The late military historian Sir Michael Howard likened the role of service chiefs—those responsible for preparing their institutions for future contests—to that of a “sailor navigating by dead reckoning. You have left the terra firma of the last war and are extrapolating from the experiences of that war.” Howard realized that the greater the distance from the last war, the greater the risk in getting this difficult calculation right. He acknowledged the value of small wars to provide a “navigational fix” as military institutions sail into what he called “the fog of peace,” to show that new investments and doctrine changes are on target.1
Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger understands the dangers of pushing away from the safe shores of the past and moving into a dimly perceived future. In Force Design 2030, he proposes significant changes to the Marine Corps’ structure and capabilities to better prepare tomorrow’s Corps for that future.2 These changes would produce a somewhat smaller Marine Corps, with reductions in infantry battalions and aviation cuts. Most significantly, however, is the proposed elimination of all M1A1 tanks and considerable reduction in artillery batteries. In lieu of these heavy weapon systems, Force Design 2030 substitutes missile systems and an increased number of light armored vehicles.
These proposed changes are not without risk. Some retired Marines view the Force Design 2030 shifts and reductions as “radical” and overly focused on the Pacific.3 Most notably, former senator and Marine combat veteran James Webb was particularly sharp in his criticisms.4 Other analysts, including retired Marine Corps Colonel T. X. Hammes, are more supportive.5 Hammes convincingly shows how the changes relate to the challenges that preoccupy defense planners today, a broad range of contingencies.
Senator Webb’s concerns raise important issues about strategic risks and priorities. He embraces the Cold War version of the Marine Corps as a multipurpose force—an institutional perspective spawned in the 1950s that defined the Corps as a national, combined arms “force in readiness.” This mission derives from the poor U.S. readiness for the Korean War and is entrenched in the Marine Corps ethos. General Alfred M. Gray Jr., the 29th Commandant, once framed the role of the Marine Corps in terms of providing “aggregate utility” across many possible scenarios. This force in readiness role has less relevance in today’s post–Goldwater-Nichols age, which demands more attention to joint perspectives. However, the value of this orientation was demonstrated in past conflicts such as Vietnam, and most recently in the war in Iraq in 2003, in which the Marine Corps raced to Baghdad in parallel with the Army.
Senator Webb also supports this general-purpose posture. He agrees with the prioritization of the Indo-Pacific region, yet feels “growing unease” that this shift comes with new operational concepts and force structure changes. However, chasing al Qaeda in the desert and defeating the modernized People’s Liberation Army Navy in the western Pacific are not the same.
Senator Webb also thinks the proposed force shifts are throwing away “a hundred years” of experience and insights drawn from the great leaders of the Corps. Actually, the great leaders of the Corps, including Generals John Lejeune and John Russell, faced the same planning challenge, and adapted the service for its future. The choice for the Marines in the 1930s was to embrace major land wars or stand pat after the Banana Wars. Many resisted the reforms of General Russell in the early 1930s as he struggled to establish a Fleet Marine Force for the island campaigns of the coming war. His efforts were delayed by those raised in the fields of France or the Small Wars in Central America and the Caribbean.6
Rather than ignore history, General Berger is exploiting a heritage of innovation to ensure the future Marine Corps is as prepared as Major General Alexander Vandegrift’s Marines were for Guadalcanal. Webb overlooks that past—and a future shaped by capable U.S. competitors. This is the modern equivalent of ignoring War Plan Orange in the 1930s on the grounds it would hurt the utility of the Corps for ship and port security and constabulary duty. In his summation of the interwar period, historian and retired Marine Corps Colonel Allan Millett said:
The Marine Corps made its most important contribution to U.S. military history . . . during those frustrating threadbare days when far-sighted Commandants, Quantico planners and small FMF units pieced together the essential concepts.7
The past is relevant, but it should not freeze the Marines into irrelevance. Today, the nation is facing a rising authoritarian state, committed to expanding its political and economic influence, with a population four times the size of the United States’ and an economy that eventually will equal ours. National security leaders rate this as the greatest challenge to U.S. prosperity and security and have defined priorities and investments to meet the problem. The idea that the Marine Corps can opt out of preparing for this competition in a major maritime theater is inconsistent with why there is a corps of Marines.
