The Marine Corps’ Radical Shift toward China

This commentary has been updated to incorporate material from the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 report.

Last July, General Berger electrified the national security community with planning guidance that proposed to align the Marine Corps with the National Defense Strategy (NDS) by making major changes to forces, equipment, and training. Though dramatic in concept, the guidance lacked specifics. General Berger has now provided those specifics, and they are as radical as the concepts. Gone are tanks and capabilities for sustained ground combat and counterinsurgency. Instead, the corps focuses on long-range and precision strike for a maritime campaign in the Western Pacific against China. But this new Marine Corps faces major risks if the future is different from that envisioned or if the new concepts for operations in a hostile environment prove more difficult to implement than the Marine Corps’ war games indicate.


For many years, strategists have yearned to refocus the military services on the Pacific and China. China, with its growing economy, modernizing military, and evident desire to reassert regional hegemony, has loomed as the primary long-term challenge to the United States. The Obama administration talked about a “rebalance” to the Pacific but was unable to put many specifics against the concept before it was dragged back to Europe and the Middle East in 2014 with the Russian occupation of Crimea and ISIS’s campaign in Syria and Iraq.

The Trump administration’s NDS focused on great power competition with China or Russia, —but China seemed to have priority. In 2019, acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan stated that DOD’s focus was “China, China, China.” To meet this new challenge, the NDS called for changes in military forces: “We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s weapons or equipment.” The NDS also signaled that modernization was more important than the size of the force, implying a willingness to get smaller in order to build the capabilities needed for great power conflict. However, the NDS was vague on specifics about what changes were required, and many observers criticized the administration for not making sufficient changes in subsequent budgets.

General Berger’s Guidance

General David Berger became commandant of the Marine Corps on July 11, 2019. He immediately published his Commandant’s Planning Guidance , which laid out his vision for where the Marine Corps needed to go. New service chiefs typically produce such documents, but most are exhortations to seek excellence in the services’ traditional missions and to implement a few targeted reforms that the new chief desires to focus on. General Berger’s vision was different in that it implied major changes in many areas.

This vision aligned with the NDS and focused exclusively on China. This was not surprising since General Berger had commanded Marine forces in the Western Pacific. The vision sought to meld the Marine Corps’ traditional “force in readiness” role with that of readiness for great power conflict: “The Marine Corps will be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations.”

Central to Berger’s vision is the ability to operate within an adversary’s (read China’s) bubble of air, missile, and naval power (which the Marine Corps calls the weapons engagement zone, or WEZ). The concept is that the Marine Corps will be a “stand-in force” that will operate within this WEZ, not a stand-off force that must start outside and fight its way in. As the guidance states: “Stand-in forces [are] optimized to operate in close and confined seas in defiance of adversary long-range precision ‘stand-off capabilities.’”

This requires developing “low signature, affordable, and risk worthy platforms” because existing ships and aircraft are the opposite—highly capable but expensive, few, and highly visible.

Another element of the new concept is “distributed operations,” the ability of relatively small groups to operate independently rather than as part of a large force, as in previous wars. “We recognize that we must distribute our forces ashore given the growth of adversary precision strike capabilities . . . and create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration. ” Thus, small Marine forces would deploy around the islands of the first island chain and the South China Sea, each element having the ability to contest the surrounding air and naval space using anti-air and antiship missiles. Collectively, these forces would attrite Chinese forces, inhibit them from moving outward, and ultimately, as part of a joint campaign, squeeze them back to the Chinese homeland.

A third element was institutional: the Marine Corps would leave sustained ground combat to the Army and focus on the littorals. Ground wars in the Middle East, North Korea, and Europe would be Army responsibilities.

The final element was political: General Berger judged that defense budgets are likely to be flat for the foreseeable future. “My assumption is flat or declining [budgets], not rising. . . . If [an increase] happens, great, but this is all built based on flat or declining [budgets].” Thus, unlike in the previous five years, when rising budgets allowed new investment and stable force levels, trade-offs would now be necessary. If the Marine Corps wanted to invest in new capabilities, it had to cut some existing units.

The Implementation

General Berger’s guidance proposed new concepts and approaches but lacked specifics. At the time, he noted that the Marine Corps was conducting analysis and war games and would later lay out how it would implement the guidance. Details of that implementation are becoming clearer with a short press release, a major report in the Wall Street Journal, and, finally, a Marine Corps 13-page report, Force Design 2030.

