Insights for Marine (and Beyond) Force Design from the Russo-Ukrainian War
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
In attacking Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has provided concrete examples, at scale, of how technology is changing the character of war, and why legacy militaries will either evolve to meet these new challenges or face defeat. As the West reorients its defense policies and begins to increase investment in military forces, it is essential that we not simply default to buying still more of our legacy military systems. Real-world experiences, historians have noted, can offer important lessons for those willing to learn from the harsh realities of war. They are the waypoints that Michael Howard stressed when navigating an uncertain world. While it is too soon to reach any definitive lessons learned from the ongoing war in Ukraine, some immediate insights can inform ongoing U.S. and NATO military force design and defense investment priorities.
In 2019, the Marine Corps began to look hard at force design to speed implementation and build upon ongoing modernization programs. The objective of this renewed effort was to ensure the service complied with the National Defense Strategy and would be prepared for peer and near-peer challenges. How does Force Design 2030 and its assumptions about the character of war comport with what is unfolding in Ukraine? And what does the experience of this war suggest for continued force design efforts?
Of note, Sen. Jim Webb and a group of prominent retired Marine Corps general officers have come to the definitive conclusion that Force Design 2030 is wrong for the Marine Corps and the nation, despite unfolding developments in the Russo-Ukrainian War. While their various commentaries emphasize different ways in which Gen. David Berger — the current commandant — is mistaken, one thing they share is a failure to offer any alternatives beyond a nostalgic status quo that does not reflect the lessons unfolding on the battlefield of Ukraine or analysis of the China challenge. They demonstrate no solid understanding of current threats, contemporary technologies, or the economic and budgetary constraints that active-duty leaders must contend with today.
Failing to evolve means losing the next war and precious lives with it. That is a cause worth pursuing regardless of any amount of criticism change will receive. Certainly, George C. Marshall did not defer to the views of the cavalry veterans of the 1898 Battle of Omdurman when he was building the force that won World War II, nor should current serving leaders defer to the judgments of veterans of wars 50 years past. The opinions of these veterans deserve a respectful hearing, but in the end, it is down to current leaders to make decisions for the future force in line with political guidance, which has been consistent, in the case of the Marine Corps, across administrations.
I seek here to explore six changes to the character of war: optionality, traditional airpower, loitering munitions (non-traditional airpower), social media and associated information technology, ground mobility, and logistics. The Russo-Ukrainian War provides compelling evidence, across these six areas, that Marine Corps Force Design 2030 is on track to provide a relevant and unique contribution to the U.S. military and to tackle the core national security challenges facing the United States as expressed by subsequent presidents from both major parties.
A good force design provides decision-makers with forces and capabilities that facilitate a wide range of options to respond to crisis and conflict. In the Russo-Ukrainian case, there was a strategic advantage for the European Union and the United States to not move preemptively or preventively, so as to offer no action that Putin could claim as a provocation to justify his invasion. The recklessness of Putin’s campaign made the impact of his aggression all the more startling and likely contributed to the amazing coalescing of global opinion against him. This catalyzing effect allowed for the rapid passage of sweeping economic sanctions thought impossible just a month ago.
Of course, this strategic approach precluded traditional movement, positioning, and build-up of military forces and associated logistics, but the Marine Corps’ current force design efforts would allow for force configurations that can work within these kinds of constraints. For example, small and distributed infantry units could be flown to a friendly airfield while medium-altitude, long-endurance drones provide direct support. Mounted on light tactical vehicles such as Polaris’ MRZR, these Marine units could employ substantial numbers of vehicle and shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-air weapons combined with a family of small, medium, and large loitering munitions. This would provide a potent force quickly, just the type of rapid response missions the Marine Corps was designed for.
The Marine Corps has traditionally been the nation’s crisis response force, able to deploy rapidly without a requirement to first build up an iron mountain of logistics ashore. To maintain the ability to perform its crisis response role in an age where sensors and long-range precision weapons are widely proliferated, Force Design 2030 is focused on distributed expeditionary operations. This allows for rapid use of hard-to-detect forces that can concentrate precision weaponry at the time and place of their choosing. This approach is ideal for preserving a wide range of options for political authorities.
