRU to perform air insertions, specialized operations and other highly secretive distributed operations across the globe.  There is no logical reason that it had to be the Navy – it could have been the Marine Corps who chose to pursue this path.  Frogmen will always be needed in the Navy.  But there is no logical reason that Frogmen had to become land operators.  This only happened because they saw the opportunity.

The Marine Corps didn’t because of their love affair with massive beach assaults and, apparently, death on a large scale.  No return to their core amphibious roots will save the Marine Corps from becoming irrelevant.

It doesn’t really matter at this point anyway.  The DoD’s focus on women in combat billets, race relations, LGBT parades, and sensitivity training will ruin what’s left anyway.  My son believes with the current state of affairs, there is no way America could fight and win against a near peer state if the majority of the fighting is on the ground.

The Marine Corps made him and other Iraq veterans feel unwelcome and let them go.  Big army is too slow and infected with political correctness to respond quickly or effectively (Have you seen basic training at Fort Jackson?  And did they ever call the shooting at Fort Hood anything other than “workplace violence?”).

The Navy is crashing ships into other ships and letting fires ruin their assets.  The Air Force is too taken with their love affair with 5GW to think about support for ground combat troops (oh, wait, is the proper term now Mosaic Warfare?).  I want to make sure I get the terms correct.  Otherwise, it won’t sound smart and informed to the brass.

In my opinion, it’s really a sad state of affairs.  It’s not the fault of the DoD.  It’s the fault of America, a country coming apart at the seams.  The DoD is just a reflection of the country.


  1. On July 26, 2020 at 11:38 pm, Georgiaboy61 said:

    The Corps has termed itself variously in the past as America’s “expeditionary warfare” force, and also the heavy-assault element of the nation’s ground forces. Back in the old days, Marines used to say “First to fight,” meaning that if there was trouble someplace around the world where there were Americans or American interests, then the Marines were sure to be first on the scene.

    Many historians of the Corps today get bogged down in WWII with the now-legendary island-hoping campaigns of the Pacific War, but one could argue that a better model or concept of what the Corps is about can be found in its activities during the years between the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the onset of the Second World War.

    Much of the USMC institutional knowledge about war-fighting – especially in so-called “small wars” – was hard-won in places like China, Mexico, Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), Haiti, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in the greater American sphere of influence. During these years is also when legendary Marines such as Smedley L. Butler, Dan Daley, Lou Diamond and Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller earned their place in Corps lore, and learned the art of fighting the “Marine Corps way.”

    Of course, the Corps also distinguished itself as part of the AEF – American Expeditionary Force – on the western front in 1917-1918, but it was in the crucible of these lesser-known small wars and deployments that the Corps developed its fighting men and their leaders.

    The “Banana Wars” were extremely influential in shaping how the Corps saw itself, and how it conducted operations. Indeed, when the U.S. General Staff developed its much-ballyhooed Guide to COIN (Counter-Insurgency)Warfare during the 2000s, much of the material in it was excerpted from the “Small Wars Manual” published in 1940.

    Ironically, the very success of the Marine Corps in its past operations, such as those fought in the Great War, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and countless smaller wars and commitments, has made its present-day role tougher to define.

    The armed services are no less status-conscious than any other field of endeavor, and it has long-rankled the U.S. Army top brass that the Corps was getting the choicest assignments and the credit for successes on missions that the army saw as rightfully theirs.

    Finally, just before and during WWII, the Dept. of the Army did something about it, and scooped the Corps at the same time, when it created not one but two airborne divisions, the 82nd “All Americans” and the 101st “Screaming Eagles” A/B Divisions, at a time when the Marines had no parachute infantry capability whatsoever. The Army could now boast of having a quick-reaction force to rival the Marine Corps, and one which could be delivered by air.

    The Army stung the Corps yet again when it created the U.S. Army Rangers, who were originally created to be an American analog to the British Commando units then operating against targets in the ETO, Mediterranean and North Africa. The Rangers were elite heavy-assault infantry, doing a job that the Marines had heretofore considered theirs.

    The Corps responded with the creation of the Marine Raiders, but despite their notable successes in the Pacific War, the Raiders did not survive the war as an entity, whereas the Ranger regiment did.

    If the Army could now point to units within itself capable of doing the same missions as the Corps – and even the most-biased Marine would probably admit that the Army’s airborne and Ranger units had distinguished themselves on the field of battle up to that time, then why was it necessary for the nation to even have a Marine Corps?

    That was indeed the question being asked after WWII during the great draw-down of our forces during the Truman administration. It didn’t help matters that the President was himself an old soldier, and one who had distinguished himself in combat in WWI, and therefore probably biased towards the army anyway.

    The Korean War changed all of that. The U.S. Army in the Far-East was caught badly off-guard by the North Korean invasion of June, 1950, and the token “trip-wire” forces on the boundary between North and South Korea did not pose much more than a speed bump to the communist equipped, armed and trained North Korean army. Worse than the pitiful state of U.S. and South Korean forces in-country, the U.S. Army in Japan proper was woefully-unprepared to wage war.

