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The US Marines' Force Design 2030: Hatred and Hubris

While the rollout of Force Design 2030 shows that the US Marines are focusing on the Asia-Pacific, proponents seem to lack answers to several glaring issues.



US Marines with 3d Marine Littoral Regiment, 3d Marine Division, during Force Design Integration Exercise at Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Hawaii, September 26, 2023. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Malia Sparks)

"No better friend, No worse enemy." That's the United States Marine Corps' self-image. And it's true enough. But if you want Marines to really hate you just question their new plan, Force Design 2030 (FD 2030).

And if you're a former Marine they'll hate you even more.

Then-commandant, General David Berger introduced FD 2030 in 2019. He aimed to make the Marine Corps into a more mobile force, operating in smaller "low-signature" units in austere coastal locations. The units would use long-range missiles to dominate the nearby sea — thus facilitating broader naval campaigns.

Proponents later argued this concept applies anywhere on the globe. Nevertheless, FD 2030 was rolled out with the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a future war in the Pacific in mind. 

To this writer at least, the plan was a breath of fresh air.

The Marine Corps was finally paying attention to the Asia-Pacific — and to China in particular. Until then everything was the "sandbox" — Iraq and Afghanistan. Asia was a backwater. Top Marine commanders in Hawaii would return from Washington irked by the lack of interest in the region.

Even worse, call the People's Republic of China an adversary and the courtiers at Headquarters Marine Corps would come after you. 


Indeed, at the Marine Corps' Pacific headquarters, some staff officers downplayed the China threat and were content with business as usual. The Marines even turned down opportunities to establish a presence in certain regional countries. And the idea of sending a half-dozen young Marine officers to key locations in the region to "influence" was forcefully rejected. Haven't got six officers to spare, you know, and what use would they be anyway?

The Marines needed some new thinking — starting with recognizing China as an adversary. 

The Commandant's plan did this and aimed to use regional geography — archipelagos and islands — to make life difficult for the Chinese People's Liberation Army. And it was shifting the Marines away from the narrow mindset of large amphibious units operating from large fixed bases — and offering easy targets for Chinese missiles.

This was all good. And overdue.

However, there were a few questions about the plan that nobody could quite answer:

Pressing Questions

Where to put the small detached missile units? 

Obviously important, it didn't seem like this had been figured out. 

Ironically, Marine Forces Pacific (MFP)'s G5 section had developed connections throughout the region over the previous 20 years and could have helped. That is, if it hadn't been disbanded a couple of years earlier by the then-MFP commanding general, David Berger. 

How to hide the units?

It was said they would be small and "low signature" and would move around. But that might not be so easy or effective. Missile batteries are not small. And Westerners and other foreigners stand out. China has "eyes" and commercial activities all over the Pacific islands. Once spotted, the Marine units might find themselves running for their lives.


How to supply the units? 

Have them forage for chickens and lizards? There was talk of building 35 light amphibious ships. However, there's a risk of the enemy tracking them to the Marine detachments. In addition, as one Marine General noted without any apparent embarrassment, they'd have to be pulled back in the event things got dangerous. The ships aren't built to take a hit. 

The Marines are reportedly still working on the logistics piece of the puzzle. 

Could the role of the small dispersed Marine units (spotting enemy ships and firing missiles at them) be done by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or aircraft? 

If so, might that be a more efficient approach? 

One would have expected these issues to be better addressed or resolved before rolling out FD 2030. If the designers missed these things, what else did they miss?

You knew somebody was going to ask.

US Marines and sailors observe as Marines assigned to Amphibious Vehicle Test Branch, Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity, maneuver an amphibious combat vehicle onto the well deck of USS Somerset (LPD 25). January 28, 2020. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl Drake Nickels)

'Divest to Invest'

To implement FD 2030 and acquire long-range missiles, light amphibious ships, and the like, the Marine Corps considerably reduced its infantry, aircraft, and artillery. The Marine Corps also eliminated its tanks and even its "bridging" equipment (helpful for getting across rivers and gullies) that one still finds on even the modern battlefield.

In other words, FD 2030 was not an add-on to existing Marine Corps capabilities that were still useful in many situations. Instead, the Marines would give up existing capability and eventually replace it with what FD 2030 called for.

They called it, "divest to invest."

This seems akin to a carpenter tossing tools out of his toolbox — some of which he knows he'll need.


The idea was this was the necessary price to pay — both financially and capability-wise — for revamping the Marine Corps.

One heard different justifications, centered on money and/or the changing nature of warfare.

The money saved by shedding tanks, artillery, aircraft, troops, and bridging and breaching equipment would be used for buying long-range rockets and other expenses associated with the FD 2030 concept.

A tough decision it was said, but it couldn't be helped. Purse strings are tight in DC — despite Congress spending like drunken sailors on everything else.

However, divesting to save money to spend on FD 2030 is a noble gesture and makes the Marine Corps feel good about itself … but nobody much cares.

Spending Prudently

Trying to game Congressional spending is a fool's errand. Instead, spend what you have prudently and do your job well. And if you need more money for something else — and the Marines wouldn't have been asking for much — make the case. 

