The Marine Corps Under the Nuclear Shadow: A Great-Power Problem

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Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.

Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, 1946

We are not an across-the-Range of Military Operations (ROMO) force; but rather, a force that ensures the prevention of major conflict and deters the escalation of conflict within the ROMO.

Gen. David H. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 2019


Design a force suited to the reality of the pacing threat.” “Shift in our primary focus to great power competition.” Phrases like these so permeate the U.S. Marine Corps’ discourse about its purpose and force design that they obscure a critical feature: nuclear weapons and the risk of inadvertent nuclear escalation by conventional forces. Today nuclear weapons are frequently discussed in the context of nuclear force modernization, arms control, and nonproliferation. However, most commentary on conventional force design, planning, and education in the Marine Corps rarely acknowledges the prospect of nuclear conflict. And even as other services grapple directly with nuclear forces when they mention conventional capability, it is inevitably from the perspective of deterrence and accounting for the challenge of tactical nuclear weapons.

Though it has been recognized for 75 years, nuclear weapons’ long shadow over the character and purpose of conventional operations remains a critical gap in the conversation about the Marine Corps’ future. And that future, as articulated in the last few years by the commandant, will be increasingly focused on China, a nuclear-armed power that is growing its current arsenal of several hundred nuclear warheads. The commandant’s Force Design 2030 makes necessary, if painful, changes in operational capabilities and concepts by replacing tanks, artillery, and end-strength with experimental units. However, these efforts have yet to directly account for the shadow that nuclear weapons cast on conventional operations and escalation management, and the resultant implications for Marine Corps force employment. Key elements of the Marine Corps culture — including aspects of its cherished warfighting doctrine — were developed in the post-Vietnam, late Cold War period when technology and the Corps’ expected mission informed assumptions that discounted the strategic effect of tactical operations. Today, among other changes, long-range precision fires and integrated command and control systems mean that these assumptions may be dangerous.



But the Corps has a rich history of adaptation within new strategic environments (e.g., small wars, amphibious operations, and maneuver warfare) that demonstrates the service’s ability to update and adjust foundational competencies. Adapting to a situation in which the risk of nuclear escalation is ever-present will require a service-wide effort to appreciate the strategic dimensions of tactical actions. This requires changes to not only operational planning and professional military education, but also doctrinal publications that influence the service’s culture and have reach at the individual, “every marine,” level.

Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Forces: Old Problem, New Challenge

America’s primary military rivals — China and Russia — possess nuclear arsenals with unthinkable destructive potential. This makes conflict with them especially risky since conventional operations can lead to inadvertent nuclear escalation. Thus, it may be necessary to impose restraint on tactical and operational freedom in U.S. war plans. Of course, this is not a new challenge, since the basic dynamics of nuclear deterrence were developed early in the Cold War. But the implications for conventional forces and limited war were never settled. Three decades of U.S. military operations in the Middle East — devoid of nuclear escalation dynamics — allowed American strategists to avoid the problem of planning conventional operations against nuclear-armed opponents.

While the assured destructive power of nuclear weapons undermines the credibility of threats to use them, states can manipulate the risk of nuclear use as a coercive tool. Conventional forces play a critical role in increasing this risk of (inadvertent) nuclear use — whether this is intentional or not. Confusion on a battlefield, or even a heightened alert posture, provides opportunities for unintended consequences. Especially concerning is entanglement (i.e., the mixing of conventional and nuclear command and control infrastructure, and platforms capable of both conventional and nuclear delivery). There is ample evidence that Chinese forces practice this and several U.S. platforms are intentionally “dual capable” (e.g., able to carry nuclear and/or conventional payloads). If conventional and nuclear systems are indistinguishable, actions intended to meet tactical objectives, such as conventional missile strikes to destroy air defense nodes, could be misinterpreted as a prelude to a nuclear attack, leading to nuclear retaliation. Military forces should therefore be prepared to operate when the strategic reality demands operational and tactical restraint. This presents a clear challenge to instincts in organizations like the Marine Corps that are honed for “creating and exploiting opportunity.”

