As he had numerous times before, the young major, a proud graduate of an advanced planning school, began his brief on how the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) would use new Force Design 2030 (FD 2030) capabilities to fulfill its war plan responsibilities. Yet, to his surprise, the new commanding general (CG) repeatedly interrupted, asking questions the major could not answer.
The CG wanted logistical details: “Show me how the MEF will support each mission. Do not ‘fairy dust’ it. How are we getting there? By sea? By air? What types of aircraft or ships? How many? When? How long will this take? What quality of roads, bridges, ports, and airfields exist where we will operate? How are we sustaining these units before and during the fight? How far back will we need to reach to tie into theater logistics? Where will we get our maintenance capabilities? Walk me through how we will reload a salvo of long-range missiles. How much fuel will our squadrons consume? How vulnerable will our logistics be during each phase? At what point do we risk culminating?”
Before the major could reply, the CG softened, smiling as he said, “It’s OK, major. I know you don’t have all this information. The point is we need to.”
While fictional, this vignette illustrates the urgent need to make FD 2030 logistically feasible. Recent events demonstrate the significance of FD 2030’s contributions to joint kill webs. In this year’s Balikatan exercise, U.S. Marines, U.S. Army, and Philippine Armed Forces rehearsed sea denial using a variety of advanced sensors and weapon systems, including a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and F-35Bs. The Marine Corps also recently activated its first maritime strike Tomahawk battery, adding to naval long-range precision fires.1 These new weapon systems and tactics epitomize the impressive advances of FD 2030. Logistics, however, has not seen equivalent progress. To solidify FD 2030’s gains and to deter or defeat modern threats, the Marine Corps must apply lessons from the Cold War and experiment with, modernize, and fully fund its logistics enterprise.
Though recent guidance has emphasized logistics modernization, it also demonstrates that such critical preparations have lagged behind other efforts.2 In Installation and Logistics 2030 (I&L 2030) and his final FD 2030 annual update, former Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) General David Berger prioritized logistics.3 A comparison of I&L 2030 to the 2016 Marine Operating Concept, however, reveals how long such vulnerabilities and shortfalls have been acknowledged but unaddressed. The same “iron mountains of supply and lakes of liquid fuel” that troubled Berger’s predecessor, CMC General Robert Neller, reappeared in I&L 2030 as “a singular, vulnerable chain” that relies on “large warehousing and transshipment nodes.”4 Both documents describe a logistics enterprise ill-suited for expeditionary operations at the distances demanded by modern antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) threats.5 This neglect did not arise from a lack of awareness. At least as early as 2018, General Berger described logistics as the service’s “pacing function”—the warfighting function dictating tempo and operational reach—a characterization he repeated in I&L 2030.6 Despite such statements, however, logistics modernization has stalled while other FD 2030 initiatives sped forward.
That other modernization initiatives have outpaced logistics is understandable. The magnitude of change underway has forced hard choices. FD 2030’s “divest to invest” force-development strategy demanded prioritization of risk.7 Items of immediate concern to the joint force—command and control of joint kill webs and long-range precision fires—were prioritized.8 Early in the Marine Corps’ transformation, there seemed little point in developing strategic mobility and sustainment for nonexistent missiles or sensors. Now, however, having fielded these nascent capabilities—often to the acclaim of Congress and combatant commanders—the Marine Corps must next make them logistically viable.9
Unfortunately, a flawed grasp of the problem has undermined logistics progress. Public praise of FD 2030 exemplifies this trend. One article hailing Task Force 61/2’s 2022 Baltic Sea operations oversimplified FD 2030 logistics as merely packing “pelican cases and sea bags” on commercial aircraft.10 Though an alluring aspiration, this ignores the reality that strategic effects typically require theater-level logistics to bring them to fruition. A second article, advocating for a theater security cooperation campaign to deter China, confused permissive circumstances during competition with the denied conditions likely in crisis or conflict.11 Notably, critics of the amphibious fleet share no such illusion regarding Marine Corps strategic mobility, consistently pointing to the A2/AD vulnerabilities of L-class ships. This skepticism has been extended to the service’s desired next vessel, the landing ship medium (LSM).12 Meanwhile, between 2021 and 2023, officers at The Basic School learned how to butcher pigs and gut fish as part of expeditionary foraging—excellent skills for every Marine but far from a decisive solution for sustainment.13 In I&L 2030, CMC Berger diagnosed the Marine Corps as suffering from an “excessive focus on tactical logistics,” at the expense of operational and strategic logistical readiness.14
Logistically unsupportable operating concepts present a fundamental danger to FD 2030’s noteworthy gains. Marine littoral regiments (MLRs)—FD 2030’s preeminent creation—require strategic mobility to deploy and maneuver meaningful combat power. While MLR deployments will likely receive joint support, organic naval lift capacity must play the primary role in enabling stand-in forces (SIF) and expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO). For both SIF and EABO, organic mobility is vital for units to operate inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ), moving constantly to avoid enemy targeting and pulsing capabilities forward in support of the joint force.15 Absent sufficient sustainment and maintenance capacity, the benefits of the MLR are likely to be short-lived, useful only during crisis, the early stages of a conflict, or in the often-predicted but seldom seen decisive “short war” imagined by defense pundits.16 Beyond these situations, with its magazines empty, short on supplies, and unable to move, an MLR will be easy for the enemy to locate, isolate, and target. For FD 2030 to be viable, it needs a logistics plan that can fully support it.
