The War Against the Corps — Part 3

(Continued from last week )

Toward the end of Part 2 of this title, we learned that in 1952, President Harry S. Truman officially acknowledged the U.S. Marine Corps as a separate service of the U.S. Armed Services, a co-equal member with the U.S. Navy within the Department of the Navy, with unique roles and missions.  Now, here it is 70 years later, and the question of the need for a U.S. Marine Corps remains under discussion.

Proceedings is a monthly magazine published by the United States Naval Institute.  Initially launched in 1874, it is one of the oldest continuously published periodicals in the United States.  The magazine covers such topics as global security and includes articles authored by military professionals and civilian experts, historians, and reader commentary.  About one-third of the articles appearing in Proceedings are written by active-duty military officers, a third-by retired military, and a third by civilians with an interest or expertise in some aspect of military or naval service.

In the December 2021 issue of Proceedings, Commander Norman R. Denny, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired), reopened the subject of The War Against the Corps in his article titled How to Absorb the Marine Corps into the Army and Navy.  After summarizing the efforts of President Truman and U.S. Army generals George C. Marshal, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley to disband America’s Marines, Commander Denny begins to offer recommendations about how it could be done.  He imagines that the process could most easily begin with U.S. Marine Corps aviation — because hardly anyone in the United States has any knowledge of Marine Air beyond watching the films Flying Leathernecks (1951) and The Great Santini (1979).

Rebutting Commander Denny’s article was U.S. Marine Corps Major Brian Kerg.  Major Kerg acknowledged Denny’s courage for tackling a topic rife with emotion and parochialism (Marines are protective of their Corps)[1] but very quickly illustrated how short Denny’s article was in offering a compelling case for disbanding the Marine Corps. 

Major Kerg opined that Denny over-estimated the Army and Navy’s capabilities to assume Marine Corps roles and missions.  To do so, both services would have to undergo massive structural changes.  But more to the point, Major Kerg demonstrated that the Marine Corps is one of the more adaptive of the six military services.[2]

As an example of Denny’s misjudgments, Major Kerg wrote, “Commander Denny claims that the Army can assume amphibious assault responsibilities because it performed this role at Normandy.  The Army did indeed conduct several impressive amphibious operations across the European Theater of Operations in World War II, Normandy being one of them.  But the Army was capable of doing this only because the units involved in those operations were manned, trained, and equipped for the task, and they worked closely with the Navy toward this aim.”[3]

Major Kerg is correct to point out that the U.S. Army today is incapable of performing these tasks.  Successful amphibious warfare operations (AWO) and capabilities require a unique organizational structure, complex support mechanisms, specialized equipment, years to develop AWO expertise, knowledge of naval gunfire support, close air support, knowing what to do — and as importantly, what not to do, and how to withdraw.  This knowledge is critical, but so too is the training queue for battalion landing teams of various configurations.  Could Army units be trained to assume Marine Corps roles and missions?  Yes, of course — but not without a significant loss to the Army’s primary mission capabilities.  Expertise in AWO is a perishable skill.

There is no service today that has been more involved in re-evaluating its roles and mission capabilities than the U. S. Marine Corps — and this has been an ongoing activity since the late 1800s.  It has not been uncommon for these evaluations and mission enhancement innovations to fall on deaf ears in the Army hierarchy.  Case in point … close air support.

Close Air Support

The first major surprise of the post-World War II years arrived in late June 1950 when the United States found itself responding to the crisis of the North Korean invasion of South Korea.  In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, and as a result of unit offerings and proposals from the United States, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade activated on 7 July 1950.  The Brigade was an air-ground team built around the 5th Marine Regiment and Marine Aircraft Group-33.  The time and space factors in the activation of the brigade and its deployment to Korea were extraordinary.  These Marines were on their way to the Korean Peninsula within five to seven days — they were ready to fight.