Conventional forces also play an important role in denial, not just coercion. Here they need to be able to credibly deny an adversary its objectives, and forward-deployed Marine units can play a key role in such a strategy. But doing so requires the ability to wage a limited war conducted with forces that do not escalate beyond a certain point. In both brinkmanship and limited war, conventional forces need to be able to manage escalation by operating effectively even when inhibited by limitations on tactical and operational freedom.

New Challenge for Marine Corps Culture

Restraints on tactical and operational freedom are especially challenging for the Marine Corps given its cultural emphasis on tactical operations. Many aspects of service culture are derived from an uncritical reading of the Corps’ premier doctrinal manual, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting. The clearest example of this problem is seen in its definition of maneuver warfare:

… the essence of maneuver is taking action to generate and exploit some kind of advantage over the enemy … [it] seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion … [to] create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.

The idea of violent and decisive action to incapacitate the enemy has visceral appeal, but in the context of nuclear weapons, can easily lead to disaster. Restraint and the ability to choose which advantages, based on strategic considerations, to not exploit may be more important.

Similarly, Marine Corps culture includes a philosophy of command that unreservedly endorses decentralization. Without question, decentralizing command and entrusting subordinate leaders is critical for tactical and operational effectiveness, especially in chaotic and challenging environments. But such advantages are not absolute and ignore situations such as inadvertent escalation. Warfighting’s justification for decentralization of command (“a competent subordinate commander who is at the point of decision will naturally better appreciate the true situation than a senior commander some distance removed”) ignores the possibility of an evolving strategic situation that the subordinate commander is poorly positioned to appreciate.

There is special irony here because as Warfighting was being written, the Marine Corps had units and doctrine for employing tactical nuclear weapons. Yet this doctrine explicitly assumed a high degree of centralized “positive command and control” and “established request and release procedures” to ensure that nuclear weapons were only used with presidential authorization. Precisely because centralization of command was assumed, nuclear capable units could largely ignore strategic concerns. The manual for employing nuclear weapons contains two paragraphs that mention policy or strategic considerations and devotes the remaining hundred pages to logistical, technical, and tactical factors such as transportation and storage, blast radii, minimum safe distances, and protecting friendly forces from fallout. Fortunately for Warfighting, external factors resolved the obvious contradiction when, shortly after its publication, President George H.W. Bush eliminated ground and naval non-strategic nuclear forces.

The base problem for the Marine Corps is its tendency to assume away strategic considerations. While Warfighting describes potent approaches to the conduct of war at the tactical or operational level, it would be unwise — even catastrophic —to uncritically use it to guide military operations against a nuclear-armed rival. But how did problematic assumptions in a doctrinal publication come to heavily influence the Marine Corps’ culture in the first place? Because Warfighting combines excellent conceptual chapters that channel Carl Von Clausewitz and John Boyd with practical chapters written for the problems of a particular historical period: post-Vietnam and the late Cold War. These latter chapters present tactical and operational concepts associated with great historical successes, but do so while ignoring strategic considerations. This was possible because the Marine Corps could effectively ignore nuclear weapons as it reinvented itself in the distinct strategic context of the late 1970s and 1980s.