Fortunately, Marine Corps logistical innovation during the Cold War provides relevant lessons and a range of options for today. The 2018 National Defense Strategy was not the first time since World War II that the Marine Corps paced against a peer threat. After the Vietnam War, senior civilians directed the service to transform into a true general-purpose force, ready for large-scale conventional warfare against Soviet divisions. Amid this 1970s pivot, critics questioned the viability of the Marine Corps, including the logistical feasibility of power projection from the sea.17 In a largely forgotten example of innovation, the service answered such critique with verve, gaining newfound proficiency in mechanized tactics and the logistical capabilities to project and sustain such operations.18 Five lessons from this period show how today’s Marine Corps can develop the logistics needed to support FD 2030.
First, to project power against a sophisticated A2/AD threat, the Marine Corps must possess diverse and redundant strategic mobility options. Assailed by the claims of 1970s critics that antiship cruise missiles had rendered amphibious ships obsolete, CMC General Louis Wilson embraced new solutions for strategic mobility, saying “Whenever called, we will be prepared to go—immediately—to war. We will ride there with the Navy or the Air Force and fight alongside the Army when we get there.”19 Wilson’s willingness to move beyond amphibious assault parochialism fostered the development of prepositioning in Norway and opened the door for General Robert Barrow, his successor, to welcome Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons (MPS) as a solution for rapid deployment.20 Both prepositioned stocks in Norway and MPS shattered the status quo of amphibious traditionalists. Similarly, to make FD 2030 logistically feasible, the Marine Corps will require creative new ways to employ individual L-class ships and amphibious ready groups, reconfigured MPS, and new approaches to prepositioning such as the promising Global Positioning Network (GPN), a distributed system combining stocks ashore with those afloat on shallow draft vessels.21
Additional War Stocks
Enhanced logistical readiness will not come free. The Marine Corps could preposition equipment ashore and afloat during the late Cold War because it did not have to choose between unit training readiness and setting conditions for war plans. Many critics of MPS and prepositioned equipment in Norway ceased their opposition when they learned that pre-staged weapons and equipment would not come from existing service stocks.22 The Department of Defense and Congress understood that increased responsiveness demanded additional capacity, so they funded dedicated war stocks.
If today’s stand-in forces are to be ready to deploy, then resources staged in the GPN must not come from operational units. In the recent past, commands have had to give up assets to equip prepositioning programs, such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites in the Philippines and Marine Rotational Force–Europe equipment sets stored in Arctic Norway.23 Such thrift will not work if FD 2030 is to offer a meaningful counter to peer threats. If additional funding proves impossible amidst a future year budgetary flat line, it may be necessary to source prepositioning at the expense of other FD 2030 initiatives, rather than pulling from the operating force’s organic stocks. To do otherwise would impose too great a risk: FD 2030 combat capabilities depend on fully trained and equipped units sustained by war stocks prestaged inside or near the WEZ.
Third, the Marine Corps will need to bridge immediate logistics shortfalls while waiting for long-term solutions. When Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, testing the Marine Corps’ openness to MPS in 1979, asked CMC Barrow, “Do Marines always have to storm ashore?” he already envisioned a strategic mobility stopgap.24 While the service awaited specialized MPS ships, refitted civilian cargo ships—designated as “near-term prepositioning ships”—provided serviceable vessels. This improved the service’s ability to deploy forces rapidly. Today, as the Marine Corps waits to acquire the LSM and updated MPS, it must pursue temporary solutions such as purchasing decommissioned Army LCU-2000s or leasing civilian offshore supply vessels (OSVs).25 While such solutions will not be perfect—and will come at additional cost—they are needed to ensure near-term readiness against peer threats.
