On Future Wars and the Marine Corps: Asking the Right Questions
“The gloves have now come off,” warned a former senator and secretary of the Navy in launching a direct public attack on the commandant of the Marine Corps. What is going on? A recent string of articles in various publications by respected retired Marines — Bing West, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Paul Van Riper, Gen. (ret.) Jack Sheehan, Jim Webb (former senator and secretary), and John Schmitt — publicly challenge Gen. David Berger on the direction he is taking America’s 9-1-1 force.
Their unprecedented public critiques center on three central issues: the process that begat these changes, the role of the Marine Corps in national defense, and differences in conception of combined arms warfare. Did the commandant get the design exactly right? Inside and outside the Marine Corps, this is hotly debated. I seek here to re-frame the dialogue to better come to grips with the drivers of change and those aspects of the design where further discussion on risks, requirements, and Marine Corps identity are warranted. My perspective is informed by my experiences from 2018 to 2021, prior to my own retirement, as the officer responsible for Marine Corps wargaming.
Organizational change is hard. The foundational ideas of Force Design 2030 percolated for years in Quantico prior to 2019 when Berger directed the changes. His predecessor as commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, stated as far back as 2017 that the Corps was not “currently organized, trained, and equipped to face a peer adversary in the year 2025.” To help rectify this, the expeditionary advanced base operations concept was signed by both Neller and Adm. John Richardson, then serving as chief of naval operations, in March 2019. In a speech two months later, Neller foreshadowed that hard decisions associated with the adaptation of the force were necessary: “We have to be able to control maritime space from a land space as part of that naval campaign… there’s tough trades … [W]hat are you going to give up to pay for that?” Rightly, since the Marine Corps was on the verge of major trade-off decisions, Neller deferred those decisions to his successor who would have to be the one to see them through.
Anticipating this requirement, Berger in early summer 2019, shortly before becoming commandant, formed a small group of colonels and generals to work on these hard choices. They spent two months crafting Force Design 2030, constructing a force capable of conducting expeditionary advanced base operations. Berger started to formulate his stand-in forces concept as his vision for how the Marine Corps fights in a joint maritime campaign. After becoming commandant, he spent two months in a cycle of reviews with his three-star generals before issuing a decision memorandum in September 2019 outlining the design. From there, the design was handed over to the force development enterprise in Quantico.
Given the shroud of secrecy that surrounded the effort up to that point, there were surprises in the scope of the restructuring and divestment decisions. One of the commandant’s first priority tasks was to identify risks associated with this design. The task sparked an immediate series of wargames, which I oversaw, to examine the divestments. Based on this risk assessment, the commandant decided to proceed in some areas while deferring trade-off decisions in others, pending more analysis. In the two-and-a-half years since then, a series of well over two dozen special planning teams, of typically 20 to 30 subject matter experts each, met to put more detail on specific aspects of the design and proffer recommended adjustments. These teams included representatives from every key stakeholder organization in the Marine Corps. Simultaneously, the service embarked on a series of wargames, experiments, and studies to further assess the force design and to refine associated concepts. These efforts remain ongoing with adjustments to the design constantly in discussion.
Was the commandant’s methodology a force development process foul? From an organizational change standpoint, it is arguable whether any large bureaucracy is capable of this degree of rapid transformation left to its own devices. Leveraging a small group of subject matter experts to initially frame the hard choices is a legitimate technique, and forming such a group outside of the force development bureaucracy is not without precedent. But doing so requires open communication about the designs and an effective means to gain institutional buy-in. Since the commandant appears to have lost the support of a large cadre of retired Marine generals, something clearly went off the rails. In an article in Politico, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Paul Van Riper appeals, “What we want to see is these changes are based on thorough study and analysis, not just projections of what might be needed.” Yet there were reams of reports on wargames, experiments, and studies on potential investment decisions and warfighting concepts that informed Berger’s decisions. There is, however, a legitimate critique of the commandant’s approach: He handed the force development enterprise a single course of action, which dominated the analysis and wargaming in a way that left little room for a consideration of alternatives.
For any of you quick to judge the commandant on this, remember that in a fiscally constrained environment, tough trade off choices were required and a sense of urgency regarding China prevailed. For those areas where the commandant had high confidence and willingness to accept risk (i.e., cutting tanks), he proceeded with the divestment based on limited analysis. For those areas of low confidence, he pursued a campaign of learning. His willingness to make these hard choices was praised by many in Washington’s establishment who saw his bold decisions as the right approach. And, given Berger’s prior experience as assistant commandant for concept development and integration and as the commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, he was about as prepared as anyone could to be to make these decisions. Undoubtedly, once history puts a more informed lens on these years, the Marine Corps’ efforts will become a case study in organizational change — both what it did right and what it did wrong.