    Badly-mauled, U.S. and UN forces were pushed down into the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, into what became known as the “Pusan Pocket.” There, besieged and attacked from multiple axes by numerically-superior forces, the Allied forces occupied a perimeter which got smaller by the day.

    What saved the day was the arrival of U.S. Marine forces hastily-assembled from active-duty and reserve components in the States. In particular, the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade – used as a mobile reserve – was able to contain and push back communist breakthroughs in multiple sectors. Unlike most army units, Marine ground forces had often trained with the Navy and Marine air assets flying ground support and interdiction missions above and in front of them. And because Marines are trained to be ready to fight when they disembark, the Marines landing in Korea came ready to fight. Their individual and crew-served weapons were in good working order, had adequate stocks of ammunition, and had been zeroed.

    Even the formerly skeptical President Truman and his Far East CIC, General Douglas MacArthur, were forced to pay tribute to the resolve, courage and skill at arms of the Marines. Eating such humble pie cannot have been easy for two such old soldiers.

    And just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, the Corps came through again at the Chosin Reservoir later in the war.

    What lessons can the present-day observer draw from this history?

    First, the Corps is different and successful in action because of its unity of purpose and action. By having its own air, artillery and armor assets, the Corps could deploy ready to fight, anywhere in the world, well before larger but slower-to-move army assets could get to the action.

    The effect of the commandant’s proposed changes – which limit or abolish some of these assets – upon the conduct of future Marine operations remains to be seen. However, if the past is any guide, the Corps will lose some degree of flexibility and unity of action by relying on army armor or artillery assets instead of its own, to name one example.

    Second, the Marines fight as they train and train as they fight. The Army does not always display the same commitment, at least not across the whole force structure.

    Third, every Marine is a rifleman. The Army, to its credit, has in recent years – to some extent at least – adopted this mantra. However the Corps has kept its strong ties to its tradition of excellence in the use of the Marine’s individual long-arm, his rifle, to a greater extent than any other service. Every Marine, even if he is in a non-combat MOS, is expected to be able to grab a rifle at a moment’s notice and fight as an infantryman if called upon to do so.

    Some have argued that in an age of drones/UAVs, space war, air, artillery, crew-served weapons, smart weapons, etc. – that the rifleman,skilled with his individual weapon, is a relic of a bygone age. The Marines beg to differ.

    The Corps would be foolish-indeed to de-emphasize this part of their storied tradition. Marines are expected to be – and perform in the field – as exceptional and even elite marksmen.

    Fourth, the Marines are the nation’s maritime quick-reaction force and expeditionary force. They needn’t commit themselves only to amphibious warfare, especially since WWII-style amphibious assaults on foreign shores are now largely a thing of the past. It is the mindset which is key, not the mode of transport or how the individual Marine gets into action.

    Fifth, Marines are – and always have been -naval infantry, “soldiers of the sea.” While it is true that the SEALS have taken over some of the turf which the Corps used to regard as its own, the Marines and the U.S. Navy should continue to cooperate and work together whenever possible.

    In closing, as a military historian of many years experience, I have believed for some time now that the Corps should be the model upon which the Army ought to base itself, not vice-versa. I suppose now that the commandant’s proposals threaten to turn the Corps into a de facto adjunct to Big Green, perhaps that no longer applies.

    None-the-less, for many years, the Corps have served as a model of how to improvise, adapt and overcome, how to do more with less than perhaps any other branch of the military, all the while retaining its unique esprit de corps and legendary elan. That mindset has been critical to their success.

    Fifth, the problem of “special operations.” Marines have long-viewed themselves as an elite fighting force. As far back as WWII, the formation of special units within the USMC, such as the Parachute Battalion and the Raiders, provoked a lot of angst and argument within the Corps. Some saw the idea of an “elite within an elite” as an oxymoron. Eventually, however, Marine Recon took hold and today they are the JSOC component of the Corps.

    It has to be asked, though, what the long term effects on the Corps will be, vis-a-vis its status as an elite force, if its best men are continually siphoned off by Marine Recon, the revived Raiders, the Navy SEALs, etc. Some hard thinking about this dynamic is in order.

    Training costs money, and money – in particular in peacetime militaries – is in continually-short supply. Assume for a moment that the relationship is zero-sum: The budget is a given size and isn’t getting bigger. If the Corps gets too big, then standards of training will suffer. Whereas it is small-enough to be extremely well-trained and thus truly elite, will it be big-enough to do the jobs it is called upon to do?

    Discussions of this kind are already ongoing in the Corps. Some proponents of the small-is-better school advocate changing the Corps to be more like that of the British Royal Marines, a force which has no organic armor or air assets, but which is extremely highly-trained in its core missions. Others counter that with the ascendancy of special-operations Naval units, making the Corps that small merely paves way for them to be put out of business entirely.

  2. On July 26, 2020 at 11:39 pm, Georgiaboy61 said:

    Typo alert: The second “fifth” discussion point should have been labeled the sixth. Mea Culpa for the error. Proof-reading is your friend….

