In the Department of Defense, innovation garners acclaim, at least until proposed changes threaten to impinge on past practices and legacy capabilities. It is at this point that champions of innovation are subjected to a cacophony from critics.
There is no shortage of criticism of Force Design (FD) 2030, especially from a group of long-retired general officers. The most prevalent myths the critics expound must be dispelled so that the Marine Corps can explain how stand-in forces (SIF) can remain effective inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone. Some suggested specific investment priorities could help accelerate FD2030 implementation.
Force Design 2030 Myths
Myth: FD2030 creates a specialized Marine Corps
Force Design 2030 is explicit: The Marine Corps is a general-purpose crisis response force, and nothing in the document is meant to change this. The Marine Corps is currently experimenting with Marine littoral regiments (MLRs), to the consternation of the critics, but it is far from certain how these units will evolve or how many will be established. MLRs, while very different from standard infantry regiments, are easily task organized for a wide range of missions. Even if the Marine Corps establishes all three planned MLRs, the service is larger than three regiments. This does not turn the Marine Corps into a unidimensional organization devoted to a single scenario. MLRs provide theater-relevant intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), precision strike, air defense, and close combat capabilities—all of which are highly relevant in any crisis response scenarios.
Myth: FD2030 changes the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy and ethos
The Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy is maneuver warfare, and the Marine Corps remains a heavy infantry force focused on closing with and destroying the enemy with fire and maneuver. New concepts such as expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) build on this philosophical foundation, they do not threaten it. Recent experience with Marines in Task Force 61/2 demonstrates the Marine Corps continues to rely on mission command, implicit communications, and individual initiative given the successful deployment of small elements, led by noncommissioned officers, in support of Naval Forces Europe and U.S. European Command.
Myth: FD2030 reduces Marines’ lethality
As part of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Marine Corps was told to consider end-strength reductions to 173,000 Marines and below. In the end, a series of bureaucratic events allowed the service to retain an authorized end-strength of 182,000. However, for Program Objective Memorandum (POM) 16, the Marine Corps requested a lower end-strength of 180,500 because of concerns over affordability and a determination not to field a hollow force. It should be recalled that, in 2000, before the war on terror led to ground force increases, Marine Corps end-strength was 173,321, and the smallest end-strength postulated in FD2030 is 174,600.
A 2014 force structure study, The Prime Force by Major General Frank McKenzie, recommended 23 infantry battalions in the case of an end-strength of 180,500, while at 175,000 it planned for 21 infantry battalions. Thus, the reductions associated with FD2030 are well within historical norms and do not reflect an evisceration of combat capability. In fact, as a percentage of ground forces, the 2022 Marine Corps constitutes 27.4 percent of the nation’s ground forces, whereas it constituted 26.6 percent in 2001.1
Balancing longer-range rocket artillery with shorter-range tube artillery to a 50/50 mix makes sense given the increasing ranges of adversary weapons. Outranging the adversary is a very basic way of improving effective lethality, as is increased precision and munition flexibility.
The lethality of ground formations, from squad to division, has increased substantially with the introduction of the M27 infantry automatic rifle, advanced optics, and M3A1 Multi-Role Anti-Armor Anti-Personnel Weapons System (MAAWS). It will continue to improve as organic aviation support, in the form of uncrewed aerial systems (UASs) and loitering munitions, perform sensing, fires, and resupply functions for all force elements. Further, given the federated nature of these capabilities, a lower tactical unit can readily request support from organic assets of senior echelons or support from the larger joint force given advances in digital connectivity. This paradigm shift is analogous to the displacement of battleship by aircraft carriers when longer-range and more numerous aircraft were able to attack less numerous surface combatants. The best way to kill a ship was no longer a ship—just as a tank is not necessarily the best way to kill a tank any longer, given the proliferation of smart, less costly munitions that outrange the tank’s main gun and subject it to top attack.
Unlike 2014, when sequestration demanded end-strength reductions along with the associated funding, FD2030 reduces end strength but has reinvested the savings in new lethality. Thus, in keeping with the policies of his predecessors, Generals James Amos and Joseph Dunford, General David Berger has determined that a smaller, lethal force is preferable to a larger, hollow one.
Finally, balancing rocket and tube artillery platforms, buying loitering munitions, and developing longer-range precision cruise missiles to increase the range and precision of the force will yield substantial increases in indirect-fire lethality. Combining these improvements with new individual infantry kit, sensors, communications, increased initial infantry training (three additional weeks for officers, six for enlisted), 100 percent manning of infantry battalions, and increasingly experienced Marines will yield a better manned, trained, and more capable and lethal force.
