Evolution of the U.S. Marine Corps: A Decade of Transformation

By Lieutenant General Terry G. Robling USMC Ret.

Renowned for its expeditionary ethos and amphibious prowess, the USMC has historically epitomized adaptability and innovation. The past decade has presented the Marine Corps with an array of challenges, from conventional state-based adversaries to non-state actors and unconventional threats.

In response, the USMC has undergone a series of force design updates aimed at bolstering readiness, lethality, and strategic agility.

This article chronicles the metamorphosis of the USMC over the past ten years, delineating key force design modifications, dissecting critiques, and elucidating the rationale that undergirds the Marine Corps’ strategic imperatives.

Background: The Strategic Landscape

In the complex tapestry of global security dynamics, myriad factors interplay to shape the strategic landscape. Over the past decade, the world has witnessed a profound transformation in the nature of threats and challenges confronting nations and international actors. Traditional state-centric rivalries persist, but they are increasingly intertwined with non-state actors, transnational threats, and emerging disruptive technologies.

Analyzing the evolving nature of threats reveals a multifaceted spectrum ranging from conventional warfare scenarios to asymmetric, irregular conflicts, and hybrid warfare tactics. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), cyber threats, terrorism, and insurgency has blurred the lines between traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Moreover, the resurgence of great power competition, particularly between the United States, China, and Russia, has ushered in a new era of strategic competition characterized by geopolitical maneuvering, proxy conflicts, and information warfare campaigns.

Unraveling the nexus between technology, warfare, and strategic competition unveils a paradigm shift in the conduct of military operations and power projection capabilities. Rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cyber warfare capabilities, and hypersonic weapons have altered the calculus of warfare, rendering traditional modes of conflict obsolete. Information dominance, precision strike capabilities, and the ability to exploit vulnerabilities in adversaries’ systems have emerged as decisive factors in modern conflicts.

Furthermore, the diffusion of technology and the democratization of access to advanced weapons systems have empowered non-state actors and rogue states, challenging the traditional hierarchies of power and influence. Asymmetric warfare strategies, irregular tactics, and unconventional means of coercion have become potent tools in the arsenal of both state and non-state actors, posing significant challenges to established norms of international security.

In this intricate web of global security dynamics, states must navigate a precarious balance between deterring aggression, projecting power, and mitigating the risks of escalation. The interconnectedness of threats, the proliferation of disruptive technologies, and the multiplicity of actors underscore the imperative of holistic, multi-domain approaches to security and defense. Adaptable, agile military forces capable of operating across the spectrum of conflict, leveraging advanced technologies while remaining resilient to emerging threats, are essential in safeguarding national interests and maintaining strategic stability in an uncertain world.

Force Design 2030: A Vision for the Future

Force Design 2030 represents a seminal juncture in the evolution of the United States Marine Corps (USMC), marking a decisive shift towards future readiness and operational efficacy. Embarking on a transformative journey with Force Design 2030 entails a comprehensive reassessment of the Marine Corps’ force structure, capabilities, and operational concepts to meet the exigencies of 21st-century warfare. It is a proactive response to the evolving strategic landscape, characterized by emerging threats, technological advancements, and geopolitical complexities.

At its core, Force Design 2030 seeks to align the Marine Corps’ capabilities with the National Defense Strategy’s priorities, emphasizing the imperative of strategic competition, deterrence, and multi-domain operations. The overarching objectives of this initiative are multifaceted, encompassing enhanced lethality, agility, and expeditionary readiness. By recalibrating its force posture and organizational structure, the USMC aims to optimize its ability to project power, conduct distributed operations, and seamlessly integrate with joint and allied forces across the spectrum of conflict.

Unveiling the doctrinal underpinnings of Force Design 2030 elucidates the conceptual framework guiding the Marine Corps’ transformation efforts. Central to this paradigm shift is the embrace of distributed lethality—a strategic imperative aimed at dispersing forces, multiplying capabilities, and creating dilemmas for adversaries. This concept prioritizes the proliferation of standoff capabilities, precision strike assets, and expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) to disrupt enemy decision-making, control key maritime chokepoints, and project power in contested environments.

