The Rest of the Story: Evaluating the U.S. Marine Corps Force Design 2030
While the world is worried about pandemics, trade, and migration, U.S. defense leaders remain laser focused on treating China as the new pacing threat. Each service has marched in step to the 2018 National Defense Strategy and linked their force modernization to great power competition. The focus of the Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance and new force design report illustrate this trend. Are the concepts and formations called for in these documents flexible enough to respond to other, more likely conflicts?
This question has been at the heart of debate over Gen. David H. Berger’s vision for the Marine Corps. Voices like Mark Cancian question the utility of Berger’s proposed future Marine Corps for the wars he sees as more likely. Berger responded in a recent War on the Rocks podcast:
We’re building a force that, in terms of capability, is matched up against a high-end capability. The premise is that if you do that, if you build that kind of a force, then you can use that force anywhere in the world, in any scenario; you can adapt it. But the inverse is not true.
Is he right?
In the same interview, Berger tasked the U.S. Marine Corps to test this guidance, as a set of hypotheses, through additional force-on-force experiments and wargames. So, let’s do that.
The Marine Corps and other stakeholders in the other armed services and Defense Department ought to launch an ambitious series of wargames and studies that the U.S. military can use to evaluate all of its proposed force modernization initiatives. There are three “worlds” that planners should use to develop these tests: first, limited contingencies in Africa and the Middle East; second, joint forcible entry operations and the transition to a “second land army” in wars with North Korea and Iran; and third, 21st-century gunboat diplomacy. These contingencies, many of which could be linked to either proxy struggles with great powers like China or future complex humanitarian emergencies, tell the rest of the story. Only through testing the new force design against this wider range of scenarios will we know if it’s the right path to the future.
Force Design 2030
Berger used his planning guidance to consolidate multiple initiatives across the U.S. Marine Corps and integrate them with the National Defense Strategy and U.S. Navy. According to the commandant, “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 the fleet and joint operations.” The new force design, which looks outward to 2030, prioritizes the most dangerous course of action: China.
To deter China and support viable military options in the opening stages of any conflict with the People’s Liberation Army, the U.S. Marine Corps will conduct expeditionary advanced base operations and littoral operations in contested environments. Marines will operate from small, distributed bases in the littorals and use a large array of unmanned systems to hold the enemy at risk. It will field new Marine littoral regiments that help the U.S. Navy maneuver in the littorals supported by Marine expeditionary forces information group detachments that organize cyber, signals intelligence, electronic warfare and influence activities. This new formation will combine:
Low cost, lethal air and ground unmanned platforms, unmanned long range surface and subsurface vehicles, mobile, rapidly deployable rocket systems, long range precision fires, loitering munitions across the echelons, mobile air defense and counter-precision guided munitions capabilities, signature management, electronic warfare and expeditionary airfields.
Building this force requires significant changes to the current force structure. Force Design 2030 cuts tanks, some traditional artillery formations, law enforcement battalions, amphibious armored vehicles, engineering assets, helicopter squadrons, and redesigns the infantry battalion to free up $12 billion dollars for modernization to meet the pacing threat and resources for training.
Will this force design help deter China? Will it also provide sufficient forces to support contingencies outside of a war with America’s third-largest trading partner? The military profession owes Congress and the American public an honest assessment of how future formations will hold in a wider range of contingencies. We must explore the rest of the story. That story starts with considering three alternative worlds in which the U.S. Marine Corps will fight.
World I: The Future Is Here
The first series of wargames and studies should evaluate observations from recent conflicts and their implications for future contingencies involving coastal raiding. In the same vein that the Spanish Civil War was a harbinger of new capabilities and tactics employed in the Second World War, the assumption is that current conflicts illuminate how future wars will be fought.
Trends in armed conflict tell a consistent story: Wars are increasingly internationalized intrastate conflicts, meaning civil wars that become proxy disputes involving a mix of regional and global powers. These conflicts involve local combatants adapting commercial, off-the-shelf technology to field unmanned systems, primitive intelligence and targeting networks and increasingly lethal munitions. Combatants integrate these improvised precision-strike capabilities with advanced weapons provided by external states like Russia. In conflicts like those in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine, proxies use electronic warfare, unmanned systems, massed fires, advanced surface-to-air missiles and long-range strike assets like cruise missiles to wage protracted, attritional conflicts. These air-ground-information “kill chains” reflect the type of challenge the U.S. Marine Corps will have to counter in a future conflict.