Lessons on air superiority from the Russo-Ukrainian War are distinctly different from those of the Gulf War, which shaped our current approach to airpower. The Ukrainian military has shown that small, widely distributed infantry formations equipped with precision-guided munitions can operate effectively against armor and mechanized forces without air superiority, or even a traditional air force. In a recent episode of the WarCast, Justin Bronk observed that Russia and Ukraine are employing tactical aircraft conservatively given the proliferation of air defense systems, especially short-range and man-portable systems, thus demonstrating the growing lethality of such systems. Even when not integrated, these man-portable systems can knit together to form a surprisingly effective air defense system. Further, rather than fighters and bombers, the Ukrainians have been able to leverage remotely piloted aerial vehicles such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 for reconnaissance, surveillance, and attack.
This is a seminal development, and one that cuts both ways. Lesser powers and even non-state actors can now challenge conventional militaries in ways not possible a decade ago. This also affords substantial new opportunities for advanced militaries, enabling them to conduct rapid response or stand-in force operations where tactical aviation aircraft are not available due to temporal or range constraints, or when unable to maintain air superiority.
In many scenarios, there are substantial challenges to both land-based and carrier-based fighters and attack aircraft given their short range and need for substantial supporting infrastructure such as airfields, maintenance, refueling facilities, and layers of air defense. Since the first Gulf War, long-range precision strike systems have proliferated widely. Over this same period, the combat radius of the U.S. tactical aviation fleet has declined with the loss of aircraft such as the A-6, F14, and F111. This is now a handicap when the United States is confronted with adversaries that bring long-range precision strike systems to the battlefield.
Drones provide important alternatives to manned tactical aviation. Unconstrained by highly vulnerable in-air refueling or crew endurance, drones boast impressive endurance, providing up to several days of continuous flight time, compared to only several hours for manned platforms. Also, importantly, they do not put a pilot at risk, which eliminates the need for search and rescue.
The Russo-Ukraine War has already demonstrated the additional benefits of drones. If NATO possessed a family of interoperable drones with a NATO standard ground control station, the controversy over Poland providing aircraft to Ukraine need not occur in future conflicts. Interoperable drones from America’s arsenal could simply be handed off to a ground control station operated by the state requiring support. The acquiring country could then operate and refuel the aircraft from that point forward. This speaks to the wisdom of standardization not just among allied countries, but also among countries that are aligned or partnered with the United States. Further, with additional planning and investment, a country could develop ships specifically designed for a ground control station mission, thus allowing sovereign control of drones from international waters, should the territory of the country itself be too contested.
Force Design 2030 suggests the need for a roughly 50/50 mix of manned to unmanned aircraft. The Marine Corps is planning for six squadrons of medium altitude long endurance drones, while providing smaller drones to all infantry battalions, companies, platoons, and squads. It is worth noting that many of the voices coming out against Berger’s vision for the future of the Marine Corps stood against such reforms for years, leaving Marine infantry units without organic drone support when the technology was readily available. These policies were made in deference to commitments to manned aircraft acquisitions such as the F-35 program. Despite these setbacks, drones at all levels of command will greatly expand the Marine Corps’ ability to provide long-range intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance to the joint force and the ability to deliver deadly munitions from the sky.
Loitering Munitions (Non-Traditional Airpower)
As I described in a past article in War on the Rocks, “loitering munitions will impact the character of warfare more substantially than the introduction of the machine gun.” If Ukraine had enough loitering munitions such as the Hero 120 or Switchblade 600, the now infamous Russian convoy north of Kyiv may have been turned into a highway of death — all without putting a jet in the sky or a pilot at risk. Loitering munitions are fast and nimble, allowing them to get to difficult-to-reach targets. They can also complicate an adversary’s air defenses, especially if employed in swarms. AI-enabled swarming tactics will allow these platforms to coordinate autonomously to create optimal effects through synchronized timing of attacks and improved target discrimination. It was once the case that manned tactical aviation was the only option for military leaders to do something like this. Now loitering munitions do this and more, at lower cost, with less supporting infrastructure, with much more endurance, and at lower risk to lives.
