Commandant Gen. James T. Conway details what the Marine Corps needs to win in Iraq and elsewhere.
In 1940, the Marine Corps published a pamphlet on fighting guerrilla warfare, the "Small Wars Manual," which has stood the test of time and remained a classic on counterinsurgency warfare.
It urges Marine officers to avoid the unnecessary use of military force: "It can never be exercised with a view to inflicting punishment for acts already committed."
When four Blackwater security guards were killed in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004, Gen. James T. Conway, who commanded the Marines there, was ordered into the city to exact revenge. He resisted at the time, and later criticized the order for inflaming Iraqi animosity and bolstering support for the insurgency. Fallujah and western Iraq have been a festering haven for insurgents ever since.
As 4,000 additional Marines move out to al Anbar province as part of President Bush's troop surge, Conway says Iraqis there have grown weary of the constant fighting. While they still consider American troops occupiers, the area's tribes have begun to work more closely with the Marines to root out al Qaeda extremists, who are viewed as largely foreigners who kill indiscriminately, Conway told attendees at a Feb. 8 Government Executive breakfast.
Conway remains skeptical that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will challenge the Shia militias, who are perceived to be fanning sectarian flames. The U.S. effort in Iraq suffers from the limited involvement of government agencies with the political and economic expertise to meet counter-insurgency demands, he said.
Meanwhile, his service is growing by an additional 27,000 active-duty Marines-up from 181,000 to 202,000 by 2011.
The increase will allow Marines to spend at least a year at home between seven-month deployments, said Conway. Some units, such as rifle battalions, are home only seven or eight months between deployments. He said the service needs an additional $5 billion per year to cover personnel costs and training and to build new barracks for the 5,000 Marines it plans to add each year until 2011. To help recruitment, the Marines have increased signing bonuses and other incentives, added 200 recruiters and will bring on 400 more by 2009.
The Marines also have requested additional funding to repair war-damaged equipment and restore units to pre-war readiness, as well as to upgrade and buy new equipment, such as mine-resistant vehicles. The reset requirement is $13.7 billion. The Corps sought $5.2 billion in the 2007 emergency supplemental request and another $1.7 billion for reset in the 2008 request.
Conway responded to recent news reports about problems plaguing the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, the services' intended replacement for the Marine's Vietnam-era amphibious assault vehicles. The EFV is designed to be launched from assault ships far off shore, skim across the waves at 25 miles an hour, then transition to a tracked land vehicle when it reaches the beach. The Marines already have invested $1.7 billion in the 10-year-old program, yet prototypes built by contractor General Dynamics were plagued with performance and reliability problems. Conway said the Marines remain committed to buying the EFV, although significant program rearrangements are required before it enters full production. The Marines told General Dynamics to shave weight off the 39-ton vehicle, reduce its complexity and incorporate lessons learned from the fighting in Iraq, such as increased protection from roadside bombs.
While the Marines initially planned to buy 1,013 EFVs, the service's latest budget request to Congress reduces the number to 573. The Marines say they need lighter vehicles more suitable for irregular warfare, such as the planned replacement for the Humvee, which is in the development stage. By halving its planned EFV buy, the service acknowledged what some critics long have argued, that the likelihood of Marines storming a heavily defended coastline is lower than that of the Corps being embroiled in irregular urban warfare. Conway also spoke about the Navy and Marine Corps sea-basing concept, intended to provide massive floating airfields and supply bases off a potential enemy's shores.
Conway has served for 37 years in the Marine Corps, with operational deployments to Lebanon and multiple combat tours in Iraq, where he commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in western Iraq's volatile al Anbar province. Before assuming his current assignment as commandant in November 2006, he served as the director of operations for the Joint Staff.
Q: How has the Marine Corps' mission changed since Sept. 11?
A: Pre-9/11, we were a Marine Corps that was preparing for war. Our exercises, our training, our deployments, were all with that orientation in mind. Routinely, Marines were gone for six months, at home for 18. After 9/11, we went from preparation for war to war, first in Afghanistan, with what turned out to be two Marine Expeditionary Units there, and then on a much larger scale, of course, in Iraq. We have gone from six months deployed and 18 months home to a point now where we deploy for seven months and we are at home for seven months.
Q: Does the United States still need a robust amphibious warfare capability?
A: We have maintained an expeditionary strike group with 2,200 or so Marines embarked since 9/11. We have sailed that kind of capacity into the Arabian Gulf, and it's been made available to CENTCOM on a steady-state basis as a strategic reserve. Probably 60 percent to 75 percent of the time, those Marine Expeditionary Units wind up going ashore in some capacity to reinforce what is taking place in Iraq. Former CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid also liked the idea of that MEU being out there able to go to Afghanistan. So the flexibility of naval forces at sea-not needing basing rights or overflight rights, those types of things-is extremely useful to the combatant commanders. People who do the long-range estimates tell you that population growth will generally be along the [shores]. That is where you find the regional strife; that is where you will find trouble taking place. Now, the idea of storming a beach is not the concept of operations for these Marines. The ability that we have now with our sensing devices to determine where the enemy is or is not, the high-speed ability that the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle will give us from 25 miles at sea to go where the enemy is not defending and then move against objectives, is the operational design for our forces today.
Q: With the reports of problems with the EFV, is the Marine Corps still committed to that program?
A: We see the need for that kind of capability over the horizon for a long, long time to come. It's going to need to have adjustments made. Between the Navy and General Dynamics, there will be certain rearrangements that are going to try to keep the program online and save the money that has been put against it to date. We need new prototypes because the program has been with us for some time. We need new vehicles with all of the lessons learned. We are working with Quantico to determine if there is some way that we can shave some weight. We are working with General Dynamics to see if there are some things that they could do to alter the design.
Q: Can you describe the sea-basing concept?
A: Traditional amphibious operational objectives are to seize a port and an airfield. We secure those things so you can have follow-on forces, mainly the Army, coming aboard in heavy fashion. We now are creating the ability to have a port and an airfield at sea. There are joint high-speed vessels that operate as sea skimmers that will move equipment and cargo.
Essentially, the concept is that you will marry our maritime pre-positioning squadron capability with troops at this sea base, transfer the necessary equipment and materiel of war, and then be able to move inland against an enemy objective. There is every need to make sure that we're out 20-25 miles where missiles can be detected and destroyed before they start destroying ships that cost billions of dollars. Inherent to the sea base is what the Navy calls a sea shield. It could well involve an aircraft carrier that would give us the overhead protection we would need against enemy aircraft, one that would have the good radars and the ability to knock down aircraft or missiles or anything else. I think within a decade or so, we would be exercising our ability to sea base.
Q: Can you describe the Marine Corps' involvement in the surge, what effect this is having and what stresses it might involve?
A:The troop surge for the Marines, who are principally assigned in al Anbar province, is going to be roughly 4,000. I am more optimistic now about the outcome of events in al Anbar than I have ever been.
When we were there, it was generally agreed that the province, because of the intensity of the insurgency, would probably be the last to turn. I don't think that now. Of the 16 tribes in and around Ramadi, 12 or 13 have allied with the coalition forces to go against the al Qaeda of Iraq. The tribes now feel that these people have just indiscriminately killed their sons and daughters, and they have had it up to here.
About six weeks ago, we had a great young female Marine major who was killed along with an Army captain. [They were] killed on tribal turf and the tribes have this sense of responsibility that their visitors are under their protection. Well, within three days, the brigade commander received a message from the tribal sheik responsible for those grounds that the improvised explosive device cell had been "found and slaughtered"-his terms.
Q: We have a lot of technology that isn't all that useful if you're fighting in an urban environment, as we are most of the time in Iraq. Can you talk about how technology is or isn't helping in the fight out there?
A: You are right, we have to match our weapons systems to the enemy. It is essentially an urban insurgency. There are instances where we find them in the open area, but not to the level that we see inside the cities and the built-up areas. So that should paint your thinking immediately about which weapons are effective and which are not.
Our intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability has only grown better and better over the years in what we are able to see from principally overhead systems, but other systems as well, that tell us where the enemy is, and sometimes as important, where he is not. We have made significant advancements in individual protection for our troops, armored protection for the vehicles. But we develop a capability that defeats an IED and within six weeks or two months, the enemy has got something out there that counters our system. Unfortunately, we have not found that silver bullet, if it truly exists, that will find and fry and destroy on detection an IED.
Q: What is the Marine Corps' maintenance backlog now, and how do you see it changing over the next 12 months or so? Is the budget adequate to reset the force in a timely fashion?
A: We are not nearly as equipment-intense as the Army, so some of the Army's reported backlog problems don't affect us in the same way. We used some of our pre-positioned equipment when we went back to Iraq. We used some of the equipment in our land pre-position caves in Norway. So we are still in the process of restoring some of that equipment. But our depots actually are doing quite well. Congress has asked early and often, what are your needs, how do we help, and they have really stepped up to the table in making those resources available. At this point, it is on us as the services to examine whether we buy new old stuff or next-generation equipment. And we are doing some of both.
Q: You said that an area that bears a close watch is the lack of training opportunities for nondeploying units due to the shortages in manpower and equipment.
A: The Marine Corps is becoming a tremendous counterinsurgency force. But we find as a result that when you're focused on counterinsurgency, you're not doing these other things that the Corps owes to the nation. We, by law, are the nation's shock troops. We are to be most ready when the nation is least ready, and that means something potentially other than Iraq or Afghanistan. If we can with additional troops, [we need to] get our deployment ratio to something more akin to seven months going and 14 months home. That will give us some time to do those types of things.
Q: Why has the Marine Corps been so tied to the V-22 Osprey?
A: We actually skipped a generation of heli- copters to move to the Osprey, because it is such a revolutionary aircraft. The survivability, the speed, the range of the aircraft all give us a capability, a margin, over what we have now that is just unbelievable. If you trace the history of any new aircraft, there are going to be bumps and grinds. We certainly have had some very unfortunate ones with the Osprey. And today, we still discover little things that need tweaking. We have had a great response by the builders to turn immediately on to those issues. Airplanes crash, and I dread the next time we see an Osprey go down for whatever combination of reasons.
Q: What do you see as the desired state of deployment and help that might come from other federal agencies?
A: We need a better infusion on the part of the government for a broader range of experts to be available to assist the Iraqis. Iraq either wins or loses. We either fail or succeed in terms of what we now can do to support them. I think our chances for success are much greater if the whole of the government and all of its capacity gets engaged. It's happening, but it's happening at a much slower pace than I think your average military commander is comfortable with over there, because there's so much that needs to be done. Now, to come to where we are currently with regard to the plus-up, there is a security aspect of it and that is almost purely military, Iraqi and American, but there is also economics and there is also the political piece. All three legs need to be firmly planted and powerful enough to hold up the others.
Q: How many people do we need from these civilian agencies in total in Iraq?
A: It would be significantly more than what we have now. Coercion and National Security Council meetings where people pound the table are not going to do what some of the agencies simply don't have the capacity to do. We're in a process of looking at how we stand up the Africa Command; there is much less place there for military and kinetic operations than there is for humanitarian assistance, education and bringing these countries along for a better quality of life that, in turn, will encourage them to counter extremists. There is an inherent weakness to the interagency effort right now to do the types of things that I believe a long war is going to require them to do. It's going to take a whole relook at how we're organized and how we function integrally to bring it all together. I think it will, in the end, require legislation, a different look at how resources are allocated, a different look at the structure of these organizations to say, what is your expeditionary capability, if indeed we intend to continue to be a world power.
Q: How much more is it costing you to field a Marine today than, say, five or six years ago? And how much of the budget is taken up by personnel costs?
A: Our personnel costs have traditionally been about 60 percent to 65 percent of our budget. With the increase that we've asked for, that the president has approved, and that we hope Congress will sustain, we will see increased personnel costs for about 5,000 Marines a year over a five-year period, through about 2011, that will, in the aggregate, probably cost about $5 billion a year. Now, that's not just personnel; that's the training, those are the additional barracks, those are all the enablers, if you will, that would allow us to grow larger.
Q: Is it getting more difficult, with the expansion of the force, to recruit?
A: Recruiters say that pre-9/11, you spent about four hours with the young man or woman and about four hours with the influencers: the parents, the teachers, the coaches, the pastors, those people who have influence on the young man or woman. That figure is now four hours and 14 [hours], and so that's a significant change. Of course, the folks are concerned about going to war, getting hurt, getting injured. Our objective has to be to influence the influencers, if you will, to show them that we make Marines, win battles and create quality citizens. The values, the honor, courage and commitment that you learn and, hopefully, are imprinted on your soul, being a Marine, will last you for a lifetime.
Q: Are we making enough investment in the military now, given the size of our economy and society?
A: I think it's the belief of my fellow service chiefs and I that the percentage of our budget ought to be more. We are at a near-historic low at a time when we're facing the long war. It was about 9.5 percent of gross domestic product for Vietnam. It was about 13.5 percent for Korea. It was 37 percent in World War II. And we're under 4 percent today. So, it's not that the nation can't afford what we have to have; it's that the national will may not be there to procure it. And then the question becomes, how much insurance is enough? And that's the question, I think, that the administration and the nation have to ask themselves.