Marine Corps Force Design 2030: Examining the Capabilities and Critiques
On May 9, 2022, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General, David H. Berger, released the annual update to Force Design 2030 (FD): an effort to fundamentally transform the Marine Corps’ capability to engage in the future operating environment and counter threats posed by peer competitors. The profound changes to the Marine Corps introduced by FD were not without controversy, sparking significant criticism from several retired general officers and initiating debates about how the evolving character of war should inform changes within the service. CSIS addressed these principal critiques of FD by analyzing the proposed changes to the Marine Corps’ composition, capabilities, and concepts.
Q1: What incentivized the changes proposed by FD?
A1: General Berger initiated FD on March 23, 2020, after noting in his 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance that the Marine Corps would need to evolve if the corps were to achieve the strategic objectives set forth in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS)—and that were later reiterated in the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance —which focused U.S. military priorities away from terrorism and toward strategic competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. Under the updated strategic guidance, FD’s primary purpose is to transform the Marine Corps’ existing model to contend with the future character of war that will include precision strike regimes, gray zone strategies, and an emphasis on maritime campaigns. These changes proposed by FD received approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Congress, and the Secretary of the Navy as an integral component to the fleet modernization under a tri-service maritime strategy that includes the Marine Corps, the Navy, and the Coast Guard.
Q2: How will FD restructure the preexisting model of the Marine Corps?
A2: Since the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps has formally organized under the construct of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), which consists of four distinct elements: command, ground, aviation, and logistics. Depending on the mission, the Marine Corps would deploy one of four different MAGTFs (with the following listed in descending order based on force size): the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and the Special Purpose MAGTF (SPMAGTF). Under FD, a Marine Littoral Regiment construct was added to convert the 3rd, 4th, and 12th regiments into multi-domain forces supporting the MEF.
While FD reconfigured the organization of the Marine Corps, these changes still adhere to Title 10 of U.S. Code, which mandates a minimum of three combat divisions and three aircraft wings as well as the ability to execute combined arms coordination. FD most notably refocused the core model of the Marine Corps into three distinct MEFs. I MEF will be the largest force, and while it is intended to primarily support operations in the Indo-Pacific, it will maintain the ability to respond to the full-range of crisis response. II MEF will provide a 3-star Joint Task Force Headquarters (JTF HQ) and coordinate Marine Forces Reserve (MARFORRES) to execute global crisis response operations. III MEF will be predominantly focused on performing operations in the First Island Chain and is currently the only force that incorporates MLRs.
Q3: How will the size, capacity, and capabilities of the Marine Corps change under FD 2030?
A3: As of 2022, FD has transformed the capabilities of the Marine Corps by divesting in $16 billion worth of systems and equipment to reinvest in new or complementary systems and equipment that can provide a decisive advantage along the competition continuum. The Marine Corps has already fully divested tanks and bridging, and further divestments will include towed artillery. FD will instead increase rocket artillery systems and incorporate new systems, including the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) and a family of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs).
Building upon previous analysis, CSIS tracked the changes to the Marine Corps’ size, capacity, and capabilities proposed by FD.
Q4: What are the key concepts under FD?
A4: The changes designated by FD are designed to support key concepts, which will be integral to the future of warfare. The Marine Corps is preparing to contend with its adversaries in a mature precision strike regime (MPSR) and will respond with littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE) to gain maritime advantage and control by using organic mobility. Marines will be able to operate from small bases under the concept of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) in low signature maneuvers through stand-in forces (SIF) without being detected in an enemy’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ). Marines will support the Navy’s concept of distributed maritime operations (DMO) by dispersing in small land and sea formations, operating for extended periods with limited outside support.
Future Marines will not only be lethal, but they will excel as a reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance (RXR) force by both sensing critical information to initiate decisive action and denying the enemy’s ability to sense. In the Indo-Pacific scenario, Marines will be positioned along the First Island Chain and deter China from accessing the high seas by imposing high economic and strategic costs.
Q5: Does FD mean the Marine Corps is no longer “America’s 9-1-1 Force?”
A5: A principal critique of the changes proposed by FD is that the Marine Corps will be less capable of executing its traditional role as the United States’ crisis response force, following General Berger’s intent to create a force“ purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleets.” While the commandant argues that this force can be applied to other challenges short of great power conflict, the Marine Corps “will not seek to hedge or balance [its] investments to account for those contingencies.” Critics contend that such a force would leave the Marine Corps ill-equipped to fight insurgencies or regional wars—contingencies they believe are more likely to occur compared to the threat of direct peer conflict. CSIS senior fellow Mark Cancian argues that a Marine Corps “custom-designed for distributed operations on islands in the Western Pacific will be poorly designed and poorly trained for the land campaigns it is most likely to fight.”
