As the Marine Corps resets itself after more than 10 years of large-scale combat, Marines will likely find themselves deploying more to exotic locations.
Officials recently published a list of about 100 language skills needed to support current and future operations around the globe. Many are eligible for foreign language proficiency pay, which ranges between $100 and $500 per month per language, showing leadership’s commitment to maintaining a cadre of select Marines who can speak every major and many obscure languages should there be a call to action. When paired with a list of the world’s most unstable countries, outlined in a report produced by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, a picture emerges of where Marines could deploy in the years to come.
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos recently referred to the most troubled areas of the globe as falling into the “arc of instability,” a band that stretches horizontally across the globe from Central and South America, across Africa and the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Inside that band are countries plagued by internal violence, extremism, organized crime, poverty, water and food shortages and booming youth populations.
“The recipe there is for significant conflict over the next few decades,” Amos told an audience of think-tankers and government contractors Nov. 18 in Arlington, Va. “I see no reason to think the world is going to get any nicer over the next two decades.”
Here’s a look at the regions where Marines may be tapped to train local forces, evacuate U.S. citizens living abroad, bolster embassies, hunt down terrorists and pirates, or fight a future war. In some spots, the Corps has existing missions.
Southeast Asia, part of the Indo-Pacific region that stretches all the way to the Persian Gulf, is quickly becoming one of the most important regions for U.S. security, according to Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. Marines already train local forces in the Philippines, which is home to combat-hardened terrorists — some of whom are aligned with al-Qaida.
Neighboring Indonesia also is a troubled country where terrorists and pirates who disrupt commerce seek asylum. These jungled island nations are difficult for central governments to secure, but through multinational exercises such as Cobra Gold, the Marine Corps forges bilateral relationships that help train military forces in Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia to repel domestic and foreign threats.
Reflective of the Corps’ push to step up its presence in the region, one in which China also has strategic interest, is the focus on nine languages spoken in the Philippines, two spoken in Indonesia, several Chinese dialects, plus Portuguese, Spanish and French. All are spoken throughout parts of Southeast Asia.
But even if this region is vital to U.S. interests, Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington warns against preparing for conflicts in specific regions. “We have been through exercise after exercise since World War II to try to figure out how to reshape our entire force posture around a prediction of the future,” Cordesman, the former director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said. “And every single one has been wrong.”
There are troubled regions across the globe that could need attention on a moment’s notice, he said. Most often, nobody knows which is the next to blow until after the first shots are fired. Preparing for that requires a large base of foreign languages and cultural knowledge within the military’s ranks, Cordesman said.
West African countries such as Nigeria are “of great strategic importance because of vast oil reserves tapped by U.S. and European companies,” Cronin said. The U.S. also has historic ties to Liberia, a country that imploded into an extended civil war during the 1990s under President Charles Taylor.
“We’ve seen what has happened when West Africa has been neglected,” Cronin said. “The instability that ensued threatened U.S., European and African interests alike.”
With more and more energy produced in the region destined for U.S. markets, ensuring stability will become ever more important. The model, however, will be to maintain a small footprint, training local forces to do the job rather than putting a large U.S. contingent on the ground, Cronin said. Marines already train regularly with troops from Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Benin and Nigeria. It’s a trend that could grow. While many in West Africa speak French or English, working in other areas of the continent can require more obscure languages including Amharic, Swahili, Krio or Yoruba.
“Bolstering small, elite foreign training programs is like money in the bank. It’s preventative security and it’s cost effective,” Cronin said.
Somalia is home to pirates and al-Qaida operatives. If problems escalate, Marines who already cycle through Camp Lemonier in nearby Djibouti could be part of anti-piracy missions. Putting boots on the ground could prove politically sensitive, however, due to the death of almost 20 troops in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, while on a 1993 raid to apprehend warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The incident, popularized by the book and film “Black Hawk Down,” resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. forces who served as part of an international peacekeeping mission.
But Somalia remains a viable target as the epicenter of modern piracy. U.S. military and intelligence operatives are already aiding local forces fighting a conservative Muslim government that took power by force in 2006. In East Africa, Marines who speak Somali, Tigrinya, the official language in Eritrea, or Afar, spoken in Djibouti, could be a huge asset to future operations.
The Marine Corps has placed renewed emphasis on partnerships with countries in the Black Sea region. In close proximity to Russia, it’s a strategically important region that was behind the Iron Curtain until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the same way a U.S. presence in Southeast Asia helps counter China’s influence, a presence in Eastern Europe helps counter Russia’s.
In 2010, Marines began an annual exercise called Black Sea Rotational Force in which they partner with Romanian, Bulgarian and Georgian forces, among others. The exercise, now having completed its second year, has been expanded from just 100 to 300 Marines and has been financed through at least 2017. While the exercise has been manned in large part by reservists who spend six months overseas, active-duty Marines are also included.
With Russian forces going toe-to-toe with the Georgians during a 10-day fight in 2008, the region is still marred by tension. During the conflict, Russia seized five Marine Corps Humvees stowed in a Georgian harbor.
Important languages to maintain in the ranks for operations in this area include Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian and Croatian, among others
Marines won’t invade Mexico any time soon, as they did in 1847 and again in 1914, but they are likely to have a small presence there for the foreseeable future. The U.S. and Mexico are allies cooperating to fight Mexican drug cartels that run narcotics across the border. Marines are training Mexican forces and working as advisers, a mission that shows no signs of slowing as drug cartels fight to hold their ground, protect their enterprise and carry out heinous crimes against those who stand in their way. The pitched violence reached such levels that Marines have been barred from unofficial travel to large swaths of Mexico for several years now.
Haiti, in the Caribbean, remains a question mark. It continues to languish in the aftermath of last year’s massive earthquake that not only devastated the already impoverished country’s infrastructure but toppled its presidential palace. If political instability flares, Marines could put boots on the ground as they did in 1915, 1965 and 1994 to stem rampant violence and restore order. Two Marine expeditionary units from the East Coast were called in after the earthquake to help with immediate humanitarian needs.
Marines are also likely to continue training missions in the South American countries of Colombia and Peru as part of the fight against narcotics.
Amos offered up Colombia as a success story. With Marines training Colombian forces since 1999, the country has seen a marked decline in violence. Forces that once threatened stability of the central government are now mostly banished to the remote jungle.
While the Marine Corps pushes to renew its historic emphasis on expeditionary missions, it also grapples with looming budget cuts. To maintain a presence everywhere from the Andes Mountains to the South China Sea, experts advise against slashing Marine Corps manpower too drastically in the face of growing budgetary pressure. The Corps is planning on dropping its authorized end-strength from 202,000 to 186,800 once Marines withdraw from Afghanistan. Defense spending cuts could force the Corps to become smaller than that, however.
“If you want to be seen as having a stabilizing presence, if you want to be seen as playing an advisory role, if you want to be trusted, there is only so far you can be over the horizon,” Cordesman said, adding that forward-based Marines are critical. “That has always been one of the key roles for the Corps.”