In a recent message to the force, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith urged all Marines to spend at least part of their careers in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command theater of operations, which includes Japan, Guam, the Philippines, and Australia.
“If you haven’t done a tour in the Indo-PACOM, your career, your professional development [is] not yet complete,” Smith said in a video along with Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz. “You need to go. It’s a great place to be.”
While Smith did not say explicitly that Marines assigned to units in the Pacific will be more competitive for promotions than those in other combatant commands, whenever the commandant speaks, commanders listen.
Marine Maj. Joshua Larson, Smith’s spokesman, told Task & Purpose that where Marines are stationed does not affect their promotion status. The process for promoting Marines, he said, looks at skills and other factors, but not duty stations.
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“Official policy announcements are released via official USMC communication channels and not via social media,” Larson told Task & Purpose. “CMC’s [the Marine Corps commandant’s] comments were simply a result of his recent visit with Marines at III Marine Expeditionary Force, U.S. Forces Japan, and U.S. Forces Korea, where he witnessed and received positive feedback from forward-stationed Marines training and operating in the Indo-Pacific theater. We measure all Marines based on their skills, talents, and merits.”
Still, Marine Corps commandants’ don’t typically think out loud. Their public comments are commonly taken as guidance and direction for the force. Smith’s comments may sound familiar to Marines who remember then-Commandant Gen. James Conway’s January 2007 statement that struck some as akin to an order to deploy: “Every Marine into the fight.”
At the time, the Iraq war was the U.S. military’s highest priority, and American service members were starting to pour into the country as part of the surge. Conway wrote in a Corps-wide message that all Marines should have the opportunity to fight.
“I want our Corps’ leadership to initiate policies to ensure all Marines, first termers and career Marines alike, are provided the ability to deploy to a combat zone,” Conway wrote.
The Marine Corps is currently in the midst of a massive force structure overhaul meant to make it light and lean enough to fight a 21st Century version of World War II’s island hopping campaign against China.
In 2022, the Corps activated the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment in Hawaii, and it expects to stand up other such units on Okinawa on Guam. In a war with China, the Marine Littoral Regiments would likely deploy to remote Pacific islands and attack enemy ships.
Each regiment will be made up of roughly 2,000 Marines and they are expected to be armed with anti-ship missiles that have a range of up to 115 miles. The Marines have also submitted a request for Maritime Strike Tomahawk missiles, which would allow them to sink ships up to 1,000 miles away.
Smith’s comments about the Indo-PACOM theater should not be interpreted as a new directive on Marines’ career paths, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
Instead, Smith was likely speaking in general terms about how the Indo-Pacific region is a much bigger and different environment than other parts of the world where Marines operate, and that is why he is encouraging Marines to gain experience from working in that theater of operations, Wood told Task & Purpose.
“The Corps’ interests and reputation lay in succeeding across the board,” Wood said. “That might change, of course, but at present I don’t think Smith meant to imply harm to career if one doesn’t serve in the Pacific or that other theaters and commands should be seen as lesser assignments. Bad guys with bullets are as dangerous in Syria as they would be in the jungles of the Philippines.”
However, the Marine Corps is also in the process of returning to its roots as an amphibious force following years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when it served as a smaller version of the U.S. Army, said Katherine Kuzminski, director of the military, veterans, and society program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.
The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept, or EABO, which calls for deploying small teams of Marines to temporary operating bases, is also geared to the geography of the Indo-Pacific region, Kuzminski told Task & Purpose. In fact, an August 2021 Marine Corps news release referred to EABO as a “modern island hopping campaign.”
Smith’s comments about Marines needing to spend time in the Indo-Pacific region may not be a change to Corps’ policy, but it can affect promotion board members’ personal preferences when they look at a slate of candidates, Kuzminski said.
The formal guidance for promotion boards is outlined in board precepts, but individual members may look more favorably on an officer with EABO experience in the Pacific than another officer based on the East Coast, she said.
“There’s a lot of art to board selection beyond the science of what the precepts say,” Kuzminski said.
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