Small Wars Journal

Marine Corps Postmortem

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Marine Corps Postmortem

Dave Pinion

On February 8th 2040, Congress passed a law that abolished and dissolved the United States Marine Corps and merged its personnel and assets into the Army, Navy and Air Force.  It should not have come as a surprise to anyone.  After a bruising two-month war with China in which the U.S. never landed a meaningful punch, there was bound to be a reckoning across the entire Department of Defense. 

In the decades building up to the conflict, China did not attempt to mask its military modernization nor its ambitions to displace the U.S. as the dominate power in Asia.  China spent decades studying the U.S. method of fighting and openly developed systems that exploited U.S. vulnerabilities.  The U.S. way of warfare had reached an evolutionary dead end and was easily picked apart by 21st century technology. 

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. method of warfighting had become both efficient and lethal.  The U.S. developed long range precision systems that were highly effective, minimized risk to U.S. forces, and had a disproportional adverse effect on adversaries.  However, the Chinese military recognized that the weapons and platforms built by the U.S. maximized efficiency by consolidating firepower, command and control, and mobility into a single platform which in turn made their use conditional. U.S. strike platforms had also become enormously expensive which in turn greatly reduced the total number of platforms and systems available.  These factors presented the Chinese a gap to exploit in any military conflict with the U.S.  Given the very fluid continuum of great power competition that developed in the early 2010’s, the lock step phasing and deployment model and dependence on standoff weapons made any U.S. response very predictable.  In the early 2020s it became increasingly clear that hypersonic anti-ship missiles, smart mines, and global satellite surveillance systems would allow any ship to be targeted long before a carrier strike group or an amphibious task force could get in range to conduct strike operations.

The Chinese strategy against the U.S. was simple but effective.  The Chinese forced the U.S. to pit expensive, high-value, low-density assets like billion-dollar aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and F-35s, against their inexpensive, expendable and easily reproducible weapons and platforms.  The strategy was reminiscent of the U.S. victory at Guadalcanal in 1942 where the U.S. forced the Japanese to risk irreplaceable capital ships against replaceable Navy and Marine aircraft from the unsinkable Henderson field.  The Chinese rightly realized that they could deplete the U.S. stockpile of expensive, exquisite weapons and munitions with cheap unmanned threat systems and decoys.  Since the Chinese could outrange any Navy or Marine Corps strike capability, they complicated U.S. entry into the theater by targeting every airstrip in the first island chain and every aerial refueling tanker and Navy resupply ship in the Western Pacific.

In the years leading up to the conflict, senior Marine leaders had ample opportunity to reinvent the Marine Corps “brand.”  In response to the Senate Armed Services Committee re-evaluation of service roles in peer competition, a proposal from Command and Staff College suggested transforming each Marine Expeditionary Force into a standing Joint Task Force (JTF).  The key difference between a MEF and the Marine led JTF was the dedicated strategic lift and the necessary key enablers from across the Department of Defense to allow for rapid deployment.  The JTFs were to be tailored for specific geographic regions in order to deploy quickly and win the first round in any peer conflict until war winning forces could be marshalled and deployed to theater.  This would require new and innovative methods of organization, deployment and transportation of equipment beyond traditional amphibious shipping.  Furthermore, instead of the constant rotational deployments, the new JTFs would work with the Combatant Commander’s Theater Security Plans in a manner that was strategically reassuring to partners and allies yet operationally unpredictable to adversaries by varying the size, method and duration of deployments.  But old traditions die hard.  Some senior leaders could not conceptually move past the current organization, deployment schedule and doctrine which had grown operationally predictable and technologically outdated.

Marines had once been the vanguard of innovation and adaptive thinking. However, as the technological landscape was changing, senior Marine leaders continued to spend billions on 20th century capabilities by buying new versions of old equipment like the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, the Landing Craft Utility (LCU), the CH53K, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), and Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), that offered virtually no increase in capability.  The Marine Corps became optimized for the fight senior leaders wished to have rather than the one they would actually face.

So in 2038 after Taiwan rebuffed the mainland’s attempts at peaceful reconciliation, China took the island by force in under two weeks.  The Chinese government issued a stern warning to the rest of the world that any attempt to intervene in an “internal” Chinese matter would be met with overwhelming force.  The U.S. responded predictably, by sending two carrier strike groups to the western pacific and an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) to the Philippines to launch strikes against the Chinese fleet in the South China Sea.  Having both military and commercial satellite surveillance of U.S. preparations and ship movements, China warned the U.S. ships to stay away and then unceremoniously sank both carriers and the ESG with a volley of DF-26’s as they approached.  The Chinese also launched cyber attacks on the U.S. homeland and sold all of its U.S. debt, thereby crashing the U.S. economy which was close to $35 trillion in debt.  Without a viable conventional option and wanting to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, the U.S. chose to accept Taiwan’s “reunified” status.  As a result of the economic crash, defense spending was slashed from $700 billion per year to $250 billion.  Since the Marine Corps offered no operationally relevant capabilities different from the U.S. Army, it was a luxury the struggling economy could no longer afford. 

In hindsight, the pace of innovation in relation to adversaries would prove to be the truest indicator of future success.  For years, senior leaders mistakenly made procurement decisions that merely laminated new technology onto outdated concepts of operation. The Marine Corps could have developed organizations and systems that dispersed sensors, payloads, radars and communication networks to increase adaptability and survivability.  The Marine Corps could have made systems that were easily reproducible in theater, resilient to attacks and not dependent on an airfield, refueling tanker, or ship in order to project a strike capability.  The Marine Corps could have developed the capability to use commercial sensor data from the internet of things/ocean of things for targeting.  The Marine Corps could have reorganized into rapidly deployable JTFs with equipment and organizations specific to the assigned region’s threats.  If only the Marine Corps had taken a different approach to warfighting. If only the Marine Corps had heeded the words of a young General Neller from 1985 when he wrote in a Marine Corps Gazette article, “Let us not become slaves to tradition when technology and reality make it apparent that another solution is at hand.”[i]

End Note


[i] Neller, Captain Robert B. “New Look 13-Man Squad?” Marine Corps Gazette 69, Iss. 9, (October 1985): 46-47. Not available online.

About the Author(s)

LtCol Dave Pinion, Ph.D, is a military faculty advisor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and author of the book, Do Good and Fear No Man.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government.