Barracks 2030

Improving quality of life through management, modernization, and material
>MajGen Maxwell is the CG of Marine Corps Installations Command.
>>Maj Boivin is the Legislative Aide for Deputy Commandant, Installations and Logistics.  At the time of submission, he was serving in the same role for CG, Marine Corps Installations Command.

LCpl Puller is excited. After graduating from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island as platoon guide and earning a meritorious promotion, he graduated at the top of his class at Marine Combat Training aboard Camp Geiger, NC. Now that he is on his way to Camp Lejeune from Fort Leonard Wood, a smile comes over his face—he is going to the fleet! Finally, no more squad bays, foot lockers, and listening to 30 other Marines snoring at night.

He looks forward to meeting his new roommate and settling into his role as a motor transport operator at 1/2 Mar. He arrives on base just before 1900; the battalion is secured for the day, but the duty NCO is prepared for new check-ins and directs LCpl Puller to a transient room until the barracks manager can provide him his permanent residence in the morning. After waking up and getting himself put together, LCpl Puller’s squad leader takes him through the time-honored tradition of the check-in sheet. After completing the bulk of his sheet, he finally meets the barracks manager, Cpl Krulak.

While an excellent infantryman, Cpl Krulak is still trying to figure out his new role as the unit’s barracks manager, a position he assumed two weeks ago. Unfortunately, he is still waiting on access to the barracks database because his email account was not set up, but he reviews his spreadsheet and sees an unoccupied rack in Room 201. After assuming that the room is in good order, he scans a key card and hands it to LCpl Puller. After exiting the office, Puller grabs his sea bags and starts walking down the catwalk to his room. He pauses in front of 201, takes a deep breath, and opens the door to his new home.

Here. Right here is a critical juncture in the relationship between a Marine and the Marine Corps. This is where the institution shows how it values the fundamental and physiological needs of Marines like LCpl Puller and invests in retaining them for the long term. The Commandant of the Marine Corps said as much in his August 2023 Guidance to the Force: “To recruit and retain the best we will focus on improving our barracks, base housing, gyms, chow halls, child development centers, and personnel policies.  I view QoL improvements as direct contributors to a more capable and lethal force.  Marines can always do more with less, but it is my job to make sure you do not have to do so with your living conditions or those of your families.”1

The Marine Corps prioritized FMF readiness and modernization over its installation infrastructure, including barracks, which has contributed to unacceptable barracks conditions.

The Marine Corps will improve its readiness by improving the conditions of barracks and demonstrating our commitment to Marines. As the Service that lauds itself as the most ready, it must set the conditions necessary to prepare Marines mentally and physically. A foundational element of this readiness is the physiological need to provide a space for warfighters to rest and recharge, which begins at the barracks. As leaders, we are obligated to provide Marines with safe, clean, and comfortable housing. Marines and our Nation that sends them to us should expect nothing less.

To accomplish this, the Marine Corps is implementing a multi-pronged approach to improve its barracks characterized as Barracks 2030.

Barracks Management
Today, when LCpl Puller is checking into his new unit, he will report to the barracks manager. This position is typically held by an NCO, a position Marines are not formally trained for and hold for one year. Cpl Krulak did not ask for the barracks manager billet, nor was he trained at the School of Infantry to execute his newly assigned role. Unfortunately, this often leads to inconsistent management and poor service to residents.. Due to the needs of commands and the lack of alternatives, units identify NCOs to perform the duties of a property manager with limited, to no, training and routinely hold for less than one year.

To improve the management of its barracks, the Marine Corps will hire civilian personnel to provide oversight and management of its barracks portfolio that mirrors private sector property management industry standards. Beginning in the Summer of 2024, the Marine Corps will begin hiring civilian personnel into these new positions to alleviate the pressures on operational units.  Professionalizing the management workforce with civilians can improve the oversight of room conditions and address systemic backlog issues such as tracking inventory and maintenance. A part of this change was upgrading the work request management systems. At Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the Marine Housing Office experimented with a barracks maintenance app, which allows Marines to scan a QR code and submit a work request for maintenance issues. This trial period informed improvements in the app before a broader fielding to the other installations.

This new management process will not absolve senior leaders from their role in the oversight of their barracks. Professionalizing the management of barracks with civilians will provide the continuity and requisite knowledge needed to ensure barracks standards are improved over time. This allows improved awareness of barracks quality for commanders and where to focus efforts for structural and quality of life improvements.

In addition to assisting commanders in the day-to-day barracks management responsibilities, the Marine Corps will implement a new resident advisor program. This voluntary program will allow one or two SNCOs to reside in a barracks with “resident advisor” like duties similar to colleges and universities. Ultimately, each barracks will have two SNCOs that live in the building and provide mentorship like a resident advisor program in a college dormitory. This also assists SNCOs who are living geographically separated from their families to receive quarters while assisting commands in good order and discipline at the barracks. The program can enhance living standards, ensure resident safety, and increase the leadership presence during off-duty hours. Today, the initial tranche of resident advisors are living in barracks aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar with the respective commands lauding the new program and the additional oversight and mentorship it provides Marines living in the barracks.

Currently, entire barracks buildings are assigned to commands, regardless of whether they can fill all rooms. Conversely, centralized billeting, which is employed by other Services, will assign rooms with no regard for a Marines’ unit. This means that LCpl Puller could be placed on the opposite end of the base from where he works with Marines from several different commands. To balance these two approaches, the Marine Corps will move to centralized unit allocation management, which assists in helping units maintain unit integrity while maximizing the available barracks rooms on base. Changing how the Marine Corps assigns rooms by rank will also assist in using more buildings.

The room configurations differ across all bases and installations. Depending on duty location and rank, a Marine can expect to have one or two roommates while potentially sharing a head with another room. As the Marine Corps matures its force, it must provide billeting commensurate with a Marine’s rank and responsibility. Current configurations of barracks will remain, with future designs moving toward NCOs having their own private space with a shared bathroom and common area.

There are over 150,000 bed spaces available in the 658 barracks the Marine Corps maintains.  Of these, about 88,000 are currently filled.  It is unproductive to pay for rooms not in use. A vehicle not driven in a year will have components breakdown due to non-use. Similarly, rooms that do not receive regular cleanings and upkeep will fall into disrepair. By assigning NCOs their own rooms, the Marine Corps can increase occupancy while acknowledging seniority within its ranks. Ultimately, this can improve the morale and quality of life for Marines to rest, reset, and recharge. All these initiatives will substantially transform how we manage our barracks.  But in order to ensure the long term health of our infrastructure we must invest in the buildings as well.

Barracks Modernization
Through the end of the 18th century, troops were customarily housed in private houses, inns, and other existing facilities, despite being a grievance listed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (and banned by the Third Amendment). It was also considered bad for the soldiers’ morale to continuously relocate, and consequently, a movement began for constructing permanent barracks wherever troops were regularly stationed. In the 19th century such buildings, mostly of brick, appeared all over Europe.2 In modern times, iterations of the barracks spanned various shapes and sizes, and as recently as the 1990s, Marines were still residing in squad bays.

In the early 2000s, the Marine Corps increased the size of its force by tens of thousands to meet the demands of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the short-term impacts were positive, the long-term sustainment of the increased barracks inventory became insurmountable. The Marine Corps currently operates 658 barracks buildings worldwide with 112 (17 percent) of these buildings in poor or failing condition.

To mitigate these impacts, the Marine Corps will review its inventory and right-size the number of barracks it owns and operates to ensure adequate space for the current force and an adequate sustainment inventory. This will improve our financial position and allow us to maintain the remaining barracks at a higher standard. There are numerous financial levers the Marine Corps can pull to right-size the number of barracks; these funding levers include new construction, demolition, renovation, and modernization. The Marine Corps cannot build its way out of this problem; it must focus its efforts on demolition, restoration, and modernization, which it will begin in 2024 and aim to be complete by 2031.

Maintenance processes will also need to change with a smaller inventory. The Marine Corps will mirror private hotel industry practices during its barracks renovations. While private hotel companies will renovate sections or rooms as they become available, the Marine Corps waits until a certain period (e.g., 25 years) before shutting down the entire barracks, relocating Marines, and then completely renovating the building. The Marine Corps’ methodology in updating its facilities inconveniences Marines, particularly when they must move multiple times during the same enlistment because of poor construction practices. During these renovations, the Marine Corps needs to account for the readiness impacts on the current generation of Marines.

Similarly, maintenance contact teams will be contracted to work for the installation housing offices. These contact teams will be available to respond to emergent maintenance requirements, much like private hotel companies have maintenance workers who can provide immediate assistance to maintenance requests by hotel guests. This is currently being successfully modeled at MCAS Miramar.

Another area where the Marine Corps will address unsatisfactory barracks conditions is specifically at Camp Pendleton, CA. Hearing the complaints from Marines living in barracks about the lack of air conditioning, particularly at Camp Horno (which literally means Oven in Spanish), the Marine Corps is developing a comprehensive plan to install new air conditioning units in the area. While this is expensive and difficult due to the original design of the buildings, it is a necessary improvement following the increasing heat waves occurring in Southern California. Notably, the Marine Corps reallocated funds to begin the renovations in the summer of 2023.

Fixing Fixtures, Furniture and Amenities
Our current accommodations, including furniture and amenities, are inadequate to recruit and retain the best talent. Rooms do not need to to mirror the $3,000 apartment out in town but are more closely aligned with dormitories of colleges and universities. When LCpl Puller makes it back to his barracks room after a long day at the motor pool, he needs a space to reset and recharge and an area to foster comradery with friends.

Some of these expectations are assured in the Marine Corps’ Unaccompanied Housing Guarantees and Resident Responsibilities, which requires Marines receive safe, secure housing that meets health, environmental, and safety standards; has functional fixtures, furnishings, appliances, and utilities; have access to common areas and amenities; and fast maintenance and repair when something breaks. Published in June 2023, this document establishes the standard every Marine can expect from their command for their rooms. New oversight from civilian managers will assist in this oversight and enforce standards during check-in and check-out procedures. Until this structure is established, it is critical that leadership advocate on behalf of their Marines to ensure barracks receive the attention necessary to resolve room issues quickly, including room fixtures.

Fixtures and furniture in Marines’ barracks are old, worn down, or broken. Currently, the Marine Corps’ 32-year lifecycle timeline has been insufficient to provide Marines with quality and reliable furniture and fixtures and impacts only 2,600 (or 3 percent) of Marines living in the barracks seeing new furniture each year. Updating the refresh cycle to a 10-year investment will outfit the barracks with more current fixtures and furniture and impact 8,700 (or 10 percent) Marines annually. The furniture ordering process will also be overhauled, centralizing the funding and standardizing furniture packages—to include washers and dryers—for different barracks types to leverage more buying power.

Ultimately, the Marine Corps must understand what its current force looks for in a barracks room. This may include kitchenettes, improved connectivity for gaming, or better recreation rooms to gather with friends. Thoughtful investments in amenities and recreation rooms can mirror amenities provided by private apartments out in town but should reflect what the current generation of Marines want. A well-intentioned billiards room will become a wasted space if the real desire is a recreational room with multiple gaming stations.

Barracks for the 21st Century
What was LCpl Puller’s reaction after he opened his door? Was it disappointment about the condition of the room or pride in a clean and well-furnished home as a Marine joining his unit? His response hinges on the actions the Marine Corps does or does not take to improve its buildings. The glaring shortfalls in the current barracks inventory are evident and changes must be made. The undercurrent of these changes is mindfulness for Marines’ mental health, well-being, and readiness.

During a period of budget uncertainty, these solutions will be done at a tempo that allows for the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. Although immediate solutions are preferable, a recent Government Accountability Office report published in September 2023 “found that oversight and funding has been lacking for years” [and] “It will take years to address the chronic neglect and underfunding.”3 The Marine Corps cannot overcompensate with significant sums of money that cannot be spent smartly and risk investing in the wrong initiatives because it must spend money now.

