In early May 2022, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, released the second update to March 2020’s Force Design 2030.1 Alongside 2021’s Concept for Stand-in Forces, the “Force Design 2030 Annual Update” emphasized reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance. The Marine Corps describes stand-in forces as “small but lethal forces, designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area as the leading edge of a maritime defense-in-depth.”2
The update highlights the need for improved organic sensors with sufficient range to support Marine Corps, fleet, and joint lethality while reducing the signature of light, mobile forces operating within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone. The Commandant noted that the divestment of legacy capabilities and structure, including a reduction of end strength by 7,000 Marines, “over the past two and half years resulted in $16 billion for reinvestment.” He also observed that the Marine Corps has so far received “back every dollar that we divested, which supports our strategy for modernization.”3
The Future Is Subject to Debate
Significant public criticism and debate over the Commandant’s design initiatives, primarily from retired general officers, and preliminary lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February made combined-arms warfare a major topic for Marines throughout 2022.
A cursory search finds more than 100 published opinion pieces, rebuttals, articles, and significant podcasts disparaging, critiquing, and responding to others’ claims and viewpoints. In fact, the Marine Corps Gazette dedicated its entire December 2022 issue to the “ongoing debate.” It contains nine articles arguing for Force Design 2030 (including General Berger’s “The Case for Change”), seven counterarguments (including retired General Anthony C. Zinni’s “The Flawed Argument for Change”), and nine articles labeled “constructive criticisms” (including retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman’s “Still First to Fight?”).4
The major criticisms include a perception that the Marine Corps is moving away from being a middleweight force to a much lighter reconnaissance focus with less flexibility; over-optimization for the Indo-Pacific region and a single adversary; less capacity to conduct maneuver warfare and amphibious power projection; long-range fires that, while necessary, sacrifice intermediate indirect support that creates gaps an enemy can easily exploit; a dependence on technology that has not been fully tested; divestments based only on wargaming or limited experimentation; and a defense posture that fails to adequately address growing challenges to conducting offensive operations. Most notable, in December a group highly critical of Force Design 2030, including Generals Zinni and Charles Krulak—a former Commandant—published Vision 2035: Global Response in the Age of Precision Munitions.5
Defenders of Force Design 2030 focus on rebutting these arguments or explaining why the current threats and the changes in the character of war mitigate their importance. They note that the pacing threat from China and, in particular, the growing challenge to the U.S. ability to control the seas require a paradigm shift. Defenders highlight lessons from the past few decades on the growing impact of technology—including information, computers, sensors, and long-range precision weapons—that are reshaping war. They also stress that an acceptable level of middleweight capabilities is being maintained and believe that a force optimized for the Indo-Pacific area will also possess the agility to swing to crises elsewhere. And they assert that recent experience in warfare is more applicable than Cold War tropes.
The war in Ukraine has fueled debate over Force Design, with each side citing events unfolding there as evidence supporting its position. While it will take time to understand the war’s lessons and insights for future combat, the conflict has highlighted that the Indo-Pacific must not completely dominate capabilities and organization.
Russia’s invasion has demonstrated the continuing importance of combined-arms capabilities, including the need to expand into and synchronize new domains such as cyber as well as the logistical intensity and vulnerabilities of high-intensity warfare. Probably the most insightful assessment to date, from the Royal United Services Institute, emphasizes the continuing importance of a variety of ranges for indirect fires and the capacity to suppress and neutralize enemy maneuver forces and support.6
The increasing value of “killer” unmanned aerial systems, such as the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost, to support precision, long-range destruction reinforced Marine Corps efforts to obtain loitering munitions. The Marine Corps considers this technology integral to future force development, with Marines experimenting with organic precision fires–mounted (OPF-M) and organic precision fires–infantry (OPF-I) capabilities. In addition, Ukraine’s use of ground-based antiship missiles to sink and deter Russian naval power projection demonstrates these weapons’ value and their ability to create effective sea-denial capabilities for forward-deployed forces.
