With the Iraq War ending and an Afghanistan exit in sight, the US Marine Corps is beginning a historic shift — a return to its roots as a seafaring force that will get smaller, lighter and, it hopes, less bogged down in land wars.
This moment of change happens to coincide with a reorienting of US security priorities to the Asia--Pacific region, where China has been building military muscle during a decade of US preoccupation in the greater Middle East. That suits the US Marines, who see the Pacific as a home away from home.
After two turns at combat in Iraq — first as invaders in the 2003 march to Baghdad and later as occupiers of landlocked Anbar Province — the Marines left the country early last year to reinforce the fight in southern Afghanistan.
Over that stretch, the Marines became what former US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen called their own “worst nightmare,” a second US land army: a static, ground--pounding auxiliary force.
That is concerning for the Marines because for some in Congress it raises this question: Does a nation drowning in debt really need two armies?
Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said that misses the real point. He said that the Marines, while willing and able to operate from dug-in positions on land, are uniquely equipped and trained to do much more — to get to any crisis, on land, at sea or in the air, on a moment’s notice.
“We need to get back to our bread and butter,” Amos told US Marines on Nov. 23 at Camp -Lawton, a US special operations base in Afghanistan’s Herat Province.
That begins, he said, with moves like returning to a pattern of continuous rotations of Marines to the Japanese island of Okinawa, home of the Third Marine Division formed in the early days of World War II. The rotation of infantry battalions to Okinawa was interrupted by the Iraq War.
Another element of this “return-to-our-roots” approach is the decision announced late last month to rotate Marines to Australia for training with Australian forces from an Australian Army base in Darwin, beginning next year.
Up to 2,500 Marines — comprising not just infantry units, but also aviation squadrons and combat logistic battalions — will go there from Okinawa or other Marine stations in Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific for a few months at a time.
“As we draw down [troops in Afghanistan] and we reorient the Marine Corps, it will be primarily to the Pacific,” he told Marine aviators at a US base in Kandahar.
Versatility is the key to keeping the marines relevant to US national security requirements, he said.
“We’re not a one-trick pony,” he said. “We’re the ultimate Swiss army knife.”
The decade of war following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington began for the Marines in late November 2001 with an airborne assault on then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s turf in the desert south of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, when Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit flew 650km aboard helicopters launched from the USS Peleliu in the North Arabian Sea.
By late 2002, the US Marines and other US forces were preparing for another land war, this time in Iraq. In March 2003, the Marines pushed north from Kuwait along with the Army’s Third Infantry Division, for the main assault on Baghdad. This war, too, seemed to be over within a few months. However, it also took an unexpected turn even as the Marines left Iraq in September 2003.