Forcing Design or Designing Force? The Reinvention of the Marine Corps
By Will McGee
Under Commandant Berger, the United States Marine Corps has embarked on a once-in-a-generation reinvention to prepare it for the next few decades of conflict. Over the last three years, the Corps has made dramatic changes to the structure of its operating forces and the equipment with which they will fight. It has jettisoned its tanks and is slashing its conventional tube artillery, amongst other significant changes. These changes, known as Force Design 2030, include the development of new operating concepts it believes will prepare it to win the next conflict.
These changes have been controversial. As detailed by Jim Webb, twenty-two retired Marine four-star generals, including every single living former commandant, signed a non-public letter of concern to Commandant Berger. One of the signatories estimates that over 90% of retired Marine general officers are “gravely concerned about the direction of the Corps.” Bing West, General Jack Sheehan, and John Schmitt have condemned Force Design 2030. Legendary Marine General Paul Van Riper took to the pages of the Marine Corps Times, describing these changes as “jeopardizing national security” and turning the Corps into “a mere shadow of what was once a feared fighting force.”
A response to this criticism has been that the current Marine Corps must adapt for the next generation of combat, like every other generation of the Service. But are these changes premature? What are the Corps’ new operating concepts, and how do they hold up when compared to the tactics used in the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for the Department of Defense to prepare for a return to great power competition as a result of revanchist Russian behavior and increasingly assertive territorial claims made by China in the South Pacific.
While the Department of Defense’s focus had been on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese military optimized its capacity to contest American military actions. The Department’s old ways of doing business, designed for counterinsurgency and nation-building in the Middle East, were not believed to apply to a maritime campaign against a conventional adversary. Thus, the designation of great-power conflict as the priority for the Department of Defense marked a significant shift for the military services and led to the articulation of new priorities for system development and acquisition, force structure, and operating concepts.
The Marine Corps, a service whose sea-going roots formed much of its pre-9/11 role within the Department of Defense, morphed into a mid-weight force primarily focused on expeditionary ground operations due to the Global War on Terror. However, as the Corps pivoted from its service in Iraq and Afghanistan towards the new geopolitical reality, it, like the rest of the Department, found itself unprepared for what would be its role in a conventional conflict with a peer adversary.
History of Force Design
The shift away from ground operations began under General James Amos’s2010-2014 tenure as Commandant of the Marine Corps. Amos called on the Marine Corps to return to its amphibious roots and emphasized partnership with the Navy on key shipping projects to ensure continued amphibious capability. His Expeditionary Force 21 called for the service to explore using expeditionary advanced bases, or military sites spread out across the potential battlefield, as a part of a broader naval campaign. This distributed approach responded to the Chinese development of anti-access/area-denial capabilities. These bases were intended complicate targeting by enemy forces by distributing American resources, weapons, and service members, as well as serving as a launchpad for Marine Corps aviation assets and anti-ship and anti-air systems.
Amos’s successor, General Dunford, continued the focus on preparing the service for amphibious operations given the advent of new anti-ship missile technology that complicated the Marines’ traditional amphibious doctrine. This entailed a service-level exercise plan to develop a greater understanding of joint integration capacity and a program of experimentation for new operating concepts to inform plans for force development.
When General Dunford was promoted to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his replacement, General Neller, implemented the experimentation plan. Recognizing that Chinese military developments threatened the service’s amphibious doctrine, Neller maintained his predecessor’s focus on naval integration. This led to the development of a new Marine Operating Concept, published in 2016. This document called for the evolution of the Marines’ cornerstone formation, the Marine Air Ground Task Force, and continued experimentation to develop the force. This experimentation took form in exercise SEA DRAGON 2025, resulting in relatively minor personnel and equipment changes to tactical units.
Significant changes were on the horizon for the Marine Corps, announced with the publication of General David Berger’s Commandant’s Planning Guidance in 2019. Berger announced that his top priority was preparing the Corps for great power conflict. To that end, this Guidance canceled all previous policy documents and announced that the Marine Corps would act as an extension of the naval fleet in a future conflict. In his view, adversary advances in long-range precision fires had made closer integration with the Navy “an imperative.” Thus, the Guidance called for the development of the force in response to this threat. In this document, Berger presented two conceptual advances, titled Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and Stand-In Forces, and stated that the service would undergo significant structural changes in the coming years.
