The Tip of the American Military Spear Is Being Blunted
Reforms to the Marine Corps may be necessary to face China, but Congress needs to ask hard questions.
A U.S. Marine takes position during Cobra Gold—the largest annual Asia-Pacific military exercise—in the coastal Thai province of Rayong on Feb. 28. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images
In 1952, the Marine Corps almost lost its way. Since its formal establishment in 1798, it had served as America’s premier amphibious assault force, garrisoned coastal forts, led naval raids, provided shipboard security, conducted so-called small wars campaigns, and engaged in extended land campaigns far from any coastline. But just what role it should play in the postwar order was unclear. Many in the Pentagon believed that the Marine Corps had no need to be an independent force, and they sought to cut its numbers to irrelevance.
Yet in an overwhelming vote, both houses of Congress agreed to put a tight ceiling on the number of men the Pentagon could cut from the ranks of the Corps. Rep. Carl Vinson explained on the floor of the House why this was necessary: “The Marine Corps can be and is called upon first to go into combat to establish our defenses until the Army, Navy, or Air Force can be called to the scene. It stands to reason that a full-strength army, navy, or air force cannot be called into combat at the drop of a hat. … [There is] the need for a ready force.” Since then, that has been the Marine Corps clear mission: If the U.S. president requires American troops to deploy to some far-flung corner of the globe today, the U.S. Marines are ready to go. Sometimes, as in Korea or Iraq, this meant being the “tip of the spear” of a much larger host. At other times, as in Panama or Nicaragua, it has meant being the main combined-arms force in a campaign that was important enough to justify boots on the ground yet small enough to avoid full national mobilization for war. In all these cases, the Corps has sought to fulfill the injunction of the 82nd Congress to be “a force most ready when the Nation is least ready.”
Now the purpose of the Corps is once again up for debate. To meet the threat of growing Chinese power, the current Marine Corps Commandant David Berger has reimagined the Corps’s role in America’s national security architecture. If enacted, the changes he proposes will drastically transform the doctrine that guides Marine Corps operations and will likely lead to permanent changes in the Marine Corps’s future force structure. However, ultimate responsibility for the future of the Marine Corps rests in the hands of the U.S. Congress. Congress now has the responsibility to carefully evaluate whether this new path is the right one.
The Marines’ plans reflects a broader change of focus by the Pentagon, which has been ordered by the White House to redirect its focus from counterinsurgency campaigns toward what it dubs “great-power competition” with Russia and China. The threat posed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is especially dire. While American forces were campaigning in the mountains of Afghanistan, the commanders of the PLA slowly shaped their military into the world’s premier counter-American military force.
The PLA realized that the U.S. military had grown accustomed to operating freely in the airspace and neighboring waters of its enemies. To counter this way of war, a terrific percentage of the Chinese defense budget has been directed to developing weapons that might challenge American control of the sea and air. The result: thousands of what are known as “anti-access” and “area denial” weapons whose range and precision create a death zone extending hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast. These precision weapons, launched from an ever-growing number of PLA Navy vessels, PLA Air Force craft, and PLA Rocket Force units, will make it impossible for traditional expeditionary forces—like the existing U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units—to get within striking range of any East Asian battlefield without risking destruction. When these long-range weapons are combined with the PLA’s air defense systems, sea mines, submarines, and electronic warfare and cyber-capabilities, the result is a gauntlet of fire that American expeditionary forces cannot be expected to securely traverse.
All services of the U.S. military are scrambling to find a response to the problem posed by this ever-growing zone of death. No service, however, has proposed a response more radical than that of the U.S. Marine Corps. This paradigm shift has been outlined by Berger in a series of guidance and planning documents released over the last few months. Recognizing that the Marines will not be able to pierce through enemy “weapons engagement zones” once hostilities begin, Berger proposes that the United States should have Marine Corps units stationed inside these zones before war begins. He envisions turning the islands of the West Pacific into small redoubts bristling with Marines.
These Marines will be armed to the teeth with long-range missiles and unmanned aircraft, each with the ability to target Chinese ships from hundreds of miles away. In Berger’s words, this “inside force” will “reverse the cost imposition that determined adversaries seek to impose” on American forces, putting the PLA Navy in the same desperate situation now faced by U.S. ships. This will enable the Marine Corps “to create a mutually contested space in the South or East China Seas if directed to do so.” The commandant believes that this new posture will have a powerful deterrent effect on Chinese decision-making. As the Marines’ new bases will exist inside the Chinese weapons engagement zone, they will be able to attack PLA platforms in the very first minutes of war.