In response to the war, the Marine Corps, the other services, and allies reinforced NATO countries to deter further Russian aggression. In March, approximately 200 aviation support Marines were repositioned from Norway to Lithuania, while a Marine F/A-18 Hornet squadron redeployed to eastern Europe.7 However, the theater commander’s request for a Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) and amphibious ready group (ARG) to deploy early to Europe to assist in controlling the developing crisis could not be executed because of amphibious ship readiness issues. Ultimately, two of the three ships in the Kearsarge ARG, with the embarked 22nd MEU, deployed on schedule from the East Coast in mid-March, with the final ship’s sailing delayed until the end of the month.8
Marine Littoral Regiment
In March, a major milestone in the Force Design 2030 effort was achieved when the 3d Marine Regiment located in Hawaii was redesignated as the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR). This new organization, the first of three planned MLRs, marked an important moment in General Berger’s plans for supporting sea-control and -denial strategies, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Each MLR will have three main subordinate elements: a littoral combat team (LCT), a littoral antiair battalion (LAAB), and a combat logistics battalion (CLB). The LCT is built around a modified infantry battalion augmented with new capabilities, including a long-range antiship battery. This battery will initially employ the Navy-Marine expeditionary ship interdiction system (NMESIS), with Raytheon Naval Strike Missile (NSM) launchers mounted on a remote-controlled joint light tactical vehicle chassis.
In advance of the 3d MLR activation, an inaugural LAAB was stood up in Hawaii. The battalion “is designed to provide air defense, air surveillance and early warning, air control, and forward rearming and refueling capabilities.” Air and missile defense is growing in importance. In July, the Marine Corps successfully tested a medium-range intercept capability that employed Israel’s Iron Dome launcher and missile. The system, in development since 2018, will integrate with the already fielded AN/TPS-80 ground/air task-oriented radar (G/ATOR) and common aviation command-and-control system.
The CLB provides tactical logistics support by resupplying expeditionary advanced bases. The MLR’s final design is still in development, but a regiment will probably include between 1,800 and 2,000 Marines and sailors, smaller than the approximately 3,400 in a standard infantry regiment like the former 3d Marines. Both the 4th and 12th Marine Regiments currently on Okinawa are scheduled for conversion by 2030.9
At the 2022 Rim of the Pacific (RimPac) multinational naval exercise in July and August, small units from 3d MLR tested setting up sensors and missile sites. In a developmental test of NMESIS, an NSM struck a target ship from 100 nautical miles away.
Ground Combat Forces
Three infantry battalions—each organized in different sizes and configurations—participated in the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Infantry Battalion Experiment 2030 (IBX30). Initially, the Marine Corps believed the current battalion size could be reduced from 896 Marines and sailors to approximately 735. After 24 months of experimentation, including force-on-force events, the Marine Corps has determined that 800 to 835 personnel are optimal for conducting expeditionary offensive and defensive operations as an element of a MEU or as a subordinate unit of an infantry regiment. The Marine Corps plans to continue IBX30 to refine decisions on the future infantry battalion structure.10
Second Battalion, Third Marines, cased its colors in a January 2022 ceremony at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The divestment of this additional active component infantry battalion was planned as part of a force-reduction objective from 24 to 21 active Marine infantry battalions. That is a further decrease from 2011’s 27 battalions.11
One refinement increased the planned supporting-arms structure. The active-duty force will now have seven cannon batteries, two more than the original plan. The reserves will have six cannon batteries, with eight howitzers in each unit. These batteries will be complemented by seven M142 high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) batteries. Together, these firing units should support traditional combined-arms maneuver and defense-in-depth requirements of an engaged Marine expeditionary force (MEF).12
The May Force Design update announced a refinement to the medium-lift tilt-rotor plan. The original expectation was that the Marine Corps would divest three MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor squadrons, leaving 14 squadrons with 12 aircraft in each. Based on wargaming and experimentation, the service revised the plan to a new force structure of 16 squadrons with 10 aircraft each. This will result in a net eight fewer operational aircraft, but the increased organizational structure should better support small, dispersed units.13
A significant aviation milestone arrived in April. The Marine Corps declared initial operational capability for the CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, after achieving the required training, logistics, and spares accumulation to support deployment of a CH-53K unit. The aircraft also completed its initial operational test and evaluation, demonstrating major improvements over the CH-53E it will replace—including a maximum external lift of 36,000 pounds and the ability to transport 27,000 pounds 110 nm. The new aircraft also has 63 percent fewer parts than the CH-53E, which should enhance operational availability and facilitate maintenance in austere operational environments. Currently, the first deployment is scheduled for fiscal year 2024 (FY24), and full operational capability is expected to be achieved in FY29. The Marine Corps intends to acquire a total fleet of 200 CH-53Ks.14
Also in April, the Marine Corps published the 2022 Aviation Plan. A key initiative is the decision to pursue a development path for the eventual replacement of helicopters such as the AH-1Z Viper and the UH-1Y Venom aircraft.15 The future vertical lift program may include a vertical takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) family-of-systems (FOS) approach that would include manned and unmanned capabilities. This approach, together with MV-22B VTOL aircraft, could minimize required maintenance support, especially among dispersed locations. A VTOL FOS also would facilitate operational flexibility, enabling operations from a wide range of ships and expeditionary advanced bases, with the speed and range necessary to support other Marine Corps aviation assets.
