On-the-Ground Truth and Force Design 2030 Reconciliation: A Way Forward
I grew up around cars, in a Ford family. My grandfather raced at Le Mans and elsewhere, often driving Ford GT40s. So it was with great interest that I clicked on an article by a fellow marine, Owen West, drawing lessons from the auto industry — the failure of the Edsel — for the commandant’s reforms of the Marine Corps. I came away dissatisfied with the analogy and the article’s representation of Force Design 2030.
Around the same time as the Edsel and Mustang decisions, Ford embarked on a highly secretive and ultimately highly successful effort to build the GT40 to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. The effort succeeded specifically because Ford’s chief executive officer, Henry Ford II, ultimately chose not to follow the recommended organizational change principles that West lays out in his article.
This is not to say that the Marine Corps should be taking its cues from the auto industry. War-making and car-making are, after all, different activities. But this was one of many examples of selection bias in West’s article that left me convinced that Gen. David Berger’s detractors are missing the bigger picture and getting some of the facts and context of Force Design 2030 wrong.
I hope to provide some much-needed clarity to the ongoing force-design discussion by focusing on three matters. First, I explain the reforms’ logical, political, and strategic foundation that began with then-Defense Secretary James Mattis’ January 2018 speech at Johns Hopkins University, where he described the Department of Defense’s priorities changing from counterterrorism in the Middle East to great-power competition with China and Russia. Next, I describe Force Design 2030’s primary objective based on this foundation while also addressing concerns raised by a group of senior retired marines, many of whom I have looked up to for decades, just as I have long admired Owen and his father, Bing West.
Finally, I offer recommendations that I hope can help in bringing an end to the current internecine war over force design that is raking the Marine Corps. These observations and recommendations are based in part on my experience participating as a planner in the 36th and 37th commandants’ transformation efforts. They are also based on recent experiences implementing the 38th commandant’s vision while serving as a battalion and naval task unit commander for Task Force 61/2, a Marine-led organization within 6th Fleet dedicated to employing amphibious forces, including experimental reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance elements, in support of the fleet commander’s priorities in Europe and Africa.
Mattis’ visit to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University focused on the release of the National Defense Strategy. In his remarks, he emphasized that the strategy provided a “clear-eyed appraisal” of America emerging from 20 years of “strategic atrophy” in which the Department of Defense’s “competitive military advantage has been eroding.” China topped the list of countries rapidly closing the gap on the U.S. military, and was therefore identified as the “pacing threat.” This assessment was directly in line with the new White House National Security Strategy. This strategy explicitly stated: “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” Russia was also a priority in both strategic guiding documents, although a distant second. As a result of these growing threats, Mattis declared that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”
Soon after the strategy’s release, Mattis published more detailed guidance for each of the services. The guidance built on the strategy’s four-layered (“contact,” “blunt,” “surge,” and “homeland”) global operating model. The Marine Corps was tasked to prioritize operating in the maritime littoral contact and blunt layers or zones, while pacing combat development against China as the service’s top priority. Marines operating in the contact layer were charged with competing “more effectively below the level of armed conflict,” while those in the blunt layer were to “delay, degrade, or deny adversary aggression.” For a service that had spent 11 out of the previous 15 years with more than 20,000 marines fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan’s deserts and river valleys under combined/joint force land component commander constructs, the new defense strategy was a shock to the system.
New guidance from the Pentagon’s senior civilian leaders wasn’t the only thing shocking the Marine Corps. America’s most influential national-security-focused legislators, including the late Sen. John McCain as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also demanded immediate change, emphasizing that America “has entered a renewed era of great power competition with its military advantage eroding — and eroding fast.” And it was growing increasingly clear that the Marine Corps, of all the services, had a bullseye on its forehead. Six months after the National Defense Strategy’s publication, McCain’s committee drafted language for inclusion in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that led one correspondent to write an article titled, “SASC Seeks Sweeping ‘Roles & Missions’ Report: Wither [sic] the Marines?” The committee challenged decades-old Marine Corps beliefs on why the service exists, including questioning “whether amphibious forced entry operations against peer competitors should remain an enduring mission for the joint force considering the stressing operational nature and significant resource requirements of such missions.” If all of this was not enough, the language also suggested that the Marine Corps of the future might only be focused on low-intensity operations. Further, the language identified growing congressional skepticism on the future of “large-deck amphibious ships.” This was fueled by an increasing number of think–tank reports questioning the Marine Corps’ future value. One of these reports went so far as to state, “The Marines need to find a new role for themselves, separate and distinct from joint forcible entry/amphibious operations or once again risk extinction.”
