Trends in Maritime Challenges Indicate Force Design 2030 Is the Proper Path


As current and former marines, we embrace the changes of Force Design 2030. We’ve come to this conclusion after critically examining the implications of these changes as well as considering the risk of failing to reform the Marine Corps for the modern era. We’ve observed that over the last four years, the collective weight of study, experimentation, and real-world actions has reinforced the validity of the reforms being undertaken by the Marine Corps. We’ve all contributed to this effort in various ways. We come from a place of healthy skepticism and debate, often directly with the leaders charged with these reforms or with the authors of the concepts discussed in this article.

Before Gen. David Berger retired as the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps in July 2023, it seemed as though the debate over the reforms known as Force Design 2030 had been decisively settled. The Marine Corps transformation was the subject of an unprecedented revolt against the service by a faction of largely anonymous and unconfirmed numbers of retired Marine general officers. Despite the backlash, the plan was endorsed by civilian and uniformed leaders in the Department of Defense, bipartisan groups of U.S. senators and representatives, and policy analysts across the spectrum. The issue was even debated in the pages of War on the Rocks where the facts of Force Design 2030 were succinctly explained and reinforced with real-world examples of experiments that were producing tangible effects against our nation’s adversaries. Regardless of the intrigues of some former generals, the Marine Corps’ reforms continue. Even critical allies and partners briefed on the transformations endorsed the change as part of collective defense contributions. 

The changes occurring in the Marine Corps ensure that it will be capable of fulfilling its assigned role in countering the range of threats posed by every adversary identified by the Department of Defense. We believe that recent events in the Black Sea, Red Sea, and Arabian Sea are confirmation that the thinking underpinning Force Design 2030 is accurate. Moreover, much like Marine veterans and House Armed Service Committee members Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Mike Gallagher, we believe the changes should be accelerated. With two real-world maritime crises now unfolding, it is becoming clear that the Marine Corps has adapted appropriately to modern challenges and that it is still the capable crisis response force that the nation has come to rely on.



Not everyone agrees.

Despite broad support for Force Design 2030, in the just-passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, a small proviso requires the Department of Defense to contract with a federally funded research and development center “for the conduct of an independent review, assessment, and analysis of the modernization initiatives of the Marine Corps.” This must be done within three months of the bill becoming law and be delivered one year after the contract. The bill suggests that some members of Congress are taking a second listen to the retired generals’ concerns. Critics of Force Design 2030 have often cited that the changes to the force are too focused on China to be applicable for other contingencies and that it diminishes the ability of the service to act as the nation’s crisis response force. The study requirement is interesting given that not one opponent of Force Design 2030 has commissioned a single study to validate their claims. They’ve merely made subjective assertions with no empirical assessment that the reforms should be halted and that legacy capabilities divested by the Marine Corps should be retained. 

Rather than rehash the ground of previous debate, we believe it is wise to look at how current conditions, especially those in the maritime domain, faced by Ukraine in the Black Sea and the rest of the world in the Red Sea continue to illuminate the value of the choices made in Force Design 2030. The reasons we are focused on maritime examples all come back to the law, specifically Title 10 U.S.C. § 5063, which directs:  

The Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall be so organized as to include not less than three combat divisions and three air wings, and such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic therein. The Marine Corps shall be organized, trained, and equipped to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.

Notice the wording “within the Department of the Navy,” “provide fleet marine forces,” “for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases,” and finally, “for the conduct of land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.” The law clearly stipulates the framework for the Corps’ actions on land and how it is to contribute to naval and, by extension, joint campaigns. For that reason, the lessons learned from ongoing maritime crises are instructive in helping to determine the accuracy of the transformation of the force along with the associated divestments of legacy capability to make those changes possible. We recommend that the congressionally directed Comprehensive Assessment of Marine Corps Force Design 2030 consider these developments, as it looks to frame not only what informed the original force design decisions, but also how those decisions are reinforced by current trends.

