Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The US Marine Corps Force 2030

Today we're going all defence with an "s", (so defense then? Not defence). The other day I came across an interesting little nugget; a report by the commandant of the US Marine Corps on progress towards its Force Design 2030. You can read the report here (a slender 15 pages).

I found it very interesting in large part because of just how candid and concise it is, with little (but some) management speak, and how open the commandant is about the future challenges facing the Marine Corps as it pivots away from COIN operations in the middle east and back to its traditional role of forcible entry from the sea. This is particularly of interest given the impending defence review here in the UK, even if it will be set back a little by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This report explains why change is needed, how they're making those decisions, how this progress is going, and what still needs to be done. The contrast between this document and UK strategy making - or the seeming lack of - with little clarity about what is trying to be achieved and why, and little communication on how decisions are derived, is stark.

The context in which this planning is being conducted is a direction as part of the US national security strategy to return to peer vs peer competition and forcible entry, with an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region (i.e. fighting China), compared to the legacy of the last two decades fighting on land in the middle east and asia, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, worth noting that the Commandant does not see humanitarian/disaster relief missions and non-combatant evacuations as a core role of the Marine Corps going forward, but rather just a consequence of being a high readiness force.

The main takeaway is that having spent the last five years involved in various high level wargames for future scenarios, he believes that incremental upgrades are insufficient and that nothing short of a radical overhaul of the force will prepare the Marine Corps to face future threats. This is why he's made force design his number one priority going forward.

He explains that planning is currently in phase two of four. The first phase was creating an initial framework. The second phase involved devolving work to twelve teams in different areas of interest, which were:
  1. MEU reconfiguration
  2. The Marine Littoral Regiment construct
  3. Maritime Prepositioning Force reconfiguration
  4. Aviation in support of the FMF
  5. Logistics in support of the FMF
  6. Anti-ship capabilities
  7. Medium-range air defense capabilities
  8. Infantry battalion reorganization
  9. Manned-unmanned capability balance
  10. Objective network requirements
  11. Training and education
  12. The reserves.
Interestingly the Commandant directed his working parties to basically start from a blank sheet of paper (using his planning guidance) to design the force of 2030 and to not be constrained by current programs or force designs.

Phase three is where they're headed now and will focus on "rapid and iterative wargaming, analysis, and experimentation", while Phase four will focus on refining, validating, and implementing the process. That's worth remembering as we head through the rest of this; that just because something is a working assumption for now that doesn't mean that all this is set in stone. There is still a long way to go in the process.

Rather usefully the Commandant lays out some of key insights that have informed the planning process and his main thinking, derived from prior wargamming efforts. These were;  
  1. The individual/force element which shoots first has a decisive advantage
  2. Forces that can continue to operate inside an adversary’s long-range precision fire Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) are more operationally relevant than forces which must rapidly maneuver to positions outside the WEZ in order to remain survivable. These “stand-in” forces attrite adversary forces, enable joint force access requirements, complicate targeting and consume adversary ISR resources, and prevent fait accompli scenarios. 
  3. Range and operational reach matters in the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility (AOR).
  4. The hider-versus finder competition is real. Losing this competition has enormous and potentially catastrophic consequences. This makes success in the reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance mission an imperative for success. 
  5. Forward bases and stations and fixed infrastructure are easily targeted, and extremely vulnerable to disruption.
  6. Mobility inside the WEZ is a competitive advantage and an operational imperative. Logistics (sustainability) is both a critical requirement and critical vulnerability. Forces that cannot sustain themselves inside the WEZ are liabilities; however, those that can sustain themselves while executing reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions create a competitive advantage.
  7. There is no avoiding attrition. In contingency operations against peer adversaries, we will lose aircraft, ships, ground tactical vehicles, and personnel. Force resilience – the ability of a force to absorb loss and continue to operate decisively – is critical.
The need to deal with long range precision fires is a running theme throughout the report. To put it in his own words the Commandant sees the threat necessitating a force that "can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons". Remember that phrase, because it shapes virtually all of the thinking that underpins this force design concept, even if personally I think it should probably read the other way around (creating the virtue of concentration without the vulnerability of mass). Also sees Marine corps using its sensors and weapons as providing a landward compliment to Navy capabilities in anti-surface, anti-submarine, air and missile defence, and airborne early warning.

