“Whenever you make assumptions, you need an alternate plan.”
–29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray
In July 2019, Marine Corps General David H. Berger released the Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) and charted a course toward a force modernization that is the among the most ambitious in recent history.
Implementation began immediately. But as the institution moves forward, it leaves behind the sterile environment of working groups, assumptions, and conceptual planning and enters the real world. The Marine Corps should do what anyone en route to an unknown destination would—pause periodically to make sure they are where they think they are and confirm their course to the intended destination.
Azimuth checks are even more important when the map includes areas that were unknown when the course was charted. To ensure the Marine Corps arrives at its intended destination, the fundamental assumptions that informed the course must be validated to inform future decisions. Stepping off without a plan for azimuth checks or the will to implement them is a guarantee to wind up lost.
Force Design 2030
In the best tradition of the Marine Corps, the CPG identifies concerns, provides intent, and establishes an azimuth. Planning efforts, shielded from outside influence by nondisclosure agreements, produced waypoints that began defining a specific course. While conducive to speed, this approach limited the depth in which assumptions could be examined, even though these assumptions served as the foundation for modernization.
These waypoints became clearer with the release of Force Design 2030 in March 2020. While providing few details on the background, Force Design 2030 charts sweeping changes. Some changes were constructive (forming new units and capabilities), some were adjustive (modifying existing units), and some were destructive (the removal of complete units and capabilities). Although Force Design 2030 includes a disclaimer that more thinking is necessary, the Marine Corps stepped off quickly.
The speed with which Force Design 2030 has been implemented will lead to gaps between the charted course and reality. Many things can create gaps: flawed assumptions, overly optimistic assessments, or unrealistic capability development timelines. As gaps become apparent, adjustments will be necessary. The true test of an institution’s agility is not the boldness of the initial vision, but the way in which that vision is reconciled with reality, balancing current requirements with the necessary investments for the future. Is the Marine Corps willing to check its azimuth? More important, does it have the courage to make adjustments, particularly when those adjustments point to flaws in the original assumptions?
The Problem with the Gray Zone
The foundation of the CPG and Force Design 2030 is the assessment that the “Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment.” This future operating environment will focus on the gray zone, and Force Design 2030 purports to chart a course to a force that will provide a greater deterrent than the current force.
The changes center on developing a more nimble force capable of employing long-range fires in support of fleet operations. Since the current Marine Corps does not have units or weapons capable of addressing this requirement, they are being created. However, will this deter an enemy short of full-scale war? The CPG is based on this assumption. But is this rebalancing likely to have the desired effect? Will this azimuth lead to gray zone success? This assumption can be tested with a thought experiment: Imagine the Marine Corps already had the capabilities under development. If the Force Design 2030 force were in place now, what effect would this have on near-peer adversary behavior?
The short answer is very little, because capability is only one aspect of a unit’s deterrent effect. A force in being does little to alter the situation if the circumstances under which it can be employed have not changed. This is the fundamental strategic asymmetry that the CPG and Force Design 2030 do not address and that current changes do little to reconcile.
At the core, the U.S. disadvantage in dealing with gray zone provocations is that the “Clausewitzian Trinity”—government, people, and military—are more closely aligned in China than in the United States in regard to key issues in the western Pacific. Although U.S. political and military leaders understand the rationale for confronting increasingly aggressive behavior, the U.S. population does not. As a result, military and political leaders will continue to be constrained, until China makes a strategic error and breaks the threshold that would generate U.S. public support for an armed response. China knows this, and its activity in the gray zone has little to do with any capability gap in the Marine Corps’ force structure and everything to do with the fact that Americans have little interest in a military engagement on the other side of the world. Unless this issue is acknowledged, the Marine Corps’ changes will not achieve the desired result of deterring China’s behavior in the gray zone.
Peer vs. Proxies
“Be light enough to get there and heavy enough to win.” –General Gray
Gray zone competition with near-peer adversaries is one possibility in a range of warfighting scenarios. Rebalancing the entire capability portfolio to optimize for a single scenario leaves the force exposed when asked to deal with other more likely scenarios that will require a different type of combat power.
History would argue that since the advent of nuclear weapons, direct confrontation between peer competitors has been rare, given the risk of escalation to nuclear war. Since the end of World War II, the United States has not directly engaged a peer competitor, but the Marine Corps has been committed against a stream of proxy opponents supported by peer competitors. Campaigns against proxy opponents require a different type of force than that required against peer competitors directly.
Proxy opponents cannot oppose strategic force generation or operational movement. They bank on success in small-unit tactical engagements, in which tactical overmatch becomes the deciding factor. In this arena, the ability to close ground under direct threat to kill an opponent remains fundamental in combat. These frequently are referred to as “legacy capabilities,” with negative connotations. In the reality of the field, tactical combat power still decides the day, and it is in these engagements that the Marine Corps will find itself operating. In these operations, legacy capabilities are still necessary for victory.
The backbone legacy capability in a ground combat scenario is the tank. Precision fires are not a substitute. GPS jammers are inexpensive today, rendering some precision-guided weapons less accurate. Smart weapons reliant on laser designators can go dumb in smoke-filled skies. Bad weather, fuel limitations, and reduced visibility can strip away air cover. The only thing that can tip the scales in close combat is armor-protected firepower.