The Marine Corps already shows a willingness to reallocate fiscal resources to tackle immediate challenges like barracks air conditioning in Camp Pendleton or updating 75-year-old barracks in Quantico. During his confirmation hearing, then Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Eric Smith told Congress: “Taking care of Marines is a warfighting function. Otherwise, they cannot focus on the mission at hand. Barracks, chow halls and gyms are a key to retaining Marines, and investments in quality-of-life initiatives are truly warfighting needs.”

By improving the barracks through professionalizing management, modernizing infrastructure, and providing better amenities, the Marine Corps will provide its warfighters with a home appropriate to the professionalism and readiness we demand.

The individual Marine is the foundation of the Marine Corps being the most ready when the Nation is least ready. The Marine Corps must provide the necessary conditions to be ready—a ready home creates a ready Marine, which enables a ready force.


1. Gen Eric Smith, A CMC Guidance to the Force, (Washington, DC: 2023).

2. Britannica, c.v., “barracks,”

3. Karen Jowers, “‘Move Decisively’ to Fix Troops’ Barracks, Lawmakers Tell Austin,” Military Times, September 29, 2023,

Contested Logistics in the EABO Environment

A present look and way ahead

>1stLt German is currently a student at the Army’s Logistics Captains Career Course. He is a Ground Supply Officer and previously was the Battalion Supply Officer for 3d Littoral Logistics Battalion, 3d Marine Littoral Regiment and has a Master’s of Economics from Purdue University.

As the Marine Corps works on applying the ideas of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) to sea denial and sensing across island chains in the Western Pacific, one critical component remains uncertain: logistics and sustainment. In a recent U.S. Naval Proceedings podcast, when asked what the Marine Corps still needs help on concerning Force Design 2030, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Eric Smith, remarked, “Where we always have to work is logistics, that remains the pacing challenge.”1

The current supply chain is not responsive enough to support disbursed forces in the Western Pacific, and these challenges will only be exacerbated by greater distance and less infrastructure. The Marine Corps needs to find a way to adapt its systems to do so or adjust its business practices to provide sustained support. Looking at data from the Marine Corps supply and maintenance system (Global Combat Service System-Marine Corps [GCSS-MC]) for units in the weapons engagement zone (WEZ) can provide framing for this assessment. Evaluating supply and maintenance chains is relevant to every Marine occupational specialty, especially to the individual rifleman. Sustaining that Marine will be more challenging than ever. While Gen Smith was serving as the commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, he commented that when considering logistics in a distributed environment everyone should be thinking, “need less.”With that being said, each asset is of even greater importance. The days are gone of fleets of HMMWVs and Seven-Tons at a commander’s disposal. Logistics assets within the Marine Littoral Regiment and in the WEZ will be few and far between. Neglecting the supply chain and maintaining these assets is a risk, and the data below highlights several processes that are vulnerable and worth consideration.

When items are ordered in GCSS-MC, the user assigns a priority code which tells the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) the urgency of need for that requirement. The priority codes are associated with a force/activity designator (FAD), which is determined by a unit’s geographic location and proximity to a threat or enemy. Almost all of III MEF is poised to respond to a crisis in the Western Pacific and therefore has a FAD of II as depicted in Figure 1. This means units can order an item with a priority of 02 (highest priority), 05, or 12 (lowest priority).

Figure 1. Designators used in data. (Figure provided by author.)
What next determines how fast the part arrives is the source of supply (SOS) which fulfills the requisition. By looking at SOS and priority code, it is possible to analyze how well the Marine Corps supply systems perform and how impactful priority codes are in reducing wait time. The USTRANSCOM-approved time definitive delivery standards set a goal of delivering an 02 item to Marine units under U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in eleven days (not considering backorders or delays from the SOS).USTRANSCOM does not rely solely on the priority code, though, because what actually determines if the item goes by ship or air is the required delivery date (RDD) inputted in GCSS-MC. Even if a maintainer makes a part 02, if they leave the RDD spot blank in GCSS, it will appear to USTRANSCOM as a low priority.
Using an ordinary least squared regression (a data science practice often used by economists), it is possible to parse out not only the expected wait time from a source of supply but also how much the priority code reduces wait time. An advantage of using the ordinary least squared model versus simply averaging the wait time for each variable is the “ceteris paribus” feature or “all else being equal.” This serves to isolate the effects of each variable from the others. This gives a more accurate estimate and thus allows for an accurate evaluation of the efficiencies or inefficiencies of a supply system.
Table 2 summarizes the results of the regression and displays the wait time measured in days for each SOS that had more than 200 requisitions in III MEF over one year and the effect that assigning a priority 02 or 05 had on wait time. Overall, the data included 244,910 requisitions in III MEF over the last year from 6 different SOSs. There are two supply management units (SMUs) in III MEF, one on Okinawa and one on Oahu, these on-island warehouses are the first stop for units requisitioning parts and supplies based on enterprise business rules; they are grouped together as one SOS for analysis. The right-most column shows the percent of requisitions filled by each SOS.
Table 2. (Table provided by author.)

The most important results come from the two SOSs that filled 99 percent of the requisitions, which were unsurprisingly the SMUs and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The SMUs are obviously performing the best, and even their priority twelve wait time is likely skewed by the rest of the SOSs and averages much lower (around four days). If the on-island SMUs do not have the item being requested, it is most often filled by Defense Logistics Agency. What is important to note though is that the wait times for Defense Logistics Agency are greater than two weeks even for 02 priority requisitions. Another interesting point is that 02 requisitions are only expected to come in around two days faster than a priority twelve item across all SOSs.

The results illustrate that there is little to no difference in 05 and 02 priority requirements in terms of wait time. Commanders often request weekly or daily updates on their 02 requirements; generally, they are almost identical to the 05 ones in terms of wait time. 02 priority requirements are defined as those without which “the requiring force is unable to perform assigned operational missions.”FAD II is also the FAD used by units “engaged or assigned to combat zones.”This implies that units in combat roles dislocated from the United States who need a part not stocked by a nearby SMU could expect to have the same wait time of over two weeks for their high priority requirements. Now, as mentioned earlier, some of these delays could be a result of not inputting the correct RDD correctly that then leads USTRANSCOM to assign a lower priority.

How does this apply to littoral logistics operations? For one, it is evident that the supply chain is a limiting factor. The tentative EABO manual specifically mentions how “distributing maintenance forces must be complemented by efficiency and responsiveness in the supply chain to ensure maintainers have timely access to repair parts, enabling them to restore equipment to a mission capable status.” Based on the data of requisitions in III MEF, distributing forces will have a hard time meeting this mission-capable status. Waiting over fourteen days in a contested environment is untenable; the deadlined asset will be a target well before the part can reach maintainers. Even if some of the results from above are truly from an improper RDD and priority combination, this still is a cause for concern given that the systems and pressure personnel will be under much greater pressure in the first island chain. In the status quo, units will have to anticipate lengthy wait times or construct highly comprehensive class IX resupply blocks in order to continue to operate effectively, both of which go against EABO principles.

There exists a plethora of solutions to these logistic problems. For one, automation of the correct combination of priority and RDD in GCSS would prevent one of the issues identified above. This is a simple coding switch in GCSS-MC that would prevent a Marine in the WEZ from accidentally getting his part sent via ship versus air. A more advanced and data-science-related solution is developing technology to determine supply needs in advance, this is currently being done with the Condition Based Maintenance Plus (CBM+) program. CBM+ involves placing sensors in military equipment like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), these sensors can then track a vehicle over its lifetime and use data science to predict part failures or prevent catastrophic failures.After data is collected, it can be “transformed via machine learning applications to develop predictive insights, which are then pushed to software-driven dashboards that can be used by maintainers and operators to make decisions based on evidence of need.”The more time and data the system receives, the more accurate the predictions will become which goes to partially solving the current iron-mountain problem. It cannot be overstated how important this technology is to units like the Marine Littoral Regiment which will be more disaggregated and removed from sources of supply than ever before. Capturing this data will better inform not only the maintenance and supply requirements of current equipment but procurement for future programs of record. The Marine Corps must continue to invest in this program and similar initiatives. If done correctly, this could reduce the wait time to zero—where a maintainer has a part just before it even becomes an issue.

Another solution to this problem is looking at alternatives to established and expensive programs of record. There is a lot of discussion around 21st-century foraging as a way to get after this idea. The suggestion is to purchase local commercial equipment to use for logistical purposes. The upfront expenses might be high to purchase some used vehicles or assets, but the money and time saved in maintenance cycle costs could be tremendous. Vehicles like local pickup trucks, commercial construction, or engineering equipment offer several advantages within the WEZ. They are discreet, reasonably cheap, already exist there, and for the most part, the logistics networks to support them already exist. This strategy also allows leaders the option to abandon assets without the repercussions of losing millions of dollars in government equipment. This also goes along with the thinking mentioned in the tentative EABO manual, if you cannot fix it, get rid of it—which is much easier to do when you did not invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into each asset. One great counterargument to 21st-century foraging is that the local economies of the islands and countries will not be able to support these requirements for a large force (the total personnel within a single Marine Littoral Regiment is in the thousands). An offshoot of 21st-century foraging is to create equipment that is easier to throw away. Unarmored, cheap, simple equipment is one way to get Marines moving faster and support them easier. In an EABO environment, Marines are less worried about an improvised explosive device than they are about a ballistic missile. In World War II, over a quarter of a million jeeps were made, and there was not much intermediate maintenance done on them because it was not worth it. If the jeep broke down and was more complicated than a spark plug or a tire change, it could be disposed of wherever it lay. Last year the Marine Corps Commandant, Gen Berger, mentioned this same idea, asking, “what if it’s done its business in a year and we buy another one?”This is the mindset that Marine Corps Systems Command and procurement specialists need to start asking themselves. If parts are hard to get, then a valid solution is equipment that needs fewer parts.

The EABO manual also offers a cruder solution hinted at above, that is, “If equipment cannot be repaired forward in an expeditious manner, then it should be evacuated, cannibalized, or abandoned.”Again, evacuation is arguably the ideal scenario, but evacuating a principal end item like a JLTV requires more than just a simple tow (a single vehicle weighs up to 21,000 pounds). On an island within the WEZ, limited by narrow avenues of approach and poor maneuverability, it is far more likely the equipment would need to be destroyed and left. One JLTV has a price tag of around $305,000; a single part like a power-control module can make the vehicle unusable, leaving that rifleman and his squad on the island with a giant metal target parked next to them. Units like the Littoral Logistics Battalion within the Marine Littoral Regiment rate only 13 of the D00457K JLTV variant, meaning losing one would decrease their readiness immediately by 8 percent, three of them gone puts them below 80 percent readiness (if we assume the rest are all in perfect condition). On top of that, the current maintenance cycle demands a huge amount of time and money; there are routine preventative maintenance costs, modification instructions, and part replacements that the current system demands. These all might work reasonably well in garrison, but they are a huge investment of manpower and funding which is arguably too large to then be abandoned because a part breaks and there is no chance of timely resupply. On top of this, the Marine Corps is fighting for every penny in order to invest and procure technologically advanced gear like Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System, a replacement for the aging assault amphibious vehicle fleet and littoral amphibious warships. All this equipment will be required to defeat an adversary like China but arguing for these funds in Congress will be much less convincing if the Marine Corps abandons the same equipment on an island a few years later. The Marine Corps needs to confront this issue and accept it as a likely reality. When U.S. forces left billions of dollars of equipment in Afghanistan last year, the public outrage was enormous and top military officers were called to testify about the losses. If the Marine Corps does not adapt quickly to sustaining equipment and procuring “throw-away” equipment as mentioned above, then leaders will need to be prepared to answer similar questions.

Overall, the supply chain system needs to adapt to find ways to deliver parts faster, or at least consistently apply priority codes to get urgent parts delivered more efficiently. This applies to the EABO but also the modern battlefield in general. The pace of battle against a near-pear threat will be much faster than it was in Iraq or Afghanistan. Supply choices might need to be reevaluated using data science as here to see which systems or vendors are working and which are not. Programs like CBM+ need to be prioritized and funded so we can start collecting data and predicting now. If the system is unable to adapt, then commanders and higher will need to understand that the support they expect; is not going to be there anytime soon. The Marine Corps is going to have to find a way to come up with smarter, more flexible ideas to keep equipment operating or start investing in equipment easier to replace. There will not be wrecker support or an intermediate maintenance bay available in EABO. If parts are not anywhere close for delivery, the logistics community is going to have to figure out how to prioritize what they need and find creative ways to get it to the forward-deployed Marine. That rifleman will be the one that we are letting down by not working through these problems and facing these realities now; if we do not plan, they will be the ones figuring it out for themselves.


1. Bill Hamlet, “Proceedings Podcast Ep. 266—Stand-in Forces: Adapt or Perish,” The Proceedings Podcast, podcast audio, May 4, 2022, zines/proceedings/theproceedingspodcast/proceedings-podcast-ep-266-stand-forces-adapt-or.

2. Philip Athey, “Is Expeditionary Foraging in the Corps’ Future?” Defense News, August 9, 2021,

3. Staff, “Uniform Materiel Movement and Issue Priority System (UMMIPS),” Welcome to L&MR, n.d.,

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCO 4400.16H, Uniform Material Movement and Issue Priority Statement (Washington, DC: 2010).

5. Ibid.

6. Michael Whitaker, “USMC CBM+ Overview Brief,” presentation, Pentagon, Washington, DC, July 28, 2022.

7. Osman Sesay and Michael Whitaker, “Condition Based Maintenance Plus Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Beyond,” (Washington, DC: December 2020).

8. Gina Harkins, “Top Marine General: We Need to Get Comfortable with ‘Throwaway’ Equipment,”, February 2, 2021,

9. Headquarters Marine Corps, The Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (TM EABO) (Washington, DC: March 2019).

>Author’s Note: A special thanks to the following individuals for their assistance in the research and drafting of this article, CWO3 Erick Bannar, Capt Joseph Shavel, 1stLt William Allred, CWO2 Wendell T. Horton, LtCol Osman Sesay, and Mrs. Anna German.

The Main Effort of the Marine Littoral Regiment

A credible deterrent

>Maj Schedler is a 7202 Air Command and Control Officer currently serving as the Ground Based Air Defense Division Head at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1. Prior to promotion to Major, he was a Low Altitude Air Defense Officer and has been stationed at both 2d and 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalions.

>>MSgt Stepp is a 7212 Low Altitude Air Defense Gunner currently serving as the Ground Based Air Defense Battery Operations Chief at 3d Littoral Anti-Air Battalion. Prior to promotion, he was stationed at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 and 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion.

In 2018, under the guidance of the National Military Strategy (NMS), three fundamental approaches were outlined regarding the future of the United States armed forces. These three policies were force employment, force development, and Force Design.1 The NMS along with the National Defense Strategy have led to many changes in the way we fight as a Joint Force. With the end of the war in Afghanistan and the reduced presence in Iraq, the Marine Corps is looking to reshape and restructure itself with the shift to the Pacific and the inherent maritime nature of conflict in the region. The Marine Littoral Regiment’s (MLR) design is part of this change. Some may argue that MLR is not a traditional MAGTF or even a MAGTF because the centerpiece is not the infantry and the lack of aircraft. Our current standard of warfighting and doctrine needs to adapt to support the NMS and this new formation.
Force Design is changing more than just structure, it is changing the way the Marine Corps thinks and fights. A notable example of this new model is that the infantry formations that form the core of the Littoral Combat Team (LCT) are not predestined to be the sole main effort of the MLR. Depending on the phase of the competition continuum and with the evolution of precision-guided munitions, other elements may be better suited to be the main effort. The MLR is a supporting effort to the naval force, not the MEF. Instead, it provides several critical capabilities to the naval force due to its unique design.2 The elements such as the forward arming and refueling point (FARP) battery, the air control battery (ACB), and the medium-range missile (MMSL) battery all have the ability to be the main effort of the MLR due to their ability to directly support the warfare commanders within the Navy Composite Warfare Commander construct. The infantry, like the Ground Based Air Defense Battery, will be in support of those elements by providing force protection. These force protection elements will maneuver to new terrain features and secure them to allow critical capabilities the ability to enable the Joint Force without prohibitive interference.

Since introductory training, all Marines have been indoctrinated into their reason for existence—to support the Marine infantryman as “the tip of the spear.” To corroborate this mentality, Marine Aviation lives by Maj Cunningham’s, the Corps’ first aviator, quote: “only excuse for aviation in any service, is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground.” Leaders continually remind disenchanted Marines that they, in their own small way, are supporting the lance corporal infantryman. The Corps’ culture was developed from a focus on a landbased enemy: either in the deserts of Iraq or on the beaches of Guadalcanal. However, the purpose of the MLR, much like the Marine Defense Battalions, is to counter a threat from the sea or air. The MLR is designed to exist within the maritime domain, contributing to sea control and performing sea denial from key maritime terrain within their assigned area of responsibility as part of a Stand-In Force across the competition continuum.3 Thus, it needs to be postured to support naval integration and freedom of navigation within critical sea lines of communication.4 As the primary ground formation within the Stand-In Force, the MLR seeks to establish itself during the competition phase without escalation. While this is not a new concept to the Marine Corps, it has become unfamiliar after twenty years of fighting a non-conventional force.

We require a fundamental shift in the way we perceive warfare as Marines. The MLR should not be thought of as just a traditional infantry-centric organization, the most capable weapon that can support the Joint Force in the LCT is a naval strike missile (NSM), a weapon originating from artillery. The MLR is designed to support the Joint Force’s collective kill chains and keep pace with the threat of our adversaries.5 Evolving technology refined the targeting cycle and has eliminated the requirement for a human observer with unmanned aerial systems and satellites taking this critical role in the targeting cycle. Precision-guided munitions such as cruise and ballistic missiles, with ranges of hundreds of miles, have eliminated the need for the enemy to put a pilot at close range to the target to ensure effective fires.6 These new threat capabilities may not require an adversary to control terrain or sea lines of communication to accomplish national objectives; instead, the act of denial of battle, economic, and transportation space to friendly forces allows an adversary to complete strategic objectives.7 The U.S. national policies outlining our commitment to our allies in the region require our military to adapt to support deterrence within regions of strategic importance.8

The MLR’s main effort needs to be the elements that can support the Joint Force and integration within the Navy Composite Warfare Commander. The MLR’s key fires asset, the NSM, will deter threats, and when needed, defeat enemy naval surface combatants providing an area denial capability to the Maritime Component Commander. The ACB provides sensor data building the situational awareness of naval aviation assets patrolling key maritime terrain and enabling kill chains when needed. The FARP battery extends the range of joint aviation assets, enabling friendly naval vessels to be stationed in safer waters while supporting the Maritime or Air Component Commander. The combination of these tasks makes the MLR a critical enabler to the Joint Force’s anti-access/area denial system that can counter an adversary increasing aggression within regions of strategic importance to the United States.9

The Marine Corps infantrymen cannot be the MLR’s main effort in these types of operations because their weapons do not have the capability to operate outside of a force protection capacity against irregular or gray-zone forces. Furthermore, the Marine Corps is not the main effort. In an effort to support the NMS, the U.S. military has adopted an adaptive and innovative Joint-Force capability that will enable seamless operations across multiple regions and all domains. This concept is called Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.10 This allows Stand-In Forces to persist inside the enemy weapons engagement zone while supporting the warfare commanders within the Navy’s Composite Warfare Commander, and their ability to affect targets within their respective areas of responsibility.

In the levels below armed conflict, the purpose of the MLR is to establish expeditionary advanced bases that support or enable Joint Force operations. As crisis transitions to armed conflict, the mission of the MLR is to deny the adversary’s use of key maritime terrain buying time for the Joint Force, specifically the Air Force and the Navy, to arrive and assume operational control. In both levels, the infantry provides force protection in defense of vital areas, conducts actions such as maritime search and interdiction in support of host nation forces, and reconnaissance/counter reconnaissance operations.11 The infantry also has the capability to conduct small-scale offensive operations to clear small pockets of enemy ground forces and raids against bases to enable the rest of the MLR to operate without prohibitive interference at the lowest tactical level. The remaining MLR elements will conduct supporting actions in direct support of the Joint Force, which is beyond the capabilities of the infantry battalion alone. This reinforces the need for a shift in our historical warfare mentality of supporting the 0311 as the main effort. The MLR provides the Joint Force critical enabling capabilities. The infantry, and their force protection capabilities at the lowest tactical level, are not considered one of these critical capabilities. Thus, the FARP battery, ACB, and the medium-range missile battery should be the MLR’s main effort as key enablers in accomplishing its mission as a supporting effort to the greater joint or combined force.

As the conflict matures, the MLR still does not have the ability to shift the main effort to the infantry. Just like the MEU, the infantry element within the MLR consists of a battalion reinforced. It is important to note that the MLR does not have the aviation assets to support the infantry like the MEU. The LAAB, the closest thing to an ACE of the MLR, consists of command, control, and communications enablers that help sense and make sense of the environment.12 They also extend the range of aviation assets not organic nor in support of the MLR but in support of the Navy or combined forces. The MLR is a critical enabler for the Joint Force, not the main effort, it is unlikely that the Joint Force’s limited assets in theater will be put into harm’s way to support the MLR. The MLR was designed to excel in the enemy’s weapons engagement zone, not to be defended within it.13

A counterargument to the concept of the infantry not being the main effort of the MLR is the Marine Corps’ Title X requirement to seize and defend advanced naval bases. This article has identified a few key elements within the MLR, the ACB, the medium-range missile battery, and the FARP battery that will serve as the MLR’s enablers to the Joint Force. Since the MLR is designed to establish, utilize, and then displace from vital areas such as airports, seaports, and logistical lines of communication, the challenge comes from the fact that the infantry is the only element that can seize key terrain. The rest of the MLR elements can either directly or indirectly support by denying the adversary use of key terrain. This again highlights the need for a shift in doctrine to move away from the mentality that the infantry is the main effort during offensive operations. The Marine Corps is an offensive organization. Thus, LCT could argue that they should serve as the main effort of the MLR. If this is not held as a guiding priority, then MLR will not be postured to take the fight to the enemy.

This logic is flawed. Offensively seizing terrain does not happen when the MLR is designed and planned to be inserted during the level below armed conflict.14 The MLR is not intended for forcible entry operations. Title X is also a Marine Corps requirement, not an MLR requirement. Instead, the ground that the expeditionary advanced bases would be located on would be provided by and at the invite of a friend and ally. Instead, the main effort in lodgment operations may be the comptroller or person in control of cash that could pay for use of a basing site if the State Department has not already arranged host-nation support. In defensive operations where the primary mission is the protection of a seaport that enables the flow of friendly forces, the infantry will still not be the main effort for the MLR because of precision-guided munitions fired from hundreds of miles away.15 With this change in the enemy weapon systems, the main effort may be the ACB cueing air defense assets in general support of the Composite Warfare Commander’s Air and Missile Defense Commander.16 These actions are what the MLR exists to do instead of traditional infantry-based operations.

The MLR exists to persist and thrive within the weapons engagement zone of our enemy to support and extend the joint or combined force’s warfighting capabilities which enable the use of strategic sea and airspace. The infantry element in the MLR’s LCT has limited ability to degrade enemy kill webs to support the Joint Force similar to the adjacent LAAB. However, this change to Marine Corps culture is not a total transformation. The MEF’s main effort remains the Marine division as the primary warfighting element of the Marine Corps. The conversion is within the MLR, where the infantry exists to secure the next micro-terrain and provide force protection to support extensions of Marine Aviation, command and control, and surface fires, required to support the joint or combined force. As with force design, the culture of the Marine Corps in the MLR needs to adapt to meet the next war ready to fight and win.

Notes1. The Joint Staff, Description of the National Military Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2018).

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Design 2030, (Washington, DC: 2020); Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR), (Washington, DC: August 2021).

3. Marine Littoral Regiment.

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for EABO, (Washington, DC: 2021).

5. Ibid.

6. Christian Brose, Kill chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (New York: Hachette Books, 2020).

7. United States Department of the Navy Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, (Washington, DC: 2015) and Tentative Manual for EABO.

