In his Sept. 16 commentary in Defense One, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, makes the argument that the Corps would be right-sized at around 174,000 personnel. This comes not long after his office made the argument that a Marine Corps sized at 186,800 Marines was deemed fiscally impossible. I believe that the reason that the Marine Corps is having a difficult time finding the right size is that it remains tethered to the legacy formations of the past. It is possible for the Marine Corps to provide its vital services to the nation for between 120,000 and 150,000 Marines if it embraces a new approach to the future.
The ideal Marine Corps would encompass counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stability operations and deal with anti-access/area denial attempts. Marines are expected to help train allied nations and quickly respond to humanitarian and other emerging crises, while still deterring aggression and, of course, defeat those who aren’t deterred. While accomplishing this, they must maintain a small foot print in a cost efficient manner. The Corps believes that the best way to accomplish these tasks is by being a littoral-focused amphibious organization with a combined arms Marine Air Ground Task Force, or MAGTF, at the heart of every unit. They believe that a scalable, forward-deployed and forward-engaged force with their own independent logistics backbone provides the best results. Additionally, the Marine Corps remains committed to fielding two Marine Expeditionary Brigades to conduct forced-entry amphibious assaults. This is the baseline to which any proposed Marine Corps must measure up.
Currently, the Marine Corps relies on an organizational structure unchanged since the end of World War II. From within this organization of divisions, air wings and logistics groups, the Corps is deploying forces to Afghanistan while sending rotational forces and ‘Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces’, known as SPMAGTF, to almost every part of the world. Once combat operations in Afghanistan come to a close, these rotational forces and SPMAGTFs, along with the Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, will be the focus of the Marine Corps. These forces will respond to crises and train our allies as needed. But these SPMAGTFs and rotational forces sacrifice the Marine Corps’ amphibious advantages. They replicate Army units on the ground as being unable to rapidly move and respond to emerging crises. Additionally, those units do not consistently return to the same areas, meaning that every rotation must build its own language capabilities and cultural understanding all over again.
The MEU, however, is a self-supporting, reinforced infantry battalion with its own air squadron and logistics based on three ships. A MEU is capable of conducting split operations, simultaneously responding to humanitarian crises as well as conducting training or even combat operations. In short, the MEU is everything the Marine Corps identifies as wanting to be. Frequently, the MEU is the only forward-deployed ground element and is often the first and only unit needed to respond to the call. The MEU represents a flexible force, capable of responding to the full spectrum of threats and, by using more than one MEU, provides commanders with a scalable response for extreme situations. The MEU provides so much utility that between 2007 and 2010 the geographic combatant commanders’ requests for MEU support increased 86%. Since the MEU is everything the Corps wants to be, should it not leave the legacy organization behind and reorganize the Marine Corps around the MEU?
I propose six echelons of four MEUs, maintaining the two-to-one dwell time (two years stationed at home for every one year deployed) that has sustained combat operations for the last decade. Each echelon would be assigned to a geographic combatant command, allowing the Marines of those MEUs to gain language and cultural proficiency. Transfers of Marines among the MEU echelons would also maintain a global perspective in operations. Two MEUs should be assigned to the Pacific, while the South American MEU would cover North and Central America. The Corps should also maintain the larger Marine Expeditionary Brigade, or MEB, command elements to command the MEUs, if they combined. A MEB being essentially three MEUs, by combining all six MEUs, the Marine Corps would maintain its two MEB force entry.
This force structure also will allow the Marines to reduce its redundant headquarters. Currently, the Marine Corps deploys as MAGTFs, but they are not administered that way, creating significant redundancy and impacting training. The units that train together rarely deploy together. At around 2,300 Marines per MEU, the Marine Corps would need 55,200 operational Marines. Including recruiting, training, headquarters and other obligations, the Corps could probably meet its national obligation at 120,000 Marines and certainly at 150,000. At 120,000, the Corps would cut its personnel by about 40 percent from current levels.
Historically, the MEU could have accomplished 72 percent of the Marine Corps’ missions since the all-volunteer force began in 1973, and 93 percent could have been accomplished by a combined effort of MEUs. Today, the MEU is a unique amphibious capability that allows the Corps to respond to all manner of crises and provides a cost effective way for the Marine Corps to reorganize to for the future. Six MEUs in every corner of the world will allow the Corps to train our allies, respond to all manner of crises and, if needed, provide enough combat power to allow the Army more time to bring its combat power to bear. The Marine Corps is not a second land army. It is time to embrace the capabilities make the Marine Corps unique and focus on the Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Aaron Haubert is a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Haubert recently completed his masters of war studies at King’s College London.