Marines basing future plans on no repeat of Iraq, Afghan conflicts

Marine Corps officials are basing long-term force size and equipment plans on the United States having no repeat of lengthy stability operations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The service is in the middle of a high-level review that will help leaders determine how many Marines are needed, the proper mix of amphibious crafts and ground vehicles, which organizations to fold, and how to best address emerging threats.

Marine Corps sees no evidence from senior Pentagon officials that the service will again be called upon to carry out stability missions in largely land-locked nations, Lt. Gen. George Flynn, deputy Marine Corps commandant for combat development and integration, said Wednesday.

Service officials have examined strategic Pentagon documents such as the Quadrennial Defense Review and the National Military Strategy in determining the types of missions for which the Marines should be ready.

Nothing in those studies indicates the Marine Corps should be shaped as a land force that specializes in the kinds of stability operations it has been engaged in recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn said during a conference call with reporters.

The review work already has shown “this will not be the same Marine Corps,” Flynn said, saying there will be “some significant changes.”

Marine leaders are preparing for a future in which the service will be “the nation’s crisis-response force,” Flynn said.

The amphibious force expects more humanitarian missions like recent responses to natural disasters in Haiti and Pakistan. It anticipates doing more “engagement” — such as training — with U.S. allies and “potential friends” across the globe. Additionally, service officials expect to be asked to evacuate “U.S. citizens in trouble,” similar to missions in Lebanon and Liberia in the early 2000s.

Those kinds of tasks can be done best and most quickly by the Marines, Flynn said, because its forces “already are forward deployed and sea-based.”

Of course, the Marines also intend to remain capable of “projecting power” during hostilities from U.S. military ships onto land.

Missions like the one performed by “Task Force 58” in Afghanistan in 2002 are likely, when two Marine Corps units were rapidly moved 441 miles from ships off the Pakistani coast to inside Afghanistan.

He also pointed to the recent addition of 1,500 leathernecks to America’s force in Afghanistan, saying those Marines already were deployed nearby. That allowed them to move into Afghanistan only 30 days after a need arose for more U.S.troops.

Some lawmakers and military analysts have questioned whether the nation needs an amphibious fighting force. But Flynn said these kinds of missions show the operational value of maintaining the Corps’ traditional ship-to-shore capabilities. 

For such missions, Flynn said a requirement for 38 amphibious ships remains; the Corps can only afford 33.

A central part of its power-projection arsenal will be its version of the F-35 fighter, which is being designed for vertical take-offs and landings.

Senior Pentagon brass recently placed the F-35B on two years of probation, saying it should be terminated if weight, software and design problems cannot be fixed during that timespan. But the deputy commandant is sticking by the fighter.

“No one is talking about cancellation right now,” Flynn said. “We remain committed to [the B variant] because of … the flexibility it gives us as a crisis-response force.”

The structure of the Corps will get a face-lift, Flynn announced.

Some infantry and artillery battalions will be folded. About 20 headquarters will be eliminated, as well as some aviation squadrons.

At the same time, the Marines Corps will swell its special operations ranks by 1,000 while adding more than 250 cyber specialists.

Those specialties will gain Marines even as the service shrinks from its current size of 202,000 individuals to 186,800, the deputy commandant said. The service will stay at its current size until 2015 to accommodate the Afghanistan conflict, senior Pentagon officials have said.

Despite that overall reduction, the service will be able to grow its special ops and cyber ranks by shifting over some Marines from those organizations that will be eliminated.