Why The Marines Matter
Dear Next Commandant:
Congratulations on your appointment as the 39th commandant of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps’ radical redefinition over the last four years under your predecessor’s guidance sought to prepare the service for the future with an even more capable and well-postured force, armed with new weapon systems and operating concepts that will provide the capabilities and resources required to survive and thrive inside contested spaces. But the work is far from complete. We believe the Marine Corps can do a better job of articulating how its contributions to the joint force are more significant than its dependencies. Your predecessor shared in his 2022 Force Design 2030 annual update that he, too, believed it is essential to communicate the details of his vision more effectively.
As the next commandant, you will have the opportunity to improve the narrative by clearly identifying and communicating how the service’s current and future operational objectives contribute to the challenges of today’s ever-changing national security environment. We believe that the process ought to start with identifying areas where the Marine Corps adds unique capabilities and expanded capacity to the joint force while interrogating some of the favorable assumptions underlying these capabilities. By embracing this effort, you can bolster the Marine Corps’ narrative and build understanding with decision-makers in the Pentagon, at the White House, and on Capitol Hill.
We believe that the Marine Corps is correct in emphasizing its ability to be a stand-in force via the expeditionary advanced base operations concept. However, to do this right, the Marine Corps still needs support from the joint force and a refinement of its own capabilities to execute a realistic sustainment concept, maintain a command-and-control architecture capable of enabling the kill-chain in denied and degraded environments, and assure mobility and counter-mobility throughout the theater. And while your predecessor consistently acknowledged these challenges, we believe that more can be done. To garner the support required to meet these dependencies and shortfalls, the service needs to do a better job of convincing Congress and the other armed services that the capabilities that the Marine Corps plans to bring to the fight are worth their investment, now and in the future.
Transformation Worthy of Investment
With finite resources available, decision-makers in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill are faced with the daunting task of deciding how to best deter U.S. adversaries with a fixed budget. The last two National Defense Strategies reoriented the joint force back to great-power competition, with particular attention to China. The Marine Corps has spent the last several years rapidly developing and executing a modernization plan to meet the demands associated with pacing against China’s rapid and increasing military modernization and employment efforts. The capabilities that the Marine Corps pursued to execute its updated concepts are starting to be fielded, most notably the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment.
Modernizing, however, has come at a cost. Commandant David H. Berger, understanding that no additional resources from Congress would be forthcoming, has pursued an aggressive path of “divest to invest.” The Marine Corps’ investments over the past four years have signaled that it is no longer in the business of being a second land army. However, as the Marine Corps continues to emphasize how the capabilities that it has chosen to pursue are a force multiplier in competition, the service could also explicitly state what missions it will no longer train for. This could include identifying capabilities that may be outsourced to other services, similar to how the Marine Corps relies on the Navy for medical support. With potential defense budget cuts on the horizon, the Marines Corps, as the second-smallest service, needs to ensure that its value is fully understood, and that savings from divestments don’t turn into justifications for cuts. While senior defense leaders have testified in support of these capabilities, the capabilities that allow the Corps to be ready in every time and place are still under-resourced. Without funding from congress, the Marine Corps is relying on verbal commitments that may be subject to change depending on the current environment.
The Marine Corps should continue to highlight where its ability to provide a forward posture and rapid response capability is unique to the joint force. The Marine Corps’ Marine Expeditionary Units remain in high demand with combatant commanders. Despite the alarmism of Force Design 2030 detractors, Marine Corps leadership has no intention of foreclosing this sort of capability. However, the Marine Corps should continue to assess new ways in which to deploy the expeditionary unit and related capabilities that combatant commanders want, such as cyber, space, and electronic warfare. While the Marine Corps has begun to do this, we believe it should go further, specifically in assessing how high demand for capabilities can be met even if future goals on amphibious shipping may fall short. We believe it is time to assess whether the current composition of these expeditionary units needs to change, particularly as China begins deploying its own similar formations across the Indian Ocean region.
For example, split amphibious-ready groups have become the rule rather than the exception, and this disaggregation can be leveraged to provide afloat expeditionary advanced base operations capabilities. Further analysis can help to identify whether the Marine Corps continues to build Marine Expeditionary Units to fit the ships that the United States has or builds new classes of ships to fit what the Marine Expeditionary Unit could be.
