Military Force Design in an Age of Accelerating Technologic Change

Modernization in the Marine Corps
>LtCol Williams is a Technical Fellow at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc and provides strategy and policy support to Headquarters Marine Corps.

“The war had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman.”

—Siegfried Sassoon,
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

While there has been a great deal written about the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 (FD2030) efforts, much less attention has been given to what the Marine Corps provides the Joint Force—a new distributed operations-capable system—with “system” being the key term. While individuals, organizations, and capabilities are the elements that compose FD2030, it is how this force design is animated by concepts, doctrine, tactics, and technologies that combine synergistically to make it a functionally effective system.

FD2030 recognizes the significance of emerging, interrelated technologies and therefore focuses on developing a functional system as opposed to a toolbox of discrete capabilities—a system that includes not just weapons, but the people, command and control, sensing, logistics, and installations capabilities (especially those located across the Indo-Pacific) that enable expeditionary operations.

In systems warfare, the ability to attack effectively first is highly desirable, and this is best achieved with a composable force structure that provides a complete combat system at all echelons with the ability of these echelons to federate into a cooperative system of systems. This system must be able to attack and defend in all physical dimensions and the electronic spectrum for combined-arms effect while also being a node in a multi-domain federation (connected, functionally complete elements—think Napoleon’s Corps extrapolated down to infantry squad level).

Doctrinal conceptions of combat— tactical organization and equipping of units, new sensing, connectivity, autonomy, and the emerging diversity of highly effective munitions with reduced logistics tails—will be examined in this article to demonstrate the parameters of future tactical warfighting systems.

Tactical Offense Versus Tactical Defense: A Distinction Worth Making?
The tactical offense and defense are taught as two distinct modes of combat. But, increasingly, the distinctions between the two are diminishing, and the force that can move most rapidly between offense and defense will have a distinct advantage.

Doctrinally, the defense is taught as the strongest force disposition, and it is true that when a tactical formation leverages terrain and prepared defenses that cause the attacker to expend more energy and resources than the defender has expended in developing defenses, it can be a beneficial tactical and operational choice.

Prepared defenses are typically focused on providing an asymmetric advantage that causes the attacker to cross difficult terrain while exposed to obstacles that slow the advance and exhaust the individual attackers while attriting the force with mines and covering fires.

However, FD2030 posits that an attack by indirect precision munitions can help bypass these defensive strengths while an uncrewed direct assault helps avoid the effects of human casualties. In fact, Azerbaijan’s success in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reinforces this observation. Because uncrewed systems can be fielded more cheaply than human-oriented systems while avoiding human casualties, they are able to sacrifice themselves at scale, thereby creating the advantages that only an individual or individuals of exceptional courage could achieve—likely at the cost of their life/lives, which is what tens of thousands of courageous Ukrainian soldiers have learned over past months.

The Hero-400 is a loitering munition that the Marine Corps and other DOD entities have been experimenting with and employing for specific missions since 2022. (Photo by LCpl Daniel Childs.)

Combining increased ratios of precision indirect fires with uncrewed systems, enabled by a wide diversity of sensors, allows for the development of a new warfighting system that renders the advantages of the defense substantially less relevant.

It is tempting here to say that this new tactical system makes the tactical offense stronger than the tactical defense, but it is more accurate to say that the traditional conception of offense-defense at the tactical level is obsolete. The offense-defense dialectic is becoming more about intention than physical disposition given that even the lowest tactical echelons are distributed and possess the organic ability to sense and engage beyond line of sight.

In systems warfare, the objective is for one system to gain advantage (hopefully permanent by attrition) over another, and since the physical states of each system can now change with the intention of the commander, rather than by physical repositioning of his forces, this compression of time to shift between the two states makes distinctions between offense and defense irrelevant in practical terms. That said, given the complexity of warfare, there are never absolutes and these conditions will not apply to every situation, but they will apply in enough situations where the design of our tactical system should be influenced by the advantages derived by an ability to fluidly shape-shift across modes of combat and do so more quickly than the opponent to gain surprise and control tempo.

Squad, Platoon, and Company Tactics
The efficacy of small infantry formations is increasing as technologies empower small units to counter larger systems (like armored forces) that have large numbers of vulnerable interdependent elements (weak links in the chain). The strength and advantage of the infantryman may not have been this strong since the early days of the Swiss pikeman.

Militaries around the world are in a period of transition, so what is occurring in Ukraine should be viewed as a signpost to the future rather than a definitive test of whether new technologies will combine with tactics, techniques, and procedures to create a new character of warfare. Those who claim that we are simply witnessing a slow progression of trench warfare miss the implication of what is happening tactically in Ukraine for the near future—if not today.

