Marines: Why American Marines Are Turning Into Soldiers

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November 13, 2013: The U.S. Marine Corps is again fighting, not for its existence but for the current number of marines on active duty. It works like this. The U.S. Army, facing growing budget cuts, is talking about reducing its active duty strength to 420,000 by the end of the decade. The marines don’t want to go below 174,000. Since the U.S. Navy also has its own ground force (NECC) of 40,000 sailors the Navy Department (containing the navy and marines) has 214,000 ground troops and that would mean the navy and marines would have a third of U.S. ground forces. This strikes many in the army, and Congress, as odd and the marines are fighting hard to persuade Congress to ignore the odd and keep 174,000 marines on active duty.

There’s more to it than that. For a war large enough to justify mobilizing the reserves the army would have far more troops. The army has about 500,000 reserve troops while the marines have only about 35,000. But most of the time the reserves are civilians and it’s the active duty troops who are going to be called on to take care of the most nasty situations.

Another problem is that the marines are unhappy with the way they have been used as an army auxiliary over the past decade. The marines consider themselves specialists, while the army are generalists. Despite that, the army, for example, carried out more amphibious operations than the marines did during World War II. But by law (which specifies the minimum size of the Corps, a law that could be changed) and determination (of generations of marines), the marines must have three divisions of active duty troops and have come to comprise a growing portion of America's ground combat forces. During the Cold War the marines went from about 11 percent of ground forces in the late 1940s to 21 percent at the end of the Cold War (1990), and now it’s headed for 25 percent. This is why the marines now get turned into an army. It’s because the marines are such a growing proportion of available ground combat troops. During the evolution the marines also became a separate service within the Navy Department, after two centuries of being part of the navy.

In the last decade the marines have also had their relationship with the U.S. Navy further changed because the navy has now formed another ground combat force. To understand how this came about you have to understand the relationship between the navy and the marines. The marines are not part of the navy, as they are often described. Both the navy and marines are part of the Department of the Navy. The Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force each have only one component, while the Navy Department has two (the fleet and the marines) who are separate services that are closely intertwined. For example, the navy provides many support functions for the marines which, in the army and air force, are provided by each service. Thus, navy personnel serve in marine units (wearing marine combat uniforms) as medics and other support specialists. In the army the medics are soldiers and the air force support personnel are all airmen. The use of the navy for support functions means a much higher proportion of marines are combat troops than in the navy, army, or air force. This gives the marines a different attitude and outlook.

Over the years the marines have acquired more and more autonomy from the navy. When the U.S. Marine Corps was created, over two centuries ago, marines were sailors trained and equipped to fight as infantry and they were very much part of the navy and part of ship crews. This changed radically in the late 19th century, when all-metal steam ships replaced wooden sailing ships. The new "iron ships" really didn't need marines and there were proposals to eliminate them. In response, the American marines got organized and made themselves useful in other ways. For example, the marines performed very well as "State Department Troops" in Latin America for half a century (late 19th century to just before World War II), where American troops were frequently used to deal with civil disorder abroad and nation building. During World War I (1914-18) they provided a brigade for ground combat in Europe where they demonstrated exceptional combat skills.

As World War II approached during the 1930s, the U.S. Marine Corps really ran with the ball when the navy realized they would have to use amphibious assaults to take heavily fortified Japanese islands in any future war. Thus, once the U.S. entered World War II, the marines formed their first division size units and ended the war with six divisions, organized into two corps.

The Marine Corps was no longer just a minor part of the navy but on its way to being a fourth service. Over the next half century it basically achieved that goal. But in doing that, the navy lost control of its ground troops. Navy amphibious ships still went to sea with battalions of marines on board. But because the marines are mainly an infantry force, and the war on terror is basically an infantry scale battle, the marines spent a lot more time on land working alongside the U.S. Army.