Coastal raiding in Libya is a recurring mission in U.S. military history that provides a setting for these wargames. From the 1805 raid on the Eastern port of Derna during the First Barbary Pirate War in 1805 to the more recent 2011 Operation Odyssey Dawn, the 2012 assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, and the 2016 operations by the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit around Sirte, Libya provides a littoral laboratory for thinking about future limited contingency operations. Future wargames could use the terrain and assume that proxy support for a rebel faction forces a limited U.S. intervention. The central question would be testing if the Marine Littoral Regiment, and its information enablers, provide sufficient options for a joint task force tasked to strike high-value targets and temporarily hold terrain in pursuit of larger political objectives. Specifically, how will future commanders tailor Marine Expeditionary Units and integrate traditional air and ground formations, which are losing key assets like artillery and helicopters?
World II: Past Is Prologue
The second series of wargames and studies should evaluate the ability of the new force to conduct joint forcible entry operations and become, after seizing lodgments, a second land army in a large-scale conflict. The role of amphibious operations in major contingencies has been a defining feature of post-Cold War planning and used to size the U.S. Marine Corps. Large-scale joint forcible entry operations have occurred at critical points in American history. Whether it is the British landings at New York during the American Revolution or the amphibious campaigns in Europe and the Pacific in World War II, the ability to project power and keep an enemy guessing is a critical requirement for great powers. Furthermore, these forces must be capable of transitioning to conducting sustained combat operations ashore. In Julian Corbett’s reading the role of sea power was to deliver ground forces and coerce the enemy, placing a requirement on projecting power and supporting operations ashore.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Marine Corps used joint forcible entry operations as its force-sizing benchmark. Following civilian guidance, Berger shifted the force away from this requirement. The new force is thus tailored for a different type of expeditionary warfare than envisioned by more traditional concepts for amphibious operations. The central question therefore is whether or not new Marine littoral regiments can support a requirement for a large-scale amphibious assault and sustained combat operations ashore. After these new formations establish lodgments, how will commanders integrate the rest of the U.S. Marine Corps and sustain the fight as it moves beyond the littoral battlespace to inland objectives?
Evaluating this question requires revisiting low-probability, high-consequence scenarios associated with 21st-century joint forcible entry operations. While the threat of fighting two simultaneous major theater wars is a relic of post-Cold War defense planning including the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance and Clinton administration’s Bottom-Up Review, the scenario allows an assessment of what the Marine Corps is sacrificing. Therefore, wargames and studies should evaluate the ability of new Marine formations — as part of a larger coalition – to fight in North Korea while holding Iranian forces at risk as part of a larger maritime campaign. While the defense planning community doesn’t rely on the two-theater war framework anymore, it can provide a critical stress test for the new force.
World III: Gray Rhinos
The third series of wargames and studies should explore 21st-century gunboat diplomacy and how well Marine forces support predictable coercive campaigns in unpredictable places. These campaigns should focus on where great power competition is most likely to generate friction: the seams along territorial disputes and at the intersection of politics and economics along the Belt and Road Initiative.
If the United States is worried about China, it warrants considering the fears that drive Chinese leaders. Chairman Xi Jinping has recently expressed concern about gray rhinos: predictable events that often go neglected. Social science research on conflict shows that interstate war patterns are predictable. They tend to occur between rivals and involve territorial disputes and alliance commitments. What is currently neglected is the possibility of Belt and Road, China’s geo-economic strategy to expand its influence, failing and providing a catalyst for future interventions and proxy war.
Imagining this world forces the U.S. Marine Corps to revisit the most frequently occurring contingency before World War II: the use of maritime forces to compel adversaries and provide limited military options along major trade routes. It calls for imagining 21st-century gunboat diplomacy. Wargames and studies should explore how well new Marine formations integrate into small naval task forces, supporting larger joint and interagency activities, to provide a wide range of response options in the contact layer. These activities will have to grapple with one of the largest, under-researched modern defense challenges: how to measure influence and deterrence.
