Features | Politics | Security

The U.S. Marine Corps Surges to the Asia-Pacific

The Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General James F. Amos, gives his thoughts in a wide ranging interview.

By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe for

As the process of rebalancing its forces to the Asia-Pacific begins to gain further traction, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) sees itself returning to a familiar region of the world. In this context, the Commandant of the USMC, General James F. Amos, spoke to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the Corps’ transformation and modernization, the impact of successive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the status of Marine Corps activities in Africa and South America, the strategic realignment to the Asia-Pacific, the likely future battlefield, and defense budget cuts.

How has the USMC transformed and modernized since 9/11?

General Amos: As America’s expeditionary crisis response force, the United States Marine Corps, has always responded to our Nation’s call to arms.  No two fights are the same, so we’ve historically maintained a service culture of mental flexibility, adaptability and operational agility.  For example, shortly after 9/11, the Marine Corps conducted the longest amphibious-launched raid in history by deploying Task Force 58 deep into Afghanistan to strike Al Qaeda and topple the Taliban.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, we assaulted from Kuwait to Baghdad as part of a coalition force and removed Saddam Hussein from power.  We then transitioned to counterinsurgency operations both in Iraq and Afghanistan.  While we were heavily invested in Iraq and Afghanistan, we also supported counterterrorism in the southern Philippines, provided disaster relief in the Indian Ocean basin after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, conducted humanitarian relief operations in Pakistan and Haiti, evacuated U.S. citizens from Lebanon, assisted our Japanese allies during the 2011 earthquake and nuclear crisis, took down the pirated MV Magellan Star, and rescued a downed U.S. Air Force pilot in Libya – just to name a few.

So we’re in the process of restructuring our force with capabilities optimized for forward-presence, engagement, and rapid crisis response.  We’ve reshaped our internal organization to increase flexibility and utility across the range of military operations, and have also enhanced our support to U.S. Special Operations and Cyber Commands.  We’ve also increased our ability to conduct distributed operations, and operationalized our reserve component capability.

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As for modernization, this last decade has seen the combat debut of the MV-22 Osprey and the ​Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and the establishment of our first operational F-35B squadron.  We’ve upgraded our C-130s and UH and AH-1 helicopters.  We’re leaning into upgrading our CH-53s with the K variant.  We’ve embarked our Marines on San Antonio class ​landing platform/docks (LPDs) and are developing the next variants of the America class ​Landing Helicopter Assault (LHAs) ships.  We cancelled the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and are refining the requirements for the next amphibious combat vehicle.  We’ve also made some great strides in employing what we call ‘expeditionary energy’ on the battlefield – which has reduced our logistical demands and saved lives by reducing convoy hours on ​improvised explosive device (IED) laced roads.  We’ve also captured the lessons of the last decade at war and incorporated them into our training and education programs.

How do you respond to the perception among some commentators that the USMC has become essentially a land army due to extended deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan?

General Amos: I respond by telling them that as our nation’s expeditionary crisis response force, we do whatever our nation needs us to do.  If they need us to partner with the U.S. Army and take down a hostile regime, we’ll do that.  If they need us to assist counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, we’ll do that.  If they need us to rescue a downed F-15 pilot in Libya, assist an allied nation devastated by a natural disaster, or evacuate American citizens from a foreign country that’s falling apart, we’ll do that too.  So I don’t make any apologies for our prolonged involvement on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan – in fact, I’m pretty proud of the job we’ve done in both theaters.  We’ve come out of Al-Anbar, Iraq under a victory pennant, and we’ll do the same in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, but that’s not how I see our role in the future.

While our army, navy and air force each have domains of warfare, we Marines have a lane — and that lane is crisis response.  We respond rapidly so as to provide our leadership at the highest levels of government the time and space to make sound strategic decisions.  That’s what we do for America.