The Marine Corps’ leadership disputes this claim, arguing that FD and its associated concepts, while focused on the Indo-Pacific, would work in other regions of the globe and along the spectrum of conflict. The service, they contend, can execute concepts like EABO and SIF, but is not a force exclusively tailored to them. Additionally, most of the Marine Corps’ operational capacity, including “seven [Marine Expeditionary Unit] headquarters, four conventional infantry regimental headquarters, twenty-one infantry battalions, and a formidable aviation combat element,” is focused beyond conflict with China and is available to execute crisis response missions. The assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, General Eric Smith, addressed this criticism directly when he argued that “The Marine Corps is the United States’ crisis response force. It has been for decades, and it will remain so.”
Q6: Could the Marine Corps risk losing relevant capabilities following the divestments of FD?
A6: Another critique is that the “divest to invest” strategy the Marine Corps is following has reduced its combined arms capabilities and capacities, making the service less relevant to the Joint Force. Critics argue that the loss of tanks, as well as decrements to cannon artillery, rotary-wing aircraft, and infantry Marines, makes the corps less lethal. Retired lieutenant general Paul Van Riper claims that “without tanks and sufficient cannon artillery,” the Marine Corps “will be incapable of meeting the Congressional requirement to provide fleet marine forces with effective combined arms,” while retired general Anthony Zinni contends that “the importance of combined arms maneuver is being pushed aside in favor of becoming a fires delivery system.”
Supporters of FD argue that the divestments deliberately targeted capabilities that would be least effective in an environment where joint air and maritime supremacy are not assured—areas where SIF would operate. Addressing the complete divestment of tanks, General Berger claims that “we have sufficient evidence to conclude that this capability, despite its long and honorable history in the wars of the past, is operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority challenges in the future.” Additionally, the Marine Corps’ artillery shifted from a heavy investment in cannon batteries, highly effective for massed shorter-range fires, to rocket artillery, capable of longer-range precision fires. Headquarters Marine Corps’ analyst Christopher Corrow contends that such a strategy “does not reduce combined-arms capability as much as it ‘updates it,’” with a focus on long-range precision fires, air defense, unmanned systems, and other disruptive capabilities.
Q7: Does the Russian invasion of Ukraine support or negate FD?
A7: The initial invasion of Ukraine was disastrous for the Russian military, and the poor performance of the military, both tactically and operationally, makes drawing broad conclusions about the impact of technology and the character of war problematic. This uncertainty, however, has not precluded both sides of the FD debate from arguing that the Russian war in Ukraine validates their positions.
For opponents of FD, Ukraine proves the need for lethal combined arms forces capable of responding to a broad array of crises over a force that, they believe, overly prioritizes advanced technological solutions. General Zinni argues that “boots on the ground are still required to control populations and terrain. High-tech solutions cannot fulfill this military task as the Russians are discovering in Ukraine . . . The forces that count most are those that present formidable, combined arms set of capabilities.” Likewise, former assistant secretary of defense Bing West stated “the invasion of Ukraine has again demonstrated that aggressors strike when and where they choose. Because our nation does not pick the time and place, our forces must be prepared to fight anywhere. However, Marines today are much less capable as our global ‘force in readiness,’ because the resources devoted to the South China Sea scenario are ‘not transferable elsewhere.’”
Proponents of FD have derived different lessons learned and believe the war bolsters their justification for bold changes. General Berger defended the controversial divestment of tanks by pointing to Ukraine and the Nagorno–Karabakh conflict, saying “It’s pretty clear the top-down missile attacks on the top side of heavy armor makes [tanks] pretty vulnerable.” Lieutenant Colonel Noel Williams argues that “the Ukrainian military has shown that small, widely distributed infantry formations” similar to those envisioned in the SIF concept “equipped with precision-guided munitions can operate effectively against armor and mechanized forces without air superiority, or even a traditional air force.” He also explores six changes to the character of war, “optionality, traditional airpower, loitering munitions (non-traditional airpower), social media and associated information technology, ground mobility, and logistics,” which he believes FD uniquely addresses.
Despite the ongoing debate, the Marine Corps will continue to refine concepts, wargame conclusions, and conduct field experimentation. One thing is certain for the U.S. Marine Corps—while the 2022 annual update to FD attempts to prepare for the uncertain nature of the future operating environment—as General Smith noted, “the character of war changes but the nature does not. The fighting spirit and willing[ness] to commit and die for a cause is still the most important element of combat.”
Michelle Macander is a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Grace Hwang is a program coordinator and research assistant with the Burke Chair in Strategy and Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.
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