Notes on Designing the Marine Corps of the Future
The Marine Corps is not optimized to meet the bold demands of the National Defense Strategy. While our ranks are filled with phenomenal marines — warriors who are smarter and more adaptable than ever — the design of our force, how we organize for combat, our equipment, and our warfighting capabilities, are no longer aligned to the potential adversaries America faces. My number-one priority as commandant of the Marine Corps is to design a force suited to the reality of the pacing threat as prescribed by the National Defense Strategy.
Based on a threat-informed, ten-year time horizon, we are designing a force for naval expeditionary warfare in actively contested spaces. It will be purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of fleet and joint operations. As we continue to explore design options through wargames supported by independently verifiable analysis, now is a good time to share some of the initial observations and assumptions behind our efforts, the hypotheses we seek to validate, and the preliminary conclusions we have reached on investments and divestments. I expect to release the first results of our force design effort this spring.
The rapid expansion of China’s area-denial capabilities, coupled with its pivot to the sea as the primary front in a renewed great-power competition, have fundamentally transformed the environment in which the U.S. military will operate for the foreseeable future. For the first time in a generation, sea control is no longer the unquestioned prerogative of the United States.
Beyond building peer military capabilities, China has emphasized operations below the level of armed conflict, leveraging asymmetries resulting from our differing organizations of government and society, force designs, and understanding of the laws of war. For example, a diverse set of paramilitary organizations have joined China’s traditional military units to upend Mahan’s and Corbett’s long-held theories of sea control, the result being an Indo-Pacific region increasingly, “confronted with a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic, and security interests.” While the joint force can and does compete, we must acknowledge that we will not balance every asymmetry. America’s commitment to international laws and norms will always guide our military options.
Instead, the joint force should bend the character of future war such that we regain the competitive advantage. In order to do this, the naval services must innovate to generate favorable asymmetries which present America’s adversaries with critical dilemmas. This will require new concepts and approaches to compete with, and deter, China and other potential adversaries. It will also require the naval services to operate outside our traditional comfort zone and embrace a new cooperative mindset to maximize the reach of American seapower. How can the United States integrate and leverage the authorities of the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and interagency to develop its own “cabbage strategy,” complicating Beijing’s decision cycle? How do the naval services employ this strategy afloat in partnership with allies and partners? How do we win the information battle?
The rise of a peer competitor has compelled the naval services to reexamine the fundamental assumptions upon which we have built the current force. Within the Marine Corps, existing processes for force development have too often led to unimaginative results, as we tend to become prisoners of platform-based thinking, seeking incremental improvements in current capabilities and methods. To regain the strategic initiative, the Marine Corps needs new capabilities to fight in new ways to generate new strategic options for future decision-makers.
With this in mind, our force design team made the following assumptions. First, forward bases and legacy infrastructure within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone are now extremely vulnerable. Second, large ships and those with large electronic, acoustic, or optical signatures are highly vulnerable within the weapons engagement zone, and to an increasing degree, immediately outside it. Third, adversary missile and air forces are optimized for the anti-ship fight. Fourth, while sea control or denial has traditionally been the exclusive domain of afloat naval forces, ground based long-range precision fires and missiles are increasingly capable of affecting maritime operations. Finally, sub-surface naval capabilities will continue to have a decisive advantage over surface capabilities.
While the Marine Corps must be prepared to operate across the entire spectrum of conflict, its first priority as a naval service ought to be deterrence, as the cost of competition will always be less than the cost — in both blood and treasure — of armed conflict. To align the Marine Corps with the National Defense Strategy in the context of great-power competition, the Marine Corps must be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness that is prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations. Both joint and initial service-level wargames support this hypothesis, and reinforce the conclusion that naval expeditionary stand-in forces can generate technically disruptive, tactical stand-in engagements that confront aggressor naval forces with an array of low signature, affordable, and risk-worthy platforms and payloads. Our concepts of Stand-In Forces and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations are the Marine Corps’ primary ways to deliver long-range anti-ship fires, operate sensors to cue naval and joint kill-chains, and control key maritime terrain. In concert with naval and air forces operating outside of the weapons engagement zone, these stand-in forces significantly complicate any adversary’s decision-making calculus.
Building the naval expeditionary force of the future will require an honest assessment about the relevance of both current and planned capabilities, organizations, and equipment. Initial findings from our force design-related wargames are sharpening our understanding of the investments and divestments required to align the force with the National Defense Strategy. It is increasingly clear that the Marine Corps is over-invested in capabilities and capacities purpose-built for traditional sustained operations ashore, including:
- Surge-layer capacity resident within the reserve component and the current maritime prepositioning force;
- Manned anti-armor ground and aviation platforms;
- Manned ground transportation and associated movement capabilities;
- Traditional towed-artillery that cannot be modified for potential high-velocity projectile use;
- Manned ground reconnaissance;
- Short-range mortar systems lacking necessary precision, range, and lethality;
- Non-lethal small tactical unmanned aircraft systems;
- Excess equipment maintained in administrative storage;
- Exquisite platforms with unsustainable manpower/personnel requirements; and
- Vehicles, aircraft, and systems that the service can neither afford to procure or afford to sustain over their anticipated lifespans.
At the same time, we are under-invested in naval expeditionary capabilities and capacities that support fleet operations, including:
- Unmanned lethal, low-cost, long-endurance combat aerial vehicles;
- Unmanned lethal and non-lethal ground and amphibious vehicles;
- Unmanned aerial, ground, surface, and underwater logistics vehicles/vessels;
- Mobile and rapidly deployable rocket artillery and long-range precision-fires to include anti-ship missiles;
- Mobile air defense and counter-precision guided missile systems, to include directed energy systems;
- Loitering munitions;
- Signature management;
- Electronic warfare;
- Expeditionary airfield capabilities and structure to support manned and unmanned aircraft and other systems from austere, minimally developed locations;
- Offensive mining capabilities; and
- Lethal and risk-worthy surface vessels to include large undersea vessels.
I am not so naïve to think that undertaking such a bold endeavor will be straightforward. But, the urgency of the challenge before us compels action. We will not allow a failure of imagination to define this period of our collective naval or Marine Corps history. We will continue to challenge the status quo and continue to ask all the hard questions — regardless of the discomfort they produce. We will continue to rigorously wargame — and at a much-accelerated pace to facilitate learning. We cannot and will not get this wrong.
Gen. David H. Berger is the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Sgt. Olivia G. Knapp)