3 top challenges for the Marine Corps of tomorrow

As the Corps turns 238, issues such as sequestration and peacetime take their toll

3 top challenges for the Marine Corps of tomorrow

Heading into 2014, the Marine Corps faces several new challenges. (Photo courtesy of DVIDS)

Amid balls and celebrations, the Marine Corps birthday offers a chance to look back on what has happened this year and mull over the challenges we face moving forward. This has been a rough year for the Marine Corps. The Corps is being forced to realize some difficult realities.

I’ve been out of the Marine Corps since 2005, and while a few acronyms have changed, it turns out the large issues that are in the greater American conversation are having deep and specific impacts on the small, tight-knit Corps. This week I canvassed old friends who are now Gunnys and Master Sergeants, and they came back with the same, universal handful of concerns. These issues have been developing in 2013 and will affect how the Corps moves forward in 2014 and beyond.

In no particular order, they listed the following: women in the infantry, troop reduction, and the impacts of sequestration on training.

Women in the infantry

Now, I was never a grunt, though as a 0211 (Interrogator and Counterintelligence / HUMINT Specialist) I spent two deployments attached to infantry battalions. I’ve seen women in combat situations.

But now the Marines are experimenting with women in the infantry. Introducing women to combat roles has been a perennial issue for the U.S. military, and women have been in combat for years. Whether it’s as fighter pilots or guards on a fuel convoy, women have been in the fight but not in the actual infantry. In 2013, the Marine Corps decided to admit women to the Infantry Officer’s Course (for officers) and the School of Infantry (for enlisted) for the first time.

The women in IOC washed out. There are still four enlisted women in SOI, due to graduate in the next few months.

I’m all for women in combat. Q.E.D., they HAVE been in combat, and they have succeeded. But they haven’t yet succeeded in the infantry. Personally, I think women should have their own units, as I described in an article I wrote for TIME earlier this year. Gender segregation solves most of the problems presented by having women in the infantry, not the least of which are sexual assault and degradation of unit morale.

But I highly doubt the Marine Corps will give women their own units, which leaves this reality: gender integration in the infantry.

In my opinion this experiment has been forced by civilians, and perhaps senior officers, who don’t understand the difference between combat and the infantry. Any unit can end up in combat, and female service members have demonstrated their ability to fight. The infantry, though? You’re talking about a totally different job. Just because I can wield a fire extinguisher in a critical situation doesn’t mean I’d make a career firefighter.

Regardless, the fact remains, the Corps is moving ahead with this experiment, and the ranks will likely be conflicted about how to handle women in the infantry for years to come.

Marines being forced out of the Corps

Understandable from a civilian’s perspective, I suppose. The wars are drawing down. Who needs the Marine Corps if there are no doors to kick in? No Fallujahs or Ramadis or Marjas to crush?

Maybe America has put the Marine Corps safely back in the “Break Glass in Case of Crisis” vault, but the Corps still needs Marines with combat experience. And that experience is getting forced out.

In years past, the rank of Staff Sergeant could be a retirement. Not in FY14. The new manpower policy seems to indicate that if you are passed over for SSgt or GySgt one time, you will not be allowed to re-enlist. A DUI? You’re done. Overweight? Get ready to be a civilian. Marines who have spent the past 10 years learning how to fight and lead are going to be bounced out of the Corps, and the young Marines they could have taught will be deprived their combat wisdom.

Sequestration

But perhaps most importantly, sequestration is crushing training, and therefore readiness. The Marine Corps has always been the smallest guy on the block when it comes to budget shoulder-shoving. All the services are affected, but when the Corps loses even a little bit, it means Marines will end up deploying less prepared than they could have been.

When it comes to putting troops into combat, nothing is more important than the training they had prior to war.

When we threw Army National Guard and Reserve units into combat in Iraq, the value of training became painfully clear. Those units in 2004 in Iraq suffered a 35% higher casualty rate than active duty Army. If you were a Reservist or National Guard member deployed to Iraq, you were a third more likely to die than an active duty soldier.

Old figures? Perhaps. But why then would we want to return there?

Generations of Marines have trained at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms. At the Tactical Training Exercise Control Group in Twentynine Palms, sequestration has significantly affected the Integrated Training Exercise (what used to be called a Combined Arms Exercise) by reducing the amount of role player support.

Prior to sequestration, Marines preparing for deployment typically interacted with approximately 450 role players. By fiscal year 2014 this number will be reduced to zero. That’s right, zero.

In 2015, the United States will be putting Marines into combat with a dramatically different version of the support we gave Marines fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. Yes, the Marine Corps will be able to assume some of these collateral support duties, but the casualties suffered by the Army National Guard and Reserves have demonstrated full well that the more support, the better the training.

On November 7, 2013 Commandant of the Marine Corps General Amos made the following statement before a Congressional hearing on sequestration:

“Under sequestration we will effectively lose a Marine division’s worth of combat power. This is a Marine Corps that would deploy to fight a major contingency and not return until war’s end. We will empty the entire bench. There would be no rotational relief like we had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines who joined the Corps during that war would likely go straight from the drill field to the battlefield without the benefit of pre-combat training. We will have fewer forces, arriving less trained, arriving later to the fight.”

More training means more Marines come home alive from war. Sequestration means less training and more Marines will die. Simple as that. The enlisted Marines I talked to are desperately concerned about how the lack of training will affect the lives of their junior Marines.  In truth, they’re concerned about all the issues confronting the Corps in this period of transition. Ramping up from peacetime to war is tough, but war is what we trained for. I’m sure I’m not the only Marine who remembers screaming the pre-racktime chant in bootcamp:

Water makes the grass grow
Marines make the blood flow,
Pray for war,
pray for war,
pray for war,
Kill, kill, kill!

The Marine Corps now has to face some tough challenges surrounding how to appropriately ramp down to peacetime in 2014, yet still be prepared for war at a moment’s notice.