As the ideas embodied in Warfighting were being developed, the Marine Corps was fighting for institutional survival, trying to find operational relevance by looking to operations in Northern Europe and using doctrine as a way to distinguish itself from other services. The “pacing threat” of that day was the Soviet Union, and the main contingency required marines to secure NATO’s northern flank. This was a defensive mission based on the premise that if the Soviets invaded Central Europe in a non-nuclear conflict of any duration, American reinforcements (arriving by sea) would be essential. But these reinforcements, and therefore NATO’s ability to continue its defense, would be vulnerable to interdiction from Soviet naval forces operating in the Norwegian Sea. Such Soviet operations, though, required control of Norway’s coast and therefore defending it acquired strategic importance. The geographic remoteness and political sensitivities of permanently stationing forces made the mission ideal for the Marine Corps to showcase the mobility inherent in amphibious operations. Critically, this mission presented limited risk of nuclear escalation for several reasons. First, the operational concept was premised on deterring Soviet aggression into Scandinavian countries, not directly threatening an existing Soviet interest. Second, marines were not expected to be the first to fight in the overall conflict and assumed an existing, non-nuclear, conventional war. The need to protect supply lines for reinforcements was only necessary if the main battlefield — Central Europe — had remained non-nuclear. Third, while amphibious operations provided great operational maneuver, given the technology of the day, marines lacked ground mobility. Combined with the geographic remoteness from major Russian cities, this mission posed little direct threat to the Soviet homeland. In short, key aspects of service doctrine and culture were optimized for an operational context that presented little risk of nuclear escalation and allowed the Marine Corps — far more than the other services — to largely ignore strategic considerations.

But that security environment is long gone. The Marine Corps’ current operational concept — forward deployed contact layer forces that are the first to engage with a nuclear-armed pacing threat’s aggressive action — is a radical departure from Marine Corps history (let alone the last thirty years focused on the non-nuclear powers in the Middle East). Basing a military culture on past assumptions that ignore strategic considerations is dangerous in any number of possible contemporary contingencies. Just as the Marines’ force design and posture need to change for a new environment — and the service’s leadership clearly embraces such change — so does its culture and warfighting doctrine.

Strength for Adapting: Marine Corps History and Ethos

Although some aspects of contemporary Marine Corps culture may be inappropriate in today’s strategic nuclear context, the Corps’ history reflects a deeper, enduring ethos of institutional agility and innovation. The service has an uncanny ability to adapt to new strategic requirements and even a knack for temporarily learning to operate with limitations on tactical freedom. From developing amphibious doctrine in the 1930s, combined action platoons in Vietnam, maneuver warfare in the 1980s, and expeditionary sea-based forces in the modern era, the Marine Corps has repeatedly reinvented its core competencies (and modified its culture when necessary) to match the strategic environment and ensure continued relevance.

This adaptive propensity continues today. Force Design 2030, the service’s effort to reshape itself for the future, represents an institutional attempt to hone emerging competencies and capitalizes on the Marine Corps’ agility in flexing to strategic requirements. In addition to cutting capabilities such as tanks and field artillery to invest in rockets and unmanned vehicles, the Marines have embraced the information environment as a significant realm of competition in which they should participate. This bold direction and willingness to embrace new approaches to supporting U.S. national security has elicited sharp criticism and high praise. All of this demonstrates momentum toward meaningful transformation and a willingness to undertake painful changes.

Still, official efforts have thus far avoided considering nuclear dynamics, and only a fraction of commentary has even mentioned them. Incorporating these considerations will help the service to better assess cultural changes, conventional unit requirements, and the importance of developing proficiency in information, cyberspace, and space operations. More importantly, it will better position the service to reorient on the contemporary competition environment.

Current conditions call for operational and tactical restraint driven by the possibility of nuclear escalation in a conflict with China. However, this is not the only moment in the service’s history in which limitations on tactical freedom of action have been necessary. Over the past century, the Marine Corps has repeatedly demonstrated proficiency in adopting to situations of irregular warfare, from the small wars environments of the 1920s and 1930s to the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of the modern era. In the more contemporary environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, the imperative to limit civilian casualties provides a significant example of tactical and operational forbearance required for strategic success. While these operations are often viewed as a temporary aberration from which the military needs to move on, the operational circumstances — and the restraint they demanded — were widely recognized at the time. Changes to training, education, and operational guidance, along with general (if imperfect) adherence to this guidance, demonstrated the Corps’ ability to recognize strategic factors and adapt. By contrast, today we see little discussion within the broader national security community addressing how the present reality may demand significant restraint in Marine Corps conventional operations.