In response to all this, the U.S. Navy began building a new ground combat force in 2006, staffed by 40,000 sailors. This is NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command), which is capable of operating along the coast and up rivers, as well as further inland. NECC units have served in Iraq and are ready to deploy anywhere else they are needed. The 1,200 sailors in the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams are particularly sought after, because of increased use of roadside bombs and booby traps by the enemy. NECC organized three Riverine Squadrons which served in Iraq. NECC basically consists of most of the combat support units the navy has traditionally put ashore, plus some coastal and river patrol units that have usually only been organized in wartime.

This new navy organization, and the strategy that goes with it, came as a surprise to many people, especially many of those in Congress who were asked to pay for it. It came as a surprise to many NECC sailors as well. The navy even called on the marines to provide infantry instructors for the few thousand sailors assigned to riverine (armed patrol boat) units. The navy already had infantry training courses for Seabees (naval construction personnel) and members of EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams. Now all that was combined in the Expeditionary Combat Skills (ECS) course, which is conducted at a base in Mississippi.

The U.S. Marine Corps has mixed feelings about NECC, for the marines have long been the navy's ground combat troops. The navy says that the USMC mission will remain. Thus, some marine leaders want to shrink the Corps so they become small enough to handle anticipated navy amphibious operations and not large enough to have troops available for large scale support of army operations.

In effect, many American marine commanders want to be more like the British marines. That's interesting, because British marines are called Royal Marine Commandos and are quite different from their American counterparts. Britain invented the modern concept of the commando but disbanded its ten army commando's (as the battalion size commando units were called) at the end of World War II. The Royal Marines, however, saw the commando concepts as a welcome addition to their own amphibious doctrine and retained three of their nine Royal Marine Commandos. Since World War II, the Royal Marines have maintained at least three commando battalions. Artillery and engineer units are supplied by the army. In Britain the marines comprise about seven percent of the ground forces.

Like the U.S. Marines, the Royal Marines realized that assault from the sea was always a commando like operation which required special training, bold leadership, and an aggressive spirit. The Royal Marines, like their American counterparts, continued to innovate. In 1956, it was a Royal Marine Commando that launched the first helicopter assault from ships against a land target (during the invasion of Egypt). The Royal Marine Commandos were used extensively to keep the peace in Ireland during the 1970s and 80s. In 1982, it was two Royal Marine Commandos and one parachute battalion that did most of the fighting to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The Royal Marines have performed peacekeeping duty in the Balkans and Africa, and served as an amphibious fast reaction force.

While the U.S. Marines made a name for themselves with multi-division amphibious operations in the Pacific during World War II, the Royal Marines stuck with the commando type operations that characterize what marines spent most of the time doing between major wars in the past. Remember, the last large scale amphibious operation took place over 60 years ago (Inchon, Korea in 1950). Since then, the typical marine mission has been a quick assault using a small (usually battalion size) force.

In anticipation of this, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was created in 2006. Since then it has kept its 2,500 personnel busy with dozens of deployments in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. MARSOC is organized into a headquarters, a three battalion Special Operations Regiment, a Foreign Military Training Unit, and a Marine Special Operations Support Group. There are 3-4 Special Operations companies in each battalion.

Most marine commanders see their future as a smaller even more elite and better equipped force. The marines want to get back to sea, and the current post Iraq/Afghanistan reduction in force (RIF) can be done without losing a lot of the valuable combat experience the marines have gained since September 11, 2001. Recruiting was reduced for a few years and some marines transferred to the navy (in jobs that both sailors and marines handle), especially the NECC force. Marines have long moved over to the army, and the army would be glad to get an infusion of combat experienced marines, especially NCOs and officers. The marines also want to expand their reserve force so that marines who decide to get out can simply move over to the reserves.

The marines who remain with the Corps will probably continue the more extensive training marines have been getting for several decades now. This makes the marines an even more elite force, which is what many marines are fine with. But marine leaders also want to hang on to the legally mandated large size of the marines, but that is going to be difficult as the army shrinks and the marines continue to be a large portion of American ground combat forces.  

 


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