I’m zooming across Virginia at 9,000 feet inside a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey, the sometimes maligned aircraft that just recently entered service with the Marine Corps. I am hitching a ride down to Cherry Point, North Carolina to observe part of Exercise Mailed Fist, the largest Marine Corps exercise on the east coast in decades. Hosted by the Marine Corps’ 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the exercise includes fixed wing and rotary air and support units from 2d MAW as well as additional ground units from across the Marine Corps and aviation units from the Air Force and Navy.
A few minutes into the flight the crew chief motions to me and offers me to sit on the open ramp, which exposes us to the great wide open sky, and the landscape that flits by below. On somewhat shaky legs I make my way over to the ramp, and the crew chief helps me into a harness that is secured by a strap to the floor, which is my lifeline in case I lose my footing. As we sit on the ramp the crew chief points out Air Force F-15s and Navy F-18s darting by in the sky, on their way to participate in the exercise.
An Osprey flight is loud. Very loud. Having a conversation is impossible so the crew chief, a young corporal from Ohio, pulls out a small pad and an ink stick (Marine speak for pen) and we start communicating via written messages. I have a lot of questions about the Osprey.
The Osprey and Mailed Fist say a lot about the Marine Corps and its future beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. In many ways, the Marine Corps intends for the Osprey to take it into the future, and back to its roots of a mobile and light amphibious force, the way it was before the Corps took on occupation duties and counter-insurgency tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the Osprey is being used in the current counter-insurgency fight in Afghanistan, that is not really what it is for. An Osprey can take off, hover, and land like a helicopter, but it can tilt its nozzles forward, which turns its rotors into propellers, and fly almost as fast, far, and as high as an airplane. And make no mistake about it, the Osprey is an impressive ride. Google maps tells me that my trip from Washington to Cherry Point will take almost 7 hours by car (and that’s assuming no traffic on I-95). The Osprey does it in a little over 45 minutes. All this comes in handy for a Marine Corps that wants to deploy off of ships and move inland fast and above low- to medium surface-to-air threats in order to force an entry into a country, rescue a downed pilot, conduct a raid, respond to a humanitarian crisis, or evacuate US citizens stuck in an unstable country. It is also nifty for a US Navy that is increasingly concerned about potential enemies using ultra quiet submarines, advanced anti-ship missiles, and mines, which all mean that the Navy’s efforts to get the Marines close enough to shore to use their current inventory of helicopters or landing craft would be greatly complicated.
In short, the Osprey is designed to get Marines to land and back so they can manage the various wildfires that flare up in a globalized world in an era of rapidly proliferating anti-access weapons currently being procured by countries such as Iran, North Korea, and China.
The smallest of the services in the US military, change and innovation inside the Marine Corps have always to some extent been driven by fear. A fear that one day it will be irrelevant or merely a duplication of the Army. In recent years, some Marines have wondered out loud if Iraq and Afghanistan have made the Marine Corps into a second land army, with its armor, heavy equipment, big bases, and occupation duties that all constrain the Corps’ ability to conduct rapid movements across the world’s oceans and in sync with the Navy (space is a limited commodity onboard even the largest amphibious ships).
The ultimate fear is that one day Congress will wake up and ask itself why it is funding two armies. That fear seems a bit more real to many in this age of austerity. Exercises such as Mailed Fist are intended to set the Marine Corps back on its path of being a lighter expeditionary force, and once again make them different from the Army.
As I walk around Cherry Point and talk with the officers and enlisted Marines it is quite clear that the Corps has stayed busy even beyond the counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years the Marines have conducted humanitarian relief operations in, among other places, Haiti, Pakistan, and Indonesia; trained with friends, allies, and even NGOs in South America and Africa; conducted non-combatant evacuations in Lebanon; and rescued the crew of the F-15 that crashed in Libya in the early days of the Libya no-fly zone. The Marines reckon that they will remain almost as busy in the future, even if Afghanistan winds down significantly in the coming years.
They are probably right.
While the public focus since 9/11 has remained on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military at large has continued to provide the global public good of keeping the international system humming by, among other things, protecting the international seaways, building indigenous capacity to take care of security challenges, and responding to brewing problems to make sure they don’t get out of hand. Some call this policing the American empire; others call it managing the security aspects of globalization. Whatever your preference and mindset, it may be fair to describe the Marines as, to borrow a term from Robert Kaplan, imperial grunts.
