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The US Marine Corps: Missing in Action

The failure of the US Marine Corps to respond to recent crises is inexcusable. The Marines are supposed to be "most ready when the nation is least ready."

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Sudan
Buildings were on fire in Sudan's capital Khartoum, where fighting continued on April 20 (© Getty/Kyodo)

US Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger told a United States Congressional committee the other day that he had let down the "combatant commander." The United States Marines Corps were unable to have Marines in position to assist US citizens during the ongoing fighting in Sudan and to provide assistance after a recent earthquake in Turkey.

But he's not quite right. He also let down his nation.

The backbone of the Marine Corps' global rapid response to crises is the three Marine Expeditionary Units/Amphibious Ready Groups (MEU/ARG) that are constantly "floating" worldwide. These are generally made up of three amphibious ships (the ARG) and a couple thousand Marines (the MEU) with all their hardware, weapons, and aircraft. 

They are just as capable of saving lives as they are of taking them.

The MEU that should have been on hand to respond to Sudan and Turkey was in North Carolina. Thus, it had left the region uncovered. 

In the event, the United States flew in a rescue force of Navy SEALs from Djibouti to evacuate the 75 or so Embassy personnel and dependents from Khartoum. It was a success. 

As for the other thousands of American citizens in Sudan, the US government's response to shelter in place or get yourself out was the equivalent of, "see ya … wouldn't want to be ya."

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Sudan
Smoke rises from fighting in Sudan's capital Khartoum on April 21 (© Getty/Kyodo)

Blame it on the US Navy

The French and the British did better at getting in and assisting. And the Chinese did too. Indeed, Global Times crowed about the Chinese Navy's efforts to evacuate over 1300 Chinese from Sudan — and other nations' citizens as well.

This was a far cry from the days when Americans overseas knew that the Marines would be coming. And the local authorities — or warlords — did as well. 

Read the Commandant's statements and it's the US Navy to blame as it hasn't provided (or built) enough amphibious ships to transport the Marines.

Make no mistake, the "amphib navy" is not the US Navy's fair-haired child. Spending money on amphibious ships is only done grudgingly. 

But in this case, the Navy might argue a degree of confusion about what the Marine Corps wanted. A year or two ago it seemed the Commandant and the Marines just wanted 30 new light amphibious warships. 

The idea was these ships would be used to shuttle Marines and supplies to and from their island hideouts in the Western Pacific. There, they would watch for Chinese ships in the event of war.

Force Design 2030 — the Commandant's plan to remake the Marine Corps — was the primary focus.

US Marine Corps
Lt Gen. David H Berger (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons images)

Gen Berger's Judgment Called to Question

And anyway, amphibious assault wasn't something Marines would be doing anymore. It was old-school. And probably not even possible, given today's persistent surveillance from satellites and drones. Not to mention long-range weaponry.

One knowledgeable observer said it makes sense if you believe in:

Gen. Berger's Strategic Vision, [which] is to get out of the business of forcible amphibious landings. "That is sooo WWII .... The PLA have missiles you know… We now have cyber...did well in defense of Wake Island…. We are NOT another US Army...America doesn't need ANOTHER air force in addition to USAF and Naval Air ー too expensive you know. 

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Now the Commandant is complaining he hasn't got enough full-sized "amphibs" to do operations like Turkey and Sudan. No kidding.

A Retired Insider's Perspective

One retired Marine put it thus:

Gen. Berger's testimony for 30 of those Light Amphibious Warships at $300 million [USD] per copy — which were to flit among the islands but withdraw from the [area of operations] in the event of armed conflict — really shook confidence in his professional military judgment. [In the Department of Navy as well as Congress.]

In the waning days of his office, for him to now claim, "What I meant to say was I really really need those full-up 31 Amphib big decks...." just doesn't resonate.  

Meanwhile, Beijing 'Gets It'

It almost seems as if the Commandant and his advisors forgot about the things that a military service has to do in peacetime. You need to be able to do things that you would not or could not do in wartime — but are essential. 

Non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO) — think Sudan — are a main one. And so are humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) — think Turkey. To do these, the MEU/ARG, and enough of them afloat, are a prerequisite. This requires amphibious ships.

The Navy hasn't got enough of them, which means the Marines don't either. And thus the MEU (the Marine part of the amphibious task force) was sitting in North Carolina when the nation needed it in the Mediterranean and East Africa. 

It's humiliating. Marines are supposed to be "most ready when the nation is least ready."

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The Chinese have their own version of MEU/ARGs ready to go and could put together three of them if they wanted. Before long, they will. And the Chinese Navy and Marines will be providing global coverage — along with the prestige and political influence that comes with it. Beijing "gets it."

New amphibious capability in the Self Defense Forces (2020)

Get Priorities Straight

The Marine leadership is going to have to do some clear thinking. That is something already being done farther down the ranks.

And the US Navy needs to clear its head too. Secretary of Navy Carlos Del Toro recently said that climate change and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are the Navy's top priorities — on a par with warfighting. 

Maybe to him. But not to Americans stuck in some place with hopped-up locals with guns and knives running around. Or to Americans caught up in a natural disaster. They just want the Marines to show up. 

Settling Up

Now back to General Berger's mea culpa. 

When a Marine Second Lieutenant screws up the only answer is "no excuse, sir."

He'll be lucky if he still has a career. 

When a 19-year-old Lance Corporal driving a 2-ton truck to a training area turns it over and Marines are injured, he'll likely be at a court martial and facing jail time.

And when the Marine Corps' top officer fails at his so-called "Title 10" duties to have the Corps ready to respond? 

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Most Marines know the answer to that. 

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Author: Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book "When China Attacks: A Warning To America". Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.