Marines: Goodbye Semper Fi

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January 10, 2022: The U.S. Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis, which means “always faithful” to the United States, fellow marines and a continued record of success at overcoming adversity on and off the battlefield. In peacetime one of the major threats are the major threats periodic efforts to eliminate the Marine Corps. There is another such effort underway, all in the name of efficiency and reducing costs. This time the proposal involves eliminating Marine Corps aviation and incorporating marine ground troops into the army as the 19 th Marine Amphibious Corps, with three divisions and the three marine air wings transferred to the navy, if not just eliminated. Since World War II the army has had the 18 th Airborne Corps. Originally this unit contained airborne troops, most of them capable of parachuting into combat. That changed over the years and currently there are no parachute units in the 18 th Corps, which now consists of four divisions; the 3 rd Infantry, the 10 th Mountain and the 81 st and 101 st Airborne. Helicopters now carry out airborne operations. Many SOCOM units are qualified to use parachutes, which is now considered a special operations skill.

Disbanding the Marine Corps has been proposed many times since World War I, when the marines demonstrated the ability to organize larger combat units and outperform their army counterparts. The marines demonstrated an extraordinary ability to muster enough public support to remain. During World War II the marines were even larger than the one brigade formed for World War I. By the end of World War II there were six marine divisions and even more popular support.

Despite the continued popular support, the marines have opposed becoming too large and treated like an elite ground combat force. In 2010 the marines proposed a sharp reduction in its size. Senior marine commanders expressed a preference for a smaller force, one that concentrated on its main mission; amphibious operations. The current proposals take that further and want the marines to become soldiers in a new Army Amphibious Corps. That misses the point about what makes the marines special.

Currently the marines were still dissatisfied with the way they have been used as an army auxiliary since 2001. The marines consider themselves specialists, while the army proved adaptable in major wars. It was the army, for example, that carried out more amphibious operations than the marines did during World War II. A 1956 law specified the minimum size of the Corps as three divisions and three air wings. While this law could be changed by Congress, it also allows the marines to reorganize themselves. For over a decade the marines have been asking for the 1956 law to be amended to allow a smaller minimum size of the marine corps. The marines point out that they have come to comprise a quarter of America's ground combat forces. That's active duty, when you count the much larger army reserve force, the marines were 18 percent of ground combat forces in 2010 and that has not changed much since then. The marines never wanted to be just another part of American ground combat forces, even if they were still marines. Among many liberal politicians, efforts to eliminate the marine corps entirely is always a good way to get some attention.

For over a decade the marines were also concerned about their relationship with the U.S. Navy, which formed another ground combat force in 2005. 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.

Over the years, the marines have acquired more and more autonomy from the navy. When the U.S. Marine Corps was created at the start of the American Revolution, marines were sailors trained and equipped to fight as infantry, and they were very much part of the navy, and a standard component 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, from the late 19th century to just before World War II. This was a period when American troops were frequently used to deal with civil disorder abroad, and attempts at nation building. During World War I (1914-18), they provided a brigade for ground combat in Europe, where they demonstrated exceptional combat skills.

During the 1930s, as World War II approached, the U.S. Marine Corps really ran with an opportunity they were given 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.

At that point 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, each with a battalion of marines on board. But because the marines are mainly an infantry force, and the war on terror was basically an infantry scale battle, the marines spent a lot more time working alongside the army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Between 2005 and 2010, the Navy created a new ground combat force, staffed by 40,000 sailors. Known as NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command), it was organized to operate along the coast and up rivers, as well as further inland. NECC units served in Iraq, and were ready to deploy anywhere else they are needed. NECC included the 1,200 sailors in the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams. EOD specialists were particularly sought after, because of increased use of roadside bombs and booby traps by the enemy. NECC has also organized three Riverine Squadrons, and these 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.

The need for 40,000 NECC personnel quickly disappeared after most American troops left Iraq in 2011 and no other similar threat appeared. NECC soon shrank to about 21,000 personnel. This new navy organization, and the strategy that supported 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 teams. NECC combined all that in the new Expeditionary Combat Skills (ECS) course, which was conducted at a base in Mississippi.

With the marines appropriated by the army for land combat, the navy still wanted and needed land forces and that led to NECC. The navy still considers the marines its primary "amphibious infantry force", but NECC will contain sailors trained and equipped for land operations the navy believes it should be involved in. Some of these are still on the water, like "riverine operations" (small gunboats and troop carriers to control rivers and coastal waters against irregulars), and "naval infantry" to defend navy land bases in hostile territory.

The U.S. Marine Corps had 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. That was one of the reasons why marines wanted to shrink 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, the American marines want to be more like the British marines. That's interesting, because British marines are called Royal Marine Commandos, and are quite different. Britain, which invented the modern concept of the commando, disbanded it's ten army commandos, 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.

Like the U.S. Marines, the Royal Marines realized that assault from the sea was always a commando operation, requiring 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 spend most of the time doing between major wars. An important aspect of this is that the last large scale amphibious operation took place seventy years ago when American marines, accompanied by South Korea marines they had trained, led a daring operation to seize Inchon, Korea in 1950. That was deemed impossible by the invading North Koreans, who did not leave a large force to defend Inchon from such an attack. Because of the marines, and the army divisions who came in behind them, the North Korean forces further south were cut off from supplies and reinforcements and soon defeated. As remarkable as the Inchon operation was, 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. Over the next four years MARSOC sent some of its 2,400 personnel on over thirty deployments to South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. MARSOC is organized into a headquarters, a two 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. The marines basically lost two of their four Force Recon companies in order to build MARSOC. Meanwhile, more troops have been added to division level reconnaissance units, to take up some of that slack. The marine Special Operations troops provide a combination of services roughly equal to what the U.S. Army Special Forces and Rangers did, as well as some of the functions of the marine Force Recon units.

All the other services, except the marines, contributed to the formation of SOCOM in the late 1980s. The marines finally got around to working with SOCOM in 2005, when it was agreed that they would create a marine special operations command (MARSOC). The Marine Corps had long resisted such a step, largely because of its belief that marines are inherently superior warriors, capable of highly specialized missions. This attitude began to change during the fighting in Afghanistan, when marines were assigned to support SOCOM troops there.

As a result of that experience, marines were attached to SOCOM for liaison and observation purposes. In 2004, the marines organized a company sized unit of commandos, "Detachment One", using volunteers from their Force Recon troops, the closest thing the marines had to commandos. Detachment One was sent to Iraq, where it's performance convinced SOCOM that marines could operate at the SOCOM level.

The marines see their future as a smaller, by up to a third, or more and even more elite force that is better equipped. The marines want to get back to sea, and the post 2011 reduction in force (RIF) could be done without losing a lot of the valuable combat experience the marines have gained in the previous nine years. Recruiting was to be reduced for a few years, and some marines could transfer 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 may also expand their reserve force, and 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 and very resourceful force, which is what many marines are fine with. That does not impress many peacetime critics who forget how marine attitudes and improvisations proved invaluable time and again in wartime.

 


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