"I'm worried that we’re going too slow and that we’re afraid of change,” former Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller said in 2017 while discussing the service’s efforts to prepare for the next conflict.1 Nearly two decades of sustained operations ashore have negatively affected the Corps’ institutional sense of self. Operating from static command posts and executing overt patrols with the luxuries of air and naval preeminence—as Marines have done in Afghanistan and Iraq—will not define operations in a peer conflict.
The National Defense Strategy states, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”2 In China, the development of antiship ballistic missiles able to sink an aircraft carrier, ground- and space-based antisatellite systems, advanced cyber capabilities, an expanding overseas basing infrastructure, and the use of land reclamation activities to expand its regional maritime claims have created a powerful antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) buffer and secured space for Beijing to expand its gravitational pull in the Indo-Pacific.3 In addition, Russian A2/AD networks, renewed investment in nuclear modernization, fait accompli paramilitary action in Crimea, and malign cyber activities in the Baltics, coupled with “sweeping and systematic” information warfare campaigns across the North Atlantic, have simultaneously increased Moscow’s strategic depth and undercut the West’s ability and willingness to oppose it.4
How does the United States compete with and win against these threats? As the national security establishment faces great power competition after years of stagnation, the Marine Corps has an opportunity for self-reinvention. General David Berger seems to have taken Neller’s words to heart. His Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) attempts to foster creative thinking about the Corps’ role in a maritime conflict against peer adversaries by signaling his willingness to quash orthodoxy—including the Marine air-ground task force—in the name of modernization.5
Many have lauded Berger’s guidance as a “refreshing” dose of reality.6 With a culture that prides itself on a bias for action, Marines must exploit the gap in bureaucratic inertia he has created. At a time when the Marines’ purpose is being openly questioned, disruptive reorganization is imperative to utility and survival.7 To be the nation’s “naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations,” the Marine Corps must become lighter, more versatile, and more survivable. It can do this by fully integrating into the Navy’s fleet structure, abolishing its air wings, and overhauling its ground combat forces.8
Navy–Marine Corps integration
The first step in this reinvention should be complete naval integration. Marines have discussed returning to their “amphibious roots” for years. As some Marine thinkers have recently asked, are we naval in purpose or just in character?9 “Such other duties as the President may direct” have led to a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none mentality, seeking to be the force of choice for every mission across the range of military operations.10
The CPG ends the debate:
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. . . . [The] Fleet Marine Force . . . [acts] as an extension of the Fleet.”11
This is the Corps’ new thesis statement for maritime conflict. The service’s raison d’être is “the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”12 The issue becomes whether the Corps should remain a coequal service or be absorbed by the Navy altogether.
It is time for the Marine Corps to fully integrate into the Navy under the composite warfare command (CWC) architecture. Only as a fully integrated element of the CWC will Marines understand themselves—and will the Navy understand them—as amphibious in both character and purpose.
Integration into the CWC structure will ensure the Corps’ enduring utility and increase the lethality and survivability of the Navy-Marine Corps team. Placing Marine complements on board all classes of naval vessels affords commanders increased flexibility across multiple domains, while increasing adversary commanders’ uncertainty. Marine detachments on board surface combatants could conduct visit, board, search, and seizure missions, eliminating the need for collaterally trained sailors to conduct high-risk missions. Amphibious reconnaissance forces could find their home in submarines. High-mobility artillery rocket systems (HiMARS) already are proving their utility on small-deck amphibious ships.13 Distributed employment would bring greater flexibility, lethality, and survivability while fostering interdependence and integration.
The Navy’s Army’s Air Force
Full integration into the CWC construct is the primary step toward realizing the CPG’s vision. If Marines are the ground combat component of the CWC, however, where does that leave Marine aviation? To holistically analyze the requirements of the Marine Corps in relation to the current threat environment, all assumptions must be challenged. In 2013, a senior Army officer laid bare the essential question in a Washington Post article, asking, “Why does the Navy’s army need its own air force?”14
Any air operations necessary for a larger naval campaign should be conducted by Navy aviators, to include close-air support and assault support of the Marine Corps. In a service-level context, this would gain efficiencies and reduce duplicative efforts. A large portion of existing Marine aviation structure should be transferred to the Navy.
Current law mandates that the Marine Corps include three air wings.15 General Berger has signaled he is unwilling to lobby Congress to alter legislation regarding the Marine Corps’ statutory roles and responsibilities.16 That piece of the law, however, was written when the aircraft carrier was the preeminent power in naval warfare. The same capabilities that threaten L-class shipping threaten carriers. Berger himself admitted, “Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force . . . are impractical and unreasonable.”17 To constrain thinking based on legislation written for a past generation of warfare is both dangerous and irresponsible.
Like Marine aviation, many current operating force and supporting establishment organizations should be examined for future utility and considered for alteration or abolition, such as the Marine logistics groups and Marine Forces Cyber Command. After it is fully integrated into the Navy’s CWC structure and inefficiencies are eliminated, the Corps needs to overhaul and reorient its ground combat forces—the Marine divisions.
Make MarDivs Great Again
Marine divisions are neither the elite light infantry force they claim to be, nor the heavy mechanized maneuver forces required of a large land army. Furthermore, nearly two decades of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns have atrophied many competencies required of an amphibious light infantry force, especially one that is fully integrated into the Navy’s CWC architecture. Among the most glaring examples are scouting and patrolling, camouflage and concealment, proficiency in small boat operations, and an ability to self-sustain. In addition, lack of multispectral signature management (especially of command-and-control nodes) and overreliance on large vehicle footprints are unsustainable given both the nature of the pacing threat and the requirements of distributed maritime operations.
