For most of its institutional life, the Marine Corps has prided itself on being the poor bastard child of the US military. For decades, its equipment was the Army’s castoffs. Marines were still using bolt-action Springfield 1903s into 1942, and still using the M1 Garand after the Army had adopted the M14. Marine helicopters are still Vietnam-era designs, albeit mostly improved over the years; one crew chief liked to boast that the last CH-46 had been built in 1967.
The GWOT has changed a lot of this. The gear that Marines get is now mostly top-of-the-line; Marine grunts are using M4s, the same MRAPs and remote turret systems are found in Marine units as Army units. Marine TOCs have access to Predator feeds, and Marines are wearing much of the same armor as the Army.
But as the quality of the gear has gone up, the Marine Corps appears to have fallen into the trap of thinking that gear makes all the difference. It has gotten to the point of regular infantrymen carrying the better part of 2/3 their body weight on patrol. Time and again, it has been found that, for soldiers to be effective, the fighting load needs to be kept less than 48 pounds, with the approach march load at 72 pounds or less. Yet recent research has shown that the average fighting load is now over 63 pounds, and the average approach march load is 101 pounds. A lot of this is because of the obsession with body armor and an increasing focus on gear over fighting ability.
It is easy to see the price that is being paid. Just go and watch some of the combat footage from Afghanistan. Infantry techniques that were second nature to our predecessors have been abandoned. Men loaded down with over half their body weight are crossing open fields, upright, in daylight. Maneuver is next to non-existent. Even cover and concealment have become nearly foreign, as microterrain can no longer be used effectively as cover when a man’s size is nearly doubled by the bulk of the gear he’s carrying.
Being a service that used to pride itself on being able to fight effectively with next to nothing, it is possible for the Corps to use the current financial squeeze to re-prioritize and get back to its roots, putting emphasis on the skill of the individual Marine rifleman instead of his kit, as it becomes more and more difficult to afford all the fancy toys. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen in the current environment.
As combat deployments wind down, and the Marine Corps begins transition to a “peacetime” Corps (even while there are still Marines downrange, in combat), the garrison mentality has come to dominate the Corps’ attention. A Corpsman deployed on a MEU a couple years ago reported that the MEU commander, who had just picked up Brigadier General, addressed the MEU, saying, “We’re coming to the time when you combat guys, you outside the box sort of thinkers…well, we’re coming to the time to say, ‘Thank you for your service, now go away.'” Combat effectiveness is no longer the primary focus; it is now making the Marine Corps look good politically. Haircuts and uniforms are now the biggest concerns, not how well a unit can close with and destroy the enemy.
It is a huge missed opportunity, and one we will pay the price for in blood when the balloon goes up again.