Approaching its 240th birthday, the Marine Corps seems to be doing fine. It is a much admired American institution, ranking consistently at the top of the armed services in terms of public perceptions of service prestige. And it has been growing in scale relative to the other services. The Marine Corps was approximately four percent of the total US military in the Second World War. By the end of the Cold War it was about ten percent of the total. Today, although the military has shrunk, the Marine Corps is nearly 15 percent of the active force. Once it was a quarter of the Department of the Navy; now it is almost 40 percent. In 1990 the Marine Corps was about a quarter of the size of the Army; now it is more than a third the Army’s size. Its air arm, long used to buying modest numbers of aircraft the other services designed, is currently bigger than the air force of any of America’s allies and is morphing via the acquisition of unique aircraft such as the V-22 and the F-35B into a near total vertical flight force, which is no small or inexpensive achievement.

The Marine Corps well withstood the two big structural changes that have occurred in the Department of Defense—the centralization of civilian authority and the move toward service Jointness. The Department was established after the Second World War as a loose confederation among the services in a compromise to gain more inter-service coordination without forcing their unification, but has grown more centralized through both legislation and presidential order since then. The service secretaries have lost most of their independent authority to the secretary of defense who manages weapon acquisition, personnel, and support activities the services perform through Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) officials. Most of this was accomplished by the late 1950s although the powers of the secretary have continued to be enhanced. Military centralization, which lagged greatly the trend on the civilian side of the department, was pushed forward by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Operating forces are now under the control of joint commanders and officers seeking senior level promotions within their own services must have joint qualifications obtained through specified assignments and education.

Marines were instinctively fearful of the efforts at unification, convinced that they would lose their distinct identity to an Army much larger in size and highly resentful of the heroic image the Marine Corps had obtained during the world wars. Marine aviation lay vulnerable to Air Force jurisdictional claims for control of all aviation. During the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the Army and the Air Force did little to assuage Marine concerns. The Army kept the Marine Corps units in subordinate commands and often isolated geographically. The Air Force persistently sought to allocate Marine aviation away from the direct support of Marine ground units. Jointness, which was promoted as a mechanism to gain better battlefield coordination rather than service amalgamation, was still viewed with suspicion by Marines.

Thus far, however, the Marine Corps has not been adversely affected by either civilian centralization or the Jointness efforts. Having little direct responsibility for Title 10 activities, the Marine Corps has been able to ignore much of the rise of OSD. Most of the problems caused by the increased centralization were absorbed by the system commands in the other services; especially the Navy’s which do the bulk of acquisition and support services management for the Marine Corps. Jointness, in contrast, has actually been a significant benefit for the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps gained full membership in the Joint Chiefs and has had its officers hold all important joint assignments, commanding forces from the other services, which was unimaginable under previous arrangements. A Marine has been the Chairman, Vice Chairman, and in command in Europe, of strategic forces, and in combat theaters. The incoming Chairman, General Joseph Dunford, is a Marine. The number of Marine general officers was increased several years back so the Marines Corps could have its share of joint flag assignments. Jointness has operated more as a collaboration of veto-possessing partners rather than as a tightly-managed enterprise, which is just fine with the Marine Corps.

These structural preferences in the design of the Department of Defense (DOD) are likely to continue. Claims that they have increased efficiency and battlefield effectiveness are still widely accepted in and out of government, despite sparse evidence of actual benefits. The austerity in defense spending promised by ever-rising governmental deficits is a strong impetus for Congress and DOD officials to push harder for mostly imagined but easily asserted savings of centralization and inter-service collaboration, rather than exposing their favorite programs to cuts or revamping. However, the impact of additional DOD centralization and Jointness on the Marine Corps may not be as benign as it has been to date. On the Title 10 side, the march will be toward further consolidation, establishing one DOD-wide agency in every support category—for example, one DOD medical organization, one DOD installation manager, and one DOD procurement agency—and eliminating distinctions between the services. For a centralized acquisition authority, separate requirements for the same or similar weapons and platforms are wasteful. No matter how unique the Marine Corps feels, it will likely be viewed increasingly by the central civilian managers of the Department of Defense as a second army, a fourth air force, and yet another assault force, and thus a promoter of costly parochial interests.

Responsibility for long-term planning and requirement-writing will likely shift from service staffs toward the joint force. These tasks are seen as primarily military functions, but with civilian oversight. Already there are proposals for the combatant commanders to have a major voice in these tasks. Without them, the service-specific staffs become redundant and candidates for manpower-saving mergers with the service secretariats and/or OSD. Arguments can be made that force-planning decisions not only should be subject to joint discussion, but should be jointly made. The prevailing belief is that if the military is to operate in an integrated way, then it needs to plan in an integrated way.

Jointness supposedly allows for the interoperability of functionally specialized forces, integrating air, ground, sea, and special operation elements into a coordinated and synergistic fighting force. But the Marines are already a combined arms force. At all levels, from the Marine Expeditionary Unit to the Marine Expeditionary Force, the Marine Corps offers integrated ground and air elements. In a true Joint world these components need to be separated and then reassembled across services under joint commanders. Beyond amphibious warfare, there is no unique Marine domain. Even then, the other services have functionally specialized capabilities that need to be brought into the mix in an amphibious operation. Ironically, Jointness in its advanced forms prefers standing functionally specialized forces rather than standing integrated forces, with integration being mission-dependent, as in an amphibious assault. In their disaggregated or sub-aggregated form, these units are controlled by component commanders—constructs in which Marines as an integrated force have no obvious role or home.

We are likely to observe a fading Marine Corps in the coming decades. Marine Corps Headquarters will be without purpose when planning and requirement-setting tasks shift to the Joint Staff and joint regional commanders. Deployed Marine forces will be valued for their component numbers, not for their integrated capabilities. The distinctive characteristic of the Corps—a combination of scalable air and ground forces trained to identify and fight as a special unit—will be viewed as anachronistic and unnecessary. The ultimate stage for Jointness is a scalable, networked force composed of elements from all services that is capable of operating in any medium, performing multiple tasks concurrently against any enemy. The Marines will mostly redundant then, and will be perceived as an obstacle to achieving Jointness.

There is a way out. The Marine Corps could seek to absorb the force it long shunned—Special Operations Command. Special Operations has independent acquisition authority (which is surprisingly assigned to the military rather than to civilians) and operational independence via its own four-star global command. With a supervising assistant secretary of defense, it is essentially another service department, but one that actually controls deployed forces. Like the Marine Corps, it has combined arms components that can operate autonomously, and it can also provide humanitarian relief and foreign-forces training. The similarities no doubt were a large part of the Marine Corps’ reluctance to affiliate with Special Operations. However, if they were combined, they would have capabilities to do all military operations right up to the most intense conventional warfare.

The combination would have the significant advantage of being an alternative to the Joint force and a second set of eyes on America’s military problems. Centralization and Jointness threatens single-fault failure and discourages innovation. The Marine Corps writ large could function as a second opinion on definitions of threats and their possible solutions offered up by Joint planners. Civilians would then have a choice between the informed judgments of independent professionals. Cooperation between these competing interests would exist as it does today among the services when the civilians assert a firm policy direction, but all would not depend upon on a single hierarchy of military capability. The Marine Corps was successful because it had the opportunity to discover its own military truths. We should want to preserve that opportunity.