Concepts: Naval Campaigns and Maritime Key Terrain

The 2018 National Defense Strategy directed the Marine Corps to orient its focus on the Indo-Pacific and the pacing threat of China. At the outset, the Marine Corps conducted a deep self-examination that resulted in the service declaring that it was not trained, manned, or equipped to meet the challenges of the modern era. To resolve this concern, along with ensuring full compliance with its mission in law, the Marine Corps developed the twin concepts of expeditionary advanced base operations and stand-in forces. The first concept involves the employment of mobile, low-signature, naval expeditionary forces from a series of austere, temporary locations ashore or inshore to conduct sea denial, support sea control, or enable fleet sustainment. The stand-in forces concept is designed to confront any adversary that is trying to keep U.S. forces at extreme distances by attacking an adversary from locations inside the range of their weapons engagement zones. These concepts are focused on simultaneously denying the adversary maritime freedom of maneuver while facilitating the entry of naval and joint forces. To examine these concepts, the Marine Corps helped to develop the first joint scenarios selected by then- Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, both former Marine four-star generals. Those scenarios have been applied to at least 50 naval and joint wargames to date. This has been complemented by robust field experimentation both in live scenarios at training centers and in the real world. 

The Ukrainian military is a good example and test case for these concepts. In the ongoing war with Russia, the Ukrainian military has executed an effective defense of its ports and waterway access and has conducted several offensive actions. Of particular note is the retaking of Snake Island, the destruction of the Russian capital ship Moskva, and the recent destruction of a Russian landing craft reported to be full of munitions and unmanned systems. Perhaps even more noteworthy than these three successes has been the outright denial of a Russian amphibious assault on Odesa, one of the most strategically important cities in Ukraine. In the opening weeks of the war, both Ukrainian and Western political leaders expressed grave concerns of Russia potentially seizing Odesa. Yet on the waterborne approaches to the city, as well as throughout hundreds of miles of the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military has, for two years now, proven adept at sea denial and sea control missions against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This is even more impressive when one considers that the Ukrainian military has no serviceable navy (at least by current Western standards) to speak of but has been using land and limited waterborne actions in support of a broader maritime campaign. This has been done with small forces maneuvering in littoral craft or with land-based missiles, limited manned aviation, and low-signature (visual and electronic) unmanned aerial and sea-surface systems from key maritime terrain. 

The Ukrainian model is nearly an exact template of that envisioned in the Marine Corps’ concepts, which are also expected to be enhanced by integrated action with the Navy. To date, the Ukrainian military has been able to keep the flow of grain and supplies moving out of Odesa through what was expected to be a completely denied space without a surface navy to protect those movements. This certainly preempted previous calls for nations to potentially escalate the conflict by providing armed escorts to grain shipments and challenge Turkey’s treaty control of the region. Keeping sea lanes of communication open and denying the ocean as a maneuver space to an enemy are vital goals in any conflict with a maritime aspect. From a Force Design angle, the question is not: Can it be done? The Ukrainians are doing it. The real question is: Why should this not be one of the roles of the land-based arm of a naval campaign, as per the Marine Corps responsibilities written in the law?

In classic evolution of military concepts and techniques, what is good for the goose is often good for the gander. It is a contest of measures and countermeasures fought to maintain advantage in every form, whether by achieving parity or asymmetry. The recent actions by the Houthis in Yemen in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea identify the kind of advantage that can be achieved by a land-oriented force on maritime chokepoints as predicted in the expeditionary advanced base of operations concept. To some degree, the Houthi actions and the test of the U.S. Navy response are helping to “red team” (that is, self-assess) our own concepts. Given that the Marine Corps has been exercising the expeditionary advanced base operations and stand-in forces concepts in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters, it is good to also be able to observe the Navy’s actions to further refine the integration and interoperability of the concepts.

Iran, too, may have decided to leverage the success of its proxy, the Houthis, to assert naval influence into the Arabian Sea. On Dec. 23, the MV Chem Pluto, a Japanese-owned tanker, was hit while travelling 200 nautical miles off the coast of India. The Department of Defense asserted that the strike was fired from Iran, which the Iranian leadership denied. However, in a twist to the plot, an Iranian frigate entered the Red Sea on Jan. 1 with no clarity on its role or presence. Will it have the capacity to integrate with the Houthi land-based maritime strike forces? Regardless, the Iranian vessels’ implied relationship with Houthi actions will likely function as a deterrent to shipping companies already rerouting around southern Africa as well as test the ability of other nations to manage escalation if the vessel is found in support of the Houthis’ attacks. In either case, more nations are realizing sea denial activities can be executed by mobile and low-signature land-based forces with limited conventional afloat naval forces as a means of power projection, not simply as a coastal defense. 

