MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Marine Corps is at a crossroads. The so-called Soldiers of the Sea have been fighting on land for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Corps' amphibious troop carrier has just been cancelled, its new fighter jet postponed.

And as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the Pentagon is asking a basic question: What should the Marine Corps look like in the 21st century?

TOM BOWMAN: The Marine Corps has made a name for itself storming beaches. Places like the Barbary Coast and Veracruz, Iwo Jima and Incheon.

Mr. LOREN THOMPSON (Defense Analyst): For many years now, its core mission has been forcible entry, meaning going ashore in the face of hostile fire to claim enemy beaches and then push inland quickly before defenders regain their balance.

BOWMAN: Defense analyst Loren Thompson says those days may be over. That's because Defense Secretary Robert Gates has done something that pirates in the 19th century and Japanese troops in World War II couldn't do - he has the Marine Corps reeling.

Gates stopped the Marines from going ahead with their Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy warplane. And Gates canceled the Marines' amphibious troop carrier, known as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle or just EFV.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): The EFV originally conceived during the Reagan administration, has already consumed more than $3 billion to develop, and will cost another $12 billion to build.

BOWMAN: That's a lot of money to get a few thousand Marines on the beach. So the Marines will update their decades-old amphibious troop carrier instead.

The cuts and delays to the Marine Corps' budget are symbolic of a larger debate about the role of the Marine Corps in future warfare. Many potential adversaries have sophisticated long-range missiles that could strike the Marines in their landing craft long before they reach the shores. So Gates already has said it's unlikely the Marines will be hitting the beaches like they did at Iwo Jima.

And Loren Thompson says that raises questions about the relevance of the Marines.

Mr. THOMPSON: If the Marine Corps is no longer going to do opposed landing on enemy beaches in the face of hostile fire, then its role will be significantly diminished in the future.

BOWMAN: The Marines publicly dismiss talk they're becoming less relevant, and say that attacking enemy beaches is just one of their jobs. Their senior officer, General Jim Amos, said recently they've been busier than ever.

General JIM AMOS (United States Marines): Since 9/11, U.S. amphibious forces have responded to crises and contingencies at least 50 times, a response rate more than double during the entire period of the Cold War.

BOWMAN: That includes everything from Marines fighting Taliban fighters, to helping Pakistanis caught up in massive flooding last fall.

The ability for Marines to float offshore and quickly repsnd, says retired Marine General Chuck Krulak, offers any president a way to influence events.

General CHUCK KRULAK (United States Marines): They can remain over the horizon, they can come on to the horizon and be seen and increase the pressure, or they can come ashore.

BOWMAN: And that physical presence, Krulak argues, cannot be replaced by high-tech weapons.

Gen. KRULAK: A B-2 bomber flying at 60,000 feet is not a presence, it's nothing more than contrails in the sky.

BOWMAN: The Marines may argue they're irreplaceable. But Defense Secretary Gates has suggested cutting their numbers and not just their weapons. Gates wants to reduce the Corps by some 15,000 to 20,000 in the coming years. Defense analyst Gordon Adams says that's a higher proportion than the cuts Gates has called for in the Army.

Mr. GORDON ADAMS (Defense Analyst): My view would be that the Army deserves to be significantly cut rather than the Marine Corps.

BOWMAN: Adams worked on Pentagon budgets in the Clinton administration and thinks Gates' cuts are ill-conceived.

Mr. ADAMS: His decisions have by and large been driven by technology, cost and efficiency.

BOWMAN: But not by strategy, says Adams. He says the Marines are more agile than the Army and cost less. They can handle a range of missions - everything from training foreign militaries to fighting insurgents.

The Marines have no trouble speaking for themselves. In the coming weeks, they'll outline to Gates why they're still relevant.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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