In 1950, America’s young army conscript, serving occupation duty in Japan, was suddenly uprooted from his soft duty and sent to the Korean Peninsula.  It wasn’t long before NKPA forces ripped the U.S. combat battalions and regiments to shreds.  Knowledge of close air support might have saved thousands of lives, but U.S. Army ground commanders didn’t have that expertise, and the newly created U.S. Air Force didn’t have the aircraft, training, or interest to provide it.[4]

Only two services understood close air support (also, CAS): the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.  They developed this strategy during World War II.  They attempted to share this knowledge with the U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Army, but neither of these services expressed interest.  Why?  Because CAS wasn’t as glamorous as air-to-air battles.  This is an important story because it illustrates the uniqueness of the U.S. Marine Corps.  While constrained by lack of money and hindered by service opposition, the Marines became the most effective fighting organization in the post-World War II period.

During World War I, Marines used their aircraft in various ways, including a few missions of what could be termed CAS.  During the conflicts in Central America in the 1920s, Marine aviators flew reconnaissance and logistical missions to support ground forces.  But it wasn’t until a group of Nicaraguan rebels surrounded thirty-seven leathernecks in Ocotal that Marine aircraft were placed into a CAS role.  Major Russell Rowell led a flight of five De Havilland biplanes from Managua and dropped small bombs on the Nicaraguans, and inflicted enough damage to relieve the surrounded Marines below. These actions set the stage for testing CAS doctrine, which was not written into the Marine Corps Tentative Landing Operations Manual until 1935.

This early attempt to standardize the combined use of forces during amphibious assaults designated naval air priorities as (1) establishing air superiority and (2) supporting the ground forces.  At first, Marine aircraft augmented Navy air operations, but then, as airfields became available ashore, Marines would begin to operate their aircraft from land.  The use of aircraft in the air superiority role over the landing force was the priority, but the manual did not identify the means to establish command and control of aircraft by the landing force commander’s staff.  It was thus necessary to refine amphibious assault tactics and techniques.  Such training exercises, designated Fleet Landing Force Exercises, were held in Virginia, Puerto Rico, and California long before the United States’ involvement in World War II.  These exercises rectified many problems and established basic tactics for the assaulting forces but did not address the Navy and Marine doctrine shortcomings concerning CAS.

The amphibious assault on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 was the Marines’ first major combat action of World War II.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv), then commanded by Major General Archibald A. Vandegrift, fought savage jungle battles under extremely harsh tropical conditions to seize the Japanese airfield near the island’s north shore. The plan for air support called for Navy aircraft from the USS Saratoga, USS Enterprise, and USS Wasp to provide air cover for the landing force.  In accordance with prewar doctrines, naval aviation planners prioritized providing air defense over the fleet with no detailed provision for CAS after making the initial assault.

This method of CAS employment resulted from several flaws in existing doctrine and plans. Major General Vandegrift captured the lessons learned from the battle for Guadalcanal in his action report to the Navy Department and provided several recommendations to correct them — most of which were implemented before the Gilbert Islands operations.

During the assault landings at Tarawa in the Gilbert chain in November 1943, air liaison parties (ALPs) were attached to the ground commanders to assist in selecting and identifying targets for CAS.  Air coordinators (the precursor to modem-day Forward Air Controllers, or FACs) were employed to observe the progress of Marines on the ground and identify the target locations for the CAS pilots before their arrival.  The plan also included moving the air command and control element from ship to shore after the tactical situation on the island permitted.  All support was to come from carrier-based aircraft.  These CAS plans were put into action with improved effect.  Compared to the battle on Guadalcanal, CAS used on Tarawa was substantially more effective.

