Missing the Boat: A response to Generals Knutson, Hailston, and Bedard

by William S. Lind

In the April Gazette, Gol Mark F. Cancun raised a serious issue: the inherent contradiction between the Corps’ extensive forward deployments and its ability to respond to large events with substantial forces committed over time. The issue is strategic in nature, and it applies to all Services, not just the Marine Corps. Nor is it new historically. Most countries have had to choose between dispersing their forces to deal with many small contingencies or concentrating them to deal with one larger threat. A good example is the situation ADM Jackie Fisher faced early in this century with the Royal Navy. His answer was to concentrate the fleet against Germany. The action was highly controversial at the time.

When I first saw that Gens Knutson, Hailston, and Bedard had replied to Col Cancun, I was hopeful. Presumably, such senior Marine Corps leaders would see the strategic nature of the issue and address the question of dispersion or concentration directly. Since our pattern of dispersion stems from the Cold War, it would certainly be timely to do so. I was, therefore, disappointed to find that the generals had missed the forest for the trees. Far from offering a strategic perspective, they offered a response that combined the usual bland assurances given to politicians on Capitol Hill in materials prepared by the staff of Headquarters Marine Corps.

The essence of the generals’ argument-that the Marine Corps need make no choice between dispersion and concentration, because it can do both simultaneously-is simply not credible. Even without a major, sustained deployment, deploying units must rob Peter to pay Paul in order to go out at all. Surveys of officers leaving the Corps repeatedly list the pressure of constant deployments as a major reason for separation. No one familiar with the difficulties the Operating Forces face daily in meeting existing commitments-the consequence of dispersion-can think it could handle a major commitment for a sustained period simultaneously. Something would have to give, and quickly.

More troubling still is the bland assurance the generals offer in response to Col Cancians’ point about competition from the Army. The Army leadership understands well that the Army must become competitive in the intervention business, and they are straining every nerve to do so. The results, so far, are unimpressive. The attempt to get Task Force Hawk into action in Kosovo was a fiasco. But, if three senior Marine Corps generals really believe that “the Marine Corps is secure in its role,” one must wonder whether the Corps’ leadership is asleep on the beach. Today, as always, Marines face three certainties in life: death, taxes, and attempts by the Army to take over the Corps’ roles and missions. The Army’s experimental, light motorized brigades at Fort Lewis exist precisely for this purpose. Interestingly, they are commanded by one of the very few Army generals who has an excellent understanding of maneuver warfare.

This leads to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the three Marine expeditionary force (MEF) commanders’ response to Col Cancun. Over the past several decades, the Marine Corps has sought to base its claim to expertise in the intervention mission not simply on equipment or techniques, but on its ability to fight a dif ferent kind of war-maneuver warfare. Today, the Marine Corps is rapidly losing that ability, and it is doing so in ways that should be obvious to MEF commanders. In all three MEFs, free-play training, which is the heart and soul of learning maneuver warfare, has all but vanished. The only Marine Corps school that now attempts to teach maneuver warfare is The Basic School. The latest product of the Doctrine Division, the new planning manual, is directly contradictory to every maneuver warfare concept of planning-to the (absurd) point of saying that the process is more important than the product. The MEF commanders’ own headquarters are virtual slaves to the staff planning process (thanks to the baneful influence of the Marine AirGround Task Force Staff Training Program), which is the heart of the French way of war-methodical battle-and the very opposite of maneuver warfare.

In sum, the “all is well” nature of the generals’ response should itself raise deep concern among all those interested in the long-term welfare of the Corps. Too often, such unseeing tranquility on the bridge has been a prelude to the cry, “Iceberg ahead!”