As part of Marine Commandant General David Berger’s ongoing modernisation and restructure of the US Marine Corps, ‘Force Design 2030’ seeks to balance traditional expeditionary responsibilities and countering great power rivalry in a contested environment against a determined peer competitor.
Quick reaction forces of overwhelming maritime and air power have traditionally formed the basis of power projection doctrine, however, rapidly deployable airborne and amphibious forces serve as critical force multipliers at both the tactical and strategic level.
Driven by the tactical and strategic realities of the European and Middle East theatres, combined with the painful lessons learned throughout the bloody Pacific war against Japan, the evolution of both tactical and strategic air and sea lift capabilities during the Cold War served to radically reshape the power projection calculus for nations ranging from the US and UK to Australia.
Traditionally more cumbersome than deploying fleets of warships or forward deploying strategic fighter and bombing forces, which form the offensive tip of both power projection and strategic deterrence spears, ground-based quick reaction forces (QRF) serve a distinct role within the tactical and strategic calculations for policy makers and strategic leaders.
While the development and introduction of powerful defensive technologies, namely the introduction of advanced anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) systems like those introduced in the South China Sea by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and supporting branches, poses a threat to the use of ground-based power projection forces, force structure and doctrine is, like technology, in a state of constant evolution to overcome these tactical and strategic challenges.
In response, the US Marines have launched ‘Force Design 2030’ in response to the rise of these tactical and strategic force multipliers to restructure and reshape 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.
Leading the charge, Marine Commandant General David Berger has outlined the individual force structure changes, acquisitions and operational plans to increase the lethality and survivability of the Marine Corps in an increasingly contested environment.
Time to get real, the enemy is a peer competitor
For the first time since the Second World War, the US Marines are faced with a peer competitor in the Indo-Pacific, with the fielding of increasingly capable A2/AD weapons, advanced maritime power projection forces and aerial platforms, which are increasingly prominent throughout the region.
Recognising these factors, particularly the proliferation of precision long-range and A2/AD weapons, Gen Berger states: "We must acknowledge the impacts of proliferated precision long-range fires, mines and other smart weapons, and seek innovative ways to overcome these threat capabilities."
Accordingly Gen Berger highlights the importance of agile, dispersed forces across both the Marines and the Navy, leveraging key advances in technology, force structure advances and platform superiority, stating, "Future force development requires a wider range of force options and capabilities.
"The Marine Corps must be able to fight at sea, from the sea, and from the land to the sea; operate and persist within range of adversary long-range fires; manoeuvre across the seaward and landward portions of complex littorals; and sense, shoot and sustain while combining the physical and information domains to achieve desired outcomes. Achieving this end state requires a force that can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons."
For Gen Berger this includes a re-evaluation and reassessment of the Navy/Marine 'team' and the way in which it functions in order to guarantee the tactical and strategic freedom of movement required to leverage other capabilities in the 'future fight'.
"In the context of force design, we need better answers to the question 'what does the Navy need from the Marine Corps?'" he says.
Building on this, Gen Berger expands, "I highlighted the naval operating concepts that shape the current, evolving vision of how we will fight in the future. Central among these are the Navy’s vision of distributed maritime operations (DMO) and the related Marine Corps and Navy concepts of littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE) and expeditionary advance base operations (EABO).
"I also referenced the draft Marine Corps concept of 'Stand-In Forces', an offshoot of EABO that emphasises the generation of, technically disruptive, tactical stand-in engagements that confront aggressor naval forces with an array of low signature, affordable and risk-worthy platforms and payloads.
"As the pre-eminent littoral warfare and expeditionary warfare service, we must engage in a more robust discussion regarding naval expeditionary forces and capabilities not resident with the Marine Corps such as coastal/riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces. We must ask ourselves whether it is prudent to absorb some of those functions, forces and capabilities to create a single naval expeditionary force whereby the Commandant could better ensure their readiness and resourcing."
The corps has to meet the requirements identified in the National Defense Strategy
As the guiding doctrine behind the force posture, doctrine and capability definition for the US Armed Forces, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) specifies a unique role for each of the respective branches of the US Armed Forces, and the Marines are no different.
Identifying this, Gen Berger identifies the necessity of the Corps to meet its tactical and strategic obligations to the US, stating, "Broadly speaking, our future force must align to the NDS. Thus, we will purpose-build forces capable of assurance and deterrence – forces that are “combat credible” in accordance with the NDS.
He states, "In short, our future forces:
- Will be capable of successfully competing and winning in the gray zone;
- Will be a single, integrated total force, and not distinct and semi-independent active and reserve components; and
- Will be, while purpose-built to support joint maritime campaigning, inherently capable of facilitating other joint operations.
"Enabling these core characteristics, our future Marines will possess the physical and mental toughness, tenacity, initiative and aggressiveness necessary to win in close combat, along with the intellectual and technical skills required to innovate, adapt, and succeed in the rapidly changing 21st century operating environment.
"We will equip our Marines with mobile, low-signature sensors and weapons that can provide a landward complement to Navy capabilities for surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, air and missile defence, and airborne early warning. And in partnership with the Navy, our units will possess littoral manoeuvre capabilities to include high-speed, long-range, low-signature craft capable of maneuvering Marines for a variety of missions."
The end goal of these factors is to deliver a credible, agile, adaptable and lethal 'Objective Force' capable of supporting the US NDS and the tactical and strategic requirements.
This 'Objective Force' includes some major recapitalisation and 'divestment' of key capabilities across the Corps, ranging from a reduction in the number of Marine infantry battalions, a divestment in Marine tank battalions, divestment of three medium-lift tiltrotor and three heavy helicopter squadrons.
Additionally, this includes the divestment of at least two light attack helicopter squadrons, divestment of two AA companies and reduction of AAV and amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) requirements.
It is, however, not all doom and gloom, as Gen Berger's strategy calls for increased investment in next-generation capabilities like additional rocket artillery batteries, acquisition of additional unmanned aerial systems (UAS), investment in the light-armoured reconnaissance capabilities, redesign of the marine expeditionary units and the marine infantry battalion and investment in next-generation concepts including littoral manoeuvre and sustainment.
"We have made significant progress to date in our force design efforts. While these efforts have undeniably been productive and will inform our divestment and investment decisions going-forward, we should view them as first steps in a longer journey," Gen Berger added.
"While the Future Force we are developing is different in terms of structure and capabilities, it is consistent with our historical roots as Fleet Marine Forces and directly supports our Title 10 responsibility to seize and defend advanced naval bases, and perform all such duties as directed by the President.
"It is also important to note that methods and concepts such as expeditionary advanced base operations are not the sum total of our contribution to the joint force. We will continue to serve as the nation’s premier crisis response force around the globe, and contribute to the deterrence and warfighting needs of all combatant commands."
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.
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.