In the early hours of May 5, 2014, a company of US Marines and Afghan Army advisors left their bases in Sangin District, Helmand Province, for the very last time. It was a historic moment for the US Marine Corps. During 2010 and 2011, more than 50 marines were killed in Sangin during heavy fighting with the Taliban. For the Corps, the withdrawal from the district was the end of a bloody chapter in its history.
But the Sangin withdrawal - and the wider withdrawal from Afghanistan - also marks the beginning of a new chapter for the US Marine Corps. For over a decade the Marines have been fighting protracted land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a role at odds with their core mission as a quick-reaction expeditionary force. Now that's about to change.
Reinvigorating amphibious capabilities
In January 2012, the Pentagon released a new defence strategy which envisioned the Marines going back to basics as a so-called "middleweight force", between light Special Forces units and heavier conventional units. The Marines would have "reinvigorated" amphibious capabilities, able to quickly react to a full spectrum of missions from full-on combat like Afghanistan to humanitarian missions like last year's Typhoon Haiyan.
Despite an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a pervading war-weariness in the West, General James Amos, the top marine commander, says there is unlikely to be a "peace dividend" after the Afghanistan War is over. It's what some in the Pentagon have referred to as "the new normal", a strategic environment which is unpredictable and requires swift responses from the US.
"In many regions, ever-present local instability will inevitably erupt into crises, prompting call for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation or more vigorous responses," Amos said earlier this year in a speech to The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"There will be no shortage of work for America's Marines," he warned.
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Since its inception, the US Marine Corps has been the US's primary amphibious force, capable of carrying out amphibious assault operations in permissive and non-permissive environments. Marine units are often forward deployed and in a state of advanced readiness to deter enemies, support allies and respond to global crises. If needed, the service can deploy up to 80,000 personnel - made up of multiple marine divisions, air wings and logistics groups - as part of a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).
The Marines can also deploy smaller forces such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), which generally consists of around 14,000 to 17,000 personnel embarked on 17 amphibious ships with enough supplies to operate ashore for 30 days. MEFs and MEBs - along with Marine Expeditionary Units - are all what's known as a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), the Marine Corps primary organisational construct for conducting operations.
Embassy protection and crisis response - Benghazi a case in point
On 11 September 2012, the US consulate in the northern Libyan city of Benghazi came under attack by gunmen. In the ensuing gun battle, the US's top diplomat in Libya was killed. It was the first time a US ambassador had died in office since 1988, prompting a re-think on how US embassies are protected around the world.
"That certainly focused the minds of people in [the Obama] administration," says Paul Scharre, a former special advisor to the US undersecretary of defense for policy and now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "So people can look to the US Marine Corps and see a lot of value in having marines over the horizon able to respond if need be."
For the US Marines, it was an opportunity to establish a vital post-Afghanistan role and set out its continued relevance in US defence policy.
After the Benghazi attack, the Pentagon approved the creation of a marine crisis response force known as Special Purpose MAGTFs - Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR). The self-deployable force utilises a reinforced marine company, six MV-22B Ospreys and two KC-130J Hercules tanker planes. Unlike ordinary amphibious operations, the force is not reliant on Amphibious assault ships or other naval assets and can deploy from land bases.
"These SPMAGTF-CRs are not viewed as replacements for MEUs or other marine forces but are instead envisioned as assets that a geographic combatant commander can call upon with little or no notice to help respond to a potential crisis or in the aftermath of an attack or humanitarian crisis," wrote Andrew Feickert, a specialist in military ground forces for the US Congressional Research Service.
The SPMAGTF-CR was forward deployed to Africa in December 2013 in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. Marines arrived in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on four MV-22B Ospreys to protect US citizens being evacuated from the conflict in South Sudan. The deployment was the first demonstration of the SPMAGTF-CR concept for the US Marine Corps.