How has the heavy focus of USMC deployments in the Middle East and Central Asia affected the Corps’ activities, programs and operations in component commands such as Africa and U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South (MARFORSOUTH)? ​

General Amos: While our nation’s focus has certainly been on U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the Marine Corps has been active in both Africa and South America.  Both are strategically important for different reasons and have their own sets of security challenges.  I’ll give you a few examples:

Our main effort in Africa is Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) which began operating from Naval Air Station Sigonella on Oct. 1, 2011.  SPMAGTF-12 supports theater security cooperation throughout Africa in support of ​U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).  They also provide a limited crisis response capability.  SPMAGTF-12 is currently manned by reservists from 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company and individual augments from across the United States.  The training teams they field provide partner nations instruction in logistics, counterterrorism, long-range communications, non-lethal weapons training, maritime security force assistance, military planning, small unit leadership, and vehicle maintenance.

In ​U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Marines participate in 65 security cooperation events in 19 different nations.  I went to Lima, Peru last summer to participate in the Marine Leaders of the Americas Conference to build relationships with the leaders of South and Central American Marine Corps and naval infantries and exchange ideas on mutual security concerns.  Our Marines just recently began to support Operation Martillo, which is a multi-nation effort to shift maritime illicit trafficking away from the Central American littorals.  The Marine detachment assigned to this effort is providing aviation and communication support.

So while some may describe AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM as economy-of-force efforts, we are certainly not ignoring our responsibilities in support of our national strategic objectives in these areas.

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How is the USMC adapting to the changing global strategic environment? How is the USMC reorienting to the Asia-Pacific and what will this mean for the region?

General Amos: We have a long history in the Pacific replete with many hard-won victories, so this area of the world is in our institutional DNA.  In fact, I’d submit that there is no force more suitable to addressing emerging strategic needs in the Pacific than naval amphibious forces – especially when you consider that the Pacific encompasses more than half of the world’s surface area and more than 50 percent of the world’s population.

49 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Straits of Malacca and 60+ percent of the world’s commerce crosses the Pacific.  Two of the world’s top three economies are Pacific nations.  It’s strategically important – five of our nation’s most important mutual defense treaties are with nations in the Pacific region.  So amphibious forces can station off the coast and leave a temporary and light footprint when partnering or conducting humanitarian operations, or they can serve as an enabler for a larger joint force effort. The Marine Corps is therefore adjusting our Pacific laydown to support this new national strategy.

Currently, we have about 16,000 Marines forward-deployed to Japan, 8,000 in Hawaii, and 66,000 in Southern California.  This year, we began rotating approximately 250 Marines through Darwin, Australia and we expect the size of this rotational force to grow to 2,500 over the next few years as both of our governments see fit.  We’re also going to put a number of Marines on Guam eventually, but we’re still working out just how many.  The Secretary of Defense told me that he’d eventually like 22,000 Marines forward-deployed west of the International Date Line to support our national strategy shift to the Pacific.

What are the implications of defense budget cutbacks for the USMC? What likely impact could the sequestration bill have on the USMC?

General Amos: I think that at 182K [182,000 active duty Marines] we’ll be able to accomplish the missions we’re assigned and still keep faith with our Marines, sailors and their families.  For this small amount, the Marine Corps provides 11 percent of our nation’s fighter-attack aircraft, 15 percent of its ground maneuver brigades, and 18 percent of its attack helicopters.   We provide a strategically mobile force optimized for forward presence and rapid crisis response. That’s what we do — we respond to today’s crisis, with today’s force, today.

However, the fact is that sequestration is the present law and I think its impact will be fairly significant across the Department of Defense.  The number one issue I have with sequestration is the challenge of protecting our readiness.  As our nation’s expeditionary crisis response force, there is no effective substitute for readiness – a hollow force is not an option.

I have three ways to shape the Corps’ budget.  I can usually make changes in manpower, operations and maintenance, and procurement accounts.  Under sequestration, manpower is off the table, and the law calls for a 10 percent reduction across all accounts.  So I’m especially concerned about how it impacts our modernization efforts.  The Marine Corps spends 14 percent of its budget on modernization, so that means we have a lot of small problems that suffer disproportionately when funding is restricted.  Sequestration means that we’ll have a diminished ability to equip Marines with the things that give them an edge over their opponents.  We’ll have to make some sacrifices in other areas to ensure we continue to provide our nation the most capable Marine Corps it can afford.  We’re a lean force and there is not a lot of fat or overhead in the Marine Corps.  We’re essentially just muscle.  Because we’re so small compared to our sister services, I foresee that some of our programs may be completely canceled due to a loss in economies of scale.  So I’m concerned about it and I have many smart people working hard to help me guide the Marine Corps through these difficult waters.

