October 21, 2007

Does Gen. Conway really not get it?

[Serious COIN / USMC inside baseball follows; actual baseball fans should go here instead.]

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, spoke at the Center for a New American Strategy last week. Most of the coverage focused on his concern that the Corps was growing too heavy and abandoning its expeditionary history:

“We’ve simply gotten heavier....We’ve become in many ways a second land army....
We now have a generation of officers who has never stepped aboard a ship, and that concerns us with our naval flavor and ability to launch amphibious support,” he said.

These comments wouldn't raise an eyebrow amongst the broader COIN community. One of Charlie's favorite retired generals, LtGen Paul Van Riper, offered this by way of elaboration*:

It seems to me that General Conway is trying to restore some balance to what the Corps will be doing in the next few years. Like the Army who has armor captains that have never maneuvered as part of a battalion, let alone a brigade, the Corps has captains who have never participated in an amphibious operation. I'm not implying an amphibious assault, but simple ship to shore movement in support of non-combatant evacuation operations or a raid. This is one of many examples of skill sets that are atrophying. Marines have always taken pride in their ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations. I don't think our leadership is moving away from that. These leaders, however, do recognize a need to begin to develop other competencies in our young officers and Marines before they reach more senior ranks. At the same time, I'm sure there is a desire to regain the expeditionary mindset that has long typified Marines.

Charlie is actually quite sympathetic to these concerns, particularly with regard to training and education. These skills are hard to maintain, quick to diminish, and unique to the Marine Corps. She assumes most readers of this blog would find it hard to disagree with the rationale presented here.

But while PKVR mades the best case for flexibility and adaptability, Gen. Conway does himself no such favors. Instead he suggests:

In dialogue with those folks, the point came out that you can have a major contingency operation kind of capability, and still do the lesser included things to include counterinsurgency. The reverse of that statement is probably not true. So we need to either make sure that we get that balance right, whatever that balance may in time need to be.

With all due respect (and all evidence to the contrary), Charlie would like to call BS. It's comments like these that lead many to the sad conclusion that the current commandant doesn't "get it." (One wonders how differently Gen. Mattis would have phrased his thoughts on the subject.) It's pretty clear that our general purpose forces (not to mention significant elements of their leadership) have found COIN challenging to say the least.

Now it may be that the senior leadership decides that no COIN or CT threats actually constitute an existential threat to the US and therefore it's ok if we flounder around for 3 or 4 years everytime. This blogger thinks they're wrong, but it's a defensible position. But it's not one that the Commandant is making.

We're not anywhere close to over-correcting toward COIN for the military at large. And so long as Gen. Conway thinks they're "lesser included things," Charlie thinks we're probably all safe from that fate.

(*excerpted with permission)