Overall he concludes that the Marine Corp is not currently suited to meet this challenge and needs to evolve. Right from the beginning the assumption is that no new pile of funds will be forthcoming, therefore hard choices need to be made to save approx $12bn for reinvestment into critical future capabilities. Compare and contrast that ruthless attitude with what we often see out of UK defence, where frequently hard but necessary decisions are dodged in a series of trimming operations around the edges, leading the MoD to lumber from one equipment financing black hole to the next.

Key shortages of assets needed for the future were identified as long range precision fires, long and short range air defence, long range unmanned ISR, Electronic Warfare, and less than lethal solutions for operating in the gray zone. By comparison the Commandant believes the Marine Corps to be over invested in certain legacy capabilities that were designed for a different threat environment. These include tanks, towed tube artillery, and short range/low endurance unmanned systems that are incapable of employing lethal effects.

He also sees a significant issue with force balance in areas "not organic to the Marine Corps", highlighting a requirement for smaller, lower signature, more affordable amphibious ships, as well as greater need for more distributed and affordable platforms for maneouvre and logistic support. Also mentions the need for a "robust discussion" about absorbing some capabilities such as coastal/riverine, naval construction and mine countermeasures to "better ensure their readiness and resourcing". Shots fired.

In terms of the characteristics of the future Marine forces, the Commandant sees the Marines as being; 
  1. Capable of competing and winning in the grey zone, 
  2. A single, integrated force, not distinct and semi-independent active and reserve components, 
  3. Capable of supporting other joint ops, despite being purpose built for joint maritime ops.
He emphasises the continued need for physically and mentally tough Marines, with tenacity, initiative and aggressiveness needed to win in close combat, but coupled with the intellectual and technical skills required to innovate and adapt to future challenges. To this end the Marine Corps will review some of its recruitment and training operations to better meet the needs of the future, although details on this were a lot more scarce.

The result of all this was an "objective force", the blueprint for the Marine Corps in 2030. Key highlights of this are:
  • Reduction of approximately 12,000 Marines relative to the current Total Force by 2030
  • Divestment of 3 active component law enforcement battalions
  • 7 infantry regimental headquarters (divestment of 1 regimental headquarters)
  • 21 active component infantry battalions (divestment of 3 battalions) 
  • 6 reserve component infantry battalions (divestment of 2 battalions)
  • Redesign of remaining infantry battalions in the direction of greater lethality and flexibility, with reduced structure (a proposed reduction per infantry battalion of approximately 200 Marines).
  • 5 cannon artillery batteries (divestment of 16 batteries)
  • 21 rocket artillery batteries (increase of 14 batteries over current force) 
  • Zero tank companies (divestment of entire capacity of 7 companies and prepositioned capacity) 
  • 12 Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) companies (increase of 3 companies over current force)
  • 4 Assault Amphibian (AA) companies (divestment of 2 companies)
  • 18 active component fighter attack (VMFA) squadrons, with a reduction in the number of aircraft per squadron to 10  
  • 14 active component medium tiltrotor (VMM) squadrons (recommended divestment of 3 squadrons) 
  • 5 active component heavy lift helicopter (HMH) squadrons (recommended divestment of 3 squadrons)
  • 5 active component light attack helicopter (HMLA) squadrons (divestment of 2 squadrons)
  • 4 active component aerial refueler transport (VMGR) squadrons (increase of one squadron over current force)
  • 6 active component unmanned aerial vehicle (VMU) squadrons (increase of three squadrons over current force)
The core of the plan involves the cutting back of manpower from the infantry battalions, which it is explained in turn permits the divestment of various supporting assets which are no longer required such as heavy and medium transport helicopters, and light attack helicopters, reflecting the reduced need for lift and combat support.

