A Marine’s View of the Army Vision

As a (retired) Marine, I read the Army’s new strategic document, Army Vision 2015–2015, with a different perspective than its primary readership. While it is a shorter document with less detail than either the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21 or the Navy/Marine/Coast Guard Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the facets of land power that the Army Vision emphasizes are telling.

The overall size of the nation’s armed forces is shrinking. The sea services have fared better than the others. While the Marine Corps’ strength has declined in the wake of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the naval-force-intensive “Pacific Pivot” has kept it in good stead. The Marine Corps’ end-strength is expected to stabilize at 182,000 from a high of 202,000. The Army, by contrast, is in freefall, expected to decline to about 450,000 by 2018, from a high of 566,000, with some observers predicting that it will decline even further.

While the Marine Corps’ strength has declined in the wake of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the naval-force-intensive “Pacific Pivot” has kept it in good stead.

With such large cuts facing the US military as a whole and the Army in particular, it surprised me that the Army’s vision for the future included a major section on expeditionary forces and scalability.

The Marine Corps, in its planning document, Expeditionary Force 21, presents itself as the nation’s “middleweight force.” Indeed, the Corps is exactly that. Unfortunately, to a large extent, so does the Army. The Army Vision describes the unique capabilities of the Army very well: “Consolidate strategic gains,” “integrate operations,” “enable sustained operations,” “operate among populations.” Those are indeed the core competencies of the Army; especially consolidate strategic gains, which the Vision describes the Army as “the Nation’s means to seize and hold territory and consolidate gains.” Seizing and holding territory is the reason we have an army.

When the Army Vision discusses the exact characteristics of the Army needed to achieve those capabilities, it spends a majority of its text discussing the agile, expeditionary, scalable, and flexible nature of the force. If those sound familiar, that’s because those exact words were already used in the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21.

[The Army Vision] spends a majority of its text discussing the agile, expeditionary, scalable, and flexible nature of the force…exact words…already used in the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21.

It appears that the Army has seen the results of the Pacific Pivot. Its emphasis on rapidly deployable crisis response units was to the relative benefit of the Marine Corps. The lesson the Army drew was not that the Marine Corps was filling that need for the country and that its niche should be to provide a different type of land power. Rather, the Army learned that the Marine Corps was making out like a bandit in the whole expeditionary business and that she’d better get a piece of that action.

Of course the Army has always had a key role in crisis response with such units as its special operations forces and its airborne forces. Having a portion of the Army devoted to non-maritime rapid deployment makes sense, and is complementary to the capabilities of the Marine Corps.

However, the nation already has a Marine Corps devoted almost in its entirety to expeditionary operations. The active-duty Army is already reduced to barely twice the size of the Corps, with significantly more manpower devoted to institutional overhead. Devoting more than a subset of designated forces to such duties is not the optimum task organization for U.S. landpower as a whole. Large parts of the Army are becoming a Marine Corps, but without ships to carry them. The Army needs to focus on heavy forces and the long war.

The Army Vision, more than the other services’ planning documents, suffers from a problem the U.S. military has faced many times before. The services are in competition with each other for slices of a pie in a zero sum game. What the services choose to focus on competing individually is much different than would they would each be assigned were the choice made by someone trying to actually optimize the nation’s defense portfolio.

Is 450,000 the proper size for the Army and 182,000 the proper size for the Marine Corps? I don’t know, and I suspect we really never will, because the capabilities of our armed forces, as determined in an environment of internecine competition, are driving the nation’s defense strategy, vice the other way around. The Army Vision is just the newest example of this problem. While duplication of effort was tolerable when the Defense Department was flush with money, in an era of cutbacks, the Defense Department will find itself foundering budget-wise, and possibly in combat as well.

Carl Forsling is a retired Marine officer who was a pilot in the CH-46E and MV-22B. He received his BS from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and his MS from Boston University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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