Why Marine Corps Forces Are Becoming Less Relevant to Combatant Commanders
The National Defense Strategy 2022 characterizes the global security environment as a “great power competition,” pitting a rising China and a resurgent Russia against the United States and its allies. The United States recently deployed significant forces in Europe and the Pacific in response to the malign actions of Russia and China, signaling our adherence to building strategic competition. An important lesson is already clear: combatant commanders need more forward/forward deployed forces to support their global military competition strategies.
The Marine Corps has recklessly chosen to reduce structure and capability to achieve Force Design 2030 (FD2030) goals at a time when combatant commanders demand signal for flexible and balanced forces. Commanders need more forces to perform tasks across the full spectrum of competition and on both sides of the threshold of violence. Common missions include forward presence, bilateral training and exercises, security cooperation, capacity building, deterrence, crisis response and contingency operations (high, medium and low intensity).
Marine Corps forces are uniquely suited for capacity building and security cooperation missions. However, the Corps has been reluctant to offer high demand active component forces and often relies on its reserve to meet these requirements. The elimination of five infantry battalions and the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s focus on employing specifically tailored and narrowly defined replacement forces for the Indo-Pacific Command further limits the pool of forces available to support capacity building and security cooperation. It can be concluded that fully supporting the demands of combatant commanders undermines the FD2030 implementation plan.
FD2030 directs significant cuts in infantry, cannon artillery, armor, engineers, and aviation capabilities to self-fund smaller, lighter, more specialized forces for Navy employment. Nearly a third of the Corps will be organised, trained and equipped to support maritime campaigns, making them less suitable for operations in other operational environments. Disinvestments in close combat capabilities make FD2030 forces more vulnerable and less able to fight on the ground at medium and high intensity during crisis response and contingency operations.
The Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) has been the force of choice for combatant commanders for nearly 40 years because of its utility, flexibility, agility, and offensive punch. This is arguably the Corps’ most successful innovation; yet its future viability is uncertain. While the current inventory of seven units will be retained in 2030, the organization, composition and frequency of deployment are yet to be determined.
The Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept states, “The 2030 MEU will operate from a combination of amphibious navigation, alternate platforms and land bases. It will not be exclusively related to the group of three ready amphibious ships. The Marine Corps and Navy are working on a common concept for MEU 2030. The traditional MEU is an infantry-centric combined arms task force capable of operating from sea or ashore. MEU 2030 will not have a standard task organization or equipment table and will be optimized for maritime operations. An asset once considered commanders’ most versatile capability for forward presence and crisis response may become an afterthought.
One of the commander’s first priorities was to set the corps on a path to closer integration with the navy. Naval integration fundamentally changes the nature of Corps operations by placing forward deployed forces under the command of the Navy. This approach, while appropriate in specific cases, will be detrimental to both Marine Corps land and sea air task forces if applied universally.
The FD2030 work organization specifies six marine service components; five assigned to COCOMs and one assigned to a sub-unified command (Korea). In his initial planning directives, the commander stated, “Our MARFORs are designed as administrative headquarters that advise their respective commands on the Marine Corps. In a construction of functional components, we will complete and increase the [Joint Force Maritime Component Command].” Although he did not specify how the composition and mission might change, his comments suggest that service components will play a lesser role after the full integration of Navy and Marine Corps forces.
The service component is complex; there are no real experts in the field. In reality, only a few Marines will serve on a MARFOR staff – and those who do face a steep learning curve. After serving on the Division, MEF and MARFOR combat staff, we learned that MARFOR operates somewhere between the lines that separate “war combat” from “administration”. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Maritime Services Component of U.S. Central Command (MARCENT) deployed to Bahrain with a three-star commander and staff; retained OPCON of all Marine Corps forces in three sub-theatres (Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan/Central Asia, and Horn of Africa); exercised Combined Joint Task Force Marine Logistics and Consequence Management OPCON/TACON; completed dozens of preparatory tasks that helped prepare the theater for offensive operations; and served as Executive Officer and Mayor of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
At the end of these wars, MARCENT coordinated the redeployment of Marine Corps forces and equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan with multiple theater agencies and the Marine Corps Support Establishment and exercised OPCON/ Special Purpose MAGTF TACON conducting Maritime Prepositioned Force regeneration operations in Kuwait.
The variety and complexity of these tasks required far more leadership and staff experience than would be required of an administrative staff or component liaison cell envisioned by the commanding officer. The MARCENT staff was organized to perform operational – not combat – functions appropriate to its role as the marine component of US Central Command during contingency operations. We will not have the luxury of choosing where and when we will fight, or what tasks will be given to us. Reducing capabilities during great power competition has little benefit and makes Marine Corps forces less visible – and therefore less relevant to combatant commanders.
Combatant commanders engaged in great power competition will need the forces of the Marine Corps more than ever. A smaller, more specialized body will struggle to meet this growing demand. A Corps overly dependent on the Navy to deliver on its promises could fall victim to another “Guadalcanal moment” and become operationally irrelevant.
Stephen Baird is a retired United States Marine Corps colonel and career gunnery officer. His experience includes commanding a direct support artillery battalion; Deputy Chief of Staff, G-5 Plans for I MEF; Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division; and Chief of Staff, Marine Forces Central Command during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Timothy Wells is a retired United States Marine Corps colonel and career infantry officer. His experience includes command of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center; Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3 for Marine Corps Forces Central Command during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom; MAGTF Senior Planner for I MEF; and Marine Corps Embassy Security Guard Forces Command, Near East and South Asia.