The New Commandant’s Way Forward

January 27, 2015

No Service has a relationship with its chief like the Marines, and while the Service Chiefs do not exercise operational command of forces, no force is more impacted operationally by the priorities of its chief than the Marines.

As is the custom with new Service Chiefs, recently installed Commandant of the Marine Corps General Joe Dunford issued his “36th Commandant’s Planning Guidance” for 2015 last week. It is a straightforward statement of what is in essence a “command philosophy” for the Marine Corps, with clear statements of where his priorities are. Americans expect this kind of clarity from its top Marine and Dunford does not disappoint.

The document begins with nine “Enduring Principles.” None of these will surprise anyone familiar with the Marine Corps, but which Dunford and his staff found worth repeating in the document because of how widely it will be devoured. As a seapower advocate, I am particularly pleased with the seventh principle: “The Marine Corps is a naval expeditionary force.” After a decade and a half side by side with the Army in Asian land wars, this is something that must be reinforced anew. Moving then to what reads like a preface, the Commandant provides his “Intent”, which includes a bolded paragraph that reinforces his and the Corps’ disdain for the “zero-defect” mentality. This statement will be well-received, though it remains to be seen the extent to which individual Marines come to believe it. In this article, I will comment on the four sections of Dunford’s planning guidance.

Section I: The Corps, Marines, and the Future

It is interesting to note the paragraph header, in which one of the Marine Corps’ favorite descriptors—that it must be “most ready when the nation is least ready” figures prominently, properly citing a statement by the 82nd Congress. This was 31 Congresses ago, during the Korean War, a conflict that occurred when the nation was decidedly unready and in which the Marines played a pivotal role. It will be for this (the 114th) and future Congresses to decide how unready we become, and so generational debates about the need for and importance of the Marine Corps are unlikely to subside. This Commandant (and this contributor) believes that the nature of the threat and the versatility, scalability, mobility, and flexibility of the Navy/Marine Corps team will only grow in importance in the coming years, which Dunford reinforces by writing “Due to geography and demographics, the most likely locations for conflict will be in and around the littorals where our naval forces are uniquely capable of responding.”

Section II: Making Marines, Leading Marines, and Keeping Faith with Marines and their Families

This section begins with an interesting commitment to some level of psychological screening for Marine recruits, and the Service will call upon models used “…by special operations forces, law enforcement organizations, and industry.” This goal of this screening would be to increase “the quality and resistance of the force” and it seems to be a common sense initiative given what we ask of Marines every day.

It is in this section where the Commandant begins to use the lexicon of the hollow force (my term, not his) in describing senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO) and non-commissioned officer (NCO) coverage in non-deployed units. He writes:

[M]any of our units are experiencing significant gaps in the numbers of unit leaders with the right grade, experience, technical and leadership qualifications associated with their billets. The shortfalls are particularly prevalent in units that are not deployed or immediately preparing to deploy.

Non-deployed unit readiness is a key early indicator of hollowness, as it is a measure of “surge” capacity of a fighting force—especially personnel-intensive service like the Marine Corps. Dunford continues:

Today, the Marine Corps does not have the proper level of stability or cohesion in our non-deployed units. The practice of moving Marines between units to meet manning goals for deployments creates personnel turbulence, inhibits cohesion, and is not visible in our current readiness assessment tools. This personnel turbulence affects our combat readiness and our ability to take care of Marines.

I suspect General Dunford’s fellow Service Chiefs would associate themselves readily with this last statement.

Another item of interest in this section is his repetition of the sequestration era Service Chief mantra, and that is, “In this, and in all other areas, we will emphasize quality and capability; where necessary, accept risk in capacity.” While a solid, common sense approach to budgeting and resource management, it is increasingly becoming a poor substitute for the numbers and mass required of a nation with our global responsibilities in an era of growing great power antagonism. As I have written before, we are moving toward a military that can do a great number of things, but less well, to a lesser extent, and in fewer places than we have in the past.