How did the Marine Corps respond? The strategic guidance documents released in late 2017 and early 2018 arrived at an awkward time for the service. Gen. Robert Neller had been the Marine Corps’ 37th commandant for just over two years at this point, and the service was already “advancing to contact” on his planning guidance, issued in January 2016. Of note, neither China nor the Pacific were mentioned a single time in the guidance’s 13 pages, yet anyone in Headquarters Marine Corps in those days knows that he was not a passionate advocate for the status quo, even if the things that he identified as driving change were not specifically focused on China. His oft-forgotten force development effort, Future Force 2025, represented his view of the increasing importance of naval integration in the littorals, operations in the information environment, and long-range precision fires as displayed in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. In addition, Gen. Neller was prepared to resource these efforts by cutting infantry, specifically by shrinking the size of the squad or even dropping a rifle company per battalion, and replacing them with ones mobilized in times of war from the reserve component. While these specific proposals were not ultimately adopted, the service was tacitly acknowledging that the status quo was no longer suitable. Regardless, the omission of any references to China in Gen. Neller’s planning and force-development guidance was in accordance with the White House guidance to the Department of Defense of 2016, which was nearly 180 degrees different than the 2017 and 2018 documents issued by the Trump administration. In 2015 and 2016, under the Obama administration, Department of Defense leaders were directed to use less inflammatory diction when talking about China and to avoid the use of “great-power competition.” Further, President Barack Obama precluded U.S. naval forces from “operating within a 12 nautical mile zone of China’s reclaimed islands” in the South China Sea, which McCain described as a “dangerous mistake” granting “de facto recognition of China’s manmade sovereignty claims.” Yet, Mattis’ 2018 guidance now required the Marine Corps to develop and implement new tactics, techniques, and procedures for operating “below the level of armed conflict,” while prepared to “delay, degrade, or deny adversary aggression” in this specific region, among other contested littoral areas in an era of “great-power competition.”
Over the next few years, a passionate, professional, and civil debate amongst marines ensued about what the Marine Corps should do next. Perhaps the most notable article was entitled, “Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marines.” It created a stir and was cited by Gen. Neller at the final Ground Awards Dinner of his tenure. Marines of many ranks and occupational specialties participated in this debate. Unlike the service’s maneuver warfare debates mentioned in West’s article, which occurred primarily in monthly, paper copies of the Marine Corps Gazette, the multiyear debate about the Marine Corps’ future occurred mostly online in War on the Rocks, with frequent back-and-forth exchanges that — based on recent comments — appear to have been missed by those most strongly opposed to Force Design 2030. Extensive dialogue also took place across a diverse array of outlets, venues, and modern forms of communication that are far different from the maneuver warfare debates, which predated the iPhone by a quarter-century.
By any measure of word count, podcast minutes, or tweets, it is difficult to imagine a Marine Corps topic being discussed more than force design. It was the most robust debate that the Marine Corps had witnessed in generations. Even more notable, the dialogue has attracted a diverse audience extending far beyond uniformed members. From allied national security practitioners to academics to congressional members, many are active in the marketplace of dialogue. Congressional responses have ranged from opinion articles, congressional memorandums, and statements during hearings that have yet to yield any concerns about Gen. Berger’s direction on force design. In fact, the responses have been just the opposite, with members consistently reinforcing their overwhelming support for Force Design 2030, including requesting that the naval services receive even more funding, in order to implement it more quickly.
