Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

3 hard questions for the Marines to chew

Yesterday I was reading a paper on the future of the Marine Corps that bothered me because I thought it didn’t ask tough enough questions. So I asked myself, What would those questions be? This is what I wrote down: Right now the Marine Corps is too attached to measuring itself by its end strength. ...

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Yesterday I was reading a paper on the future of the Marine Corps that bothered me because I thought it didn't ask tough enough questions. So I asked myself, What would those questions be?

This is what I wrote down:

Right now the Marine Corps is too attached to measuring itself by its end strength. That is an Army approach, and a bad idea for the Corps. I think its competitive advantage is in its quality. That should be its position to defend, not size. Is it possible to change this emphasis? How? Over the last two decades, the Marine Corps spent billions of dollars on the V-22 and F-35. Sure, they might be effective. But are they worth it for the Marines? Is one of the lessons of the last 20 years that the Marines should not be in the business of technological innovation?  (And what do the Marines really need the F-35 for? Wouldn't an F-4 or a prop-driven plane be better for close air support?) If, as I suspect, the Marine Corps' real future role is to be the 911 force, why not adapt to that even more? Yes, develop a well-trained force led by adaptive officers and overseen by generals who speak truth to power. But take it another step: Make the Marines the military's premier "interagency" force, not only willing to take orders from the State Department or CIA, but thoroughly trained and prepared to do so. Lead the way in such exercises. Build on the foundation of Small Wars Manual to write counterinsurgency doctrine that actually takes politics into account. 

Yesterday I was reading a paper on the future of the Marine Corps that bothered me because I thought it didn’t ask tough enough questions. So I asked myself, What would those questions be?

This is what I wrote down:

  • Right now the Marine Corps is too attached to measuring itself by its end strength. That is an Army approach, and a bad idea for the Corps. I think its competitive advantage is in its quality. That should be its position to defend, not size. Is it possible to change this emphasis? How?
  • Over the last two decades, the Marine Corps spent billions of dollars on the V-22 and F-35. Sure, they might be effective. But are they worth it for the Marines? Is one of the lessons of the last 20 years that the Marines should not be in the business of technological innovation?  (And what do the Marines really need the F-35 for? Wouldn’t an F-4 or a prop-driven plane be better for close air support?)
  • If, as I suspect, the Marine Corps’ real future role is to be the 911 force, why not adapt to that even more? Yes, develop a well-trained force led by adaptive officers and overseen by generals who speak truth to power. But take it another step: Make the Marines the military’s premier "interagency" force, not only willing to take orders from the State Department or CIA, but thoroughly trained and prepared to do so. Lead the way in such exercises. Build on the foundation of Small Wars Manual to write counterinsurgency doctrine that actually takes politics into account. 
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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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