While I have reservations about how the Navy-Marine Corps team will retain the great advantages derived from amphibious capabilities, the U.S. military surely needs more than simply a shrunken Marine Corps of the 1980s for the 21st century. What it needs and has, once again, is a farsighted Commandant, abetted by his fellow leaders and the concept planners at Quantico, confirmed by innovation proven in the Fleet Marine Force.
Force Design Principles
As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quipped years ago, the U.S. record for predicting the place and character of the next conflict is perfect—it has always been surprised.8 This dismal record is not a criticism of the cognitive capacity of Pentagon planners. It reflects the inherent uncertainty in foreign policy and strategy. Strategic planning under conditions of uncertainty is what the Pentagon does—it has no crystal ball or master algorithm. My experience in past force-planning efforts led me to develop a set of design principles to address this enduring issue for U.S. strategists.9 While intended for a joint review, they provide a handy framework for evaluating the Marine Corps initiative.
Principle #1: Force design must embrace uncertainty. U.S. military leaders and planners cannot pierce the future’s opaqueness or simply react to the “unknown unknowns” or tomorrow’s black swans, so they need to think ahead with humility. A black swan is an event or situation that is unpredictable and for which the consequences cannot be measured.10 This is not a useful risk construct for planners, as neither the probability nor the consequence of a black swan can be assessed. Unfortunately, this often reduces planners to the false certainty of known contests and canonical scenarios that they can envision today.
We should acknowledge uncertainty and embrace a set of “multiple futures,” not a narrow set of scenarios.11 Another part of embracing uncertainty is staying up to date with how your competitors are evolving, and avoiding complacency—the belief that what worked yesterday (or decades ago) is still competitive.
The Marine Corps’ new structure reflects a counter to the way U.S. adversaries are approaching warfare, and recognizes that resting on one’s laurels can be deadly. This is not our fathers’ age of amphibious landings, but the Corps can still generate advantage from the sea.
Principle #2: Force design must be strategically driven. Thinking strategically suggests an ability to define priorities and make hard choices that shape the future. These distinct choices should be rigorously tested, the way car manufacturers test their designs in wind tunnels and on test tracks.
A strategy should document choices and clear prioritization, and its implementation should strive to align means with ends. The Pentagon laid out its case in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, but that strategy accepts measured risk that leaves little margin for lower priorities. Especially at this time of crisis, focus and discipline should be watchwords for U.S. political leadership. The U.S. treasury is not limitless, nor is the supply of ready forces and modernized platforms endless. Applying these finite resources in pursuit of peripheral missions curtails the Department of Defense’s ability to pursue higher-order objectives, especially in Asia.
The reawakening of great power competition should force policy makers to hold both U.S. military deployments and procurement funding to the defined objectives of the National Defense Strategy. Real strategists realign scarce resources with clear priorities. Senior Pentagon leaders understand this—and so does General Berger.
The proposed shifts in Force Design 2030 clearly are derived from the direction set forth in the National Defense Strategy and reflect the priorities the strategy laid out. The National Defense Strategy calls for changes of scale and urgency not yet seen in the other services, and it also calls for a focus on major competitors, creative operational concepts, and modernization for greater lethality, agility, and resilience. Force Design 2030 makes clear trade-offs and investments in line with those thrusts.
Principle #3: Force design must be risk-informed. Risk is inevitable in strategy. In U.S. defense planning, risk often is poorly understood and usually discussed in the context of things either to spend money on or avoid allocating resources toward. Risk and trade-offs are fundamental to long-range planning, and hedging for potential missions is smart. But the enemy does not have to respect U.S. planning assumptions and theories of victory, or fight in an accommodating manner. As General David Petraeus reminded us, we do not get to fight the wars we want.12
Meeting the challenge of uncertainty mandates thinking about and allocating a premium for a force design that can be applied in a range of scenarios, not just the ones the United States likes. But the nation also must lean forward to compete against increased challenges, including Chinese naval modernization. Senator Webb believes the Marine Corps can stand pat with its Cold War conception of itself. This spreads risk across many possible missions and scenarios, but accepts a lot of risk for the one looming adversary that stands between the West and long-term peace. A better course for the Corps would be to reduce strategic risk by adapting itself to the nation’s foremost problem in support of the joint commanders and the fleet.
