Marines: USMC Evolves To Survive


March 29, 2021: For nearly a decade now the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) has been reorganizing itself. Over the last few decades its weapons and equipment got heavier, so that it could work with army units during combat operations on land. This made your average marine combat unit heavier and more difficult to move ashore for amphibious operations. In response, marine commanders say they would prefer to be a smaller force, one that concentrates on its main mission: amphibious and commando type operations.

The reorganization and process has been underway during the past few years now and has led to a lot of support units (tank, artillery, aviation, engineer and military police) disbanded or moved to the reserves. Three of 24 current marine infantry battalions and one regimental headquarters are being deactivated as well. The marine focus is now on the Pacific and potential conflict with China. That means the marines want to get back to World War II-type operations, when the marines were all about taking fortified islands from their Japanese garrisons.

The pre-reorganization marines that gained a lot of its armor, engineer and artillery units evolved 2001, when major operations in Afghanistan, and Iraq and a few other places required forces similar to what the army had, and needed more of.

The last major reorganization took place in the 1980s. Back then, the marines turned their divisional and regimental headquarters into administrative operations, and created new organizations to do the actual fighting. The new units were MEUs (Marine Expeditionary Units, actually reinforced infantry battalions), MEBs (Marine Expeditionary Brigades, which were brigades reinforced with support units so they could operate independently) and MEFs (Marine Expeditionary Force), which was a headquarters for controlling MEUs and MEBs. When there was a large operation, the old regiment and divisional designations were used, but the units were basically MEBs controlled by an MEF. This task-oriented organization remains. Even the army adopted this type of thing fifteen years ago when reinforced brigades became the primary combat unit rather than the division. Divisions headquarters became a tactical headquarters for brigades and other units for an operation.

Meanwhile, many marines were unhappy with the way they have been used as an army auxiliary in the decade after 2001. The marines consider themselves specialists, while the army are generalists who, for example, carried out more amphibious operations than the marines did during World War II. By 2013 marines comprised a quarter of America's ground combat forces. That's active duty, when you count the much larger army reserve force, the marines are 18 percent of ground combat forces. The marines never wanted to be just another part of American ground combat forces. This has caused some tension within the marine leadership, as some commanders want to maintain as broad a range of skills as possible. This has led to disputes over how to handle development and procurement of specialist equipment, especially amphibious and armored vehicles. Eventually the originalists won the debate and now the marines are going back to their modern origins in World War II.

The marines were also concerned with their relationship with the U.S. Navy, which 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. 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 the marines demonstrated exceptional combat skills.

In the 1930s, as World War II approached, 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. Only four of those divisions survived the post-World War II demobilization and one of them is now a reserve division.

After World War II the Marine Corps was no longer just a minor part of the navy but on its way to being a fourth service. By the late 20th century, they basically achieved that goal. But in doing so, 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, 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.

As major U.S. troops commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan declined after 2011 so did the need for NECC. Currently NECC is a smaller force of 20,000 sailors trained and equipped for coastal and riverine operations. There is still a need for that and the marines are content to let the navy handle it with sailors trained as infantry who operate from small boats along coasts and waterways.

NECC and the strategy that came with it, was 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.

Initially the 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. 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.

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 an 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 seventy 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 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 (one of them a reserve unit) in order to build MARSOC. Meanwhile, more troops have been added to division level reconnaissance units, to take up some of that slack. The Special Operations companies (with about 120 personnel each) can provide Force Recon capabilities to marine units they are attached to. The two Special Operations Battalions provide a combination of services roughly equal to what the U.S. Army Special Forces and Rangers do, as well as some of the functions of the Force Recon units.

With MARSOC the marines are playing catchup. In the late 1980s all the other services, except the marines, contributed to the formation of SOCOM (Special Operations Command). 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 and were duly impressed.

Most marine commanders see their future as a smaller (by up to a third, at least) even more elite and better equipped force. The marines want to get back to sea, and that is what the marines have done over the last decade. One major benefit was avoiding the loss of 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, usually 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 are now experimenting with some new concepts, like “littoral regiments” to do the jobs that are too tough or too distant for NECC to handle right away. The marines found a home in SOCOM, a multi-service organization where all forces involved (army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and special operations aviation units from the army and air force) remain with the military service that created them. SOCOM sees to it that all these separate special operations are used for special operations and not diverted to more mundane tasks.


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