Small Wars Journal

The ACWG: Khe Sahn 2.0?

The ACWG: Khe Sahn 2.0?

By: Zacchaeus

When one thinks of the Marine Corps fighting in the defense, one can't help to harken back to the Battle of Khe Sahn. In January 1968 Marines from the III Marine Amphibious Force undertook the daunting mission of defending and holding the base complex at Khe Sahn in the Quang Tri Province of South Viet Nam.  For nearly six months Marines mounted a gallant defense while suffering heavy losses from a numerically superior North Vietnamese Force.  Khe Sahn was an isolated, untenable position that was eventually lost to the enemy but the bravery and tenacity of the Marines who fought and died there will be forever etched in the proud legacy of the United States Marine Corps.

A few weeks ago the Commandant of the Marine Corps launched a detail of 25 Marines on a mission with characteristics similar to Khe Sahn – to defend and hold an untenable position.  The 25 Marines of the Amphibious Capabilities Working Group are charged with redefining the Marine Corps Amphibious Mission. While it’s clear the US Military needs amphibious combat capabilities in its portfolio, it’s unclear of how to build and maintain the right amount of amphibious forces in the current fiscal climate.

To make the mission more complex, the group must contend with the results of last year’s Force Structure Review Group. The group’s report called for a Marine Corps reduction from the present 202,000 level to an endstrength of  approximately 185,000 active duty Marines.  This is larger than the Marine Corps of 2001 and the necessitated growth is attributed to the new Marine Special Operations mission.  However, most national security experts call for a much smaller Marine Corps, with one estimate as low as 145,000 from the CATO Institute.  This number is similar to the worst case estimate resulting from budget reductions in a recent report for the House Armed Services Committee.

The FSRG did have one very important output that should drive the efforts of the ACWG – it defined the Marine Corps’ “sweet spot” as being a primarily maritime capability between special operations units and conventional army forces. Given this guidance, the current model of amphibious operations needs to be thrown out the window and should not be used as the starting point for this new construct.  The current amphibious model is based on the perceived requirement for a two Marine Expeditionary Brigade package that is completely unaffordable.

This group of 25 Marine Field Grade Officers with common backgrounds and perspectives will have a challenge overcoming group think if they don’t bring in innovative thinkers from outside the Marine Corps. Two organizations that should be represented in the discussion are the Navy SEALs and British Royal Marine Commandos – both of these elite forces provide an efficient operational capability in the Maritime Environment with a force less than 10,000 each.  The argument will be made that both of these forces provide different capability sets than the current Marine Corps force structure, nevertheless, both forces are expeditionary, lethal and operate effectively in the Maritime environment as well as “any clime or place.”  

The Marine Corps should learn from these smaller forces and focus on Battalion or Squadron sized force packages.  12 (4x3 rotation) Battalions, roughly 12,000 Marines, could form the nucleus of the current Marine Expeditionary Unit Model. Battalions would be supported by robust rotary wing assault support and attack helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles, logistics, intel and supporting arms deployed as required. Again the Marine Corps could develop 10 times the combat power of the Royal Marine Commandos with under 100,000 Marines. An additional 25,000 Marines could be used to support other Marine Corps centric missions such as Marine Security Forces, Military Police, Combat Engineers, Marine Anti-Terrorism Security Teams and Marine Special Operations.  This new approach should place more emphasis on the “no worse enemy” portion of the battle cry and leave the “no better friend” mission for the Marine’s Global Force for Good brethren.

Where could the Marine Corps take reductions?

·         Eliminate Fixed Wing Air Craft from the USMC inventory and rely on the Navy for support (it’s time to let go of the legacy of Guadalcanal)

·         Eliminate Air Defense (airborne) and Low Altitude Air Defense Missions

·         Leverage the Global Information Grid and reduce the deployed command and control footprint

·         Shed missions such as Cyberspace, Civil Affairs, domestic Chemical Biological Response and other non-traditional missions that can be accomplished by another service

·         Reduce support for COCOMS and conduct all operational planning at MARFORCOM

·         Shift tank units and heavy assault capabilities to the reserves

·         Restrict active duty personnel from performing inherently civilian work

While it may not have been given as a specified task in the mission statement to the AWCG, at the very heart of the discussion is the Marine Corps' ability to exist as a separate service within the Department of the Navy. This issue is worthy of further debate beyond the scope of this post.  Tradition, legendary combat history, marketing slogans and the supposed “will of the American People” will only carry the day so far in the current budget debate. If the Marine Corps attempts to defend the untenable 185,000 end strength and protect unnecessary programs such as its Joint Strike Fight variant and the Osprey, the results will be disastrous.


Zacchaeus was a Greek tax collector hated by his peers for perceived collaboration with the enemy.  It is the pseudonym of a retired Marine, working at the Pentagon.  He lives in fear for his children, family pet and automobile should his real identity fall into the hands of status quo thinkers in the Marine Corps.



