The Marine Corps’ Evolving Character and Enduring Purpose


Leo Spaeder struck a chord when War on the Rocks published his open letter to the president’s nominee to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps. “Sir,” he asked, “who am I?”  Thousands of marines read the letter as well as at least one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as revealed in Lt. Gen. David Berger’s confirmation hearing this week. At a point in history where the Marine Corps finds itself on the wrong side of cost-curves relative to our potential adversaries and wedded to arguably obsolete methods of winning in a contested maritime environment, not to mention  lacking a comprehensive future vision, Spaeder’s letter could not have been more timely. The Marine Corps must continue to evolve to best serve the nation in achieving the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s goals.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy includes a Global Operating Model consisting of four layers: contact, blunt, surge, and homeland. The contact layer is designed to allow the United States to effectively compete below the level of armed conflict. In an era of great power competition, this implies forces that are capable of exposing malign behavior and countering negative competitor influence, such as what China is doing today in the South China Sea. Closely tied to these forces’ actions are those in the blunt layer, who are to deter adversary aggression, and should deterrence fail anywhere in the contact layer, quickly act on the identified malign behavior to degrade and/or deny the adversary from accomplishing its objectives. Effective deterrence comes from convincing an adversary that aggressive actions that seek to compromise U.S. national security interests, including the security of our alliance architecture, are not worth the cost in lives, money, and resources.

Contact Layer Activities conducted in contested zones below armed conflict to expose malign behavior and counter influence.
Blunt Layer Combat-credible and warfighting-oriented forces present forward to deter aggression or degrade/deny adversary objectives in a conflict.
Surge Layer War-winning forces that deliver capable mass.
Homeland Defense Layer Forces capable of defending the homeland in all domains.

Successfully operating in the contact layer requires 24/7/365 persistence, combined with ready access to support from forces in the blunt layer. It also takes close cooperation and interoperability with allies and strategic partners. As the National Defense Strategy makes clear, America’s alliance architecture is a major comparative advantage in the increasing competition with China and Russia. Marines should not think of themselves operating in the contact or blunt layers alone, or even only with the Navy. Many dozens of allies and strategic partners share U.S. interests in preserving the rules-based order.



This article seeks to contribute to a dialogue that has endured for years and has especially increased ahead of the upcoming change at the top level of the Marine Corps. We will offer a single core attribute for the Marine Corps, tied directly to the National Defense Strategy and its contact and blunt layer requirements. Next, we will explain what we believe should be the Corps’ distinguishing attributes that give us our naval purpose. Finally, we will describe the enduring attributes the Navy-Marine Corps team can continue executing in support of the new strategic guidance.

One Core Attribute

Spaeder highlights the need for service leadership to identify a single core attribute to help clarify current confusion over the Corps’ primary reason for existence. We believe that this confusion stems from multiple factors. At a conceptual level, the Corps has multiple relatively new guidance documents that appear to suggest having to be able to execute a seemingly endless list of possible mission sets. Beyond this, at a more practical, real-world level, Marines are currently engaged and/or training for a myriad of missions, such as special purpose Marine air-ground task forces, as well as the legacy large-scale amphibious joint forcible entry operation from which the Marine Corps has thus far refused to budge. These task forces currently support operations throughout the U.S. Central and Africa Command areas of operation, but are underutilized as a crisis response force, while rarely focused on specific naval missions. They are also not focused on the Indo-Pacific, the National Defense Strategy’s priority theater. Further, the Corps’ current, yet decades-old, episodically rotating Marine expeditionary unit paradigm is increasingly plagued by a lack of amphibious shipping to support reliable combatant command support. This paradigm also doesn’t possess the persistence required to consistently support contact and blunt layer requirements.

Therefore, we believe that it is necessary for the Marine Corps to reimagine and reprioritize itself. The Marine Corps’ core attribute ought to be providing the American people a naval, modern infantry-centric force that can conduct — persistently — sea control and sea denial operations in and around key maritime terrain, which includes deterring adversary forces from conducting operations which seek to undermine United States’ and allied interests. Or, in the words of Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, we believe the Marine Corps should establish as its top priority assisting the Navy in “preventing the emergence of closed regional spheres of influence” and “maintaining free access to the global commons of the sea.”

One need only look at what is occurring in the Western Pacific today to appreciate why this mission is so vital to U.S. national security. China’s island building and militarization campaign in the South China Sea was made possible because of a lack of U.S. naval forces operating within the area to prevent such actions. Over the past 12–18 months, the U.S. Navy has increased the frequency of freedom of  navigation operations in the South China Sea, but these operations have been highly transitory and often inconsequential to the persistent, gray zone nature of the conflict at hand. As a result, the marines and sailors on a transitory and locally temporary Marine expeditionary unit have been, and most likely will continue to be, a non-long-term factor in the decision-making cycle of Beijing when China’s leaders decide to make another land grab. The same will likely be the case in the minds of many countries in the region, who have increasingly come to question U.S. resolve due, in part, to a lack of consistent naval force presence.

