Why the United States Should Merge Its Ground Forces

Part of our Sacred Cow series, originally posted at USNI Blog.

Speaking at the Association of the United States Army on the 12th, Admiral James Winnefeld, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience that in future ground wars the tempo will be “shorter, faster-paced and much harder” because America’s adversaries will work to create a “fog of war.” Thus, the Admiral suggested that the Army “place more emphasis on the growth industry…of protecting American citizens abroad” in order to adapt to the fluid geostrategic environment.


VCJCS Admiral James Winnefeld speaking at the Association of the United States Army on September 12th.

Indeed, since the sequestration went into effect in March, many defense experts have been debating what the future may hold for the Army, the Marine Corps and the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Whatever their respective views may be on the utility of landpower in future wars, all seem to agree on one thing: that in the sequestration era, the ground components must fight leaner and smarter.

For John R. Deni, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, the answer seems to lie in the “Army-led military-to-military activities” which may provide stability in politically volatile regions “if only because most military forces around the globe are army-centric.”

Others beg to differ. Generals James Amos and Raymond Odierno and Admiral William McRaven seem to second Admiral Winnefeld’s claim when they argue that today “the need to conduct large-scale aid and consequence management missions, both within the United States and internationally, is certain to grow.” General James Amos, the Marine Corps Commandant, also recently echoes this view when he advocates a lighter but mobile Marine Corps because he believes tomorrow’s conflicts will likely involve “violent extremism, battles for influence, disruptive societal transitions, natural disaster, extremist messages and manipulative politics.”

However, if the United States Armed Forces is truly concerned about raising a cost-efficient and versatile ground force, it can merge the Army, the SOCOM and the Marine Corps into one unified service branch. This idea is not new. As far back as 1994, the late Colonel David Hackworth advocated the merger of the Army and the Marine Corps because their missions seemed to overlap. He went so far as to claim that the Department of Defense (DoD) could save “around $20 billion a year.” Nevertheless, absent in Hackworth’s column was a coherent blueprint for how the DoD could effectively unify its ground components into a cohesive service because Hackworth did not flesh out his strategic vision for what 21st Century wars may look like.

Which raises a very salient question as to what America’s strategic priorities should be. In a perceptive op-ed, Mark Fitzgerald, David Deptula and Gian P. Gentile aver that the United States must choose to go to “war as a last resort and not a policy option of first choice.” To this must be added another imperative. The United States Armed Forces must prioritize homeland defense as its primary mission and rethink the mistaken belief that the United States can somehow secure its interests through “lengthy military occupations of foreign lands.”

Thus, this newly merged service must redirect its focus towards countering cyber warfare and CBRNe (Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear and explosives) attacks and should work towards bolstering its counterterrorism (CT) capabilities. This is because, due to the convergence of the global community, the United States may be vulnerable to attacks from within by homegrown terrorists and drug cartels—all of which may wreak havoc and may even cripple America’s domestic infrastructures.

Reorientation of its mission focus may also require that the new service reconfigure its size. After all, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Washington should remember that the size of the armed forces is not the most telling metric of their strength.” One solution is to adopt the so-called “Macgregor Transformation Model (MTM)” centered around the combat group concept which may reduce the strength of the new service “yet in the end produce a force that has greater combat capability…[and] more sustainable.” This model may provide the United States with a deployable fire brigade in the event of a national emergency or an international crisis. Already, the bases from which to adopt this viable model exist in the form of Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) and Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes.

Should the United States decide that it needs to project its hard power abroad to guard its interests, it could deploy the Special Operations Forces (SOF) components of the new service in tandem with UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to selectively target and neutralize potential threats. While the SOF and UAV surgical raids should not be viewed as substitutes for deft diplomacy, they can provide cheaper and selective power projection capabilities. Moreover, doing so could minimize the risks inherent in power projection and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) missions which may potentially mire the United States in messy and protracted conflicts.

Marines from MARSOC honing their rifle marksmanship skills. Photo by MARSOC Public Affairs

Last but not least, this new service could buttress interoperability and capabilities of allied forces around the globe through military-to-military exchanges. Although Deni was referring specifically to the Army-led initiatives when he suggested this, he may be correct that military-to-military engagements may help to promote America’s image abroad as a trusted guarantor of peace. But even more important, such activities may “mean fewer American boots on the ground.” However, implementing what the retired Marine General James Mattis refers to as the “proxy strategy” may be a better means by which the United States could “lead from behind.” Under this arrangement, while “America’s general visibility would decline,” its allies and proxies would police the trouble spots on its behalf.

Contrary to what many in the defense establishment believe, the austerity measures wrought by the sequestration have not been entirely negative. If anything, this perceived “crisis” has provided the much-needed impetus for innovative approaches to national defense. The proposed merger of the ground forces may provide the United States with most cost-effective and versatile service branch to defend the homeland and safeguard its interests abroad.

