Building a Marine Corps for Every Contingency, Clime, and Place
Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger’s recently published Force Design 2030 has riled up both the “old guard,” who fear for the service’s future, and industry lobbyists, who fear for the future of contracts for amphibious ships and F-35s. The document rationally outlines the changes necessary for the Marine Corps to play its role as the nation’s naval expeditionary force-in-readiness while meeting the modernization and operational requirements laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Overall the proposal has been positively received, but critics have expressed concern that the proposed force does not hedge for the sorts of wars fought in contingencies like Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq.
Yet is it clear that the Marine Corps planning team specifically examined this question. In his recent War on the Rocks interview, Berger noted,
“The last step was a piece of guidance from me that the Marine Corps is this nation’s crisis response force by law, by role, and by function. So whatever we build for the structure, the design for the future of the structure of the Marine Corps, it must be capable of responding to any crisis, anywhere in the world, without any notice. That was the first step in framing the problem in our vernacular.”
Did Berger’s planning team fulfill this guidance? It did. And it positioned Marine forces to respond more effectively against each of the five threats identified in the National Defense Strategy as well as other lesser contingencies. While it makes clear choices and trade-offs, the design maintains the service’s noted versatility, a valued force design principle. Thus, this proposal is both strategy-driven and risk-informed. Further, this design also deals with two realities that the Department of Defense is struggling to accept.
First, China has invested heavily to neutralize U.S. precision strike. In fact, China has developed its own precision strike program to attack key vulnerabilities of the U.S. system — especially its reliance on fixed bases and large ships. As China steadily increases its capabilities in this area, even second-rate powers like Iran are fielding increasing numbers of long-range precision strike systems.
Second, the commandant has recognized that the declining budgets projected for 2022 and 2023 are just the beginning of long-term decreases in defense spending. Even before the huge increase in debt caused by COVID-19 spending, interest payments on the debt were going to exceed the entire defense budget by 2023. The $2 trillion pandemic response spending bill moves that timetable up even as increased health care costs and a major recession put additional pressure on the budget.
Before discussion of why the new organization is better than the old for all five threats, a brief review of the changes is necessary. The table below shows the key changes in force structure:
For those concerned about contingencies, it is important to note the Marine Corps will still have more infantry battalions on active duty than it has deployed into combat at any one time since World War II. The only fire support elements that have been seriously reduced are cannon artillery, light helicopter squadrons, and tanks. The major increase in long-range rocket/missile batteries will still allow massed fire in support of ground maneuver.
The report notes that the Marine Corps is continuing to study the number of fighter/attack squadrons it will maintain. While the report specifically mentions the pilot shortage and the questions concerning the maintainability of the complex F-35, it does not mention the significant weaknesses of the aircraft — its short range and the vulnerability of its large bases to missile attack. These vulnerabilities cannot be overcome with design changes and dramatically reduce the value of these airframes in a major conflict. With commercial firms imaging the entire planet daily, even the Forward Arming and Refueling Points established for F-35Bs will be seen and targeted.
Further, in a time of declining budgets, the very high cost of operating F-35s will also impact future decisions. The report does note that the Marine Corps will develop unmanned aerial vehicles to augment both reconnaissance and strike operations. Of particular importance, these systems can overcome the well-known range deficiencies of the F-35.
The report clearly states the effort focused on preparing the Corps to participate as a key element of the naval campaign as part of the joint fight against China. However, this reorganization also positions the Corps to fight more effectively against any of the five threats specifically identified in the National Defense Strategy and also against a wide range of other contingencies. I will address each threat briefly.
With few exceptions, commentators expressed confidence that the changes will improve the Marine Corps’ ability to do its part in a fight against China. However, Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute contends the reorganization will make Marine units more vulnerable to the Chinese. He states the Corps’ lightweight, mobile firing units will be victims of China’s first wave of precision weapons.Unfortunately, he overlooks the failure of the United States to destroy Iraqi mobile missile systems in the Gulf War even with complete air supremacy and thousands of sorties dedicated to the mission — despite the fact that most SCUD missiles were launched from relatively open terrain. Iraq’s SCUDs were liquid-fueled and required on-site preparation before firing. In contrast, China has developed solid-fuel, mobile rockets and missiles which require as little as 15 minutes to set up, fire, and displace. Because of the relatively long ranges from Chinese territory to most locations on the first island chain, China would have to maintain enough armed aircraft in orbits over these areas to put ordnance on the target within that time frame. Their own land-based missiles would arrive after the targets had been displaced.
Nor does he consider that the Marine Corps’ new focus on mobile and low-signature systems will logically lead to containerized missiles. Mounted on commercial tractor trailers, left on a construction site, or aboard a ship, these weapons could be virtually indistinguishable from the thousands of other standard shipping containers located throughout the nations of the first island chain. They can also be hidden in a wide variety of buildings or under bridges.