The Marine Corps is also moving to a family-of-systems approach for the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) unmanned expeditionary (MUX) system, divided into several tiers. The MQ-9A Reaper will serve in the interim as the tier 1 medium-altitude long-endurance system that will inform the MUX FOS requirements and priorities. In August, the Navy contracted with General Atomics to build eight extended-range Reapers for the Marine Corps. In addition, the Marines plan to transition Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 3 in Hawaii to the MQ-9A to support MLR training and provide the regiment with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support.16 Other potential MUX FOS missions include communications, electronic warfare, and airborne early warning. The Marine Corps is finding that aviation assets can provide a significant communication and digital connectivity advantage to a dispersed force seeking to increase decision-making and generate a high operational tempo.17
Naval Amphibious Forces
The past year revealed a major divergence between the Navy and the Marine Corps over the size and composition of the future amphibious force. The Commandant has stated that the naval forces require both traditional amphibious ships and new, smaller light amphibious warships (LAWs). The Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, Lieutenant General Karsten Heckl, noted in April that the “Marine Corps’ requirement remains 31 large amphibious ships—10 big-deck LHAs and 21 LSDs or LPDs.” These proven warships are critical to support forward-deployed MEUs and project combat power and influence from the sea to the shore. However, the presidential budget proposal released that same month would result in a force of only 25 large amphibious ships by 2027.18
With the LAW program, the Marine Corps hopes to gain a medium landing ship, a class not seen since World War II. To support maneuver and mobility of dispersed stand-in forces and expeditionary advanced bases in contested waters, beachable LAWs would embark 75 Marines and sailors and have 4,000 to 8,000 square feet of cargo space and a transit speed of at least 14 knots. The Marine Corps seeks as many as 35 LAWs, but Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday’s Navigation Plan 2022 indicated an intention to procure only 18.19 In addition, the survivability requirements for the proposed LAW would significantly affect the cost of each ship, risking a per-ship increase from an estimated $130 million to more than $300 million. Complicating the debate was Lieutenant General Heckl’s comment that “the Marines don’t envision using this vessel during combat operations either.” It is unclear how this statement squares with the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept.20
Congress appeared to side with the Marine Corps, at least in part, with the passage of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA included a provision giving the Commandant more direct say in amphibious ship requirements and force structure.21 How this will work in practice will become apparent in the next few years. In the meantime, as the timeline for fielding LAWs is delayed, the Marine Corps plans to experiment with surrogate vessels, potentially including leased commercial ships. A strong candidate for this surrogate is a stern-landing vessel, which has attracted the interest of designers because of its low cost and relatively simple design.
As of the end of 2022, the Marine Corps and the Navy had not yet released the widely anticipated document tentatively titled Concept for 21st Century Amphibious Operations. The concept will focus on modernization requirements for traditional amphibious operations across the continuum of conflict up through forcible entry operations. Marine Corps leaders expect that disruptive technologies will be required to overcome antiaccess/area-denial threats with more agile and dispersed platforms, including long-range unmanned systems.22
Amphibious and Reconnaissance Vehicles
In November, the Marine Corps announced the purchase of 30 additional wheeled amphibious combat vehicles (ACVs) from BAE Systems, the first of 74 Congress authorized for FY23. This is in addition to the 260 purchased in previous years. The goal is 632 ACVs to replace the 40-year-old fleet of tracked amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs). The ACV family will have four variants: a personnel carrier that can transport 13 passengers and a crew of 3, which is now in service; a command-and-control variant; a recovery variant; and a 30-mm gun variant.23
The ACV program has encountered multiple setbacks. In January, the Marine Corps cleared the vehicle to operate in open water after deploying a new tow rope that addressed an issue identified in September 2021. Then, in July 2022, two ACVs were disabled in heavy surf, causing a pause in waterborne operations and delaying the first deployment of the vehicle with a MEU. The delay allowed for more testing in high surf zones and refinement of certification, logistical support, and system maintenance requirements. Waterborne operations resumed in September, but a few weeks later another ACV overturned in the surf during training at Camp Pendleton, California. No personnel were injured in either of these training accidents. At present, ACVs are limited to open-water operations and prohibited from entering or exiting the water across the surf zone.