6 thoughts on “Why the United States Should Merge Its Ground Forces”

  1. As a Marine Officer recently off of active duty, it will probably not come as a shock that I disagree about the merits of merging Army, Marine Corps, and SOCOM. Unlike most Marines, I suspect, I can see merits to the argument. But I think it ignores differences in mission set, culture, and focus between the services. Responding to your arguments as fully as they deserve will probably require a separate blog post, but hidebound service loyalty compels a response here. I agree completely with your assessment of the future operating environment and that the bulk of operations will be proxy based, through SOF led unconventional warfare or foreign internal defense campaigns. However, given the fact that future conflicts will be tied to the littoral/maritime domain, I think robbing the USMC of its maritime focus is not the way to support that mission.

    From my admittedly biased position, I think that if anything the way forward is to tie the Marine Corps closer to the Navy, where it was always designed to be. This means cutting it down significantly in size, likely well beyond the “sweet spot” envisioned by the Corps’ Force Structure Review, and making it light and fast enough to be a strong crisis response force (I’m picturing something like a larger version of the Royal Marines here).

    The reason I say this is that the future operating environment in the urban littorals will be fluid and chaotic. I think instances such as Benghazi, or non combatant evacuations from Liberia, etc, will be the norm. That will require a primarily naval force that can project power ashore in extremely limited amounts for a finite period of time. This Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding, is the mission for which the Corps has been designed since the ’20s.

    Knowing service culture and bureaucracy as I do, I don’t think that this capability would be well maintained if it was folded into the Army, which is so heavily focused on pure land campaigns. Doctrine and mission focus would loose out to preparation for more land-centric campaigns. I would much rather see the Corps return to its maritime roots as a small arm of the Navy, supporting the Navy’s mission sets rather than getting lost by fuzing it with the Army’s.

    End of rant.

    1. Thanks for your response. There is merit in your argument, namely, the different service cultures–or to put it bluntly, interservice rivalry–and maritime mission focus that may preclude effective merger. But I never once said that the United States should do away with the Marine Corps. The thing is, in light of the government shutdown and the ongoing sequestration, neither the Army or the Marine Corps can insist upon operating as they have done before. They must be versatile both in budget and in capabilities.

  2. Dan Dewit covered most of the points I was going to make, but I will make one more. DoD does not really have two ground forces… it has a large ground force and a rapid reaction force that has been utilized as extra ground troops for the last twelve years. OEF and OIF are not exactly the model for which the Marine Corps is intended to be used. No disrespect to the Marines who are veterans of these conflicts of course, they all fought valiantly, but the Marine Corps’ lane is really crisis response and hitting coastlines in order to open beachheads for the Army. That’s an incredible responsibility, and I don’t think it is one that the Army can fill very easily under the model that it trains with. The Marine Corps and its mission is relevant, vital, and the training cannot be easily duplicated in the Army (they had a tough time in the early half of WWII).

    Full disclosure: I am not a Marine, but have worked with some, and am usually impressed- especially with the NCOs.

  3. Amen to all of the above. I absolutely think that we need to get back to our service roots. I will also agree that we need to get very creative about what capabilities we actually need and how we organize. I think its highly problematic that in 4 years as an officer on active duty, I didn’t spend a single day afloat, but spent 7 months in landlocked Afghanistan. We need to avoid that in the future.

    The thing is (and I bounced this off of a field grade tank officer from the Army and it seems like the big Army side would mostly agree with this), the best way to do that is to keep the Corps useful and not in a duplicative mission set is to pare it down in size and get it training and operating far more frequently with the Navy. Putting it in the Army, or making it a sub-branch of the Army rather than the Navy as it is now, will result in more of the duplication we have had, not less, as we would in effect get 8 more infantry regiments and 3 artillery regiments (roughly the size of the ground combat arms component) in service to Army missions. Senior Army leadership would rightly see these units as theirs for the tasking, and would apply them in service to ground combat missions, and training for them. At best they would become another version of the 82nd Airborne’s Division Ready Brigade, ready to be wheels up within 18 hours, which is great, but with none of the inherent air support, fire support, and lengthy sustainment capabilities that result directly from being paired with the Navy.

    We could, of course, pair Army units with the Navy for amphibious readiness purposes, but I think the result would be a watered down version of the partnership that the Corps currently has with the Navy, which we should seek to improve instead.

    There are probably lots of budgetary savings to be had through getting different weapons systems, lighter equipment, and organizing to be a leaner force along the lines of the Royal Marines. I’m not advocating dropping to 24K troops, but they are a force that defines the lean light-infantry force in readiness without a lot of excessive tooth to tail ratio issues, and we could learn from them.

  4. I already responded to your response, so you can read it at SWJ or on our internal facebook site, but suffice to say you are wrong on many levels-and you seem to not grasp the basics of my argument. I commend you for putting your ideas out there, but it seems that your policy prescriptions represent the worst of academic tea leaf reading that is not really based in any pragmatic experience or serious study.

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