The US Marines are also playing their part in the US's "pivot" strategy in Asia by deploying more forces across the region. In April, over 1,000 marines headed to Australian's Northern Territory for six months as part of efforts to bolster US presence in the Asia-Pacific. Australia will make up four new MAGTFs, with the other three in Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii.
Deploying a potent force across the globe
In order to sustain their potency, the Pentagon is investing in several equipment projects which will improve the capability of the US Marine Corps for years to come. This includes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - which will replace the ageing AV-8B Harrier - a new Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter and America-class amphibious assault ships.
Marine commanders have identified several priorities for the FY2015 budget as funding for the service decreases from $24.2bn to $22.8bn. In his 2014 report to Congress on the posture of the US Marines, General Amos described the ACV as his "top acquisition priority".
"This program is critical to our ability to conduct surface littoral maneuver and project Marine units from sea to land in any environment; permissive, uncertain, or hostile," Amos said in his report. "The Marine Corps requires a modern, self-deployable, survivable, and affordable amphibious vehicle as a once-in-a-generation replacement for the existing Amphibious Assault Vehicles."
A highly-capable amphibious vehicle is the cornerstone of the US Marine Corps' expeditionary ethos. But the pursuit of a replacement for the ageing AAV-P7/A1 platform has run into several problems. It was originally envisioned that the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle - capable of being launched at sea without the need for landing craft - would be its replacement. But in 2011 that programme was cancelled and the Marines are now pursuing an incremental ACV acquisition, which will first involve the purchase of off-the-shelf vehicles and then dedicated platforms. "Moving incrementally forward is probably the sensible thing to do," says Scharre.
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Transforming the Marines combat aviation element
Another top priority is the transformation of the US Marines' combat aviation element. Over the next few years, the service will transition from 13 types of aircraft to just six. The showpiece of this transformation is 340 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters which will eventually replace the AV-8B Harrier jump jets. The service sees the F-35B - which will reach Initial Operational Capability next year - as critical in conducting future expeditionary missions.
The ballooning cost of the F-35 programme has led some to suggest that the Marines should do away with advanced fixed-wing fighters altogether. But that argument isn't new and, for the time being at least, it is a debate which the US Marine Corps is winning.
The MV-22B Osprey is replacing the Corps' last remaining CH-53D Sea Stallions, while the CH-53E will be replaced with Sikorsky's brand new heavy-lift helicopter, the CH-53K. Also, as part of the H-1 upgrade programme, the UH-1N Twin Hueys and AH-1W SuperCobras will be replaced with the AH-1Z Viper and the UH-1Y Venom helicopters.
Another priority for marine commanders is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a joint effort with the US Army to replace the Humvee vehicle with a significantly safer and advanced vehicle.
While the US Marines do possess some unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, there are currently no plans to develop and acquire offensive drones like the Reaper or Predator which could operate from an amphibious assault ship.
The reason for this is a point of some contention. According to Scharre, "they're not really talking about it, and I'm not sure why, it seems like a sensible thing to look into." "That would give them a significant capability. To have that kind of loitering, surveillance and close air support - which has been very valuable in Afghanistan - with them all the time," he said.
Reducing personnel post-Afghanistan
Like the rest of the US military, the Marines have had to make their decisions on force structures and equipment programmes in the light of painful, and ongoing, budget cuts. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the ranks of the service swelled to nearly 202,000 personnel.
Today, that is unaffordable and commanders are taking active steps to reduce force levels. The plan is to reduce personnel numbers to 182,000, but that could reduce to 175,000 if sequestration kicks in again in 2016.
The effects of falling budgets will be felt by the US Marine Corps for the foreseeable future. Clearly it affects every facet of the organisation, from manning levels, equipment to be procured and, ultimately, how US Marines are structured to deal with global crises. The question is how fiscal uncertainty will ultimately affect the US Marine Corps globally and whether the questions surrounding the service's relevance will grow.
For now at least, the US Marine Corps remains one of the most elite forces in the world with an unrivalled global reach