8. The Joint Staff, Description of the National Military Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2018).

9. Tentative Manual for EABO.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Marine Littoral Regiment.

13. Force Design 2030.

14. Tentative Manual for EABO.

15. Kill Chain.

16. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century SeapowerForce Design 2030; and Tentative Manual for EABO.

Not Yet Openly at War, But Still Mostly at Peace

Exploit the opportunity to become the 21st-century force that our Nation needs1
by LtCol Scott Cuomo, Capt Olivia Garard, Maj Jeff Cummings, & LtCol Noah Spataro

>Editor’s Note: This article is a synthesis of five articles originally published between 2017 and 2018 on the foreign policy and national security site War on the Rocks. >LtCol Cuomo is an Infantry Officer and MAGTF Planner currently participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Georgetown University.

>LtCol Cuomo is an Infantry Officer and MAGTF Planner currently participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Georgetown University.
>>Capt Garard is an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Officer assigned to the Ellis Group and currently serving with Task Force Southwest in Afghanistan.
>>>Maj Cummings is an Infantry Officer and currently serves on the faculty of the Expeditionary Warfare School, Marine Corps University.
>>>>LtCol Spataro is an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Officer currently serving as the Commanding Officer of VMU-1.

The Marine Corps’ current amphibious paradigm was born almost a century ago. At the time, bold leaders recognized a compelling need for change and exploited an opportunity to make our Service relevant to the needs of the Navy and our Nation.2 Ever since, capability advancements have been integrated with new concepts and nested within our amphibious doctrine. From the Higgins boat—which enabled large-scale amphibious forcible entry operations—to close air support, air reconnaissance, radio communications, helicopter-borne assaults, and AAVs, all of these evolutionary changes helped to make the Navy-Marine Corps Team a significant value add for U.S. policymakers. The progression in the 1960s to incorporate Marine Amphibious Units and then to episodically rotating MEUs in the 1980s did the same.

Figure 1. The charts illustrate a comparison of G-20 member country share of the “total G-20 gross domestic product” between 1992 and 2017. China’s impressive growth has heavily influenced the new U.S. national security and defense strategies.4

Today, we believe our Service has another once-in-a-century opportunity to return to being the most relevant for the Navy and our Nation. Exploiting this opportunity, however, will first require our Service to accept that the current national security and defense strategies now describe a threat environment that limited capacity, episodic MEUs and reactionary, large-scale MEBs are unable to adequately address.3 These strategies grapple with a world where authoritarian regimes—including one whose economy might eclipse the size of our own within the next decade—increasingly challenge the rules-based international order that has benefitted our Nation for the past 70-plus years. (See Figure 1.)

They also grapple with a situation where we are challenged by “an ever more lethal and disruptive battlefield, combined across domains, and conducted at increasing speed and reach.”5

Our Service’s current force design remains inherently framed by a large-scale, two MEB amphibious joint forcible entry operation (JFEO) foundation. This framework must evolve concomitant to these new challenges and their “increasing speed and reach.”6 The current force design framework has not been updated to incorporate the threat’s compressed O-O-D-A loop where ubiquitous sensing is not militarily unique but commercially enabled leading to sense-to-decision loops (human or otherwise) occurring at machine speed.7 Nor does it account for the reality that the threat’s lethality ranges are now measured in hundreds to thousands of miles.8 As such, our Corps’ current approach to manning, equipping, and training largely disregards the threat our Navy must face to get us into a position of operational relevance. It also disregards what the Navy must do to provide sustenance and protection for the projecting force.9

With these facts in mind, this article’s purpose is four-fold: (1) to further explain why our Service’s current two MEB amphibious JFEO organizing construct is antiquated, (2) to present a new “big idea”10 for our Corps based on the National Defense Strategy (NDS) intent and its “global operating model” framework, (3) to help visualize the big idea moving from theory to practice, and (4) to provide eight recommendations to implement this new big idea opportunity on behalf of the American people.

A Valuable Amphibious Paradigm That No Longer Solves the Right Problem
When assessing future U.S. maritime capability requirements, a 2017 Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report stated, “The Marines need to find a new role for themselves, separate and distinct from joint forcible entry/amphibious operations or once again risk extinction.”11 Defense experts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) previously reached a similar conclusion. In a report written for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, titled “Strategy for a Post-Power Projection Era,” they wrote:
Given projected resource constraints … as well as the decreasing value of many instruments of traditional power projection, the United States should also divest of those legacy forces that are unlikely to be survivable or effective in robust A2/AD environments: large surface combatants that are intended to project power against land-targets from close-in ranges … short-range tactical aircraft that depend on vulnerable forward bases … high signature amphibious assault forces that deploy vulnerable landing craft and require large, secure beachheads; [and] heavy ground combat brigades that have immense logistical requirements.12

During his tenure in charge of the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reinforced both reports’ conclusions when sharing his skepticism of policymakers ever ordering Marines to conduct a large-scale storming of a beach again.13 That skepticism would likely only be attenuated by our principal competitor’s ongoing intensive military modernization program and the resulting erosion of comparative advantage long enjoyed, if not assumed, by our policymakers.14

Crashing head-first into this surface, the 2016 Marine Corps Operating Concept (Washington, DC: HQMC) describes the Service’s requirement to conduct “large-scale, forcible entry operations … provided by up to two MEBs.”15 A year later, writers assigned to the staffs of Combat Development and Integration Command and Marine Corps Intelligence Activity similarly explained their belief in the Service narrative position associated with fighting “in major operations to include two MEB JFEO.”16 In 2018, our Service’s posture statement to Congress stated, “38 L-Class Amphibious warships are required to meet a 2.0 MEB Joint Forcible Entry requirement.”17 What may come as a surprise to some Gazette readers, this two MEB amphibious JFEO force design foundation, despite the occasional indications18 that our Service would embrace prioritizing disaggregated,19 dispersed,20 or distributed21 operations, has remained the force development aim point for decades. As just one case in point, in 2006 Service leaders explained to Congress that “to support Joint Forcible Entry Operations, the Marine Corps shipbuilding requirement is two amphibious MEB Assault Echelons.”22 In other words, regardless of what and how much has changed in the international security environment, the Marine Corps still holds steady to the belief that our force design must be married to multi-MEB amphibious JFEO. This framework is constraining the necessary conceptual and organizational adaptation required to honor the threats our Nation currently faces.

This is not a new problem for the Marine Corps. Let us rewind the clock 73 years. In July 1946, Gen Roy S. Geiger, a Marine legend who commanded III Amphibious Corps a year earlier in the Battle for Okinawa, was the senior Marine present at an atomic weapons test at the Bikini Atoll in the western Marshall Islands. The test was named OPERATION CROSSROADS and the purpose was to determine the effects of a potential adversary’s atomic weapons on warships.23 More than 90 ships and other craft served as the targets during the test. After one of the atomic weapons exploded 520 feet above the objective area, five ships sank and 80 percent of those remaining received severe physical damage. Had the ships contained Marines and sailors embarked, observers concluded that radiation effects would have incapacitated the majority of them. After observing the test and contemplating a world with increasing numbers of such destructive weapons, Gen Geiger sent a letter to the Commandant. He stated, “future amphibious operations will be undertaken by much smaller expeditionary forces, which will be highly trained and lightly equipped, and transported by air or submarine.”24 Notably absent, is any mention, much less overwhelming budgetary prioritization, of any type of high-water speed, amphibious armored fighting vehicle.

Since Gen Geiger sent his letter 73 years ago, U.S. policymakers have only ordered a single large-scale amphibious forcible entry operation that even remotely fits a multi-MEB JFEO description. This mission occurred 69 years ago at Inchon in South Korea against North Korean Army troops.25 The North Korean Army remains one of the potential adversaries used by our Corps to justify why American taxpayers should continue to invest in a two MEB amphibious JFEO capability. Yet, today its military has both anywhere from 20 to 60 nuclear weapons and long-range precision weapons that did not exist when Gen Geiger wrote his letter.26 Moreover, Michael Beckley recently explained, “The geographic reality is that Chinese forces can occupy North Korea before U.S. reinforcements even mobilize for an attack.” The myriad challenges mount, “China has at least 150,000 troops perched … only sixty miles from North Korea’s main nuclear sites and two-thirds of its missile sites.”27 The context in and technologies with which the only large-scale amphibious forcible entry operation took place are vastly different from any perceived operations that might take place today to the point that such context, like what is described by Beckley, negates its very political feasibility.

The overall global proliferation of long-range precision weapons, early warning surveillance systems that can track ship movements by the second, and especially nuclear weapons, are likely the primary reasons why Secretary Gates and the CNAS and CSBA scholars challenged our Service’s decades-old multi-MEB amphibious JFEO organizational design and associated investments. These facts are also likely why Congress, in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), mandated that the Pentagon provide the American people with an assessment describing the “ability of power projection platforms to survive and effectively perform the highest priority operational missions described in the National Defense Strategy.”28 Additionally, they are likely why the Senate-approved 2019 NDAA language required the Pentagon to both describe “the feasibility of the current plans and investments by the Navy and Marine Corps to operate and defend their sea bases in contested environments” and to determine “whether amphibious forced entry operations against advanced peer competitors should remain an enduring mission for the joint force considering the stressing operational nature and significant resource requirements.”29

Clearly, Congressional pressure is mounting to explain why American taxpayers should continue spending more than $43 billion annually on a Marine Corps. The pressure has reached a level such that, after reading the Senate’s recent NDAA challenge to our Service’s multi-MEB amphibious JFEO foundation, one long-time defense observer wrote an article, “Wither the Marines.”30 Moreover, Congress’s overall confusion about our Corps’ future value has led to multiple members openly questioning what we do for the Nation.31 For example, Representative Mike Gallagher, a Marine intelligence officer and one of our legislative branch’s most ardent Naval Service advocates, has recently written multiple articles repeatedly requesting “a new story about what the future fleet will do and how it will differ from today’s fleet.”32 He has also expressed in testimony his serious concerns about how our Corps’ operational concepts and budgetary priorities are “always on the wrong side of the cost curve at every step,” especially with respect to our primary competitors.33

In short, our Corps’ two MEB amphibious JFEO mission focus and organizing construct, while at one time incredibly innovative and in demand by U.S. policymakers, has increasingly fewer friends given changes in the international security environment and our reluctance to evolve with the changing character of warfare. One of our Corps’ legends predicted this would be the case more than 70 years ago. It is time to reimagine ourselves— and our Corps now has the perfect opportunity to do so.

A New Marine Corps Big Idea to More Effectively Enable the NDS
Fortunately, the NDS provides the structure through which our Corps can creatively destroy and reimagine itself to become an essential component of the joint force for many decades to come.34 Its global operating model is built on four layers—contact, blunt, surge, and homeland—and highlights the necessity of continuous global coverage in key strategic locations.35 The NDS describes forces in the contact layer as those “designed to help us compete more effectively below the level of armed conflict.” Those in the blunt layer are to “delay, degrade, or deny adversary aggression.” Surge layer forces are described as “war-winning” and able to “manage conflict escalation.” Finally, forces in the homeland layer are specifically focused on defending United States’ territory.37

Our Corps’ senior leaders have explained that to operate effectively in the contact and blunt layers “Marine forces must be combat-credible and oriented on warfighting to provide credible deterrence.”38 They have also explained that these forces “must re-posture in a manner consistent with being the Nation’s sentinels—preventing large-scale war and managing crises as an extension of the Naval force.”39 We argue that fully embracing these words—and prioritizing first and foremost dominating the time domain through a persistent offensive defense-in-depth force design—are the foundation of what should be our Corps’ new big idea. This persistent engagement will afford our Corps the ability to leverage our maneuver warfare philosophy through the use of small, independent, comprehensively lethal units.40 Properly employed, these units will be more than capable of deterring the potentiality of revisionist powers attempting to seize strategic terrain as part of a fait accompli strategy.

Figure 2. Maritime traffic flows throughout the world, particularly in and out of the United States, help explain the Global Operating Model logic.36

The NDS global operating model (See Figure 2) is a significant departure from the previous joint operations construct in which operations were episodically employed and phased in spatially circumscribed and predetermined areas.41 In the past, phases ended along prescribed timelines. It was contingent. The underlying assumption was that forces were able to step outside of the construct itself, to remove themselves from the portion of the world where violent political action transpired. But as Robert Kaplan observes in The Revenge of Geography, “The core drama of our own age … is the steady filling up of space, making for a truly closed geography where states and militaries have increasingly less room to hide.”42 This is one reason why the new model is global in contrast with yesterday’s theater operating model. (See Figure 3.)


Figure 3. More than 99 percent of global digital communication traffic moves via undersea cables, including those owned by U.S. companies such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.45     But there are other reasons. As the National Cyber Strategy elucidates, “Economic security is inherently tied to our national security.”43 Americans cannot afford for the Pentagon to segment a battlespace when U.S. global trade with foreign countries totaled $5.2 trillion in 2017 and relies on worldwide instantaneous connectivity via a limited number of strategic maritime chokepoints.44 Nor can Americans afford for the Pentagon to try to completely cordon off the homeland as immune from the same persistent competition and potential conflict indicated by the model’s layers. We exist in a world with global interconnection, persistent surveillance, and ubiquitous signals that challenge the freedom to maneuver to which the U.S. military has become accustomed.46 Consider, for example, that commercial satellite companies such as Planet Labs capture “every square foot of the globe, sending 1.4 million images … to Earth for processing, generating unprecedented perspective, awareness, and insight about the world below” every day.47 Consider, as well, that such sensing and connectivity technologies have enabled ordinary citizens to reveal in real-time both the highly classified Osama Bin Laden raid and the most recent U.S. presidential visit to Iraq.48

Figure 4. Chinese missile capabilities developments in the Western Pacific between 1996 and 2017.49

When military planners were able to circumscribe “over there” from the continental United States, the Marine Corps was afforded a temporal freedom for mobilization. The time and effort required to deploy forces, including the dozens—if not hundreds—of ships needed for multi-MEB-sized amphibious JFEO, were uncontested until the forces were in the area of operations. This is no longer an acceptable nor a realistic planning assumption, as RAND’s most recent U.S.-China military scorecard makes abundantly clear.50 This is why we believe our Commandant has emphasized the future challenging nature of “needing to fight to get to the fight,” if Marines are not already where they need to be when the fight begins.51 (See Figure 4.)

This is also why we believe the foundation of our Corps’ new big idea should anchor on dominating the time domain52 by employing highly maneuverable, forward-partnered amphibious close combat units53 that operate persistently throughout the contact layer’s key maritime terrain54 with a Clausewitzian attack-defense55 mindset.56 These units’ Marines should maximize the emerging technological spectrum, including but not limited to remotely piloted, artificial intelligence-enabled scalable autonomous, and loitering munitions systems.57 They should also be seamlessly integrated with the Navy as part of a department-wide combined littoral warfare strike force effort, similar in many ways to Wayne Hughes’ Minutemen58 squadron concept and what Milan Vego recommended in his seminal article on the world’s littoral regions.59 In this case, these persistently forward-partnered littoral strike forces would actively deny key terrain while leveraging relatively inexpensive amphibious fast attack combatants,60 some of which would be equipped individually with fifteen to twenty Marine-sized close combat units capable of collecting on, striking, and maneuvering against adversaries at unprecedented ranges both at sea and ashore.61 The other amphibious fast attack combatants would be equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles to target adversary ships.62

We envision this new littoral strike contact layer capability to be supported by a variety of blunt layer forces. These forces can be anywhere from mere minutes, to hours, to potentially a few days or weeks away. The mere minutes away blunt layer capabilities would include theater- or global-range joint force cyber and all-weather sea-based and ground-launched conventional missile fire support. The latter of these two capabilities, enabled by the anticipated U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (particularly the conventional missile aspect), Congress’s 2018 NDAA mandate for the Pentagon to “establish a program of record to develop a conventional road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system with a range of between 500 to 5,500 kilometers,” and the distributed amphibious close combat units’ sensing and communications skills, would create a daunting situation for potential adversaries.63 If they attempted to use overt military force to overrun one of the contact layer units to challenge a U.S. mutual defense treaty or to threaten any other vital U.S. security interests, they would quickly find “the width of the killing zone” that they have to maneuver through “would be measured, not in hundreds or thousands of yards, but in hundreds or thousands of miles.”64

Figure 5. While Marine Corps end strength has increased since 2001, the Navy’s has decreased by ~60,000 sailors.68

The hours away capabilities would incorporate a variety of sea- and air-delivered strike capabilities, if not already located in potential firing positions at the start of the crisis. The few days or weeks away capabilities would include L-class ship-based, Navy-Marine Corps units that would have increased potential to execute missions such as long-range raids, TRAP, and embassy reinforcement due to the Service implementing key changes such as the Close Combat Lethality Task Force guidance,65 fielding Block IV upgrades for the F-35B,66 and fully embracing manned-unmanned teaming.67 (See Figure 5.) Importantly, the amphibious close combat units would decrease the total capacity need for L-class ships while increasing their survivability. Reducing from the current goal of 38 to 25 L-class ships makes available “blue-green” force structure, procurement dollars, and sustainment resources to field the more than 100 amphibious fast attack combatants required for the close combat units that would anchor the contact layer force. What’s more, this change, like a fractal, enables the Naval force to exponentially increase persistent and cost-imposing power projection.

Of course, these contact layer forces, as well as those that might be called in from the blunt layer to support them, would be backed by America’s superior nuclear arsenal, diplomatic acumen, and economic strength. They are but one element, albeit an essential one, in a multi-layered, multi-dimensional approach to compel our adversaries to our will in the service of our national interests. Overall, this new big idea focused on dominating the time domain and leveraging a persistent, forward-partnered offensive defense-in-depth mindset would allow the joint force to turn current revanchist powers’ A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] advantages upside down and inside out. The big idea would also categorically deny a swift military victory to any irredentist action against our joint force, U.S. treaty ally, or strategic partner.

Moving the Big Idea from Theory to Practice
To see how this new persistent amphibious capability would fit into the NDS’s global operating model, let us imagine a world in which the Marine Corps embraces its implementation in at least five strategic locations: the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Bab-el Mandeb Strait, the Barents Sea, and the Bering Strait.

The South China Sea is simultaneously a place where more than $1.2 trillion of the U.S. economy flows annually and one of the top potential great power conflict flashpoints in the world.69 It is also a region where the U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander has testified China now controls “in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”70 Recalling Thucydides, Frank Hoffman described Beijing exploiting its position in the region in similar manner to a modern day Melian Dialogue with Chinese characteristics: “The mighty do what they can and the small suffer what they must.”71 Recently, a Chinese warship sailed within 45 yards of a U.S. Navy destroyer as it was executing a freedom of navigation exercise in the area.72 A few days prior to that incident, U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers conducted a show of force in this same region.73 These actions were in response to China’s growing militarization of artificial islands in the strategic region and subsequent threats to U.S. and allied military and civilian vessels operating in it.74 These exchanges are clear examples of “grey zone” or “below the threshold of conflict” contact layer activities. Despite all the attention these actions have gained, Patrick Cronin and Hunter Stires recently identified a critical problem with them: without persistence, U.S military activities that attempt to reinforce freedom of navigation or object to Chinese territorial claims are ineffective because they are “inherently transitory.”75 Consequently, they argue, these actions “do not have an appreciable impact on the behavior of local civilian mariners and aviators, who will once again be subject to Chinese harassment as soon as the Americans sail [or fly] away.”76

Figure 6. Key maritime terrain and how the Chinese economy is fueled by way of the sea.86

The foundational problem with the current U.S. approach is the lack of an integrated strategy that appreciates the competition with China is, first and foremost, one over the rules-based order, especially in the global maritime commons. Implementing the new big idea will help fix this problem. Rapidly maneuverable Marine close combat units embarked with Naval forces on fast-attack combatants and serving under a joint force maritime component commander (JFMCC) would enable executing a generational littoral “counterinsurgency campaign” similar to the one for which Cronin and Stires called.77 This capability would be “coupled with vigorous diplomacy” focused on achieving, as they describe, “an essential victory for U.S. and allied arms and the rules-based international order they defend.”78 It is important to emphasize that what we are proposing can only work if these amphibious close combat units are persistently located and thoroughly integrated with the rest of the elements of national power and our allies and partners.
Let us now shift 1,250 nautical miles to the southwest to the Malacca Strait. This strait is described as the 21st-century “Fulda Gap.”79 More than 15 million barrels of oil pass through the strait each day, including around 82 percent of China’s 9 million-barrel daily import requirement. (See Figure 6.)80 Beyond oil, around 25 percent of total global trade by volume moves daily through the strait, along with more than 30 terabits per second of transoceanic data.81 Needless to say, the Strait of Malacca is strategic maritime terrain—to the extent that to control the Strait of Malacca is to control the South China Sea. Thus, Beijing’s efforts to economically sway into its orbit countries located adjacent to the strait, such as Malaysia, should not be a surprise.82 Nor should China’s efforts to develop closer relationships with the Royal Malaysian Navy, which currently includes providing littoral missions ships, a variety of weapons, and increased bi-lateral training exercises.83 Beijing’s aggressive push to establish a foothold adjacent to the Strait of Malacca is not isolated to Malaysia though. It is increasingly expanding across the countries of Southeast Asia, many of whom are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).84 Ominously, a recent poll of ASEAN member countries found two-thirds of the respondents believe U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia has declined and one-third have “little or no confidence in the United States as a strategic partner and regional security provider.”85

Now let us imagine a Marine Corps that embraces the proposed new big idea in a geo-strategic crisis where China sought to seize part of a treaty ally or partner’s territory near the Strait of Malacca. This location possesses Reliable Acoustic Path arrays that provide intelligence on submarine movements87 and undersea network nodes.88 More than 220 undersea cable systems are responsible for over 99 percent of all transoceanic digital communication.89 Of the 685 undersea cable network nodes—where the cables transition between land and sea—366 are located on islands, many of which are located in the Indo-Pacific region.90 U.S.-based digital communications’ companies, who make millions of dollars daily due to these cables, protest against China’s intentions and encourage the White House to respond.91

From U.S., allied, and commercial surveillance capabilities, imagine in this scenario the JFMCC responsible for the area receives information that many thousand Chinese assault troops, embarked on naval shipping, are sailing toward the location at approximately sixteen knots.92 This force is 300 miles from its expected objective. At this point, the JFMCC has around twenty hours to develop and implement a plan that helps U.S. policymakers blunt the attack.

A forward-partnered amphibious close combat company—composed of around 200 Marines trained to operate in more than 12 separate teams—is already on the ground operating with special operations and allied forces in the country where the attack is expected. This is not a disingenuous scenario inject but a fundamental aspect of this strategy and the Marine Corps’ persistent engagement mindset. The JFMCC, in conjunction with the “country team,” orders the Marines to move into positions to blunt the adversary assault. The Marines, with their partner forces who have trained to this scenario in previous exercises, move via organic all-terrain vehicles and local transportation to assume these positions three hours later. With more than 100 loitering munitions, located in dense vegetation, this close combat company—in essence, a revolutionary airfield-less mini-MAGTF—is prepared to sense, swarm, and if necessary, neutralize adversary naval vessels at ranges out to multiple dozen miles.93 Additionally, this unit has a limited number of platforms that range out to 500 miles while carrying up to 20-pound payloads.94

Simultaneous with this mini-MAGTF’s actions, the JFMCC orders three more close combat companies to insert into a larger offensive defense-in-depth. MV-22s fly one of these units in from an amphibious ship located 500 miles away and it arrives 3 hours later. A second close combat company inserts as part of a littoral strike force from a separate ship and is in position within a similar timeline. This company is prepared to blunt the adversary attack on land or from their fast attack combatants with long-range anti-ship missiles. And in coordination with our allies, the third close combat company launches via MV-22s from a new British naval base in another part of the contact layer and covers 1,200 miles to arrive 5 hours later.95

The JFMCC, along with U.S. and allied policymakers, now has a force of more than 1,000 personnel on the ground, armed with nearly 1,000 loitering munitions, as well as grenades, rifles, machine guns, rockets, mortars, and long-range anti-ship missiles. This force is supported by the MAGTF’s growing medium-altitude long-endurance UAS capabilities and prepared to engage the adversary from every direction, at ranges as far out as 500 miles.96 It also has the capability to instantly leverage theater- and global-range joint cyber and conventional missile fires. Moreover, because of the innovative efforts of young logistics Marines, this force can 3D print hundreds more loitering munitions from locations near their defensive positions.97 Additionally, autonomous vehicles can deliver these weapons directly to the distributed close combat units.

