The Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency, and America’s Answer to the French Foreign Legion
In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (Senate Bill 2987), Congress has proposed reorganizing America’s armed forces. Under the new model, the Army will handle conventional warfare, while the Marine Corps will handle counterinsurgencies. This reorganization would benefit all branches by aligning each branch’s culture and mentality with their respective real-world needs. In this essay, we will look at the three branches (Navy, Marine Corps, and Army) and explore how each branch will benefit, individually.
As the parent service of the Marines, the Navy stands to benefit the most from assigning them to a counterinsurgency role. During wartime, the Navy is both the tip of the spear and the first line of defense for the American home front. Since America shares land borders with only Mexico and Canada, it does not face the threat of land invasions in the same way other great powers, such as China or Russia, do. Practically all America’s wars have been almost exclusively performed by expeditionary forces, and only island nations like Great Britain or Japan are equally protected by their navies.
During peacetime, the Navy is equally engaged, as it is necessary for maintaining freedom of navigation on the ocean, protecting maritime commerce, and power projection across the globe. It could be said that the navy is the foremost branch during peacetime, since its presence helps maintain global order, while the other branches play a lesser, supporting role. Outside of Western Europe, America’s armed forces are almost exclusively engaged in counterinsurgency and peacekeeping and will likely continue to do so for many years. Assigning the mission of counterinsurgency to the Marines will further align the Navy to the role of global peace-keeper, and the Marines could theoretically replace all of America’s Army garrisons abroad outside of Western Europe, and possibly Korea.
Counterinsurgency is innately linked with peacekeeping, as its goal is stability on favorable terms. Hunting guerrillas is only part of the equation; the other part involves strengthening partners, protecting the populace from reprisal attacks, and eroding popular support for the rebel elements, often through pro-government militias and complex diplomacy. Counterinsurgency is also deeply linked with espionage and intelligence-gathering, in order to deny enemy partisans the advantage of secrecy.
Peacekeeping, intelligence, and counterinsurgencies have no defined beginning and end, as conventional wars do; they are ongoing processes that last decades. Successful guerrillas are patient: Mao Zedong fought to unify China for over 30 years, and the Afghan insurgents we currently face have been fighting since the 1979 Soviet Invasion. Therefore, any force that attempts counterinsurgency must also be patient and have the foresight to not bank everything on a general victory that will decide the course of the entire war. Quick victories are always a possibility in fluid situations, but a more plausible scenario is that of the British in Malaysia and Burma from 1948-60: a prolonged campaign consisting of numerous small battles that eventually add up.
Since the Navy’s work never truly ends, assigning the Marine Corps a similar mission makes logical sense, theoretically, institutionally, and practically. The Navy and Marines are more closely linked institutionally than the Navy and Army, and possess a formula for greater cooperation as laid out in the 2015 document: ‘A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.’[i] This head start will streamline the process of total integration enormously and make the Navy-Marines doubly-powerful as they straddle the blurry line between peacetime diplomacy and war. In many ways, the new Marine Corps will come to resemble the French Foreign Legion. The French Foreign Legion was originally established in anticipation of a prolonged counterinsurgency in Algeria, using foreign veterans and mercenaries left over from Napoleon’s wars. Obviously, the Marines will not be expendable troops like the Legionnaires, but their overall purpose will be the same. Their role will encompass not only hunting guerrillas, but every other function involved in peacekeeping around the globe. Thus, both the Navy and Marines will represent two sides of the same coin during peacetime.
One existential problem for the Marine Corps is its fear of becoming a second, redundant Army, as Robert Gates mentioned in his 2010 speech to the Marines Memorial Association. The Marines disbanded 2 divisions after WWII (the 5th and 6th), and have already cut 22,500 men to save its EFV program (from 202,000 to 175,000). Given these realities, the notion that Congress may see the Marines as expensive and obsolete, then continue to downsize or disband the Corps entirely is not unreasonable. Assigning the Marine Corps the task of counterinsurgency will aid greatly in solving this problem, but will also come with a number of secondary benefits.
The first benefit to the Marines is the scale and permanent importance of their mission. Adopting the counterinsurgency mission would likely necessitate reactivating the 5th and 6th Divisions, and all divisions would be permanently on active duty overseas. This is in contrast to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where only a small portion of total Marine units were deployed overseas, and most units were kept in garrison. As stated above in the section on the Navy, counterinsurgency is a constant, ongoing, global process. Despite its seeming endlessness, it is far from monotonous. Counterinsurgency straddles the worlds of both politics and warfare, and a unit may find itself fighting a battle, protecting humanitarian missions, and brokering meetings between tribal elders on the same day. This constant activity will provide plenty of space for innovation, experimentation, and testing of new ideas and doctrine. The Marines would become America’s equivalent to the French Foreign Legion, but while the French Foreign Legion is part of the French Army (as well as their Troupes de marine), the Marines will remain under Naval command. Many men are attracted into joining the French Foreign Legion because its mission practically guarantees that they’ll see combat, and the Navy-Marines can use this to drive recruitment. The old slogan: ‘Join the Navy, see the world!’ can be added to with: ‘Join the Marines, get in on the action!’