Now, when the U.S. Army invaded Luzon Island in the Philippines in January 1945, close air support for the 1st Cavalry Division was provided by Marine Air Group-24 (MAG-24).  The air group deployed ALPs and established flexible command and control procedures that allowed Army ground commanders to employ Marine aircraft as an integrated maneuver arm.  The result was an effective, responsive, and flexible air-ground team.[5]

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army retained none of these CAS lessons or methods.  By the time the Korean War broke out, both the USAF (formerly USAAC) and the USA had lost all corporate memory of this vital ground combat support element.  Is the U.S. Army capable of assuming any of the Marine Corps’ national defense capabilities?  My answer is no because the capacity of the U.S. Air Force to provide close air support to ground forces is (and has always been) inadequate.[6]

The foregoing doesn’t simply identify a regrettable attitude among supposedly “professional” career military personnel, it also underscores a major difference in service culture.  Marines are always looking for a better way to deliver top-notch defense to the American people.  The question always is, “How can we do it better at less cost to the American taxpayer?”

Future of the Corps

The Marine Corps delivers far more in defensive capabilities than is allocated to it by the Congress of the United States.  The Marine Corps’ share of the Defense Budget is roughly 4%.  The Marine Corps provides a third of the nation’s defense capabilities.

With that said, the answer to the foregoing question is never an easy one.  Much thinking goes into “better at less cost,” along with more than a few professional disagreements.  One of these “disagreements” has recently found its way to the newspapers. 

In 2019, the Commandant of the Marine Corps promulgated his planning guidance for the Fiscal Year 2032.  This document outlined his five priorities: force design, warfighting, education and training, core values, and command and leadership.  Why would he publish goals and objectives ten years hence?  General David H. Berger answers, “We must communicate with precision and consistency, based on a common focus and a unified message.  What is abundantly clear is that the future operating environment will place heavy demands on our Nation’s Naval Services.  The Marine Corps will be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces to support fleet operations.

Specifically

General Berger’s plan for the future includes —

• Elimination of three infantry battalions from the current 24, a 14% reduction in frontline combat strength.

• Reduction of each remaining battalion by 200 Marines, taking an additional 4,200 infantry Marines from the frontline combat capabilities.

• Elimination of two reserve-component infantry battalions of the present eight, a 25% reduction of combat strength.

• Elimination of 16 cannon artillery battalions, a 76% reduction, to be replaced by 14 rocket artillery battalions, for use in “successful naval campaigns.”

• Elimination of all the tanks in the Marine Corps, even from the reserves.

• Elimination of three of the current 17 medium tilt-rotor squadrons, three of the eight heavy-lift helicopter squadrons, and “at least” two of the seven light attack helicopter squadrons, which were termed “unsuitable for maritime challenges.”

If General Berger’s plan was primarily designed to return the Marines to their traditional naval roots after two decades of combat operations ashore, assuming the Army’s land warfare mission, then it is a discussion that has become long overdue.  The question now arises, has Berger gone too far?

Does everyone agree with Berger’s “momentous changes” to the structure of the Marine Corps?  No, not by far.  One who does not agree is former Secretary of the Navy, former U.S. Senator, and former Marine Corps infantry officer Jim Webb.  In a recent WSJ Opinion (25 March 2022), Senator Webb tells us that among Marines who know what they’re talking about, there are serious questions about the wisdom and long-term risk of dramatic reductions in the Marine Corps’ force structure, weapons systems, and manpower levels in units that, when committed to combat, would take heavy casualties.  In Webb’s opinion, this is not a time for unilateral decision-making on matters that will have such a dramatic impact on the combat readiness of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Mr. Webb reminds us, “The unique and irreplaceable mission of the Marine Corps is to provide a homogeneous, all-encompassing “force in readiness” that can go anywhere and fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war. The corps has fought many political battles to preserve that mission but never from within — until now.  More than a few retired senior Marine officers are unhappy with Berger’s plan for the future, and why such discussions are necessary on matters ten years into the future is the costs involved in putting that structure together.  That process begins now.

