The USMC Commandant Makes His Case for the “Stand in Force”

By Justin Katz

When 1,000 Marines left for Norway earlier this year, they expected to take part in regularly scheduled exercises that have become commonplace between the US Marine Corps and Scandinavia. But then Russia’s war in Ukraine began in earnest, and that group of Marines suddenly became a forward-deployed force.

“Within a day or two, [there were] a lot of conversations between the [US European Command] commander and the elements that we had forward … about what’s already forward that I can use quickly?” Commandant Gen. David Berger recalled Thursday during a Hudson Institute event.

The weeks that followed saw multiple Marine units, from F/A-18 squadrons to military intelligence, transitioning from experimentation with allies to operations for EUCOM, both collecting whatever information they could about the situation in Ukraine and also acting as a visible force in NATO countries. Berger said the Marines became a successful example of a “stand-in force.”

“Just marvelous, magnificent creative work by a bunch of Marines, all as a stand-in force, all within the range of weapon systems,” he said.

In December 2021 the Marine Corps published “A Concept for Stand-In Forces,” which called for Marines to operate in small, agile forces that are constantly positioned within an adversary’s striking range. The document also emphasizes that being a “stand-in force” is not just about when bullets are flying down range, but being ever present in areas where tension is high and conflict is possible in the near term. In the document, the pacing threat of China was the impetus for the strategy, but said it could be used anywhere. Berger himself characterized the example from Europe as one the audience would not expect when asked about how the service has tested the concept.

“From a very forward posture…inside the collection and weapons engagement zone, operating persistently all the time, not trying to hide. Show [them] that we’re there,” Berger said, referring to the information warfare elements of the concept. “In other words, knowing when they can see me and how do I operate? How do I use that from an information perspective effectively? How do I either confuse them? Or how do I convince them that what they’re seeing is what they want to see, but it’s not really accurate.”

The units that took part were a mixture of Marines deployed from the East Coast, Task Force 61 Naval Amphibious Forces Europe/ 2d Marine Division based in Naples, Italy, as well as 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing units operating in Poland and Lithuania, according to a Marine Corps official.

As a concept, the Stand-In Forces document is not set in stone, and Berger has been clear that he expects the fleet will bring feedback about what isn’t working. But he also said on Thursday that what works in the European theater may not work in the Middle East. And that works for him.

We need to be flexible enough to allow for that. And we can,” he said.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on July 11, 2022.