How does the USMC envision the future battlefield and the evolving trends in modern warfare?

General Amos: Historically, we’ve done a pretty lousy job of guessing what the next war will be or where it will take place so I’m not one for chasing after trends in modern warfare.  What I have learned from over 40 years of experience is that we need to be prepared for the unexpected.  This requires thinking Marines who anticipate requirements and make things happen in the harshest and most uncertain of environments.  It also requires that we pay close attention to what’s happening in the world, and I can tell you that there’s no indication that the world is getting any nicer.

The last study I saw projected the world’s population to top 10 billion by 2050 and more than 8 billion of those people will be in developing regions.  We’re not making any more fossil fuels, potable water, or arable land, so I think there are going to be some real challenges out there.  We’re taking a look at all these things and preparing our young officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) by increasing training and education opportunities across the spectrum.  After all, I need thinking young officers and NCOs who can jump into the middle of chaotic situations, figure things out, and do the right thing – so we’re improving our training and education.

We’re also working to support our Marines on future battlefields by making sound business decisions today with regard to modernization – specifically in our ground combat tactical vehicles, our aviation, our (​Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) ISR platforms and our amphibious ships.  We’ve already seen some of these projects come to fruition with the MV-22 Osprey and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.  We’re working hard to find a solution for our next amphibious combat vehicle to replace our current Nixon-era amtracks.  The Marine Corps has also increased our commitments to U.S. Cyber Command and Special Operations Command, so it’s a pretty exciting time to be a Marine and I feel good about that.

How relevant is the Joint Operational Access or Air-Sea Battle concept to the USMC?  What are the likely implications for the future of the USMC, especially in the Asia-Pacific?

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General Amos: The Marine Corps has an important role in both Joint Operational Access and Air-Sea Battle, so we’re very interested in both concepts and the discussions that surround them.  First and foremost, the Marine Corps is our nation’s expeditionary crisis response force.  Unique amongst our sister services, we are versatile, agile, and hard-hitting — our nation’s shock troops.  We maintain a high state of readiness so that we can deploy to contingencies around the world at a moment’s notice.  We provide a balanced force for naval campaigns and ground and air striking forces ready to suppress or contain international disturbances.

The bottom line is that Marines assure access to the shore.  I think we take great risk if we discount the capabilities to project our national power at the place and time of our choosing.  There are times when the U.S. must force our way ashore to protect our citizens and intervene in dangerous situations.  This ability to go where our nation is not invited underwrites the deterrent value of our military and provides options to strategic decision makers.  Modern amphibious operations allow strategic maneuver that creates and exploits seams along defended coastlines.  We need to retain balance in the joint force and the ability to bring power to bear in myriad forms on a wide range of threats.  We cannot rely on precision fires alone.  History has shown that such an approach generally does not achieve our strategic aims.

The U.S. economy is dependent on a functional global system.  Establishing forward presence and building security partners is essential in maintaining this system.  The U.S. cannot afford to withdraw from the global marketplace, nor can we afford to secure it by ourselves.  We must build partnerships that foster a collective investment in global security.  I see this as an economic necessity.

I think we have a pretty bright future as our nation shifts its strategic focus to the Pacific.  For Marines, the Pacific is our historic backyard.  We’ve been there in sizable numbers since World War II, and continue to maintain a large presence there.  More importantly, we have established strong partnerships there with our friends and allies that are built on trust.  I know I am parochial, but I believe that there are no forces more suited to the Asia-Pacific region than amphibious forces that are highly mobile, very versatile, and self-sustainable.  So I see the Corps continuing to conduct daily partnership and training missions and responding to crisis as they occur throughout the region.

Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defense writer and Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.