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Tomorrow's 'reconstituted' Marine Corps

All the services will probably look different after the end of the Afghan war, but the Marine Corps could well be the one that changes the most.

The brass has vowed to get back to its "expeditionary roots;" to rediscover the ways of "amphibiosity;" and, most of all, to get much lighter.

"As I say, the United States Marine Corps needs to go on weight control," Assistant Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford said on Wednesday. That doesn't just mean that it's counting on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to be as light as possible, the better to go aboard Navy gators, but also that the Corps can't just "reset" -- it must "reconstitute" itself.

"Looking toward the future, we have 10 years of experience at war and we’ve learned a lot of lessons -- a lot of equipment we had in the past is probably inadequate to support the distributed, disaggregated operations we expect, so we are doing a review and we'll determine how to reconstitue the Marine Corps to meet tomorrow's challenges, not yesterday’s," Dunford said. – "We’re not resetting the Marine Corps to 2001--  2001 has nothing to do with our future security challenges  … we're going to reconstitute for the future."

Dunford said one key next move will be the release of an analysis of alternatives around this June that he expects could show the way for the Marines' new amphibious combat vehicle and the rest of its tactical fleet. The Corps already plans to replace 5,000 of its Humvees with JLTVs, but this AoA should set down broader directions for the future force, the brass says.

(Maybe -- every AoA is held up as the Rosetta Stone until it comes out, but it doesn't take long to become yesterday's news.)

Dunford reaffirmed that the ACV remains the Marines' biggest priority, given that today's fleet of Amphibious Assault Vehicles cannot last much longer. It was supposed to have been replaced by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, but that dream is dead. The Marines are in a pickle because they want to replace the EFV with something like the EFV -- an amphibious APC that can speed ashore -- but it can't be so much like the EFV that it too succumbs to problems, delays and cost growth.

This dilemma could be one reason for Dunford's "reconstitution:" The need for the EFV was driven by a doctrine under which the Navy's amphibious fleet would stand far out to sea, necessitating a transport that could get up on plane and speed over the waves to the beach. If you don't get up on plane, you can still make the trip, but you have to plod through the chop and your poor Marines get bounced and tossed inside their vehicle -- not to mention that slowness makes them an easy target.

So the Marine Corps must assess whether the EFV died because the basic concept was unachievable, or because the program itself just had some problems. If the brass determines an EFV-like vehicle is possible, and uses the lessons of the previous program to make the ACV work, there you are -- the doctrine can survive. But if a wave-skimming amtrac is just too hard to get for the money available, Quantico might need to step back and rethink its overall game plan.

More than that could change in a "reconstituted" Marine Corps, down to service officials' basic acquisition strategy. In the 90s and 2000s, the Marines' message was simple: "Look, you Pentagon and Capitol Hill pogues," the Corps said -- "if you want us to be able to continue doing the missions we do today, you have no choice but to continue supporting the expensive, high-end, controversial platforms we want. We need a utility aircraft and our CH-46s are toast; that means the MV-22 Osprey. Our AAVs are rusting from the inside out. That means the EFV. Our AV-8B Harriers are at the end of their lives. That means the F-35B."

The score sheet from this game is decidedly mixed: The Osprey was a victory, but came at such a cost that it may never have a good name outside the Corps. The F-35B is still on the books but has no date for initial operational capability, and the Corps is making plans to keep flying its Harriers until 2030. The EFV was cancelled, and even though the Marines sought to put a rosy spin on the episode by citing the basic "validation" that Secretary Gates gave to their amphibious mission, validations can't swim out of the well deck with a squad of riflemen.

So the game of 'If we don't get X, we can't function anymore,' may itself not work anymore.

Still, it's never been very smart to bet against the Marine Corps. Along with the Navy, it's the fulcrum for the U.S. "pivot" to the Western Pacific, which could give it disproportionate throw weight in going after the ACV and whatever other programs might emerge from Dunford's look ahead.

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