While the debate about the Marine Corps’ future has played out, within the Department of Defense the analytical framework used to determine joint-force capability requirements has changed. Between 2002 and 2017, the framework was built on a scenario-based analytical process. This framework was intended to serve as a point of departure for each of the military services to determine how their current and projected capabilities fit best within joint-force constructs envisioned to address each scenario. The 2018 National Defense Strategy highlighted the myriad problems within this framework, particularly those associated with having no method for “examining innovative ideas for future force capabilities on a threat-informed basis.” Beginning in 2019, a new joint construct was developed to comprehensively address the Pentagon’s new strategy, including during both conflict and competition. In this construct, past service capability preferences not tied to implementation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy would not fare well in overall departmental budget-prioritization efforts. For the Marine Corps, this meant that decades-long service positions on requirements, such as needing 38 L-class amphibious ships to provide joint force commanders a two Marine expeditionary brigade-assault echelon capability, no longer had a solid foundation. Instead, Marine leaders were incentivized to invest in capabilities that enabled the service to meet its maritime littoral tasks within the strategy’s contact and blunt layers.
Addressing the Critics’ Concerns
Gen. Berger had a front-row seat to the foundational changes in U.S. national security and defense strategies between 2016 and his becoming the service’s 38th commandant in 2019. During this period, he served initially as the senior officer responsible for employing all Fleet Marine Forces in the Indo-Pacific and subsequently as the service’s deputy commandant for combat development and integration. No two successive billets prior to becoming the commandant could have better prepared him for understanding what needed to change within the service to best achieve explicit and clear U.S. civilian orders. Further, during this period, he, along with many of the marines taking part in the debates about the service’s future, also participated in numerous wargames alongside naval leaders such as Adm. Scott Swift, then the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. Gen. Neller, the Marine Corps’ 37th commandant, was also involved in some of these events, including one in which the chief of naval operations asked all marines present to do the following: First, explain how the Marine Corps’ current short-ranged, shore-based fires will be employed against the pacing threat; second, explain how Marine forces will deploy from Okinawa so as not to be stuck there, when all domains will be actively contested; and third, explain how these forces will help the fleet or combined force maritime component commander accomplish any of their tactical or operational level tasks. His questions were representative of the growing skepticism within the national security community over the pre-Force Design 2030 Marine Corps.
Despite the impetus for change from leaders across the national security community, Gen. Berger’s force design vision — “to produce a Marine Corps that is prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations that are themselves nested within overarching joint campaigns” — has encountered a surprising level of scrutiny from a small, highly regarded, group of retired marines. Their force-design critiques have primarily focused on five areas: first, a perceived lack of an inclusive and extended participatory reform process informing decisions; second, perceived capability degradations within the service’s ground-combat element; third, perceived capability degradations within the service’s aviation combat element; fourth, perceived logistical capability deficiencies required to achieve the goals of the stand-in forces and expeditionary advanced base operations concepts; and fifth, a perceived lack of support from senior U.S. Navy leaders as well as joint force leaders outside U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The first, I addressed in the previous section. The next four, I take in turn.
The Force Design 2030 Ground Combat Element
Despite concerns about Gen. Berger jeopardizing U.S. national security with the ongoing changes to the Marine ground combat element, what is actually occurring is that the Marine Corps’ tip of the spear is becoming far more capable. Let’s start with the infantry to understand why this is the case. Detractors have asserted that the commandant is reducing infantry capacity by more than 41 percent. Neither by percentage nor tangible capability is this assertion accurate. What are the real numbers? Force Design 2030 decreases the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21 and also is projected to decrease the number of marines per infantry battalion by anywhere from 60 to 100 marines out of a baseline of 896. Ultimately, this will lead to an overall infantry reduction of between 10 to 20 percent, depending on the results of ongoing experimentation efforts.
However, having been closely involved in the service’s infantry transformation efforts over the past decade, including those focused directly on realizing the findings of then-Secretary Mattis’ Close Combat Lethality Task Force, it is critical to look beyond the numbers. Marines in these modernized formations will be more thoroughly assessed and trained than ever before. Changes to bring about this transformation, which are already enabling distributed operations, are in progress — including, for example, extending enlisted infantry training by six weeks and infantry officer training by three weeks. These changes also include much more rigorous and distributed pre-deployment training and combat-certification evaluations.