All this provides the raison d’être for Exercise Mailed Fist. While the focus on Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years is understandable (it has been, after all, the national priority since 9/11), the Marine Corps worries that Iraq and Afghanistan missions have not only made the Corps too heavy and bulky but also that the counter-insurgency fight has splintered the force, and that this has left each and every part of the Corps focused on supporting its specific role in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. Mailed Fist is designed to bring all of the components back together, and allowing them to exercise their capabilities from soup to nuts, ranging from logistics and flight operations support in austere locations, to conducting air strikes in a forced entry scenario. Ultimately, the Marine Corps is seeking to recreate that slimmer, expeditionary, and pre-Iraq and Afghanistan force that can go back to the fleet, integrate with the Navy, and respond to emerging crisis scenarios around the world.
The next day I scramble onboard a CH-53 Super Stallion, a heavy lift helicopter, and find my seat next to a group of Marine special operators. The CH-53 that I’m on is ferrying the special operators to conduct a long-range raid, the same kind of operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death at the hands of a US Navy SEAL team about two months ago. The crew chief aboard this CH-53 calls it a “school bus run.” During all of my trips with the US military I have always been impressed by how open and transparent the military is, and you are usually not only allowed but even encouraged to take pictures, film, ask questions, poke around, climb on top of things, and generally get up close and personal. Almost to a man, the officers are very proud of their units, and the enlisted usually love to show off their skills, equipment, and weapons. In this CH-53, however, that openness ends. There is absolutely no photography allowed of the special operators, their equipment, or tactics. The CH-53 is even louder than the Osprey, so a chat with the operators is impossible at any rate. During the flight up to the raid target the operators take cat naps, munch on kashi bars, and sip water. They are a serious bunch, and noticeably older than the young grunts who populate a regular Marine infantry unit. Later in the flight our CH-53 is joined by a pair of Super Cobras, there to provide overhead supporting fires during the insertion of the operators. It’s been said before, perhaps to the point of making it a cliché, but the Super Cobras really do look like big angry wasps as they take up formation behind and to the sides of our CH-53.
Special Operations Forces have risen to the fore since 9/11 as perhaps the most effective military tool in the counter-terrorism aspect of the fight against Al-Qaeda and various insurgent groups. They played a major part in re-establishing some sense of stability in Iraq under the leadership of General Stan McChrystal during the surge there, and the operators are everyone’s favorite after the audacious raid in Abbotabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The special operations community is likely to enjoy a high level of funding and autonomy in the coming years, even in the age of defense austerity that will surely arrive in the near future.
The Marines believe they have a role to play here too, although they are late comers to the game. Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC), a component command of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), was created as recently as 2005, while Air Force, Army, and Navy special operations fell under USSOCOM in the late 1980s. Considering the Marine Corps’ vision to get back to expeditionary operations, a larger emphasis on special operations capabilities makes a lot of sense to them.
While Marines are in still in the fight in Afghanistan, the Marine Corps itself has in some ways moved on, intellectually speaking. The Corps is betting that American decision makers and the public at large have no more patience for major land wars that turn into protracted “fixer upper” missions in hostile environments. Instead, the Marines think that the next few decades of the 21st century will look a whole lot like the 1990s, with small and medium contingencies of various kinds to be responded to across the world on short notice while preparing for the eventuality of an emerging near peer competitor. Ultimately, this amounts to a situation where the US increasingly will seek to manage and contain international challenges and national security threats in the international environment, rather than to find transformational solutions that will solve a security problem for all time. That may be all that the United States and its Marine Corps can manage and afford for now, considering the staggering costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, and the need to re-examine defense expenditures as part of America righting its own financial house.-
Back in the Osprey I have time for one more note to the crew chief before we touch down at Cherry Point. In the note I ask if he plans to stay in the Marine Corps. He responds no, and that he wants to go to college, or maybe be a carpenter. I ask him why he wants to reenter civilian life and the veteran of combat in Afghanistan, who on a normal day leans out of an Osprey while it is in flight while only tethered to a strap like it’s not a big deal, takes the note pad back and scribbles something short. He hands the pad back to me with a big grin on his face.
“I miss the fear of being fired.”
Magnus Nordenman is an associate director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.