Moreover, Force Design 2030 underscores the imperative of joint integration, recognizing the interconnectedness of land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace domains in modern warfare. By fostering interoperability with sister services and coalition partners, the USMC seeks to leverage complementary capabilities, enhance operational flexibility, and maximize the effectiveness of joint force operations. Joint integration entails closer collaboration with the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), facilitating seamless coordination and synchronization of efforts across theaters of operation.

Rationalizing structural realignments and force posture adjustments is central to the implementation of Force Design 2030. This entails a holistic review of the Marine Corps’ organizational footprint, force composition, and operational concepts to ensure alignment with strategic objectives and resource constraints. Structural realignments may involve divesting legacy platforms and capabilities deemed obsolete or redundant, while prioritizing investments in emerging technologies, unmanned systems, and expeditionary capabilities.

Force posture adjustments may include forward basing of forces in strategic locations, enhancing pre-positioned stocks, and optimizing force employment models to enhance responsiveness and agility. By rationalizing its force posture, the USMC aims to enhance its ability to project power, conduct expeditionary operations, and provide rapid crisis response capabilities across diverse theaters of operation.

In essence, The USMC contends that Force Design 2030 represents a visionary blueprint for the Marine Corps’ future, grounded in the imperatives of innovation, adaptability, and strategic foresight. By embracing distributed lethality, joint integration, and rationalized force posture adjustments, the USMC seeks to maintain its competitive edge, preserve its expeditionary ethos, and uphold its commitment to safeguarding national interests in an increasingly complex and contested security environment.

Enhancing Lethality and Agility

Force Design 2030 heralds a paradigm shift in the United States Marine Corps (USMC), emphasizing the imperative of enhancing lethality and agility to meet the demands of modern warfare. This entails a multifaceted approach encompassing structural realignments, technological modernization, and doctrinal innovation aimed at maximizing the Marine Corps’ combat effectiveness across diverse operational environments.

Embracing the ascendancy of Marine Littoral Regiments (MLRs) and Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) epitomizes the Marine Corps’ commitment to expeditionary excellence and maritime power projection. MLRs represent a forward-deployed, scalable force structure tailored for littoral operations, capable of conducting distributed operations, amphibious assaults, and expeditionary maneuver warfare. By establishing MLRs in strategic littoral regions, the USMC enhances its ability to maintain a persistent presence, conduct rapid crisis response, and project power in contested maritime environments.

Similarly, Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) serve as agile, expeditionary forces capable of conducting a wide range of missions, including amphibious assaults, raids, humanitarian assistance, and non-combatant evacuation operations. By integrating air, ground, and logistics elements into a cohesive, rapidly deployable package, MEUs provide the Marine Corps with a versatile tool for crisis response, deterrence, and power projection across the globe.

Harnessing the transformative potential of unmanned systems and AI-enabled capabilities represents a cornerstone of Force Design 2030’s strategy to augment lethality and agility. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vessels (USVs) offer the Marine Corps enhanced situational awareness, reconnaissance, and precision strike capabilities. By leveraging AI algorithms for data analysis, target identification, and mission planning, unmanned systems enable Marines to operate with greater speed, precision, and efficiency in complex, contested environments.

Charting the course of equipment modernization and weapons innovation is integral to enhancing the Marine Corps’ lethality and combat effectiveness. This entails the development and fielding of advanced platforms, munitions, and electronic warfare systems tailored for modern warfare scenarios. Investments in next-generation aircraft, amphibious vehicles, and small arms systems ensure that Marines are equipped with cutting-edge technology capable of prevailing in peer-to-peer conflicts, irregular warfare, and hybrid threats.