For example, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, one of the service’s lead Force Design 2030 experimental infantry battalions, just finished its pre-combat deployment certification exercise. During the exercise, each of the battalion’s companies achieved apex status in both traditional core infantry tasks and distributed operations tasks. The core tasks included each company successfully executing non-illuminated, reinforced live-fire attacks against prepared enemy positions. They also required the marines to move under load over long distances for days. One company, for example, moved 72 miles (116 kilometers) on foot during the exercise. Additionally, to better enable distributed operations, the changes incorporate intelligence collection and fusion capabilities at the battalion and company level, whereas before these capabilities resided at the regiment, if not division, level. Finally, on the equipping front, the changes enable infantry squads, platoons, companies, and battalions to sense and kill at ranges more than 10 times what they were able to do only a few years ago, while exponentially increasing their ability to fight in low-light conditions.
A marine with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, posts security during a night raid as part of a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation in June 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jennifer E. Reyes)
Marine Gunner Steven LaRose recently described the impact of these changes and what they will mean for the Marine Corps going forward. Having closely observed and at times participated in these transformational efforts, I am confident in stating that Force Design 2030 is continuing what Gen. Neller started when it comes to transforming the Marine infantry in accordance with Mattis’ guidance on infantry lethality.
Now let’s look at two more specific ground-related concerns: the elimination of tanks and reduction in cannon artillery. Does the decision to eliminate legacy M1A1 tanks make the service less capable of supporting its infantry in close combat? As a marine who likely wouldn’t be alive right now had it not been for exceptionally courageous acts performed by numerous Marine tank crews in Iraq between 2003 and 2005, I am not emotionally unbiased on this matter. At the same time, though, it’s important to not let emotions from past combat experiences bias what is best for the Marine Corps of the future. Well before Gen. Berger became commandant, his predecessors decided not to modernize the service’s M1A1 tank inventory. This was only in part due to cost. The bigger reasons were grounded in the practical realities of the service’s requirement to operate seamlessly at and from the sea, as well as on the ground in the littorals. The basic initial M1 tank weighed around 60 tons, or 120,000 pounds. These tanks possessed the lethal 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon that thousands of Marine infantrymen came to swear by in cities such as Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, Ramadi, and Qaim. What they didn’t possess, however, were the essential capabilities required to have a chance for surviving on most modern battlefields, namely protection from top-down attack munitions and modern anti-tank guided missiles. More than a thousand Russian tank crews have lost their lives in Ukraine learning these lessons. Unfortunately, incorporating these capabilities to modernize the Abrams in the M1A2 system enhancement package version three makes each tank weigh nearly 80 tons. Increasing survivability and firepower would have had significant effects downstream. In addition to having to figure out ways to provide even more fuel for the modernized tanks, which already have relatively limited roads and bridges to travel on, the Marine Corps would have had to work with the Navy to buy more powerful surface connectors, as the landing craft air cushion is incapable of moving the modernized M1A2 version. Moreover, the modernized tank’s weight would have posed serious center of gravity concerns when embarked on L-class amphibious ships. These hard-to-swallow truths about both the legacy and modernized M1 tank were the primary reasons behind the decision to divest of the platform.
Does this decision, however, mean that marines on future battlefields will go without armor support, if needed? Of course not. If a situation presents itself where marines require this type of combined arms support, the U.S. Army has thousands of highly trained soldiers prepared to provide it, just as the Tiger Brigade did for marines in the Gulf War, just as 1/5 and 2/7 Cavalry did for the outgunned 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf in August 2004, and just as dozens of additional U.S. Army cavalry and armor units provided for marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the mid-2000s. Specific to Najaf, I had the privilege to serve marines as we fought shoulder-to-shoulder with 1/5 and 2/7 Cavalry tank crews. I will remain forever grateful for these soldiers’ tenacity, skill, and heroism.