These structural changes were addressed nine months later in Force Design 2030, published in March 2020, to provide an update on the sweeping changes he would institute. The document announced that the Corps would eliminate its tank battalions, divest three-quarters of its cannon artillery batteries while almost tripling the number of its rocket artillery batteries, and simultaneously shed a fifth of its infantry battalions and decrease the size of those that remain. Berger remained poised to shift the organizational structure of the force as well, highlighting experimentation around the Marine Littoral Regiment formation. Finally, the document continued calls for a mobile long-range anti-ship missile to procure a maritime strike capability that previously did not exist in the Fleet Marine Force.
Force Design 2030 provided an update on the first two phases of Berger’s Force Design process. The document states that these changes were based on reasoned assessments of the equipment sets and personnel structures most likely to succeed in a maritime amphibious campaign. The project’s third and fourth phases will focus on implementing these changes and experimentation to continue refining the operating concepts that outline how the Corps will fight the next war.
Operating concepts are the plans for how a military force will achieve its objectives. Every aspect of the service’s training, equipment procurement, doctrinal development, and personnel policies are intended to support these operating models. Thus, General Berger’s decision to make force structure decisions concurrent to the development of these operating models should highlight the urgency with which these changes occur and the speed with which they have been developed and implemented.
General Berger’s Force Design 2030 is based on the two operating concepts he introduced in the Commandant’s Planning Guidance: “Stand In Forces” and “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.” Having outlined the history of Force Design, this paper will next describe and evaluate these operating concepts.
Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations
Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations seems little more than a twist on the Corps’ decades-old responsibility for the “seizure or defense of advanced naval bases,” except that the bases in this operating concept are intended to play an affirmative role in a maritime campaign rather than serve as supply or logistics site supporting fleet operations. While the advanced base concept is an old one, it appears to have taken form again in the late-2010s. First publicly outlined in Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations: Considerations for Force Development and Employment and later refined in the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, these documents outline the ideas and planning considerations for further experimentation with the operating concept.
Driven by the assumption that China’s precision-strike regime imperils current permanent military facilities in the Pacific and thus that in the event of war, they would be destroyed, the expeditionary advanced base operations concept seeks to supplement or replace these capabilities. By spreading the force across a series of smaller bases rather than concentrating it at a few large facilities, the concept seeks to complicate its adversary’s targeting efforts and impose more significant resource costs during the initial stages of the projected war. These bases, in turn, could house anti-ship or anti-air missiles that would allow the United States to control key maritime chokepoints.
Because these expeditionary advanced bases were intended to be emplaced within the range of China’s missile systems, these bases were designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, eschewing the equipment systems and logistics train to which the Corps became accustomed over the last two decades. The low signature of these bases would make them survivable; precision fires rely on an effective targeting complex, after all, and a target that cannot be located cannot be destroyed.
These bases are explicitly intended to provide military options to policymakers in the face of Chinese expansion in the Pacific, both before the outbreak of hostilities and during a naval campaign. For example, the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations outlines a fictional possible use scenario: reinforcing a partner nation’s coast guard to contest a regional hegemon’s fishing fleet encroachment into their exclusive economic zone by creating a media narrative exposing their economic exploitation.
Heady stuff for the Marine Corps, an institution whose raison d’etre and institutional identity are built on light infantry operations. The notion that the Corps would be able to sway the global narrative in its favor pervades the operating concept, but significant barriers to successfully doing so remain. Does the Marine Corps have the institutional sociocultural knowledge and language skills to tailor messages to international audiences successfully? In its first five years of existence, the Corp’s Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group—the command which houses the personnel responsible for generating EABO’s positive narrative—called Ted Cruz a “boomer” last year. Since this organization, stationed in North Carolina and writing in English to the domestic American audience, hasn’t been able to avoid insulting a sitting U.S. Senator in its first five years of existence, is it wise for the Corps’ new operating concept to depend on its ability to influence a foreign audience positively?
Limitations of the Corps’ Information Group aside, the idea of generating a supportive media narrative will be challenging to implement in China, as the Chinese government has spent the last twenty years controlling access to the internet. In fact, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an example of how war will change access to the internet. Tiktok, the popular video-sharing application, has blocked all non-Russian content from view within Russia, effectively walling the country off into a separate information sphere.
Yet, despite that this concept envisions placing American servicemembers in the territory of another sovereign nation, explicitly to contest Chinese expansionism and control key maritime venues in advance of conflict, its authors do not believe that these bases would be seen as an escalation during what would be increasing tensions. Whether this is actually the case remains an open question. Consider the Chinese reaction to revelations that Marine special operators were training Taiwanese forces. Why wouldn’t the emplacement of expeditionary advanced bases provoke any less of a response? China has consistently pushed back against American military actions that it deems provocative.
