The ACWG: Khe Sahn 2.0?
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.