Senator Webb explains his angst: “After several unsuccessful attempts by retired senior officers to engage in a quiet dialogue with Gen. Berger, the gloves have now come off.  The traditional deference has been replaced by a sense of duty to the Marine Corps and its vital role in our national security.  Recently, 22 retired four-star Marine generals signed a nonpublic letter of concern to Gen. Berger, and many others have stated their support of the letter.  A working group of 17 retired generals was formed to communicate [their] concerns to national leaders. One highly respected retired three-star general estimated to me that ‘the proportion of retired general officers who are gravely concerned about the direction of the Corps in the last two and a half years would be above 90 percent.’”

In his open letter/opinion, Senator Webb emphasizes general agreement among retired senior officers that Berger is taking the Corps in the wrong direction and reminds us, “There is not much time to stop the potential damage to our national security. Questions should be raised. The law does not give the commandant of the Marine Corps carte blanche to make significant changes in force structure. Title 10 provides that the commandant perform his duties “subject to the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of the Navy,” and that the Navy secretary “has the authority necessary to conduct all affairs of the Department of the Navy including. . . . organizing,” but “subject to the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of Defense.”

Conclusion

We have in the foregoing discussion two examples of “professional discourse.”  In the first, where Commander Denny proposes doing away with the U.S. Marine Corps — for reasons that lack a satisfactory explanation — Major Brian Kerg (of the Marines) first encourages worthy dialogue among professions and then dismantles Denny’s argument because it lacks any substance.  To Kerg, I say, Well done, Major.

We also have a separate (albeit related) opinion, offered by former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, which illuminates the kind of professional dialogue that has been going on inside the Marine Corps for the past 100 years.  The American people deserve their Corps of Marines, and at this stage in our nation’s history, the Marines have well demonstrated they have earned the right to a fair and full examination of their contributions to the Nation’s defense.  What makes Webb’s discussion unusual is that it questions not only certain decisions, but the unwillingness of the decision-maker to engage in a worthwhile dialogue, as well.  Why wouldn’t the Commandant of the Marine Corps be interested in what retired senior officers have to say?[7]   

We know that the Marine Corps continues to evolve — as it should.  Marines are no longer armed with “Brown Bess” rifles, for example.  Times change and the American military must change with it.  The Navy and Marine Corps have been an evolving force for good since the end of the American Civil War — and in doing so, prove their worthiness within our national security structure.  What more could our nation want from its Marines?  I will say that given the Marine Corps’ cost-effective contribution to the security of the United States no reasonably intelligent person would want to disband the Marine Corps or place the force structure into a position where it is likely to fail.

Sources:

  1. Kerg, B.  Rebuttal to How to Absorb the Marine Corps into the Army and Navy.  U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings December 2021.
  2. Denny, N. R.  How to Absorb the Marine Corps into the Army and Navy.  Military,com.,
  3. Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, online resource.
  4. Webb, J.  “Momentous Changes in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Force Organization Deserve Debate,” Wall Street Journal — opinion, 25 March 2022. 
  5. Rogan, T.  “The Marines Are Reforming to Prepare for War With China,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 April 2022.

Endnotes:


[1] Which is not something found in abundance in any of the other military services.

[2] Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock (Pete) Ellis (1880-1923) was one of the more innovative officers in Marine Corps history.  He was an intelligence officer, author of Operation Plan 712: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, and the essential elements for training Marine Corps officer candidates at Quantico, Virginia.  See also: Pete Ellis, Oracle.

[3] See also: Marines and Operation Torch.  Senior officers such as Colonel Homer L. Litzenberg USMC (of Chosen Reservoir fame) were responsible for training U.S. Army commands and troops in the art and science of amphibious operations. 

[4] See also: The Fire Brigade.

[5] But why Marines and not navy pilots?  Every Marine Corps officer is first and foremost a ground combat officer.  The Marine pilot knows what the ground troops are going through.  Navy and Air Force pilots haven’t a clue.

[6] Defense Technical Information Center, Final Report, Army Command & General Staff College. 