Section III: Warfighting, Crisis Response, and Institutional Readiness

There is interesting stuff in this section, especially for those with hearts stout enough to take on the Holy Mystery of the Marine Air Ground Task Force, or MAGTF (second only to the Holy Trinity in terms of great mysteries). It seems the Commandant is taking the three Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEFs) and task orienting them, giving I MEF the main task of preparing for major operations as a consolidated operational headquarters for a combined arms force of 60,000 Marines. Secondarily, I MEF will focus on being prepared to quickly respond as a “MEF Forward” in operations sized for a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) of approximately 15,000 Marines, in more of a crisis response mode than a wartime deployment.

II MEF will take the opposite approach to I MEF, prioritizing crisis response MEF Forward responsibilities   III MEF will remain regionally oriented (PACOM) to face the full range of requirements.

While I leave it to those smarter to figure this one out, it appears that at any one time, from the three MEFS there will be two MEF headquarters fully trained and concentrating on fighting like a MEF, while there are also two MEFS that are focusing on MEF level employment. This sounds a whole lot like trying to do “more with less”, or at least do the same with less, but I could be wrong.

Section IV: Exercising and Experimenting with a Focus on Naval Integration

I was most excited to read this section and, consequently, most let down by it, in the way a Lord of the Rings fan feels about the recent Hobbit trilogy. There are plenty of statements about the importance of Navy and Marine Corps integration, but as an early fan of “Single Naval Battle”, I had hoped to see the new Commandant go farther. Properly recognizing the rise of anti-access and area denial (A2AD) threats to naval maneuver and operations, the Commandant’s guidance toes a very politic line with respect to true integration between the Navy and Marine Corps on the operational level, let alone the tactical. Commandants and Chiefs of Naval Operations are very sensitive to the prerogatives of the other, and I believe this ultimately acts as a brake on the potential that a more integrated force could deliver in terms of responsiveness across the range of military operations.

What do I mean by this? I mean the F-35B being used as an outer air battle Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) weapon and sensor by the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander, and its flexibility to be used as a ship-killer. I mean the dispersal of Marine Attack helicopters to a broader range of surface platforms to provide distinctly powerful counters to enemy surface swarming tactics. I mean the regular embarkation of Marines onboard the Navy’s new class of frigates (formerly the Littoral Combat Ship) to act a muscular maritime security force and a nifty building partnership capacity capability.

Where I did see a positive sign is in the Commandant’s commitment to closer integration with special operations forces, a natural combination given many of the things Marines and special operations forces do. No longer content to apportion that relationship to Marine Special Operations Command, Dunford believes there are significant areas for cooperation and coordination between conventional Marines and special operators.

The part of this section that got my closest attention was the Commandant’s discussion of the various issues of force structure that he will wrestle with. Clearly the Marines are not walking away from the idea of opposed beach landings, nor should they. And to that end, they are actively working to scope their next Amphibious Combat Vehicle and sufficient surface connectors to enable their employment. Additionally, like any good Marine, the Commandant has no problem stating clearly that we do not have enough ships (would that there were more of this among Navy leaders)—in this case, amphibious ships. Interestingly, the Commandant does not also reference the Marine Corps’ own lift requirement, which has changed over time based on resources available, and instead uses the rolled up combatant commander’s requirement which approaches forty ships (as opposed to the 30-33 amphibious ships programmed in the Navy’s 30 Year Ship Building Plan.)

Finally, the Commandant writes of the stand-up of the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR), which is essentially a land-based quick reaction force created in the fallout from the murder of four U.S. officials at Benghazi, including our Ambassador to Libya. No such force was available in the Mediterranean at the time of the attack, as the Mediterranean has not been a naval force employment hub since the 1990s. The Commandant makes a proto-argument for returning to the Mediterranean by extolling the virtues of the SPMAGTF-CR, but then writing “however, shore basing does not substitute for MAGTFs coming from the sea.” This is a refrain I would like to hear the Commandant repeating over, and over again.


I have yet to meet a retired Marine who is not tickled pink that Joe Dunford is the Commandant. His out of the chute guidance bespeaks a serious man dedicated to improving the serious business of our Marine Corps. Tight budget times cut both ways for the Marine Corps, with some recognizing the great deal the nation gets in terms of return on investment, and some making the tired argument about “two land armies”. With Dunford’s dedication to experimentation, to further integration with the Navy and SOF, and to warfighting excellence, the smart money would move toward the former and disregard the latter.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group and is the Deputy Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.