Now Is the Time for the Marine Corps Reorganization Debate

The service’s ‘civil war’ over how to prepare for a possible conflict with China needs to happen across the other branches as well

As great power conflicts loom, the Marines must decide how best to face new challenges. Image Credit: Scott Mcgill/EyeEm/Getty Images

As the Unites States shifts its military focus from counterterrorism and low-intensity long wars to potential high-intensity conflicts with peer power rivals, it must decide what to do with its legacy armed forces. A “civil war” in the U.S. Marine Corps over how to respond to the threat posed by a rising and belligerent People’s Republic of China (PRC) is exactly the sort of debate that should be occurring in all the service branches.

Despite some errors in judgment and diplomatic failures, the U.S. military, by and large, has been a successful pillar of a postwar world order of unparalleled growth and prosperity. The Marines are justifiably proud of their role and reputation in helping build and maintain this order. However, with the PRC seemingly able and determined to reorder the international system to its liking, the Marines are likely to find themselves on the front lines of any conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

What is that Marine Corps going to look like? Traditionalists say it should keep to its roots as an amphibious, all-arms service capable of deploying to threats anywhere in the world with tried-and-true techniques and equipment, modernized appropriately. However, the Corps’ leadership today is working to divest the Marines of much of its heavy equipment and preparing to fight in smaller, more agile formations. Their purpose is to defend U.S. interests and allies in the first island chain rimming the East and South China Seas in the event of a conflict with China. The traditionalists’ backlash against this effort has not been subtle.

The arguments are a useful window onto the sorts of issues that are indeed more profitably discussed leading up to a war with a peer power—i.e., now—instead of lamented in the wake of one. Appropriately, the Marines are the first to go in, but the other military branches should follow its example so that the U.S. fighting forces will be adequately prepared for future conflicts.

From the Halls of the Pentagon

The prospect of a new, theater-scale war with the PRC in the Indo-Pacific region has caused the Pentagon to reevaluate the Marines’ role in future conflicts and the service to reconfigure its forces accordingly. A new concept developed by Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger involves pre-positioning smaller “stand-in forces” in places of expected usefulness in a conflict, rather than waiting until those units need to force themselves in later. The idea is that these relatively isolated and independent units will be able to inflict grievous losses on enemies moving through choke points.

The concept is part of Berger’s overall redesign of the Marine Corps under what is called Force Design 2030. In addition to reorganizing one of three Marine Expeditionary Force formations to supply stand-in forces for a war in the Indo-Pacific, radical prescriptions call for the entire service to divest itself of all tanks and heavy engineering equipment and much of its howitzer artillery in favor of long-range anti-ship and strike missiles and guided-rocket artillery, even for those units not earmarked for the Pacific.

Marine officials say the changes are needed to make its units more effective and survivable in the face of a peer enemy, primarily the PRC’s rapidly modernizing and expanding People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which covers land, sea, air, space and rocket forces. The Marine Corps is preparing to take a primary ground combat role in expected littoral campaigns against China in the first island chain, where the U.S. cannot count on early dominance of the air and sea.

Analysts critical of the reorganization, including perhaps a preponderance of former Marine Corps brass, say the conversion threatens to weaken the service, reducing its effectiveness in the sorts of real-world combat operations in which it has engaged since World War II. In essence, the Marines will shed their proven mantle to take on an uncertain role in a future conflict, at least in the Pacific.

Possibly splitting the difference, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith has said that the service is not totally transforming itself nor preparing to completely shed its responsibility (and identity) as a “crisis response force.” Rather, he said the Marine units committed to the Pacific will be reorganized, trained and equipped to engage China as a peer enemy while still being useful for conflicts elsewhere. Also, the Marines already have something like stand-in forces on Okinawa and the Japanese home islands. The reorganized expeditionary forces will be able to deploy more of these throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Much of the reasoning behind Force Design 2030 comes down to concerns over whether the U.S. Navy will be able to remain effective in the Western Pacific in the face of a PRC offensive against the first island chain. If the Marines are to have a role in deterring and if necessary opposing PLA forces, the thinking goes, they are going to have to be in position before hostilities commence.

To the Shores of Luzon

February’s announcement that U.S. forces will have expanded access to territory and support facilities in the Philippines indicates the importance of this link in the first island chain. The Marines have already conducted exercises using its stand-in forces concept on the island of Luzon, which would be critical to any U.S. attempt to intervene in Taiwan or in any conflict in the South China Sea, the two main potential flashpoints of a Sino-U.S. war. The nation, itself a sprawling archipelago, is a perfect location where smaller, lighter formations of Marines could gather electronic intelligence on enemy activities and sting them with missile, guided artillery and drone attacks and then quickly move elsewhere.