Marine Corps leadership recognizes that major changes are required to prevail in a military conflict with another great power. Recent official publications (e.g., the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Force Design 2030, and Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-4 Competing) and other initiatives (e.g., renewed emphasis on wargames, adjustments to the professional military education curriculum, and encouraging written debate) suggest that the service is serious about ensuring an institutional focus on competition with peers, especially China. In order to more adequately consider the dynamics of nuclear escalation and the role of Marine forces in this complex environment, the service should ensure that these efforts to reshape itself don’t only consider the tactical and operational challenges of fighting a comparable conventional military. They should also recognize the novelty of the Corps being the first to fight against a nuclear power. This requires an increased sensitivity to escalation management and, more generally, a willingness to reckon with a longstanding cultural assumption that marines can focus on tactical and operational issues with little consideration of their strategic implications. The Marine Corps can build on its historical ethos of adapting core competencies and culture to meet its present (nuclear) strategic challenges through the following actions:

First, the service should ensure the force is familiar with the strategic dynamics of escalation and coercion. The Marine Corps has made an excellent start with the recently released Competing, but this document ignores nuclear weapons and provides an inadequate discussion of the logic behind deterrence and escalation. An update that better addresses these topics would make them accessible and disseminatable to decision-makers at all levels of the service. This is especially important given the emphasis on distributed operations in the “contact and blunt layers” where marines, forward-deployed near adversary forces, work to expose malign behavior and are ready to immediately respond to aggression. Here, junior leaders may be forced to make decisions with global consequences under the almost unimaginable stress of great-power war. Doctrinal updates should also incorporate revisions to Warfighting that re-envision the practical chapters for competition with nuclear-capable states. Such efforts present an opportunity for further collaboration with the U.S. Navy, as aspects of its culture and force design have been shaped by nuclear weapons for decades. Further engagement with these issues should be encouraged through writing competitions and incorporation into the curriculum at the Marine Corps’ institutions of higher learning. This offers the best opportunity for substantive learning and debate amongst the service’s future planners, commanders, and staff officers.

Second, the Marine Corps should identify strategic dynamics within existing operational planning processes. The design process and problem-framing step in planning provide a basic framework but should place greater emphasis on appreciating the implications of the strategic environment. Additionally, wargames could incorporate a “strategic cell” that, similar to enemy-focused red cells, specifically focuses on nuclear dynamics to ensure they are not overlooked.

Third, the Corps should increase its emphasis on developing units that can coordinate with and support interagency partners, in order to enhance and leverage their capabilities. This would be a “strategic level of combined arms” that appreciates how the character and purpose of military operations are often conditioned on other aspects of the national security apparatus flexing levers of influence. While this context may not always be apparent to individual units, understanding it is crucial to ensuring that military operations complement the nation’s holistic interactions with a nuclear-capable state. The Marines have already begun to demonstrate proficiency in an integrated approach, providing a proof of concept for future initiatives, and the service should consider assigning more marines to integrate with partner organizations and interagency forums.

Operating Under the Nuclear Shadow

For the first time in decades, the Marine Corps needs to prepare for warfare against nuclear-armed adversaries. Competition and managing escalation with nuclear states requires tactical and operational restraint. As it increasingly prepares for tensions with China in the Indo-Pacific, the Marine Corps will have to reconcile its service culture, historical ethos, and strategic role to fit a new strategic environment. This won’t be easy. But the Corps’ history of adaptation demonstrates that the service has the foundation to become as effective in the future as it has been in the past.



Nathan Fleischaker is an infantry officer and operational planner. He is participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Stanford University.

Shawna Sinnott is an intelligence officer and is co-host of the Irregular Warfare Podcast. She is participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Stanford University.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Brandon Salas)