U.S. Marine Corps Force Design 2030 by Bert Chapman (Purdue University)

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March 2020 saw the Marine Corps release Force Design 2030 strategic planning document (https://purl.fdlp.gov/GPO/gpo134593) under the direction of Commandant General David H. Berger.  This collaborative effort was influenced by the Trump Administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).  The NDSredirected the Marine Corps’ focus from countering violent Middle Eastern extremists to countering great power/peer competitors, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific.  As such, the Eurasian heartland and rimland, respectively, of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman have reemerged as central to the U.S. strategic and operational considerations.  This shift requires substantial adjustments in how the Corps is organized and equipped, as the Corps returns to its historic role of engaging in warfare along the maritime littoral.  Clearly, the Marines must reaffirm and deepen their strategic partnership with the US Navy.

Force Design 2030 stresses amphibious forcible entry and sustained operations ashore, a program that has allegedly remained unchanged since the 1950s.  Nevertheless, such a force structure has changed in equipment and doctrine with advances in greater weapon range and lethality.  This is not the only challenge facing the Marine Corps.  Rising revisionist powers with the technical acumen and economic assets to integrate such weapons into their militaries may consider that their risk/reward calculus to be sufficiently changed to directly or indirectly confront the U.S., and the presence of rogue regimes, willing and able to threaten U.S. interests, also require a changed design in U.S. forces.

Consequently, Force Design 2030 argues that the Corps must divest existing capabilities including heavily armored ground combat systems (tanks), towed cannon artillery, and short-range unmanned aerial systems (UAS) incapable of employing lethal effects.  Above all, this document calls for reducing infantry battalions and the organizations dedicated to supporting them.  

The emergence of great power competition means correcting shortfalls and enhancing capabilities to engage in expeditionary warfare supported by:

  • Long-range precision weaponry;
  • Medium to long-range air defense systems;
  • Short range (point defense) air defense systems;
  • High-endurance, long-range unmanned surveillance systems with Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Electronic Warfare (EW), and lethal strike capabilities; and
  • Disruptive and less lethal capabilities for countering malign activities by forces pursuing maritime “gray zone” strategies. 

Essential emerging Corps requirements include smaller, lower signature and affordable amphibious ships and rectifying shortfalls in affordable, distributable platforms enabling littoral maneuver which will provide in-theater, logistical support for projected operations.  Additional military capabilities required to address emerging threat environments include:

  • Acknowledging the impacts of proliferating precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart weapons, and seeking innovative ways to overcome such threat capabilities;
  • Fighting at sea, from the sea, and from land to sea;
  • Operating and persisting within range of hostile long-range fires;
  • Maneuvering across seaward and landward portions of complex littorals; and
  • Sensing and shooting while combining physical and information domains to achieve desired outcomes.

Achieving these goals requires a force capable of creating the virtues of mass without vulnerabilities of concentration stemming from mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons.

Force Design 2030 contends that the Corps must recognize that different operational approaches are required given threats stemming from anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities in mutually contested areas.

  • There must be further discussion of naval expeditionary forces and capabilities with assets besides the Marine Corps including coastal/riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces;
  • Future Marines will have the physical and mental toughness, tenacity, initiative, and aggressiveness to win in close combat while possessing the intellectual and technical skills necessary for adapting to a rapidly changing 21st century operating environment; and
  • Marines must be equipped with mobile, low-signature sensors and weapons providing a landward complement to Navy surface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, air and missile defense, and airborne early warning.

Prioritizing areas of emphasis will be a key challenge for the Corps and U.S. national security policymakers working in conjunction with allies.  The document’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility and the confluence of China’s growing military strength and increasing aggressiveness in that region indicate this is a vital area of emerging U.S. national security concentration and force deployment.  This must be done to deter and defeat Beijing if it attempts to threaten international sea lines of communication, U.S. forces deployed in that region, as well as the economic, strategic, and territorial assets of U.S. Indo-Pacific allies.  Recent clashes between China and India have highlighted this priority.

The Corps and other U.S. and allied forces deployed to this region must possess agility, endurance, lethality, and persistence to counter and the efforts of hostile actors such as China, North Korea, Iran and Russia—all of which seek to gain regional hegemony.  The U.S. must be able to exploit the weaknesses of its regional enemies with rapid response, flexibility and lethality.  Simultaneously, the U.S. and the Marines must evade the anti-access aerial denial capabilities of these powers, quickly and effectively counter their efforts to use social media and other forms communication to promote their narrative, defend vulnerable infrastructures such as carrier task forces, military bases, communication nodes, and other weapons systems, take decisive military action such as decapitating hostile command and control assets, and make brief but lethally effective attacks against onshore or littoral targets without getting entangled into protracted land engagements on the Asian mainland.  This will require investing resources and capital in the Asia-Pacific region, repeatedly and effectively communicating this strategic imperative to U.S. and international public opinion, all while remaining mindful of the need to concentrate on other regions of strategic concern such as possible Russian incursions into the Baltic or Iranian aggression in the Arabian Peninsula.  The U.S. and its allies must enhance their forces with the lethal capability to deter and defeat these regional threats as necessary.

Force 2030 impacts large territorial areas and potential military operational scenarios in the Indo-Pacific region.  These may include military operations in littoral areas in this region including megacities such as Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Mumbai, Seoul, Shanghai, Shenzen, and Singapore.  Each of these cities have unique historical, political, and socio-economic conditions that may require U.S. and allied forces to conduct quick strike or sustained military operations in these areas against opposing national militaries and local militias.   Such operations would have to deal with diverse physical terrain, climates, and operating conditions including conducting combat operations in crowded neighborhoods, alleys, or in underground infrastructures like mass transit entities or water and sewer transmission lines.  Acquiring timely and accurate geospatial intelligence for macro and micro neighborhoods of these megacities and developing mutually beneficial collaborative relationships with indigenous allies will be critical to achieving operational success and minimizing international  reputational damage in the midst of urban conflict, the scale and human cost of which may far exceed the classic precedent, Stalingrad.

Force Design 2030 must be followed up with realistic financial cost estimates and force personnel support levels in subsequent documents and political debate.  It will need to be incorporated into U.S. and allied professional military educational curriculum and research along with force doctrinal documents.  It provides food for thought for anyone interested in emerging international security and geopolitical issues due to its emphasis on operational activity in the Eurasian and Rimland regions covered by Mackinder and Spykman in their writings.  This document and subsequent U.S. strategic documents will be carefully studied and analyzed by U.S., allied, and adversary militaries.  U.S.  congressional committees and parliamentary committees in U.S. and allied countries, who must fund and oversee the proposals contained in this strategic document, will undoubtedly explore in hearings its  implications for national security requirements in an international fiscal environment which has been acutely strained by the costs associated with responding to Covid-19.