Key point: America's largest defense budget gives it an important edge.
America’s most famous Marine, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, coined the phrase, “no better friend, no worse enemy” to describe the United States Marine Corps. The USMC is world-renowned, but does any other country have a Corps that can compare? A breakdown of the strengths, weaknesses, and the roles of five notable Marine Corps from around the world.
If sheer size were the deciding factor, the USMC would win in a heartbeat. With an end-strength of around 186,000 (FY 2017 numbers), and around 38,000 Marine Reservists, some estimate that the USMC is as large as the next ten Marine Corps combined.
The USMC is widely considered to have the longest and hardest basic training of all the American services. At thirteen weeks long, it is indeed grueling. Recruits go through four phases of initial training, where they learn swimming survival basics, conduct rifle qualification, among other things, and peppered throughout with a great deal of physical training. Lastly, the recruits must pass The Crucible, a fifty-four-hour field training exercise in which everything the recruits have learned will be tested. Given little food and little sleep, the recruits are challenged with mental and physical obstacles.
Despite being the smallest and least funded of the armed services, the Marine Corp fields several weapon systems unique to itself. One of these is the versatile Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Using two rotatable rotors, the Osprey can hover like a helicopter, eliminating the need for a runway, and rotate it’s rotors in-flight, functioning like a fixed-wing aircraft and combining the best of helicopters and airplanes.
For a branch dedicated to the common good of the Corps, the Marines are surprisingly individualistic when compared to other branches. The Marine Corps wear the visually distinct, but highly concealing, MARPAT pattern. the MARPAT pattern is reserved exclusively for Marines and certain Navy personnel that work closely with the Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps has also started issuing a new rifle, and perhaps the best rifle in the world, the M27. The M27 was developed in tandem with the German firm Heckler & Kock as a successor to the M4/M16 family of rifles. Featuring a short-stroke piston action, the M27 is more reliable than its M4/M16 predecessors. It is also much more accurate, with an effective range of nearly 800 meters and a Minute of Arc of 2 (a measure of accuracy), compared with the M16 MOA of 4.5.
Nearly all Mission Occupational Specialties, or MOS, in the Marine Corps exist to support the infantryman. Marine air supports Marines on the ground, and organic armor and artillery simplify their support, as they do not necessarily need to coordinate with other services during combat.
At the end of the day, it’s the people that make the USMC so unique. It is the most lopsidedly male of the armed services, and the youngest—without an age waiver, you can’t join over 28 years old. Despite their youth and small size, they are formidable.
Like their American counterparts, the Russian Naval infantry’s insignia features a fouled anchor, signifying the trials and hardships that Marines face on sea and land. Russian Naval Infantry, as their Marine Corps is known as, serve in a similar role as American Marines— Russia’s expeditionary force in readiness, specializing in ship-to-shore assault operations.
Although Russian landing craft are multitude, much of their landing equipment is legacy Soviet, including a neat amphibious tank, the PT-76. Originally designed in the early 1950s, the PT-76 continues to be in active use, despite its early vintage. Due in part to a modest armor package and hollow rubber capped roadwheels, it is positively buoyant, and can ford most bodies of water, excepting rough sea conditions. Two hydrojets propel the tank in both forward and reverse, and a retractable trim vane helps to streamline the hull in the water, in addition to providing a modest amount of additional armor on land.
In the mid 1990s, American Marines and Russian Naval Infantry conducted joint exercises together in both the United States and in Russia. The Exercise Cooperation from the Sea was a disaster relief exercise that simulated the aftermath of natural disasters and aimed to improved joint relief interoperability. This series of exercises, which ended in 1998, saw U.S. Marines in Vladivostok and elsewhere in Russia, while Russian Naval Infantry got the better deal— conducting joint exercises in Hawaii.
In addition to the singularly unique VSS Vintorez and AS Val rifles, some Naval Infantry operators deployed to Crimea in 2014 were photographed with the not-often-seen OTs-14, a derivative of the AK-74. This odd-looking and rarely-seen bullpup is an even further compacted derivative of the ASK-74, and has a surprisingly long barrel for its compact size.
As a part of the Naval Infantry’s mission as a force-in-readiness, worldwide deployment is something that they are familiar with. In Syria, elements of Naval Infantry reportedly contributed heavily to the Syrian Army’s retaking of Palmyra from ISIS. According to Bellingcat, an investigate journalism site that specializes in open resource intelligence and deep fact-checking, members of Russia’s 61st Naval Infantry Brigade actively “participated in combat activities in the Luhansk Oblast in 2014.”
Seen cumulatively, the Naval Infantry’s combat experience in Ukraine and Syria contributes to its perception as a highly trained and combat effective fighting force. The 61st in particular is regarded by some as the most combat-experienced units in the Russian military.
The special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom extends to both countries' Marine Corps. Technically known as the Corps of Royal Marines, the Royal Marines are the UK’s light infantry force-in-readiness, albeit at a much smaller scale than their American counterparts, numbering some seven thousand.