What about concerns that cuts to traditional cannon batteries will reduce indirect fire support for the infantry? Similar to the potentially hard-to-swallow truths about the M1 tank, the service’s towed howitzer capabilities — of which more than a Marine expeditionary brigade’s capacity still remains with Force Design 2030 changes — are challenged a great deal by technologies that have rapidly proliferated across modern battlefields. These technologies, such as ubiquitous commercial satellite imagery and thousands of aerial drones with advanced optical systems combined with loitering munitions and even unguided longer-range rocket artillery, make the massing of cannon artillery an increasingly unviable tactic — as the Ukrainians are learning with their newly acquired M777s. Further, even if artillery crews are trained to “shoot and scoot” to complicate adversary targeting, the massive logistics convoys required to sustain this tactic have become exceptionally vulnerable on modern battlefields.
For these reasons, diversifying the service’s artillery portfolio to include an increased number of rocket systems with longer ranges is a logical decision, and one begun before Gen. Berger became the commandant. Moreover, given civilian leader orders to rapidly field capabilities that can hold adversary vessels in the littorals at risk, so do investments in capabilities such as Maritime Strike Tomahawk and Naval Strike Missile. Both of these capabilities have increasingly received priority in Department of Defense funding. Importantly, while some might consider these anti-ship capabilities as suboptimal for supporting infantrymen, recent Task Force 61/2 reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance operations in Europe’s contested littorals demonstrated just the opposite. These types of fires capabilities have proven to be precisely the type of killing assets required to support stand-in force units, such as the Marine unit in Estonia that I had the privilege to serve with and lead. We were tasked with increasing the 6th Fleet commander’s maritime domain awareness while simultaneously reassuring a key NATO ally.
Task Force 61/2 enhancing the 6th Fleet commander’s maritime domain awareness in the Gulf of Finland. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dylan Chagnon)
The Force Design 2030 Aviation Combat Element
Gen. Berger’s detractors have asserted that he is “crippling” the service’s aviation capabilities by reducing its aircraft inventory by 33 percent. Neither assertion is accurate. Instead, Gen. Berger and his team have recognized the importance of not simply talking about aircraft, such as the numbers of F-35Bs or CH-53Ks, but rather, fully accounting for lifecycle costs in operating expensive aviation platforms in order to achieve a sustainable — and much larger — force that is properly balanced to meet the entire range of military operations. It is purposely addressing the decades of the past, in which the Marine Corps too often utilized the proverbial “golden hammer” for every nail, such as employing F-35Bs to bomb a Taliban factory in Afghanistan, vice having a well-balanced force with a deep tool-set from which commanders could choose the optimal answer to each situation. Force Design 2030 is also moving the service back in a direction of being more responsible and balanced with taxpayer dollars when it comes to aircraft procurement, embracing the requirement to adapt due to the service’s years-long traditionally manned aircraft pilot shortages, and, most importantly, welcoming the “democratization of airpower” by exponentially increasing the number of aircraft in the service such that the Marine air-ground task force concept is now increasingly a reality down to the infantry squad level. Consider, for example, that in the near future 3,659 armed, remotely piloted aircraft, also known as loitering munitions or “organic precision fires,” will be fielded across Marine infantry and reconnaissance formations.
Ongoing infantry battalion and Task Force 61/2 experimentation efforts reinforce the immense value of force design’s approach to future aviation combat capabilities. For example, in April 2022, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines was put through a series of rigorous distributed operations tests across wide swaths of the western United States. These tests saw the battalion’s marines operating over an area that ranged more than 550 miles from north to south and 225 miles from east to west. Exclusively supporting the battalion’s squads, platoons, and companies when executing the missions with traditionally-manned aviation would have required either pre-staging dozens of $30 to $130 million aircraft across the western United States or committing hundreds of marines and many thousands of gallons of fuel to enable the conduct of forward arming and refueling point operations. Such an expensive and large footprint approach was unnecessary, however, because 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines has its own optimized, organic aviation combat capability. Building on previous experimentation successes with Camp Pendleton- and Hawaii-based infantry battalions, this aviation element includes Drone 40s launched by hand and from grenade launchers, Skydio quadcopters, long-range Puma aircraft, long-endurance, vertical take-off and landing Stalkers, and Switchblade 300s — with the Drone 40 and Switchblade providing close air support capabilities in addition to aerial reconnaissance. During the distributed operations tests, these types of capabilities allowed 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines’ small units to have their aerial sensing requirements consistently met. They also allowed the small units to destroy adversary targets at sea, which were simulating an adversary amphibious assault.
