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The USMC: Future Priorities and Lessons Learned

By Padraic McCluskey

Had one been in the south east of Helmand in 1810 you might have seen a young Lieutenant Henry Pottinger of the 5th Bombay Native Infantry and his five man party crossing the Afghan frontier, confronting dry river beds and insurmountable sand dunes in an effort to make their way to Herat in the north west of Afghanistan.

Just over the two centuries later, with the country continuing to hold dangerous sway over of foreign powers, Western forces are heading in the opposite direction: out of places like Helmand and out of Afghanistan.

US Marines

One of those forces beginning their withdrawal in earnest is the US Marine Corps. Following their deployment toAfghanistan as part of the Afghan ‘surge’ the Marines are beginning to draw down to levels seen in 2009.

Their retreat marks the start of an interesting transition period for the Marines at a time when the US pivots towards Asia Pacific and focuses its gaze on the ever rising China.

The strategic turn that the US is taking toward the Asia-Pacific presents an opportunity for the Marine Corps to return to conducting missions it was founded to perform: power projection from the sea.

From the Barbary wars of the early 19th century to the fierce fighting of World War II in places like Guadalcanal, the new found focus on Asia presents the Marine Corps with the opportunity to reaffirm itself as an agile high-readiness amphibious force.

However, a decade of Marines have experienced operations in Afghanistan few would have envisioned as swift amphibious force conducting. The COIN tactics Western forces had to largely adopt in Iraq, and which were carried forth into Afghanistan, seemed for a long time to be an alien concept both to the Marines and other Western forces.

Herein lies the risk in the turn to towards Asia.  The tactics the Marines adopted in Afghanistan were somewhat similar to those used almost 50 years ago in Vietnam by Major General Lew Walt, commander ofIIIMarine Amphibious Force in the northern part of South Vietnam yet those types of lessons seemed to have somewhat drifted in the wind in the following decades.

As the Marines restore their amphibious capabilities in the years, Bold Alligator 2012 being one sign of this, the possibility of them being thrust back into another Afghan style operation cannot be ruled out.

Yes, the chances of the US embarking on such expedition are slim but such a failure of imagination regarding future mission scenarios would be very dangerous.

Two important priorities then lie ahead for the USMC. Firstly, in a time when financial constraints can drive future priorities it must be able to identify which of assets are essential to it being able to deliver a highly effective amphibious capability and those which only offer a marginal benefit.

Secondly, and possibly must importantly, it must remain faithful to the lessons learned in Afghanistan so they do not need to be painfully re-learned in the decades to come – Semper Fidelis.

If you’d like to find out more about this article, visit Defence IQ’s Amphibious Operations website where you can find more information about the upcoming event.

Amphibious Operations


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