Championing the ethos of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) and littoral warfare excellence underscores the Marine Corps’ commitment to maintaining a forward presence and controlling key maritime chokepoints. EABO emphasizes the establishment of expeditionary bases and operating locations in proximity to potential adversaries, enabling Marines to project power, disrupt enemy operations, and safeguard vital sea lines of communication. By mastering littoral warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures, the Marine Corps enhances its ability to operate in complex littoral environments, conduct amphibious assaults, and support joint force operations in maritime theaters.

In summary, Force Design 2030’s emphasis on enhancing lethality and agility reflects the Marine Corps’ proactive approach to meeting the challenges of 21st-century warfare. By embracing MLRs and MEUs, harnessing unmanned systems and AI-enabled capabilities, modernizing equipment and weapons, and championing EABO and littoral warfare excellence, the USMC ensures that it remains a versatile, expeditionary force capable of prevailing in any future conflict scenario.

Criticisms of Force Design Changes

Criticism of Force Design 2030 has emerged from various quarters, including senior retired General Officers and skeptical defense officials. These criticisms reflect divergent perspectives on the Marine Corps’ strategic direction and force structure. They span a range of concerns, from the viability of traditional amphibious capabilities to the fiscal sustainability of modernization efforts and the potential impact on institutional culture and identity.

Navigating the tempest of skepticism surrounding perceived de-emphasis on traditional amphibious warfare capabilities is at the forefront. Critics argue that by prioritizing distributed operations and littoral warfare concepts, the Marine Corps risks diluting its core competency in amphibious assaults, a hallmark of its identity and operational heritage. Skeptics contend that reducing investments in amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), amphibious ships, amphibious doctrine and aircraft could undermine the USMC’s ability to conduct forcible entry operations and project power ashore in contested littoral environments.

Another critique centers on the fiscal sustainability and logistical feasibility of Force Design 2030’s ambitious modernization agenda. Critics argue that the cost of fielding advanced capabilities such as unmanned systems, AI-enabled technologies, and next-generation weapons systems may exceed budgetary constraints and strain logistical support networks specifically in contested environments. Moreover, concerns have been raised about the long-term maintenance, sustainment, and interoperability challenges associated with integrating disparate technologies into the Marine Corps’ operational repertoire.

Force Design 2030 has sparked a nuanced debate over the delicate equilibrium between legacy competencies and emergent warfare paradigms. Critics caution against discarding proven capabilities and doctrinal tenets in favor of untested concepts and speculative technologies. They argue that while innovation and adaptation are essential, the Marine Corps must preserve its core competencies in maneuver warfare, combined arms integration, and expeditionary operations. Striking the right balance between continuity and change, tradition and innovation, remains a contentious point of contention within the Marine Corps community.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the potential ramifications of Force Design 2030 on the Marine Corps’ institutional culture and identity. Critics warn that radical changes to force structure, operational concepts, and strategic priorities could disrupt organizational cohesion, erode unit morale, and undermine the esprit de corps that defines the Marine Corps ethos. Moreover, the prospect of downsizing or divesting certain units and capabilities may elicit resistance from within the ranks, as Marines grapple with the prospect of fundamental changes to their roles, missions, and operational focus.

Rationale Behind Force Design Decisions

In juxtaposition to criticisms, the USMC contends the rationale behind Force Design 2030 decisions illuminates the imperatives of anticipatory adaptation in the face of evolving threats, articulates the imperative of fostering synergies through joint and naval integration, expounds upon the strategic imperative of harnessing emergent technologies for competitive advantage, and pivots towards resource optimization and capability alignment vis-a-vis future operational exigencies.

