The Distraction of Service Biases

Carl Forsling’s analysis of the Army vision is an interesting read, yet it doesn’t provide an understanding of what the Army and Marine Corps visions really are or do.

The inter-service biases we all hold have a tendency to distract us from seeing the forest for the trees. Carl Forsling’s analysis of the Army Vision reflects his biases in favor of the U.S. Marine Corps. A clear-eyed assessment of both the Army Vision Force 2025 and the Marine’s Expeditionary Force 21 makes it clear that both services’ vision of themselves and the future are actually complementary. The Marine vision is indeed expeditionary and focused on crisis response, and while the Army vision does strike similar tones, there are some significant differences that are worth mentioning in any Army-Marine discussion. The Army and Marine Corps have different roles and missions that sometimes overlap, but they often use similar tools to accomplish those missions. It is unfortunate that there is still confusion over the roles each service has in defense of the nation.

A Soldier’s View of Expeditionary Force 21

The Expeditionary Force 21 concept (EF21) replaces previous efforts to develop a long-term concept and strategy for the Marine Corps. It is the Marine Corps’ attempt to make a clear shift away from the operations the Marines have conducted since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq, which minimized their inherent amphibious capabilities and posture. It is an aspirational vision of how the Marines will operate through 2022. EF21 provides a detailed description of what the term “expeditionary” means to the Marines. Beyond the standard definition, the Marines view themselves as an expeditionary force, “light enough to get to the crisis quickly, yet able to accomplish the mission or provide time and options.” The Marines view being expeditionary as an institutional imperative.

A Middleweight Force

EF21 makes it clear that the United States Marine Corps is an “Expeditionary Force in “Readiness.” They are a “Middleweight Force” — light enough for rapid response, but heavy enough to win in the littorals. EF21 states,

“While the Marine Corps may operate on and from the sea, in and from the air, and on the land, it is not optimized to dominate any domain.”
 The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force must be able to dominate their respective domains.

The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force must be able to dominate their respective domains.

This is the Marines’ clear distinction from the Army and the other services. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force must be structured and postured to dominate their primary domain. The Marines see themselves as a strategically mobile force capable of resolving small-scale contingencies or buying time for other options. It is an effort to distinguish the Marines from being a second army after years of sustained operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside the Army. In essence, the Marine vision acknowledges domain primacy to the other services and implies a complementary role for all.

What Expeditionary Means

The Marine Corps has an excellent conceptualization of what being expeditionary is and how they are expeditionary. In EF21 they explicitly state that they will support an expeditionary mindset by living “hard ashore, leav[ing] creature comforts at sea,” by divesting themselves of large support requirements, and by severely limiting host-nation support and infrastructure. This is a position the Army cannot take.

 The canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

The canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

One also shouldn’t overlook the Marines’ desired path to the future in terms of equipment. The Marine vision in EF21 requires technology and materiel the Marines would like to acquire. In this regard, EF21 also provides a justification for technological modernization and innovation. The Army vision likewise serves as an aspirational document.

Campaign Quality, Expeditionary Capable

What makes the Army vision different from the Marines’ is that the Army’s focus isn’t on being an expeditionary force; the Army’s Title 10 (Sec. 3062) responsibility is to fight and win our nation’s wars. This means that the Army must be able to dominate any “nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil the peace and security of the United States.” In practical terms, the Army must be able to initiate and sustain land combat operations. This becomes clear in the Army’s force structure and posture.

 (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel Love)

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel Love)

The Army is indeed expeditionary while also possessing a campaign quality to its forces. It doesn’t get much more expeditionary than paratroopers arriving with nothing more than a rucksack to sustain them until heavier forces arrive to relieve them. Army light infantry formations are strategically mobile and able to operate in any terrain, under any conditions. They have an expeditionary mindset and regularly exercised this expeditionary capability throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 U.S. Army armored forces bring a robust sustainment capacity.

U.S. Army armored forces bring a robust sustainment capacity.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Army’s armored forces are designed to fight and win against the strongest adversary anywhere as part of the Joint Force. While Army armored formations lack the strategic mobility of the light infantry forces, they arrive with the ability to sustain operations indefinitely. The Army’s logistics capabilities are what enable this and provide a comparative advantage over other forces. Recognizing the gap between light infantry and armor forces, the Army’s development of Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (SBCTs) are a bridge and provide the Army the ability to conduct sustained land operations across the spectrum of conflict.

The Army’s ability and requirement to conduct land campaigns is what distinguishes it. The Marine vision doesn’t obligate it to dominate on land, nor does the Marine middleweight structure enable it to do so. The roles of the Army and Marine Corps may overlap at times, but they are usually complementary. Operations in the recent wars illustrate this point. The Marine Corps, with Army sustainment, supported unified land operations in supporting efforts. In another complementary role, Special Operations Forces completed the full spectrum of U.S. land force capabilities during the wars. No single service has a monopoly in expeditionary operations.

It Is About the Money Too

The services’ slice of the budget has actually remained relatively static over the last couple of decades but all of the services publish concepts that defend their turf, and this is another similarity between the vision of the Army and Marine Corps. No one should fool themselves into thinking their service stays above or out of the annual budget wrangling.

“The Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall be so organized as to include not less than three combat divisions and three air wings, and such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic therein.”

Looking into the budget, all of the services seek to establish and secure their strategic relevance to protect their budget and resource priorities. In fact, another look at Title 10 (Ch. 507, Sec. 5063) shows only one service that has sought to put its force structure into law to protect its slice of the pie. Stating one service is seeking to protect its budget without acknowledging what the others do is disingenuous. It is unfortunate Mr. Forsling chose not to acknowledge the Army’s role in enabling the Marine Corps to conduct sustained land operations over the last decade-and-a-half alongside the Army and SOF.

The Army’s requirement to conduct sustained land combat operations requires it to be light, middleweight, and heavyweight and the Army vision vividly describes the requirement to be able to conduct large-scale contingencies as part of the Joint Force for as long as necessary. The Marines’ EF21 provides a much smaller scope and scale of what the Marine Corps is designed to do. The Army Vision must cover more ground because that is what the Army itself must do.


Irvin Oliver is a U.S. Army officer currently serving in Europe. Irvin has participated in several operational deployments to the Middle East and the Balkans. He holds an MA from Columbia University. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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