Even with a Taftian foreign policy and a defensive grand strategy, America will still need forces that can act overseas. Our New Model Defense Department will rely on the Marine Corps to provide them.

Situations where we send in the Marines will resemble President Jefferson’s war with the Barbary pirates. Unless we are directly attacked, we will avoid wars with other states, because their most likely outcome will be the spread of statelessness—watch Libya. Instead we will find ourselves up against Fourth Generation, non-state opponents in situations where government has lost its grip.

Some of these enemies, including pirates, will attack Americans, and we will be forced to respond. Our response will not be to conquer other countries and attempt to turn them into Switzerland. Most often, the Marines will carry out raids, which will last hours or days, occasionally weeks. They will have two purposes: punish those who harbor our attackers and shift the local balance of power against our enemies. To non-state entities, the local balance counts for more than their relationship with the United States. If they know the price of attacking us will be to see their local enemies triumph over them, they may leave us alone.

Thus, just as we will still need a strong Navy, we will also require a capable Marine Corps. The question is how to get it within a modest defense budget. As with the Navy, the answer begins with adopting the old Prussian reserve system. Today’s Marine Corps has three active divisions and one reserve. The new Marine Corps will have one active division and two reserve. But those reserve divisions will be just as capable as their active-duty counterpart because whole battalions will go into reserve together. On recall, everyone will be doing the same jobs and working with the same people as they did on active service.

Another major cut can come from Marine aviation. Rhetorically, its purpose is to support the Marine on the ground. In reality, high-priced aircraft do that poorly. Money can be saved by dumping most of the aircraft, including the complex V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and transferring the Air Force’s A-10s to the Marines. The A-10 is the only American aircraft that effectively provides ground support.

Another path to savings is to have the Marine Corps follow its own doctrine. The Corps has an advantage over other services in having adopted Third Generation maneuver doctrine in the early 1990s. But it has never applied the maneuver doctrine to its force structure. Doing so would reduce spending while improving military effectiveness.

One source of savings derives from the way maneuver warfare reshapes logistics. In Second Generation attrition warfare, the assumption is that all units are engaging the enemy almost all the time. That requires each combat unit to have an extensive logistics train. In maneuver warfare, the operative assumption is that most units are in reserve, waiting to maneuver. Logistics support is funneled to the few units in contact with the enemy. The overall logistics train shrinks dramatically as the “tooth to tail” ratio rises.

Similarly, maneuver doctrine calls for radical decentralization of decision-making. Orders tell subordinates what result is needed; they are left free as to means. Headquarters shrink. Few things are more dangerous than overly large headquarters, because they lead senior officers to meddle endlessly in their subordinates’ business. The Corps likes to present itself as “lean and mean,” but as far as senior officers and headquarters are concerned, it is morbidly obese. It rosters more than 80 generals, with attendant flocks of colonels and lieutenant colonels to serve as horse-holders and flower-strewers.

Real life in the Corps ends with the battalion. Almost everything above that level is a pack of rocks junior Marines have to carry. Our new Corps would get rid of almost all of it. It would have six generals: three division commanders, a Commandant, an Assistant Commandant, and one general to command the schools at Quantico.

When I first encountered the Marine Corps in the early 1970s as a Senate staffer, it thought little about programs and money. If it needed equipment, it took it from someone else and painted it Marine Corps green. Sadly, in the mid-1990s the Corps decided that it too would be about programs and budgets. But the memory of the older way is not entirely lost. The current Commandant has been wondering aloud if it might be revived. If he acts as well as he talks, the Marine Corps will be better prepared for the post-empire era than any other service.

Earlier entries in this series:

Reshaping the Pentagon for an Age of Austerity

Building a Navy That Won’t Sink the Economy