A Sprint and a Marathon
Fourth, the Marine Corps must prepare both rapidly deployable “fight tonight” logistical capabilities and sufficient sustainment and maintenance for a longer conflict. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army and Air Force built a force optimized to fight and win a “short war” on NATO’s central front, while the Navy and Marine Corps prepared for a protracted conflict, recognizing that history provided few examples of short, sharp, decisive conflicts. Such thinking animated the architects of the 1980s Maritime Strategy and its companion, the Amphibious Strategy.26
Just as Cold War naval strategists knew a war with the Soviet Union would not culminate at the Fulda Gap, in developing logistics capabilities for FD 2030, the Marine Corps must look beyond single battles over western Pacific islands or Baltic coastlines and consider logistics at the campaign level. This will require a tooth-to-tail ratio that includes forward capabilities to maintain forces in the close fight as well as sufficient sustainers and maintainers for the deep fight of theater logistics and the reconstitution of units and equipment. The service’s heavy dependence on civilian contractors during two decades of post-9/11 counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations demonstrates the degree to which this latter logistical muscle has atrophied. To rebuild resiliency for the deep fight, the Marine Corps may have to shift manpower to the logistics combat element (LCE), even at the expense of other parts of the Marine air-ground task force. Failing to do so will run the risk of culminating early in an expanded conflict.
Pragmatic Approach to Technology
Last, a pragmatic approach to technology can enhance Marine Corps innovation. In 1979, General Wilson canceled an expensive, ambitious program known as the light vehicle assault (LVA)—a forerunner of the later doomed expeditionary fighting vehicle—telling Congress he favored evolutionary improvements over technological leaps.27 As CMC, Wilson prioritized proven technology, such as the landing craft air cushion and vertical-short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft.28 Similarly, the Marine Corps’ current logistics enterprise should prioritize programs already at a high technology readiness level (TRL). Some unmanned systems, additive manufacturing tools, and artificial intelligence systems approach this favorable mark.29 Other capabilities—such as modern seaplanes and OSVs—already surpass the TRL necessary for fielding.30
To overcome sophisticated A2/AD systems, the LCE will require a multitude of solutions. Instead of gold-plating programs or searching for an elusive technological offset, the Marine Corps logistics enterprise should look for easy wins, acquiring large numbers of affordable, capable systems that are available now. It must partner with industry to build redundant capacity quickly while simultaneously modernizing the force.
These five historical lessons provide a guide for making FD2030 logistically feasible. While the emerging capabilities of the MLR reflect significant progress, the Marine Corps lacks the strategic mobility and staying power necessary to impact the decision cycle of a peer adversary or to add markedly to the joint force. Past joint doctrine asserted that operations to deter depended on factors of communication, credibility, and capability.31 Two of these conditions exist today. U.S. civilian leaders have voiced national commitments to opposing peer threats, and there is bipartisan support to stand up to Chinese aggression.32
Simultaneously, FD 2030 has provided new capabilities for combatant commanders. Chinese and Russian military planners now must draw 1,000-mile range rings around every potential MLR position. Yet, despite these gains, the means to project and sustain Marines are lacking. Unfortunately, this deficit in logistical readiness undermines the credibility of Marine Corps contributions to deterrence.
If the Marine Corps is going to achieve FD 2030’s potential—providing forward-deployed forces for competition, deterrence, crisis, and conflict—the time has come to prioritize logistics modernization, even if at short-term cost to other areas. Failure to do so will only fulfill the predictions of FD 2030’s critics, reducing it to a 21st-century echo of the capable, yet easily isolated, Marine defense battalions of World War II.
1. Alastair Gae, “On Basco Island South of Taiwan, U.S. Military Prepares for Conflict With China,” Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2023; Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “Marines Activate First Tomahawk Battery,” USNI News, 25 July 2023.
2. John Grady, “‘Logistics, Logistics, Logistics’ Is Now Marines’ Top Focus, Says CMC Berger,” USNI News, 24 May 2023.
3. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Installations and Logistics 2030 (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2023), 15; General David H. Berger, Force Design 2030 Annual Update (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2023), 4, 12–13, 15.
4. Gen Robert B. Neller, USMC, Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2016), 9; Berger, I&L 2030, 7.
5. Neller, MOC, 9, 23; Berger, I&L 2030, 2–3.
6. Gen Berger quote is from a wargame the author attended in April 2018 at Marine Forces Pacific where Berger was then commander. For later use, see Berger, I&L 2030, 1.
7. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Force Design 2030, 2, 7–9, 13.
8. Benjamin Jensen, “The Rest of the Story: Evaluating the U.S. Marine Corps Force Design 2030,” War on the Rocks, 27 April 2020.
9. Robert Work, “Marine Force Design: Changes Overdue Despite Critics’ Claims,” Texas National Security Review 6, no. 3 (Summer 2023): 84.
10. Scott Cuomo, “On-the-Ground Truth and Force Design 2030 Reconciliation: A Way Forward,” War on the Rocks, 12 July 2022.
11. Benjamin Van Horrick, “A Strait Too Far: How a Deliberate Campaigning Approach in the Pacific Can Make Beijing Think Twice,” War on the Rocks, 5 June 2023.
12. Jerry Hendrix and Mark Montgomery, “Marines Need to Move Beyond Their Amphibious-Assault Past,” National Review, 15 June 2023; Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Medium Landing Ship (LSM) (Previously Light Amphibious Warship [LAW]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2023), 8–13, 27, 30.
13. Philip Athey, “Marine-Style Barbeque? Marines Add Foraging Class to The Basic School,” Marine Corps Times, 3 December 2021.
14. Berger, I&L 2030, 2.
15. LtGen Eric M. Smith, USMC, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 2021), 1–5, 7–8 to 7–9; General David H. Berger, USMC, “A Concept for Stand-In Forces,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 11 (November 2021), 16–21.
16. Cathal J. Nolan, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 572–82.
17. Martin Binkin and Jeffrey Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go From Here? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1976), 4–14, 25–35, 88; William S. Lind and Jeffrey Record, “Twilight for the Corps,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 104, no. 7 (July 1978): 38–43.
18. Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, 2nd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1991), 607–11; Joseph H. Alexander and Merrill L. Bartlett, Sea Soldiers in the Cold War: Amphibious Warfare, 1945-1991 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 62–86, 122–47.
19. Gen Louis H. Wilson Jr., USMC, “Remarks by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island,” March 1, 1976, 13, Louis H. Wilson Jr. Collection, Box 63, Folder 3, Marine Corps Historical Archives, Quantico, VA. Emphasis added by author.
20. Rolf Tamnes, The United States and the Cold War in the High North (Brookfield, VT: Dartmouth Publishing Company, 1991), 245–49; Gen Carl E. Mundy, Career Interview, Transcript, 1996, 122–24, Oral History Program, Marine Corps Historical Archives, Quantico, VA; Edwin H. Simmons, “Robert Hilliard Barrow, 1979-1983,” in Commandants of the Marine Corps, ed. Allan R. Millett and Jack Shulimson (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004), 451–52.
21. Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Marine Corps Begins Developing Smaller Pre-Positioning Ship,” Defense News, 28 June 2023.
22. General Louis H. Wilson, USMC, Oral History, Transcript, 2008, 141, Oral History Program, Marine Corps Historical Archives, Quantico, VA; General Robert H. Barrow, USMC, Oral History, Transcript, 2015, 407, Oral History Program, Marine Corps Historical Archives, Quantico, VA.
23. Abrey Liggins, “Emerging From Hibernation,” DVIDS Newswire, 22 July 2020.
24. Simmons, “Robert Hilliard Barrow,” 451–52.
25. Capt Walker D. Mills, USMC, and LT Joseph Hanacek, USN, “The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Should Acquire Army Watercraft,” Defense News, 22 June 2020.
26. Steven T. Wills, Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic Planning (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021), 51–57, 59–73, 102.
27. Hearings on Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1980, S. 428 Before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 96th Congress, 1st Session, 492–93, 551–52 (1979).
28. Gen Louis H. Wilson Jr., “Ready-Amphibious-Marine,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 103, no. 11 (November 1977): 23–25.
29. Sabrina Patel, “Fostering Innovation: Utilizing Additive Manufacturing to Support the MAGTF,” Marine Corps Gazette 102, no. 8 (August 2018): 44–46; 1stLt Karl Flynn, USMC, “Unmanned Vessels for EABO,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 11 (November 2021); Harrison Schramm and Regan Copple, “Prepare for AI-Enabled Future Logistics,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 11 (November 2021).
30. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Researching New Class of Medium Amphibious Ship, New Logistics Ships,” USNI News, 20 February 2020; David Alman, “Bring Back the Seaplane,” War on the Rocks, 1 July 2020.
31. Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2011), V–39.
32. Fareed Zakaria, “Washington Has Succumbed to Dangerous Groupthink on China,” Washington Post, 2 March 2023.