Get the Strategy Right and the Force Will Follow
Validating the U.S. Marine Corps Force Design 2030 will be an ongoing campaign of iterative learning and adaption. The world will change, presenting new military contingencies and previously unimagined missions. In the best tradition of the republic, these mission places a unique burden on the military professional to speak truth to power and provide best military advice. The nation needs each of us- military and civilian – to engage in a larger debate about strategy in a connected world.
I am a proponent of the changes underway and have written about using maritime forces like those proposed in Force Design 2030 since 2015 in War on the Rocks and elsewhere. I have participated in many wargames trying to envision how to generate flexible response and deterrent options while supporting operations, activities and investments in the contact layer to shape adversary decision-making. I concur with thinkers like T.X. Hammes that the Marine Corps should balance balanced optimizing forces for great power conflict with hard fiscal decisions on the horizon, but larger questions of strategy still linger.
Yet, I remain skeptical of the new force design, absent additional wargames and studies that test its core hypotheses. Furthermore, over the years, a sinking feeling has crept in. Is this the right mission? While the National Defense Strategy pushes the U.S. Marine Corps and the other services to expand the competitive space and focus on deterring Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific, there still is a responsibility to generate viable military options for other contingencies. Where these wars will occur is unknowable, but the pattern of conflict since 1991 is suggestive: They will be wars within, defined by proxy struggles, ethnic and communal violence, warlords, illicit markets, and limited objectives clouded by constant information warfare. They will not be World War III. They will be 21st-century “small wars,” a history the Marine Corps is often all too quick to forget.
Lapses in memory and focusing on narrow ranges of contingencies are a recurring problem in military planning. As Cathal Nolan captures in his seminal work, The Allure of Battle, the military profession is prone to retelling misleading stories about decisive battles. Military personnel then use these misunderstandings to explain the outcomes of wars in a manner that misses the critical importance of strategy and alliance management, as well as the enduring importance of a strong economy and political will. This piece is an attempt to correct that drift towards illusory decisive battles and suggest instead three challenges for the U.S. Marine Corps to wargame and test to validate the new force design.
Other concerns warrant further investigation as well.
The American way of war is coalition-based. That is, alliances define America’s strategic horizon and global commitments. All wargames and studies should therefore test interoperability. To the extent that the new force design helps with crisis management and deepening alliance interoperability, it is a successful tripwire and supports conventional deterrence. To the extent that it fields systems that U.S. partners cannot use or are not allowed to use due to classification restrictions, its utility declines.
Moreover, there are larger questions about what deterrence looks like in a connected world and how declining financial resources and shifting national security priorities shape strategy. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal or U.S. Navy with its 11 carrier strike groups and unmatched submarine fleet is insufficient to deter China, one has to ask why adding anti-ship missiles to distributed expeditionary bases will. Will U.S. partners — many of whom rely on China as a trading partner — allow these small forces into their country? Are U.S. politicians willing to risk committing U.S. forces inside the range of adversary weapons, knowing that the loss of life could create dangerous escalation spirals?
Often the benefit of maritime forces has been their ability to stand off, not stand in. Imagine videos of young marines attacked by drones going viral. Would the information-age populace, prone to herd-like behavior and conspiracies, stay calm and prudent? Establishing forward defense, tripwires and conventional deterrent options has a long history in the Cold War, but that history may just be that: ghosts of the last campaign.
All future wargames and studies should start with a more active debate at the level of strategy about the future security environment that takes questions about continuity and change seriously. The 2018 National Defense Strategy was a step in this direction, but it requires much more detailed study and deliberation about what great power competition is in the 21st century and how it manifests in a world that is markedly different than preceding periods. Debt levels and collective challenges like pandemics, migration, and climate change could alter the resources available for future force modernization and even how we think about security going forward. The world is changing. The key to validating Force Design 2030 is taking stock of those changes and ensuring that the U.S. Marine Corps has enough depth and flexibility to respond to a wide range of contingencies.
Benjamin Jensen holds a dual appointment as a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting and as a Scholar-in-Residence at American University, School of International Service. He is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve 75th Innovation Command. The views expressed are is his own.