Reduce the risk to national security: Abandon ‘Force Design 2030’
Almost three years ago, the United States Marine Corps adopted a new, unproven concept to guide future combat developments. The overarching vision for the approach was codified in Force Design 2030. The path chosen focused almost entirely on a single threat — China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The strategy embraced was defensive, essentially arguing that the proliferation of precision munitions and advanced sensors had changed the character of war, rendering the defense decisively dominant over the offense. A “Mature Precision Strike Regime” had made maneuver all but impossible. The Marine Corps now deemed defense the primary method for fighting peers, and even lesser rivals.
To acquire the innovations required for this approach, the Marine Corps divested organizations and equipment needed today to self-fund future, largely experimental capabilities that will not be fully fielded in sufficient quantities until 2030 or beyond. Simply stated, the capabilities the Marine Corps needs to respond quickly and effectively to current and subsequent threats have been jettisoned to fund a narrowly focused, one-dimensional, largely regional future force. The Marine Corps envisions this force, consisting of small teams known as stand-in forces, to be widely distributed and effectively isolated among the island chain of the Western Pacific. The mission of these stand-in forces is to acquire and sink Chinese warships with mid- to long-range missiles.
Almost immediately after the release of Force Design 2030, a group of senior, retired Marines argued that the path charted by the Marine Corps poses significant risks to national security. This group has steadily grown to include hundreds, if not thousands, of retired, former and active-duty Marines of all ranks. The core of this group, loosely known as “Chowder II,” has advocated for a Marine Corps that can respond to global crises and contingencies across the spectrum of conflict. Global response requires a Marine Corps that is not only organized, trained and equipped for any mission, but also properly supported with adequate amphibious shipping and a robust, immediately deployable maritime prepositioning force.
A valid observation of those opposing Force Design 2030 was that Chowder II criticized the current plan without offering an alternative concept or vision of its own. To address this concern, members of Chowder II recently published a “trilogy” of articles in The National Interest online. These articles summarized Chowder II’s main concerns with Force Design 2030, provided an operational foundation for a better and more relevant concept, and offered an alternative vision for 2035 and beyond.
The first article describes Chowder II in terms of personnel and experience and provides a detailed summary of their concerns with Force Design 2030. Chief among the concerns is the unwise strategy of “divest to invest,” discarding combat power needed to fight and win today to self-fund unproven, experimental capabilities that may or may not function as intended or could be obsolete by the time they are fielded. Other concerns are Force Design 2030’s almost exclusive focus on a single threat, in a single theater, and the Marine Corps’ failure to use a rigorous combat development process to test and validate the concept before shedding current and necessary capabilities.
The second article, “Force Design 2030 Is Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem,” provides the operational justification for a different approach to warfighting. This approach focuses on the need to restore maneuver in an environment characterized by precision weapons and advanced sensors.
The third article, “Vision 2035,” provides an alternative approach, best characterized as global response in the age of precision munitions. The vision is a forward look at 21st century threats, not a concept focused on one threat in a single theater. In returning to a more capable combat development process and leveraging innovation and technology, the Marine Corps can regain its offensive capabilities by restoring maneuver, which will enable the nation’s corps of Marines to respond quickly and effectively to global threats across the spectrum of conflict.
History is replete with examples where military planners mistakenly believed technological advances had rendered offensive operations obsolete. One of the best examples is the Allied amphibious landings at Gallipoli during World War I. The massive casualties suffered when the Allied forces were unable to advance inland led most of the world’s militaries to conclude that amphibious operations could not succeed given the lethality of modern weapons. The Marine Corps refused to accept this conclusion and leveraged innovation and technology to develop the amphibious doctrine and required capabilities that were used throughout the Pacific and European theaters during World War II.
History — a great teacher for those willing to study and learn from it — also informs us that wars are more quickly terminated when one side or the other maneuvers to achieve decisive results. Defensive operations, though necessary and prudent at times, are more often an invitation to being outmaneuvered and becoming irrelevant or drawing out a conflict that no one wins, while casualties mount.
Chowder II’s vision for the future reduces risk to our national security by building back a Marine Corps capable of responding to multiple threats anywhere in the world. One of the lessons from the Cold War was that the focus on the Soviet Union as our main threat did not reduce the number of lesser threats facing the nation. Proxy wars and the need to suppress other belligerents threatening our national security kept the Marine Corps and the other armed services occupied for some 40 years. The rise of China as the nation’s pacing challenge will not lessen the need for a Marine Corps to respond to other threats. A belligerent Iran, a recalcitrant North Korea, and a host of other state and non-state actors will continue to threaten our national security. The nation requires a Marine Corps capable of responding to a wide array of global threats quickly and decisively.
Global response requires sealift. Some will argue that large amphibious ships, slow-moving maritime prepositioning ships, and large formations of other Military Sealift Command ships are obsolete. They seemingly dismiss the potential development of effective countermeasures to ensure freedom of movement. Moreover, they offer no alternatives to the mass that only forces lifted by sea can create. An air alternative is simply not reasonable. In short, if the United States wants the Marines or other services to respond quickly and effectively to global crises and contingencies, it must maintain a robust sealift capacity, which enables rapid deployment and the needed follow-on support.
Many military experts will take exception to Chowder II’s vision for a more capable, relevant Marine Corps. In their view, the Marine Corps is being “innovative” by deploying small, isolated teams of Marines throughout the first island chain of the Western Pacific to threaten and attack Chinese warships. What the pundits seem not to understand is that these isolated teams are unsupportable and can be easily bypassed, rendering them essentially useless.
These same pundits wrongly assume that a redesigned and reconfigured force narrowly focused on the sureness of war with a pacing challenge has equal utility across the spectrum of conflict. Chowder II disagrees. They believe a force broadly prepared for the contingencies of an increasingly unpredictable world is in the nation’s best interests.
Chowder’s II vision for the Marine Corps is a distinct alternative to Force Design 2030 and the ill-advised stand-in forces concept. A nation without the capability to respond globally to emerging threats risks wider wars, not only with peer competitors but with a host of other secondary actors that are intent on attacking United States sovereignty and interests in areas other than the Western Pacific.
Terrence R. Dake is a retired Marine Corps general and career aviation officer. His last assignment was as the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
Charles E. Wilhelm is a retired Marine Corps general and career infantry officer. His last assignment was commander, United States Southern Command.