Future of the Marines: Forces to Undergo Transformative Changes

By Connie Lee

U.S. Marine Corps photo by LCpl. Angel D. Travis

As the Pentagon looks to shift its warfighting strategies to fight near-peer competitors Russia and China, the Marine Corps is planning to revamp its force structure to prepare for operations in the Indo-Pacific region.

In March, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger released a report detailing his force structure plan titled, “Force Design 2030.” The long-awaited blueprint focuses on divesting some of the service’s legacy capabilities and reducing infantry battalions and tanks to make way for new systems. Future fights will also require the use of smaller, more affordable amphibious ships, the report said.

“I am convinced that the defining attributes of our current force design are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps,” Berger said in the report. “Our current force design, optimized for large-scale amphibious forcible entry and sustained operations ashore, has persisted unchanged in its essential inspiration since the 1950s.”

Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the service underwent a similar large-scale change in the 1930s and 1940s with the publication of the “Small Wars Manual and Tentative Manual for Landing Operations.” As Japan began expanding its presence in Asia, with moves such as conquering Manchuria, the service adjusted its warfighting strategies to focus on amphibious operations.

“Since the 1940s, the Marine Corps is inextricably linked to the idea of amphibious assaults and big amphibious warships that the Navy puts out there,” said Wood, who served for two decades as a Marine. “What we’re seeing today is the Marine Corps doing somewhat what it did in the 1930s. ... They’re looking out into the world and they’re saying,

‘What are the big challenges facing the United States and threatening U.S. security interests?’”

The service has spent nearly the past two decades fighting land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, it needs to be able to operate from within China’s weapons engagement zone and examine issues such as how to get a carrier battle group close enough to attack its targets, Wood noted.

“Without that capability, the U.S. Navy is operating from the outside,” he said. “Up to this point, a country like China can operate almost unmolested, unchallenged, within the range of its weapons, and so it has dramatic freedom of movement.”

Because of the service’s recent focus on the Middle East, many Marines have not been exposed to amphibious operations, Wood noted.

“This focus on the Indo-Pacific distributed operations and littoral environment is going to really change the mindset of the Corps,” he said. “It’s going to introduce a lot of Marines who really don’t have amphibious experiences to draw from ... into that world.”

This will require a change in how it trains and organizes, according to the force structure plan.

“Such a profound shift in missions, from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor, necessarily requires substantial adjustments in how we organize, train and equip our Corps,” Berger said in the document.

The service hopes to invest in expeditionary long-range precision fires; medium- to long-range air-defense systems; short-range air-defense systems; high-endurance, long-range unmanned systems; electronic warfare; and lethal strike capabilities, the report said.

“We must acknowledge the impacts of proliferated precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart weapons, and seek innovative ways to overcome these threat capabilities,” Berger said in the document.

The Marine Corps has “over invested in” capabilities such as tanks, towed cannon artillery, and short-range, low-endurance drones incapable of employing lethal effects, the report said. The service wants to eliminate at least two light attack helicopter squadrons, three law enforcement battalions and reduce its reliance on amphibious combat vehicles.

It also wants to increase investments in training and education.

This divestment in capabilities seems to reflect the current budget environment, Wood noted.

“The Marine Corps’ planning assumptions are flat budgets, or even declining budgets,” he said. “With a mounting national debt, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the toll that that’s taken and all these other things, they are not expecting any additional money at all. … That’s why we see these recommendations for plans for cutting things.”

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request contained some indications of these changes. The administration proposed cutting Marine Corps funding by $1.4 billion and reducing the size of the active duty force by about 2,300 Marines relative to this year. 

Berger said the service needs to “contract the Marine Corps to some degree — we’re not sure exactly how much. ...We’re large right now compared to where, historically, we’ve been.” The service doesn’t have large, expensive ships. Instead, “we own people, that’s where our money is.”

If enacted, these cuts would come from headquarters reductions instead of operational units, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Adm. Randy Crites said during a Pentagon press briefing.

“The reduction of active Marine Corps end strength is part of a larger reform initiative aimed at internally generating resources through divestitures, policy reforms and business process improvements to reinvest in modernization and increasing lethality,” the budget documents said.

Future budget requests beginning in fiscal year 2022 will reflect these major force structure adjustments for the Marine Corps, Berger said in March prior to the report’s release.

This year’s request did not have large changes, he noted.

“You’ll see a few things in this budget that give you a window into the direction that we’re headed,” he said during remarks at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “Next year, the year after that, the year after that, [there will be] much more fundamental changes in terms of … getting rid of some things that are legacy and investing in things that we don’t have right now.”