Increased awareness of amphibious vehicle risks in part has resulted from the loss of eight Marines and one sailor when an AAV was swamped and sank off San Clemente Island, California, on 30 July 2020. In July 2022, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro issued secretarial letters of censure to three Marine Corps and two Navy officers for leadership failures in not preventing the tragedy.24
The Marine Corps is pursuing the advanced reconnaissance vehicle (ARV) as a replacement for the light armored vehicle (LAV). The service awarded contracts to Textron Systems and General Dynamics Land Systems to build ARV prototypes, which the companies delivered for formal evaluation in December 2022.25 In addition, BAE is studying the feasibility and effectiveness of developing a C4I and unmanned aerial systems package for its ACV to compete for the ARV contract.26
The Marine Corps conducted a significant experiment during exercise Valiant Shield in June. The USS Tripoli (LHA-7), with 16 F-35B Lightning II aircraft from two Marine fighter attack squadrons embarked, operated in concert with the aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) to demonstrate the “Lightning carrier” or “assault carrier” concept. This exercise built on the deployment of Marine F-35Bs alongside British F-35Bs on board the Royal Navy carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2021 and earlier tests on the Tripoli in April. The concept is still experimental, but it demonstrated potential options for operating with full-size carriers, supporting expeditionary advanced bases, and maintaining sea control.
During RimPac, another key achievement was the operation of Marine Corps MV-22B and CH-53E aircraft on board the Australian amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra. The continued honing of partner interoperability is expected to enable rapid formation of coalition task forces for potential operations that range from humanitarian assistance to major conflict.27 In September, Seventh Fleet established Task Force 76/3, which blends the staff of Navy Expeditionary Strike Group 7 and 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade. The task forces will conduct a year-plus campaign to explore the ability of amphibious forces in the region to support and execute EABO and employment of stand-in forces.28
In December, around 10,000 Marines on the West Coast and ships and aircraft from Third Fleet participated in exercise Steel Knight, which also tested these operational concepts. The exercise employed training bases along the California coast from Camp Pendleton to Fort Hunter Liggett as main operating sites and then projected small forces to “forward bases to secure key maritime terrain to emplace strike capabilities and sensor capabilities to control key terrain afloat.” The naval force was tasked to defend and deny a strategic choke point—the strait between Camp Pendleton and San Clemente Island. The exercise included training with the NMESIS antiship missile system and the use of unmanned surface vessels.29
The Marine Corps met all its recruiting goals during FY22. In total, the Marine Corps recruited 28,608 active-duty and 4,602 reserve enlisted Marines and commissioned 1,592 active-duty and 113 reserve officers. A spokesman from Marine Corps Recruiting Command stated that all the services are “arguably experiencing the most challenging recruiting environment since the establishment of the all-volunteer force.” He attributed this difficulty to a number of factors, including lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced access to schools for recruiters, a decline in the eligible population, historically low interest in serving, decreased public confidence in the military, and “a growing military-civilian divide.”30 General Berger wrote that the most alarming factor is “the steady decline of public trust and confidence in the military.” He stated that restoration of public trust and confidence is fundamental to reversing the downward trajectory.31
These challenges will not abate over the next few years, and recruiting will continue to be a significant challenge. Other services will likely implement incentives that will increase competition, and any extensive drawdown of the “poolees” of recruits awaiting shipment to make this year’s numbers could have a cascading negative impact. However, continued drawdown of end strength to secure investment funds for the future operating force will have the benefit of temporarily countering the effects of these trends. In addition, the Commandant has directed the Marine Corps to develop a plan to mature the force by rebalancing recruiting and retention. The core idea of this rebalance is to move away from the well-established “recruit and replace” paradigm and “implement measures to professionalize our career retention force and further incentivize retaining our most talented Marines.”32
The year 2022 was a year of both challenges and accomplishments for the Marine Corps. The summer of 2023 will see General Berger’s four years as Commandant end, and many issues that have consumed 2022 will likely continue through the year and be the focus for his successor.
1. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, “Force Design 2030 Annual Update” (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, May 2022).
2. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, A Concept for Stand-In Forces (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, December 2021).
3. Berger, “Annual Update,” 16.
4. Marine Corps Gazette, December 2022.
5. Gen Charles Krulak and Gen Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.), “Vision 2035: Global Response in the Age of Precision Munitions,” The National Interest, 16 December 2022.
6. Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, Ukraine at War: Paving the Road from Survival to Victory (London: Royal United Services Institute, 4 July 2022).
7. Heather Mongilio, “U.S. Sends 200 Marines, 10 F-18 Hornets to Eastern Europe for Russian Deterrence,” USNI News, 29 March 2022.
8. Mallory Shelbourne, “Marines Couldn’t Meet Request to Surge to Europe Due to Strain on Amphibious Fleet,” USNI News, 26 April 2022.
9. Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, “The Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR),” 11 January 2023.
10. Berger, “Annual Update,” 4.
11. Philip Athey, “Storied 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines Deactivates as Part of Force Design 2030,” Marine Corps Times, 24 January 2022.
12. Berger, “Annual Update,” 4.
13. Berger, “Annual Update,” 4–5.
14. Megan Eckstein, “Marine Corps Declares Its Heavy-Lift Helicopter Operational,” Defense News, 25 April 2022; Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Navy Declares Full-Rate Production for Marine Corps’ CH-53K Helo,” Defense News, 27 December 2022.
15. Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 2022 United States Marine Corps Aviation Plan, April 2022.
16. Mallory Shelbourne, “Top Stories 2022: U.S. Marine Corps Acquisition,” USNI News, 22 December 2022.
17. Mallory Shelbourne, “Semper Wi-Fi: New Marine Aviation Plan Pushes Digital Connections between Far-flung Forces,” USNI News, 3 May 2022.
18. Mallory Shelbourne, “Navy and Marines Divided over the Amphibious Fleet’s Future as Delays and Cancellations Mount in FY 2023 Budget Request,” USNI News, 3 April 2022.
19. ADM Michael M. Gilday, USN, Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022 (Washington, DC: Chief of Naval Operations Office, 26 July 2022).
20. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, updated 21 December 2022).
21. Mallory Shelbourne, “Top Stories 2022: U.S. Navy Acquisition,” USNI News, 26 December 2022.
22. Megan Eckstein, “Marines’ Updated Amphibious Concept Calls for Disruptive Technologies,” Defense News, 6 December 2022.
23. Justin Katz, “Marine Corps Buys 30 More ACVs Following Rough Year of Waterborne Ops Training,” Breaking Defense, 17 November 2022; BAE Systems, “Amphibious Combat Vehicle,” baesystems.com.
24. Todd South, “5 Officers Censured for 2020 Amphibious Vehicle Sinking That Killed 8 Marines, 1 Sailor,” Marine Corps Times, 14 June 2022.
25. Andrew Feickert, Marine Corps Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicle (ARV) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 6 January 2023).
26. Meredith Roaten, “Marine Corps Evaluating Light Vehicle for Recon Missions,” National Defense, 7 July 2022.
27. Megan Eckstein, “American MV-22 Ospreys Move to Australian Ship for RIMPAC Exercise,” Defense News, 18 July 2022.
28. Diana Stancy Correll and Megan Eckstein, “Navy, Marine Corps Test New Naval Integration Concepts in 7th Fleet,” Navy Times, 27 September 2022.
29. Gidget Fuentes, “Steel Knight Exercise Tests Marine, Navy Integration in ‘Island Fight’ Scenario,” USNI News, 7 December 2022.
30. Jonathan Lehrfeld, “The Marine Corps Hit All Its Recruitment Goals for 2022,” Marine Corps Times, 10 October 2022.
31. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, “Recruiting Requires Bold Changes,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 11 (November 2022), 20–25.
32. Berger, “Annual Update,” 13.