The Marine Corps must identify ways to operate persistently throughout the contact layer, which would ultimately add a definitiveness to the gray zone operations that China employs. Simply put, if land grabbing is illegal in international waters and, as recently emphasized by the secretary of state, goes against the interests of the United States and its allies, then it certainly benefits the joint force to have a service dedicated to deterring and, if necessary, countering these littoral actions 24/7/365. Thus, instead of prioritizing the current episodic and rotating Marine expeditionary unit employment paradigm, much less the service’s large-scale amphibious assault force design foundation dating back to World War II, the Corps should create — in full partnership with the Navy — a new naval operational concept that enables persistent operations throughout the contact layer’s key maritime terrain.

Naval in Character and Purpose

Are we naval in character or in purpose? First it is important lay out a lexicon which will assist in understanding our assessment. The Marine Corps takes great pride in its naval “heritage.” This heritage defines the historical significance that the Navy-Marine Corps team has had on America’s security and prosperity. The Navy-Marine Corps Team has proven to be a powerful duo in facilitating the nation’s defense from serving on naval shipping to combat the barbary pirates to conducting amphibious assaults during World War II and in the Korean War to hundreds of amphibious operations (although not deliberate assaults) since the 1950s. This unique tandem has proven its worth to the American people repeatedly and consistently.

The Marine Corps has displayed a series of naval “characters” throughout its history. We believe that this “character” must continue to evolve to the current era of great power competition. We define “character” as the traits that describe an entity. The dominating trait that has described the Marine Corps’ naval character from a force design perspective in the past 70 to 80 years has been the conduct of amphibious assaults. We believe that this character must evolve for multiple reasons. First, at the most basic level, large-scale amphibious assaults against peer threats will likely continue to be too politically costly, just as they were when President Truman ultimately decided to employ atomic weapons to help end World War II instead of sending thousands more Americans across contested beaches on the Japanese home islands. Second, and perhaps most importantly, successfully implementing the National Defense Strategy requires the Marine Corps to think much differently about its responsibilities in the contact and blunt layers. Persistence, distributable, and littoral are among the traits that should describe the Marine Corps’ evolving naval character.

This leads us to the Marine Corps’ purpose: We identify a “naval purpose” as our reason for existence. The purpose of the Marine Corps is to be the combined arms, close-combat warfighting arm of the Navy, and we believe this purpose is enduring. The Marine Corps’ distinguishing attributes are that it is designed to operate on the land and sea as a contiguous operating environment and to be the force of choice in the contact layer, all with the goal of deterring and defeating adversary forces using the sea and land as both maneuver space and a close combat killing field. Disputed areas that are often associated with great power competition are maritime and littoral in nature. The Navy-Marine Corps team is ideally suited to control these areas across the contact and blunt layers while buying policy makers a priceless benefit of deterrence and preventing fait accompli strategies from coming to fruition in the gray zone.

The Enduring

Our overarching focus, the core attribute described above, is a force willing, manned, and equipped to operate as the Nation’s sentinels in the contact layer, dispersed throughout key maritime terrain. While the Corps’ main focus must be this core attribute, we have an opportunity to simultaneously leverage the uniqueness of the Navy-Marine Corps team in support of other key missions, including Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief and serving as additional combat power if required for operations in the blunt layer. The nation will continue to require a crisis response capability and the Marine Corps should continue to play a role, but not at the expense of its core attribute.

Specific to humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions, consider, for example, the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a type of naval force that we envision operating at the seam between the contact and blunt layer, was steaming its way from Virginia to the Middle East when the earthquake hit. Due to its organic mobility and inherent flexibility, the Navy-Marine Corps Team was quickly diverted and effectively assisted the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Southern Command. Similarly, consider in 2015 Marines conducted a long-range movement from Okinawa to Nepal to assist after another earthquake struck. We envision operations such as these, along with noncombatant evacuation operations, embassy reinforcements, and tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, continuing to be part of the Navy-Marine Corps Team’s mission set. And our forces operating persistently in the contact layer can serve as the first ones on-station to help inform subsequent actions from the rest of the joint force when such missions are required.

This same type of Marine expeditionary units can serve as a credible source of combat power if and when required. More specifically, if (and when) contact forces are required to transition into conducting blunting operations, the units can serve as timely reinforcement. One such method for reinforcement could be the utilization of the “Lightning Carrier” concept. Such a concept, leveraging sea-based aviation-delivered sensors and fires, could increase the survivability of forces in the contact layer should they ever come under attack. We can also envision future scenarios where multiple Marine Expeditionary Units could be required to reinforce forces in the contact layer, such as what occurred with Task Force 58 shortly after the 9/11 attacks.


The dialogue regarding the roles and mission of the Marine Corps in light of new strategic guidance and not so subtle attempts to downplay the service, is a much-needed discussion. Who am I? Who are we? We are a naval expeditionary service that responds when the Nation calls. We should be characterized as the service that is ready and willing to deter adversary aggression below the level of armed conflict and if need be, is combat-credible enough and supported by rapidly deployed organic forces to blunt that aggression. The Marine Corps should focus on conducting these operations in and around key maritime terrain, persistently and in a distributed manner; specifically where competitors employ a gray zone strategy. This will bring clarity to the ambiguity and uncertainty that competitors seek to employ against the United States. The Marine Corps will provide policy makers with a force that has dedicated itself to maintaining our Nation’s competitive advantage in an age of great power competition if it operationalizes the concepts outlined herein.



Gordon Emmanuel is a Marine infantry officer currently serving as a battalion executive officer.

Justin Gray is a Marine infantry officer currently serving as a battalion operations officer.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Margaret Gale