Force Design 2030 is grounded in the imperative of anticipatory adaptation, recognizing the dynamic nature of modern warfare and the need to stay ahead of emerging threats. By proactively realigning force structure and capabilities, the Marine Corps seeks to anticipate and prepare for future contingencies, ensuring readiness and resilience in an ever-changing security environment. The USMC contends this proactive approach will enable it to remain agile, responsive, and effective in addressing evolving challenges, from great power competition to irregular warfare and hybrid threats

Force Design 2030 emphasizes the imperative of fostering synergies through joint and naval integration, recognizing the interconnectedness of land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace domains in contemporary conflict. By enhancing interoperability with sister services and coalition partners, the Marine Corps hopes to amplifies its operational reach, enhances operational flexibility, and maximizes the effectiveness of joint force operations. This integrated approach enables seamless coordination and synchronization of efforts across diverse theaters of operation, optimizing the Marine Corps’ contribution to joint force lethality and effectiveness.

Force Design 2030 underscores the strategic imperative of harnessing emergent technologies for competitive advantage, leveraging advancements in AI, unmanned systems, cyber warfare capabilities, and precision strike assets. By embracing innovation and investing in cutting-edge technologies, the USMC seeks to gain a decisive edge over potential adversaries, enhancing situational awareness, operational effectiveness, and combat lethality. This forward-looking approach enables the Marine Corps to exploit emerging capabilities, disrupt adversary decision-making, and maintain superiority in contested environments.

Force Design 2030 pivots towards resource optimization and capability alignment vis-a-vis future operational exigencies, prioritizing investments in capabilities that provide the greatest strategic leverage and operational utility. By rationalizing force posture, divesting obsolete platforms, and reallocating resources to high-priority areas, the Marine Corps enhances its combat readiness, sustainability, and expeditionary agility. This strategic realignment ensures that limited resources are allocated judiciously, maximizing the Marine Corps’ ability to meet evolving mission requirements and operational challenges effectively.

In sum, the USMC believes the rationale behind Force Design 2030 decisions reflects a comprehensive strategic vision aimed at ensuring the Marine Corps’ continued relevance, effectiveness, and adaptability in a rapidly evolving security landscape. By embracing anticipatory adaptation, joint integration, technological innovation, and resource optimization, the USMC positions itself to confront emerging threats, project power globally, and uphold its commitment to safeguarding national interests in an uncertain and complex world.

The Path Forward

The Marine Corps synthesizes the trajectory of its evolution over the last decade, focusing on the transformative changes undertaken to address emerging threats and strategic imperatives. This synthesis encompasses shifts in force structure, operational concepts, and technological capabilities aimed at enhancing readiness, lethality, and expeditionary agility.  Reflecting on the pivotal significance of force design adaptations, the Marine Corps acknowledges the critical role played by strategic foresight and operational flexibility in navigating complex security challenges. USMC leadership is vehement that Force Design adaptations have enabled the USMC to maintain its competitive edge, respond effectively to emerging threats, and project power in contested environments. It underscores the importance of continuous adaptation and innovation in ensuring the Marine Corps’ relevance and effectiveness in an ever-changing global security environment.

The Marine Corps must also continue to acknowledge the resolute criticisms behind its decisions from a staunch and committed group of retired General Officers.  This criticism of reflects a complex interplay of strategic, budgetary, doctrinal, and cultural considerations. While proponents laud the initiative’s forward-thinking approach and emphasis on future readiness, skeptics raise legitimate concerns about the potential trade-offs, risks, and unintended consequences associated with restructuring the Marine Corps for the challenges of tomorrow.  Addressing these criticisms will require careful deliberation, open dialogue, and a willingness to adapt and refine the Force Design 2030 framework in light of evolving realities and feedback from stakeholders.


Force Design 2030 represents a bold and forward-looking transformation of the Marine Corps, aligning its capabilities and operational concepts with the demands of great power competition, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. By enhancing naval integration, agility, and lethality, Force Design 2030 strengthens the US defense establishment’s posture and readiness to counter Chinese military advancements and assertive behavior. Successful implementation will require sustained investment, innovation, and strategic alignment across the joint force and with allied partners while addressing criticism from key and influential detractors.

This essay was written for the latest issue of the French publication OPERATIONNELS which was published for the Eurosatory 2024 exhibition. Lieutenant General Robling is on the board of the publication.

See also our book on USMC transformation published in 2022: