Can Old Marine Strategies Fight a New Pacific War?

Threats from al Qaeda in Africa will complicate force shift to China and North Korea.

A U.S. Marine drinks cobra blood during a jungle survival program as part of annual combined military exercises, Feb. 20, 2013. Cobra Gold is a multi-national military training exercise held by nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including the U.S., Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia.
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All of the pieces are in place for America to develop a completely new national security strategy. A new secretary of defense sits in the Pentagon, fiscal pressures on the armed forces will continue through sequestration and budget negotiations, and the White House is intent on shifting its overseas focus to the Asia-Pacific corridor.

As the Pentagon prepares to puts this new strategy on paper, moving on from engaging al Qaeda in the Near East and North Africa may not prove that easy.

The Marine Corps finds itself facing a slight identity crisis coming out of two protracted land wars, and growing threats from al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa. This branch of the military, which belongs to the Navy and cut its teeth on historic engagements such as Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, has bolstered its rhetoric in recent months for returning to "amphibious roots."

So how, exactly, how does this jive with the White House's new strategy of engaging China and deterring North Korea?

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"The shift to the Pacific, it has an opportunity to focus your thinking on the core activities you might be undertaking for 20 years," says Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the Marine Corps' representative to the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. "Dynamic interaction with a variety of friends, potential foes, and the real world. There are no clear cut breaks."

Congress mandated the Defense Department conduct a QDR every four years since 1996 as a way to study how the military plans to operate in the future. McKenzie says the Marine Corps is not turning its back on current U.S. Central Command operations in Afghanistan or the emerging threats from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

"As we shift to the Pacific, we're still going to have to pay attention to those other threats," McKenzie told reporters on Thursday. "We're not going to turn away from other forces. I think Marines will still be in CentCom."

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Marines have conducted a series of training missions in recent months in line with this thinking. Exercises Keen Sword and Forager Fury in November saw Marines showing Pacific allies how to conduct air-ground assaults, applying 21st century tactics to World War II-era scenarios.

Exercise Key Resolve-Foal Eagle began at the end of February in tandem with South Korean forces and runs through March 10. Army Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, said these exercises will deter North Korea from following up on threats of breaking the 1953 ceasefire on the peninsula.

McKenzie says real-life versions of these simulations are unlikely to occur against modern enemies.

"Certainly the Marine Corps is capable of providing combat operations as a part of a joint force," he said. "I don't think we're planning for those types of things."

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Instead, the bolstered Marine presence in the Pacific is designed to act as a deterrent. A military has to be "forward with a credible force that can act immediately," McKenzie said, and one that can be seen as able to transport a larger more decisive force later.

"That's the niche where the Marine Corps lives," he said.

Part of the Marines' new plan may include developing a new Amphibious Combat Vehicle to support landing Marines ashore by force and supporting subsequent land operations. The military sought to create this hardware through the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, but that program was scrapped in 2011 due to cost overruns in favor of a more affordable vehicle.

The timeline for the QDR process remains unclear, though the Pentagon must submit its final recommendations to Congress by Feb. 14, 2014.

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