Systems, like armored forces, that have complex support dependencies create increased surfaces for attack and are therefore highly vulnerable in a battlespace of sensors and long-range precision fires. Tactical precision attacks of armored forces’ logistics trains greatly increase the vulnerability of such formations. Eighteen inches of homogenous steel is irrelevant if an adversary can easily engage unprotected refuelers and ammunition haulers. The increasing reach and precision of weapons make the entire system, not just its frontline elements, vulnerable. Thus, it is essential to think in terms of systems, and not individual platforms, at the tactical level and inform our force design accordingly.

Alternatively, systems like distributed operations-capable infantry formations have fewer high signature dependencies, thus allowing them to better manage their exposure to sensors and adopt more resilient employment postures.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether defense is dominant, with a number of analysts using the difficulties experienced in Ukraine as evidence. Again, this is a myopic focus on the present rather than what these events portend for the future. The Ukrainian problem in the current counteroffensive is that they are attacking symmetrically, perhaps influenced to their detriment, by the training they have received from NATO militaries. When they engaged asymmetrically, at the beginning of the war, they exceeded expectations. So, projecting forward, what might the Ukrainian counteroffensive look like if they were breaching the minefields with swarms of uncrewed ground systems? It would matter little whether these small, cheap robots hit a mine, and the intent might well be for them to do so. A deliberate breach employing a range of uncrewed systems and precision munitions could make quick work of Russian defenses and could open a breach that might be exploited by manned maneuver forces.

A primary tactical challenge in modern warfare has been finding ways to overcome the “storm of steel” to allow for infantry assault. The artillery barrage was a primary means to achieve this end. But as the world observed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, much of the effects required to close with and destroy the enemy can be accomplished with indirect precision munitions, and the initial assault can be accomplished with machines vice humans.

While the former (indirect fires) is a variation of the artillery barrage, the latter (unmanned assault) is novel and constitutes a substantial step change in battlefield tactics. That said, while a variation, there are important differences in the application of indirect fires as well. During World War I, artillery progressively moved its emphasis from direct to indirect fires and increased the distance between its guns and the supported infantry.This separation required better communications capabilities if adjustments were required to preplanned fires. In a contemporary analog, a similar challenge has manifested in the challenges of adjusting the air tasking order to address emergent needs. In the evolving FD2030 warfighting system, communications capabilities are further improved, but this is not the most significant advancement.

In FD2030, all echelons, from squad to division, will be complete fire and maneuver elements. While it is necessary and important to connect this mesh of elements to derive the full advantages of the larger system of systems, each echelon’s system possesses organic sensing, fires, maneuver, and command and control capabilities. For example, small drones provide an infantry squad with an organic aviation element, while man-packed and even hand-held electronic warfare systems are able to sense and characterize opposing enemy signatures to inform attack options with organic loitering munitions or other means.

How the Near Future Will Be Different
In the very near future, being in a prepared defensive position will be to invite destruction because battlespace geometry is changing. The infantryman will not race up to the pillbox and hurl a satchel charge but will instead fly a munition into the aperture or employ small submunitions that can move autonomously to seek out and attack the weak point. The world is, of course, already seeing aspects of this reality in eastern Ukraine today.

Thus, those who argue the Russo-Ukrainian war is just a return to the trenches have a point. The primary tactical problem is the same, overcoming the “storm of steel,” but they miss the massive change in tactics made possible by uncrewed systems, loitering munitions, and dense sensing grids. Simply because neither Russia nor Ukraine is currently fully kitted to realize the potential of this new system of systems does not mean military operations are not on the threshold of a tactical revolution.

Defensive positions require investments in time and material, both of which create new vulnerabilities in a sensor and precision strike-rich battlespace. It is true that today there are substantial benefits to digging in and building overhead cover, but these benefits will diminish substantially as families of new munitions come into service that can deploy at distance and then fractionate into multiple munitions that possess organic mobility and, in some cases, autonomy. Tactical weaponeers at the lower tactical levels will conduct engagement assessments and provide engagement options reminiscent of those currently only possible at the component level (air, ground, land). This progression in munitions options and sophistication of weaponeering will be revolutionary.

Analysts, like Steven Biddle writing in Foreign Affairs, miss this point.2 It is not the tank that has become obsolete, it is the armored combat system that sustains it that is obsolete, and without that system, the tank is simply a supplemental artillery system as the Russians have discovered in Ukraine.

