The U.S. Marines Want a Fresh Start to Take on China and Russia
Key Point: The central premise of Berger’s Planning Guidance is that the return of great power competition requires a Marine Corps that is primarily organized, trained and equipped for the high-end fight against a peer competitor, particularly China.
In his Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Marine Corps General David Berger proposes the most radical redesign of the Marine Corps in more than half a century. According to the new Commandant, “the Marine Corps is not organized, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment.” General Berger declared his number one priority to be a new force design focused on “maintaining persistent naval forward presence to enable sea control and denial operations in the presence of a peer adversary.”
The Commandant’s vision has been met, in general, with approval and even enthusiasm for its boldness and willingness to question long-held force planning assumptions. But, it has to be recognized that what is being proposed also is a high-risk gamble. Moreover, in tying the future of the Marine Corps to its ability to support Navy operations and calling for a reduction in the Corps’ focus on traditional amphibious operations, the Planning Guidance could spell the beginning of the demise of the Marine Corps as an independent service.
The central premise of Berger’s Planning Guidance is that the return of great power competition requires a Marine Corps that is primarily organized, trained and equipped for the high-end fight against a peer competitor, particularly China. A future conflict with China would be a battle for sea control. China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability, which centers on an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of long-range precision-guided weapons, puts at risk fixed land facilities and large naval combatants.
This assessment of the nature of future great power conflicts led General Berger to conclude that the Marine Corps must abandon its traditional focus on forcible entry — operations involving large-scale and protracted operations on land following the Navy’s establishment of sea control. Instead, operations on land would involve small, agile, relatively low cost and “risk-worthy” ships and units operating inside an adversary’s A2/AD umbrella and employing advanced technologies such as the F‑35B, long-range anti-ship rockets, and artillery and unmanned systems. These formations would be moved and resupplied by a fleet of small, low-signature and relatively cheap ships, some of which may be based on existing commercial designs.
The implications of General Berger’s vision of future war for the ways the Marine Corps will fight and the means it will employ are, to put it mildly, radical. In his Planning Guidance, the Commandant announced that he was abandoning the long-standing requirement to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades as the basis for developing amphibious ship design specifications. No longer would the force sizing metric for the amphibious warfare fleet be 38 specially designed ships.
In a recent article, General Berger further elaborated on the concepts laid out in his Planning Guidance. In particular, he argued that the Marine Corps was “over-invested in capabilities and capacities purpose-built for traditional sustained operations ashore.” Among the capabilities he identified for divestment were systems associated primarily with sustained, large-scale land operations. What the Maine Corps needs more of are unmanned systems of all types; mobile and rapidly deployable rocket artillery and long-range precision-fires; mobile air defense and counter-precision guided missile systems; expeditionary airfield capabilities; and lethal and risk-worthy surface vessels to include large undersea vehicles.
What could be wrong with a plan that promises to make the Marine Corps relevant to future conflict scenarios, liberate it from being America’s second land Army, and simultaneously give it a whole lot of new platforms and systems? Actually, quite a lot.
According to General Berger, the new Marine Corps will be a purpose-built force focused on the high-end fight. But what has primarily occupied the Marine Corps for the past seventy-plus years are crisis response and low-to-medium conflicts against small and regional powers. Today, the Marine Corps and its associated amphibious warfare fleet are designed as a full-spectrum force. Combatant Commanders consistently request more Amphibious Ready Groups and their associated Marine Expeditionary Units than can be generated with the resources available. How will the Marine Corps meet this demand, having divested itself of much of its current capabilities?
Modern amphibious warfare ships such as the San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks (LPD-17) have an array of capabilities that make them ideal for supporting Marine Corps operations across the conflict spectrum. Inexpensive, risk-worthy ships will have to give up many of the capabilities embodied in the current classes of amphibious warfare ships. The net result may well be a less capable amphibious warfare fleet.
The argument that the Marine Corps should be restructured to support the Navy needs a careful review. The Navy already is planning to deploy a host of new long-range precision strike systems on ships and submarines, including Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles, advanced Tomahawk cruise missiles, and even hypersonic weapons. Moreover, the additional firepower that will be provided by a smattering of land-based F‑35Bs and HIMARS batteries will not equal what can be provided by expanding the payload capacity of existing classes of ships and submarines. A single Block V Virginia-class SSN equipped with the new payload module can deliver more than 40 long-range weapons against sea and land targets. Moreover, the costs for the new Marine Corps units, enablers, and additional ships to move and resupply units ashore are likely to be more than for the equivalent firepower at sea. At the same time, it may be more vulnerable and less flexible.
Defense budgets in the future are likely to be flat or even decline. Experts are already warningthat the Pentagon will have to cut back on its ambitious modernization plans. The Maine Corps could be caught halfway between divestiture of current capabilities and acquiring new ones.
But the most fundamental problem with General Berger’s vision is this: If the Marine Corps rids itself of the capabilities and capacity for significant forcible entry and sustained land operations, how does it remain relevant to the needs of the nation? The Army can deploy long-range anti-ship strikes from small, mobile launchers, as its recent test of a prototype Precision Strike Missile demonstrated. The Army has been a stand-in force on the Korean peninsula for nearly seventy years and in Europe for even longer. The Army has the organic engineering and logistics capabilities to create and maintain small, austere expeditionary bases. The Army even has its own fleet of small, cheap vessels. The Marine Corps described by General Berger, looks more like a smaller, less capable version of the Army than a fundamentally new fighting force.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.
His article first appeared at RealClearDefense in December 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.