Emphasis should again be noted here that these are just the results of the initial work and more evaluation and refinement is to come. As such the Commandant provides some notes on the proposals to guide further investigations, split into those in which he has high confidence and those which require additional analysis in Phase Three.

Among the High confidence assumptions were some interesting bits:

- The need for additional rocket artillery. Interestingly part of the reason for this is stated as "... for generating one of the fundamental requirements for deterrence, and ultimately successful naval campaigns – long-range, precision expeditionary anti-ship missile fires. This requirement is based on one of the more well-supported conclusions from wargaming analysis conducted to date." This is interesting to me in particular because land based anti-shipping weapons are something of a hobby horse of mine, along with land based SAMs.

Evidently the shift in thinking is away from the relatively slower deploying (in the tactical sense) and shorter ranged/less precise gun based support towards fast moving, long range precision systems such as HIMARS and its eventual replacement. This chimes with the overall lessons the Marine Corps has learned about the need not just for long range precision fires, but the need to have assets that can rapidly manoeuvre, shoot and then disperse to both evade enemy ISR and counter fire, but also to consume their ISR resources in the ensuing hunt. 

- The need to divest of tanks. While praised for their illustrious past, tanks are considered unsuitable for the Marine Corps highest priority mission, along with the somewhat risky assumption that the US army will continue to provide this capability as necessary. That's an interesting and notable shift in mentality in its own right, given the Marine Corps' organisational obsession over having its own air support because it doesn't trust the Navy to provide it for them, to the extent that their requirement for a V/STOL version of the F-35 probably did more damage to that program than any other singular decision.

So the tank is dead again, at least for now and in this particular operating concept. Of all the assumptions the Marine Corps seems to be making, this one seems the most risky and probably driven by the assumption that its future conflicts will be centred around the Indo-Pacific region. The term "Island chains" keeps flashing in the back of my mind, even though there's more to the Indo-Pacific region than just that. 

The reality is that in modern conflicts light forces with no protected mobility and no armour support have been fairly consistently found to be constrained outside of certain specific circumstances. Unless the Marine Corps is assessing its role as simply that of establishing and holding the beach-head and then passing the inland operations over to the army, this one might come back to bite them.

- The investment in additional Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). In particular the emphasis is placed on the need for them to not just be sensor platforms but weapon carrying attack platforms

Events in Syria, especially the Turkish intervention, would seem to suggest this is a wise choice. The ability to not only gather data over wide areas as part of an integrated ISR network, but the ability to actually prosecute targets of opportunity has been invaluable. It's easy to see how this plays into the Marine Corps' renewed emphasis on the ability to find and engage the enemy first, as well as its desire to be a useful partner both to the Navy and to other services in joint operations, providing additional sensor/shooter assets to the joint picture. 

It really shouldn't be a remarkable issue, but oddly in the modern day it is. Here we have a clear example of where a problem has been identified and a requirement defined, then a platform (or at least a capability) has been selected that very clearly and obviously helps to achieve that organisational goal. Round of applause.

Now let's move on to some of the assumptions the Commandant sees as requiring additional Analysis:

- Emerging naval expeditionary force formations. While he seems highly confident that reform of the organisational structure is both needed and desireable, with a shift to what will become the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) that will bring together a lot of the existing and new capabilities in a new organisational package, there are still some doubts about the evidence base for exactly what this will look like moving forward.

The plan therefore is to create a single MLR formation initially and use this as a test bed to investgate and validate some of the concepts and assumptions that have been made before any attempt to roll the structure out across the wider force, making sure that prime partners like the US Navy are also happy with these proposed developments. 

Contrast that with what seems like an unseemly rush by the UK land forces command to start procuring Boxer vehicles and shifting some brigades to the new "Strike Brigade" concept, without really being sure if it will actually work in practice. I'm sure a great degree of theoretical work has been done, but how much actual live experimentation has been conducted, even if it meant bringing in allies who already have the 8x8 wheeled capability as part of an exercise to try and learn from them?