The Role of the Marine Corps
Possibly the force design’s most controversial aspect is the commandant’s near-singular focus on enabling sea denial in a naval expeditionary campaign. This stems from then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ designation of China as the “pacing threat.” This was recently reaffirmed by current Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks referring to China as the “pacing challenge.” In Berger’s initial planning guidance in 2019, he stated:
We will build one force — optimized for naval expeditionary warfare in contested spaces, purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleets. That single purpose-built future force will be applied against other challenges across the globe; however, we will not seek to hedge or balance our investments to account for those contingencies.
Proponents of this approach argue changes were directed based on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and classified Defense Planning Guidance. These changes also have the full-backing, if not direct encouragement, from key members of Congress who are Marine veterans.
Berger’s critics contend that optimizing for a maritime fight with China abandons the general-purpose, balanced framework that magnificently served U.S. interests for decades. They argue the approach reduces the Marine Corps’ relevance to the full range of combat operations by taking away essential combined arms capabilities. The elimination of tanks, cuts to suppressive cannon artillery fires, smaller infantry battalions, and the focus on building Marine littoral regiments fundamentally alters the service’s expeditionary combined arms capability to perform any mission. These concerns persist despite multiple attempts by the commandant and others to communicate the applicability of the force to other missions and theaters.
Still, misperception, misunderstanding, and disagreement abound. This is, in part, due to the Marine Corps’ own narratives, reinforced by differing views on force employment and purpose. The commandant’s emphasis on stand-in forces as a force defining concept contributes to these concerns. Just as China is the pacing threat, stand-in forces is the pacing concept. In essence, stand-in forces are small, low-observable units which operate within range of an adversary’s sensors and weapons in order to enable operations and complicate the adversary’s plans. Yet “crisis response” is not even mentioned in the concept. This shift in focus is a sea change for the Marine Corps, particularly for a force-defining document. To compound this, many interpret the commandant’s words, “will not seek to hedge,” as an indication that “we will no longer do” other contingencies such as a land campaign. Clearly, for any retired Marine who served for decades under the mantra of crisis and contingency response, with urban warfighting legacies such as the three-block war, stand-in forces sparks concern. Is the Marine Corps optimized to be a 9-1-1 force or to be a stand-in force versus China? Can the two be the same? And if the argument is that they are the same, then why is crisis response not even mentioned in the concept? These questions undoubtedly run through their minds. The recent ending of rotational crisis response forces in combat commands outside of the Pacific further reinforce this concern.
This venerated group of critics knows the threats and challenges. Their advocacy is based on the idea that the Marine Corps must remain a general-purpose force that can flex to all threats and not be optimized for just one threat and mission. They are struggling to reconcile how the Marine Corps maintains its legacy as a 9-1-1 force while optimizing to a stand-in force concept applicable to a narrow set of conditions, albeit ones deemed critical to national strategy.
To alleviate such concerns, Gen. Eric Smith — the assistant commandant — recently published an article in Proceedings reassuring readers that his service remains America’s “crisis response force.” Having wargamed many of the ideas that contributed to stand-in forces, my view is they are, without a doubt, applicable to crisis response scenarios and will do better than the legacy force under most circumstances. But this narrative is not clearly communicated by Marine leaders and Marine concepts. There is another critical question: What is the contribution of light stand-in forces to a land campaign? Given the commandant’s guidance that the Marine Corps would “not hedge” for those contingencies, this was not a priority in the initial years of wargaming the force design and it warrants detailed examination.
The Marine Corps needs to clarify its roles in contingencies beyond China and in warfighting concepts beyond that of stand-in forces. Of particular importance to Marine identity is to clarify how the service contributes to offensive operations. Since the concept of stand-in forces is specifically defensive — it makes no claim otherwise — then what concept guides the Marine Corps in the offense?
The Future of Combined Arms Warfare
Directly related to the above question is the role of tanks, artillery, and infantry in contemporary combined arms warfare. Everyone has witnessed the annihilation of Russian mechanized formations in Ukraine where the power of the defense and the lethality of light infantry armed with modern anti-tank weapons defeated Russia’s assaults. A recent War on the Rocks article argues how the Marine warfighting approach remains relevant to other contingencies:
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.
Events in Ukraine (as well as Nagorno-Karabakh) offer ample evidence that this view is not just theoretical but has a measurable degree of support based on contemporary conflicts. But, the commandant’s critics assert, “By eliminating tanks and gutting infantry, artillery, and aviation, Force Design 2030 severely degrades the Marine Corps’ ability to conduct combined-arms warfare.”