Container-based weapons also dramatically reduce logistical burden because trucks, fuel, water, clothing, and some medical care could be purchased on the open market. Even 20,000 marines and sailors ashore would not strain the economies of Japan (population 125 million), the Philippines (105 million), South Korea (50 million), or Australia (25 million). The only support that must be delivered will be new missiles in containers and unique communications and sensor equipment. Given the ubiquitous presence of container handling equipment globally, movement of critical supplies will be greatly simplified.
The most important point is that these systems will have the range to create major operational-level problems for Chinese naval forces. Without them, Chinese naval forces could simply stay out of the limited range of the ground forces’ artillery.
Some question whether host nations will allow these firing elements to operate from their territories. That is a legitimate question. I contend they will be more likely to let these small units ashore than a traditional expeditionary brigade or force. If the United States shares the design and production of the new containerized missile systems with allies, they can have affordable, compatible forces that can present a challenge to China. Currently, the Philippines and Indonesia do not have effective systems to deter or engage China if deterrence fails. By adding this type of mobile system, they could have deterrent capabilities.
In keeping with the National Defense Strategy’s concept of contact forces, marines could train with similarly equipped allied units throughout the first island chain. Additional units of this type can demonstrate to America’s allies and friends that the United States can quickly deploy effective forces that can survive in a precision strike environment. Today, America’s allies and friends are beginning to wonder if U.S. forces will remain on the first island chain. They are concerned about both the Trump administration’s transactional approach to foreign policy and the fact that U.S. forces tied to fixed bases are likely to be destroyed very early in a fight with China. The presence of survivable U.S. allied forces will assure America’s allies and friends that the United States will not leave them when the conflict starts. Even more importantly, America’s allies will see that these ground forces have the capability to reach out and hit any Chinese ships trying to move through the first island chain.
The most concerning threat posed by Russia is the possibility of a short- or no-notice invasion of the Baltic States and/or Poland. While many experts believe this is highly unlikely, the fact remains that NATO should be prepared to defend against such an action. Unfortunately, it isn’t. A 2016 RAND study concluded that “NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” It stated that seven brigades with supporting air, artillery, and logistics would be necessary to defend the Baltic States until sufficient forces could arrive. Four years later, it is clear NATO is not going to meet those minimum requirements.
A 2019 RAND study suggested unconventional warfare could help defend the Baltic States but would require extensive NATO support. While the Baltic States have made some progress toward developing unconventional warfare capabilities, they are not sufficient to stop a Russian invasion. A 2019 Atlantic Council report suggested an alternative. It outlined how by combining emerging technology with traditional unconventional warfare the Baltic States could stop a Russian invasion if supported immediately by long-range fires from other NATO nations. But there has been little indication the Baltic States or NATO are moving in this direction either.
Since NATO is still not postured to defend its territory, a primary concern is that Russia can seize NATO territory and then “escalate to de-escalate” by threatening the use of nuclear weapons to stop any NATO attempt to retake territory. The long distances from ports and bases to the front, limited transportation networks, and threat of Russian missiles destroying key bridges mean most NATO conventional forces simply cannot reach the Baltics in time to help. Only aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles can provide immediate support against a sudden Russian attack.
The Marine Corps’ pre-positioned equipment in Norway will allow the relatively rapid deployment of a small Marine brigade to Norway, but in its current configuration, that brigade will have minimal impact on the fight in Eastern Europe. The maritime pre-positioning force squadrons (Diego Garcia, Guam, and Saipan) are simply too far away for units as currently configured to influence the fight. Even if deployed with sufficient warning, the ships would have to unload out of range of Russian missiles and face the same challenges that arriving U.S. Army forces do in reaching the battlefield. In contrast, the lighter, longer-range strike capabilities proposed in Force Design 2030 mean Marine units can deploy more rapidly and immediately provide significantly more fire support to NATO during the critical early phases of such a conflict. This is particularly true if the Corps does not insist on fighting as a Marine air-ground task force. If NATO must fight to retake territory, then the Corps can still deploy a potent and tailored Marine expeditionary force consisting of a reinforced division, aircraft wing, and logistics group.
Iran’s recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities and the U.S. air bases in Iraq clearly demonstrate it has the ability to hit fixed targets. Thus, even against this second-rate power the Corps’ current operational concept of using large amphibious ships and establishing major logistics facilities is no longer feasible. Lighter, more mobile forces will be able to deploy quickly and immediately add their fires to the joint fight without presenting major targets for Iranian precision fires.
The immediate issue in a conflict with Iran is keeping the Strait of Hormuz open to commercial shipping because 21 percent of the world’s oil flows through its narrow passage. The primary threat to shipping will come from Iranian mines, submarines, small craft, and mobile anti-ship cruise missiles. None of the Marine ground forces being eliminated in the proposed reorganization can contribute to this fight. While the F-35 squadrons could contribute, the joint force would first have to establish layered air defenses around the airfields to prevent attacks like those that hit the Saudi oil facilities and U.S. bases in Iraq. In contrast, the proposed long-range rockets and missile batteries along with increased intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance provided by long-endurance, unmanned platforms can immediately support the naval campaign to keep the strait open. Their ability to shoot and move quickly will make it almost impossible for Iranian forces to target them. The combination of rocket/missile batteries and long-endurance drones could provide the continual surveillance and highly responsive fire support necessary to destroy or suppress Iranian mobile missile systems. Given the short distances across the gulf, flight times for rockets and missiles will be short enough to engage even mobile systems before they can displace.
