On March 26th, Lt. Col. Lloyd Freeman published an article on Foreign Policy entitled, “Can The Marines Survive?” In short, Lt. Col. Freeman’s point is that American air power and UAVs have irrevocably changed warfare; movement on the battlefield means being killed by remote control from half a world away. He argues that the Marine Corps has, in its competition with the Army, rendered itself into a slow, conventional force focused on an obsolete mission, i.e. forced entry from the sea. In order for the Marine Corps to remain a valid force and not simply a second, redundant Army, he believes that it needs to convert to small teams of JTACs inserted into hostile territory to coordinate drone and bombing strikes.
First, the problems with this treatise. Lt. Col. Freeman has fallen into a trap that many have over the last century–he has latched onto one aspect of modern warfare as the end-all and be-all, in this case precision airstrikes and UAVs. The idea of winning wars entirely from the air is not new. Major Alexander P. de Seversky came out with the book “Victory Through Air Power” in 1942, in which he envisioned fleets of bombers bringing nations to their knees without a single infantryman on the ground. His vision never came to pass. WWII was won by infantry, armor, air power, and naval forces working in concert.
Again, the idea of push-button, high-tech “hyperwar” reared its head after the 1st Gulf War in 1991, and formed the paradigm for the better part of a decade, in spite of the battle of Mogadishu and the quagmire of the Balkans, until the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Overspecialization might work in a corporate environment, but in combat it can mean death. Further narrowing our combat capabilities will only allow our enemies (who have made exploiting our weaknesses and blind spots their strategy since Vietnam) further avenues to circumvent our strengths. If the Marine Corps (or any other service, for that matter) is solely focused on one mission, what happens when Marines are forward deployed and the situation changes radically, necessitating a mission shift? Will these small, specialized teams of spotters be ready for raids, unconventional warfare, or even holding their ground and fighting massed groups of enemy, such as the up to 500 Taliban fighters that were dogpiling on isolated units in the Afghan mountains a few years ago?
This is not to say that Freeman is entirely off base. The Marine Corps has increasingly turned into a slow, ponderous conventional force, that isn’t nearly as interested in adaptability and innovation as they are reputed to be. “Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome” used to be a Marine slogan. When Brigadier Generals are saying to their Marines that it is time for the outside-the-box combat thinkers to go away, it’s a pretty good sign that such is no longer the case. This is the service that still holds great pride in Lt. Presley O’Bannon’s march on Derna in Tripoli, with 400 Arab mercenaries and four Marines. If that wasn’t an unconventional warfare mission, I haven’t heard of one.
Marines wrote the book on small wars in the inter-war period. Quite literally. In Vietnam, the Combined Action Platoon concept placed small units of Marines with local militias in South Vietnam, and was actually successful until Gen. Westmoreland scrapped it. The Marine Corps has quite a history of unconventional operations. Except for MARSOC, and to a much lesser extent Recon, the Marine Corps no longer has the imagination, the will, or the guts to attempt these sorts of missions. Risk aversion has killed the innovative spirit of the Marine Corps.
Lt. Col. Freeman is quite correct when he says the Marine Corps is going to have to change in order to stay relevant. His model is flawed, however. A better model would be light, independent units of riflemen, capable of operating with next to nothing (also a point of pride for the Marine Corps, that hasn’t been true for several decades now) and killing anything within a helicopter flight of the littorals. Technology is all well and good, but it has taken too much of a front-seat priority. Operational skill is going to have to be foremost in Marine training, to include tactics, marksmanship, communications, survival, and engaging or avoiding the local populace. Fieldcraft is going to have to come back to the forefront.
Whether or not this is going to happen anytime soon is questionable. A large portion of the Marine Corps has bought into its own hype. If you are already an “elite” organization, why should you change? And a lot of the decision makers have never really been on the ground, outside the wire, dealing with the complex, hazy, bloody reality of modern war. They’re too busy imagining this: