SAN FRANCISCO — After nearly a decade of constant warfare and with a new commandant arriving shortly, the time has come to redefine the purpose and size of the Marine Corps, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
“After the surge ends in Afghanistan, they’re probably going to reduce some,” Gates said during a visit to California. “They’ve gotten too big.”
Gates told the crew of the destroyer USS Higgins in San Diego that while the Navy would not likely continue to downsize, the Marine Corps is on its way to a reduction. The Marines have grown to 202,000 people from 175,000, he noted. Marine Corps leaders have said they want a smaller force.
In a speech to the Marines' Memorial Association in San Francisco, the secretary said he has asked the Navy secretary and Marine leadership to focus this year’s Force Structure Review, which all services undertake, “to determine what an ‘expeditionary force in readiness’ should look like in the 21st century.”
For Marines, the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan has been forged fighting door-to-door down urban streets, in desert wadis and through mountain passes — far from the shorelines Marines have been trained to invade.
Top Marine Corps leaders, including outgoing Commandant Gen. James Conway, for years urged the Pentagon to allow the service to return to its amphibious roots and stop employing them as a “second Army.”
The last Marine did not leave Iraq until early this year, long after the commandant called for their removal from that country. Both wars, Conway frequently notes, have created a generation of Marines who have trained and fought but never stepped foot on a ship.
On Thursday, Gates said he’s recognized “an anxiety” about the future of the service, particularly “the perception being that they have become too heavy, too removed” from their roots.
But he noted that while the historic image of Marines remains etched in massive beach landings, in reality and in law the service is tasked to carry out “such other duties as the president may direct.”
In the past 60 years, Marines have fought in Korean mountains, Vietnamese rice paddies and now, he recounted, the “urban alleys of Anbar province and the dusty, rugged Helmand province of Afghanistan.”
“Looking ahead, I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible,” Gates said, referring to the Marine invasion during the early days of the Korean War that turned the tide against North Korea.
It also calls into question what weapons and equipment Marines should carry into battle. Current anti-ship missiles, he said Thursday, may require Marines to debark from ships up to 60 miles from the shore. Already one pet acquisition project of the Corps, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, is under scrutiny.
“We clearly need to have amphibious capability,” he said, “the question is ... how much.”
Finding the right tools for the job will depend on how the military plans to use the Corps.
“In Iraq, Marines — as is often the case — were handed some of the roughest real estate and saw some of the most brutal and deadliest fighting of the conflict,” Gates said. “Places like Fallujah and names like [Maj. Douglas Alexander] Zembiec and [Cpl. Jason] Dunham will take their place in Marine Corps history along with the legends of the past,” naming two Marines who died in that battle, the latter a posthumous Medal of Honor recipient.
Gates said he did not want to “preclude” the discussion and it will be up to the incoming commandant, Gen. James Amos, if confirmed by the Senate, to undertake that “intellectual effort.”
“Ultimately,” said Gates, “the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved.”
This story has been corrected from its original version.