Protecting the borders is now a military mission

The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, grabbed some headlines when he declared his service is facing "rapidly accelerating risks" from, among other things, operations along the Southwest border.

To be fair, General Neller’s concern was one of many he communicated to the Secretary of the Navy and they are all legitimate concerns, but why his discomfort with the Southwest border mission? Does the other land force, the Army, think the same?

General Neller’s concern about the Southwest border mission may be rooted in the expeditionary mission of the Marine Corps which has typically deployed overseas as part of the naval forces. “Marine Corps Operations”, which describes the roles of the Marine Corps expeditionary forces, doesn’t mention U.S. borders or defending the homeland, though it does explain that an attribute of successful foreign counterinsurgency operations is “Securing host nation borders.”


The Army, on the other hand, is no stranger to the Southwest border. It fought Mexican forces in the Mexican–American War of 1846-1848, and the Mexican Expedition of 1916-1917, which required almost the entire Regular Army. Current Army doctrine recognizes operations within the United States are in support of the civil authorities. Specifically, “The Army” says: “Within the United States, we support civil authorities through DSCA [defense support of civil authorities]. If hostile powers threaten the homeland, we combine defensive and offensive tasks with DSCA.”

General Neller’s concerns reflect the military’s shift from fighting Islamist militants in the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to “great power competition” which will require an expensive and lengthy refashioning to address the challenges of Russia and China. He apparently understands the enormity of task as management issue, but he may not grasp President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE’s strategy.

The fiscal year 2019 defense budget is about $700 billion, but doesn’t include any programmed funds for border security, if General Neller’s comments are a guide, something that may have come as a surprise to many taxpayers, including one named Donald J. Trump.

Just as the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan involved more than just killing militants, “defending the homeland” may mean a significant commitment to supporting civil authorities in the border security mission. And arguing against the border mission by saying “we need to get them over there before they come here” isn’t convincing given the mixed results in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another concern may be exposing the military to the pervasive corruption along the border, a real concern considering the recent ethical lapses in the special operations forces and the Navy’s “Fat Leonard” scandal. There’s just so much money that even the federal law enforcement agencies charged with keeping illegal narcotics at bay, Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration, haven’t been able to stay clean.


The U.S. military has had the luxury of fighting its wars in someone else’s country since General John Pershing led the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916, a real plus that has minimized wear and tear on America. But it also created the assumption that military missions, save the odd disaster relief job, happen somewhere else and don’t involve stringing concertina wire in the Arizona-California desert.   

The Trump administration has a more transactional approach than the traditional national security establishment which is fine with America being the world’s night watchman. Sure, that role has benefitted the U.S., but it’s also a 70+ year old policy that may need to be rebalanced, especially as Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is already reneging on its commitment to increase defense spending. As the Germans are apparently OK with ships, tanks, and aircraft that aren’t combat ready, Trump may feel we should redirect military resources to support the civil agencies working to secure the Southwest border and stem the flow of narcotics, illegal aliens, and trafficked persons.

General Neller may think Southwest Border operations are interfering with the traditional, overseas missions that have been assigned to the Marines, but the ground has shifted, and those overseas missions may be interfering with border operations. 

Military leaders should understand the  Southwest border operations are a priority for the President; he campaigned on it, declared a national emergency on it, then successfully fought Congress over the emergency. Trump isn’t asking for anything illegal: Title 10 of the U.S. Code says, “The Secretary of Defense may provide assistance to United States Customs and Border Protection for purposes of increasing ongoing efforts to secure the southern land border of the United States.”

It can’t be any clearer. Southwest border operations are now part of  the military’s day job

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).