God Save the USMC!
By Ben Brodt
In March 2020, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corp (USMC), General David Berger released the USMC’s force design for the year 2030. The 2030 Force Design Plan called for a radical overhaul of the USMC’s posturing, expectations about future conflicts, and outlined upcoming changes to force composition to reflect those changing expectations. While the USMC has been heavily criticized for it's force posture decisions, the Corps deserves praise for the responsible risks it has taken in its efforts to prepare the force for the conflicts of tomorrow. The creation of the USMC’s 2030 Force Design Plan represents a myriad of organizational changes that other service branches should follow. While no one can predict exactly how the next conflict will pan out, currently only the USMC is integrating crucial adaptability into its organizational structure, turning itself into a versatile force which is ready for nearly any threat.
The Marine Corps has traditionally been a light, amphibious assault force. It is only in the last twenty years that it has shifted away from that mission to meet the needs of the nation’s Global War on Terror. After more than 20 years conducting a wide variety of mission sets contrary to the USMC’s founding purpose, it is now refocusing itself back to its core mission. As many other service branches have learned in recent years, two decades of counterinsurgency have left them poorly prepared for modern, near peer conflicts. In creating the necessary force structure, some of the USMC’s characteristics need to be: light, mobile, and easily able to switch between land and water. By recognizing these core needs the USMC was able to figure out which units and capabilities were in conflict with these goals.
The first (and most controversial) of many changes to the USMC’s force composition is the divestment of tanks and other heavy armored vehicles. This move has polarized an already polarizing subject: the need for armor in modern combat. While commentators bicker about this subject, they miss the driving trends behind the change: the Marines don’t need tanks. Neither the 2030 plan, nor the USMC’s leadership at large, takes a stand on whether the military needs tanks, only that the Corps does not. The Marines are not getting rid of tanks because they believe armor is useless, they are getting rid of them because the joint force already has them. The Army has already taken around ¾ of the USMC’s tanks, and plans to transfer the rest by 2023 (though the Army obviously already owns more than just 323 tanks). The USMC recognizes that its armor component did not need to be organic to its force in order to complete its mission. It is not taking a position on the utility of tanks at all; it is merely recognizing that tanks are incompatible with the USMC’s mission as a light, expeditionary force. Heavy guns are better left to the Army, and borrowed when needed.
This purge applied to more than just equipment; the Corps also reduced personnel by 12,000–mostly consisting of armor, infantry, law enforcement, bridge builders, and artillery. The largest change within this plan (besides the elimination of tanks) is the reduction of artillery from 21 batteries down to just 5. This is in line with General Berger’s stated goal of creating a lighter force with a much smaller signature. As with the elimination of tanks, the USMC is getting back to the basics of its mission set and removing capabilities which are unnecessary or redundant. The USMC’s willingness to rely on the joint force shows a striving for efficiency through specialization that no other DoD service is emulating (though some are trying).
The most impressive component of the new plan is not necessarily which changes are being implemented, but more so is the fact that changes are being implemented at all based on past experiences and future expectations. Many other service branches are doing little to adapt their composition, structure, or doctrine to meet the evolving new threats of the post-GWOT (Global War on Terror) environment. The Marines, on the other hand, are conducting rigorous wargames to test the effectiveness and practicality of their current force design. These wargames showed deficiencies, and the USMC is changing to reflect them. This might seem like the bare minimum the US military should be doing, but the Marine Corps seems to be the only service willing to make big changes to adapt.
No other service comes close to matching the USMC’s flexibility which is reflected in these organizational changes. While some minor changes have been made to other service branches based on DoD experiences and wargames, none have been as drastic as the Marines. The Air Force and Navy continue to invest in extremely expensive capabilities which give the US a slight offensive edge against its adversaries. They fail to recognize the vulnerabilities of their systems and equipment to enemy attack, whereas the USMC has shifted to lighter, more mobile warfare.
Other services also continue to maintain independence of capabilities. Some services, the Army in particular, create redundancy within the DoD by creating organizations within their forces that already exist within another service. Each service branch has its own specific mission set and capabilities it should specialize in to complete those missions. In the past few years, however, most of the services have created parallel infrastructure and assets so that they do not have to rely on the joint force for support. This drains resources which could be better spent on specialization, creating a lack of interoperability between the branches, and weakening the entire force. Other services need to use the USMC model as an example of reliance on joint capabilities and listening to wargaming.
The USMC is still developing this new force design, and changes to the 2020 model are sure to come. But because of the USMC’s willingness to adapt to the changing security environment’s needs, the force will certainly continue to head in the right direction, forging the path for other services to follow.