Best Defense

After its EFV and aviation blunders, the Marine Corps needs to strive to regain its old reputation of doing more with less

By Col. T.X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.) Best Defense guest columnist As Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak noted, the nation doesn’t need a Marine Corps. It has a Marine Corps because it wants one. Part of that want is the assurance the Corps combines value for money and readiness to fight. Unfortunately, some of the Corps’ recent ...

Naval History and Heritage Command
Naval History and Heritage Command

By Col. T.X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.)

Best Defense guest columnist

As Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak noted, the nation doesn’t need a Marine Corps. It has a Marine Corps because it wants one. Part of that want is the assurance the Corps combines value for money and readiness to fight. Unfortunately, some of the Corps’ recent decisions have undercut those arguments.

We are adamant we need the F-35B — the most expensive and least capable of the F-35 family.  We state that we must have the "invaluable" STOVL capability yet we cannot point to any example in the 30 years of flying Harriers that STOVL has been essential operationally to the nation.  That capability has been useful in several operations but not essential.  More expensive and, in some ways, less capable than an upgraded F-18, the F-35B will also be very expensive to operate.  Thus we will fly fewer hours and be less ready.  This is all at a time that even open source reporting is stating that new IRST (infra-red search and track) pods will allow any fighter equipped with one to see the F-35. Defense Technology International notes that IRST pods are standard on Sukhoi and MiG fighter.  (Dec 2011, p. 39). Simulations indicate this will result in more close-in fights — exactly the arena where the F-35 is weak.

Interestingly, the Corps was just as adamant about the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle despite that fact that its purchase would have consumed the Corps’s budget for ALL ground equipment.  To get the EFV we would have had to give up everything else.   Fortunately, this program has been cancelled.

In a similar way, the F-35B will consume a major portion of the Corps’ aviation acquisition budget.  To gain this "nice to have" STOVL capability, the Corps will have to give up other fully tested and capable assets – during a time of declining budgets.   It will also have to carry the much higher operating costs for the life of the aircraft.

In sharp contrast, the Corps has updated the UH and AH to first class systems for a fraction of the cost of developing new systems.   These programs are in keeping with the Corps’ historical frugality.   Similarly, the Corps’ purchase of the Brits used Harriers as parts blocks for our fleet is typical of what Americans expect from us.

For despite these programs, decades of relentlessly pursuing three most expensive end items in anyone’s inventory – F-35B, MV-22 and EFV, means our Corps needs to earn back its reputation for being ready with less money. This includes getting serious about looming personnel cuts.  Being ready is less about the total number of people than the correct number and mix of people.  We were certainly ready for the conventional phases of Afghanistan and Iraq when our force was about 170K.  Given that, I have a great deal of trouble justifying the expense of the planned 182-186K once we leave Afghanistan.   The last decade’s rapid increase in personnel costs means it will cost us a great deal more to maintain the same size force.

Of particular concern to this author, the Corps was being looked at for a cut to 150K in 2001 — when we had record surpluses.  It is prudent we start looking hard at that number during this period of record deficits.  While it may not make sense from a strategic point of view, political necessity may well drive us there.  We need to think through how the Corps remains ready at that number while simultaneously dealing with a reduced operations and maintenance budget.

Our Corps’ ethos has carried it through lean times.  Part of that ethos is the willingness of both individuals and the institution to question conventional wisdom. Thus, it is particularly disturbing to see one’s loyalty to the Corps questioned if one questions the current policies.  Losing that is much more of a danger to the Corps than a draw down.

The key, as always for the Corps, is to maintain our culture.  It was our culture that allowed a Corps with only 76,000 on active duty to mobilize and deploy a division/wing team in less than a month in 1950.  Readiness is not tied to end strength but to attitude.  It is that attitude that Americans treasure.

Semper Fi,
T. X. Hammes  

T. X. Hammes served 30 years in the Marine Corps and is now a Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University.  The views expressed are his personal views and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the University. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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