The US Marine Corps of the Future Has Tunnel Vision
The recent announcement of a radical restructuring of the United States Marine Corps came as no surprise - just this February, General David Berger, commandant of the USMC, indicated his desire to strip the Corps of what he perceived of as legacy platforms, unsuitable for operations in line with the new priorities established by the National Defense Strategy of 2018. The NDS is an unambiguous declaration of the Pentagon’s decision to pivot its grand strategy away from counterinsurgency and towards great power competition, primarily against China; the Marine Corps has reacted accordingly.
The surprise, instead, came from the depth and breadth of the restructuring that has been proposed. According to USNI News, the cuts, to be implemented by 2030, include “complete divestment” of tank battalions and heavy reductions in the number of artillery, infantry, and aviation (helicopter/tiltrotor) units. Air units are also suffering, with F-35B and F-35C squadrons going from 16 to 10 aircraft authorized per squadron. All this is to be offset by greater emphasis on capabilities such as “long-range precision fires” (primarily consisting of guided missiles) and unmanned systems, both armed and unarmed.
In principle, these changes are entirely understandable with regards to the mission that the USMC is pivoting itself towards. Tanks and towed tube artillery, though integral to modern combat in general and American doctrine in particular, are unsuitable for the sort of rapid, amphibious, island-hopping combat that Marines will be expected to undertake in a conflict with China.
The great flaw of the restructuring is not that it fails to prepare the USMC for that mission, but that it does so far too well for its own good.
During the Cold War and the Global War on Terror, the USMC left behind the strictly amphibious identity that it had developed during World War Two and became a force able to fight sustained conventional ground campaigns in its own right. While this gave it much overlap with the US Army, what set the USMC apart was how it, through its organization into Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs), could also serve as a combined-arms quick reaction force, instantly deployable across the globe in response to sudden needs. Each MAGTF is designed as a largely self-contained force and varies in size from a single infantry battalion with limited air support to entire infantry divisions with full vehicle, aircraft, and logistics backing.
This uniquely American ability to project not only air and naval but also ground power at a moment’s notice played a large role in the US’s martial primacy across the last few decades. The strength of any given MAGTF lies in its ability to operate nearly self-sufficiently in any combat theater until it can be reinforced by forces prepared for a longer, deeper conflict.
As such, the reorganization proposal risks dealing a grave blow to the overall capacity of the Marines to operate as a global quick reaction force. Though the USMC intends to maintain its primacy in that regard, in practice the changes it has chosen to undertake are a threat to that primacy. Heavy armour, tube artillery, and helicopter gunships may not be of much use on islands in the South China Sea, but they are exceedingly important for modern ground warfare in practically every other theater on the planet, from Afghanistan to northern Africa to eastern Europe. Discarding these assets will force a deployed MAGTF to be just as self sufficient as before but with an even smaller set of assets to call upon.
General Berger is certainly aware of this vein of critique against the restructuring (but, in his own words, is glad that people are “checking [his] homework”). In a recent interview with War on the Rocks, he responded to it by asserting his belief that organizational and technological developments which allow the USMC to better counter China will also enable it to remain equally effective in other scenarios.
There is good reason to not be so optimistic, however. Even nominally similar battlespaces can have significantly different factors at play that require entirely different approaches to counter. Take, for instance, the US military’s attempts to counter Improvised Explosive Devices used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. At great expense, the US managed to develop backpack and vehicle-mounted jamming devices that could successfully stop remotely detonated IEDs. These jammers were highly successful in Iraq - but in Afghanistan, bombmakers simply went back to making bombs with pressure-based detonators immune to jamming.
In a similar vein, capabilities that counter China and its way of waging war will not necessarily counter other US adversaries; greater investment in emerging technologies is certainly a net benefit in the long run, but sacrificing existing, field-proven capabilities (especially before their replacements are ready) will only serve to weaken the Marines’ flexibility to respond to threats in other theaters and as such weaken the overall strategic position of the American defense establishment. For the foreseeable future, no drone can replace a tank as a force multiplier, and no guided missile can replace an artillery battery as the most cost-effective form of fire support. Berger himself concedes that America’s next war is unlikely to be a shooting war with China, as opposed to the sorts of lower-intensity conflicts the US is presently embroiled in, making it even more imperative to maintain these “legacy” capabilities.
At the end of the day, the restructuring is not a done deal. General Berger has made clear that it is an ongoing process which will be iterated upon as new information becomes available and new simulated wargames provide different insights into possible futures. In its present form, however, this new vision for the Marine Corps risks overspecializing it for a war it may never fight.
Taras Trunov is a first-year undergraduate studying Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His areas of interest include international security, military technology, and nuclear policy.