To Be Most Ready When the Nation is Least Ready, the Marines Need a New Headquarters


“[The Marine Corps] has fully demonstrated the vital need for the existence of a strong force in readiness … The nation’s shock troops must be the most ready when the nation is generally least ready … to provide a balanced force in readiness for a naval campaign and, at the same time, a ground and air striking force ready to suppress or contain international disturbances short of large-scale war.”

82nd Congress, 1952


America’s 9-1-1 force is not ready to receive the call. The last and current commandants of the Marine Corps have made this fact clear in public statements and official documents. And both expressed their desire to fix this major national security issue, with the current commandant going so far as to explain that he is willing to kill the Corps’ “sacred cows” to do so. Unfortunately, redesigning the Corps is not enough, even if some blessed bovines are beheaded along the way. Setting the Marine Corps back on the right path first requires fixing the structural ways in which the service’s decisions are made and implemented within Headquarters Marine Corps. Without addressing the major imbalances that have led to the service “not [being] organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment,” future commandants will likely find themselves in the same predicaments again and again.

Since the release of Gen. David Berger’s planning guidance, the Marine Corps has focused its force-design efforts on new tactical capabilities and formations. If realized, these capabilities have the potential to provide the naval services and joint force with a combat credible, risk worthy, stand-in force to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy. However, these capabilities will be irrelevant if the Marine Corps does not address how it generates these capabilities as a service and employs these forces at the operational level as a part of the joint force.



Coded in law, the commandant, with the support of Headquarters Marine Corps, is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping the service’s forces for their employment in operations. You might say that Headquarters Marine Corps is the brain of the Marine Corps. It is meant to control the functions of the rest of the service. But there’s a problem: The synapses aren’t firing.

The current organizational structure of Headquarters Marine Corps does not align with any other military department, or with the typical numbered staff organization and structure of most other subordinate Marine Corps units. Instead, it employs deputy commandants who serve as both primary staff members and commanders of subordinate supporting establishment elements, often responsible for generating and fulfilling their own requirements. While the bureaucratic model of Headquarters Marine Corps is uniquely “Marine,” it raises a critical question: Is it optimized to meet the bold demands of the Commandants Planning Guidance and the National Defense Strategy? We don’t think so.

The Marine Corps, as a service, must be able to generate and sustain new desired tactical capabilities. This requires a recognition of the interdependencies between tactical formations, the operational commands that employ them, and the service’s institutional role in organizing, training, and equipping them. To accomplish this, we propose broad organizational change that should organize our force into capable subordinate elements each assigned its own task. Specifically, we recommend that Headquarters Marine Corps transition to a standard numbered staff model, and that the supporting establishment be reorganized into three principal subordinate commands responsible to the commandant for the execution of Title 10 responsibilities. Finally, the operational Marine Corps structure should align with the Navy’s employment model to allow for the development and prosecution of naval campaigns.

Source: Image generated by the authors.

Headquarters Marine Corps

The Department of Defense is organized with two parallel chains of command — service and operational. Within the service chain, as directed by U.S. Code Title 10, the commandant is responsible for organizing, training, and equipping Marine Corps forces. These forces are then provided to combatant or joint force commanders, in the operational chain of command, for employment. Under this construct, the commandant currently executes his Title 10 responsibilities through Headquarters Marine Corps’ deputy commandants and their subordinate organizations.

The existing Headquarters Marine Corps bureaucracy is unnecessarily convoluted because it has no unifying principle. Some portions of the staff are organized by warfighting function (deputy commandant for information) and some by capability or platform (deputy commandant for aviation), while others are aligned more closely to a standard “G-coded” general staff function (deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs). Further, many deputy commandants also command supporting establishment structures and as such are responsible for executing and assessing the policy they establish.

This bureaucratic model creates unnecessary inefficiencies, inhibits unity of effort, and has led to major structural imbalances across the service. One clear example of the challenges that the existing structure poses is in the process to mobilize Marine Corps forces. Per the Marine Corps’ Total Force Mobilization order (MCO 3000.19B), there are tasks specified to at least 13 different commanders, most of whose only common superior is the commandant.

Specific to structural imbalances, this organizational model exacerbates issues associated with the advocacy process, whereby parochial interests are naturally elevated based on cultural biases and/or preferences rather than based on what is necessarily best for the service. This reality should be no surprise to War on the Rocks readers. Numerous articles over the past few years have highlighted just how problematic these structural imbalances have become, with the deputy commandant for aviation possessing an overwhelmingly powerful influence across the service. This influence has led to a situation where the service now finds itself spending an ever-growing and disproportionate share of its allocated resources on expensive, traditionally-manned aviation platforms that are, according to one Marine, eating the rest of the Marine Corps. In many ways, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ Close Combat Lethality Task Force is a scathing indictment on Headquarters Marine Corps for allowing the service to get to the point that it is now spending just 1 to 2 percent of its allocated modernization dollars on its infantry forces while prioritizing funding for the only all “5th generation” F-35 tactical air component in the Department of Defense. Moving beyond internal Marine Corps concerns, the structural imbalance issues have left the service in a position where it now consistently requests from Congress more than twice the amount of money for short-range, traditionally-manned aviation platforms than it does for amphibious platforms of any type. It will be hard for the Navy to accept that the Marine Corps is truly serious about greater naval integration unless this changes. While recent changes to the Marine Corps’ advocacy process are promising, they fail to address the inherent parochial stovepipes and structural imbalances created by the idiosyncratic organization of Headquarters Marine Corps.