If the United States decides to project ground combat power into Iran to hold the northern shoulder of the strait, the Corps can still provide a modernized and ready Marine expeditionary force. But under the new organization, it can also deploy long-range rockets/missile batteries to provide prelanding fire support from positions on the southern side of the Strait.
As noted, even with downsizing, the Corps will be able to add a heavily reinforced division to the fight in Korea. But one might ask why. When mobilized, the Republic of Korea fields 39 Army and two Marine divisions. It is difficult to see how adding an additional infantry division weeks after the fight starts will contribute a great deal. In contrast, rapidly arriving long-range firing batteries could provide South Korean forces with long-range assets they lack. Further, the range of these systems would allow them to initially operate from well south of Seoul, thus reducing the strain on stressed lines of communication and keeping them clear of the massive traffic jams that will occur in greater Seoul.
While Marine fixed-wing aviation can contribute to the fight, a shortage of bed-down sites for tactical aviation means there will not be room for many squadrons. Overcrowding air bases when North Korea has built an arsenal of long-range artillery, rockets, and missiles is a very risky venture.
When South Korean forces defeat the invasion and then conduct a counter-invasion, the long-range batteries can continue to support the attack. The one unique ground force contribution U.S. marines could make is to join a South Korean Marine division in an amphibious assault. Yet current amphibious lift limitations mean even a single division will require multiple sorties by the ships to move it from South Korean assembly areas to any landing point in the north. In addition, Force Design 2030 notes that the emergence of long-range precision weapons makes large-scale amphibious assault an extraordinarily risky maneuver.
The final phases of a successful war will be pacification and rebuilding. Given the intense indoctrination and deep poverty of the North Korean population, this will be a long and difficult task. For obvious reasons, the Republic of Korea’s 41 divisions are vastly better suited for the job of pacifying and rebuilding than American ground forces. America’s role should be focused on economic and logistic support as well as deterring China from getting deeply involved. Once again, the proposed Marine Corps organization will be as well-suited to these tasks as the current one.
Insurgents and Terrorists
Insurgents are of particular concern to some critics of Berger’s reforms. Some question how a slimmed down Marine Corps will deal with the long counter-insurgency campaigns of the last two decades. Yet if America’s leaders are obtuse enough to get involved in another such campaign, the proposed organization retains more legacy Marine forces than were ever deployed at one time in either Iraq or Afghanistan. That said, one would hope that next time America recognizes that large, direct expeditionary counter-insurgency operations have consistently failed. Outside powers have not succeeded in changing host nations directly. However, by using smaller forces and an indirect approach, the United States has repeatedly achieved its strategic goals in such conflicts. In several, the Marine Corps has provided a small group of officers and staff non-commissioned officers to act as advisors. The new organization will certainly retain the ability to provide such a cadre again.
While terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda certainly participated in both Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, they were dealt with as part of the overall counter-insurgency campaign. For those terror groups that are not part of a counter-insurgency campaign, the Department of Defense is conducting an ongoing anti-terrorist campaign. It is doing so through direct action in the form of special operations raids and air/missile strikes. The Marine Corps’ contribution to these anti-terror campaigns has been limited to Marine special operations units and some air strikes. Under the proposed organization, those Marine units will remain available. Marine expeditionary units will also remain deployed to back up joint special operations forces as needed. In addition, the increased capabilities of unmanned aircraft and the potential for ship-based, long-range fires mean the new Marine expeditionary units will be able to contribute more to the anti-terror fight.
The Marine Corps clearly retains ground, air, and logistics elements robust enough to conduct noncombatant evacuation operations and humanitarian assistance missions. And the Marine Corps will still have the forces necessary for the naval presence mission.
Continued Experimenting, War Gaming, and Thinking
The Marine Corps’ efforts to date represent a powerful first step in the process of transforming the force from its current configuration to one more suited to the rapidly changing international security environment. Perhaps most importantly, the Force Design 2030 report clearly states that “transformation is a process.” It projects the commandant’s clear dedication to continued experimenting, war gaming, and thinking about how the Corps can best execute its missions. This draws on historical lessons that other nations, other services, and the Corps itself have used to innovate and adapt to the ever-changing character of war.
As Gen. Berger himself cautioned, “The most important part is to not fall in love with our conclusions too early. Constantly test our assumptions, constantly war game, constantly experiment, watch the threats, watch the adversary, watch technology, and be willing to make adjustments along the way. So we’re in step one of 10 maybe. This isn’t the final chapter and we’re not done with it. This is actually just the beginning.”
T. X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University. He served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. The views express are his and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the National Defense University.