The USMC Commandant’s China Bet: Reactions and Key Questions

By Robbin Laird

The new commandant of the US Marine Corps has announced that he would like to redesign the force to put his chips on the chessboard to operate close to China and to counter how he sees the Chinese threat.

His projected force structure changes are largely driven by force redesign efforts during his time as head of the Marines’ Combat Development Command in Quantico, Virginia where the command ran a number of war games to form a basis for the restructuring plans.

Whereas the USMC has been in the process of going back to the sea, the Commandant is focused on them becoming primarily a naval expeditionary force, but one never seen before in history.

As Michael Gordon of The Wall Street Journal highlighted:

“To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the Marines plan to get rid of all of their tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, Gen. Berger said. “I have come to the conclusion that we need to contract the size of the Marine Corps to get quality,” he said.”

Maj. Joshua Benson, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, was quoted in an article in USNI News that:

“The Marine Corps is not optimized to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy. In the summer of 2019, the Marine Corps began force design activities focused on adapting capabilities to properly shape the Marine Corps’ contributions to naval warfare and the joint force. These planning efforts led to a modernized design which incorporates emerging technologies and significant changes in force structure to deliver a Marine Corps the nation needs by 2030.”

The key notion here is “properly” shaping the Marine Corps and its contributions to naval warfare and the joint force. 

To be clear, the focus is upon reshaping the USMC as a naval expeditionary force in a very targeted way, quite literally, the target being China and a very clear notion of what that threat is and how it needs to be dealt with.

The Economist characterized the new approach envisaged by the Commandant as follows:

The idea is that in a war with China, America’s hulking aircraft carriers might be pushed far out to sea by the threat of missiles. But small groups of 50 to 150 Marines, wielding armed drones, rockets and anti-ship missiles, could get up close, fanning out on islands along and inside the chain from Japan to the Philippines. Like a high-tech echo of the insurgents they once fought, they would jump from one makeshift base to another every couple of days to avoid being spotted and targeted, says General Berger. They could feed targeting information back to more distant ships and warplanes, or pepper the Chinese fleet with fire themselves—a form of dispersed, island-hopping warfare designed to stop a Chinese attack in its tracks.

Meagan Eckstein in her article for USNI News added that the focus is for the USMC to be “optimized for conflict with China in the littorals – a force that will completely divest of its tanks and slash most of its artillery cannon battalions, instead focusing on developing light mobility options to get around island chains with the assistance of unmanned systems and mobile anti-ship missiles.”

Major Benson added: “By the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies.

“Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.”

By eliminating tanks and radically restructuring and cutting aviation assets, a new trajectory will be shaped to create in Major Benson’s words: “A Marine Corps the nation needs by 2030.”

Benson highlighted some elements of what this Marine Cops would priority to get “the Marine Corps” the nation needs.

“Throughout this 10-year initiative, the Marine Corps will be making investments in capabilities to include increasing long-range precision fires, advanced reconnaissance capabilities, unmanned systems and resilient networks. Future budget requests will include an expanded list of viable unmanned capabilities that will create significant opportunity for industries across the country.”

Quite obviously this vision needs complete support from the USAF and the US Navy to be credible.

Both services will need to see this USMC restructuring as a priority for the nation as well, and, even more importantly, when the high end fight with China unfolds, they will see working close in against Chinese forces as the priority mission, not just for the USMC but for the extended range of their support and strike capabilities as well.

What have been some of the reactions to this proposed trajectory of change?

And what are some of the questions which are being raised and will need to be addressed if such a course of action becomes national policy?

The Perspective of Dan Gouré

One assessment has been provided by Dan Gouré in an article published in Real Clear Defense.

A key concern which Gouré highlights is the question of whether the new force design is to targeted and too focused on a very narrowly defined approach to warfighting against China. And if that approach is ultimately credible.

“General Berger contends that the new force design will provide a more potent deterrent to conflict and a more lethal war-waging capability. However, there are reasons to be concerned that Force Design 2030 will produce a “forlorn hope,” requiring the defense of forward positions against overwhelming odds while suffering terrible casualties…. In essence, General Berger sees the future force as supporting deterrence of China by threatening to blunt naval offensives to control the Western Pacific.”

Gouré asks a core question: “How realistic is the vision of the future Marine Corps suggested by Force Design 2030, and how effective would it be?