At this point, the adversary has ten hours remaining on its movement across the ocean. American and allied policymakers communicate to leaders in Beijing that a force is in position and prepared to uphold international law and U.S. mutual defense treaty obligations. What do you think the Chinese leaders would do next? We are inclined to think these Chinese policymakers would re-evaluate the outcome of their decisions and call off the attack. Regardless, our Corps’ new amphibious forward-partnered capability would have strategic effects for our Nation. If the Chinese troops continue their movement, our reimagined mini-MAGTFs can monitor and affect them in real-time. This includes bringing overwhelming swarming firepower to bear should the Chinese troops cross our ally’s twelve-mile international territorial boundary, or well beforehand. Additionally, if any of the adversary troops ever gets ashore, the Marines can then close with and destroy them with rifles, grenades, and bayonets. This is precisely the type of persistent capability that we envision our Corps, based on the proposed new big idea, possessing for our Nation.

Switching from this strategic vignette, let us move 4,000 nautical miles west to the Bab-el Mandeb Strait and see more opportunities to leverage the new big idea in the contact layer. Nearly 10 percent of the global oil supply—4.7 million barrels per day—passes between the 18 miles separating Ras Menheli, Yemen and Ras Siyyan, Djibouti.98 Referred to as a “deadly geopolitical cocktail,” the strait is subject to everything from Somali pirates to Houthi anti-ship missile attacks spilling over from Yemen’s ongoing civil war.99 Additionally, China’s first overseas military base, for “international obligations,” is located in Djibouti.100 Unsurprisingly, China’s “Belt and Road” initiative has significant infrastructure investment in Djibouti funded by predatory loans that indebt the country.101 China also recently secured a 99-year lease for a port in Sri Lanka, providing its growing maritime force access to a key location along the main shipping route between the Bab-el Mandeb Strait (as well as the Strait of Hormuz, another piece of key maritime terrain) and the Malacca Strait.102

China’s base in Djibouti is only eight miles away from American forces at Camp Lemonnier and, as the U.S. National Security Advisor recently highlighted, is already interfering with their activities by conducting laser interference against pilots operating in the region.103 The same counterinsurgency model recommended by Cronin and Stires applies here, as do the combined force littoral strike capabilities for which Hughes and Vego have called. By embracing the new big idea, Marines will be able to simultaneously help support the Navy and special operations forces, reassure strategic partners, and counter Beijing’s attempts to increase its influence in the region.

Figure 7. Arctic sea routes.104

Spinning the globe again, we travel north 4,000 nautical miles to Svalbard, Norway. (See Figure 7.) This was the site of a number of military operations during World War II, most importantly as key maritime terrain for Germany to maintain war weather stations.105 Svalbard is 550 nautical miles north of Murmansk and adjacent to the Barents Sea, where Russia is constructing artificial islands.106 Svalbard is also home to the Doomsday Vault for the world’s seeds.107 It has the northern-most set of undersea cables that are likely to be networked as the Arctic continues to melt.108 This is not a region unfamiliar to our Corps. Recently, our Service increased its persistent presence in Norway conducting exercises while maintaining an established Marine Corps Pre-Positioning Program-Norway.109

With the proposed new big idea, we suggest a modification to deter Russia and to increase cooperation with our allies. Currently, the Norwegian Coast Guard only has one vessel, yet it requires more to conduct all the operations required for Svalbard.110 This provides an excellent partner mission opportunity for an augmenting persistent littoral strike force. Moreover, last year Russia conducted an exercise simulating an invasion into Svalbard, which if carried out could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.111 Russian possession of Svalbard would enable their A2/AD capabilities, protect their nuclear submarines, and enable sea control into the Barents Sea complicating NATO efforts. We believe amphibious-based close combat forces, with both their organic lethal fires and instantaneous access to theater- and global-range joint cyber and conventional missile capabilities, would serve as a vital deterrent to help prevent such a scenario from ever happening in the first place.

Turning now toward the other entrance to the Arctic, 2,100 nautical miles over the North Pole, we find the Bering Strait. Unlike during the Cold War, when sea ice concentrations in the region prevented dependable transit routes for trade, cargo shipping along the Northern Sea Route in 2017 achieved a record high of 9.7 million tons.112 This was a 35 percent increase from 2016, with experts forecasting much greater growth in the years ahead. U.S. Navy strategist, Rachael Gosnell, recently commented that the “Bering Strait will open for an extended period starting around 2020, the Northern Sea Route around 2025, and the Transpolar Route around 2030.”113 She also described how plentiful natural resources have already sparked great interest in the region. Russia is acting on these interests by conducting major infrastructure building efforts and large naval exercises.114 China has also employed its navy in the region.115 Unfortunately, despite this key maritime terrain being adjacent to Alaska, neither the U.S. Navy nor the Marine Corps have a visible, persistent presence in the region. U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Marine representing the state of Alaska, has increasingly expressed concerns about these deficiencies during Congressional testimony.116 This is yet one more opportunity for our Corps to implement the proposed new big idea. In this case, our new mini-MAGTF littoral strike force proposal would help support an already over-tasked U.S. Coast Guard element protect 10,000 kilometers of U.S. coastline, which is 50 percent of America’s coast.117 These forces could also partner with our Canadian allies who have similar challenges in the region.

These are just five pieces out of dozens of potential key maritime terrain locations. The selection of the South China Sea, Strait of Malacca, Bab-el Mandeb Strait, Barents Sea, and Bering Strait should not imply that this is where competition might become conflict, but to serve as talismans for potential crisis spots. This analysis could have equally described maneuver in and around the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Bosporus Strait, the Panama Canal, and the East China Sea, among many others. While it is unwise to debate precisely where or when a conflict trigger will occur, it is increasingly imperative to have a credible force at this point first and this force must be connected to the full might of our Nation. Given the world’s increasingly closed geography, achieving this powerful, persistent presence requires fundamental change to how our Service thinks about its mission and relevance to the Navy and our Nation.

Top Eight Actions Required to Implement the New Big Idea
With the new strategic guidance and big idea vision in mind, what follows are the top eight actions that our Corps should embrace to maximize its future value for our Nation:

Figure 8. The icons on the map indicate the approximate location of the capital ship within each CSG or ARG as of 31 December 2018. Even if the other four ARG ships are operating in a distributed manner near key maritime terrain, major shortfalls remain throughout the contact layer.120

Embrace expanding the competitive space.118 Instead of the current episodic MEU and multi-MEB amphibious JFEO surge capability focus, philosophically commit to prioritizing contact and blunt layer missions that maximize our Nation’s ability to constantly compete with revisionist powers and violent extremist organizations.119 (See Figure 8.) This will enable forward persistence in ways that reassure allies and partners, while deterring and, if necessary, helping to defeat potential adversaries in short order. The current lack of persistent and distributed presence near key maritime terrain means our Service has much work to do to achieve this goal.

Double down on reinvigorating Maneuver Warfare. Our big idea not only proposes a way to leverage the changing character of war in our favor, but also the very structure of democracy, capitalizing on what David Blair has called the Chaos Imperative.121 The Chaos Imperative is to liberal democracies as maneuver warfare is to the Marine Corps. It seeks to inject disorder into a system that requires order to perform. Just like MCDP-1 Warfighting the Chaos Imperative seeks to “create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”122 Calibrated chaos is one of our innate advantages in a great power competition with a centralized, repressive, and controlling authoritarian state such as China. It proposes a way to leverage the structure of our democratic system, like our warfighting philosophy, to outperform our enemy in deliberate chaos and complexity. In other words, calibrated chaos, as a principle, should be considered our best friend. The Marine Corps’ new big idea should strive to maximize the competitive advantages of this chaotic trade space. While the generals’ war might belong to the Chinese General Staff, a captains’ war, or even better, a sergeants’ war, belongs to us.

Figure 9. (Image by David Blair.)

Update our Service concepts in full partnership with the Navy. The ongoing “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment” and “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations” concept efforts are a start. These should be revised based on the NDS guidance, the forthcoming new National Military Strategy, in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty (again, with a particular focus on the implications of lifting the conventional missile constraints), and with a clear prioritization on maximizing the ability to provide persistent, distributed, and lethal capacity throughout the contact layer’s key maritime terrain.123 They should also be signed by the Secretary of the Navy, our Commandant, and the Chief of Naval Operations. Our Nation cannot afford any conceptual daylight between the Naval Services going forward.

Focus force design on supporting essential naval tasks as described in the Chief of Naval Operation’s recently published “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.”124 These tasks are near identical to those described by our 29th Commandant, Gen Alfred M. Gray and LtGen George J. Flynn in their 2015 “Naval Maneuver Warfare Linking Sea Control and Power Projection.”125 Accordingly, let the multi-MEB amphibious JFEO organizing construct fade away into the history books. Focus, instead, on reinventing ourselves in conjunction with the Navy such that within the next 5 years the Naval force has more than 50 persistent, forward-deployed complementary sensing, screening, and transformatively lethal, mini-MAGTFs located in key maritime littoral regions. Redefine our Naval Service “readiness” metrics in this way as well.

Redesign the amphibious component of the 30-year Naval shipbuilding plan. As per Representative Gallagher’s repeated requests, work closely with the Navy and Congress to create a new plan that meets the NDS contact and blunt layer intent. Continuing to request only more billion-plus dollar amphibious ships, each operated by 400 to 1,000 Sailors, is unaffordable given current budget constraints. Nor does it address what is required for operational relevance given the NDS guidance. The new plan should incorporate a more valuable amphibious shipping approach, which includes around 25 large “L” class ships (LHD/LHA/LPD) maintained at high readiness rates to operate in the blunt layer. And instead of replacing the current fleet of LSDs with the LPD Flight 2 ships at $1.4 to $1.6 billion each, request more than 100 relatively inexpensive amphibious fast attack combatants to enable simultaneous forward-partnered persistent operations throughout the contact layer’s key maritime terrain.126

Fully implement the Close Combat Lethality Task Force guidance.127 The evolution and modernization of MAGTF small units in accordance with this guidance combines seamlessly with our Commandant’s intent to reinvigorate maneuver warfare. As such, it also enables adapting our forward deployed and forward stationed force posture, especially for units in the Western Pacific. Congress has already been informed that these forces need to become more lethal, maneuverable, and survivable.128 These units should become the central components of the new big idea and the contact layer foundation, including the ability of forces within it to quickly transition to blunting activities.

Double down on our Corps’ growing relationship with Special Operations Command. Our Service is currently learning myriad invaluable lessons while working in ad hoc manners alongside the special operations community in multiple combat zones. In accordance with the new Marine Corps–Special Operations Command Concept for Integration, Interdependence, and Interoperability, these lessons should be institutionalized.129 They should also inform the new amphibious close combat units’ capability development such that these forces can best reassure allies and partners located in the world’s key littoral regions. This coordination reiterates to strategic competitors and violent extremist organizations alike that challenging the rules-based international order will not be tolerated and that any attempt to do so will be soundly defeated.

