Op-Ed: Gates Challenges Marine Corps’ Mission (excerpt)
(Source: Forbes blog; posted Jan. 17, 2011)
The Marine Corps is facing a historic defeat at the hands of Defense Secretary Roberts Gates, and hardly anyone inside or outside the Corps seems to grasp what is happening.

On January 6, Gates disclosed a series of proposed budget cuts that included termination of an amphibious vehicle the Marines have been developing for 15 years. He said the vehicle cost too much — around $17 million per copy — and that the service therefore should extend the life of existing amphibious vehicles while searching for a more affordable replacement. Gates stressed that, “This decision does not call into question the Marines’ amphibious assault mission.”

Taking that assurance at face value, prime contractor General Dynamics launched a campaign to convince Congress and the Obama Administration that buying a smaller number of the vehicles while upgrading current amphibious systems would be more cost-effective than canceling the program and starting over. Many backers of the Marine Corps on Capitol Hill seem favorably disposed to the idea.

But what neither Congress nor the contractor seem to understand is that the Gates move isn’t really about the cost of one program. It’s about the cost of the whole “forcible entry” mission at the heart of the modern Marine Corps identity, and the desire of competing claimants on the Pentagon’s budget to use that money for other purposes.

The Marine Corps describes itself as an “amphibious force-in-readiness,” which in popular parlance means it is ready to storm hostile shores on short notice. With all of the world’s great powers having long coastlines, the ability of U.S. naval forces to project power ashore from the sea has been seen as a key warfighting capability. The importance assigned to the amphibious assault mission by policymakers has enabled the Marine Corps, traditionally the smallest of the military services managed by the Pentagon, to grow bigger than the British Army and achieve equality in joint deliberations. It has also justified investment in the new amphibious vehicle, a vertical-takeoff version of the joint force’s future fighter, a unique “tilt-rotor” aircraft that can land like a helicopter but fly like a plane, and a whole fleet of amphibious warships.

Marine Corps leaders like to say that their lean style of warfighting only costs about six percent of the Pentagon’s budget, but that is an optical illusion: the Corps is housed within the Department of the Navy, and much of its costs are subsumed in the broader Navy budget. That means there is continuous friction between the two sea services about which missions should get highest priority in the department’s budget, and the Navy frequently wages bureaucratic warfare behind the scenes to undermine Marine Corps spending plans.

There was a brief thaw in relations when the Cold War ended, because with the Red Navy gone the U.S. Navy needed to highlight its relevance to fighting ashore, but the more common pattern is for the Navy to constantly question the requirement for Marine assets like vertical-takeoff jets and maritime prepositioning ships (which store warfighting supplies in likely areas of conflict).

The Army too resents competition from the Marines, regarding itself as the nation’s preeminent ground force. But with the Army fully engaged in a multi-front war for most of the last decade, it was the Navy that had the time and inclination to try to curb Marine Corps spending. Each new crop of political appointees was indoctrinated into the warfighting biases of the admiralty, and often the political types didn’t stick around long enough to realize they were being manipulated.

For instance, former Navy Secretary Gordon England was launched by the admirals on a hapless mission to kill the Marine version of the F-35 joint strike fighter during the first Bush Administration, only to be shot down in joint deliberations. And it didn’t take long after current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus arrived in that position before the admirals began convincing him that Marine Corps amphibious warfare plans were unaffordable.

Mabus promised Gates over a year ago that he would terminate the new amphibious vehicle, only to discover he couldn’t execute that maneuver within the Navy Department without outside help. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Forbes website.


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