By Alexandra Stark
Best Defense bureau of Marine Corps culture (because they don't really do doctrine)
Considering Secretary Gates's recent call to chop DOD's budget, as well as the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and soon (perhaps) in Afghanistan, now seems like a particularly apt moment to reevaluate the future of the U.S. Marine Corps. Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work's talk one quiet, warm day in August at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Military Strategy Forum was particularly reassuring to those who worry about an existential threat to the Corps or doubt that the Marines can prepare for and adapt to future threats very different from today's.
Work asserted that "the future of the Marine Corps is bright," but he also specified that after combat missions come to a close in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new focus will be on "re-setting the Corps." Secretary Gates recently described the Marine Corps' work in Afghanistan as a "game-changer," but also said that its role was essentially that of a second land army. Thus, the end of combat missions provides an opportunity to determine the role that the Corps will play over the next several decades.
Even as the Naval Department turns to this task, Work cautioned that the department has not made any decisions yet as to what the Corps will look like in the future. Rather, the Force Structure Review Group (FSRG), conducted primarily at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command with input from outgoing and incoming commandants (Gen. James Conway and Gen. James Amos respectively) and Marine Corps staff, will help to guide any changes. The review group will consider the requirements of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as well as the lessons learned from "the past seven years of war." Work said the earliest concrete changes could only be expected in POM 2013.
The Corps will become more reflective of its naval character, he said. That's a significant statement considering that the Corps has largely served as a land force over the past seven years. The Marines and the Navy will also move closer together, he said. Work emphasized most the Corps' fundamental capabilities: In a near-theological point, he said that the Marines must be capable of conducting amphibious assaults. (This is an issue that Gates will be considering this fall, Work wrote in a comment he sent to Small Wars Journal.) The department will be evaluating the most likely scenarios where amphibious capabilities will be necessary and the chances that these scenarios will need to be executed. Amphibious platforms provide a great deal of flexibility and can support a number of different missions, including theater entry, partnership-building, humanitarian missions and supporting special operations. They will also be essential to U.S. power projection if a period of increased anti-access and area-denial challenges should arise.
Work's points about platform capabilities seemed more significant in light of the QDR review panel's findings, which pointed to a gap between the military's force structure and the increasingly complex missions that it must undertake. The panel also recommended building "an alternative force structure with emphasis on increasing the size of the Navy." Given these findings, it is imperative that the Marine Corps find new and innovative ways to adapt to potentially unforeseeable future challenges and missions, all within an allocation budget that is increasingly on the chopping block.
Here is old Gates talking about this all this, a few days after Work's talk.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.