“Marine Corps Design/Strategy Transform Objectives Define Focus on Changes in Activities/Initiatives”
Commandant’s Planning Guidance 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.” New force design is 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 a big shift in the Marine Corps as an independent service.
The central premise of the 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. A future conflict would be a battle for sea control. Adversary has growing anti-access/area denial A2/AD capability, which centers on an increasingly capable 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 Commadant to conclude 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 Commadant vision of future war for the ways the Marine Corps will fight and the means it will employ are sweeping. In the 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.
Commadant made the case 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 controversial to critics 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?
According to the Commandant the 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 LPD amphibious transport docks 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.
Plan to restructure Marine Corps to support the Navy is not without its critics. 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 warning that 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.
Critics of the Commadant’s vision say if Marine Corps rids itself of the capabilities and capacity for significant forcible entry and sustained land operations, how does it remain relevant?
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 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.
Changes in how the Navy and Marine Corps fight together could see Marines aboard both military and commercial ships as they traverse crowded seas, accompanied by small aircraft carriers filled with unmanned drones.
Both the Marine Corps commandant and his top general at combat development are looking at new ways that Marines and an evolving Navy fleet will fight in the crowded sea space of future wars.
But the Marines may not have enough ships to train for a real amphibious assault
But the Marines may not have enough ships to train for a real amphibious assault
Today’s Navy fleet lmay be too small to afford the Marines the opportunity to train for large-scale amphibious assaults.
The planning guidance looks to move away from the unfeasible 38-amphib ship goal and instead use a mix of amphib ships, smaller expeditionary sea bases, fast transport ships and even commercial ships to move Marines.
And to meet that challenge, the Commadant says the current forward bases and infrastructure all within range of enemy weapons, are “extremely vulnerable.“ As are the large ships now in service with “large electronic, acoustic, or optical signatures.”
The shift in how Marines would fight from and back to the sea also changes how the Navy could fight.
Traditionally, naval leaders think of how Marines influence the land component of a sea battle, not the sea. But if they can have effects on sea access and deny enemies movement, then naval commanders can think differently about how to employ the ships.
All of which support recent statements from top Marine leadership that the force has to get lighter, work in smaller formations in support of naval operations.
Getting lighter pairs with “lightning carrier” experimentation ― using smaller aircraft carriers that take advantage of the F-35 capabilities. It even calls for an air wing that consists “mostly or entirely of unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Congress delegations combined changes advocated for both force design and managing and training Marines falls somewhere between, “a total house cleaning and a complete revolution for the Marine Corps.”
The long-held goal of a 38-ship amphibious force within the larger 355-ship Navy was to meet the requirement to lift assault echelons of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades. That requirement dates to 2006.
Heavy equipment out, unmanned logistics in for the US Marine commandant’s wish list
“We have to get rid of legacy things in the Marine Corps. We’ve got to go on a diet” said the Commadant and made advance notice of a large-scale review of the service will be rolled out in roughly 60 days. “We’ve got to become expeditionary again, which we know how to do.”
Asked to highlight the type of equipment he thinks the Corps must dump, Commadant called out “big, heavy things” such as manned counter-armor assets.
“Big, expensive things that we can’t either afford to buy or afford to maintain over the life of it. Things that don’t fit aboard ship, things that can’t fire hyper-velocity projectiles, things that can’t have, don’t have the range that we’re going to need, the precision, but are also mobile, expeditionary enough so we can operate from ship or ashore and move back and forth freely. Manned things, manned logistics vehicles, manned logistics aircraft — all those things we’re going to trim down.”
Areas where the Commadant said Marine Corps investments must improve, largely through high-end technologies that better match up with potential adversaries. Those include lethal unmanned aerial, ground and amphibious vehicles, large undersea vessels, and loitering munitions.
The Commandant highlighted unmanned transports and unmanned logistics systems on the ground and in the air and stressed the need to focus on logistics enablers, at one point calling logistics “the area we’re farthest behind.”
“It’s not fun to talk about, but if you’re going to operate in this contested area, you’d better be able to sustain that force. “Think unmanned, think expeditionary, think very light. Think things that we can sustain forward without a huge logistical train.”
The commandant also described how unmanned investments could benefit Marines going forward: “Picture in your mind some kind of vehicle, unmanned, perhaps autonomous, but let’s just talk unmanned — moves from this point to that point, whatever, on its own. Inside it, it’s got more unmanned systems, ground or air. It’s launching and recovering them, bringing them back as a mothership, coming back, and you have these all over the place.”
“This is your Marine Corps. We are that forward force. We got to paint the picture. We are the Marines all over the place,” the Commandant explained. “In the area we got to operate in, the Marines will absolutely be there. Just we don’t driving a truck delivering chow. If we can replace that with an unmanned platform, why would we not do that?”
Beyond equipment, the Commadant’s larger review of the Marine Corps includes going after basic assumptions such as: “What does the squadron look like? What does a battalion look like? Every part of our air, ground team. That’s what will be finished and of course associated with that, the equipment, from individual equipment to crew-served to F-35s, and everything in between. Define the force and how it needs to fight as a naval force — that directly ties to all of our programs.”
Under new guidance, the Marine Corps is working to more seamlessly integrate all its forces, to include information warfare, with the Navy.