At the core of this debate is a fundamental question: Can a light infantry force seize ground or destroy an entrenched enemy — especially in urban terrain — without armor? Is that mission still a Marine Corps requirement? In the combined arms portfolio of land warfare, at least in the past, it has proven challenging for a force without tanks or assault guns to conduct offensive operations to seize defended terrain. Without tanks, a Marine landing team’s ability to close with and destroy the enemy is diminished. The commandant stated he is willing to accept risk in divesting tanks, and that the service could rely on the Army in the event that it needed them. But will the Army be responsive to a naval expeditionary force’s requirements? A ground combat element that does not wield any heavy firepower is dependent on air and indirect fire support to enable maneuver. Can manned aircraft, armed drones, loitering munitions, and rockets make up the difference and accomplish what tanks and artillery once did for the Marine Corps? It depends on what one is asking the force to do, and that is the heart of the debate.
As part of this combined arms dispute, in another force design feature, the Marine Corps expands its rocket and missile capability at the expense of towed cannons. A towed cannon battery on today’s battlefield is arguably the least survivable fires capability for a stand-in force given the time required to displace and emplace – hence the commandant’s willingness to part with it. The trade-off is a dramatic expansion of long-range rocket and missile capability. These enable Marine units to strike at targets both at sea and on land at stand-off ranges. But does this approach cut too deeply into the Marine Corps’ high-volume, high-caliber fires which are traditionally employed to suppress enemy forces and enable maneuver? The service will be challenged to stockpile enough precision munitions to satisfy the requirements of a major land campaign. Should these run out, can the reduced number of cannon batteries meet the fires requirement? Given the commandant’s emphasis on stand-in forces, is this even required?
On infantry, critics claim Berger’s reforms impose a 41 percent reduction on the service’s infantry, but this is incorrect. Force Design 2030 drops the active component infantry from 24 to 21 battalions and the size of each battalion from 896 to between 733 and around 800, according to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. As such, in the most extreme case, the Marine Corps drops active component infantry from 21,504 to 15,393 — a 29 percent overall reduction. However, based on experimentation and wargaming, the Marine Corps is likely going to settle around 800 per battalion, a 22 percent reduction in total infantry. However, final decisions are still pending. As a point for comparison, the U.S. Army’s infantry battalions are sized at 729 personnel.
What is a concern is that Force Design 2030 envisions infantry that are both commando-like in their employment and episodically become the core of new littoral combat teams focused on sea denial. Given the National Defense Strategy, the idea of a littoral combat team contributing to a joint maritime campaign has merit. There are many joint, Navy, and Marine Corps wargames from the past several years that support this. But multi-tasking the infantry, by design, to be both commandos and littoral combat teams may undercut their ability to effectively do either. There are alternative configurations that avoid this stress to the force. The service’s World War II-era coastal defense battalions serve as precedent for this. According to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, in the ongoing refinements to the infantry battalion and the Marine littoral regiment, such an alternative approach is in consideration.
The most urgent discussion about combined arms and the Marine Corps concerns drones. If the service is unable to solve this problem, it won’t matter how many tanks, artillery, and infantry the service can send into the fight. How does the Marine Corps plan to win the thousand-foot air battle against drones? This is an existential fight for ground formations. The Marine Corps can no longer send infantry platoons to the tactical edge armed only with traditional infantry weapons. The platoons of yesterday, and even today, will be cut to pieces against adversaries able to produce masses of loitering munitions and drone swarms.
The Marine Corps’ multi-billion dollar aviation combat element contributes little to helping the ground force win this thousand-foot fight. How can reforms help the Marine Corps regain the skies immediately above a rifle company or firing battery? Again, this is urgent and cannot await more years of study. The Marine Air Defense Integrated System, while helpful, is not getting fielded in numbers that ensures every rifle platoon and company has its own protective bubble. These systems are likely to get peeled off to cover airfields, logistics nodes, headquarters, and other critical assets, leaving nothing for the infantryman at the tactical edge. If the Marine Corps is to have a successful role in future offensive operations, it must gain advantage over adversaries in the first thousand feet of airspace.
Killing the ideas of change is not the answer. The dramatic evolution of both tactical and strategic threat environments requires new tactics and approaches to warfighting. These new technologies and tactics are in ongoing demonstration on multiple battlefields. With these changes, the defense is gaining further advantage over the offense — raising legitimate questions surrounding what combined arms capabilities are relevant on the battlefields of tomorrow. A professional discourse on innovation, warfighting, and roles and missions is warranted to ensure the Marine Corps remains “ready to fight.” To wait until consensus or clarity, though, is to impose paralysis on innovation and adaptation. Iterating on ideas while simultaneously taking near-term action is the right approach. Given the national defense strategy, Berger is headed in the right direction, but there are important questions, as identified here, still needing answers.
Tim Barrick is currently the wargaming director for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at the Marine Corps University. He is a retired Marine colonel who led the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s wargaming efforts on the commandant’s Force Design from 2018 to 2021. He also served as the commanding officer of the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group, the Marine Corps’ ground operations center of excellence, from 2016 to 2018. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Marine Corps University, the Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.