I wrote my first book about the Marine Corps, and I like the organization. But sometimes even old friends need a push, and it feels to me like the Corps is going off the tracks here.
The Marines will shrink from 202,000 to 186,000, but it would be risky to go below that level, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the smart assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said at a CSIS session on Wednesday. That line worries me. Here is a fuller explanation of General Dunford's views, taken from his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee about six weeks ago:
… when we went through the force structure review effort, we came up with a size Marine Corps of 186,800. That is a single major contingency operation force. So that force can respond to only one major contingency. A hundred and fifty thousand would put us below the level that's necessary to support a single contingency.
The other thing I would -- I would think about is what amphibious forces have done over the past year: humanitarian assistance, disaster relief efforts in Pakistan, supporting operations in Afghanistan with fixed-wing aviation, responding to the crisis with pirates on the MV Magellan Star, supporting operations in Libya, supporting our friends in the Philippines and Japan. And quite frankly, at 150,000 Marines, we're going to have to make some decisions. We will not be able to do those kinds of things on a day- to-day basis. We will not be able to meet the combatant commanders' requirements for forward-delayed, forward-engaged forces. We will not be there to deter our potential adversaries. We won't be there to assure our potential friends or to assure our allies. And we certainly won't be there to contain small crises before they become major conflagrations.
So I think at 150,000 Marines I would offer there would be some significant risks both institutionally inside the Marine Corps because we will be spinning faster and causing our Marines to do more with less -- but as importantly, perhaps more importantly, the responsiveness that we'll have to combatant commanders' contingencies and crisis response will be significantly degraded."
Tom again: This just doesn't strike me as realistic. The Marine Corps almost certainly is going to get much smaller than 186,000, or 180,000. And so to plan around those larger numbers seems to me to be planning for failure.
I also am bothered by the way the Corps has attacked this issue. It does not feel to me like the institution I wrote about in Making the Corps some 15 years ago. Back then, as least, the Marines had a strong tradition of arguing hammer-and-tongs -- considering all sorts of arguments -- until a decision was made. Once a decision was reached, everyone in the Corps, no matter which side they had been on, would support that decision to the utmost. So as the budget crisis approaches, instead of drawing a line in the sand at 186K, it would be a sign of health if the Marine Corps Gazette were carrying articles these days that asked tough questions:
--Should we loosen the tie to the amphib Navy and supplement it with whatever shipping is available to move Marines? If so, what would that look like? How could we do the same things cheaper?
--Should the Corps move to a two-division structure? (And yes, today's Congress would go along with that, if asked to.)
--Should the Corps indeed move immediately to 150,000 -- but all the while making its line in the sand that it will always favor readiness over end strength?
Instead, I see General Dunford's public remarks as the Marine Corps leadership effectively shutting down discussion. Myself, I think it would be smarter for the Marines to announce as soon as possible that they are cutting to 150,000 -- and then go on to say, they aim to be the nation's small-but-ready force, able to go into a conflict early and buy some time for the country, not unlike Korea in the summer of 1950. This is the time to get creative, not the time to go into a defensive crouch.
I was discussing my concerns yesterday with some Marine types. One said, Don't worry, there's a Plan B. I think it would be more thoughtful and, more importantly, more honest, to roll that out now.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.