THE MARINE CORPS for the past four years has committed its people and assets to the war in Iraq. But as the possibility of a force drawdown looms on the horizon, Marine strategists are grappling with fundamental questions about the future.
Among the topics of debate are how quickly the Marine Corps can return its focus on its traditional sea-based amphibious role, and whether it should continue to emphasize land-based counterinsurgency missions of the sort it has been fighting in Iraq.
"We've got people taking a close look at that," said Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.
One major unknown is the "environment," Conway said at a recent conference in Washington, D.C.
Iraq will continue to consume the Corps' resources in the near term. Meanwhile, planners are trying to figure out how the Corps should prepare for conflicts after 2020 to 2025, Conway said.
No matter who the enemies of the United States might be two decades from now, it is a safe bet that the Marine Corps will continue to deploy forces in both maritime and land scenarios, Conway noted. Among the assumptions that are being factored into the planning is that Islamic extremist groups will keep on challenging the United States, he said.
Another prediction is that weapons of mass destruction "will be more prevalent," said Conway. The Middle East will still be a volatile region in the future because of its oil supplies. "Oil still will be important in 2025, and water will become just as important as oil," he said.
Years of fighting in Iraq to some extent has muddied the picture of how the Marine Corps sees its role in U.S. military operations. The Corps' missions in Iraq in many ways overlap with the Army, and the frequent deployments have kept Marines away from their traditional training in amphibious warfare and other areas.
"The Marine Corps was designed and intended to operate in a large maritime type environment," said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "Its history stretches back to naval infantry and small wars and the kinds of things the Army wouldn't necessarily be well suited for."
The Corps would be wise to not let itself be perceived as a second land army, Wood said. The biggest value that the Corps brings to the nation is its role as a naval service, he said.
The war in Iraq, however, will have a lasting impact on the way Marines train for combat and groom...