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The United States Marine Corps is Changing. Why Should we Care?

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) are undergoing a series of comprehensive reforms to its force structure, equipment, and doctrine.  These reforms are geared towards countering China in the Western Pacific.  General Berger, the Commandant of the USMC, has proposed plans for the Corps that suggest a profound change in US strategic outlook with significant implications for NATO and the UK.

The US Marine Corps is changing and why we should care

Rarely do questions about force design, long-range precision fires, and weapons engagement zones (whatever those are) make it on to front pages of national newspapers.  But in the United States, General Berger’s plans to restructure the United States Marine Corps did exactly that.  Headline grabbing proposals included getting rid of the Marine Corps’ tanks, cutting 12,000 personnel, and possible reductions to F-35 orders.  While these plans are based on years of wargaming, as with any reforms on this scale, there is a certain amount of strategic risk involved, not least for the UK and other NATO partners.

According to Force Design 2030, the USMC plans to design and build a force optimised to fight China.  This is no great surprise and the Pentagon has viewed China as its “pacing threat” for years.  The White House made clear in its 2018 National Defence Strategy (NDS) that it believes great power competition is back.  The US defence establishment’s view is that a conflict with China would test the US military in ways not done since the end of the Cold War.

In particular, Chinese capabilities threaten the US air and maritime superiority closer to mainland China.  Its long-range ballistic and cruise missiles threaten US forward air bases in Japan, while anti-ship missiles and a growing submarine fleet provide a credible challenge to US Carrier Strike Groups.  Since the early 1990s, Marine Corps force planning has been dominated by the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF).  These are rapidly deployable combined arms force groups that contains organic ground, air, and combat service support assets.  This force organisation assumes both maritime superiority, in order to get the MAGTF to the theatre of operations, and air superiority on arrival (as they have limited ground based air defence assets).  General Berger’s planning guidance suggests that the Marine Corps can no longer rely on these assumptions and, as currently configured, MAGTFs are unlikely to be competitive against the threat posed by the Chinese military.

The Threat

Since coming to power in 2012 the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has placed a greater emphasis on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).  The PLAN’s share of the Chinese defence budget is set to increase by 82% between 2015-2021.  This budget increase has rapidly translated into military fact and since 2014 China has launched more warships, submarines, support ships and major amphibious vessels (in total tonnage) than the Royal Navy’s entire surface fleet.  Furthermore, the PLAN’s ability to concentrate forces, assuming China’s military ambitions are limited to its near seas, means it does not have to match the US ship for ship.  By contrast, the US Navy’s global responsibilities risk spreading it thin against an opponent who can concentrate mass closer to home shores.   

It is clear to all that the US Navy’s maritime superiority in the Western Pacific is being eroded by China’s anti-area and access denial weapons, its large submarine fleet, maritime militia, and an improving integrated air defence system.  In a confrontation with China, the US Navy’s mission will change, from its traditional role of power projection to maintaining “naval forward presence” and sea control.  

General Berger’s view is that China’s stand-off weapons will keep US Navy capital ships at arm’s length.  The USMC will therefore be used as a ‘stand-in’ force to conduct sea and area denial operations closer to the Chinese mainland.  The US Navy’s plan on how it will integrate and use this new USMC force is, as yet, unclear.  China’s growing capabilities, however, suggest that if the US Navy is to regain control of the seas, it will need the Marine Corps’ help.  

The Idea

For years the USMCs’ organisational and conceptual focus has, by necessity, been on counter-insurgency and stabilisation missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Its historical core role, supporting the US Navy’s sea-control mission, has taken a backseat.  This, General Berger believes, must change.  He plans to refocus the Marine Corps’ efforts on building a force “optimised for naval expeditionary warfare in contested spaces”.  Building such a force will require both an overhaul of the USMC’ equipment and force design, and a rewrite of its doctrine and operating concepts.  General Berger is prioritising operational reach and strategic mobility for his new force.  

The view in Marine Corps HQ is that fixed infrastructure and extended supply lines will prove liabilities when fighting in the Pacific.  Berger is prepared to trade protection for endurance and range.  In line with these force priorities, the Marine Corps’ heavy armour, seven companies of M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), will be scrapped.  They will also cut three battalions of infantry, allowing planners to reduce supporting assets such as helicopters and cannon artillery.  Cost savings will be spent on long-range precision fires; the USMC wants to increase the number of HIMARS rocket batteries from seven to 21.  Investment in autonomous capabilities such as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) will also be prioritised.

This planned investment will allow the USMC to threaten China’s sea lines of communication by placing long-range fires within their anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’, and win the reconnaissance contest by employing unmanned systems that are able to “locate, target and fire precisely first.”

Rapidly improving Chinese capabilities also mean that the Marine Corps’ operating concepts, revised for Iraq and Afghanistan, are outdated.  While General Berger intends to build on existing concepts such as Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO), developed prior to the 2018 NDS, his wargames show that China’s arsenal of stand-off, long-range weapons rule out contested amphibious assaults.  Cruise missile that can target ships from up to 250 miles away would impose unsustainable losses on a landing fleet and layered air defence networks mean that China can reliably contest air space.  Without local air superiority, the US would fail to meet its own criteria for a successful amphibious assault as laid out in its joint doctrine.    