At least that's how it looked to this writer after years in the private and government sectors. Preemptively cut your budget — even self-sacrificing gestures such as flying economy class to save money — and you'll be considered demented. 

Another justification for "divest to invest" was that the discarded hardware wouldn't be missed since warfare has changed and is changing. Tanks, tubed artillery, and aircraft are neither needed nor survivable, it was said. 


Moreover, amphibious assaults were declared obsolete. Satellites, precision long-range weaponry, and drone swarms made them so.

This all could be true. 

But it presumes remarkable clairvoyance about future conflicts — where, when, and how they'll be fought. If you can do that you ought to also be able to make a bundle on sports betting and the stock market.

Taking Stock of Lessons Learned

The lessons of Ukraine do demonstrate that shore-launched long-range missiles can "close off" large stretches of ocean. They drive off and sometimes sink the Russian Navy. But at the same time, heavy armor (tanks) and regular tubed artillery of the kind the Marines disposed of are still being used and in demand — by both sides of the fight. Indeed, the Ukraine war in certain respects resembles "old fashioned" warfare of the early and mid-20th century, or even the early 21st century.

So warfare perhaps hasn't yet changed as much as FD 2030 proponents claim. And the Marines should have hedged their bets.

Raise this point – and after being told you're an idiot – you'd hear that the Marine Corps still has enough firepower left over to take on any and all enemies.

And in the case of tanks and bridging and breaching equipment, if they should be needed (despite the changing nature of future warfare that supposedly made them obsolete), the US Army will provide them (and presumably when needed). 

Really. Does anyone care to bet on that?


We Don't Do Windows

The shift to FD 2030 implicitly declared that the Marines won't conduct extended land combat operations or fighting on any large scale — since they don't want to. 

This brings to mind a prickly housekeeper who "doesn't do windows" or "work past five." The Marine Corps decided it would only fight wars of the sort it wants to fight — rather than in any clime and place and whenever the nation calls its "911 Force."

General Berger might have run that by the American public that expects more of the Marine Corps.

Unless our enemies cooperate and fight the way we want them to, FD 2030 has left some gaps that will need covering. 

One hates to say it, but give the missions (and the money) to the US Army.

A Needed Change Gone Too Far?

The Marine Corps needed change. But I'd say it gave up too much for FD 2030. 

As one friend noted:

I sometimes wonder if the proponents are placing too much emphasis on innovation and too little on the traditional blocking and tackling skills, so to speak. It's one thing to be innovative but another to divest needed capabilities in order to do so.


Another observer added:

To cut out three divisions worth of supporting arms, replace combat power with renamed "Littoral" regiments — and burden them with the single operational concept of a better uniformed Houthi rocket squad reenacting the Wake Island defense — appallingly poor judgment. At the same time, to allow Marine Air Wings to wither — leaving the same number of squadrons but with fewer aircraft in each [calls to mind "ghost soldiers" in a developing country] — who is this supposed to fool?"

But such concerns with FD 2030 are misinformed or wrong, or so we're told. 

This cocksureness seems familiar and is troubling.

Circumspection Needed

The FD 2030 acolytes have an answer for everything. 

They tout having thoroughly wargamed and modeled the plan.  

So did Robert McNamara's whiz-kids who had victory in the Vietnam War down to a mathematical certainty. But not quite, as it turned out.

And recall the lead-up to the 2008 financial collapse. The bankers had algorithms that eliminated "risk" for the first time in human history. Nothing to worry about. And if you challenged them, "you just didn't get it."


Nowadays, question FD 2030 and stand by for ad hominem attacks. 

One venomous attack on retired Marine Generals opposing FD 2030, sneeringly called them 'the grandparents' who were interfering with the parents in raising the grandchildren – and they should shut up.

Arguments are better won via persuasion rather than ridicule. And one notes the gentleman making this attack had championed the US Navy's Littoral Combat Ship in its early days. Having helped foist that disaster on the Navy and the nation, a little circumspection might have been in order.

A Role for Congress?

FD 2030 proponents point to Congressional support for the plan. But getting certain Congressmen and staffers on board with FD 2030 was perhaps not so hard. It rarely is.

One recalls a former CIA officer dismissing the Congressional oversight committees' oversight: "Tell them a few stories, give them some show-and-tell, and they'll think they're dealing with Mr Bond himself."

The FD 2030 Marines presumably were equally persuasive on Capitol Hill.

But after lobbying by skeptics of the plan — led by retired Marine Corps general officers — some members of Congress may be having second thoughts about FD 2030.

The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calls for a formal review of FD 2030 by a "federally funded research and development center."


Hopefully, Congress will choose the right one. Some are better than others.  

The acolytes are resisting the independent review. Responding with the equivalent of a Greta Thundberg "How DARE you?" 

But shouldn't they welcome it, as it would presumably confirm the plan's soundness once and for all?

FD 2030's creators are a relatively small, select group seemingly sworn to secrecy. Ironically, if they had solicited input more widely from the beginning they could have avoided much pain. They would have caused less harm and also produced a better plan that would really give America's enemies fits.

But since it's Marines we're talking about, you kind of knew hubris would get them in trouble.

Getting them out of it won't be so easy.


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.


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