  3. On July 27, 2020 at 7:52 am, bob sykes said:

    So, out of curiosity, just what role is open to the Marines today? A MEU can still be useful as a police force going after Somali pirates and the like, but what else?

  4. On July 27, 2020 at 7:53 am, Fred said:

    Hiroshima ended amphibious land assault. The monstrous task of invading mainland Japan was apparent. The notion of assault via the sea with near enemy should have been dropped in ’45. And was.

    Secondly, the southern border is wide open. What is the point of a standing army in that case? America is not a serious country at all.

  5. On July 27, 2020 at 8:18 am, Bram said:

    I thought it was insane to disband all the Corps’ tank battalions (saw them fight in the first Gulf War). I’m not sure the Arbams was the right tool – something lighter and less of a gas hog would be appropriate. But anyone who has been on a battlefield with tanks like to have some on his side.

  6. On July 27, 2020 at 10:50 am, billrla said:

    Georgiaboy61: Very informative and insightful statement of the Marine’s history and current predicament. Thanks for the write-up.

  7. On July 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm, Georgiaboy61 said:

    @ billrla

    Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, drop a nickel in my slot and you can’t shut me up!

    @ bobsykes

    Re: “So, out of curiosity, just what role is open to the Marines today?”

    Mission creep is a reality, and it occurs even in the best-run organizations, let alone those with the systemic dysfunctions of the DOD/Pentagon. JSOC is the hot ticket – the arm or command of the military that everyone wants in on.

    At the risk of sounding banal, if everyone (everything) is special, then no one (nothing) is special. What I’m driving at is that since JSOC was formed back in the wake of the disastrous hostage rescue in Iran, it has gone from a somewhat small and obscure corner of the military to an eight-hundred pound gorilla. It is an animal which has busted out of its cage, or has been let out – and should be put back in.

    That may not be possible. Now that it is the hot ticket and everyone wants to be associated with the SEALS or Delta, JSOC is now its own special interest group, complete to senior officers looking for ways to use the command, increase its budget, and otherwise empire-build. We see the same phenomenon in the civilian sector with SWAT-type units. They’re salty, so everyone backwater police department wants one, whether SWAT capability is needed in that jurisdiction or not. And since they are expensive on a man-to-man basis in comparison to ordinary police, there is immediate pressure to use these units, or else risk the mayor or police chief or some bean-counter asking, “Why do we need a SWAT team when they never get used?” Which is how we arrive at the ridiculous situation of using SWAT personnel to serve low-risk warrants and perform other routine police matters.

    Special ops is cool, salty and everyone with rank on his shoulder and gold braid on his cap wants in on it, both for the prestige and success of his branch/unit, and his own. But if everyone gets in on it, the whole point of special operations is lost. By definition, special operations have to be exclusive, rare and out-of-the-ordinary.

    By putting the JSOC genie back in its (exclusive) bottle, we can again delimit the proper role of legacy formations like the Marine Corps. Not to mention save a whole lot of money. On a per-man basis, training special operators – whether Navy, Air Force, Army, USCG or USMC – is ridiculously expensive.

    There is a whole other discussion which should take place, and I hope it is – concerning the changing nature of warfare and the proper ratio of conventional to unconventional forces within the national force structure – but that is one for another time.

  8. On July 27, 2020 at 5:21 pm, George 1 said:

    Regarding the SWAT teams. For their advertised primary purpose they are completely useless. By the time they get kitted up and out to a place they are needed the problem is usually over.

  9. On July 27, 2020 at 5:27 pm, SGT.BAG said:

    In the eyes of the policymakers the Corps is obsolete because victory is obsolete.
    The want wet nurses not warriors.

    “Good night Chesty, wherever you are”.

  10. On July 27, 2020 at 9:46 pm, Bill Buppert said:

    The key question is this: if the Corps was dissolved tomorrow, would that make us less safe or more safe as a nation in defending ourselves? Would that 46 billion dollar annual cost and the sunk costs of bases, naval/littoral materiel and capital equipment be redeemable by cutting our losses?

    If offensive action around the globe since the end of the War to Save Josef Stalin and making the world safe for the spread of communism has at last come home to roost, was it worth it?

    Asking for dead and maimed friends…

  11. On July 28, 2020 at 11:47 am, James Harris said:

    Many interesting and thoughtful comments above. I ‘m with those who view dropping the tanks and bridging as a mistake.

    There will always be needs for amphibious capability. remember; we live on a planet that is mostly water; and most of our commerce is over water. We better be able to cross oceans and deposit large lethal forces where ever. Hiroshima didn’t end amphibious warfare, it just changed how we have to do it.–pound hell out of the target area; then take the key ground ex post facto.

  12. On July 28, 2020 at 11:55 am, MW said:

    Bill Buppert: I really enjoy your web site. It reinforces what I’ve always known, that government isn’t worth a shit. This comes from a guy whose family has been screwed over several times by eminent domain.

    You’ve mentioned that your Marine son claims that the Corps is nothing but a training ground for future anarchists. That is good to know being a collapsitarian in the final days of the FUSA.

    Just keep cranking out that great stuff over at Zero Gov & by all means, get to the range often. The same here at CU, too Herschel.

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