While China vociferously objects to such deals as “containment” and “encirclement,” it only has itself to blame for not making friends in the region and driving countries into the arms of America. China has used its growing power and “wolf warrior diplomacy” to coerce its neighbors and threaten the U.S. into accepting its vision for the Indo-Pacific. This includes redrawing internationally recognized maps to incorporate not only Taiwan but vast swaths of the South China Sea, swallowing up the economic zones of Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Add in China’s long-standing maritime disputes with Japan, and the regional opposition to its ambitions becomes clear.

This is the theater in which Force Design 2030 Marines will operate in a large-scale war against China. By reducing the footprint of individual units while increasing their sensory awareness and lengthening their reach and killing power, Marine leaders hope to deter China from taking aggressive action and punish it if it does.

Red Is the New Orange

For decades, the Marine Corps has served as a 911 force on call to get into a fight quickly through a combination of mobility, rigorous training, combined arms and aggressiveness. As its name suggests, historically the service specialized in amphibious warfare made famous “from the shores of Tripoli” against the Barbary pirates to the “island hopping” campaign in the Pacific against imperial Japan.

Over time, the U.S. has employed the Marines in increasingly more conventional roles, such as in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, where amphibious operations were at most a tangential element of the fighting. Its tanks, engineering equipment and artillery got heavier and more numerous, and its “tail”—logistics requirements—got longer.

This version of the Marines, which was heavy enough to be entrusted to help liberate Kuwait and assist with the defense of NATO’s northern flank, would essentially cease to exist with Force Design 2030. The Marines would no longer be able to engage in tank battles and maneuver and fire as they have done successfully in the past. While most of the force would remain available to deploy to hotspots throughout the world, against a significant foe such as Iran or Russia it would do so as part of a joint operation. If tanks were needed or a river had to be bridged, the Army would supply those capabilities.

While joint warfighting has become a hallmark of U.S. combat doctrine in the post-Cold War era—and the Marines have a long history of joint operations with other services and allies—the idea that the corps would lose organic tank, engineering, tube artillery and other capabilities is a severe blow for traditionalists.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted an illuminating panel discussion that captured the breadth and depth of legacy Marine Corps opposition to the Force Design 2030 reorganization. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, and retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, former commander of the Marines’ Combat Development Command, were flatly dismissive of the Force Design 2030 reorganization in general and the stand-in forces concept specifically. They regard it as a diminishment and even as an existential threat to the Marine Corps.

Perhaps another element of the opposition is that to the traditionalists, Force Design 2030 smacks of Wake Island, where in the weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor an isolated Marine garrison held out and inflicted significant—but strategically irrelevant—damage on the invaders before being overwhelmed. It is an essential element of the Marine mythos, but it still rankles.

However, the Marines say its stand-in forces will be placed not on last-stand atolls but in locations in the first island chain with enough territory to remain hard to detect and enough maneuvering room to evade blistering counterstrikes when they unmask themselves to engage the enemy. They must be the right size to perform these functions: small enough to be agile, powerful enough to be a threat the enemy cannot afford to bypass or ignore.

Many of the objections based on Marine Corps identity and what has worked in the past harken back to “big gun” battleship traditionalists in the U.S. Navy prior to WWII. War Plan Orange, the strategy to defeat Japan drawn up in the years before Pearl Harbor, envisioned a relief of the Philippines and Guam (which were expected to hold out) prior to a climactic battle with the Imperial Japanese Fleet. Although roles for aircraft carriers and submarines were envisioned, the battleship was to be the core of the fleet.

In the event, the U.S. bastions did not hold out for long. Battleships—while valuable providers of support fire for Marines, anti-aircraft fire for carrier task forces and in occasional surface naval actions—took a backseat to carrier-based air and submarine campaigns. If the battleship Navy opposed new thinking that relegated it to a secondary role, enough planners understood the value of carriers and submarines to enable the U.S. to recover and respond after it was severely wrong-footed at the start of the Pacific War.

The Marines have very little prospect of bringing their traditional amphibious, combined-arms and maneuver-and-fire capabilities against the PLA, particularly in the early stages of an Indo-Pacific war. It is not going to invade mainland China. It may not be able to reinforce South Korea. Tanks probably will not be much use in Japan or the Philippines, which are not likely to be invaded. While tanks almost certainly will be useful on Taiwan to repel a PRC invasion, reinforcing the island once hostilities commence may not be possible. Pre-positioning large Marine units on Taiwan beforehand would be too provocative.

So, if the Marines are to have a useful role in the Indo-Pacific, they must do some reform-oriented thinking about their strengths, legacy and potential weaknesses in the face of a peer enemy such as the PRC. Along with such new thinking must come new weapons and techniques, even at the expense of beloved tried-and-true ones that may not work in the new reality of the Indo-Pacific. Time is not on America’s side, and the other services are going to need to follow the Marines in energetically hashing out what is needed to prepare for the PRC’s efforts to overturn the existing world order.


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