Technology for Sea Control and Sea Denial

The hardest thing about future analysis is to reconcile projections with current, or emergent, conditions. Yet it seems in this instance that the future model of Force Design 2030 is nesting within the framework of expected technology advancement and its anticipated military application in the maritime domain.

For those who have paid attention to Force Design 2030, the echoes sound familiar: Ukraine combined motivated, competent, and initiative-based troops with long-range precision strike systems, unmanned platforms, small and mobile ground unit concepts, and robust reconnaissance visions. The strategic success of this approach has been made evident in Russia’s inability to strangle a key Ukrainian sea line of communication coming out of Odesa, as well as Moscow’s apparent decision to relocate the Black Sea Fleet’s long-term basing infrastructure out of Crimea entirely. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long held that Crimea is rightfully Russian territory but has been forced to reckon with the power of land-based operations as part of the prosecution of a naval campaign. Ukraine’s naval campaign, using many of the tools identified in Force Design 2030, has succeeded in stifling Russian naval operations in the Black Sea. 

To date, the U.S. Navy has been effectively able to counter the missile and drone threat in the Red Sea with the suite of systems it currently has on hand and, increasingly, preemptive strikes on Houthi missile launching points. The Navy has been preparing responses to these challenges since Hizballah first launched an Iranian C802 at the Israeli Navy vessel INS Hanit during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The Navy’s successes, however, have often come by employing $2 million missiles to shoot down $2,000 Houthi drones, which is clearly not a sustainable approach to keeping the Bab el-Mandeb Strait open over the long term. 

Many critics of Force Design 2030 claim it has left the nation without sea-based expeditionary forces capable of crisis response and only focused on China in the Indo-Pacific. With this critique in mind, it’s worthwhile to discuss what the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been doing over the past nine months, predominantly in the Middle East’s maritime chokepoint regions and often leveraging a combination of preexisting and new technologies. To start, the Marine expeditionary unit has spent the majority of this period operating closely with the Navy from the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group. Yet a small element of its Marines deployed early, flying to the Middle East to fulfill an urgent request from commander, U.S. Central Command, for counter-drone capabilities. Thankfully, Force Design 2030, building on the Future Force 2025 initiative of the 37th commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, has greatly increased the service’s counter-drone capabilities. In addition to providing urgently needed counter-drone capabilities, in August 2023, two of Bataan Amphibious Ready Group/26th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s three ships deployed to the Strait of Hormuz at the secretary of defense’s direction to help deter Iran from further aggression against commercial shipping. During this period, around 100 Marines were postured, with advanced small arms weaponry, communications, and sensing equipment, to embark on and protect commercial vessels. The policy and legal challenges to that mission did not alter the fact that the Marines were prepared to embark for that assignment.

Further, for almost three months now, parts, and at times all, of this combined Navy–Marine Corps unit has, as a result of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, been in either the Red Sea or the eastern Mediterranean Sea on call ready to respond to a variety of potential contingency missions, including interdicting illegal weapons shipments at sea as well as evacuating tens of thousands of American citizens. Importantly, while U.S. policymakers have not yet tasked this unit to be involved in the recent strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen, the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group/26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is more than capable of executing amphibious raids against known or suspected launch sites or facilitation nodes, and is certified to do so. Additionally, if tasked to seize one or more of the Houthi positions, the Marines are also more than capable of defending the location(s) and turning the site(s) into an advanced naval base. Moreover, due to forthcoming Force Design 2030 capability additions, within the next few years the Marines will also be able to defend these site(s) from even longer ranges and with greater lethality, employing a variety of loitering munitions and weaponized unmanned surface vessels. 

The broad lessons from the Black Sea and Middle East directly apply to the Indo-Pacific. The largest Marine Corps force geographically closest to China, III Marine Expeditionary Force, has been the primary focus of some of the more “radical” Force Design 2030 restructuring. Marine littoral regiments, the most well-known Force Design 2030 initiative, have proven so valuable to the mutual security of allies that Japan and the Philippines have facilitated the persistent presence of these units in the Indo-Pacific. Even traditionally organized Marines from I Marine Expeditionary Force, armed with Force Design 2030 capabilities, are bolstering deterrence and strengthening defense relationships through rotational deployments in Australia, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. 