Principle #4: Force design must emphasize versatility. Versatility is based on a breadth of competencies within an organization, supported by its doctrine, its leadership development and educational programs, and its force design. It is difficult for general-purpose forces to achieve truly comprehensive, full-spectrum coverage across multiple missions, but it is possible to have forces well-prepared for the “center mass” of most conflicts.
Forces that can accomplish multiple missions should be considered at a premium over single-purpose forces. Force designs that cover multiple strategic futures are preferable to a design oriented on one threat.13 As former Defense Secretary James Mattis said when he rolled out the National Defense Strategy, the United States “cannot adopt a single preclusive form of warfare. . . . We must be able to fight across the spectrum of conflict.”14 Senator Webb no doubt agrees.
Not everyone thinks the new design is versatile.15 Marine Corps veterans have noted this concern: “A Marine Corps that is 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.”16 But risk is not merely a function of probability. The most likely contingencies are not the most demanding or even relevant to deterring state aggression. In the face of a near-peer revisionist competitor, an equal focus on violent nonstate actors is not sound strategy.
While I agree that the official tone of Force Design 2030 seems overly focused on Asia, a closer look demonstrates its wider utility. Clearly, General Berger believes so in making his case for change.17 With its tailorable force building blocks, along with the additional precision strike assets, the 21st-century Marine Corps will retain enormous flexibility across many contingencies, even in European conflicts such as Ukraine, where long-range rockets, drones, and extensive cyber and electromagnetic competition are evident. Russian and Iranian developments, especially in precision strike, are just as worrisome to naval forces as those of the Chinese.18
Thus, after a detailed look at the published design report, these concerns appear less severe. The Marine Corps will still retain its commendable and potent Marine air/ground/logistics team. The versatility of the Marines Corps has never been based on its equipment. It is a product of its warfighting philosophy, leadership development, and an ethos that prizes flexible thinking. At the end of the day, one still can apply this force to historical and forecasted demands. General Berger’s stated guidance to preserve the Marine Corps’ first-to-fight readiness appears to be met.
Principle #5: Force design must ensure a degree of balance. A principal element of a sound joint force design is creating a balanced force capable of generating options for decision makers in many contexts and, at the operational level, being able to generate dilemmas for U.S. opponents. Force changes should be made with this in mind.
This includes budget balance. The Marine Corps must ensure that combat forces and major platforms do not choke off personnel development and funding for combat support and logistics capabilities. Equally important is that it avoid the temptation to allow an unbalanced force and to accept great risk in modernization accounts to preserve regiments and their flags. Program imbalance—large, costly structure that forces cuts to maintenance, spare parts, training, or, even worse, education—is at issue. The proposed Marine Corps balances force size and modernization extremely well; it also rebalances resources between aviation and ground elements, as the latter remains in need of modernization.
Another form of programmatic balance is between reliance on size (or capacity) and affordability. The Marine Corps must adapt its force development processes to better develop competitive advantage over longer-term competitions, and to impose more costs on adversaries than to itself.19 General Berger positions his service adroitly on the side of affordability: “We must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few. . . . The Marine Corps can no longer accept the inefficiencies inherent in antiquated legacy systems.”20 With the proposed reductions, some current systems have been jettisoned to ensure modernization programs can continue. These trade-offs enable the Marine Corps to preserve a high-quality and balanced force as the best hedge against uncertainty.
