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Restructuring the Marine Corps

In the last several months the United States Marine Corps (USMC) has introduced a new vision for the structure of the Corps for 2030.  This Marine Corps 10-year restructuring is to align itself with the National Defense Strategy, but in doing so, in my mind, it risks ignoring the last 70 years of its history.

The commandant of the Corps is seeking to transition the Corps away from its two-decade-long focus on counter-insurgency and towards the international competition that the national strategy poses as the greatest threats in the future. However, the commandant and other Marine Corps leaders are announcing that as part of this transition, they would eliminate/greatly reduce capabilities for sustained ground combat.

For example, as it gears up to fight China in this anticipated period of great power competition, the USMC will trim the size of its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons and cut all of its tank battalions in the next 10 years. It is also greatly reducing its artillery depending on increased lethality and accuracy of the remaining tubes. These changes, part of the 2030 force design effort, come as a result of the Corps’ wargaming and analysis effort meant to inform what it needs to fight a near-peer threat in 2030. According to the outline, the Marine Corps will cut the “the Primary Aircraft Authorized” for both the F-35B and F-35C squadrons down to 10 aircraft from 16. Also in the next 10 years, the Marine Corps is planning for “complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies.”  It will also greatly reduce its logistical support capability.  Finally, it is seeking to move into the longer range missile field, as we reported, rather than rely on the Army which is also moving in that direction.

There are two risks in this force structure revision.

  • The national command authorities will use the tools that they have available when a conflict arises. The Marine Corps they employ will not be dependent upon the Marine Corps’ capabilities or design at that time. The lack of diversity and flexibility in the capabilities to be applies could waste lives .This is not a new phenomenon. Look at the US Army that was deployed to Vietnam in the mid- 1960s.  It was designed to fight the Soviets on the plains of the Fulda Gap.
  • Why would the Corps want to be in a position where it cannot go to war without Army support for tanks, heavy firepower, logistics, and mobility? In short the changes undermine the Marine Corps’ expeditionary nature. The Army provides niche capabilities like psychological operations units and theater-wide logistics to all U.S. forces, not just the Marine Corps — the point is valid: The Marine Corps has been able to deploy and fight a wide variety of adversaries using its organic capabilities.

The Marine Corps should also avoid completely eliminating capabilities. Although the new guidance implies such eliminations, this creates gaps that might need filling in. Instead of creating these large gaps in capability the Corps should maintain in the Marine Corps Reserve an extensive toolkit as a hedge against an uncertain future. Traditionally, the Marine Corps reserves have been structured nearly identically to the active-duty force with a division, air wing, logistics group, and command headquarters. It is the only service that does this. The other services use the reserves to provide capabilities that are few or nonexistent in the active-duty force.

Thus, the Marine Corps could put capabilities into the reserves that don’t fit well with a western Pacific great-power strategy, but that would be needed for other kinds of campaigns. Using tanks as an example, the Marine Corps could reduce the number on active duty armored units to one company per division but keep an enhanced force of several battalion in the reserves. Personnel managers will whine that they cannot sustain the skill base with such a small active-duty community. The other services have figured out how to do this The Marine Corps can also.

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