Is it realistic to consider eliminating Navy SEALs and give that mission to the Marines? Eliminate MARSOC as well (I'm not quite sure what they bring to the table but they look like a "poor man's version" of US Army SF without the training). After all, weren't the Marines the original "special operations" force for the Navy? This would be in addition to the recommendations made by the author.

Jack Gander

Mon, 10/10/2011 - 8:00am

In reply to by carl

I think another historical factor that skews Marine Corps thinking is how well they performed in Desert Storm and OIF. As a result of G-N legislation, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, each Service turned into “mission whores”. Because of interservice rivalry, each Service had to get their fair share of the fight – this meant the Marine Corps fought the MEF in an environment ideally suited for the Army – but the Army could have fought these MTOs without the Marine Corps or at least the MEF. The USMC could have done other missions - small scale, hard hitting, missions that were beyond the scope of a Ranger or SOF task force (and I know the MEUs did to some extent). It’s still engrained in the Marine Corps culture that they need to have the ability to fight an OIF type fight in the future – our nation may not need it or afford it.


Sun, 10/09/2011 - 10:54pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

That is an excellent point that I never read before. The Marines don't have a read on modern times and are depending, in this particular area of endeavor, on echoes of past glory. I wish I'd thought of that.

Peter J. Munson

Sat, 10/08/2011 - 10:40pm

In reply to by carl

We're chasing after the somewhat embellished history of our development of amphibious warfare, close air support, and heliborne operations. The problem is that the cost, timeline, and bureaucratic obstacles to fielding new technologies on the scale of an Osprey, for example, have changed by orders of magnitude since those days. What is more, the success stories of our past were built more on ideas facilitated by available technology than on waiting decades for transformative technology then loosely pairing it with platitudes cum ideas.

We're trying to justify ourselves through platforms rather than justifying ourselves on what has always made us great: simplicity and steadfast execution.

The Osprey, the Marines eventually got it to work after a fashion and after years and years and buckets of money. But from what I read, a lot of people still wonder if we are better off with it or without it. The Marines, if allowed, will probably get the F-35B to work after a fashion but it will certainly require years and years and buckets of money, and I suspect people will then wonder if we are better off with or without it. The EFV may have been the same story, even though it was canceled there were still buckets of money.

There is a pattern here. The Marines can't seem to make basic engineering judgments about costs vs. capabilities.


Wed, 01/22/2014 - 4:00pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Frustration with bureaucratic b.s. is universal, isn't it? And the military's bureaucratic nonsense is legendary... with reason!

Peter J. Munson

Fri, 10/07/2011 - 6:13am

In reply to by Jack Gander

Its not naiveté, although I haven't worked inside the beltway. I get it, though. I understand the bureaucratic and institutional processes, politics, and culture and have read stuff like the two above. I just find it repugnant and it has only gotten worse as we went into an era of unconstrained expenditure and ate ourselves sick at the trough and now we posture to transition to an era of austerity.

Jack Gander

Fri, 10/07/2011 - 12:24am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

I found the post interesting but I'm not sure I agree with all of it. I think there is some risk involved in removing the fixed wing portion of the MAGTF. I do agree that the Marine Corps needs to be planning for the worst and hoping for the best during the budget fiasco. I found the CMC’s letter to the SECDEF interesting but not totally grounded in fact.

As for your post, no offense, but I sense a bit of naiveté in your words. It doesn’t sound as though you’ve worked inside the beltway at all or for an extended period. May I suggest to you two seminal works written by two great thinkers from your beloved Corps:

Bill Lind, The Two Marine Corps, (2004)
GI Wilson Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Labyrinth on Military Careerism

It’s difficult to have open and honest debate on these important topics when decision makers don’t necessarily have the best interest of the Nation in mind during the process.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 10/06/2011 - 2:21pm

It is quite a repugnant indictment of the Marine Corps, both its institutional culture and the lack of real moral courage bred in its officers, that people like Zaccheus and the author of the Attritionist Letters feel that they must resort to pseudonyms to make public their strongly held professional opinions. Many in the Corps are conflating and confusing institutional survival with their oath to support and defend the Constitution, while also confusing a collection of big name end items with the real reason for the Marine Corps' existence, which is to be a smaller, lighter, more agile, cheaper, etc solution. We are also confusing the idea of the stand alone MAGTF for certain operations with the need to recreate high-end air power capabilities that will be supplied, if needed, by our joint partners if we end up in that regime of conflict. Or so I'd think. Will a MAGTF really be going in alone and unfraid in an environment that requires stealth, for example? Could we get better results with cheaper, unstealthy, expendable UAS?

Could there be a Little Men's Chowder and Marching Society in today's climate? If not, is that going to be the downfall of the Marine Corps as we march off into bureaucratic group-think decline? And as the author alludes to here, the 25 field grades given their marching orders by the Man is no Chowder Society.

Mr. Z:

How many and what kind of ships would the Navy have to provide in order carry, land and support this kind of force?

(Once they find out you are gunning for the F-35B, you are going to have sleep in a different place each night. I'll make sure to leave my garage window unlocked. There will be food and water.)