'Fleet Marine Force' Is Back as Commandant Pushes Return to Naval Roots

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Marines embark aboard the USS Bataan.
Marines assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit embark aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5). (U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Julio Rivera)

As the Marine Corps shifts its focus from lengthy ground wars to more ship-based missions, leaders want leathernecks to change their terminology.

The Marine Corps is resurrecting its "Fleet Marine Force" label. It will replace the "operating force" term Marines have used in recent decades to describe the service's general population -- with an emphasis on forward-deployed units.

Now, Fleet Marine Force should be used to describe all commands and units at or below the Marine expeditionary force level, Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, head of Combat Development and Integration in Quantico, Virginia, wrote in a service-wide message.

The purpose of the switch back to the once widely used term with a naval connection: to "foster maritime operations and integration," Smith wrote.

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The shift is part of a rebranding effort that has been underway since Commandant Gen. David Berger took the helm as the service's top general officer. Berger's planning guidance is heavily focused on naval integration, as the service prepares for the possibility of conflict with China.

In October, the Marine Corps released a new four-minute video that aimed to set the public straight about the service's amphibious capabilities.

For nearly two decades, Americans have watched Marines deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan in hefty numbers year after year. But as tensions continue to rise with China, Berger is steering the force back to naval-based maritime campaigns, which he sees as the Corps' main operating environment.

The commandant said when announcing the policy Tuesday that the Marine Corps must be "prepared to be employed as Fleet Marine Forces."

"We need to re-focus on how we will fulfill our mandate to support the Fleet," Berger tweeted.

Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and senior research fellow for defense programs at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the Fleet Marine Force label fell out of favor after 9/11.

The Marine Corps became heavily focused on crisis-response missions, he said. It has stood up sizable land-based special-purpose Marine air-ground task forces that rely on MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to deliver Marines long distances to the scene, rather than ships.

"But now," Wood added, "General Berger's been talking about rediscovering this maritime naval component. ... Retitling things to the Fleet Marine Force, there's a psychological component to that."

Wood, who wrote a report last year calling on the Marine Corps to focus on preparing for possible combat operations in the Asia-Pacific region, said leathernecks are likely to embrace the return to the maritime-focused Fleet Marine Force label.

"The new people coming in don't have that previous extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and, for the older folks, it's kind of like, 'OK, done that sustained operations thing,'" he said. "They're really interested in what makes them different from [U.S. Special Operations Command] or from the Army? What is it about being Marines that's unique?

"I think it's a very exciting time in the Marine Corps."

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

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