Many Marines are aware of such issues, but placing the burden on operating forces to address them is inadequate. An institutional approach is necessary, including the reorientation of formal schools and unit training priorities. Moreover, it is time for a seismic shift in the way Marine divisions will fight and win in future maritime conflicts.
To persist inside an adversary A2/AD engagement zone, Marines need to be lighter, more agile, and more survivable. The middleweight force currently fielded by Marine divisions has a signature that is too large and too tied to vehicular support to evade adversary targeting. The Corps must divest itself of all heavy armor and most light-armored platforms. The main effort should be light infantry forces operating in small units that can maneuver and communicate clandestinely for extended periods inside an adversary engagement zone. Forces that can effectively infiltrate will be more successful at evading adversaries and more successful at persisting inside enemy engagement zones.
Furthermore, static, large-footprint command posts at the battalion level and above must be eliminated, as enemy use of unmanned aerial systems and long-range precision fires have made them dangerous and outdated. Fighting this way against a peer adversary with robust overhead collection and special operations forces would be incomprehensible. Gone will be the days of plasma screens, field mess tents, and overgrown antenna farms. An infantry battalion command post will need to be capable of operating with a small enough footprint to remain clandestine and still effectively command and control. Army Special Forces Operational Detachments–Charlie could be a model for a Marine infantry battalion field headquarters.
However, persisting inside an adversary’s A2/AD network is only half the job. To facilitate sea control/sea denial, seize and hold key maritime terrain, reconnoiter and defend advanced naval bases, and conduct other operations that will facilitate the naval campaign, the future force must be armed with more than the current inventory of infantry weapon systems. Antiship and surface-to-air missile systems that can create mutually contested maritime spaces must be part of every infantry formation. Although larger signature, extended-range artillery systems such as HiMARS will play a major role in this mission, they cannot be the sole solution.
A broader range of low-signature systems, such as man-portable and unmanned systems, distributed across a larger geographic space, should be the primary objective for initial stay-behind or stand-in forces. Without the ability to accomplish these essential tasks, an infantry formation—even one that can successfully persist inside an A2/AD network—is little more than an easily bypassed nominal force.
To facilitate this operating concept, infantry forces also must broaden their means of insertion and infiltration. Lighter, cheaper, and more expendable vehicles would increase mobility in complex littoral terrain, improve flexibility in insertion and extraction, and lighten the logistics footprint to sustain the force. In addition, proficiency in small boat operations should be required for an amphibious light infantry force. Even the signature of foot-mobile forces can be further reduced by advances in multispectral camouflage.
Marines also must surpass current concepts of expeditionary logistics. They must reduce the demand signal for an already substantial logistics tail. What currently are treated as survival techniques (e.g., personal water purification) must be daily skills if Marines are to accomplish the CPG’s objectives.
The New-Look Corps
Many stakeholders may be unwilling to accept these recommendations. The Commandant made clear, however, “There is no piece of equipment or major defense acquisition program that defines us. . . . Instead, we are defined by our collective character as Marines.”18 Every Marine is a Marine first, then an aviator, tanker, logistician, or rifleman. Incumbency, parochialism, or gatekeeping should not dissuade Marines from fielding the right force for maritime conflict.
An individual Marine or unit challenged on a technique or procedure, replying “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” is the nearest thing to sacrilege one can utter. The Marine Corps’ standing as a coequal service per Goldwater-Nichols is debatable, but what is not is its operational and tactical purpose: supporting the Navy by conducting land operations.
By fully integrating into the Navy’s CWC, gaining efficiencies in aviation and the supporting establishment structure, and overhauling its ground forces, the Marine Corps can reinvent itself as a more lethal and survivable naval expeditionary force-in-readiness. This new-look Corps would be capable of persisting inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone, creating mutually contested space and facilitating larger naval campaigns. Marines must challenge existing assumptions if they want to realize this future.
1. Jeff Schogol, “The Next Fight: The Commandant Is Pushing the Corps to Be Ready for a ‘Violent, Violent Fight,’” Marine Corps Times, 18 September 2017.
2. U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (2018), 1.
3. James Holmes, “How China Could Sink an American Aircraft Carrier in a Bloody Battle,” The National Interest, 20 July 2019; Jim Sciutto, The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), 141–84; Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, 3 January 2019; U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019, 2 May 2019; “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations.
4. Congressional Research Service, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization, 5 August 2019; Robert S. Mueller III, Report On the Investigation Into Russian Interference In the 2016 Presidential Election (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2019): 1; Margaret L. Taylor, “Combating Disinformation and Foreign Interference in Democracies: Lessons from Europe,” Brookings Institution, 31 July 2019.
5. GEN David Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 16 July 2019, 2.
6. Chris Brose and Ryan Evans, “Your Ideas Matter: The Making of Marine Strategic Planning and the Future of War,” War on the Rocks, 7 August 2019.
7. Sydney J. Freedberg, “SASC Seeks Sweeping ‘Roles & Missions’ Report: Wither the Marines?” Breaking Defense, June 2018.
8. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 1.
9. Leo Spaeder, “Sir, Who Am I? An Open Letter to the Incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, 28 March 2019.
10. 10 US3C. 5063, United States Marine Corps: composition, functions.
11. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 1.
12. 10 USC. 5063.
13. Shawn Snow, “The Corps Wants Ship-Sinking Missiles So Marines Can Strike Ships From the Shore,” Marine Corps Times, 19 February 2019.
14. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “F-35’s Ability to Evade Budget Cuts Illustrates Challenge of Paring Defense Spending,” Washington Post, 9 March 2013.
15. 10 U. S. C. 5063.
16. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 2.
17. Berger, 5.
18. Berger, 2.