The concept acknowledges that successful employing these bases before the outbreak of hostilities is a public affairs effort as much as anything else and, despite notable failures to control its own domestic social media presence over the past decade, assumes that the Corps would be able to spin the international media narrative to its advantage. Because these bases would be emplaced inside the adversary’s weapon range, their continued survival relies on evading the adversary’s detection once conflict breaks out. Whether this is plausible in the information age remains to be seen.
Stand In Forces
Stand In Forces is the concept intended to work in tandem with Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and describes the forces that operate from these expeditionary advanced bases. To deal with the problem of an adversary with a long-range precision-strike regime, Stand In Forces divides the battlespace into three zones of conflict.
The first zone, closest to the adversary, will be operated in primarily by autonomous vehicles. The second, further from the adversary but within the range of its weapons, will be operated in by teamed manned and unmanned systems. The final zone is outside the range of the adversary’s weapons. This zone houses equipment systems and personnel requiring logistical and maintenance support. These will reside either on temporary facilities ashore or at sea, with the systems they support traveling forward into the contested zones.
The idea is that forces in the forward zones of conflict are responsible for identifying and tracking adversary assets. At the same time, those in the rear are responsible for servicing the assets forward. The separation of zones is conceptually nothing new—merely a defense in depth as has been Marine Corps doctrine for generations.
However, what is new is the use of autonomous systems as the primary fighting assets. The increased role of unmanned systems in the last two decades of conflict was an advance in the way wars are fought; a service building itself around the idea that its primary fighting assets will be capable of making their own decisions, however, would be revolutionary. Perhaps by autonomous, the concept meant unmanned, in the way that two similar yet distinct words often blur together in the iridescent glow of a computer screen in a windowless Pentagon basement. There is a distinct difference between autonomous and unmanned vehicles. Crewless vehicles retain a link with a site from which manned operators control their movements. This requires a data link and thus a continuous electromagnetic signature. On the other hand, autonomous vehicles make all decisions, including, presumably, targeting assessments, on their own.
But the decision-making capacity of its vehicles aside, the Stand In Forces concept answers the threat of long-range firing assets by removing humans from the danger zone. The concept limits potential casualties by placing only equipment systems forward, supported by limited human-“autonomous” teaming. This has always been the benefit—and lure—of unmanned systems, a siren call belied by the military’s record of procuring advanced technology. The Littoral Combat Ships, for example, originally intended to reduce manning through increased automation, but the program has been mired in cost overruns and technology shortfalls. Likewise, the Department of Defense’s plan to develop equipment systems based on yet-to-mature technology has not exactly covered itself in glory.
The advances in unmanned ISR over the past two decades stand as a shining counterexample—but these systems are employed in clearly-defined operating parameters, well above the range of their adversary’s weapon systems. By contrast, Stand In Forces anticipates that these systems will operate well within the range of its adversary’s weapons and in a far more challenging operating environment than 25,000 feet above sea level. The concept envisions these systems operating at (or under) sea and in the littoral zone. Possible, certainly, but likely expensive and probably challenging to develop, test, and manufacture on the Commandant’s timeline of 2030.
Like Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, the Stand In Forces concept intends to persuade adversary decision-makers that the cost of continued aberrant behavior is not high enough to justify whatever benefits they intended to derive from it. Thus, the concept, as well, relies on generating a supportive media narrative to convince the adversary’s population and thus generate pressure on adversary decision-makers or persuading these decision-makers directly.
This is a Clausewitzian approach to conflict because if war is politics, convincing your opponent not to fight is the same as defeating them outright. It is also Clausewitzian in that, as Clausewitz himself said, “The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later, someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.” War means fighting, and it is not clear whether the Marine Corps’ Force Design will prepare it to do so.
Ukraine and Taiwan
Force Design 2030 began in 2019, as the Commandant surveyed the possible range of future conflicts in which the Corps might find itself entangled in coming years. At that point, the last conventional campaigns conducted by a world-class military were the U.S. invasions of Iraq in 2003 and 1990. The Commandant had limited information real-world data upon which to rest his changes of the Service. But, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided insight into how technological changes have affected conventional warfare. Although it is intended to prepare the Marine Corps for fighting in the Pacific, Force Design 2030 must be evaluated in light of these changes unless the Commandant does not anticipate that the Marine Corps would not contest threats to NATO allies. Any change to the Marine Corps’ doctrine or equipment that would weaken its ability to defend America’s partners must be reconsidered in light of the new threat to Europe.