Consider a scenario like that described in the Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn, where Marines establish defense positions on high ground to allow for observation of the surrounding area and as a base from which to conduct reconnaissance patrols.Aside from the fact that drones, uncrewed ground vehicles, and unattended sensors could provide better information about enemy dispositions than the patrols that cost so many Marine casualties in the novel, the nature and location of their forward operating base would need to be completely different today. During the Vietnam War, as in previous wars, it made sense to position defensive positions on high ground (or perhaps reverse slope). Not only did this assist in observation, but it required an enemy to expend greater energy by attacking uphill. Unfortunately, clearing fields of fire and building covered positions on today’s battlefield is to also create a huge signature that allows adversaries to know exactly where your concentrations of forces are located and provides ample time for the opponent’s kill chain to develop a tailored strike plan.

Precision Sensing, Precision Strike, Fractionating Maneuvering Munitions
Munitions will become increasingly adept at maneuvering in air, land, and sea autonomously, in relation to an adversary, and work cooperatively with other munitions to seek out optimal locations and opportunities for attack. This will be the next fractal in the system of systems, below the squad level, where munitions will function in an analogous fashion to an infantry squad. This is the near-future, and it is in no way comparable to a return to the trenches. It is also why the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps made fielding these capabilities his top FD2030 investment priority.

In a precision-strike regime, where there is no need for a ground force to assault uphill into the teeth of prepared defenses, the only benefit to concentrating on strong points is the ability to develop covered (protected) defensive positions and to benefit from direct mutual support.

This certainly made sense against the Vietnamese adversary portrayed in the novel since they were heavily weighted toward light infantry while still possessing capable, if not overwhelming, indirect fires. Typically, this will not be the case in future battles where all adversaries have substantial indirect fire capabilities. Importantly, these indirect fires capabilities cannot be eliminated by gaining air superiority as we have experienced since World War II, as small elements can engage from near or far with a range of loitering munitions. This constitutes a capability shift that must be considered in any force design.

The Russo-Ukrainian War shows that digging in still provides very substantial protection, but this will become less efficacious in future conflicts when sensors are ubiquitous and a far wider range of smart munitions and uncrewed delivery systems are available. For example, increasing the incorporation of thermobaric munitions with loitering weapons will leverage the physics of enclosed protected spaces (like underground shelters) to amplify their killing effect while uncrewed and autonomous systems will be able to find apertures to access these defensive positions. While thermobaric weapons are available today, and while these novel delivery systems are technically achievable today, they have yet to be implemented at scale. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the limited use of traditional aviation, as we are seeing in Ukraine, is unlikely to be the case in many future conflicts where uncrewed and manned aviation will provide an important means for stand-off delivery of multi-stage, fractionating munitions.

Cluster munitions are highly effective and most munitions in the future will have key similarities to them—small, widely distributed, and numerous. Future munitions will be far more sophisticated than today’s artillery and aviation-delivered ordnance, and are similar only in the sense that they are deployed by other means through multi-stage delivery and fractionate upon arrival in the target area. While possible now, in the near future very small attack drones will be delivered by larger drones, aircraft, and missiles at scale. Current cluster munitions are contact or sensor fused, and by covering a wider area than a unitary munition, they create substantial challenges for the opponent, such as denying terrain. Future cluster munitions will be able to move, cooperate, and be commanded remotely or operate autonomously. Multi-stage delivery, where delivery platforms become progressively smaller but more numerous, overcomes the range and endurance challenges of small systems by delivering them to the intended target area. Thus, the basic physics of tactical engagement is changing.

The ability to concentrate effects without concentrating the means of producing them is a key design consideration for any future warfighting system. While a machinegun might have the effect of twenty riflemen, it is much easier to neutralize a concentrated gun crew serving a machinegun than twenty individual riflemen. This was understood in World War I, and the British continued to emphasize the importance of rifle fire throughout the war for this reason. It was not only the better survivability of distributed effects but also the better mobility of the effectors (rifleman). A World War I British Manual noted the mobility of a weapon depends to a great extent on the mobility of its ammunition (~nine personnel supported a Lewis Gun with ammunition).4

Today, many munitions possess their own mobility, allowing disaggregated forces to concentrate effects by “maneuvering” their munitions, vice their formations, to accommodate the logistics of supporting arms ordnance. This is another key factor to exploit when developing tomorrow’s tactical system.

Improved sensors, mines, and precision fires combine to create a No Man’s Land when combined into an effective system. Importantly, these benefits apply to the defense, perhaps leading one to logically conclude that the defense is ascendant yet again. However, this is only half of the story, with only one subcomponent of the tactical system considered. What is different is that the offensive elements of our future tactical system need not traverse No Man’s Land with humans. In many cases, the defense can be defeated with smart weaponeering of precision munitions against well-surveyed defensive positions. When this is insufficient or when terrain must be seized immediately, the ground assault need not be led by human force elements. Given that defenses are primarily focused on killing humans and gain their deterrent effect from this quality, removing humans from the attack substantially reduces the efficacy of the defense.

