Quadruple the Marine Corps amphibious forces? Yes, say commanders

To meet the wish-list requirements of the military’s top regional combatant commanders, the Marine Corps would need four times the amount of amphibious forces currently available, according to the commandant, Gen. James Amos.

The assertion by the top Marine Corps general and senior member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comes just two days after Election Day, lifting the unofficial code of silence that most of the nation’s top brass have honored for several weeks and months.

In the first major Washington appearance by a member of the Joint Chiefs since President Obama was reelected, Amos said the Marine Corps should remain small and efficient, bucking the campaign rhetoric of conservative hawks, including GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who ran on platforms of expanding the size of the military and its budget.

But Amos also reminded Washington that the military’s leanest, youngest, and most adaptable force already was a good “return on investment” for national security. It was a message of not needing much more, but certainly not any less.

In Washington, Republicans and Democrats still are hunkered down recovering from the campaign and preparing to resume the heated partisan budget battle, including over $600 billion in defense spending requested for this year. In typical Marine fashion, Amos took the rhetorical spear and charged.

“I may be a little biased but I think when you look at the numbers, Marines are a pretty compelling security investment. The Marine Corps provides a significant return on investment for every security dollar spent,” he said.

Amos for two years has advocated for downsizing the size of the force from its inflated wartime personnel numbers. On Thursday, he justified why Marines can supplement the Army when needed, like in the Afghanistan surge, but also should stay lean as the nation’s 9-1-1 force able to handle any job. He also renewed his call for building and maintaining modern amphibious capabilities, which Amos long has wanted the Corps to regain.

“When the nation has needed to throw us into the breech, we’ve been there. You’ll get no apology from me for our broad utility and the flexibility we give our national leaders … but that should not serve to confuse anybody about our primary role.”

“Our nation,” he continued, “pays for a Marine Corps to be its principal crisis response force -- a force that is in such a high state of readiness that it can respond to today’s crisis with today’s force, today. Not tomorrow, not two weeks from now, but today.”

Therein lies Amos’ defense for expanding amphibious forces, which he insisted was not so that the Marines storm beaches en masse like in old war movies. Today’s Marines, he argued, require precision operations backed dotted networks of land bases and ships at sea.

“We can loiter unseen over the horizon or provide a visible deterrent. We can temporarily work ashore building strong partnerships and swiftly re-embark that same force to response to a crisis in a distant land. … We can influence events ashore and return to the sea with the same swiftness that we arrived.”

But not enough, apparently.

“If you brought in any regional combatant commander…and you said OK, list all the requirements you have for amphibious forces, it exceeds by a factor of about four what we can provide on a daily basis,” he said.

“The requirements are real, we just can’t support it. We don’t have enough ships. We don’t have enough forward deployed forces to be able to satisfy the appetite of the combatant commanders.”

That’s the balance sheet the commandant presented Washington, before anyone reelected Tuesday to Congress likely has even caught their breath.

“Nobody likes to think about this one, but I think we take great risk if we discount the capability to project our national power at the place and time of our choosing. There are times when the U.S. must create access to protect our citizens…”

In short, Amos argued, Washington gets what it pays for: “This ability to go where the nation is not invited.”

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Sam Shavers