The U.S. Marine Corps Has a Choice: Transform or Die

COMMENTARY Defense

The U.S. Marine Corps Has a Choice: Transform or Die

Oct 18, 2022 6 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Dakota Wood

Senior Research Fellow, Defense Programs

Dakota L. Wood, who served America for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, is the senior research fellow for Defense Programs.
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jacob Konefsky conducts reconnaissance for a combined amphibious raid with Philippine Marines during KAMANDAG 6, in San Vicente, Philippines, Oct. 10, 2022. Lance Cpl. Michael Taggart / U.S. Marine Corps

Key Takeaways

There is no question the Corps is in poor shape to handle the security challenges of the near future.

The Corps must decide whether to keep things that remain effective yet less relevant to its primary mission, or shift its investments to things more relevant.

If the Corps does not transform, it will die the death of irrelevance, useful only as an adjunct to the U.S. Army or for small, crisis-response missions.

At some point, the Senate will have to start deliberations on the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Part of that debate will determine the way forward for the Marine Corps. 

There is no question the Corps is in poor shape to handle the security challenges of the near future. Gen. David H. Berger acknowledged this in 2019 when he became Commandant. His predecessor did as well

Berger warned that the service risked becoming irrelevant if it did not change. He has pushed to shift the Corps’ focus back to what differentiates it from the U.S. Army: amphibious operations and land operations in support of a naval campaign. These functions not only define the Corps, they are required by law.

Yet a small but potentially influential cadre of retired Marine generals don’t want the Corps to move in this direction. They are actively lobbying lawmakers to block or overturn Berger’s initiatives.

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War often demands that services do things that are not at the top of their prescribed set of responsibilities. None has been better at adjusting to this reality than the Corps. But its success as a “second land army” came at a severe cost: it lost touch with its seafaring roots.

During 20 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, few Marines gained any experience in learning the complexities of amphibious operations. The Corps did, however, gain significant weight and logistical dependency.

The Marines up-armored everything. When units used amphibious ships to land their gear in Iraq, they found they were outweighing the ship before they out-cubed it. It’s never been unusual for units to run out of space for all of their boxes and equipment. But with heavily armored Humvees, blast-resistant vehicles, and even cargo trucks encased in protective glass and armored panels, units were weighing down the ships to the point of instability. This was not a good sign for a force that is supposed to be light, nimble, self-sustaining (at least initially), and able to conduct highly distributed operations in contested littoral waters. 

Since the early 1990s, the Corps has recognized that amphibious operations are getting more challenging. The threat from long-range precision guided munitions, especially anti-ship cruise missiles, forces large, conventional amphibious warships to operate farther from shore. As a result, Marine forces must be less dependent on their sea-base for support. They must also be able to move around the battlefield in ways that attract less attention from the enemy. 

For 30 years, there has been a lot of talk but very little action to solve this problem. Now, however—thanks to advances in unmanned systems, smaller guided weapons that are more mobile and accurate, improvements in the ability of units and platforms (like the F-35B) to share information about the battlespace, and new designs for naval mobility platforms—it is possible to do what could not be done in the past.

Enter Berger’s Force Design 2030, a rare transformational effort that would take maximum advantage of these realities. Force Design 2030 is based on these key facts:

  • The primary mission of the Corps is “to provide forces…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." Though the Corps does other things very well, they are secondary to its primary mission.
  • All primary national security documents identify China as the most significant security challenge facing the U.S. If the U.S. cannot counter the Chinese threat and the set of modern challenges it represents, it will have to cede regions deemed essential to the long-term interests of the country.
  • Defense budgets are always somewhat fungible, but the Corps is faced with limits that will not allow it to keep old capabilities, however useful in some settings, and add new capabilities of greater relevance to its primary mission. 
  • As currently postured, the Corps is unable to fulfill its primary mission against the primary archetype threat in the theater of greatest importance to the United States.

Faced with these facts, the Corps must decide whether to keep things that remain effective yet less relevant to its primary mission, or shift its investments to things more relevant to present and future challenges. Examples of the former include 80-ton tanks, large quantities of short-range tube artillery, heavy bridging, and some shorter-range attack aircraft that require land bases when removed from large amphibious assault ships. Examples of the latter include longer-range weapons that enable the Corps to support naval campaigns, like anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air weapons (both of which deny the enemy the ability to freely operate against U.S. forces); amphibious ships and unmanned platforms that are harder to find than their older and much larger counterparts; and Marines equipped with sensors and intelligence-related tools that enable them to make the larger Joint Force more effective in the theaters of action of greatest importance to the United States.

Force Design 2030 embraces the latter approach to keep the Corps from plunging into irrelevance. Berger’s critics seemingly don’t understand how much the environment has changed, are too wedded to what they know has worked in the past, or think that there is enough money, time, and manpower to retain the old while also introducing the new.

Berger would not be the first commandant to reimagine the Corps. Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, 17th Commandant, developed amphibious assault capabilities that proved essential to success in World War II. It meant profound changes in force design, equipping, concepts, and employment—and Holcomb could have refused to do it. But he had the foresight to see what was needed and the courage to make the necessary changes.

For years, the Corps has said it must be “most ready when the nation is least ready.” Where is the nation least ready today? In its ability to confront the most advanced threats since the early days of the Cold War. Force Design 2030 will deliver a Corps with new combined-arms formations organized for distributed operations against the most capable enemies, equipped to prevent an enemy from controlling key terrain on land, at sea, and in the air, and trained to project naval power and larger, Joint Force capabilities anywhere on the planet. 

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Some critics worry that the Corps is proceeding too quickly, that it does not yet have sufficient buy-in from the other services—especially the Navy, whose ships are an essential component to operations. There is some merit to this argument, but only some. If the Commandant waited until he got broad concurrence from all interested parties, until the Navy got its ship-building act together, until the Joint Force was fully on-board, until all applicable concepts were fully proved in a range of operational settings, until all processes and systems bearing upon the matter were perfected, then nothing would ever get done. His tour as Commandant would end with no progress made in any area. 

The Corps’ bold approach shows progress and application in real-world settings. It demonstrates seriousness and practical utility. And it has strong support in Congress and among the regional combatant commanders

If the Corps does not transform, it will die the death of irrelevance, useful only as an adjunct to the U.S. Army or for small, crisis-response missions like reinforcing an embassy, the type of task for which the U.S. military has other options. If the Corps does not transform, it will lose the things that differentiate it from the Army or the special operations community.

Transformation is part of the DNA of the Corps. This latest iteration merits the support of all Marines and those charged with the defense of our nation. 

This piece originally appeared in Defense One