Myth: FD2030 is purely about putting Marines on small islands
There is perhaps a psychological overhang from the World War II Pacific Campaign. The Marine Corps’ iconic battles in this theater were mostly about relatively small islands. This is not what FD2030 is about. Rather than focusing on seizing small islands as lily pads for air forces, the Marine Corps is looking to hold islands of all sizes in concert with allies and partners.
It is a convenient strawman for critics to postulate a small Marine detachment on an isolated and desolate island where Marines are cut off from resupply and subjected to pummeling attacks from precision munitions. This is not what SIF are intended to do. Could they seize and operate from a small island in a key location? Yes, but it is neither their primary employment option nor their focus. Partner nations throughout the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, including Japan, Philippines, Guam, Australia, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands, all contain large land masses that provide substantial opportunities for cover, concealment, and local resupply.
Myth: FD2030 is only about China
China is the Marine Corps’ pacing threat, but this simply means when designing and fielding the force, China is used as the most stressful test case. This approach is no different from how the Department of Defense approached the Soviet Union as a pacing threat during the Cold War. Further, the global diffusion of new technologies and capabilities means that many state—and even some nonstate—actors will have capabilities similar to those of China. It is illogical, therefore, to argue that focusing on China as a pacing threat somehow detracts from other commitments. The Marine Corps is and will remain globally relevant.
Myth: SIF must not be detectable
SIF will be seen and will often be targetable, but they will remain resilient to attack through a series of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) explained below. All services will have to adapt to the effects of ubiquitous adversary sensors and proliferating long-range precision-strike systems. This will involve developing conditions and standards that assume the adversary knows our location, but not our disposition (Tactical Situation Two, or TacSit 2) as a minimum threshold standard for force survivability and the assumption that our adversary has us targeted (TacSit 1) as the force survivability objective standard.
SIF—Detectable but Resilient
How are SIF different, and how do they maintain effectiveness when located or targeted?
Retired Captain Wayne Hughes, the coauthor of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, famously offered that the acme of naval tactical warfare success is to “fire effectively first.” His point was that in a salvo exchange, the force that is first able to decrement the adversary’s force thereby reduces its “broadside,” thus limiting the effects of a reduced answering salvo. This initial advantage compounds with successive salvos in such a way as to ensure the defeat of the force that was struck first. While the geometry and temporal parameters of long-range precision strike differ from the type initially considered by Hughes, there is continuing relevance to this way of thinking and analyzing future engagements. In EABO, the ability to “absorb effectively first,” given the fundamental differences in resilience between an EAB and surface ships, accomplishes an outcome similar to the Hughes paradigm. In this case, the adversary diminishes its own broadside while the resilient EAB preserves its organic one by employing active and passive countermeasures uniquely available to SIF ashore. The result is that the SIF has two options to accomplish the Hughes maxim: engage first or defensively draw fire, and, given the opportunities ashore for countermeasures not available to ships, cause the adversary to reduce his “broadside” without the expenditure of any SIF munitions. This is a powerful additional option.
Of course, given the modest size of the currently envisioned EAB munitions, it is most appropriate to view this at the operational level at which the EAB’s primary contribution, should deterrence fail, is to enhance the joint kill web while the adversary reduces its stockpile of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in a costly effort to destroy the EABs.
By operating primarily in more developed regions of allied and partner countries, local security threats and logistic challenges can be substantially mitigated. Host nations typically have the best situational awareness to provide internal security, so it is prudent to rely on these forces to a considerable degree, while maintaining adequate organic defenses. Unlike the sparsely inhabited islands and atolls from which Marines operated during World War II, many of these prospective host nations are highly developed, with substantial food, fuel, and other commodity resources. Task Force 61/2 provides a good example. In recent operations in Estonia, the task force rented vehicles, and, when a cable broke, purchased a replacement on the open market.
The primary challenge is to mitigate the effects of the adversary’s attack. Because SIF operate at tactically significant distances from adversary forces, PGMs are the primary threat. Fortunately, from a defender’s standpoint, the beauty of a precision strike is that it is precise. In simplest terms, if a PGM is launched against a SIF or EAB, moving hundreds of meters can be enough to avoid the munition’s effect. If the PGM is capable of inflight update or has an advanced organic seeker, then additional measures are required. In comparison to close-in artillery exchanges, long-range PGM attacks are typically limited in number, thus allowing for prepared cover to substantially mitigate effects. This cover could be naturally occurring, existing human-created, or SIF prepared.