Implementation will be a 10-year effort that makes the radical changes that the guidance implied. The restructured Marine Corps will focus single-mindedly on a conflict with China in the Western Pacific, build capabilities for long-range and precision engagement in a maritime campaign, eliminate capabilities for counterinsurgency and ground combat against other armies, and get smaller to pay for the new equipment. The table below captures by element what the planning guidance said, what the Marine Corps has now, where it will move to, and what that means. (For a detailed discussion of current Marine Corps plans and structure, see CSIS U.S. Military Forces in FY 2020: Marine Corps . A few of the planning guidance items come from General Berger’s December article in War on the Rocks.)


The Risks

Radical change brings risks, and this effort is no different. Risks arise from the lack of hedging, the movement away from current operations, and the uncertain viability of the new war-fighting concepts. If the Marine Corps has misjudged the future, it will fight the next conflict at a great disadvantage or, perhaps, be irrelevant.

No Hedging

When these proposed changes are fully implemented, the Marine Corps will be well structured to fight an island campaign in the Western Pacific against China. Although the NDS allows hedging against other adversaries and conflicts—North Korea, Iran, counterterrorism—the Marine Corps does not plan to do that. As General Berger stated in his guidance: “[This] single purpose-built future force will be applied against other challenges across the globe; however, we will not seek to hedge or balance our investments to account for those contingencies.”

The lack of hedging means that the Marine Corps will not field the broad set of capabilities it has in the past. It will be poorly structured to fight the kind of campaigns that it had to fight in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The history of the last 70 years has been that the United States deters great power conflict and fights regional and stability conflicts. Although forces can adapt, as seen during the long counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, there is a delay and an initial lack of expertise. The Marine Corps might plan to defer these conflicts to the Army, but that has not worked in the past. Army forces have been too small to keep the Marine Corps out of sustained ground combat.

Marine Corps officials have argued privately that other kinds of conflicts would be lesser included capabilities of this focus on high-end conflict in the Western Pacific. This is misplaced. History is littered with examples of militaries that prepared for one kind of conflict and then had to fight a very different kind of conflict. In the best circumstances, militaries adapt at the cost of time and blood. In the worst circumstances, the result is catastrophic failure.

For example, in the 1950s and early-1960s the U.S. Army focused on great power conflict in Europe against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. That Army then had to fight a counterinsurgency conflict in Southeast Asia. As Andrew Krepinevich argued, the Army was “a superb instrument for combating the field armies of its adversaries in conventional wars but an inefficient and ineffective force for defeating insurgent guerrilla forces.”

The Army and Navy use their reserve components to hedge against unexpected demands. Thus, their reserve components do not look like the active component but are imbalanced. For example, most of the Army’s medical, transportation, engineering, civil affairs, and psychological operations units are in the reserve component.

The new Marine Corps structure might have kept some tanks, towed artillery, bridging units, military police, or logistics in the reserves as a hedge against a future war involving ground combat against a national army or a counterinsurgency campaign. However, the plan does not include such hedges.

Moving Away from Current Operations

Unacknowledged in this new Marine Corps approach, as it is across the entire department, is the tension between preparing for a conflict against a great power adversary and the need to maintain day-to-day commitments for ongoing conflicts, allied and partner engagement, and crisis response. The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has chosen capability overcapacity in its strategy documents. However, the press of operational demands has been unrelenting despite the DOD’s intention to prioritize and cut back on them. This has pushed the other services—especially the Navy and Air Force—toward a high-low mix in order to cover both: advanced, and often very expensive, technologies for great power conflict and less expensive elements in relatively large numbers for less demanding threats. The Marine Corps has opted not to do this. Its smaller size will put stress on the remaining forces if deployments continue at the current level.

The Uncertain Viability of New War-fighting Concepts

The final risk is whether this new war-fighting concept of distributed operations within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone will work. The Marine Corps has sensibly conducted a lot of war-gaming and satisfied itself that the concept will succeed. However, as Marines note, the enemy gets a vote. Maintaining small and vulnerable units deep inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone will be challenging. Even small units need a continuous resupply with fuel and munitions. If that is not possible, or if the Chinese figure out a way to hunt these units down, the concept collapses.

A Process, Not a Destination

The Force Design 2030 report emphasizes that this restructuring is not fixed and unalterable but a process where the destination is open to modification and revision. Thus, there will be a “phase III” after additional analysis and experimentation. Further changes will unfold and gaps in the current plan—for logistics, the reserves, and amphibious ships, for example—will be filled. This on-going process will also provide opportunities to reduce risk, and the Marine Corps should take advantage of that.

Mark Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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