How US Marines are being reshaped for China threat
The US military commitment to the Pacific was underlined in a White House meeting between the leaders of the US and Japan. But behind the scenes, this renewed focus on Asia has sparked a fierce debate within one of its most fabled military forces, writes defence analyst Jonathan Marcus.
A bitter family row has erupted in one of the US military’s most hallowed institutions, the US Marine Corps.
A host of its former senior commanders are lining up to attack the current leadership over plans for its reinvention.
At issue is a plan to adapt the service for a potential conflict against China – a plan dubbed Force Design 2030. Almost from its inception this plan has been under attack with a cohort of retired generals taking the unusual approach of going to the press to air their frustrations.
Retired senior officers have been meeting regularly; speaking at seminars and think tanks; and devising their own alternative to a plan which they see as a disaster for the Marine Corps’ future.
One prominent critic is the former US Navy Secretary and former Senator for Virginia, Jim Webb, who served as a Marine officer in the Vietnam War and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2015.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he described Force Design 2030 as “insufficiently tested” and “intrinsically flawed”. He warned that the plan “raised serious questions about the wisdom and long-term risk of dramatic reductions in force structure, weapons systems and manpower levels in units that would take steady casualties in most combat scenarios”.
So what has got them all so upset?
Launched in 2020 by the Marine Corps Commandant General David H Berger, the plan is intended to equip the Marines for a potential conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific region rather than counter-insurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new plan sees the Marines as fighting dispersed operations across chains of islands. Units will be smaller, more spread out, but packing a much bigger punch through a variety of new weapons systems. Huge amphibious landings like in World War Two or massive deployments on land – like in Iraq – will probably be things of the past.
Most unpopular is the plan to cut back on foot soldiers and give up all its tanks. Such proposals have led some critics to feel the Corps is turning its back on its past.
While it has close ties with the US Navy it is a separate service which grew dramatically in World War Two and has taken a prominent role in recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Public perceptions of the Marine Corps are powerfully influenced by the World War Two experience. Anyone who has seen John Wayne in the 1949 feature film The Sands of Iwo Jima or the more recent mini-series The Pacific produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks will remember the large-scale amphibious operations; men storming ashore from landing craft and so on.
This is not the way the new plan sees the Marines as fighting.
Its traditional role as America’s military first responder, capable of taking on disparate challenges around the globe, is what critics believe could be compromised by the new plan with its clear focus upon China and the Indo-Pacific.
So what exactly is in the plan?
- some infantry battalions – the foot soldiers – to be cut
- around three-quarters of its towed artillery batteries replaced by long-range rocket systems
- several helicopter squadrons are being cut
- giving up all of its tanks
Money for the new weapons systems, totalling $15.8 billion, are to be funded by the cuts which amount to some $18.2 billion.
In addition to the new rocket artillery systems, there are to be new anti-shipping missiles that can be fired from land and new unmanned aerial systems. The goal is to equip and train the Marine Corps for a new kind of warfare that the fighting in Ukraine has already prefigured.
The primary guiding factor of Force Design 2030 is what the Marines’ Commandant refers to as distributed operations, breaking up large forces into widely distributed smaller units but ensuring that they have sufficient military punch to make a real difference.
Military specialist Mike O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, rejects the central criticism that the new focus on China might impair Marine operations elsewhere. The Marines will go where they are ordered, he says, and the new strategy probably won’t impact on operations as much as some think.
“What really has mattered in this regard is the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years – THAT is the big change, irrespective of (and mostly before) General Berger’s vision was even developed.”
Many commentators insist that change is essential if the Marines are to face up to the challenges of the modern battlefield.
Dr Frank Hoffman – himself a former Marine officer – is now a Distinguished Research Fellow at the US National Defense University. “I think the critics are looking backwards to a gloried past, and fail to see the strategic picture vis a vis China and technology in a really disappointing way,” he says.
While the withdrawal of the Marines’ tanks has drawn particular criticism, Dr Hoffman believes it is the right course. There will still be plenty of armoured vehicles, he argues, just not “the heavy tanks and their supporting cast of refuellers”.
“It’s an adaptation to cover a deeper area with a more accurate mix of firepower such as we are seeing in Ukraine. The Corps has used its aviation element to have this range in the past, and now it will have a mix of traditional artillery and a family of missiles that will increase the lethality and range of its fire support.”
These are all steps that many would say are justified by the lessons from Ukraine.
The utility and importance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); rocket artillery; and the ability to strike at great range with great accuracy have all been underlined in the Russia-Ukraine war and are very much part of the Marines’ new plans. But their envisaged battlefield is very different – not the forests and steppe lands of Ukraine but island chains reaching across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Force Design 2030 is very much an evolving programme. There have already been changes and there will be more. And while the direction of travel has been established there are still huge problems to resolve, not least the logistical challenges posed by a force likely to be distributed over a vast area.
Amphibious shipping will play a key role here. And as Nick Childs, the Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the IISS in London explains, new kinds of ships are going to be needed.
“Just relying on their traditional large amphibious ships would leave them too vulnerable to the kinds of modern weaponry that they are likely to face”, he says. “So new kinds of smaller ships in greater numbers will be vital, so that the Marine Corps can operate in a more agile and dispersed way.”
But getting more ships is not going to be easy. Smaller ones can be built quickly and in a wide range of shipyards but not necessarily at at the pace needed. The US Navy also needs significant numbers of new warships and it is far from clear that there are the funds or the ship-yard capacity needed.
It’s the age-old problem of matching strategic priorities to resources. And the crisis in Ukraine underlines that old threats can reappear just as a force is trying to focus itself in an entirely new direction.