To meet this intent, traditional capabilities, such as artillery, will need to reinvent themselves in line with this service-wide shift.  Artillery batteries will no longer exist solely to enable ground manoeuvre.  They will also have to be relevant to the fleet commander.  This means extending their range and being capable of firing anti-ship missiles.  If the Marine Corps is to deliver sea-control and deny maritime areas to the PLAN, then ground-based fires from Marine artillery units must credibly threaten PLAN vessels.   

It is not yet clear whether capabilities such as heavy armour are to be moved to Marine Corps Reserve units, but, based on General Berger’s comments, it seems doubtful.  Despite the risks, Berger is not interested in seeking “to hedge or balance” his forces against contingencies such as urban operations or Arctic warfare.  

These changes will likely be a concern for the US Army, who will feel that the Marine Corps’ restructuring will make it dependent on them in some scenarios.  Army planners will anticipate implied missions to support and reinforce Marine Corps units with heavy armour when required.  For example, if the US finds itself in an Iraq-like scenario in the future, it is unlikely that the Marine Corps will have all the organic assets it needs.  This is in contrast to 2003 when war planners assigned Multi-National Force West to a Marine Expeditionary Force.

NATO and Europe   

Although the Marine Corps’ reforms will have significant consequences for all US services, NATO and Europe should not assume that its impacts will be limited to the US military.  General Berger’s reforms also provide an insight into US strategic thinking.

The Marine Corps’ latest planning guidance derives from the 2018 NDS.  The strategy argues that the era of great power, or “inter-state strategic”, competition is back and, as implied by General Berger’s plans, that the Department of Defense (DoD) is not ready.  This drastic shift in strategic perspective has led to an institutional and bureaucratic reset, and a reassessment of priorities after years of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East.

NATO and European planning assumptions have typically been premised on the belief that the US was willing and capable of fighting two wars simultaneously.  However, strategic trends such as smaller defence budgets and reduced political will suggest that this assumption is now less sound.  The threats have also evolved; China has eroded the US’ military advantage in the Western Pacific while Russia’s ‘grey zone’ operations in Ukraine and Georgia have exposed gaps in NATO.

If Russia was to invade a NATO power in Eastern Europe, however unlikely, European planners may question the utility of Marine Corps reinforcements if they arrive without heavy armour.  If the US Army is unable to fill the void, there are concerns that NATO’s wider deterrence posture could be undermined.  

Moreover, at a time when defence budgets are vulnerable to further cuts, it seems far-fetched that European armies will be able to make up for the shortfall in heavy armour.  Experts in the UK, for example, are advocating for a lighter British Army, ideal for rapid deployments to Europe’s periphery in response to more limited scale crises.  This implies further reductions to the number of UK Challenger 2 main battle tanks, which are expensive to maintain and impose a significant logistical and deployment burden.  These are difficult questions to reconcile and will have to be addressed in the UK’s upcoming Integrated Review.  

It is also possible that this change in US strategic outlook, in discussion since 2012 but accelerated by President Trump, will embolden Russia along Europe’s eastern periphery.  As the US becomes increasingly focused on China, this may provide Russia with a window of opportunity to alter the status quo in its favour.  If Russia assesses that the US does not have either sufficient reserves or the necessary strategic lift (transport ships and planes) to operate concurrently in two theatres, then President Putin may decide to push the envelope in Eastern Europe.  This will not look like a conventional assault but more like its operations in Ukraine in annexing the Crimea peninsula in 2014.

To counter this, the US may rely on the prospect of a quick and decisive victory in the Pacific to deter revisionist regional powers, such as Russia and Iran, from looking to advance their own interests.  However, this seems implausible and the Marine Corps do not sound confident of a quick-win in the Pacific.  General Berger thinks “there is no avoiding attrition.”  For NATO and Europe, this then suggests that the US will be increasingly reliant on its regional allies to protect and secure their own backyard.  This will require necessary adjustments in defence spending and force planning amongst European powers.  The alternative is that the US make concessions to Russia in order to secure their own strategic ambitions in the Pacific.

In summary, while some may question the underlying assumptions within the US 2018 NDS, arguing that future conflict is more likely to take place in the ‘grey zone’, they risk missing the point.  If the Marine Corps’ reforms lead to a restructuring of the US military, then European NATO members may be faced with a fait accompli.

The UK has long balanced its diplomatic and military relationship with the US alongside deepening trade links with China.  UK policymakers have, during this time, tried to convince the US that competition with China is not a zero-sum game, but the Marine Corps’ plans suggests that the UK may now have lost the argument.  General Berger’s reforms are a result of deeper, long-term shifts in the US’ security outlook.  Europe, and the UK, must take this opportunity to work out where, and how, they fit in.   

Cover photo: USMC Flickr used under license

Jack Senogles

Jack Senogles is a British Army reservist serving with the Royal Artillery. He has previously worked at the Royal United Services Institute and holds a BA in War Studies and History. He is particularly interested in the United States Marine Corps’ current reforms as an example of how militaries align their forces with national defence strategies.

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