The second, and biggest, advantage to the Marines is doctrinal. In conventional warfare, current Marine doctrine is insufficient. Developments in mines, IEDs, and ship-killing missiles have made WWII-style amphibious attacks riskier and more difficult to execute, and the Marines’ current armored amphibious landing craft do not solve any of these problems. A peer opponent’s ship-killing missiles can force the Navy to keep their ships at such long distances from the shoreline that landing craft require hours to make the journey. During this time, the enemy can mine the beaches, and the aluminum-bottomed landing craft would not offer any protection to the men inside. Those who make it to the shore would then face an enemy with over an hour’s worth of preparation, and with reinforcements not guaranteed to survive the journey. This model is too slow and too costly, in both lives and in hardware (EFVs cost around $80 million each). A better strategy would be to make an unopposed landing, or to use airmobile/airborne forces to roll up beach defenses from behind, but this approach would not necessitate a Marine Corps.
Counterinsurgency doctrine, on the other hand, is far more favorable to Marine doctrine. The Marines are primarily an infantry force, which is more suitable for counterinsurgency than conventional armored formations. The Marines take great pride in their sniper platoons, and snipers are indispensable in countering guerrillas/snipers/ambushes and in conducting reconnaissance/intelligence operations. The Marines would no longer need their expensive EFVs to wage a counterinsurgency, but they would still retain their amphibious capabilities by training in riverine warfare and infiltration tactics. Expanding their HELO capabilities would also be advisable.
Marine units in a counterinsurgency would normally operate in squad, platoon, and company-sized elements, similar to the highly successful Combined Action Program (CAP) in Vietnam. Combined Action Companies (CACOs) assigned individual squads to live in villages and interact with the villagers like a modern Lawrence of Arabia. Like the Vietcong, modern guerrilla groups like the Taliban often exercise control over multiple villages with only a handful of men. The CACOs in Vietnam proved that the Americans could play, and win, at that game as well. CACO units worked alongside pro-government security forces (normally platoon strength), and their successes were as beneficial to their allies as they were devastating to the communists.
In pursuit of this goal, the Marines will need to reform their training to not only focus on small-unit tactics and leadership, but also to increase their focus on language and cultural skills. The Navy already possesses these capabilities, and the program ought to become a joint Navy-Marine program and expanded. Training Marines for counterinsurgency would also relieve the burden from Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel, who have been employed as little more than SWAT teams since the invasion of Afghanistan. Using USSOCOM as a substitute for light infantry was meant to be a temporary solution, but as the war in Afghanistan has dragged on, the problem still has not been resolved. Assigning the mission of counterinsurgency to the Marines would be a permanent step in the right direction, and USSOCOM can finally be disbanded.
The Army, much like the American public, prefers morally unambiguous wars with start/end dates and decisive victories. The American way of war is innately suited for conventional warfare, since our advantages lie in our large population, logistics, and technology. These advantages enable us to project military force over continental distances, more so than any other nation. Handing over counterinsurgency tasks to the Marine Corps would free up the Army to focus all of its efforts on this style of warfare.
Should the Army make this switch, it must also make several significant reforms. The first of these concerns the reserves and National Guard. The Army will rely heavily on these units in the event of a conventional war and must therefore not neglect their training and preparation. The Navy/Marines will also take over much of the Army’s overseas duties, and many active-duty Army units will return home. Most of these would likely be demobilized to save costs, and this will further blur the differences between the standing army and the National Guard. However, when combined with the Marine Corps’ permanent state of overseas Active Duty, this demobilization will greatly reduce the number of annual force rotations, and with it the administrative workloads. Keeping the majority of Army units home will also enable larger units to conduct advanced training more frequently.
The second major reform will be to permanently establish experimental battalions and improve leadership development. An inherent risk of demobilization is that peacetime armies struggle with idleness, doctrinal stagnation, and accumulation of untested officers. However, this can be remedied by prioritizing officer/NCO development and enabling creative experimentation.
Constant experimentation will prevent the Army from becoming idle, physically or mentally, when there is no war to fight. Instead of a passive approach, the Army at all levels ought to actively seek out new ideas and positively encourage as much testing as possible. Even a small number of experimental battalions can run a large number of tests efficiently and effectively, and the concentration of reservists will allow for rapid distribution of new methods. These will also address many common criticisms of the Army by the military reform movement, who say that the Army cares only about expensive equipment while neglecting their personnel and ignoring new ideas.