[7] I won’t suggest to anyone that General Berger has a personality defect, but I will say that he appears excessively focused on the possibility of a future Sino-American war.  I hope that never happens, but if it does, such an event will require far more than an amphibious force of a few battalions of U.S. Marines.  I also hope General Berger’s public obsession with China doesn’t make relations worse between the U.S. and China. 


Published by

Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

7 thoughts on “The War Against the Corps — Part 3”

  1. Interesting discourse, as usual. I was wondering how the air force’s use of the increasingly geriatric Warthog might have informed their sensibilities on close air support. Well, damn, if someone hasn’t written a book on it! https://www.amazon.com/Warthog-Close-Air-Support-Debate/dp/1557502323

    This doesn’t tell me anything, since I lack perspective and experience. But your post today gives me in inkling of yet another reason it was a challenge to get the A10 airborne in the first place. Does having the tool lead to developing and retaining the tactical skillset? What did come out in the part I read was the U.S. Army pines after the organic air support enjoyed by the Marine Corps.

    Vandegrift – now I understand the name of that street in Oceanside. I shouldda known. In fact, I think it was the ‘back door’ my tenant in Carlsbad took to get to work at Pendleton.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      I’m a ground pounder, so I cannot speak to the pros and cons of the A-10 aircraft. I’ve heard some people claim that the A-10 is an awesome weapon system, and others say that it is/was a difficult aircraft to fly. I don’t know. What I do know is that an A-10 killed four of my Marines in Kuwait because the pilot, likely an ANG officer, didn’t know the difference between USMC amphibian tractor and an Iraqi tank. Sad times. I’d have to say that if the USAF is providing CAS to army ground troops, they’re in grave danger of friendly fire. The one thing that stands out in favor of the Marine Corps is that all our pilots are FIRST infantry officers (so trained) … so that they know what it’s like being on the ground. Plus, all Marine infantry units are augmented with pilot officers who serve as forward air controllers, and they’re the folks who are in constant contact with the CAS pilots.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It just seems obvious to me that we need a strong Marine Corps that’s ready to react on a moments notice, even more than a stagnate Army. Their roles are very different even though they overlap.
    I say that as an Army veteran.
    Another observation; there are to types of Flag Ranked Officers, both are very good at what they do. One type shows superior knowledge and outstanding leadership abilities, the other is very good at kissing their superiors asses to achieve high rank and consolidating power to themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Re: USMC amphibian tractor – ouch! I looked up this critter online, and it seems to be missing a prominent appendage you’d expect to find on a tank. Then, again, I read the news story about the Ukrainian farmer who towed a Russian “tank” back to his farm. Hmm. The reporter called it a tank but it looked more like a personnel carrier to me – missing that same prominent appendage and all. But then what do I know?

    One of the major battles in Vietnam – a ground-squad-meets-NVA-division–oops kind of story – brought in masses of helicopters. An uninjured downed pilot was able to immediately pivot to the forward observer role – the reverse of ground officer becomes pilot. Surrounded and boxed-in, with limited room to maneuver for visibility, it helped a lot to have someone direct traffic who knew the terrain and approaches from the air — as well as the incoming pilots he was directing.

    It’s just hard to imagine two separate branches of service doing this well. It would be like changing your core attitude from “I’m a citizen of the United States” to “I’m a citizen of the world.” Does someone think they can alter the basic tribal allegiance characteristic of humankind? Maybe. Maybe that person who thinks men can give birth to babies.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Baysider, you’re correct about the “tank” thing. Many of the things that they are calling tanks are not, in fact, tanks. Some of them are armored personnel carriers and smaller weapons platforms necessary for fast moving mobile infantry, capable of deploying a squad or so of infantry or maybe some smaller air defense weapons. I don’t really know about now, but the Russians used wheeled APCs –armored personnel carriers– during the cold war, with the NATO designation BMP of which there were several types. We used tracked APCs. Tracked vehicles are just more capable of going where wheeled vehicles get stuck.

      Liked by 2 people

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