Prioritize all aspects of manned-unmanned teaming. The robotics and autonomous systems opportunities that now present themselves, largely derived from software defined commercial technologies, can enable the new amphibious close combat mini-MAGTFs with persistent sensing, communications, and fires.130 Our Service should embrace the velocity of commercial advancements and what this means for affordable capability development through rapid prototyping and hypothesis validation while also adopting advanced manufacturing for iterative small batch production. Simultaneously, we should think deeply about how other MAGTF elements, both manned and unmanned, can support these Gen Geiger-envisioned smaller forces. As just one example, persistence, multi-thousand-mile range, and high reliability redefines on-station aviation support potential. A remotely piloted aircraft’s time in the chalks now only requires minutes at a forward arming and refueling point in exchange for days of sensing, communications bridging, and effects thereby redefining sortie generation possibilities. This one capability allows reimagining what organic and scalable remoted services support is possible for these mini-MAGTFs. Scalability is provided by autonomous, line-of-sight, relayed, or even CONUS reachback leveraging networked capabilities across enterprises while gracefully degrading to essential services for the new close combat units. This, combined with the organic capabilities of the new amphibious close combat units, shifts the collective capability menu for tactical visionaries and strategists for the next century to iterate in numerous permutations and combinations.131

Turning Crisis into Opportunity
One of the world’s greatest innovators, Alexander Graham Bell, once said, “When one door closes, another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”132 Perhaps this quote applies to our Corps, too long yearning for the multi-MEB amphibious JFEO closed door to re-open anew and for being too satisfied with limited capacity, episodically rotating MEUs. Or, perhaps, given what our policymakers have tasked us to do, our Corps has been justifiably too focused on fighting in predominately land campaigns over the past eighteen years to embrace a new amphibious paradigm. Regardless, our policymakers have now given us fundamentally different strategic guidance—and with this guidance comes an enormous opportunity for our Corps to reimagine itself through the open door that the Navy and our Nation need most. The eight recommended big idea actions provide the broad framework to help us exploit this opportunity.

By increasing our Service’s ability to provide the Navy and U.S. policymakers with transformatively lethal amphibious close combat units, which are, simultaneously revolutionary mini-MAGTFs, we will ensure that the global operating model contact layer has the persistent, forward-partnered strategic forces required to meet the NDS’s intent. Additionally, by providing similarly transformative contributions to the joint force blunt layer, we will ensure that Marines can help counter adversary aggression reinforcing anywhere in the world within a week or two, if not in days, hours, or even in a minute or less. Combined, these new Marine Corps contact and blunt layer contributions will provide U.S. policymakers the most precious of all capabilities—time.

>For footnote information, please visit

A Force-in-Readiness, or in Stasis?

Five questions about FD 2030
by Bing West

>Mr. West is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and combat Marine. He has written ten books about Marines in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His latest is The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War.  

After U.S. combat in Iraq and Afghanistan sputtered to an unsatisfactory finish, the Marine Corps pivoted to preparing for a war with China. The pivot, called Force Design 2030, calls for “a nimble force capable of employing long-range fires in support of fleet operations.”1 The key warfighting employment envisions seizing and then hopping from tiny islands in the South China Sea in order to fire missiles at Chinese warships. To pay for this, the Corps has given up its tanks and many artillery tubes. This transformation has been ongoing for two years. Sufficient time has passed to pose five questions:

  1. Is the 2030 force vital for sea control?
  2. Is the 2030 force credible at in its warfighting mission?
  3. What are the opportunity costs?
  4. Can the force so disconcert China that it is worth the opportunity costs?
  5. Does 2030 force tie into a national policy sustainable for a generation?

1. Vital for Sea Control?
Force 2030 assumes the Navy needs Marines to prevent the Chinese fleet from sortieing across the Pacific. U.S. admirals will gladly accept the offer of the 2030 force. But sea control is not in mortal peril without Marine aid. Our naval aviators and attack submariners believe they are quite capable of sinking those Chinese vessels. In addition, thousands of missiles are lodged on board hundreds of U.S. Navy vessels. Conversely, the mission is not needed to insure the viability of the Marine Corps. The public prizes Marines as tough, disciplined warriors who without exception have fought in any clime or place. Congress and presidents support the Marine Corps as a stand-alone Service.

2. Warfighting Credibility
During any pre-war crisis, China will threaten any nation that grants landing rights. So, it is unlikely any nation will grant permission for Marines to land. The Chinese will have a plan for neutralizing every landing spot. Once hostilities begin, the Navy must place its amphibious ships in harm’s way to land Marines with scant organic firepower. This means the Navy must bring sustainment. But Wake Island in 1941 showed the Navy might decide not to send a relief force. In sum, island hopping in enemy waters is very high-risk.

Separate from capability is the issue of strategic credibility. Does the Chinese fleet really intend to reprise World War II in the Pacific? Yes, two novels—Ghost Fleet and 2034—have featured a Chinese fleet sailing 6,000 miles to seize Hawaii and to drop nuclear bombs on U.S. cities. But to do so in real-life, those Chinese ships must refuel while avoiding our lethal attack submarines and carrier battle groups. Why would China throw away its fleet?

In war, the center of gravity rests upon the determination of the opposing peoples. China, under blockade and without fuel, will be ground down—if American spirit refuses to quit. But the Chinese leadership will be confident that their society can endure privations longer than can American society. Worldwide shipping will cease, and cyber networks will be severely disrupted. Will the public endure months of hardships, including the loss of electric power, massive financial disruption, and the severe rationing of basic goods?

Rallying his countrymen during the Nazi 1940 bombing of England, Prime Minister Churchill declared, “I see the spirit of an unconquerable people.”2 Recently, the historian Niall Ferguson wrote, “Americans today appear to have a much lower tolerance for risk than their grandparents and great-grandparents.”3 In a war, our national will is what China will test.

An article in the Wall Street Journal opined, “the generation born between 1995 and 2012 is far more risk-averse and more physically safe than its elders.”4 Does America as a society have the grit of “the greatest generation” during World War II? Would we pull together as a nation, or would our sharp cleavages result in the acceptance of Chinese terms?

3. Opportunity Costs
That existential challenge transcends our military. For the Marine Corps, the narrower question is whether the benefits of Force 2030 outweigh its opportunity costs. Over the past century, America has fought six major wars and a dozen smaller conflicts. Naval planners foresaw the 1942–45 War in the Pacific; all other wars and crises were not anticipated. So, the odds are about five to one that the next conflict will not be a naval conflict with China. Force 2030 may be a force in stasis, never employed.

Force 2030, however, did give up tanks and many howitzers. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and retired Gen Robert Neller invested heavily to modernize the essence of the Marine Corps—the squad. Their shared assumption was that close-in combat remained the lodestone of the Marine Corps. Under Force 2030, the squad will fight without tanks or continuous close-in fire support. Marines employed tanks in Vietnam, in DESERT STORM, and in the march to Baghdad. If the next conflict requires tanks or sustained fire support, Marines will have to task organize with Army units, lining up in a queue alongside the National Guard. Command relationships will be complex and time-consuming, enervating the Marine core concept of maneuver warfare. Force 2030 runs the risk that the next conflict will require what has been discarded, meaning Marines will not be the first to fight.

4. Disconcerting China
Nonetheless, because China poses the largest threat to American interests, Force 2030 is a bargain if it deflects China from its incremental, irredentist aggression. The historical precedent for this is the Maritime Strategy, circa 1978–88. Following the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the Pentagon shifted from counterinsurgency to deterring a Soviet blitzkrieg against NATO. Funding and strategy concentrated on an anti-armor defense along the inner-German border, with the Navy playing a small role and reduced funding.

The Navy responded with a study called Sea Plan 2000 that advocated horizontal escalation. While Soviet armor was attacking south against West Germany, American carriers and submarines would surge north, sinking Soviet ships and submarines, including those with nuclear missiles. After wargaming, this evolved into the “Maritime Strategy,” embraced by the CNO and Secretary of the Navy. President Reagan authorized carrier exercises in the Norwegian Sea, threatening the Kola peninsula. In response, a thoroughly alarmed Russian CNO pleaded with the Politburo for a major increase in funding. Instead, Gorbachev became more convinced that Russia could not compete militarily against America, thus hastening the end of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, Force 2030 should apply such horizontal escalation, publicly advertising that its long-range missiles are not merely anti-ship; instead, they can also strike targets inside the Chinese homeland. If Chinese warships hid in port, Marine missiles would still go in after them. No sanctuary would be given. Force 2030 would then get Beijing’s full attention, resulting in much diplomatic sputtering and a heavy Chinese investment in defense. Thus, during peacetime, explicit horizontal escalation by Force 2030 would have an outsize effect enhancing deterrence, just as the Maritime Strategy had upon the Soviet Union. Viewed through this geopolitical aperture, Force 2030 is a bargain for America’s security.

5. Is Force 2030 Tied To a Firm National Policy?
However, unlike in the case of the Maritime Strategy, our national policy does not support Force 2030. For a quarter of a century, presidents from both parties have chosen not to take action as China built its littoral forts. U.S. combatant ships occasionally venture into the South China Sea to support international transit rights, but no effort has been made to quarantine or otherwise apply leverage to force China to deconstruct its forts.
Instead, in a feat of policy jiu-jitsu, the administration has used the island-hopping strategy to shrink the overall size of the amphibious force. The Marine Corps recommended constructing eight light amphibious ships to transport small packets of Marines among the contested islands, rather than risk sending in large amphibs. The administration decided that light amphibs could substitute for the construction of larger amphibs.5 The Marine Corps was penalized for its strategic initiative.

Whether our policymakers place real value in Force 2030 is easy to determine. Simply propose an exercise, to include landing rights, inside the South China Sea. If the White House approves and through diplomacy secures landing rights, then Force 2030 will move from a paper concept to an operational reality that will genuinely disconcert China. If the answer is no, then we do not have a firm policy to check Chinese irredentism. In that case, the Marine Corps should not devote more resources that degrade the Marine ethos of being ready for combat in any clime or place.

Put bluntly, our policy toward China is too erratic to sustain Force 2030 for the next twenty and more years. Because our national policy dares not risk even an amphibious exercise in the South China Sea during peacetime, it is highly unlikely our ships would operate there during war. My novel, The Last Platoon, described the heroic futility of Marines pursuing a wrong-headed policy in Afghanistan. Let us not repeat that mistake. There is no policy that firmly supports island-hopping in the South China Sea.


1. Gen David H. Berger, Force Design 2030 (Washington, DC: March 2020).

2. Eric Larson, The Splendid and the Vile (New York, NY: Crown, 2020).

3. Niall Ferguson, “How a More Resilient America Beat a Midcentury Pandemic” Wall Street Journal, (April 2021), available at

4. Abigail Shrier, “To Be Young and Pessimistic in America” The Wall Street Journal, (May 2021), available at

5. Mark Cancian, “Stormy Waters Ahead for Amphibious Shipbuilding Plan” Breaking Defense, (July 2021), available at

Still First to Fight?

Shaping the 21st-century Marine Corps
by LtCol Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (Ret)

>Dr. Hoffman retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 2001. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and holds a doctorate from King’s College, London. He spent much of the first 33 years of his government career in the Department of the Navy in variety of roles, including a Force Structure Analyst, Advanced Concepts Developer, and Strategic Planner. He is currently a Researcher and Professor at the National Defense University. These remarks are his own and do not represent the views of the DOD.      

The headline in the Saturday New York Times on 1 June 1918 read “Marines—First to Fight.” The day before, a brigade of Marines attached to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division had raced to the front to halt a breakthrough threatening Paris. They stopped the Germans cold, and five days later, the brigade successfully counterattacked at Belleau Wood—becoming the first publicly identified American unit to enter combat in World War I. Ever since that epic battle, the Corps has embraced “First to Fight,” initially as a recruiting slogan and then as an ethos that reflects its place in the country’s security architecture. As part of that ethos, the Marine Corps has promoted an institutional mindset about a high level of readiness for crises both small and large. Since 1952, the Corps has been designed and postured as an amphibious “force-in-readiness” poised for immediate use in a wide variety of missions, exploiting its expeditionary tool kit and naval mobility. When faced with a crisis, Marines believe one of the first question from the White House should be: “Where are the Marines?”