“There are numerous obstacles to deploying and operating a stand-in force that can survive in a future high-intensity conflict. Today there are few places in the Western Pacific that such a force can be deployed in peacetime. Even if it were possible to get our Asian allies to allow the Marine Corps to sprinkle units armed with long-range weapons across the Western Pacific, those units would be early targets of China’s first wave of precision weapons during a crisis.

Also, there would be the problem of resupplying those units, which are likely to run out of munitions, fuel and supplies quickly once a conflict starts.”

The Perspective of Mark Cancian

A second assessment has been provided by Mark Cancian of CSIS.

In his assessment entitled, “The USMC’s Radical Shift Towards China.”

According to Cancian: “The restructured Marine Corps will focus single-mindedly on a conflict with China in the Western Pacific, build capabilities for long-range and precision engagement in a maritime campaign, eliminate capabilities for counterinsurgency and ground combat against other armies, and get smaller to pay for the new equipment.”

He characterizes this as a no-hedging strategy.

“The lack of hedging means that the Marine Corps will not field the broad set of capabilities it has in the past. It will be poorly structured to fight the kind of campaigns that it had to fight in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.

“The history of the last 70 years has been that the United States deters great power conflict and fights regional and stability conflicts.

“Although forces can adapt, as seen during the long counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, there is a delay and an initial lack of expertise.

“The Marine Corps might plan to defer these conflicts to the Army, but that has not worked in the past. Army forces have been too small to keep the Marine Corps out of sustained ground combat.

“Marine Corps officials have argued privately that other kinds of conflicts would be lesser included capabilities of this focus on high-end conflict in the Western Pacific.

“This is misplaced.

“History is littered with examples of militaries that prepared for one kind of conflict and then had to fight a very different kind of conflict. In the best circumstances, militaries adapt at the cost of time and blood.

“In the worst circumstances, the result is catastrophic failure.”

The Perspective of a Nuclear Strategist

A third reaction has been provided by Dr. Paul Bracken who highlights that the American military needs to relearn the critical nature of the nuclear dimension which is rolled within the warfighting strategies of our peer competitors.

Nuclear war as a subject has been put into a small, separate box from conventional war.

It is treated as a problem of two missile farms attacking each other.

This perspective overlooks most of the important nuclear issues of our day, and how nuclear arms were really used in the Cold War.

It should be remembered that China is the only major power born in a nuclear context. The coming to power of the Communists in China was AFTER the dawn of the nuclear age. And Beijing learned early on the hard realities of a nuclear world.  Soviet treatment of Beijing in the Taiwan Straits crises and in the Korean War with regard to nuclear weapons, taught China the bitter lesson that they were on their own.

This led directly to China’s bomb program.

China is also the only major power surrounded by five nuclear states.  It’s true that two of these states are, technically speaking, allies (Pakistan and North Korea).

But there can be little doubt that both target China with atomic weapons.

More, at senior levels of the Chinese government they understand that their “allies” are a lot more dangerous than China’s enemies.

When discussing defense strategies, it is crucial to understand the nature of escalation. One of the fundamental distinctions long since forgotten by today’s military leaders and in academic studies is the zone of the interior, or ZI.

As soon as you hit a target inside the sovereign territory of another country, you are in a different world. 

From an escalation point of view striking the ZI of an adversary who is a nuclear, crosses a major escalation threshold.

And there is the broader question of how we are going to manage escalation in a world in which we are pushing forward a greater role for autonomous systems with AI, deeply learning, etc.

Will clashes among platforms being driven by autonomous systems lead to crises which can get out of control?

We need a military strategy that includes thinking through how to go on alert safely in the various danger zones.

Question: This raises a major question for strategy: How to manage military engagements or interactions in the Pacific without spinning crises out of control. 

How does the nuclear factor weigh in?

Paul Bracken: The first thing is to realize it is woven into the entire fabric of a Pacific strategy. You don’t have to fire a nuclear weapon to use it.

The existence of nuclear weapons, by itself, profoundly shapes conventional options.

The nuclear dimension changes the definition of what a reasonable war plan is for the U.S. military.

And a reasonable war plan can be defined as follows:  when you brief it to the president, he doesn’t throw you out of the office, because you’re triggering World War III.