While it takes 20 years or more to develop a new manned aircraft, loitering munitions and their close siblings — popularly known as drones — can evolve annually, or even faster if required. This is a substantial advantage, as threats and countermeasures evolve. An adversary can develop countermeasures for tactical aviation over decades, while the development of countermeasures for drones and loitering munitions can be achieved in months.
Social Media and Information Technology
Ukraine has dominated the information space and garnered worldwide support because its communications are genuine and organically developed, whereas Putin’s authoritarianism puts Russia at a distinct disadvantage. He has chosen to lock down the media and rely on state-controlled news outlets. This approach may have some effect on the portion of the Russian population whose only connection to external events is through such channels, but for the rest of the population, and especially for the wider world audience, these outlets are clearly spewing Orwellian propaganda. Russia has ceded the information space through its utter lack of credibility. This part of the contest of wills is going to continue as long as the conflict does, and beyond.
The impact of ubiquitous smartphones and network connectivity, which is becoming increasingly robust with space-based redundancy provided by systems like Starlink, has been much discussed, but the current conflict demonstrates, in stark terms, the strategic significance of these technologies. The ability of a global audience to witness first-hand the horrors of war and Putin’s barbarity has been strategically decisive in gaining broad support for rapid, robust sanctions. Any country whose leadership values economic growth should now account for this sort of global repudiation before launching a military adventure — all because everyone has a networked camera in his or her pocket.
Force Design 2030 acknowledges this change in the character of war by creating Marine expeditionary force information groups designed to facilitate friendly maneuver and deny the enemy freedom of action in the information environment. The Marine Corps has also recently introduced a new influence officer occupational specialty to synergistically develop cyber warfare and information maneuver operations expertise. Stand-in forces are uniquely positioned for conducting electronic warfare attacks for cyber effects, while also thickening joint force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
For example, the Marine Corps’ force design emphasizes the importance of aerial and ground-based sensors that can be used to provide additional credible sources to expose adversary malign behavior through video or other sensing means, thereby enabling activities such as deterrence by detection. Should an adversary conduct aggressive actions against an ally or partner, Marine Corps sensors could monitor their actions and provide video for the world to see. Should a crisis develop, these same sensor systems could maintain custody of key targets in support of the entire U.S. military.
Ground Mobility, Maneuver, Armor, and Mechanized Operations
Ukrainian forces equipped with shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons, loitering munitions, and armed drones demonstrate the increasing vulnerability of armor and mechanized vehicles — including Russia’s most advanced models. According to one open-source estimate, Russia has lost over 2,000 tanks and military vehicles to date. These vehicles have become easy targets for precision direct and indirect fire weapons on a battlefield far different from that of previous wars. A $120,000-missile destroying a $10 million-tank is a favorable cost exchange ratio, and these costs do not account for the substantial operation and maintenance costs of the tank or mechanized vehicle, nor the cost to train its crew.
To have any chance for success, armored or mechanized employment on the future battlefield will require exceptionally well-trained crews and the latest active protection systems (especially top-down protection), thus further increasing the costs associated with these systems. Importantly, these protective systems add substantial weight, making a protected main battle tank too heavy for expeditionary crisis response operations. The Army is far better structured and located to provide realistic training and build armor expertise — along with the essential theater-level logistics required to enable effective armor employment — thus it was deemed prudent to eliminate tanks from the Marine Corps. The Army and Marine Corps have a long history of this sort of cooperation, including in some of the toughest urban battles, such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Najaf.
