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Gen. Amos on Reinventing the Marines, Owning Sequester and Why COIN Is More Relevant Than Ever

The Marine Commandant talks about the future of warfare and how budget cuts are here to stay. By Stephanie Gaskell

Having fought in the streets of Fallujah and the fields in Sangin in the past decade, the Marine Corps is adapting to the new landscape of warfare -- and the counter-insurgency training used in Iraq and Afghanistan is still very much a part of it, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos tells Defense One.

Amos, many forget, coauthored the Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual with then Army Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Col. John Nagl. It was released on the Fourth of July in 2007, at the height of the Iraq War with the hope of giving U.S. troops a better understanding of irregular warfare. And the term COIN was coined. Since then, its success on the battlefield has been greatly debated.

In an interview at his Pentagon office, Amos calls it “human terrain.”

“We do this thing called Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield and that’s when you take a look at everything -- you look at who’s living there, what the threats are, all that stuff. That’s when you got mobility terrain which is going to determine whether or not you can drive, get someplace, that’s dependent on the time of year in some places. Then you’ve got the aviation guys and they’ve got their terrain that they’ve got to deal with. But then the issue of human terrain, this idea that the actual people count and their opinions count. Their culture is important. All those kinds of things have now become -- it’s just part of our lexicon,” Amos said. “We would no more think about going someplace without trying to pull in some expertise. The old days of, ‘We’ll just bully our way in there, we’re the United States of America’ – those days are gone.”

The lessons of COIN are being taught in the halls of Marine Corps academies. And the Marines have doubled the number of foreign area officers in the past two years, after opening the program up to staff NCOs.

“[Special Operations Commander Admiral] Bill McRaven coined my phrase and he’s not giving me any credit for it,” Amos joked. “But you can’t surge trust,” he said. “In other words, when something’s really unraveling internationally, isn’t it nice if there’s a relationship between the governments, between the militaries, perhaps between the commanders even down to something like a regimental commander or a battalion commander that he went to school with, we trained with his force. He can pick up the phone and say whatever the guy’s name is [and say] ‘Colonel, do you need some help?’”

“That’s kind of the future security environment. We may go to war, some big war, but I think it’s more likely that we’re going to be involved in these kinds of things that are going on right now, things around the world. So it’s training, it’s advising, it’s assisting, it’s building assurances, it’s developing trust. It’s building relationships so that when things get frisky down the road, you’re picking up the phone and you know the person on the other end of the phone and you’re saying, ‘Ok, what do you need? I can have this force here for you, I can do that, I can help you out here in this capability.’”

The Marines are trying to build those kinds of relationships as the military rebalances -- it’s not a pivot, Pentagon staffers like to remind reporters, because it’s not turning away from anyone -- its mission to Asia and the Pacific and hot spots in the Middle East and Africa. “The world isn’t getting more stable,” Amos said.

There are now four Marine battalions in the Asia-Pacific, with another planned to join them in October. Quick reaction forces have been set up in Italy, and there are still 7,200 Marines in Afghanistan. And the Marines are undergoing historic budget cuts and threats to cut the force structure to as low as 150,000, something Amos says will be impossible to do. “I’m past denial,” he said. “I’m no longer in denial of sequestration. I’ve confessed that it’s here and we own it. We don’t like it but we own it and we’re going to have to live with it.” But he warns not to let budget cuts and war weariness to get in the way of carrying out the president’s national security strategy.

“We are responding today at the American embassy in Yemen. I mean, we’re there. The Marines are there on the ground. The Marines have been there for quite a while. We have the Kearsarge off the coast, so we have forces poised off the coast of Yemen. We’ve got Marines that are poised right now just across the Mediterranean in Sigonella and in Moron and they are on a one-hour tether, which means one hour after they get a notification they have to be airborne. And we’ve got MV-22 Ospreys there and C-130s and a 250-man Marine Rifle Company and they’ll go into Libya. We’ve been there, we were there about a month and a half ago. They’re there on the ground now with about 87 Marines. If something happens in Egypt, they’re there. So all these different things are things, what we call steady-state requirements for the Marines.”

And “when the president says I want you to go to the Pacific, we’re doing it,” he said. The Marines just put an electronic Prowler squadron in the region and plans to add an artillery unit as well. “We are committed to the president’s strategy.” Having to respond to unforeseen threats or another major theater war would get tough if the force is cut too low, Amos said. “We would go, but we wouldn’t have the punch that America needs.”

Amos said the Marines are adapting as the Obama administration moves away from large-scale invasions and relies more on training and advising allied forces, smaller special forces and counter-terrorism operations, unmanned drone attacks and good old-fashioned military-diplomacy.

“I think that’s what we’re going to likely be involved in. That is going to continue to tax our COIN skills,” he said. “In fact all of those skill sets that we have learned, and I think the military, not just the Marine Corps, I think the military is pretty doggone good at this right now. We’re probably as good as we’ve ever been.”

Still, Amos isn’t ruling it out another major war.

“I think history has proven that we will. It’s just a matter of when. I think it would be naïve of us to think that we never will again,” Amos said.

“There’s a comment I use on my slides and as folks look and they go, ‘Ok, we’re done. We’re finally done with all this.’ Well I caution everybody with, ‘We may think we’re done with these nasty, dirty little things that are happening around the world, but they might not be done with us.’ And so that’s the caution. They’re probably not done with us.”