A USAF Perspective

A fourth assessment has been by Lt. General (Retired) David Deptula who focused on the danger of single service modernization strategies as fragmenting an overall deterrence strategy for the United States. His concern is that with a growing array of single service initiatives designed to compete for “deterrence badges” in the great power competition, there is a clear danger of splintering deterrence rather than reinforcing it.

The U.S. military has just about come out of the significant readiness shortfalls they were dealing with prior to the funding infusion of the past three years.

Now readiness is being hit again both by the impact of the crisis and then the need to ramp up after the initial effects.

And the tight budget situation coupled with geopolitical changes clearly requires shaping a comprehensive military strategy which supports national strategy shaped to deal with those geopolitical changes.

At the heart of the challenge is the requirement to make strategic decisions about force structure development which align with strategic need, rather than separate force structure modernization.

The Perspective of T.X, Hammes

A fifth and very supportive reaction has been provided by T.X. Hammes.

His article published by War on the Rocks focuses upon critics of the new approach as well as dealing with objections which might be raised to that approach.

For example, he answers Gouré’s concerns by noting that the Chinese would themselves have difficulties destroying distributed Marine Corps fire teams, based on the experience the U.S. had in destroying Iraqi mobile missiles in the Gulf. He also argues that the projected USMC approach would be to use stealth in deploying the missiles in the first place.

Container-based weapons also dramatically reduce logistical burden because trucks, fuel, water, clothing, and some medical care could be purchased on the open market. Even 20,000 marines and sailors ashore would not strain the economies of Japan (population 125 million), the Philippines (105 million), South Korea (50 million), or Australia (25 million).

The only support that must be delivered will be new missiles in containers and unique communications and sensor equipment.

Given the ubiquitous presence of container handling equipment globally, movement of critical supplies will be greatly simplified.

He then followed by noting that one might question the enthusiasm which allies and partners might have for providing territory for the container-based weapons distributed shell game.

Some question whether host nations will allow these firing elements to operate from their territories.

That is a legitimate question.

I contend they will be more likely to let these small units ashore than a traditional expeditionary brigade or force.

If the United States shares the design and production of the new containerized missile systems with allies, they can have affordable, compatible forces that can present a challenge to China.

Currently, the Philippines and Indonesia do not have effective systems to deter or engage China if deterrence fails. By adding this type of mobile system, they could have deterrent capabilities.

One might note that the explanation provided for the new force design does raise further questions of their own.

Container based weapons was a first order concern for the United States after the events of 9/11 when the question was raised about what kinds of terrorist actions we needed to prepare for. Container based weapons were focused upon a key tools for terrorists and when the problem was worked a number of potential solutions where identified which the Chinese themselves can figure out.

But more than that, given the gray zone competencies of the Chinese, why would one assume that they would not play out the full panoply of their political-military capabilities to deal with this threat, and notably by working neighbors to understand why they might not want to become host nations for such a force.

And the allied piece is not just a good question – it is a determinate one.

The challenge of full spectrum crisis management in the Pacific is a coalition one, and the question is what are allies willing to do and support. First of all, would Japan and Australia fully embrace the strategy? If they would not, the USMC has a problem.

Key Questions

In short, as the Commandant has noted, his force redesign if a work in progress and subject to reworking through wargaming and experimentation but as well a number of broader strategic questions facing the United States and its core allies about its overall strategy towards China post-COVID 19.

One can be sure that the participants in that redesign will be widened through strategic debate throughout the U.S. system, both in terms of this year’s elections, and budget choices to be made within the next couple of years, as well as by the allies, who clearly rethinking their China strategy as well.

Ultimately, the question of what is the national strategy towards China and the role of the military aspect within that overall strategy is a crucial one and not yet resolved.

The US Navy is under significant fiscal and re-design pressures.

Will the senior Navy leadership embrace the new Commandant’s approach as at the heart of their own distributed maritime strategy or their approach to building out the maritime kill web?

And for the USAF, will they prioritize strategic reach into the first island chain and a priority for them to provide the kind of C2 which a distributed missile force embedded in the Marine Corps as strike force will require?

Another key element is the open ended question of how remote systems or so-called “unmanned” systems are woven into the next phase of development of the air-maritime force.

Is the bet on the ascendant role of unmanned systems a prudent one?

Significant questions remain to be dealt with in terms of how U.S. strategy towards China is shaped going forward post-COVID 19, and this strategy is much broader than the question of an operational military strategy for the joint force, for the coalition force or for single service redesign.