The Role of the Marine Corps in the Post-Cold War Era

Report Defense

The Role of the Marine Corps in the Post-Cold War Era

November 1, 1993 7 min read Download Report
General Carl Mundy

There is an acronym that I have found to be useful in describing where we are in our defense planning machinery. It also keeps me on track about what to say. The acronym is RAMBURFTS -- Roles and Missions, Bottom-Up Review, and From the Sea. I will even make it longer -- RAMBURFTSRES -- because I want to finish up by talking about resources and the Corps.

But before "acronymizing" you, let me begin by talking a little about the strategic landscape that confronts us at the end of the 20th century. We have set aside the grand calculus of containment. The bipolar dynamic that dominated all our defense planning is obsolete, and it became obsolete virtually overnight. Four things have happened in the past five years that cannot be rescinded:

The fall of the Berlin Wall;

The end of the Warsaw Pact as a coherent alliance;

The disintegration of the former Soviet Union; and

The birth of democracy in Eastern Europe.

But the post-containment world is more confused, at least as violent as the bipolar one, and it is one that will require continued United States engagement overseas. Regional threats have replaced the "evil empire," but as we have seen in Kuwait, even regional threats can be very dangerous to world stability. This is the backdrop against which we have to talk about current and future military strategy and force structure. So let me now turn to my acronym and its first segment, "RAM."

As many of you know, in the spring of this year the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as mandated in law, issued a comprehensive report on the roles, missions, and functions of the Armed Forces. Let me describe these roles and missions.

Roles are the broad and enduring purposes for which the services were established by Congress. For the Army, it is the continental defense of the United States and land warfare; for the Navy, it is war at sea; and for the Air Force, it is aerial warfare.

The Marine Corps is "roled" to cut across these lines. Our role is to conduct littoral operations, those operations at the point where the land and sea come together, as part of a naval campaign -- in other words, to conduct land operations, but to do them from our bases at sea. Since this role logically carries us ashore to open the littoral door if land warfare is to be waged, our role assigns us also the responsibility to conduct sustained combat operations alongside the Army in a joint environment.

The functions of the respective services are to provide capabilities to accomplish the roles I have just outlined. These functional capabilities enable our warfighting commanders to accomplish missions assigned them by our National Command Authorities.

As part of his review, the Chairman looked at the capabilities of the services and concluded that, on balance, we have a fairly well balanced "family" of complementary capabilities. While there are some obvious redundancies, for the most part, the overlap is not excessive, and ensures us of a desirable "seamlessness," as our joint family of military "tools" works together to meet the mission requirements.

The bottom line is that while those who do not understand roles and missions delight in ascribing the word "fight" to every reference of this term, those who do understand are fairly content that the spread of responsibilities among the services is pretty well balanced. That was the conclusion of General Powell's report.

And now to the next part of my acronym: the BUR. The process of shaping strategies and forces has gotten off to a thoughtful start under this Administration with the Bottom-Up Review. The methodology is excellent, the interface between the uniformed military and the team at the Office of the Secretary of Defense unparalleled, and the product we have gotten from it has been very useful. Actually, the BUR force structure derived from the earlier "Base Force," as a refinement based on experience, and a slightly clearer focus on our future security needs than we had four years ago, in 1989, when the Base Force was crafted.

The BUR was not a zero-sum effort -- no service or agency "lost," and no service "gained" at the cost of another. Instead, the process looked at capabilities, and sought to maximize the complementary strengths of the four services.

Unlike the Base Force, the BUR was more than an essentially across-the-board reduction. It more clearly assessed, and balanced, the functions and capabilities we believe we will need as we now view the future, and shifted programming and funding emphasis to better align our joint capabilities and to emphasize the unique contributions and capabilities of individual services.

Now, to complete my acronym, "FTS" -- From the Sea. In realigning our perspective of the future, no service had to make a larger intellectual adjustment, a more extensive change of focus, than the United States Navy. They have had to shift from a global blue- water outlook -- classic "war at sea" carrier operations and hunting Soviet boomers in the bastions -- to a regional war outlook. It is a tribute to the Navy that they have been able to adopt a new service focus based on littoral operations.