This is not the first time the service has made cuts to its force, Wood noted. Following the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration, the service slashed its infantry battalions from 27 to 24. The service’s new force structure plan trims this number down to 21. Cutting these units would free up operations-and-maintenance dollars that could be used for other initiatives, he said.

Additionally, the Marine Corps wants to eliminate all of its seven tank companies, according to the document. Instead, the service will rely on the Army for heavy ground armor capability. Wood said this move is indicative of the Marine Corps’ shift to focus more on the Pacific region, noting that heavy tanks would not be appropriate for such an environment.

“They’re looking at the operating environment of the littorals in the Indo-Pacific region and really questioning, ‘Well, how would I get tanks there to begin with, and what does the tank really give me in terms of usable capability on some island someplace?’” Wood said.

In recent months, Berger has also been pushing for greater integration between the Marine Corps and the Navy to counter China’s increasing aggression.

“We had different tasks to do and we did them very, very well,” he said at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference. However, “for the next 20, 30, 40 years, we must do a different task, and it has to be integrating [our forces] — not out of sentiment, but out of reality.”

The service is carrying out its force structure plan in four phases, which have already begun. Phase one kicked off in July 2019 with the standing up of a small operational planning team geared toward developing the Marine Corps’ vision for a future force.

Phase two began in September with the establishment of 12 integrated planning teams focused on assessing the current force structure. Recommendations made during this phase are expected to result in $12 billion worth of savings, according to the report.

Phase three is rapid and iterative wargaming, analysis and experimentation, and phase four will focus on refinement, validation and implementation.

Moving forward, the Marine Corps seems to have “a really good idea of what they’re wanting to do and what they’re needing to do,” Wood said. Recent wargames have proven that the current force structure “doesn’t seem to have much utility” against China, he noted.

“What the wargames have shown so far is ... if I use current Marine Corps forces and Navy capabilities, how did those types of forces fare against China? And the answer is not very well,” he said.

The Marine Corps hopes to gain additional insight into how it should redesign its infantry battalions.

“While I fully support redesign of the infantry battalion in principle, I remain unconvinced that the specific proposed new construct makes the force more capable of distributed operations,” Berger said in the report. “We must conduct more live-force experimentation to ensure our proposed design results in a truly” distributed operations-capable force.

The service will also need to flesh out how it plans to use unmanned aerial systems, Wood noted. The force structure plan includes investing in UAS platforms that are able to operate from shores and ships with both information collection capabilities and lethal payloads.

These will be especially useful for conducting maritime operations, as they can assist with delivering supplies, carry cargo, conduct reconnaissance, and act as strike platforms, Wood noted. The Marine Corps is concentrating on acquiring systems that integrate with Navy platforms. Because of this, the service will need to ensure that the systems it acquires are able to fit on different types of ships, Wood said.

“Do you need different designs for your ships that support a more unmanned platform-intensive force?” he asked. The Navy and the Marine Corps will “have to figure out what those answers are here in the coming year.”

So far, there hasn’t been pushback from Congress on the plan, Berger noted. Lawmakers have acknowledged that “it’s good that a service recognized the need for fundamental change,” he said.

In March, Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, commanding general for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told lawmakers that there were about 21,000 Marines present in the first island chain in the Pacific. This refers to the section of archipelagos from the Kuril Islands and to Borneo and the northern Philippines.

The service wants them to be “organized, trained and equipped to actually impose the cost on any adversary,” he said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on seapower.

The Marine Corps will need more mobile equipment that can operate independently, he noted. For instance, this would include systems such as a joint light tactical vehicle that fires an anti-ship missile.

“We have to take it with us, have it with us at all times … as opposed to we would have to return to, for example, a base to pick up heavier, bulkier equipment,” Smith said. “We can’t do that.”

The service’s 2030 plan is flexible because it allows the Marine Corps to make changes along the way and ensure that it is not “going off a cliff,” Berger noted in December. The service plans to divest “big, heavy things” that it cannot afford to maintain.

“If we’re going to adjust the number of something we’re going to buy or field, that may be next year, it may be seven years from now,” Berger said.

Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley is working on a new joint warfighting concept, which is slated for completion this year. Berger said this construct is likely to see changes over time as each service adjusts its own warfighting concepts.

“I think that will morph … because the service doctrines, their concepts are moving,” he said. “There are great parts of each one that you don’t want to lose along the way.”

For the Navy and Marine Corps, they must ensure that they focus on concepts such as distributed maritime operations, littoral operations in a contested environment and expeditionary advanced base operations, he said.

They will address how best to counter and deter China, he noted. “You don’t want to arrest [these efforts] and you don’t want to retard them, but now you’ve got to absolutely stitch them together into a joint construct.”

Additional reporting by Yasmin Tadjdeh

Topics: Marine Corps News

Comments (3)

Re: Forces to Undergo Transformative Changes

The USMC losing to Russia and China seems possible because the USMC lacks the firepower to counter these peer nations. Small arms, infantry, towed tube artillery, and a handful of STVOLs aren't going to hold back peer nations' militaries. And since when did the U.S. Army bail out the Marines? It didn't really happen in Vietnam or Desert Storm as Marines usually operated alone.

General Berger's approach of using LRPF missiles isn't a bad idea, but what is to come off those new light amphibious ships if it weren't for medium armor and tanks? The political regime is that the USMC should have gone forth and designed their own armor outside of the U.S. Army, armor such as wheeled tank destroyers like the Centauro B2, medium tanks, "Brutus" SPH 155mm, LAV 120mm NEMO mortars, the RCV family, the NGSW, etc. That requires massive amounts of money.

The USMC will always lack the firepower of an army...that is just fact unless the USMC drastically changes. I am surprised that the USMC languished on the Zumwalt's 155mm AGSs and didn't have those guns fire something for shore battery fire. I would instead invest a lot of USMC money into a cheap RAP Zumwalt 155mm shell that can fly 100-300 miles distance (even without GPS) to at least provide some standoff shore bombardment. 2020s isn't like 1940s so supercomputers today should be able to figure out the curved ballistic path of a fired shell to fire with some degree of accuracy even without GPS shell guidance.

The "Lightning Carrier" concept might work if LHAs and LHDs group together, such as two or three LHAs together with one LHA flying F-35Bs in "Beast Mode" and the other LHA in Stealth Mode.

Cenebar at 2:35 PM
Re: Forces to Undergo Transformative Changes

As the saying goes "Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals talk Logistics”. The capacity of the Marines and US forces in general to deploy heavy equipment and sustain supplies across the Pacific or Atlantic has diminished since the end of the Cold War. In the meantime, Cold War 2 adversaries have increased their capacity to strike the transport ships and planes.
Weapons, especially armored vehicles keep getting heavier and hungrier for ammunition. For example, the Vietnam era M113 weighed just 10 tons and could be lifted by a Chinook. LAVs and Strikers are close to 20 tons. The next generation APCs will all weigh between 30 to 35 tons - beyond the takeoff capacity of a C-130 and just 2 per C-17. I note the US has not designed a new transport aircraft since the C-17 first flew in 1987… a third of a century ago.
One option is to take a High Speed Ferry such as the Austal AUTO EXPRESS 127 and double its dimensions. The resulting 800’ long 200’ wide ship would displace around 25,000 tons and carry 5,000 to 8,000 tons a distance greater than 7,000 miles at 20 knots. – enough to cross the Pacific without refueling. The ship could travel at up to 45 knots if in-transit refueling was available. Swapping cargo for fuel could also be an option.
Such a ship could deploy large numbers/tonnages of vehicles, equipment and supplied from the US mainland across the Pacific in 10 days to waiting Marines flown in ahead with light weapons. Over the jetlag, acclimatized and familiar with the terrain as well as their Pacific ally counterparts, the heavy backup in a timely manner would be a powerful deterrent.
The wide flat top of the supersized HSF would be capable of operating helicopters, and Osprey and even F-35Bs. Thus, within weight limits, unloading does not need a port. Such ships could thus be useful for amphibious assault.
The US military’s capacity to deploy and logistically sustain its forces at great distance is one of its least appreciated assets. After WW2, Admiral Nimitz wrote that winning the war in the Pacific was largely one of logistics, something that Imperial Japan never really understood. The deterrence value of “The Great American Logistics Train” should not be at the forefront of the Pacific Pivot.

Jim Schroder at 6:36 PM
Re: Forces to Undergo Transformative Changes

Very similar to the Mongols under Ghengis and Kubla Kahn. The Mongols fielded a highly trained, highly organized Light Cavalry . The Chinese built a wall to keep them out and the Mongols nearly conquered Europe. Only political trouble at home and the Mongols adopting the sedentary lifestyles of their conquered peoples prevented their rule over the known world.

Robert Wilson at 1:38 PM
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