Nothing is more capable of providing armor-protected firepower in support of infantry closing on an enemy—a tactical task that will remain as long as humans conduct warfare—than a tank. Tanks are the only platform designed to withstand direct fire. Employed as part of a combined arms unit, Marine Corps tank infantry teams are unbeatable. The Marine Corps, however, has divested its tanks on the assumption that armor will be sourced by the Army in future conflicts.
It is notable that neither the CPG nor Force Design 2030 claims that the requirement for heavy armor is gone—Force Design 2030 simply assumes that armor will come from the Army, and that assumes the Army component will have assigned forces that it can provide. Is this accurate?
In the Pacific, the Army has no organic formations with armor. With the divestment of Marine Corps tanks, the only tanks in the Pacific are part of a rotational Armor Brigade Combat Team in Korea, with six companies of tanks. These tanks are part of combined arms battalions that are not designed to detach forces. It is unlikely the Army would have surplus tanks to source to the Marine Corps, leading to global sourcing. However, the Army no longer has any purely armor formations. It has merged its maneuver battalions into standing mixed formations that fight as combined arms teams. The Marine Corps request would be unsupportable.
Even if the Army could somehow provide an element of tanks, that element could not be supported by Marine ground logistics. Marine tank battalions were built to detach not only tanks, but the supporting logistics as well. Army formations do not function in this way.
Therefore, the assumption that the Army could source armor to Marine units is fundamentally flawed. The divestment of Marine armor opens a gap that limits employment options. Force Design 2030 may position the Marine Corps for the unlikely gray zone war that no one wants, but it will find itself out of position to develop tactical overmatch in the proxy wars it is more likely to face.
Solving the Armor Dilemma
“If you want a new idea, read an old book.”
As the CPG approaches its second anniversary, the environment confirms the imperative to modernize. As assumptions are examined in greater depth and the challenges more clearly understood, the Marine Corps also must be willing to adjust its plan.
How should the Marine Corps address these challenges? Here are two recommendations:
First, it should reacquire armor in the blunt and contact layers to reverse the tactical capability gap created by divesting its tanks. A single active-duty tank battalion headquarters with three active-duty companies and two reserve companies could provide depth to the force. Two-thirds of the Marine Corps’ armored capability would remain divested—two battalion headquarters, five active-duty companies, and four reserve companies—making room to invest other areas while retaining flexibility. This would be a prudent hedge against an uncertain future while still providing space to modernize.
Second, the Marine Corps could use those reacquired tanks to close the strategic gap that the CPG and Force Design 2030 do not address. How the United States dealt with the last gray zone confrontation can provide insight in addressing the current mismatch.
In her book, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, Barbara Tuchman describes a situation with many similarities to today’s dilemma. In 1937, when political and military leaders wanted to contain an expansionist Japan but faced political headwinds from a U.S. population opposed to intervention, an auxiliary force was created. It was an air force equipped with U.S.-built planes, operated and led by Americans, but under the command of Chinese national leadership. The “Flying Tigers” allowed the United States to funnel aid and expertise to counter Japanese expansionism while accommodating the political reality that the American public was not willing to support active intervention. Eventually, this force was incorporated into the U.S. force structure and became the air component of General Joseph Stilwell’s force in World War II.
The Marine Corps could do the same thing with Taiwan today. The tanks that were decommissioned or sent to the Army could be sold to Taiwan, maintained and operated by Americans trained as Marine tankers but who have separated from the force. This would provide Taiwan with a highly mobile, lethal, and survivable counterlanding force that would change not only the tactical calculation of a cross-strait invasion, but also the strategic assumptions on which an invasion would be predicated. Although not a U.S. military force, this would be a military force comprising Americans but contracted by the Taiwanese—a true gray zone response. This force, trained and operated by Americans, could be influenced by, but not controlled by, or accountable to, the U.S. command structure.
This would instantly change the strategic cross-strait calculus. No longer would the United States have to transport its fighting force across contested maritime terrain. A significant force—highly mobile and eminently capable of opposing a forced landing—would be in position prior to hostilities beginning. This force could communicate through a number of informal channels and could serve as a core around which U.S. forces could be introduced. At a stroke, this would not only balance the Marine Corps’ response to the demands of gray zone operations, but also provide the entire joint force a model to fundamentally change the Taiwan Strait situation.
The irony should not be lost that a concept used to support Chinese sovereignty against an expansionist power in the last century could be the same model used to help maintain regional sovereignty in the face of an expansionist mainland China.
Back on Course
Force Design 2030 requires fundamental shifts in the way the Marine Corps operates based on the intended destination and the speed of technology development. However, there are elements of combat that will forever be the same. How to balance investment in future capabilities against current requirements is a challenge faced by militaries throughout history.
The Marine Corps has moved out on the Force Design 2030 course faster than many thought possible, and that speaks volumes about the vision and courage in charting such a bold course. But any journey, particularly through uncharted territory, requires adjustments to the original line of march. Stepping off on a new journey is not enough; the test is whether the organization can navigate through uncertain circumstances and make changes to its waypoints en route to its intended destination. This is the standard by which future generations will judge the Marine Corps.
1. GEN David H. Berger, USMC, Force Design 2030, 2.