Marine Force Design 2030
The Marine Corps has earned its reputation within battle, but it has also excelled at anticipating demands for new capabilities to deal with the changing character of war. After the end of the Cold War, as it adapted to the age of terrorism and a generation of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines made small steps forward. When he became Commandant of the Marine Corps last year, Gen David H. Berger signaled that the time for distinctive change had arrived.In articulating his vision of a future Marine Corps, Gen Berger concluded:

The rapid expansion of China’s area-denial capabilities, coupled with its pivot to the sea as the primary front in a renewed great-power competition, have fundamentally transformed the environment in which the U.S. military will operate for the foreseeable future. For the first time in a generation, sea control is no longer the unquestioned prerogative of the United States.2

His guidance was seen as both revolutionary and refreshing by pundits and reformers. It was seen as refreshingly frank, taking on cherished assumptions, and willing to reduce personnel to gain funding for needed modernization.Subsequently, the Commandant has shown that he was willing to gore a few sacred cows and has detailed the proposed force changes developed for a 21st-century Corps aligned with the National Defense Strategy.4 This plan has generated both plaudits and concerns from defense analysts outside the Corps and retired Marines. Any change would be controversial, especially when you move away from combat proven capabilities to accept tradeoffs and embrace a different future. In this short article, I briefly detail the proposed changes, assess the general shifts represented in the design, and evaluate some issues related to the plan. This assessment indicates that the capability and capacity changes are aligned with both the National Defense Strategy in general and the changes in the projected operating environment.5

Force Design 2030
The design includes a number of increases and decreases in capacity. Some of the shifts are significant, including the elimination of tanks and the large reductions in truck-towed cannon. The Marines have been using tanks since World War II and used them in Iraq and Afghanistan for mobile shock power, especially in urban fighting. Their shock and firepower in combat is valuable. But they, like the artillery, are heavy and reduce the agility of the force. In particular, they are of limited value in the emerging realities facing us in maritime operations in the Pacific where greater distances and precision is needed against near-peer competitors. The gist of the major changes is displayed in Table 1.

The new plan also alters the ACE of the Marine air-ground team, cutting 108 airplanes by eliminating squadrons and aircraft totals assigned to fighter/attack squadrons. Three unmanned vehicle squadrons are added, as is a refueling squadron that will help extend the operating range of the fifth generation F-35 Lightning being procured.

Table 1. Marine Corps force structure change summary.

Another significant change is the expansion of missile batteries to extend the range of Marine fires. This shift allows the Corps to support what Andrew Krepinevich has called “Archipelagic Defense” in the Pacific.To support such an approach, U.S. ground forces would be postured in and around the first island chain and apply cross-domain capabilities to deny freedom of maneuver to adversary surface forces. Marine units would deny the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy use of the seas with shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles from distributed operations in the Pacific. At the same time, other land-based air with missile defense assets—including Patriot, THAAD, and possibly railguns—would ensure the PLA could not use its air power. This strategy is in line with ideas expressed years earlier by Dr. T.X. Hammes.The new Marine concept being tested to operationalize this mission is Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), and it has been subjected to several years of study and war gaming.This concept and others like Littoral Operations in Contested Environments extend the Corps’ unique naval skill sets and strengthen its integration with the Navy for maritime operations in the Pacific.9

Capability Shifts
There are six distinctive shifts in this design. These are shifts in degree, not necessarily in kind. Each appears consistent with the emerging environment, as well as the intent and vectors of the National Defense Strategy issued in January 2018.10

  • From manned to unmanned. This design reduces manned aircraft and numerous helicopters while doubling the Marine’s unmanned air assets; for now these are more accurately titled as remotely operated vice unmanned. But they offer lower operating costs and endurance in support. Ground systems are also being added to generate man/machine teaming optional to enhance combat effectiveness and logistics.
  • From quantity to quality. Some Services focus on technology, and some U.S. Armed Services focus on their overall size. The Marines value their human capital and invest extensively in selection and initial recruit training. Gen Berger intends to stress quality and rejuvenate the Corps’ infantry training and educational systems to reinforce it.11 In the design, the Marines tradeoff some personnel to better balance the manpower/modernization tradeoff. The emphasis is on quality in their Marines while also freeing up limited investment capital.
  • Greater precision and range. The plan adds greater range and precision to Marine fires and opens up a potential family of munitions for different missions and targets. The ground-launched missile systems will increase range significantly from 40km to 70km or more. U.S. forces need to ensure that they are neither outgunned nor outranged by adversaries.12
  • Combined arms to cross-domain. The Marines excel at traditional combined arms, but the capability mix, particularly the advanced avionics of their F-35s and the new missile batteries, allow the Marines to extend and integrate their targeting and strike assets. This enhances cross-domain applications, including from land-based forces against naval surface targets, which is of particular value in the vast Pacific.
  • From general purpose to strategically shaped. But a shift from a “ready for anything” full-spectrum utility to a more focused and strategically relevant posture against more capable competitors is explicit in the new design. The proposed design is more agile and resilient against defined priority challengers.
  • From expensive to cost effective. The manpower reductions and the cuts in jets and helicopters in the plan provide more balance in capabilities as well as freeing up capital to invest in critical modernization needs. It also strategically prepares for anticipated leaner budgets. The Marines have accurately anticipated not just their warfighting needs but the Nation’s priorities and capacity to modernize in the coming years.

As noted earlier, the proposed shifts in the unique Marine set of capabilities are derived from the National Defense Strategy and do reflect the priorities and desired investments that the Pentagon’s planning documents calls for. A good strategy should document choices and clear prioritization, and its implementation should strive to align means to ends. The Pentagon did that in its strategy and framed explicit priorities as well as the risks for lower priorities. Some risk comes from making choices. Especially at this time of crisis and limited resources, discipline in execution should become critical for U.S. military leadership as we attempt to maximize our security. Force Design 2030 details clear tradeoffs and investments in line with those thrusts. While the force design holds up well against the shifts suggested by that strategy and today’s dynamic security environment, two areas warrant comment.

Joint force design. Joint interoperability at the strategic level is important. One cannot objectively evaluate the Marine force design in the absence of a holistic understanding of the other Services, so an understanding of how the Joint force is designed would be helpful. In the past, the Services resisted the idea of Joint force “interdependence.” With best case defense budgets in the future declining or at a plateau, an integrated Joint force design is more salient than ever—making it imperative to ensure there are no gaps and far less redundancy in the overall armed force. How the Marine Corps changes impact the U.S. Army’s armor force needs to be understood. Even more important will be clarity on how the Navy supports the Marines when deployed in expeditionary operations Navy support in terms of theater-level mobility, intelligence and surveillance, and logistics may be more salient than ever. I am sure that the Commandant realizes this and engaged with the Chief of Naval Operations to generate an integrated naval design.

Strategic and operational risk. The cardinal virtue in defense planning, the late Colin Gray often stressed, is prudence.13 This includes a reasonable appreciation for uncertainty, the consequences of choices, and the need for adaptability. There is some risk involved in shaping the force for the Pacific. I have always held that forces that can achieve multiple missions should be considered at a premium over single purpose forces. Force designs that cover multiple strategic futures are preferable to a design oriented on one threat, although such specialization is needed for key capabilities. As Secretary James N. Mattis said when he rolled out the latest defense strategy, the United States

cannot adopt a single preclusive form of warfare. Rather we must be able to fight across the spectrum of conflict. This means that the size and the composition of our force matters.14

It matters since the Joint force has to cover a wide range of missions and terrain; they have to be rugged and reliable, instead of exquisite and expensive.

In his initial guidance, the Commandant signaled that while he conceived of the Marine Corps as the Nation’s force-in-readiness, it was not designed to operate across the range of military operations (ROMO):

but rather, a force that ensures the prevention of major conflict and deters the escalation of conflict within the ROMO.15

That is a redefinition of the Corps’ mission as articulated by Marines since the end of the Cold War. Gen Berger’s intent was to create a Corps

optimized for naval expeditionary warfare in contested spaces, purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleets.16

He explicitly noted that this “single purpose-built future force” could be used in many other missions around the globe, but the force would not incorporate investments for those contingencies.17 The new force structure reflects that guidance.

Yet, reforming the Marines solely around one scenario, instead of multiple futures and challenges, reduces versatility to some degree. A study on alternative Marine Corps force designs several years ago that I produced with a colleague concluded:

The future will be highly complex, and a premium should be placed on versatile forces, not narrow, specialized or single-purpose assets. The Corps must find a new balance between maintaining the enduring traditional logic of its role as soldiers of the sea and meeting the challenges of a new security environment. It cannot just become a smaller version of its pre-Iraq force design.18

This has led some, including myself, to publicly express concerns that the force design stressed one mission in one theater.19 The critics accurately point to the versatility of the Marines in scenarios over the last fifteen years like Iraq.20 Other analysts and Marine veterans expressed this same concern,
a Marine Corps that is custom-designed for distributed operations on islands in the Western Pacific will be poorly designed and poorly trained for the land campaigns it is most likely to fight.21

However, a detailed look at the published report on the design reveals a robust force with sufficient flexibility over multiple tasks. With its tailorable force building blocks, along with the additional precision strike assets, the 21st-century Marine Corps retains utility across numerous contingencies, including conflicts like eastern Ukraine and the likely proxy wars of great power competitions.22 These are far more likely in eras of great power competition, especially a contest between nuclear armed competitors as we have now. Yet, Force Design 2030 reduces risk in the Pacific theater and accepts some readiness tradeoffs in potential secondary tasks or unknown crises. That is a risk in all force development efforts.

Strategy and force planning are about choices with different risk tradeoffs with constrained resources. The new Marine force is more strategically shaped, and it prudently reduces risk in what U.S. strategy defines as the primary challenge of our times. But it has not eliminated the Corps’ ability to respond to many scenarios as an overview of threats shows.23 Force Design 2030 is not a hammer with only one purpose, retaining the ability to defeat an array of rivals. In fact, the Corps’ agility, lethality, and resilience are enhanced in key ways and targeted to meet strategic requirement rather than general utility. Yet, the Marine “Leatherman tool” task organization remains, with new attachments.

Every Marine will have different ideas about how to tweak this plan. There could be more of a hedge, perhaps more unmanned systems, or adjust the missile/artillery mix in order to retain some artillery. These can be sustained in the Marine Reserve as a hedge against uncertainty.24 We can almost certainly expect communications and logistics difficulties as the creative operational concepts are put to the trial, and future adversaries will exploit them. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is no doubt aware of this and is studying a range of potential solutions. More details on counter-UAS capabilities are needed. The possibility of intensive urban operations needs to be considered, Fallujah’s deadly battle come to mind.25 That said, reformed Marine infantry units, with increased firepower, man/machine teaming, and long-loitering armed UAS support should remain capable of urban fighting.

Thus, these are near-term, strategy-driven changes based upon clear strategic priorities, as well as known adversary capabilities and changes in the character of modern warfare. The next generation of Marine innovators are promoting a number of creative concepts worthy of consideration.26 They begin the path toward more transformative changes tied to advances in technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, and hypervelocity missiles.27 These should continue to be explored via experimentation over the next few years.28 Their true battlespace potential will emerge over time and will be part of the continuous process of rigorous force development and change that the Marine Corps has demonstrated for generations with helicopters, remotely piloted vehicles, tilt-rotor planes, etc.

Ultimately, this is not a radical shift of force capabilities or capacity. Nor is it risk free. But it is a response to strategic direction that recognizes stronger competition from adversaries who have gone to school on our methods and invested to thwart our power projection approach. In so many ways, the force design represents a measured step forward in response to both strategic direction established in the National Defense Strategy and to emerging challenges in the strategic environment.29 The proposals take the Marines two long strides forward into the 21st century. Gen Berger has crafted a positive vision about how the Corps should posture itself for this unfolding century, vice a repeat of the old missions and outdated tactics from the last one. Clearly, in such a dynamic age, we need more than just a shrunken version of the Corps pre-Iraq 2001 force structure. Given the intensive efforts that major states have made in developing robust anti-access capabilities against the predictable pattern of deploying U.S. forces, the Marine plan is actually overdue.

Rather than radical, the shifts in the 2030 plan are quite deliberately measured. The Marines are not just “First to Fight,” but often also “First to Adapt,” and Force Design 2030 reinforces that history. When future Presidents call to “send in the Marines,” will they still be both ready and successful? The answer to that question seems to be a clear “Yes.”


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