Operations "From the Sea" is the Navy-Marine Corps strategic concept for this new world. It is an evolutionary process by which we are now re-emphasizing amphibious forces, mine warfare forces, and other capabilities that were of lesser priority during the long Cold War. "From the Sea" stresses what we can do ashore by using our control of the oceans, and by basing and operating our forces from sea bases, rather than on our steadily receding overseas land bases.

Because of our ability to operate from the sea, from the amphibious and tactical aircraft platforms that are small moveable islands of our national resolve, unencumbered by basing requests or overflight problems, we can conduct subtle and controlled engagement across the broad spectrum of diplomatic and military interaction. Because of this, Marines can come ashore rapidly for humanitarian purposes, as we did in Bangladesh, Northern Iraq, and Somalia, and, when needed, we can move into rapidly planned and executed combat operations from low - to medium-intensity conflict.

Maneuver warfare is the heart of "From the Sea." It is a warfighting style that emphasizes our strengths: the synchronized use of rapid maneuver, quick decisionmaking, and the inherent flexibility of seabasing. The rapid seizure or securing of ports and airfields by forward operating Marines can enable the entry of Army and Air Force elements, as necessary.

Now, I want to become parochial, and finish up here by talking about the Marine Corps and how we fit into all of this. The Corps of tomorrow is going to be smaller. Today, we are about 180,000, down from a Desert Storm high of 196,000. When we reach our congressionally assigned end strength in the mid-170,000s by the end of this year, we will be smaller than at any time since 1950 -- the eve of the Korean War. This reduction of 20,000-plus Marines is coming from a force with a two-to-one "tooth to tail" ratio; and that means that without much of a "tail," our cuts have come almost entirely from teeth -- our operating forces.

It was recognition of this fact, and of the reality that while the extent of some functions and capabilities in our Armed Forces may have derived from the Cold War, virtually none of these associated with the use of Marines over time did, that resulted in the BUR decision to hold the Marine Corps at a more capable force level than that envisioned in the Base Force.

Marines also offer an economical choice in defense structure. Long credited with a lot of "bang for the buck," under the BUR's guidance, with an operating budget that's about 5 percent of the DOD budget, the Corps will provide:

12 percent of active Armed Forces personnel;

20 percent of active divisions;

13 percent of all active Tactical aviation assets; and

14 percent of reserve division equivalents.

This a good deal for the American taxpayer -- a force of economy.

Many of you -- particularly those on the Hill -- see these frugalities, but you frequently remind me that the Corps seems often underfunded. In part this happens because, unlike the other three services, the Corps does not totally control its own programming and budgeting. As the smaller of the two services in the Department of the Navy, we must compete for scarce resources not only externally, but also within our mutual Department. This process is improving, and will further, I believe, as our Navy shipmates continue to focus increasingly on littoral warfare.

The key is that we must allocate the scarce resources available in such a way to emphasize those capabilities that are most relevant today, those capabilities articulated in "From the Sea."

This, then, is our future as I see it: an era where Marines are going to be used more and more frequently, for diverse and challenging tasks -- from major regional contingencies to peacekeeping to deterrence and everything in between. We will continue to provide what some have termed, the most general purpose of the general purpose forces with strategic agility, on-scene presence, self-sustaining, and high flexibility, for a variety of crisis response demands.

As the RAND Corporation's Fred Frostic said recently, "In crisis situations we use a little bit of the Army, Air Force, and Navy -- and every Marine we can get our hands on!"

Our ability to rapidly position two Marine Expeditionary Units off Somalia is illustrative of this point. We have got two powerful self-contained air-ground task forces sitting on the horizon there -- where they can be seen but not touched by clan violence. They have no logistic or political footprint ashore, but in minutes they can respond with an overwhelming combined arms team consisting of anything from attack helicopters to armored vehicles -- launched from the sea.

In summary, even though we have fewer resources to call upon, we are also confident that we have the vision -- in "From the Sea" -- to be a key element of this and future national military strategies.

The Marine Corps will continue to carry out the intent of the 82nd Congress "... to be most ready when the nation generally is least ready," to do more with less, and to do it well.

© 1995 Persimmon IT, Inc.


General Carl Mundy