To retool the U.S. Marine Corps as an “inside force” in the West Pacific, the commandant has directed the Marine Corps to ax many of its current capabilities. The Marine Corps’s cannon artillery (e.g., its howitzer batteries) are being reduced from 21 to five batteries, and its armor forces (e.g., its tank battalions) will be completely eliminated. The Marine Corps will also cut its helicopter squadrons and amphibious assault vehicle companies by a third and reduce the number of manned attack aircraft and logistics teams it can put into the field.
These changes reflect the sort of war Berger believes Marines must prepare to fight. Suppressing fire from cannon artillery and the mobility of Marines armor forces are cornerstones of the Corps’s maneuver warfare doctrine, a set of tactics the commandant thinks Marines will have little use for when the land battlespace is reduced to small Pacific islands. The cuts in the Corps’s aircraft, logistics teams, and amphibious vehicles likewise signify that the Marine Corps will be focusing on its new role as coastal artillery, not its traditional expertise in expeditionary campaigning or amphibious assault. The human resources and money—around $12 billion—that are now being spent on armor, cannon artillery, and the rest will instead be poured into long-range missiles, unmanned aircraft, and the education and training of Marines.
The commandant’s plan is the end result of a process that began a few years ago, when congressional leadership pressured the Department of Defense to link the money it requested from the American taxpayer to the goal it claimed it was pursuing—preserving the integrity of the international order in the face of growing Russian hostility and growing Chinese power. The time has now come for Congress to assess the results of this process.
The need for strong congressional buy-in is critical, because many of the changes the commandant has planned for the Marine Corps will likely be permanent. Marines are extremely competent at maneuver warfare, combined-arms tactics, and deploying quickly with a short logistical tail. They have also acquired competencies in special operations, counterinsurgency, and similar small wars operations. Each of these competencies is less a matter of weapons platforms or technology than training and knowledge passed from one Marine to another, creating institutional knowledge of the type that is not easily rebuilt when abandoned. If the need arose, the Marine Corps can buy tanks again—but all Marines who know how to operate those tanks would be gone, and the Marine Corps’s competency in combined-arms fighting would have gone with them.
Civilian overseers must require the Marine Corps to justify its plan and carefully examine and address potential weaknesses that Congress may find in it. The opportunity costs of the restructure are high, and the potential drawbacks many. These should be explored fully before the U.S. government commits taxpayer funds and American lives to the commandant’s plan. In particular, Congress should press Berger to answer the following three questions.
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?
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 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?
Is the Marine Corps optimizing itself for the range of possible conflicts with China, or just the one it most wants to fight?
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.
The prospect of being stranded in the islands of the West Pacific looms large in another conflict scenario. What if the war with China does turn out to be a long, protracted conflict—as wars between great powers often are? If the war is not quickly concluded, it is not clear that the Marine Corps positions will be able to survive a volley contest with the PLA Rocket Force, which will have a much deeper arsenal and much greater freedom of movement. When the Marines have expended their limited precision weapons supply, what will they do? How will they be resupplied when located on remote islands inside the enemy’s weapons engagement zone? In the Battle for Wake Island in World War II, the Marine Corps learned what happens to isolated island garrisons whose anti-ship platforms are exhausted early. There is a risk of repeating their mistakes.
What if the Marine Corps’s predictions for the future are wrong?
Why doesn’t the Marine Corps hedge? The Corps could reduce Marine armor to one or two battalions instead of no battalions. It could keep some of this capacity in reserve just in case the international situation changes and these skills are suddenly needed. Because the Marine Corps is much smaller than the other branches it does not have the depth to specialize in multiple domains. Transforming the Marine Corps into a force optimized to lob missiles at Chinese ships thus carries high opportunity cost. This opportunity cost is larger than would be paid by asking a larger service like the U.S. Army to devote comparable manpower to the China threat. For the Corps, extreme optimization for the counter-China fight might still be worth it—if China was certainly the cause of America’s next war. But what if it isn’t? It is not difficult to imagine a 2028 conflict contingency in Venezuela, or North Korea, or Mexico. Will the Marines be excusing themselves from participating in any such contingency?
This question is particularly important to ask of the U.S. Marine Corps, because for most of the past century the Marine Corps was the hedge. Great-power competition with the Soviet Union meant keeping a large proportion of the U.S. Army tied down blocking up the Fulda Gap. When other contingencies arose—say, in Lebanon, Grenada, or Panama—it was Marines who were deployed to handle them. If not the Marines, then who will be handling the other contingencies of the 21st century?
It is quite possible that good answers can be given to each one of these questions. It is Congress’s role to ensure that these answers are found. The pride Marines take in the last 70 years of their history as America’s premier expeditionary force are the direct product of congressional interest in the purpose and structure of the Marine Corps. The future victories of the Marine Corps over the next few decades may well be the product of similar congressional interest today.
Tanner Greer is a writer and strategist based in Taiwan. Twitter: @Scholars_Stage
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.