Standoff is the best defense against a PGM attack, because the flight time of the missile can be used to advantage by the defender to employ a range of terminal attack defeat TTPs, and the greater the standoff, the greater the time available for SIF to deploy these defensive actions.2 For EABs whose mission includes fires, the greater the range of its missiles, the greater survivability of the EAB, all other things being equal. Submarines pose a significant threat to EABs because they have the potential to close, undetected, to ranges that limit the time for implementing countermeasures. It is for this reason that the Marine Corps is interested in antisubmarine warfare and is exploring systems that can assist in detecting and attacking this threat.
Active electronic countermeasures offer another range of capabilities to defeat the terminal attack phase of a PGM. Military deception and obscurants, such as clouds of fine carbon fibers, add to the array of defeat mechanisms, thus providing a “defense in depth” through technical means.
Short-range air defense will provide depth to the defense but should not be viewed as the primary threat mitigator—the exchange ratios substantially favor the attacker, typically requiring three defensive shots to kill one offensive shot. These capabilities also quickly add to the SIF’s signature and logistics footprint, so must be used sparingly as a component of a larger system of terminal attack defeat (STAD) TTPs.
In sum, SIF can reduce signatures more easily and implement a wider range of countering TTPs than a ship, and it is this difference in survivability that makes these force elements distinct but complementary. SIF TTPs are equivalent to a submarine submerging—they do not eliminate the threat, but they can mitigate it to a degree greater than can surface combatants.
SIF forces and their senior headquarters can assist allies and partners in developing their own antiaccess/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD) making them “hedgehogs” (stout obstacles) to frustrate potential future Chinese aggression. Contributions to converting the first island chain, of which Taiwan is a part, into a string of hedgehogs, would be a substantial strategic contribution to deterrence.
The most important investment the Marine Corps can make is in Marines working daily with allies and partners to get the training and education needed to prepare them for these assignments. Marines should be assigned to work as exchange officers on the staffs of our allies and partners.
In addition, the Marine Corps should prioritize the following:
- STAD capabilities. These are essential to SIF force employment yet have received inadequate attention as a system of systems. Early warning sensors and reporting systems, highly mobile systems for rapid displacement, obscurants, electronic countermeasures, deception capabilities, and modest levels of active defense for close-in threats must be developed and fielded within the framework of a well-defined set of TTPs.
- Longer-range PGMs. These are the single greatest enabler for our STAD capabilities as they increase the most precious asset—time. Standoff from adversary weapon systems confers the time associated with the flight of the adversary’s counterbattery munition to the defender, while the responder’s kill chain latency can add additional minutes.
- Uncrewed systems and ISR sensors for reconnaissance/counterreconnaissance, organic situational awareness, and enhancement to the joint force kill web.
- Command-and-control support systems to enable SIF to be fully integrated into joint command-and-control networks. Kill webs to allow for seamless connectivity and rapid collection, processing, and dissemination of data and information.
- A family of loitering munitions analogous to the range of ammunition sizes (7.62 mm, 12.7 mm, 60 mm, 81 mm, 155 mm) will greatly increase organic lethality at all echelons.
- Infrastructure that enables SIF in potential host nations.
Gregory Poling, writing in Foreign Affairs, provides a compelling scenario. “If China opts to use force to remove the Sierra Madre, a grounded Philippine warship that Manila has turned into an outpost on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, U.S. power in Okinawa and Guam won’t matter. The United States needs a small capable force of air and missile assets in the Philippines, close enough to put Chinese surface ships at risk and to respond to small provocations before they escalate.” This is precisely the type of deterrence and crisis response capability FD2030 will provide—scalable relevance across the competition continuum.
Mythology and nostalgia for past glory make great headlines, but the complacency such thinking engenders means losing, not winning. Marines are about winning.
1. MajGen Frank McKenzie, USMC, The Prime Force: Force Design in Fiscal Austerity, U.S. Marine Corps, January 2014.
2. Captain James Daughtrey, Survivability of Expeditionary Advanced Bases from Missile Salvos with Time-of-Flight Considerations, Joint Campaign Analysis OA4602, Naval Postgraduate School, March 2021.