US Marine Corps has released the ‘Force Design 2030’ review report outlining a major restructure in the Corps and its forces as the Marines seek to fit within the updated US National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the broader US response to rising ‘great power competition’.
Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another.
These powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of hard and soft power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence.
Nevertheless, modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
Now, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by its unprecedented military build-up, namely the development of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region is serving to shake-up the thinking of the US and Australia.
The geographic makeup of the region, combined with the precedent of amphibious warfare operations established throughout the Second World War campaign against Imperial Japan provides the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia with a basis from which to develop and overhaul force structures long-focused on responding to humanitarian or asymmetric contingencies.
The US Marine Corps and its globally deployed MEUs and MAGTFs provide the US with an unrivalled rapid response to contingencies ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and counterinsurgency to sea control and high-intensity power projection combat operations against a peer competitor.
Both the MEU and MAGTF concepts utilise US Navy LHDs and landing platform docks (LPD) supported by surface combatants to rapidly deploy integrated, “combined arms” forces, including amphibious landing, infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, both rotary and fixed-wing air support (both lift and attack), logistics, medical and supply chain services.
As a combined arms force, both the MEU and MAGTF models incorporate four key elements:
- Command Element (CE): Providing command and control, including management and planning for manpower, intelligence, reconnaissance, operations and training, and logistics functions.
- Ground Combat Element (GCE): Composed primarily of infantry units, the GCE also includes reconnaissance (scout/sniper units); forward air controller; nuclear, biological and chemical defence; communications; logistics support and service; artillery; armour (including amphibious armoured vehicles and armoured reconnaissance); and combat engineer capabilities.
- Aviation Combat Element (ACE): Contributes to the airpower component, including fixed-wing aircraft (ranging from strike to airlift and aerial refuelling), helicopters (both attack and airlift), tiltrotor (airlift) and UAV capabilities.
- Logistics Combat Element (LCE): Provides the majority of combat service support including heavy motor transport, ground supply, heavy engineer support, ground equipment maintenance, and advanced medical and dental support roles.
Responding to an era of 'great power competition'
However, the rising power of both Russia and China and a renewed period of global 'great power competition' has prompted the US government to shift the focus of the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the supporting branch-specific doctrines to respond and support the national security objectives of the US.
For the US Marine Corps, the ‘Force Design 2030’ is radically calling for a restructure and reshaping of the Corps to better support the US mission in the Indo-Pacific in particular and respond to the rapidly disrupted tactical and strategic operating environment now developing throughout the region and broader globe.
"The 2018 National Defense Strategy redirected the Marine Corps’ mission focus from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to great power/peer-level competition, with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. Such a profound shift in missions, from inland to littoral, and from non-state actor to peer competitor, necessarily requires substantial adjustments in how we organise, train, and equip our Corps," US Marine Corps Commandant, General David Berger identifies.
A core component of the shifting doctrine for the Marines is driven by the rapid developments in peer and near-peer competitor capabilities, namely those of both Russia and China and their willingness to assert pressure and military presence at key locations throughout the world, whether in the Middle East, Black Sea or South China Sea.
In response, the strategy articulates that while the core premise and role of the Marines remains unchanged, they will adapt to respond effectively in increasingly contested environments, "Our current force design, optimized for large-scale amphibious forcible entry and sustained operations ashore, has persisted unchanged in its essential inspiration since the 1950s. It has changed in details of equipment and doctrine as technology has advanced toward greater range and lethality of weapon systems.
"In light of unrelenting increases in the range, accuracy and lethality of modern weapons; the rise of revisionist powers with the technical acumen and economic heft to integrate those weapons and other technologies for direct or indirect confrontation with the US; and the persistence of rogue regimes possessing enough of those attributes to threaten United States interests, I am convinced that the defining attributes of our current force design are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps," General Berger states.
Some obvious capability gaps
For Gen Berger, the long-term focus of the Marines on operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan has left the force underprepared to meet the tactical and strategic responsibilities the US government places on its first responders of choice, particularly in the increasingly contested environment of the Indo-Pacific, this has, accordingly left the Marines with some capability gaps.
In response, Gen Berger articulates these capability gaps: "With the shift in our primary focus to great power competition and a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region, the current force has shortfalls in capabilities needed to support emerging joint, naval, and Marine Corps operating concepts.
"We have shortfalls in expeditionary long-range precision fires; medium- to long-range air defense systems; short-range (point defense) air defence systems; high-endurance, long-range unmanned systems with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare (EW), and lethal strike capabilities; and disruptive and less-lethal capabilities appropriate for countering malign activity by actors pursuing maritime 'gray zone' strategies.
"Similarly – and understandably, in a force that was designed with different assumptions regarding threat and environment – there are some capabilities that I assess we are over-invested in.
"A partial list includes heavily armoured ground combat systems (tanks), towed cannon artillery, and short-range, low endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS) incapable of employing lethal effects. Finally, as an element of the integrated naval force, we have capability and capacity excesses and shortfalls in areas not organic to the Marine Corps, but which are essential to our ability to contribute to sea control and sea denial in a contested littoral environment.
"These include a requirement for smaller, lower signature, and more affordable amphibious ships and a shortfall in affordable, distributable platforms that will enable littoral manoeuvre and provide logistical support in a very challenging theater for the kind of operations envisioned in our current concepts."
Food for thought and supporting the Australia-US alliance
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities and competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, place the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Further compounding Australia’s precarious position is an acceptance that “Pax Americana”, or the post-Second World War “American Peace”, is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Today, strategic sea lines of communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy, including Australia, which has become vulnerable, as events in both the Middle East and south-east Asia show.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic, economic, diplomatic and military capabilities, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
In the second part of this detailed analysis, Defence Connect will take a closer look at the force structure development, acquisition and capability development responses outlined in the Marine Corps ‘Force Design 2030’ and what they mean for the future of both the Marine Corps and potentially Australia's own burgeoning amphibious operations forces.
Both fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the regional balance of power, as the world's premier amphibious operations and maritime-based power projection force, the restructure of US Marines to better respond to 'great power competition' presents interesting concepts for Australian consideration.