Naval Infantry and the GWOT

John Cole points to former President Bill Clinton’s remarks on Larry King last evening about the war in Iraq. He draws especial attention to this:

But in a way, the fact that we have now succeeded with this strategy also shows its limits, because we don’t have the troops to do this all over the country.

And it shows you that ultimately this is a political problem that has to be solved by the Iraqis themselves. Furthermore, I don’t see any alternative consistent with the responsibilities for national security to a substantial withdrawal of troops this year, because the military is so overstressed.

If we had a big national security emergency now, we would be virtually compelled to meet it with Naval and Air Force forces, because the Army, the Marine Corps, the National Guard, the Reserves are all overstretched, all deeply stressed. There are Naval personnel now, substantial numbers of them who have been trained in weapons fire, infantry tactics, even guerrilla warfare, trained, in effect, to be a second army because we are so overstressed.

This passage shows Clinton’s skill at the art of rhetoric. It is, however, grossly misleading. Yes, the military is stressed by the high opstempo — as it was during the 1990s when Clinton was sending them to parts unknown on missions having little if anything to do with U.S. national security. Yes, the Navy is training some people in infantry tactics. No, they’re not related.

Then-Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark directed the creation of a “brown water” force to increase the Navy’s role in counter-terrorism two years ago (“Implementation of Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Guidance—Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Capabilities.” Director Navy Staff Memorandum of July 6, 2005).

This was almost entirely a bureaucratic ploy to increase Navy funding in an era where expenditures for non-GWOT functions were a hard sell. The Defense Department was in the midst of Don Rumsfeld’s transformation effort and the recent Quadrennial Defense Review was focused on a Department that was ready to fight the terrorists. Clark’s order took heed of this environment.

See, for example, a Navy League report from June 2005:

Pentagon experts and defense analysts expect the capital-intensive Navy and Air Force to see their programs pared back — as they did in a $30 billion round of budget cuts over the next six years that were handed out in December — and redirected toward the Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces. A classified analysis in April by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff, for example, suggested the Navy’s planned aircraft carrier fleet of 11 ships be reduced to 10 and the savings used to pay for new capabilities.

Where the services were vocal about their particular agendas and out to protect select capabilities in previous QDRs, Rumsfeld is running the show this time and parochial schemes have largely been subsumed.

Meanwhile, the Navy has drafted a new strategy of its own: “Navy’s 3/1 Strategy: The Maritime Contribution to the Joint Force in a Changed Strategic Landscape.” This narrative captures ideas that senior service officials have expressed since January when Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, declared the Navy was not well suited to deal with challenges of the future.

The Navy is working to figure out what changes are in order for its blue-water fleet, which is designed to fight a conventional enemy on the high seas. Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Navy prepared for two major theater wars with the expectation that all other missions — from humanitarian relief to peace-keeping to counterterrorism — could be accomplished with the organizations, equipment and skills at hand.

Prepared by the Navy’s Information, Plans and Strategy staff at the Pentagon, the draft strategy acknowledges that the likelihood of major war on the high seas has significantly diminished. While maintaining the ability to conduct a major combat operation the Navy must be prepared to deal with a wider array of maritime security operations, including stability operations, the global war on terrorism (GWOT) and homeland defense.

The draft strategy anticipates a “limited number” of new requirements will take shape to fulfill these missions, and that some existing capabilities will need modification to keep them relevant in the new strategic landscape, “while other capabilities will need to be expanded in scale to meet the challenges of the post-9/11 security environment.”

To enhance its ability to contribute to the GWOT category, the Navy will enhance its theater security cooperation. “The maritime dimension of the GWOT — the ability of terrorists to exploit the seas — requires the U.S. Navy to operate in a manner analogous to that of the British Navy in the 18th century during its campaign against piracy,” the strategy states. The idea is to improve the proficiency of navies around the world at policing their own regional waters, freeing the U.S. Navy to work elsewhere.


The Navy, accordingly, is planning to adjust its near-term investment strategy to better handle future missions in the global war on terrorism, a move that service officials hope will anticipate recommendations from the QDR. The service is boosting spending on technologies and programs that will improve its ability to conduct network-centric operations and fund the first of a new fleet of expeditionary logistics ships that can be used as floating bases to launch thousands of ground troops and their equipment ashore.

“That’s exactly where we’re looking to fund,” said Vice Adm. Joseph Sestak, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs.

The effort continues under Clark’s successor, Admiral Mike Mullen, making the hard sell to Congress in 2006 and earlier this year.

As retired Captain Patrick Roth notes, this is merely the Navy getting back to its roots rather than some radical departure.

