The 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC 38), General David H. Berger set off a chain reaction in Washington, DC amongst defense analysts, Members of Congress, civilian leaders in the Pentagon, the Joint Force and certainly inside the Marine Corps when he published his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) during July 2019. Informed and shaped by his previous general officer level command experiences, the depth, breadth, and speed of the institutional changes he was about to initiate were bold and aggressive.
No sacred cows were spared as he undertook a top to bottom, inside and out review of the current operating forces and their relevancy to deter and prevail against a peer adversary in contested, denied, disrupted, and degraded environments. General Berger clearly held the same opinion as his predecessor, General Robert B. Neller, that the Marine Corps was not organized, trained, or equipped to meet the demands of 21st Century warfare.
Robbin Laird’s work in this book closely examines the myriad opportunity costs that impacted the Marine Corps during twenty years of counterinsurgency and counter terrorism operations, primarily on land under U.S. Army leadership that contributed to the lack of 21st century readiness.
Many have simply but accurately summarized the wicked problems the Nation currently encounters with the oft stated refrain, “we are at an inflection point.”
Remaining action oriented during this inflection period, CMC 38’s CPG was a catalyst in accelerating innovative thinking and brought greater urgency to the discussion about the Corps’ role and readiness to operate effectively as a naval expeditionary force and the Marine Corps’ role writ large within the Joint Force as the declared, “Inside Force” – the force that can persistently sustain effective operations within a peer adversary’s weapons engagement zone.
The Commandant’s Planning Guidance revealed his number one priority, Force Design, which was articulated in his March 2020 release entitled, Force Design 2030. Force Design 2030 encompasses the programmatic, iterative, ten-year transformation effort across all elements of the three largest Marine Air Ground Task Forces, the Marine Corps Reserve and Marine Corps Special Operations Forces.
General Berger established a dozen Integrated Planning Teams (IPT) led by field grade officers that analyzed the capability and capacity of the Fleet Marine Force (FMF), the operational arms of the Marine Corps that would constitute the “Inside Force.” According to General Berger, “The “stand-in” forces will be designed to attrite adversary forces, enable joint force access requirements, complicate targeting, consume adversary ISR resources, and prevent fait accompli scenarios.”
Chief amongst the IPT tasks was to identify options and produce detailed recommendations on how the Marine Corps, with a flat or declining budget, could generate the required resources to pursue a force wide transformation and begin to attack his modernization objectives.
The approved IPT recommendations under the “divest to invest” approach serve as the aimpoint of the Marine Corps modernization goals. Those goals will be assessed annually as both material and non- material solutions get tested, accepted, dismissed, refined, or ultimately fielded as extant capabilities. The Commandant most recently updated
Force Design 2030 in April 2021. This update served as a quasi-scorecard on the near-term Force Design successes and a restatement of modernization and fiscal priorities that would yield the objective force circa 2030.
While the leadership of the Marine Corps remains focused on implementing Force Design 2030 as resources allow, Robbin Laird has masterfully woven the transformation story of the Marine Corps that began well before 2019 with the 2007 fielding of the revolutionary, long- range, assault-support, tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey, followed by the fielding of the Fifth Generation F-35 stealth jet fighter and the future fielding of the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter.
Robbin has exhaustively interviewed current high-level commanders and consequential leaders across the Navy and Marine Corps enterprise and has pieced together a fantastic body of work that guides the reader towards a comprehensive understanding of the current challenges as well as the opportunities to be exploited by U.S., allied, and coalition forces within the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.
Robbin has crafted fresh ideas and makes solid recommendations throughout this work that can help the Commandant and Chief of Naval Operations reduce near and mid-term risk while enhancing the sensing, striking and sustainment power of naval expeditionary forces through more innovative employment of existing capabilities.
Robbin lays out creative options for additional Marine Corps contributions to reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance, sea control and sea denial while executing distributed operations, creation of more effective modular and resilient kill webs, leverages the Marine Corps as a deterrent force and a force that can play a leading role in helping to strategically manage escalation measures vis a vis nuclear-armed peer.
But this assumes there is a consistent and agreed upon joint force view of employment of current and future Marine Corps and naval expeditionary force capabilities.
General Berger is committed to the USMC remaining the most ready force when the nation is least ready, able to assuredly operate in all climes and places. There are risks that lesser but still resource intensive contingencies could detract from Force Design and extend the timeline to achieve the objective force of 2030.
That should stimulate even more thinking about innovative employment of that which we currently possess or could easily pursue through acquisition of commercial off the shelf technology while programmatic modernization remains ongoing. Robbin Laird does an outstanding job blending the conceptual with the practical.
One only needs to survey the security situation today to see a Russian Federation that is increasing its presence in Belarus, further threatening Ukraine sovereignty, expanding operations and infrastructure in the Arctic and is creating tensions along the border of our NATO ally, Poland. Xi Jinping continues to ratchet up military pressure and increase tensions with Taiwan and is positioned to retain authoritarian control of the Peoples Republic of China for a third term.
While quantity is not quality, the PLA Navy has now surpassed the size of the U.S. Navy.
Both the PRC and Russia continue to test hypersonic weapons delivery systems which adds urgency and importance to escalation management at the tactical and operational levels.
A “Stand-In” force equipped with longer range surface to surface engagement capabilities will certainly add to the difficulty of managing actions/counteractions along the escalation ladder once casualties are sustained.
Hypersonic weapons call into question previous assumptions about indications and warning, available time or off ramps as space- based capabilities and other intelligence disciplines attempt to distinguish potential inbound conventional weapons from nuclear weapons.
Robbin Laird’s The USMC Transformation Path: Preparing for the High-End Fight could not come soon enough or at a better time while helping to craft innovative solutions to difficult challenges.
This piece was written at the time of the publication of the book and prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.