Identifying and messaging where the Marine Corps provides the joint force with expanded options to meet high-demand missions will also be important. Fires and sensor capabilities currently in development, and tested by the Marine Littoral Regiment, can provide the joint force commander with expanded capacity and portfolio diversification. The Marine Corps’ ability to extend sensing forward and complement a dearth of sensors across a vast area of operations provides unique capabilities to fires missions common across the services. However, more could be done to ensure appropriate in-depth layering of these capabilities and interoperability among the services that will allow for complementary employment in the future. To help assess the overall value of their contribution, the Marine Corps could articulate where it provides both unique capabilities and portfolio diversification in those areas common to the joint force.
Refinement To Do It Right
Certain aspects of expeditionary advanced base operations provide demonstrate how the Marine Corps provides warfighting capabilities that are deployed in unique ways — but only when done right. The Marine Corps has already rightfully identified that logistics and command and control present significant challenges to expeditionary advanced base operations execution, but supportive logistics and command-and-control concepts have yet to materialize. To address these key areas of concern, rigorous testing that assumes unfavorable conditions, such as reduced access and basing, could help the Marine Corps to further refine its requirements. Experiences in recent exercises and wargames have shown the Marine Corps’ tendency to assume favorable sustainment, uninterrupted communications, and assured access conditions, but experimenting under different constraints could be helpful. Marines operating in forward locations may need to limit their communications with higher and adjacent units so as to not be detected by enemy sensors, and the Marine Corps could benefit from incorporating these long periods of radio silence into their training. This could also include risk-informed decision-making under stressful potential future scenarios.
Installation and Logistics 2030 recognizes the pressing need for a logistics enterprise capable of supporting stand-in forces in a future fight. Current challenges include equipping strategies that do not support future operating needs, an overreliance on just-in-time logistics that is tested in future operating scenarios, and a logistics concept of employment that is not resourced or organized to support operational needs in the future operating environment. Some of these logistics challenges could be addressed by restructuring existing Marine Corps capabilities, like its pre-positioned stocks. Updating the legacy employment of these capabilities to better match the needs of the future force in theater has the potential to mitigate some sustainment vulnerabilities. The “divest to invest” plan has allowed the Marine Corps to invest in new capabilities, but these have overwhelmingly focused on warfighting capabilities without similar investment in modernization of support capabilities. Giving investment in the Future Vertical Lift initiative and ship-to-shore connectors higher priority — perhaps at the expense of other warfighting capabilities — would help to reconcile intra-theater lift and protection concerns. With the divestment of certain capabilities, ground mobility and counter-mobility should be tested to ensure that the future force can get into and out of the fight.
The coming decade is likely to test the joint force’s preparedness for war and its ability to respond as the operational environment requires. Through Force Design 2030, the Marine Corps has signaled its commitment to preparing for the future. Now what remains is ensuring that the Marine Corps can execute on all it has promised. Marine Corps concepts for addressing future challenges currently rely on unfunded capabilities that may not be realized in time for a large-scale conflict. Creation of a new operational concept that is fundamentally dependent on these capabilities being funded outside of the Marine Corps could potentially be dangerous. All of the Marine Corps’ efforts to divest to reinvest may be for naught if they are not supported by a joint concept and defense strategy that ensures they can get to the fight. Right now, it is not clear whether the joint force is both aware of the Marine Corps’ remaining dependencies and prepared to foot the bill to fulfill them.
Your predecessor’s planning guidance, issued in 2019, committed to resourcing a campaign of learning that takes a structured approach to collaborating with partners, applies sophisticated modeling and simulation methods and tools, and seeks out thoughtful answers to the hard questions being asked. The Marine Corps should continue to prioritize future analysis, wargaming, and experimentation with the rest of the joint force. Other services are currently looking at many of the same problems, and collaborating on the development of capabilities, tactics, techniques, and procedures could not only yield significant savings for the Marine Corps but also create a more viable future operating environment. Sharing some of the unclassified results of past experimentation could also help to craft a cohesive message that would contribute to a stronger, more capable force.
You have the opportunity to reshape the narrative and more effectively convey the Marine Corps’ message to the critical audience who will pay for it: Congress and, to a large extent, the Navy. If the joint force and its funders understand the full extent of the Marine Corps’ capabilities, they will be more willing to support them and more likely to benefit from them.
Best of luck to you, next commandant.
Joslyn Fleming is a defense policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.
Katherine Guthrie is an operations researcher at RAND and a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.
Colin Smith is a senior international/defense researcher at RAND and a retired Marine Corps officer of 28+ years.
Views expressed are the authors’ own and do not represent the views of the Marine Corps or Department of Defense.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kirstin Merrimarahajara
Correction: A previous version of this article described the Marine Corps as “the smallest service.” The article has been corrected to reflect that it is the second smallest, after the Space Force.