The tactics on display in the Russian invasion of Ukraine lead one to doubt the wisdom of Force Design’s outcomes. The initial stages of the attack were characterized by heavy use of armor and artillery. The first Russian units across the border were tanks. The Ukrainians have put up a heroic resistance, using American Javelin anti-tank missiles to destroy over 200 of them and leading some observers to conclude that the era of the tank is over. But, these tanks have generally been employed without integrated fire support or aviation and no infantry alongside—the opposite of American combined arms doctrine. While heavy armor will be used differently in the future than previously, the events in Ukraine demonstrate that the tank still plays a role on the battlefield. And yet they have been removed from the Marine Corps inventory.
Likewise, artillery has played a significant role thus far in Ukraine—and conventional artillery’s use will only increase as the Russians run low on precision-guided munitions. Russian military doctrine emphasizes the role of artillery, relying on maneuver units to support fires rather than the reverse as in the American militaries. Artillery has been crucial to the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv. In a conventional conflict with Russia, we would rely heavily on traditional artillery for counterbattery fire, at the very least. While the Corps’ precision rocket assets would be helpful in this effort, conventional artillery would be crucial against a force that emphasizes overwhelming firepower.
For a conflict in which tens of thousands of rounds would be expended, the cost of precision rocket artillery would become prohibitive. The Marine Corps could afford over eighty high explosive tube artillery rounds for every rocket fired. Before conflict, how many $121,000 precision rocket rounds will the Marine Corps be willing to expend—in peacetime—to prepare its personnel? Each of these rounds is worth at least four times the annual salary of the Marine firing them. How many Marines will have the chance to train with live indirect fire before they go to war?
It is not clear to what extent optimizing the force for an amphibious naval conflict would preclude its success in a ground campaign. But, it is worth considering that some of the fundamental assumptions of Force Design’s operating concepts remain true only in naval, not ground, conflicts. Integration into a naval fires network, for example, would not be possible. On land, any command node with an electromagnetic signature would likely be targeted, so a meaningful give-and-take with a fires network would be near-suicide.
Finally, it is also worth considering what the Force Design concepts do not include: ideas that specifically relate to the defense of Taiwan. This is odd given that with expertise in naval integration, the Marine Corps would be the service likely called upon to reinforce it. The concepts’ proponents could argue that expeditionary advanced bases could be used to defend the island. Generally speaking, establishing an expeditionary advanced base on Taiwan could contribute to the island’s defense.
But it wouldn’t contribute very much. There are significant differences between establishing defensive positions in a semi-permissive environment in preparation to repel an amphibious assault, as would be required in the defense of Taiwan, and the uncontested establishment of small bases on key maritime terrain as the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept envisions.
A serious defense of Taiwan against a Chinese amphibious assault would mean establishing fixed defensive positions around possible landing sites to repel landing craft. This would require, at minimum, significant artillery assets and engineering units to build fighting positions that would survive the first round of indirect fire assets. This is a very different sort of effort than the lightly armed and mobile expeditionary advanced bases are designed for.
If one believes that Force Design was intended as a response to Chinese expansion, and if one follows the logic that the security relationship with Taiwan is the centerpiece of US credibility, what the failure to address the Taiwanese defense signals about the Corps’ expectations for how it will be employed in the Indo-Pacific is anyone’s guess.
Organizational change is difficult. Choosing one option means not choosing others. Force Design is a bold step forward for the Marine Corps, but one which was based on experience born of thirty years of low-intensity conflict and an assumption that the Corps’ most pressing responsibility in coming years would be the effort to deter China. New challenges have arisen. The last several months have revealed more information about how two conventional militaries would fight than in the preceding several decades.
The operating concepts which Force Design intends to employ contain some sound ideas, some dubious assumptions, and some optimistic projections. There is much to like in the direction the Corps has chosen to march. But, unvalidated assumptions lurk in the corners. Optimizing for naval amphibious conflict means shedding capabilities that would be useful in other contexts. And the gritty detail of those contexts have become a matter of public record since Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s borders. No wonder Force Design 2030 has been rejected by every single former commandant and the vast majority of retired senior leaders. For its project to continue, the Corps needs to explain how or, preferably, show that its post-Force Design units will be able to successfully contest Chinese aggression towards Taiwan and win a conventional fight with the Russian army.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.