Marine Officer to Next Commandant: Fix the Corps' Identity Crisis

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Marines with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, 4th Marine Regiment, execute an amphibious assault simulation for Ssang Yong 14 at Dogue Beach, Pohang, South Korea, April 1, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Sara A. Medina)
Marines with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, 4th Marine Regiment, execute an amphibious assault simulation for Ssang Yong 14 at Dogue Beach, Pohang, South Korea, April 1, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Sara A. Medina)

A Marine Corps major is joining a growing chorus calling on the service to develop a clear identity and to stop being everything to everyone.

Maj. Leo Spaeder, a Marine air-ground task force planner at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, wants the general officer nominated to lead the service to end what he calls an ongoing identity crisis. Lt. Gen. David Berger was tapped to be 38th commandant of the Marine Corps in March; his confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled.

In a commentary he wrote for War on the Rocks titled "Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps," Spaeder said he's confused by his service's attempt to organize, train and equip before it has developed a clear identity.

"At Headquarters Marine Corps, I have heard and read a dizzying array of what we are doing, pursuing, and becoming," the major wrote. "... Not much of it is coherent: general purpose force, expeditionary advanced base operations force, paced against a specific threat, no pacing threat, applicable to all combatant commands, urban/megacities, jungle, sea control, forcible entry operations, amphibious, expeditionary, naval, crisis responders, contact force, blunt force, surge force, heavy, light, etc.

"I could go on, but it's starting to feel absurd."

Spaeder, who could not immediately be reached for comment, is not the only one calling on Marine Corps leaders to develop a clear mission. Last month, Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer now with the Heritage Foundation, wrote a 60-page report highlighting what the service must do to prepare for a near-peer naval battle.

"The ability to project ground combat power by sea is what differentiates the Corps from the Army," Wood said. "Without this capability, there is not much reason to maintain a Marine Corps."

And last year, Congress called for assessments on the service's ground forces when it comes to deterring near-peer enemies and the feasibility, plans and investments in the Marine Corps' ability to operate in contested littoral environments.

Like Wood, Spaeder said the Marine Corps "can stop creating redundant capabilities," such as Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command or Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Those are services already provided to the joint force, he said. (Wood argued something similar about MARSOC, though it proved unpopular with some in the special operations community.)

If confirmed to serve as commandant, Berger should choose what Spaeder calls a single-core attribute. Marines need to know whether they should be focused on being a general-purpose force, one that fights small wars, one that fights in the littorals, or something else, he said.

"Next, name two or three distinguishing attributes that -- in accordance with the National Defense Strategy -- differentiate the Corps from the other services," Spaeder added.

The Marine Corps should still be able to conduct other outlying mission sets that complement those missions, he said, but they should be Marines' lowest priorities when it comes to investing time and resources.

"I pose a single question to drive our identity: Are we naval in character or purpose?" Spaeder asks. "If it's the former, then we can continue to be anything we want and just continue using funny words for windows, walls, and water fountains."

But if the Marine Corps continues doing a bunch of other missions at the same time -- training for an arctic mission in Norway, providing land-based crisis response in Africa and the Middle East, and spending more on support elements than it does on infantry units -- the service will continue its march to irrelevance and eventual extinction, he warned.

The Marine Corps has no more time to be everything to everyone, Spaeder added. It can't dabble in modernization, he said, without a clear vision behind it. Now that the National Defense Strategy has been released, Berger should leverage it to decide the service's next steps.

And those who aren't on board with his vision should retire, Spaeder added.

"A clear identity is now possible and represents a once-in-a-century chance to re-invent the Marine Corps," he wrote.

Berger oversees Spaeder's command in his current role as head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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