Mobility and maneuver are important factors on any battlefield, and constraints on mobility are many, varied, and growing. Russian armored and mechanized forces have largely been constrained to highways, whereas foot-mobile Ukrainian infantry commuting to the battlefield in their personal vehicles have been able to successfully ambush their road-bound convoys. While every tactical situation is unique, this conflict points out that effective mobility and maneuver need not be heavy vehicles and armor. If the Ukrainians had small all-terrain vehicles like the MRZR that the Marine Corps is acquiring, they would be able to use hunter-killer teams along the flanks of the Russian columns with even greater frequency and over greater distances than they are currently able to achieve. Further in the future, exoskeletons will allow infantry to cover substantial distances by foot.
Logistics is always a critical determinant of success in military operations, and the future will be no different in this regard — though it will differ in practice in certain scenarios. In other words, the nature of logistics is constant, but the character of logistics is ever-changing. While the greater distances involved in distributed force operations present an obvious physical challenge, the forces themselves tend to be smaller, and less sustainment-intensive since precision can often reduce the quantities of munitions required. We are seeing in the Russo-Ukrainian War that forces less reliant on heavy vehicles, armor, and fixed airbases are highly lethal and have a much-reduced aggregate logistics demand.
This is not to say logistics will be easy, but it will be different in important ways, and would certainly not produce the kind of support requirements that led to the mother of all convoys during Russia’s advance on Kyiv. In a crisis, Marine infantry mounted in MRZRs or foot-mobile could contribute in significant ways to the joint force by being able to deploy rapidly, without the need for large logistics stores or support bases, while providing critical sensing, targeting, and fires for the joint force. Sometimes getting to a crisis fast matters, and that is how a middle-weight expeditionary force provides a unique contribution to the entire U.S. military.
The Right Stuff
In sum, Marine Corps Force Design 2030, when fully implemented, will provide decision-makers with a significant range of crisis response options, including ones like the Russo-Ukrainian War. For example, a newly designed Marine expeditionary brigade could deploy via strategic airlift quickly into theater or it could stage in the United States, providing the president the ability to enter the conflict at the time of the president’s choosing, thus minimizing escalation risks. Alternatively, amphibious shipborne forces could position in the Baltic Sea to provide an array of reinforcement options.
This ability to deploy rapidly by multiple modes of transportation is related to the changing logistics requirements discussed above. Berger’s vision allows for a higher ratio of fighters on the front line to support personnel (tooth to tail) by allowing significant supporting infrastructure such as airfields, maintenance, ground control, production, exploitation, and dissemination to be positioned outside the primary weapons engagement zone. This recalibrated tooth-to-tail ratio in the weapons engagement zone will greatly reduce the logistics burden of the brigade.
A platform like the new MQ-9B Sea Guardian, with more than 40 hours of endurance, could refuel and rearm from anywhere in Europe and still provide long endurance on station. Electric or hybrid-drive MRZRs or MRZR-equivalents would reduce fuel requirements. Electrical power generation, food, and fuel could be obtained from the host nation. This sort of light-but-lethal task-organized force would have flexibility of employment in many climes and places.
If the president was to decide to bolster NATOs deterrence posture as he has with Ukraine, the brigade could establish bases along the eastern NATO flank to provide long-range precision fires employing a range of land-attack cruise missiles or hypersonic missiles, transported in and launched from shipping containers.
Lacking traditional defense industry constituencies, the Department of Defense will need to work hard to explain to Congress why these new capabilities should receive funding. Further examination and analysis of the Russo-Ukrainian War should provide tangible examples to illustrate why new capabilities are required to win given the changing character of war.
Changing priorities toward new technologies would mitigate much of the acquisition funding shortfalls. Seldom is a win-win solution possible for such a critical challenge. The Department of Defense has the opportunity to get better capability faster and cheaper while building a less centralized industrial base, simply by learning from recent wars and leveraging our greatest strengths — innovation and transparency. Marine Corps Force Design 2030 provides a significant new and affordable approach for the rest of the Defense Department to follow.
Noel Williams is a technical fellow at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc., and provides strategy and policy analysis to headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. The opinions here are his own and do not represent those of his employer or any clients.