Questions on the Future of the U.S. Marine Corps

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Over at Foreign Policy, I have a new piece out that asks a few tough questions for the Marine Corps. The USMC is smack-dab in the middle of a transformational institutional revolution.  It has decided to redefine itself as anti-China force, and is making some radical changes to its force structure and doctrine for that purpose. I have built up a reputation as a sort of China hawk and many assumed I would be very gung-ho about this new self-conception. Yet I am not. I have significant reservations about what is happening. While I am not a resolute opponent of these changes, I remain unconvinced that they further America’s interests. That judgement is above the pay-grade of many of the Marine Corps officers involved in planning these changes; they (rightly) claim that they are following directives from civilian personnel in the White House and guidance from Congress. So in my piece for Foreign Policy I drew up a list of questions that I would like Congress to address. They started this process. The time has come for Congress to consider whether it has produced the sort of results they were hoping for. 
The essay turned out well over all, though I do not like the title my editors gave it and lament that the longer introduction I originally wrote up, which narrated the Congressional battles in 1952 over the Marine Corp’s future at greater length, had to be cut down on. Such is life. The other sections I believe turned out fairly well. I spend the first two thirds of the essay describing the USMC’s plans in terms that its own proponents should be able to endorse. In the last third I start laying out some of the questions Congress should be thinking through as they evaluate the USMC plan:
  1. Was this plan developed in consultation with America’s Indo-Pacific allies or with the other branches of the U.S. military, all of whose cooperation is needed for its success?
  2.  Is the Marine Corps optimizing itself for the range of possible conflicts with China, or just the one it most wants to fight? 
  3.  What if the Marine Corps’s predictions for the future are wrong? 
I devote a few paragraphs to each of these questions, expanding each out to a few paragraphs. Here is the full version of point one:
 Concerns here range from the technical and the tactical up to the grand strategic. The U.S. Army currently has far more service members trained in rocket artillery than the Marines do, and Indo-Pacific Command has already been developing the doctrine to make Army Field Artillery brigades stationed in the Pacific possible. So why disrupt Army plans and give this task to the Marines? The U.S. Army might need to make other changes to accommodate the Marines—after all, if the Marines ever do get into a serious firefight (as they did in the Battle of Fallujah) the Marines will now need the presence of armor battalions from the U.S. Army to succeed. But successful combined-arms tactics require training—does the Corps expect the Army to lend it tank battalions to train with? Similar questions must be asked about the relationship between the new Marine Corps and the other services. 

This style of war the Marine Corps wishes to specialize in demands that the Corps be integrated into the U.S. Air Force and Navy’s existing intelligence and reconnaissance platforms. Gaining the technical expertise and equipment to use these services’ existing tactical data links is not easy, nor is it a capability the Marine Corps can currently deploy at scale. How long will it take before they can? This issue of tactical and technical integration only grows more nettlesome when the focus shifts to foreign military partners. Will the Philippine or Taiwanese forces be integrated into these networks? If not, who will be providing the Marine Corps with the targeting data it needs to sink PLA Navy ships hundreds of miles away? 

 The act of targeting a ship from an ally or partner’s home territory carries serious diplomatic and military policy implications. The act of targeting a ship from an ally or partner’s home territory also carries serious diplomatic and military policy implications. Authorities to sink a ship, not as an act of self-defense, need to reside somewhere. Has a policy framework with capabilities and authorities been erected that could create a realistic chance of success—and what role did America’s regional allies play in the creation of the force plan that demands such a framework? 
There is a risk that the Marines’ new operational concepts and 
force structure could be fatally undermined if regional allies and partners are not willing to host new distributed Marine deployments. Tokyo’s longstanding policy has been to concentrate American forces in as few bases as possible, and the governor of Okinawa has already declared that he opposes any deployments of new U.S. rocket battalions to his prefecture. Even if its army remains pro-American, the Philippines is currently governed by an anti-American demagogue who has worked to shrink America’s military presence in his country. The final link in the island chain is Taiwan, a country that has not hosted American troops since 1979. Given these realities, are the commandant’s plans for deterring the PLA politically possible? [1]
The diplomatic and political risks involved are an especially important point, one largely absent from the current debate over these plans. Does this force structure really work if the Filipinos won’t let you in, the Taiwanese can’t let you in, and the Japanese will try as hard as they can to concentrate you in a few locations? Every time I review the various documents surrounding the plan I get the vague sense that the political, diplomatic, and strategic difficulties of working with our allies in the region were not given a high priority when it was being developed. 
 This was my frustration with the War on the Rocks piece that argued for these reforms by providing the strategic “context”  for them. The first half of the article narrows in on Liza Tobin’s essay for Texas National Security Review on the CPC’s plans for the global order. [2] I have read and cited that essay several times. Tobin’s understanding of Chinese intentions is similar to my own, her framing has influenced mine, and there is a lot of overlap between what she writes there and what I have written for various publications since hers was published. [3] But the connection between her piece and the Marines Corps plan is very tenuous. As Tobin points out, the Chinese Communist Party hopes to win over the world through economic development. The idea is to tie the development of the Chinese economy together so closely with the economic development of the rest of the world (especially the developing world), that China’s interests and their interests slowly converge. In this world the Chinese will have the economic and technological leverage to resolve any divergent interest through economic coercion. In the world that China rules, we all will be the NBA.
That is the plan at least. It is not clear the Marine Corps has a special role to play in stopping that future. Of course the Chinese are not all fun and parties; their titanic investment in modernizing the PLA speaks to the sharp edge of the Party’s plans. But Chinese strategic documents are very clear at where that edge is pointed: Taiwan. [4] As I point out in my discussion of question two, the new force structure is of limited utility in that conflict: 

The commandant’s plan assumes that a limited number of successful precision missile strikes in the first hours or days of a conflict with China will make a critical difference in its outcome. Is that assumption valid in all scenarios?