Fires, Fires, Everywhere
The democratization of indirect precision fires will be as revolutionary as advances in the control and employment of artillery during the First World War.

As Paddy Griffith explains in Battle Tactics of the Western Front, artillery was the most complex and significant development in the art of war in World War War I, causing approximately 60 percent of battlefield casualties. Whereas infantry experienced one casualty for every 0.5 casualties it inflicted on the opponent, artillery incurred only one casualty for every ten it generated.Artillery thus achieved substantially greater lethality efficiency than infantry during the Great War, and the world is already seeing a similar trend develop with loitering munitions in Ukraine.

We obviously lack comparable data to assess the performance of the evolving indirect fires component of FD2030’s tactical system, but it is not unreasonable to assume it will be of similar, if not greater, significance than the evolution of the artillery systems of World War I. This is not an unreasonable assumption because future fires systems will have organically mobile ammunition (loitering munitions) and will thus not need to be concentrated for the efficiency of munitions resupply. Also, traditional tube artillery will gain mobility by conversion from towed to wheeled, and missile systems will benefit from a range of new missile options (cruise and ballistic). Adding in vastly improved C2 capabilities provides connectivity to the length and breadth of the battlespace, obviating the need for a force laydown tied to the end of a fragile telephone cable terminus as was the case in World War I.

However, the biggest improvement, again, as the world is observing in the nascent stages in Ukraine, will likely be the democratization of precision indirect fires. Unlike the clear distinction between infantry and artillery as in previous wars, future wars will see infantry performing indirect fires formerly only achievable by artillery, given burgeoning organic indirect fires enabled by organic aviation. This is an instance where the overused term “multi-domain operations” is fitting.

Improved mobility and positioning options, combined with robust connectivity, provide options unimaginable in the recent past, let alone World War I. The fusion of indirect precision fires from infantry, artillery, and aviation elements could provide the greatest innovation within FD2030’s warfighting system when one factors in the range of munitions options, the mobility, dispersibility, precision targeting, precision engagement, and the information technologies that tie the system together. Factoring in the benefits of reducing counterbattery fires should these fires elements attack the opposing system effectively first, per Hughes salvo equations, the contribution will only be greater.6

Additionally, the maneuverability of loitering munitions is more similar to aviation than artillery as they can attack across any axis.In short, distributed infantry employing a family of loitering munitions can attack faster, more precisely, and from greater range than a traditional infantry/artillery team while creating effects typically associated with tactical aviation, but at much lower cost per target. These infantry elements also present a massively reduced surface for adversaries to target when compared to more complex and interdependent systems like armor.

Thus, Joint Force and Allied force design transformation efforts should embrace the democratization of aviation through the adoption of uncrewed platforms and loitering munitions, especially given that air superiority can no longer be guaranteed by traditional aviation.

Distributed operations are the nucleus of FD2030. Distributed operations are enabled by talented individuals, effective command and communications, a family of loitering munitions, uncrewed systems (air, land, surface, and subsurface), tactical electronic warfare, as well as improvements to pre-existing artillery, aviation, and mobility assets. The lethality efficiencies discussed above are significant design parameters for the FD2030 force as a whole. FD2030 delivers a distributed operations-capable, combined-arms force that balances traditional forms of fire and maneuver with novel forms of fires and maneuver to achieve a highly capable multi-purpose force with increased range and lethality.

In conclusion, the new warfighting system made possible by FD2030 recognizes and leverages the benefits of systems warfare and is perhaps the first force designed to support the systems approach addressed in the Joint Force Warfighting Concept. Of course, FD2030 is not a destination, but a dynamic journey, and the Marine Corps’ organizational design and associated force structure will continue to evolve through experimentation and battlefield experience. The Marine Corps is doing what any peacetime professional military should endeavor to do: anticipate opportunities and challenges, perform a net assessment, examine alternatives, and move boldly to develop the concepts, doctrine, and capabilities needed to leverage the opportunities and mitigate the challenges in order to ensure future success. Other elements of the U.S. Joint Force, along with America’s allies and partners, would be well-served by aggressively following suit.


1. Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

2. Stephen Biddle, “Back to the Trenches, Foreign Affairs, August 10, 2023,

3. Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).

4. Battle Tactics of the Western Front.

5. Ibid.

6. Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

7. J. Noel Williams, “Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive ,” War on the Rocks, September 8, 2017,