The Marines: Always Under the Axe
Time and again, the U.S. Marine Corps is especially important, and especially likely to be cut.


When it comes to our national-defense priorities, constrained budgets inevitably encourage strategic myopia and the use of axes over scalpels to make cuts. But no military service is more accustomed to the blow of the budget gnomes’ battle ax than the U.S. Marine Corps, which is forced to justify its existence whenever conflicts end or the nation faces tough economic times. As the Obama administration frantically seeks to wind down America’s commitments in Afghanistan and the Defense Department finds itself disproportionately targeted for spending cuts, the Marines are once again in danger.

The Obama administration’s original $487 billion in Pentagon cuts will eventually reduce the Marines’ strength by 20,000 men. Sequestration, set to take effect on March 1, will force another $40 billion in cuts this year alone. Add to this the very real possibility that Congress will again fund the government through a continuing resolution, extending the previous year’s insufficient funding levels, rather than passing a new budget. While all the military services will be seriously damaged by this perfect storm of poor policy, the Marines will be especially damaged. More than a decade of grueling, constant conflict in unforgiving mountains and deserts has left the Corps with over 60 percent of its equipment requiring substantial repair and reconstitution. Sequestration is poised to cut $854 million, or about 9 percent, from the Marines’ maintenance accounts, with a new continuing resolution further squeezing the Corps.

The Marines’ current predicament has been played out often throughout their 237-year history. Originally employed on Navy warships as military policemen and snipers, the Marines quickly found their niche in amphibious landing. From their first landing on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas during the American Revolution to the Pacific “island hopping” campaigns of World War II, the Marines have played a unique role in projecting American land power in otherwise maritime environments. But the very qualities that have given them a special place in the American popular imagination — ferocity in battle, unquestionable loyalty to mission and country — leave them open to attack from Washington bean-counters and self-interested bureaucrats. In conflicts from World War I to Vietnam, and from the First Gulf War to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines have found themselves prized for their fighting qualities but employed as a “second land Army” pursuing decidedly non-amphibious operations. While they’ve been among the most successful practitioners of counterinsurgency, their apparent interchangeability with the Army has left them vulnerable to those seeking savings from the defense budget.

The Marines’ critics have relied on the same lines of attack for years. After World War II, Louis Johnson, President Truman’s defense secretary, argued that the Army had actually conducted a larger share of amphibious landings in the Pacific than the Marines had and that, in any event, the future of warfare made the Marines’ principal mission outdated. Therefore, Johnson (working for the avowedly anti-Marine Truman) concluded that eliminating the Corps entirely would have no serious consequences for U.S. security. Just five years later, Marines under Douglas MacArthur’s command executed one of the most extraordinary amphibious landings of all time at Inchon. But the enduring necessity of an amphibiously oriented specialist force has always seemed to escape policymakers dealing with tough economic times or eager for  a “peace dividend.” The anti-Marine faction is a persistent presence across American military history: On surprisingly numerous occasions it has proposed abolishing the Marines entirely, and at other times it has simply tried to starve the Corps of resources.

The sad irony is that the Marines’ amphibious capabilities are becoming more important, not less. The much-needed “pivot” to Asia that President Obama seems determined to attempt with a hollowed-out military will require the Marines to return to their amphibious roots; the vast island chains and millions of square miles of ocean of the Asia-Pacific region dictate as much. Furthermore, the Pentagon’s newest doctrine, “Air-Sea Battle,” while seen primarily as a Navy and Air Force strategy, will still require the physical control of territory that only the Marines can provide. This control will most likely be achieved in the same way it has been since the Corps was created nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago: by sending Marines ashore from Navy ships.

But like so many elements of our military, the Navy’s physical capacity to support the Marines’ expeditionary mission has been allowed to atrophy. While the Navy has long maintained that 38 amphibious ships were necessary to support the Marines’ expeditionary mission, it now says they need only 33, and the force currently fields 30. The various auxiliary ships required to support amphibious operations, from mobile-landing platforms to the pre-positioning ships that store the logistical supplies of a Marine expeditionary unit, have also been subject to lowered requirements that remain unmet. In an increasingly Pacific-centric security environment, the Navy and Marine Corps are fielding woefully inadequate amphibious capabilities for the challenges ahead.

Those who would solve our fiscal problems at the expense of our military should remember that politicians have an abysmal track record of anticipating the future of warfare and preparing for it. Harry Truman and Louis Johnson failed to see that the Marines’ amphibious niche would remain essential in the new Cold War era, and today’s Marine antagonists fail to see the importance of this core mission in our current security environment. Our political leaders would do well to learn from the misjudgments of their predecessors and remember that a strong America requires a robust expeditionary capability. It requires the U.S. Marine Corps. 

— Alexander B. Gray, who writes frequently on naval issues, works on defense policy for the U.S. Congress. The views expressed here are his own.