Up until the 1970s, competency as naval infantry—sailors performing as infantry, and sometimes providing land based artillery support—was an integral part of the Navy’s operations and mission.

· The use of sailors as infantry (and as artillerymen ashore) was common during the 19th century. At sea boarding was a recognized tactic. Likewise, landings and operations ashore were normal. Marines were a minority and landings were generally a ships company evolution, i.e., involving both marines and sailors.

· Use of sailors as infantry was part of the late 19th century great debate by naval reformers over the direction of the Navy. The debate centered on how to best use “our officers and men as efficient infantry and artillerymen,” not around the desirability or utility of use of sailors as infantry. Everyone in the Navy accepted that the use of sailors as infantry was a required Navy’s competency.

· Sailors performed as infantry a lot: at least 66 landings and operations ashore on distant stations during the 19th century; 136 instances in the Caribbean and Central America during the first three decades of the 20th century; numerous times on China Station and elsewhere. Using sailors as infantry ashore was what the Navy’s primarily did during the Seminole Wars and the War with Mexico. It was the Navy’s most valuable contribution during the Philippine Insurrection. Operations ranged from election security, pacification, peacekeeping, land convoy escort, protection of roads and railroads, occupation, and guard duty to large-scale major combat operations against regular Army forces.

The SeeBees and other Navy personnel are performing ground functions in stability operations around the world, including the Horn of Africa, and they’re performing Vietnam-style riverboat patrols in Iraq. They’re also performing other jobs well within their existing capabilities, as announced last February:

The additional sailors will take on existing roles in the combat arena as medical corpsmen and in special operations roles, with more SEAL teams in some cases, [Adm. Mullen] said.

Other duties will include security roles, with some 500 sailors expected to take over operations at a prison inside the country, Mullen said. He would not say which facility the sailors would take over.

While not giving specifics, Mullen said sailors with expertise in disposing of explosive ordnance will also be brought in. Such teams are used in disposing of the countless weapons caches found in the country as well as assisting in roadside bomb removal.

This isn’t a measure of desperation but merely a realignment of the force to perform real-world missions of the type that will likely be the norm for years to come. This is long overdue.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    Go Navy! Beat Army!

  2. Anderson says:

    Okay, but is Clinton’s point — that we don’t have Army, Marine, NG, or Reserve forces to meet any emergency threat — correct?

    Because I don’t know, and the answer to that seems more significant than any detail about Naval infantry (didn’t those used to be called “Marines”?) or whatever.

  3. spencer says:

    You going to bring back the tall ships too?

  4. Andy says:

    as it was during the 1990s when Clinton was sending them to parts unknown on missions having little if anything to do with U.S. national security.

    This is a sadly amusing rehash of Gingrich et al.’s talking points from the mid-90’s, but it seems fairly ridiculous now. You’re comparing the relatively quite peaceful, small, and short term deployments of the military during the Clinton administration to the overlong, dangerous, and repeated deployments of the Iraq war?

    Good grief.

  5. Andy says:

    Okay, but is Clinton’s point — that we don’t have Army, Marine, NG, or Reserve forces to meet any emergency threat — correct?

    It is fairly correct. The troops that are currently at home are basically occupied with retraining, resting, and rebuilding. In an ultra-extreme scenario, such as a land invasion of CONUS, they would certainly be available. However, they are not combat ready for deployment to a new theater in any sort of reasonable time frame.

    Perhaps even more important is the logistics issue: there is a severe lack of usable materiel for the ground forces. Everything is getting chewed up in Iraq.

    Luckily, most of the potential threats (even serious ones like an invasion of Taiwan) could and would be countered by Air Force and Navy power. However, it seems foolish to lack a standing emergency reserve of ground forces, especially more than 4 years into an occupation. This failure to expand the ground forces is criminal negligence.

  6. Anderson says:

    It is fairly correct.

    Then Clinton’s wonkish desire to show off his intimate familiarity with matters of which he is ignorant, while a typical character flaw of his, doesn’t seem terribly important (though it IS exactly the kind of thing I’m happy to see a blog post correction for, b/c blogs are wonderful for the Not Terribly Important).

  7. The Other Steve says:

    It is, however, grossly misleading. Yes, the military is stressed by the high opstempo — as it was during the 1990s when Clinton was sending them to parts unknown on missions having little if anything to do with U.S. national security.

    Isn’t this grossly misleading? The military is stressed to a much higher degree today than at any time during the 1990s. Even though we had deployments of Guard and Reserves during the 1990s for operations in Kosovo, we did not have nearly as large of a number deployed, and we certainly were not extending tours of duty like we are today.

    I think I’m going to write a two page diatribe about how James Joyner is grossly misleading in attacking Clinton.