Marines in the Indo-Pacific have been able to simultaneously modernize ready forces while responding to crises, such as when the America Amphibious Ready Group/31st Marine Expeditionary Unit responded to the July 2023 volcanic eruption of Mount Bagana in geopolitically contested Papua New Guinea. The responsiveness, maneuverability, and versatility of the Marine expeditionary unit coupled with the amphibious ready group remain unparalleled in the Department of the Navy. Collectively, these stand-in forces are offering relevant, realistic, and impactful options for the Department of Defense to deter conflict, respond to crises, and win a high-intensity conflict, which will be enhanced by Force Design 2030 capabilities as the operations, activities, and investments in the Indo-Pacific are showing.


A central complaint from many who oppose Force Design 2030 is a belief that the Marine Corps has compromised its capacity to perform in the modern era through divestment of legacy capability and an unquestioning adoption of unproven and risky technology. Their case is derived by comparing the combat systems and organization of the Marine Corps of the past 50 years and insisting that their efficacy in prior conflicts is determinative to the future ability of the Corps to perform on the modern battlefield. This is closely coupled with a belief that the Marine Corps has moved away from its statutory roles, missions, and organization to execute these reforms. 

We contend that the continuously evolving indicators from observable security challenges are serving to reinforce the trajectory of the Marine Corps — based on what the American people require the service to be capable of doing, particularly as defined in Title 10 U.S.C. § 5063. The foundational argument behind Force Design 2030 was that by preparing to compete, campaign, and fight against the pacing threat of China as outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Marine Corps would be ready to face the broader spectrum of future crises, especially those that occur in the maritime environment. 

The People’s Liberation Army’s investments in anti-access/area denial capabilities are not niche threats; rather, they represent the direction that is being taken by America’s adversaries. The Houthis have used cruise missiles, antiship ballistic missiles, and drone swarms to try to close the Bab el-Mandeb and Suez Canal. Ukraine has wrested the Black Sea from the Russian Black Sea fleet using antiship cruise missiles, precision strike weapons, and small naval drones. The technologies in use by the pacing threat are proliferating, and Force Design 2030 is how the Marine Corps is staying ahead of the threat environment. By focusing on the “industry leader,” the Marine Corps is ensuring it is prepared to fulfill its statutory mission requirements. Maritime anti-access/area denial capabilities are not just for America’s adversaries: They are a key requirement to defend U.S. allies and partners around the world. Marine Corps investments in these capabilities, coupled with Ukraine’s, the Houthis’, and Iran’s real-world demonstration of their efficacy, provide the landward littoral contribution to integrated deterrence through maritime-focused maneuver for major problem sets like the Taiwan Strait.

The formal order that established the current structure of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force states that “the most probable employment of Marine Corps combatant forces will be in the execution of force-in-readiness missions,” but this is self-description, not federal mandate. The same order also notably states that as a force-in-readiness, the Corps would be used in “limited wars” as “the landing forces in amphibious operations.” This is a far cry from the heavy ground combat Cold War organization the critics have established is still essential to a modernized Marine Corps in 2030. The Marine Corps does provide many complementary, overlapping, and redundant capabilities to the joint force but must maintain them with a decidedly maritime focus. If Congress were to decide to change the Marine Corps’ mission written in law and halt Force Design 2030 for a new emphasis on extended land campaigning with the Army, then so be it. We’re Marines and, as such, we eagerly embrace complying with the law. However, given what’s in the law today, the challenging fiscal realities constraining defense spending, and the security environment indicators cited above, it seems to be bearing out that Force Design 2030 is the right path forward in creating a highly maneuverable littoral force with a lighter, but lethal, mix of land-, air-, and waterborne mobility.

Perhaps this exegesis feels tangential to discussions and critiques of Force Design 2030, but it is in fact central to the misunderstandings and misrepresentations pushed by the retirees. It is a mystery as to why the various retiree factions seemingly fail to see how their logic of pushing the Corps toward parity with the Army capabilities and missions inherently undermines “their” Corps’ Title 10 raison d’etre, but that mystery is beyond the scope of this article. This article seeks to correct the error that Force Design 2030 will result in diminished crisis response capability and in the capacity for the Marines to meet the threats presented by all of the Nation’s adversaries in those landward locations where they are called in support of a naval campaign.