Measured against these force design principles, the Marine Corps gets high grades for reframing its mix of capabilities to meet the needs of today’s strategy, while retaining its readiness and breadth. The core capability set is extended rather than constrained, and the inherent flexibility of the Marine air-ground task force is not compromised, but modernized to fit contemporary strategic and operational realities.21
Tomorrow’s Marine Corps, like the force conceived in the 1930s for the trials of the Pacific, must be designed with an element of anticipation supported by experimentation. Moving forward as a service requires unlearning to a degree, and leaving the comfortable shore behind to move into an unclear future. Despite the uncertainty, tomorrow’s Marine Corps must build on the attributes that make it distinctive without being shackled to the past when it comes to tactics or equipment. It also must be built within a larger national architecture and joint force design. That larger perspective is missing in this debate so far.
The Commandant has checked his charts and applied some “dead reckoning” from Russia and Hezbollah in Syria, from Russia’s strike complex in eastern Ukraine, and from its SNAP exercises. In the Pacific, the future has been exposed by China’s space and missile exercises and its enormous military buildup across from Taiwan. The fog of peace has dissipated, and now it is time to push off from shore and move forward, always ready to adjust course as the future unfolds.
1. Michael Howard, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” Journal of the Royal United Services Institute 119, no. 1 (March 1974): 4.
2. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Force Design 2030 (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps, March 2020).
3. Mark Cancian, “The Marine Corps’ Radical Shift toward China,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 25 March 2020; Gen Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.), quoted in Michael Gordon, “Marines Plan to Retool to Meet China Threat,” Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2020, 1.
4. James Webb, “The Future of the Marine Corps,” The National Interest, 8 May 2020, nationalinterest.org/feature/future-us-marine-corps-152606.
5. Col T. X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.), “Building a Marine Corps for Every Contingency, Clime, and Place,” War on the Rocks, 15 April 2020, warontherocks.com/2020/04/building-a-marine-corps-for-every-contingency-clime-and-place/.
6. Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: Free Press, 1991), 319–43.
7. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 343.
8. Robert M. Gates, Secretary of Defense, speech at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, 25 February 2011.
9. LtCol Frank Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “Black Swans and Pink Flamingos: Five Principles for Force Design,” War on the Rocks, 19 August 2015, warontherocks.com/2015/08/black-swans-and-pink-flamingos-five-principles-for-force-design/.
10. See Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2011).
11. LtCol Frank Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “The Future Is Plural, Multiple Futures for Tomorrow’s Joint Force,” Joint Force Quarterly 88, no. 1 (2018): 4–13.
12. Gen David Petraeus, USA (Ret.), retirement speech, 31 August 2011, army.mil/article/64706/gen_david_h_petraeus_retirement_ceremony_remarks.
13. LtCol Frank Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), and George P. Garrett, Envisioning Strategic Options: Comparing Alternative Marine Corps Structures, Center for a New American Security, 14 March 2014, cnas.org/publications/reports/envisioning-strategic-options-comparing-alternative-marine-corps-structures.
14. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, “Remarks on the National Defense Strategy,” transcript, DoD News, 19 January 2018, defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/1420042/remarks-by-secretary-mattis-on-the-national -defense-strategy/.
15. Michael Gordon, “Marines Will Retool, With an Eye to China,” Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2020, A1, A7.
16. Mark Cancian, “Don’t Go Too Crazy, Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks, 8 January 2020, warontherocks.com/2020/01/dont-go-too-crazy-marine-corps/.
17. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, “The Case for Change,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 2020, 8–12.
18. David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, “Outnumbered, Outranged, and Outgunned: How Russia Defeats NATO,” War on the Rocks, 21 April 2016, warontherocks.com/2016/04/outnumbered-outranged-and-outgunned-how-russia-defeats-nato/; on Iran, see ”Iran’s Attack on Iraq Shows How Precise Missiles Have Become,” The Economist, 16 January 2020, economist.com/science-and-technology/2020/01/16/irans-attack-on-iraq-shows-how-precise-missiles-have-become.
19. Jacob L. Heim, “Force Planning in the New Era of Strategic Competition,” RAND, 28 March 2020, rand.org/blog/2020/2020/03/force-planning-in-the-new-era-of-strategic-competition.html.
20. Gen David H. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 4.
21. LtCol Frank Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “Still First to Fight? Shaping the 21st Century Marine Corps,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, 11 May 2020.