JUST IN: Marine Corps Resizing Infantry Battalions in Force Design Update

By Laura Heckmann
A Marine rushes across a runway in an exercise implementing concepts of Force Design 2030

Marine Corps photo

The Marine Corps is changing the size and configuration of its infantry battalions based on experimentation conducted as part of the service’s annual update of Force Design 2030 — the Corps’ force restructuring plan established in 2019 — service officials said.

The Marine Corps released its 2023 update of Force Design 2030 on June 5, and the service’s Infantry Battalion Experimentation effort led to one of the biggest changes the Corps has seen in the past year, an increase in infantry battalion size, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for Combat, Development and Integration, told reporters during a June 2 preview of the update.

The experimentation efforts first began with the 2020 annual update, which directed additional live force experimentation that would generate formations more capable of distributed operations, the 2023 update read. The resulting effort, known as IBX, provided “a sound foundation to make informed decisions about the future of Marine infantry battalions.”

Phase 1 of IBX held 13 live-force experiments in environments ranging from Appalachian Mountain winters to Okinawan jungle summers, according to the 2023 update. The experiments demonstrated that a battalion of 735 Marines — the initial planning size — was not “operationally suitable.”

Dropping to the minimum of 735 “essentially broke the battalion,” Heckl said. “But that’s what we wanted. We found our far-left lateral limit.” Today, that number has been adjusted to 811 Marines, he added.

The bolstered infantry unit is “lighter, mobile, distributed, more lethal” and “expanding the definition of combined arms from … kinetics to multi-domain,” said Brig. Gen. Kyle Ellison, commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

An infantryman for 30 years, Ellison said he could “only dream of having the capabilities we’re going to provide to these young men and women out there, and it’s exciting.”

Phase 2 of IBX is focused on a single unit, the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, or 3/4, “and it’s going to take us to the next level,” Heckl said.

The 2023 update indicated Phase 2 of IBX will be characterized by experiments “primarily focused on [command, control, communications, computing, cyber, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting], sustainment, sensing and lethality.”

Ellison called Phase 2 “the decisive phase of this experimentation.”

The 20-page update document included a review of the service’s activities over the last year and a look ahead on programs and systems including amphibious warfare ships, logistics, intelligent robotics and autonomous systems and industry challenges.

The fighting between Russia and Ukraine has shown autonomous systems are a “big part of the victory,” Ellison said. “Bottom line is we know we need to go into this realm.”

While the Corps has already entered the realm “significantly with experimentation,” the service needs to collate and tie everything across the entire Marine Corps and “get to decision-making at machine speed” and “automate” — not just fully autonomous systems, but a combination of automation and people, he said.

Much of the discussion surrounding robotic and autonomous systems is still “largely undefined,” Heckl said. “What is the robot doing? Is it moving logistics? Or does it kill things? If it kills things, now we’re into the whole moral discussion.”

There is much to be gained from robotics and autonomous systems, said Brig. Gen. Stephen Lightfoot, director of the Combat Development Directorate, but it will require coordination.

Relying on commanders of various regiments to “think together about what’s the right way to use the intelligence, robotics and autonomous systems” could potentially change the way they write requirements, he said. “What we don’t want is to have a whole bunch of disparate systems out there that everyone in their own lane figures out.”

The Force Design update included a litany of “issues requiring further analysis” regarding intelligent robotics and autonomous systems, including consideration of an occupational field and a strategy to integrate robotics specialties in the total force, as well as talent management strategy focused on recruiting and retaining qualified personnel.

“Formations across the total force must capitalize on technological advances to evolve from a ‘platform-centric’ to a ‘capability-centric’ approach, where intelligent robotics and autonomous systems are employed by trained specialists who contribute to all-domain operations,” it read.

The document also emphasized the importance of amphibious warships, calling them the “cornerstone of maritime crisis response,” and serving in the future as “motherships” for a variety of manned, unmanned and human-machine teamed systems.

Since 2019, three Department of the Navy studies confirmed a requirement for 28 to 31 L-class amphibious warfare ships and 35 landing ship mediums for maritime mobility, the update said. Recent readiness trends and projected ship availability rates demonstrated the need for “no fewer than 31 traditional L-class ships to ensure warfighting readiness and global responsiveness of amphibious naval forces.”

However, as National Defense has previously reported, the Navy and Marine Corps have been at odds over the procurement of amphibious ships, with the Navy expressing reservations about the landing ship medium’s survivability and Marines saying the vessels are an essential need.  

“We have to get our amphibious fleet healthy again,” Heckl said. “We are the preeminent crisis response force. And that is directly a function of amphib availability. If I say ‘accelerate,’ the one thing on my mind more than anything else is amphibs.”

Recapping the status of Force Design 2030, Heckl said the Corps is accelerating, but it remains a journey, not a destination. The Corps is “fielding things,” experimenting, iterating and “failing as fast as we can,” Heckl said. “So, I’m super excited about where we are.”

The Corps has also learned what they don’t need to change, Ellison added. “It’s not only about change, it’s about understanding what our strengths are … who we are as an institution and what we demand of our Marines. And so, as we learn, we’re also reinforced in who we are and what we stand for. And I think that’s a powerful message.”


Topics: Marine Corps News

Comments (3)

Re: Marine Corps Resizing Infantry Battalions in Force Design Update

You know what would be refreshing, just once it would be nice to hear some one, anyone say "Hey, you know what...I think we have the mix of men, weapons and tactics just about right. Yes Sir, we're locked in and on target". Yeah, just once that would be nice to's okay to have a dream isn't it ?

Brian M Foley at 9:29 AM
Re: Marine Corps Resizing Infantry Battalions in Force Design Update

So HQMC expanded the infantry battalion by . . . 11 Marines? My battalion in the early 80s was around 800 Marines. Certainly, the numerous wars since wouldn't result in a reduction in the battalion TO.

David Decherd at 12:13 PM
Re: Marine Corps Resizing Infantry Battalions in Force Design Update

I would think on a more high tech and lethal battlefield. Smaller BNs and companies not larger would be the requirement. With only as needed plug and play elements for their METT-T requirements. Platoon plus of marines could duplicate what the Army 25th ID just proved. One early placed unit equipped with with a NSM or HIMARS could block southern channel to Taiwan. Smaller units not larger survives. Had same mindset with cruise and Pershing missile units in Germany fire or destroy system as required and disperse and reassembly at rally points. Stay behind teams size of fire teams would cause havoc on Soviet horde. Large units killed by dumb cheap weapons. Small units require advance costly sensors and time to place and high cost precision weapons to kill. Think 3 man Davy Crockett crews armed with NSMs or HIMARS instead of W54 nuclear warhead. Yes the US and European nations use to trust our junior enlisted soldiers with nuclear weapons along Warsaw Pact borders stored in motor pools in small shipping crates protected by brass padlocks that could be alerted in minutes.

john A irvine at 6:33 PM
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