Importantly, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines’ organic aircraft capabilities also placed far less of a support-requirement burden on platforms such as F-35Bs and the pilots that fly them. This observation is noteworthy as each F-35B costs around $130 million, flying one aircraft for just one hour costs $51,300, training a single pilot costs around $10 million, and keeping the aircraft operational has been a consistent challenge, with full mission-capable availability rates recently decreasing from an already low 23.3 percent to an even lower 15.1 percent. 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines’ distributed company on San Clemente Island experienced this latter challenge as it only had one of four initially scheduled F-35Bs available to support its sea-denial mission.
Task Force 61/2 has similarly benefitted from force design’s embrace of airpower’s democratization. When operating in the Baltic Sea’s contested sea lines of communication, for example, the task force’s infantry and reconnaissance marines routinely leveraged low-signature, low-logistics-footprint Stalker aircraft to help collect on priority intelligence requirements. These same marines frequently employed the aircraft to help correlate targeting data required to employ naval and theater weapons. Additionally, these marines benefitted from similar capabilities provided by a nearby Marine Expeditionary Unit’s V-BAT aircraft. Importantly, these aircraft had previously proven extremely valuable when supporting marines and sailors operating in the Indo-Pacific, and the service is in the process of fielding them much more widely, including providing the Stalker to all infantry battalions.
Task Force 61/2 marines preparing to launch an extended-range, vertical take-off and landing Stalker drone in Estonia. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dylan Chagnon)
Force Design 2030 skeptics have also expressed doubts about the vision’s logistical supportability. Detractors have insisted that marines on their own will likely be unable to support themselves. They have similarly shared concerns that the fleet won’t be able to provide support for the Marine Corps, either.
Determining any concept’s logistical supportability is a tough task, especially for one that is less than a year old. The same applies for a concept that involves marines frequently operating in the contact layer alongside U.S. mutual defense treaty allies and close security partners, including often leveraging local economies to provide some classes of supply. Nonetheless, if submarines, surface combatants, and anything else with a vertical launch system is going to be challenged and find difficulty in being resupplied in an actively contested space, then the fact that logistics will be a challenge for stand-in forces should be neither a surprise nor a reason to halt experimentation and continued combat development.
While still early in the concept’s experimental phase, Task Force 61/2’s experiences operating in the Baltic region in May and June 2022 offer multiple valuable and promising insights from a logistical perspective. First among these is that it is definitely possible for small groups of infantry and reconnaissance marines to succeed in executing fleet commander-provided mission essential tasks for extended periods within a contested littoral region while requiring minimal external logistics support. Next is that countless benefits come from operating shoulder-to-shoulder with allies. In the case of Task Force 61/2 mobile-reconnaissance marines, operating alongside Estonian naval forces provided regular and easy access to critical capabilities such as mess halls, fuel supplies, batteries, rental vehicles and trailers, and even ferries to move between islands. The relationship also provided marines with the opportunity to maximize Estonian maritime patrol craft to help extend the 6th Fleet commander’s maritime domain awareness many dozens of nautical miles into the Baltic Sea. Third among the insights is that embracing a platform-agnostic command and control, intelligence, and targeting approach to equipping marines provided countless benefits, in contrast to past paradigms that tended to focus first on putting such equipment in large vehicles and aircraft. This approach’s benefits became clear when the task force’s scheduled C-17 flights from the United States to Estonia were delayed due to U.S. Transportation Command receiving direction to prioritize logistical supply flows into Ukraine before any other movements. After six flight delays over a ten-day period, the marines simply packed their equipment in pelican cases and sea bags and moved across the world within the next 96 hours via other, primarily commercial, means. One other example (of many) of this approach’s benefit: When one of the force’s radars became inoperable because of a cable malfunction, the marines bought a new cable in an Estonian town and had the radar operational less than an hour later. Suffice it to say, actions like these occurred routinely and left all involved with an optimistic outlook on the concept’s potential.