Concurrent to this, the Army would be wise to prioritize leadership development at all ranks. America has a massive technological and logistical advantage in battle, but history is filled with stories of poorly led armies being beaten by numerically or technologically inferior forces. An army of reservists and conscripts will furthermore feel self-awareness of their shortcomings compared to full-time soldiers, which affects their morale, self-confidence, and initiative. Good leaders are more important than superior technology or raw numbers because they can use the tools at their disposal to their maximum effect, but the reverse is not true: technology cannot compensate for poor leadership. The Army has also been attempting to decentralize their command structures since the 1980s but has not succeeded. Prioritizing leadership development will aid in this endeavor.
To implement this at the Army’s war colleges, the Army can look to the example of General George C. Marshall, who ordered that any student’s solution to a tactical problem that went counter to the official solution was to be published to his class. Other ideas can be copied from the Weimar Army, which mandated that each officer would train for his role and the two above him, in case his superior officer became a casualty.[ii] Another idea could be, during wargames, to regularly give junior officers problems that can only be solved by disobeying orders, as was common in 19th-Century Prussia. For those interested in a more scientific approach, the work of Dr. David Keirsey includes quantifiable psychological studies on different forms of leadership. Lastly, modern manufacturing industry has also made strides in this direction, away from the top-down hierarchies of the 19th and 20th centuries, upon which America’s Army command structure was based during the pre-WWII expansion.
Lastly, the Army should run force-on-force wargames like the 1941 Louisiana, Carolina, and Arkansas Maneuvers every 5-10 years. Over 400,000 soldiers participated in these exercises, nearly half of the Army’s total manpower at the time.[iii] These unscripted, free-play exercises were crucially important for America’s preparation before entering into WWII, as they allowed the Army to test doctrine, leadership, and logistics. Many poor leaders and bad habits were removed weeks before Pearl Harbor, and many good practices and leaders were further built upon, particularly the dual leadership prowess of Eisenhower and Patton.
Today’s Army should practice large-scale mobilization of reservists on a regular basis and to test their leaders and methods under harsh, realistic combat conditions. They need not occur every year, but any intervals longer than a decade will mean that large numbers of troops will end up not participating. Ideally, these exercises should also last the whole of the year, in order to subject the soldiers to sustained combat operations. The time spent in between these large-scale maneuvers should, in turn, be dedicated to small-unit tactics, a traditional weakness of American forces. The sheer size of the United States enables these exercises to be held in a wide variety of locations and climates, which can help prevent them from becoming repetitive, and the Army already owns sufficient land to exercise on (the Army bought several thousand acres of land for the Louisiana exercises, which later became Fort Polk). The original Louisiana/Carolina/Arkansas maneuvers were a massive success, and America’s current Army can be even more successful due to new technology such as MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser System) and Ultimate Training Munitions (UTM). The cost was also quite small: $19 million ($332,195,461 in today’s dollars). Compared to most Pentagon programs, the price would not be prohibitive.
The newly proposed reorganization of the USA’s military is a step in the right direction. The Navy and Marines will dominate in peacetime and against hybrid warfare, while the Army will handle larger-scale conventional wars and be free to fully or partially demobilize during peacetime. This essay has tried to avoid the issues associated with subjective beliefs, particularly the debate over whether the Army or Marines are more proficient fighters, in favor of more practical issues. Simply put, counterinsurgency and conventional war require different institutional foci, different methods, and different leadership. It is far easier to dedicate an institution to one mission, rather than trying to form a hybrid that can do both simultaneously. Neither form of warfare is going away; therefore, the two institutions’ mutual distinctions plays to our advantage. Since America’s Navy is always active during peacetime, assigning the Marines to the long-term mission of counterinsurgency will result in greater integration than if the Army were to continue in this role. In conventional wars, the Marine Corps is too small to face a peer opponent, and the Army and Navy will need to work together to win.
Other practical issues that are beyond the scope of this work are those at the operational and tactical level. This reorganization is strategic, and this will affect every other level. Thankfully, most of these lower-level changes amount to a change of hats. Intra-institutional reorganizations, like General Mattis’ proposed model for army combat units that mimics the Air Force’s approach to handling pilots, are also omitted. Other issues deliberately not discussed are reforms for the purpose of streamlining procedures, changes to doctrine, upgrading the soldiers’ training, or specifics of command decentralization. Each of these subjects is relevant, but the essay deliberately focuses solely on the desired end-goals at the strategic level.
[ii] Mission Orders in the German Army also gave soldiers their own mission, along with the mission of the two units above theirs.
[iii] See ‘The US Army GHQ Maneuvers of 1941’ by Christopher R. Gabel (https://history.army.mil/html/books/070/70-41-1/CMH_Pub_70-41-1.pdf)