Yet for all its capabilities, the Navy–Marine Corps’ crisis response teams are of course challenged by the diminishing availability of their premier power-projection platform, the amphibious warship. It’s important to briefly address this challenge, as the critics consistently blame it on Force Design 2030, despite the challenge being a total fleet problem more than a decade in the making. Less than a third of the U.S. Navy’s amphibious warships were ready for deployment in 2023, and all U.S. Navy surface combatants, including destroyers, cruisers, and even aircraft carriers, require an estimated $1.8 billion in deferred maintenance. Although Marine Corps units generally increased their readiness in the initial stages of ongoing modernization efforts, the lack of ready amphibious ships limits America’s responsiveness to crises, even as the Marine Corps begins to test new, and littoral-capable, vessels this spring. Fortunately, recent and ongoing Pentagon and congressional fiscal decisions are addressing these challenges. Importantly, these decisions will result in the Navy–Marine Corps team having a much more capable amphibious fleet than the one that exists today.  


True defense professionals appreciate that the ability to make a compelling case between sustaining current technology or adopting future technology depends entirely on developing plausible models of future conflicts. As the old maxim asserts, all models are wrong and require validation either by experiment or real-world experience. Some of the detractors against Force Design 2030 have asserted that this lack of validation from practical experience is exactly the problem and force design should not proceed. It seems that criticism is diminishing as a result of these real-world examples from our own forces, our partners, and our adversaries. 

Conversely, as seasoned military professionals with combat, contingency, and force design experimentation experience, we understand the need for continued experimentation, testing, and continuous refinement. From the very first Force Design 2030 memorandum, General Berger channeled Harvard Business School professor John Kotter when he described this initiative as a “process, not an event.” We do not claim that Force Design 2030 has all of the answers — there are still items of concern, such as contested logistics, that require more work — and that those answers are immutable. Even with contested logistics, though, the Marine Corps, along with the entire Department of Defense, has made pivotal progress over the past few years. Nonetheless, as long as there is a thinking enemy, the Marine Corps must adapt in the same innovative ways we are witnessing in real time in Ukraine and on battlefields around the world. We understand that the risk of failing to change impacts the future of our nation, our allies, and our partners to prevent our adversaries from reaching their objectives. 

We are concerned about the quality of thinking, data, analysis, and synthesis that informs the decisions to reorganize the Marine Corps to meet its fundamental statutory obligations. It is because of that concern that we see that Force Design 2030 is indeed improving, not diminishing, the effectiveness of the Marine Corps to respond to the crises of today’s and tomorrow’s security environment. The current events impacting modern security challenges are providing empirical evidence to bear that observation out. We anticipate these real-world indicators will positively support the Force Design 2030 decisions when they are included in the congressionally directed report in the coming year.



C. Travis Reese retired from the Marine Corps after nearly 21 years of service. While on active duty he served in a variety of billets including tours in capabilities development, future scenario design, and institutional strategy. Mr. Reese is now the director of wargaming and net assessment for Troika Solutions in Reston, VA.

Ian T. Brown recently retired from the Marine Corps after 20 years of service. He frequently writes (and wargames) on modern and future war concepts. Ian currently works as a wargame analyst in the private sector.

Zach Ota is an infantry officer and an international affairs officer in the Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Ota is also a non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare who advances issues involving maritime security, alliances and partnerships, and military history in the Pacific. Lt. Col. Ota currently serves as a future operations planner at U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific.

Travis Hord is an infantry officer currently attending the Joint Advanced Warfighting School. Lt. Col. Hord contributed to future concept and capability development while assigned as a planner at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

Leo Spaeder is the commanding officer of Combat Logistics Battalion 12 in Okinawa, Japan and a non-resident fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare. In previous assignments, Lt. Col. Spaeder participated in scenario design and capability development related to Force Design 2030. 

Brian Strom is an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. Major Strom currently serves as the Marine Corps Forces Pacific Target Intelligence Officer and as part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet staff.

The opinions of the authors expressed here are theirs alone and do not represent the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Lenny Weston