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Task Force 61/2 did not find tremendous success from a logistical perspective. How would an alternative force design fare — such as the previous one based on two Marine expeditionary brigade amphibious joint forcible entry operations? Was this force design logistically supportable? Absolutely not. This is why the Marine Corps came under such intense scrutiny from across the national security enterprise between 2016 and 2019 when policymakers were considering how best to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Beyond the fact that the last time the service was tasked to execute anything close to the mission for which it was designed was 72 years ago, neither the Navy nor the U.S. merchant fleet possesses anywhere close to the number of logistics vessels required to support such a mission. Consider, for example, that when Marine units landed at Inchon in September 1950, 1,288 fleet logistics ships were in the U.S. inventory. Today, fewer than 50 such support ships are available on any given day to support U.S. military operations overseas. In other words, long before Gen. Berger became the commandant, America decided it no longer wanted to pay to have at the ready the mandatory logistical infrastructure required to make the primary mission for which the pre-Force Design 2030 Marine Corps was designed even feasible — regardless of whether the U.S. Navy had sufficient escort ship capabilities to protect these vessels in the first place.
The fact that the Marine Corps’ prior force design was nowhere close to logistically supportable, combined with Task Force 61/2’s successes on the logistical front, should not, however, suggest that logistics is not a challenge for the Marine Corps or the joint force going forward. Task Force 61/2’s successes occurred exclusively in the contact layer. What would have happened if an adversary started shooting and the distributed Marrine forces had to quickly transition to blunting actions? Initially at least, the equipment and ammunition required to take such actions were already forward. What if resupply were necessary, though? Skeptics are correct to emphasize that much more needs to be done — across the joint force and in close consultation with U.S. treaty allies and security partners — to answer this question. This is a core challenge when it comes to sustaining operations in Europe as well as in the Indo-Pacific’s wide expanses and requires a much broader and focused national investment discussion. This is also where the light amphibious warship requirement matters most. And as the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, recently testified, “It’s essential that we get this right.”
Task Force 61/2’s deputy commander briefing Estonian Navy leadership on Marine capabilities. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by CWO4 Izzel Sanchez)
The Navy and the Other Services
Gen. Berger’s detractors have also consistently asserted that Force Design 2030 lacks support outside of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, specifically from other combatant commanders and senior U.S. Navy leaders. Neither of these assertions are accurate. There have been multiple high-profile instances over the past few months in which both of these assertions have been proven invalid.
Let’s start initially with other combatant commanders’ thoughts on Force Design 2030. Aside from the Indo-Pacific commander, who has consistently expressed his strong support for Gen. Berger’s vision, arguably the other most important geographic combatant commander when it comes to National Defense Strategy implementation is the U.S. European Commander, Gen. Tod D. Wolters, who also serves as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Both the U.S. and collective NATO response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine falls squarely within his responsibilities. As such, his thoughts on Force Design 2030 are particularly relevant. In a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, he was asked about the commandant’s vision and how marines that were trained and equipped to implement it affected operations in Europe. His responses were telling. At first, he explained that distributed operations-capable Marine forces, “dramatically enhance our options,” further emphasizing that “a brown-water force that can shoot, move, and communicate and that is very, very expeditionary is priceless for 21st Century security.” Then, when asked specifically about Task Force 61/2 and its ongoing experimental efforts conducting anti-submarine warfare and sensing operations in support of the fleet commander, he stated, “the marines are doing a fantastic job of leading from the front and showing the rest of us how to do it right.” Gen. Wolters was subsequently asked, “So you, as a combatant commander, see a lot of promise in these experimental efforts?” He responded: “Absolutely.”