- Littoral maneuver and sustainment. To say the Commandant is not confident about the future structures required to move and sustain the Marine Corps of 2030 would be an understatement. A big change in operational conduct is being proposed (remember that phrase about creating the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, along with the note about the vulnerability of fixed bases) and at this stage he feels that not enough work was devoted in Phase Two to studying or thinking about the problems of logistics.

- MEU redesign recommendations. I will simply quote the Commandant's glorious mini rant in full:
The Phase II IPT seems to have produced an incrementally improved version of today’s 3-ship ARG/MEU. This vision falls short of our future needs. We cannot accept or accede to recommendations for incremental change or better versions of legacy capabilities, but must pursue transformational capabilities that will provide naval fleets and joint force commanders with a competitive advantage in the gray zone and during contingency. I am confident that, with refined planning guidance, we can develop more operationally suitable recommendations for analysis and consideration.
- Increase in Light Armored Reconnaissance. An interesting little snippet given the UK move to wheeled vehicles for the proposed Strike Brigades. Despite the continuous, strong emphasis on the criticality - indeed, primacy - of reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance to future Marine missions, the Commandant seems less than impressed by the proposals to expand and lean on wheeled, manned vehicles for this role (currently the turreted LAV 25).

The specific nature and challenges of the Indo-Pacific region are brought up as a partial explanation of this, though likely an additional driving factor is the limited all terrain mobility of wheeled platforms in general, especially large, heavy ones, given the background context of an almost obsessive requirement for high mobility platforms, driven by the need to evade enemy detection efforts and then to rapidly concentrate against targets.

At the same time, reading between the lines I think the deliberate reference to the term "manned" should not be overlooked. It's possible the Marine Corps will be looking for an unmanned supplement to its manned recce capability in the near future as the reconnaissance capability comes under heavy scrutiny in Phase Three.

- Retention of 18 VMFA squadrons. Here is a good point to consildate two concerns that seem to have cropped up with respect to the F-35. First, will it actually be able to live up to the Marine Corps requirement for operating in austere, forward bases (think about those Island chains again). Secondly, the difficulty the Marine Corps are having with building up and sustaining an adequate pool of pilots for the aircraft. 

This second issue seems to be of the more immediate concern to the Commandant, and even with a reduction of aircraft numbers within each squadron to just ten, it seems likely at this stage that the Phase Three evaluations will result in further cut backs to the aviation force, along with concurrent cutbacks to F-35 purchases.

I think this was worth highlighting because it reminds us that all the cutting edge technology and advanced operational concepts in the world are rendered meaningless if you can't recruit and train the people needed to deliver them. The earlier statements about the value of the individual Marine and the systems needed to recruit, train and develop them take on a new importance in this light.

And that is where we reach our conclusion. Something a bit different and interesting I thought. Overall I think the report is a well designed document in its own right, refreshingly honest in its acknowledgement of existing deficiencies, highly pragmatic in its search for solutions to future challenges, and very clear and concise in explaining the proposed rectifying measures. The Marine Corps of 2030 looks to be in good shape at this stage and I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned in their approach with respect to the upcoming UK defence review.


  1. Great summary and analysis - nice to see something other than "oh my gosh they are taking away our tanks"....

  2. A platoon of tanks is a heavy logistical load for even an MEU based in close on 80k tonnes of shipping. The USMC isn't an army reserve and though the tanks have proved useful in the Sandbox with M1A1 at the end of its life I can understand why a move to more ATGM (and perhaps even guns) based on the LAV and its replacement makes more sense than a move to M1A3.

    The USN and USMC are separate services. There is no institutional obsession with providing its own air support; the USN and USMC have different roles.

    F35b is great for us in the UK. We have swapped a Fiesta from a few generations back for a brand new Mondeo. But is is too much aircraft for the USMC; a question of more is too much. I think this is more about ships than planes though. I can sort of see a gap between the LHx's and CVN's, a hole QE class sized, for a very large fast aviation support ship for USMC activities. Leaving the LHx's and LxD's to do close in work, though with modern weaponry how close in can close in be? Of course such a platform would tread on the toes of certain parties.