Again, we propose that the service transition to a more standard numbered staff organizational model. A numbered staff model, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, simplifies the existing structure and enables better alignment with the Navy and other joint and service headquarters. Under this construct, Headquarters Marine Corps staff would serve as principal advisors to the commandant in specific functional areas. On behalf of the commandant, the staff becomes responsible for establishing policy, assigning tasks to subordinate organizations, and managing and supervising the execution of the service’s Title 10 responsibilities. For example, the proposed MC-1 is the principal adviser to the commandant for establishing and overseeing service-wide human capital and manpower functions relating to the Marine Corps’ personnel, including military, civilian, and contractors.

Major Subordinate Commands

Reorganizing Headquarters Marine Corps towards a more standard staff organization would allow for the structure and functions currently held by deputy commandants to be better aligned to major subordinate commands. These organizations then become the service’s primary means of developing and generating fleet marine forces for combatant or joint force commanders. We propose that the existing structure be modified to form three major subordinate commands.

First, Marine Forces Command should be responsible for training, mobilizing, deploying, sustaining, and reconstituting fleet marine forces. To accomplish this, many of the functions currently associated with manpower and reserve affairs, marine corps installations command, marine corps logistics command, and marine corps forces reserve will need to be realigned and subordinated to the new Marine Forces Command. Aligning and subordinating the functions associated with force generation and provision under the new command allows it to function as the service’s force provider. Further, a single commander provides unity of command, generates unity of effort across the service, and postures the service for mobilization and force generation in contingency.

Second, Training, Education, and Doctrine Command should be responsible for recruiting; developing, educating, and training marines; and developing doctrine. This allows for rapid development and implementation of new ideas through a streamlined doctrinal and education process, in keeping with commandant’s desire for an information-age education system.

Third, Marine Corps Combat Development Command should be responsible for modernizing the corps by designing, developing, and delivering future force organizations and materiel capabilities. This headquarters serves as the single repository for emerging concept and capability development, ensuring that the Marine Corps continues to provide relevant capabilities to naval and joint force. And yes, for those wondering, this would mean Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation would cease to exist. Instead, Marine Corps Combat Development Command would be provided the necessary resources to ensure the service’s aviation component is appropriately integrated within the organization, as well as with the Navy and the rest of the joint force.

This organizational shift, while significant, will streamline the execution of the commandant’s Title 10 requirements. It establishes a clearly defined chain of command with delineated roles and responsibilities. Additionally, its postures the service to better develop, generate, and actualize force design changes now and in the future. This in turn optimizes the service’s ability to meet the requirements of the joint force.

Align the Operational Marine Corps to the Navy

The changes articulated above will posture the Marine Corps to better meet its service-specific Title 10 requirements in organizing, training, equipping, and ultimately providing capabilities to the joint force. However, to ensure that joint force requirements are in keeping with the commandant’s intent and the Marine Corps’ naval purpose, the service ought to reorganize its structure within the Department of Defense’s operational chain of command. Within the legal limits, Marine Corps organizations that work for combatant or joint force commanders should align to and integrate with their Navy counterparts.

Alignment to and integration with Navy counterparts at the service component level organizes the naval services to feed future force design in a way that directly supports naval campaigns and joint forces requirements. Navy and Marine Corps integration within the operational chain allows for the development and prosecution of cohesive naval campaigns, thereby generating naval operational requirements. Integration at echelon within the operational chain reduces or eliminates individual Navy and Marine Corps-specific tasking within combatant command campaign plans and theater security cooperation requirements. At the component command level, this in turn facilitates holistic naval inputs to the global force management, program objective memorandum, posture, and strategic capabilities processes. Without change within the operational chain, the feedback loops between operational and service chains of command will be incongruent with the commandant’s guidance.

Counterargument and Rebuttal

Our proposal will likely have many naysayers. Some may argue that the existing structure is almost completely analogous to the numbered staff model, but with slightly different names. Those deputy commandants that do have additional roles (e.g. the commanding general of the marine corps combat development command), or a niche (e.g. the deputy commandant for aviation), were deliberately designed that way to enhance, rather than detract from, the organization’s effectiveness. Others could point out that consolidating the amount of responsibility in the proposed Marine Corps Forces Command described above is well beyond what that headquarters can accomplish, or that given the other changes currently underway, restructuring headquarters marine corps bureaucracy is a step too far for an organization already in the throes of significant change.

These arguments fail to recognize that the amount of institutional change required to realize the commandant’s vision would not be hindered by simultaneous changes to Headquarters Marine Corps structure, but rather accelerated by it. The inherent inertia within Headquarters Marine Corps can be broken while also setting the conditions to align structure, requirements, and processes with the Navy. This will improve, rather than hinder, delivering fleet marine forces with the right capabilities to fleet commanders and allow the Marine Corps to fully realize its role as part of “Integrated American Naval Power.


The commandant’s force design initiative, assuming Congress permits reprioritizing and reallocating currently projected resourcing decisions, will undoubtedly result in significant change to the tactical capabilities of the Marine Corps. That will reflect a significant effort made outside of, and at times in opposition to, the principal organizational structure of Headquarters Marine Corps. However, if the Marine Corps is to be organized, trained, equipped, and postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment, it should move with urgency beyond mere tactical capabilities and produce consistent change more frequently than once a generation. A headquarters structure that is more agile, and with clearer roles and responsibilities, is critical to this task. The ever-changing character of war demands a degree of adaptability that the current structure fails to provide, and the best way to produce it is through a refined and improved organizational structure.



Maj. Matthew Rohlfing is an armor officer and marine air-ground task force planner currently assigned to Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa and a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies.

Maj. Jonathon Frerichs is an infantry officer and marine air-ground task force planner currently assigned to Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa and a graduate of the School of Advanced Warfighting.

Maj. Mark Nostro is an armor officer and marine air-ground task force planner currently assigned to 1st Tank Battalion and a graduate of the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School.

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 the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Britany Rowlett)