Support from senior U.S. Navy leaders in recent months has echoed Gen. Wolters’ comments. I experienced these viewpoints specifically from Commander, 6th Fleet Adm. Eugene H. Black, and Commander, Naval Forces Europe and Africa Adm. Robert Burke, when serving Task Force 61/2’s mobile reconnaissance unit. Both admirals consistently expressed their support and enthusiasm for what Task Force 61/2 marines were doing across Europe’s most contested littoral regions. The chief of naval operations relayed this level of overwhelming support at the aforementioned House Armed Services Committee hearing. When asked, “is the Navy supportive of Force Design 2030, including the Stand-in Force concept and how is the Navy preparing to support this concept in implementation?” Adm. Gilday responded:
We’re doing it right now … I talked to the NAVEUR commander [Adm. Burke] yesterday … his headquarters has about 30 marines in their joint force maritime component cell. Their deputy commander is a marine. There are marine elements under his command in places like Estonia, Iceland, and Norway today … we’re working side-by-side everyday … that is where Navy-Marine integration gets real … it’s at the fleet level right now, today.
Adm. Gilday relayed similar themes days later when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. During this hearing, he also emphasized, after learning of concerns over aspects of Force Design 2030 not being included in key U.S. Navy documents such as his own navigation plan, that he is directing an “update to my navigation plan within the month and I will take special note to be sure that I foot-stomp Stand-in Forces.”
A Better Way Forward?
Watching what has been described as an “intellectual civil war” over Force Design 2030 has admittedly been disappointing, especially the parts that have bordered on becoming personal. Many times, as I’ve read the back-and-forth, for-and-against exchanges, I’ve thought to myself that we have to be better than this as marines because the American people expect so much more from us. Debating substance is one thing. Personal attacks are quite another. The same applies for challenging our commandant’s plan while providing no viable alternative.
As I’ve reflected on these thoughts, I’ve wondered if perhaps there might be a better and more constructive way to move forward, together. These thoughts stem from reflecting on the development and experimentation with maneuver warfare in the 1980s at Camp Lejeune, combined with all the ongoing 2nd Marine Division successes, especially those involving Task Force 61/2 and 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines’ infantry battalion experimentation and combat readiness evaluation efforts. If it is indeed true that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and further that “seeing is believing,” perhaps the next step in Force Design 2030 implementation should be holding a summit in Camp Lejeune. All involved in the debate would be welcome to attend. There, they would watch Task Force 61/2 marines, recently returned from Europe, execute reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance mission profiles similar to what they did overseas when operating in support of the fleet. They would similarly watch 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines’ squads, platoons, and companies execute day and night live-fire attacks similar to those that LaRose described in his recent article. Additionally, summit attendees would have the chance to participate in wargames and briefs with all of these same marines. At the end of each day, all participants would have the opportunity to discuss the most important lessons learned together and also even, schedule permitting, with the commandant, similar to how Gen. Alfred Gray approached the maneuver warfare experiments. When complete, any points of outstanding contention would be captured, along with an attack plan to address what would be done to address these concerns in short order.
Knowing, learning from, and seeking to emulate so many involved in both sides of the Force Design 2030 debate, I can’t help but think that something like the proposed summit would help America’s Corps of Marines move forward — together — in ensuring that the service remains for decades to come “most ready, when the nation is least ready.”
Team, Team, Damn Team
It’s time to end the internecine war over Force Design 2030. The commandant has the Marine Corps on the right trajectory. This trajectory is fully supported by civilian leadership in the Department of Defense, Congress, and the White House. Similarly, the trajectory is fully supported by senior U.S. Navy leadership and the combatant commanders. Additionally, the trajectory is directly in line with the most recent 2022 National Defense Strategy, which doubles down on identifying China as the pacing threat and the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater. And fortunately, because this trajectory paces against the most challenging threat, the Marine Corps is now even better postured to respond to crises throughout the world, as Task Force 61/2 has recently demonstrated.
Now, let’s do everything possible to move out — together — to further accelerate transforming the Marine Corps to achieve the Force Design 2030 vision.
Scott Cuomo is a U.S. Marine officer. He wrote part of this article while simultaneously commanding 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and an experimental mobile reconnaissance formation within Task Force 61/2. He completed the article soon after reporting to serve within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dylan Chagnon