Unlike the Marine Corps, the Royal Marines are arranged into battalion-sized units, each with a slightly different mission profile, ranging from cold weather combat, shore assault and raids, to direct-action operations and maritime operations.
Unlike the Marine Corps, the Royal Marines do not operate any heavy armored units. Instead, they favor lightly-armored, highly mobile platforms like Land Rover Wolf, a highly-modified Land Rover Defender, or the MWMIK Jackal vehicle. An open-top 4x4 or 6x6, the Jackal is designed for reconnaissance, fire support, and rapid assault, and trades protection for mobility and battlefield awareness.
The Royal Marine standard-issue rifle is the SA80 chambered in 5.56x45 NATO. A bullpup, SA80 assault rifle is compact platform that has had a multitude of development and reliability issues since becoming the standard issue rifle of the British Armed Forces.
In a recent move, the Royal Marines announced a significant restructuring. In addition to new uniforms distinct from those of the Army (a move done by the USMC in 2002), and trading the problematic SA80 platform for the Colt C7, the Royal Marines are moving towards employing a higher number of smaller units, in line with the approach taken by the United States Marine Corps, which maintains a number of special-operations capable units.
In addition to the smaller units, the Royal Navy is acquiring Littoral Strike ships (quite similarly to the USMC), to further enhance their world-wide, ship-to-shore amphibious capability.
Despite the significant structural changes to an organization firmly rooted in tradition, a Royal Marines spokesperson said that “there are no plans to change anything that denotes the strong history and identity of the Royal Marines, including the Green Beret.” The Royal Marines are here to stay.
The South Korean Marine Corps is large when compared to the rest of the world— as of 2018, they numbered 29,000 strong. It is also a relatively young Corps, founded in 1949. Despite their size and age, the Republic of Korean Marine Corps, or ROKMC, packs a serious punch.
ROKMC was trained by the United States and thus fills a similar role as the United States Marine Corps, equipped with armor intended to support the infantry, although they depend on the Navy and Air Force for aerial support. Like the USMC, the ROKMC is also subordinate to the Navy, which it depends on for lift capabilities.
Because of the Korean peninsula’s extensive coastline, the ROKMC plays a crucial role in the ROK armed forces. Their main mission profile is as a quick-reaction force and a strategic reserve that could support Army operations elsewhere on the peninsula. Due to both their coastline and close relationship with the United States military, the ROKMC maintains hundreds of American-derived Assault Amphibious Vehicles.
The ROKMC had developed in tandem with North Korea’s nuclear program. In 2016, as a response to North Korea’s nuclear- and conventional-missile progress, the ROKMC announced the formation of a three-thousand-strong quick-reaction “Spartan 3,000” unit. These three thousand could deploy anywhere on the Korean peninsula in under twenty-four hours in the event of a conflict with the North. Their stated purpose is “destroying key military facilities in the North's rear during contingencies,” which would almost certainly be one of the most dangerous of missions if war broke out between North and South Korea.
The Chinese Marine Corps (PLANMC) has an essentially different mission profile than that of the United States Marine Corps. Whereas the USMC is technically subordinate to the Navy, it is a distinct branch of the United States Armed Forces. Numbering around 186,000 the USMC is comparatively massive. Until a 2017 restructuring, the PLANMC numbered a minuscule 10,000.
Post-reorganization, the PLANMC tripled to around 30,000 and is a Marine Corps in the traditional sense, operating from naval ships and bases, providing port and ship security, and an assault capability. All essentially in support of the Navy. Their uniforms support this mainly littoral mission profile, which being blue and white, would be counterproductive as camouflage.
China’s relatively recent acquisition of an over-seas base Djibouti and ongoing disputes in the South China Sea point to an expanding role for the PLANMC, which seems to be gearing towards operations farther removed from China’s immediate border. The PLANMC would likely be China’s readiness force in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea, and has made a showing in joint operations with other countries, including Russia.
Significantly, the PLANMC has no combat experience to speak of. Until 2018, both American and Chinese Marines participated in joint-combat exercises in the Pacific, when the PLANMC was disinvited from participating, due to their destabilizing moves in the South China Sea.
Still, China is aware of its military’s inexperience, and appears to be trying to be making up for this deficiency by partnering more closely with the Russian Navy and Naval Infantry through their bilateral Joint Sea naval operations, where they practice and gain experience in offshore operations.
No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy
No conversation about Marines or Naval Infantry is complete without mentioning the United States Marine Corps, undeniably the largest, best-equipped, and most self-sufficient Marine force. This is due in large part to the sheer size of the DoD budget, and USMC organic armor and air elements. Still, at the end of the day, the secret strength of the USMC is its relationships. If war would break out with North Korea, China, or Russia, American Marines would no doubt be augmented by Royal Marines, the ROKMC, or other NATO allied Marine forces. Therein lies their true strength, not equipment or money, although important, but people and relationships.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on US and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture. This article first appeared last year.