In a potential invasion of Taiwan, for example, the conflict’s center of gravity will not be the East China Sea or the South China Sea, but the Taiwan Strait.

Many of the locations the Marine Corps has identified as potential staging points for its rockets and unmanned aircraft are not close enough to the Taiwan Strait to meaningfully participate in that fight. If an amphibious invasion happens before American leadership authorizes the deployment of Marines to Taiwan, what good will all of these investments in long-range precision weapons have been? That is assuming, of course, the Marines can even get to Taiwan in the first place and are not stranded on their island redoubts until the war is over. [5]

How much good do a bunch of HIMARS parked in Palawan really do us in the most likely conflict scenario with China? Given the state of US-Philippines relations, will we ever get HIMARS on Palawan anyway? And who will be doing the target spotting several hundred kilometers away in crowded South Chinese sea-lanes? I wish I had answers to these questions like these, questions that revolve around the basic legal, diplomatic, and political requirements behind the new force plan, but none have been offered. 
There will be some who claim all of these issues have been addressed at the classified level. I do not believe this. Why? I wrote this piece after talking to several Marine Corps officers inside the system who extremely frustrated with the way these reforms are unrolling. Many of the ideas I raise in the essay are not my own, but come originally from these officers, whose objections and questions have been sidelined in the rush to make these changes stick. None of them wished any credit for the ideas they gave me; rather, they feared that being cited would damage their careers. That should worry you! A Marine Corps whose officers are unable to raise very basic questions about the diplomatic and political conditions of their new operating environment is not in a healthy place. 
POSTSCRIPT: Though I encourage those of you interested in this issue to read my entire piece, another essay worth reading on this is Ben Wan Beng Ho’s “Shortfalls of the Marine Corps EABO Concept,” newly published in Proceedings. I submitted my Foreign Policy piece before I saw Ho’s essay, but am glad to see someone else raise many of the same points I do—though in his case, in the more acronym laden jargon of defense intellectuals. 
If you this post on military affairs was to your liking, you might also like the posts “Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan,” “Taiwan Can Win a War With China,” “Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power,”  and “At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, “The Tip of the American Spear is Being Blunted,” Foreign Policy (6 July 2020).

[2] Jeff Cummings, Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro, “Getting the Context Behind the Marine Corps Reforms Right,”War on the Rocks (1 May 2020); “

[3] Liza Tobin, “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies“, Texas National Security Review, vol 2, iss 1 (November 2018). On my view, especially see Tanner Greer, “China’s Plans to Control the Global Order,Tablet Magazine (17 May 2020).

[4] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017), Joel Wuthnow, Strategic Overload: Can China’s Military Be Distracted in a War with Taiwan? (National Defense University, 2020).

[5] Greer, “Tip of the American Spear”

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Interesting article, definitely concerning, especially the part at the end about the Marine Corps officers. Also, the link you provided to Ben Wan Beng Ho's piece is wrong.

Visa Vi China, the Marine Corp "Tip of the Spear" policy was a bit iffy as it was. Amphibian assaults against into the teeth of the main enemy opposition were never exactly a winning proposition. There is a reason that the Allies landed in Normandy and not closer to Germany. And the island hopping campaigns were against (often heavily fortified) areas where reinforcement was problematic at best.

This new strategy, as I understand it, just seems really odd. I just don't see what part of it they can reasonably do better than the Army/Air Force.

The Marines are superior when they act as lighter (not light) forces and presumably they could work well in a riverine-littoral setting if the navy could stop overbuilding all their ships. This capability might not help much on Tawain, but the whole area as loaded with island chains that you might want to keep the Chinese out of.

I think there's a copy/paste error in the piece. The link to Ben Wang Ben Ho's piece in Proceedings actually goes to your piece in Foreign Policy.

Some links here don't seem to go where they should. The link to Liza Tobin's essay (in the body but not in the footnotes) goes to this blog post and the link to Ben Wan Beng Ho's essay goes to your own Foreign Policy piece.

I recently read your piece on and it really hit home as a Marine Tank Crewman. We have all been trying to understand General Berger's reasoning and lack of hedging, using the Marine Corps Reserves if needed, as suggested by Mark Cancain in "Don't go too Crazy Marine Corps." Also, the new force designs moves away from our Maneuver Warfare doctrine without replacing it.

However,the biggest issue we see happening now is that General Berger has not spoken to Congress as you stated, but tanks are already being divested. This last week 1st Tank Battalion divested all of its tanks and sent them to the Army. The reserve tank battalion is begining divestment this month as well. They are also in the process of moving those Marines to other fields or military branches.

By the time Congress gets to a hearing with General Berger there may be no Tanks left and though they may tell him to shift back it maybe too late that equipment and knowledge will already be lost.