The recent controversy over the future of the Marine Corps has focused on Strength Design 2030 (FD2030), a force planning document that radically reinvents the Corps. Much of the criticism centers on the precise number of tanks, artillery batteries and aircraft surrendered, as well as the number and size of infantry battalions. But that misses the larger question. FD2030 is designed to support how the Marine Corps intends to struggle in the future and against whom, and that is the most important question. This operational vision is contained in the future operating concepts, more recently A concept for the reserve forces (SIF, December 2021).
The concept exists in the context of a high-intensity maritime conflict with the People’s Republic of China in the Pacific. It must be admitted that there is a certain maneuvering impulse to try to undermine the logic of the Chinese counter-intervention strategy by triggering the conflict already inside the zone of engagement of Chinese weapons rather than having to penetrate it from the outside. As Sunzi said, “The highest achievement of war is to attack the enemy’s plans.” But momentum doesn’t make a viable concept, and that laudable momentum creates a number of significant challenges, ranging from diplomacy to tactics, that make the concept wholly moot.
First, the diplomatic and strategic issues, which are important and can even prove disabling. This concept is based on an island chain defense strategy, which requires replacement forces to be in position before hostilities begin. The presence of US forces will make these islands likely targets for a Chinese first strike. All these positions are the sovereign territory of a nation, which must allow the presence of replacement forces. The effort to maintain basic rights will be a major and ongoing diplomatic challenge for the United States, especially given the intense economic and other pressures China will exert on these nations to deny them these rights. Moreover, the strategy is of limited relevance to the defense of South Korea or Japan, two priority strategic imperatives for the United States. Finally, the defensive chain may be overwhelmed, as suggested by the recent security pact between China and the Solomon Islands. China’s recent efforts to build a broader Pacific security pact, which would grant China access to the entire Pacific as a guarantor of regional security and stability, have been pushed back for now, but China will only increase the incentives offered.
Although China is clearly the most imminent threat, this does not mean that the conflict will take the form of a high-intensity war in the Pacific.
For China, the main dimension of its struggle with the United States is economic and not military, and it would consider the precipitation of a direct armed conflict as a strategic failure. “Winning a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the pinnacle of skill,” wrote Sunzi, the ancestor of Chinese strategic thinking. “Overpowering the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of skill.” China is investing heavily around the world to gain influence, spending considerably more than the United States in places like Africa and the Caribbean. When it comes to conflict, China is much more likely to attack American interests by encouraging insurgencies, proxy wars, and general discord than to ignite cataclysmic conflict in the Pacific. Barring an unforeseen event that forces its hand, China will move on Taiwan when and only when it has successfully maneuvered the United States out of the region beyond the possibility of an effective response. Additionally, there is a high strategic opportunity cost to having America’s readiness force potentially stranded for years as surrogate forces in anticipation of an unlikely conflict at the expense of the ability to respond to various crises that history tells us are guaranteed.
A key operational question is the extent to which the Navy, which clearly has other priorities, is committed to supporting replacement forces. Will the Navy commit the resources necessary to insert, move, extract, sustain and protect reserve forces? How the Navy will safely access these replacement forces in an environment deemed too hostile for legacy platforms is unresolved. The identified insertion, redeployment and extraction assets (C-130, CH-53 and Light Amphibious Warship) have no stealth capability, so how to insert or move replacement forces without the Chinese becoming aware of their presence ? The ability to redeploy quickly in theater will require Navy and Marine Corps transport assets to be kept in close proximity, increasing the problem of detection and security.
Arguably the biggest tactical question about the concept is the ability of a replacement force to survive and be sustained. Widely distributed replacement detachments will be vulnerable to attack and have limited ability to defend or reinforce. Central to the concept is the ability of a reserve force to remain undetected through low signature, but this ability is highly questionable in the force depicted in FD2030. The reserve forces are supposed to be light and not encumbered with heavy equipment, but a look at the range of anti-ship missiles, air defense missiles, unmanned surface ships, radars, support vehicles and FD2030’s logistical capabilities belie the idea that these forces are difficult to detect. The area in which replacement forces will be being light is traditional ground combat power, meaning that these isolated units, with little opportunity for rapid reinforcement, will be vulnerable to piecemeal defeat by superior enemy forces.
Additionally, prior to conflict, surrogate forces are expected to engage in cooperative security activities with host nation forces – “standing side by side with allies and partners” , in the language of the concept – which will likewise make their presence easily detectable by human intelligence. Finally, how are replacement forces supposed to use sensors as part of the reconnaissance mission while remaining low-signature?
Sustainment and other forms of support to distributed replacement detachments present a potentially crippling challenge. Reserve forces are expected to sustain themselves tactically through the local economy, which might be possible for some necessities, but certainly not ammo and spares. The treatment and evacuation of casualties will be problematic, as will the maintenance and repair of equipment above the most basic level. Interaction with the local economy will produce a signature of its own – not one detectable by radar but one clearly detectable by human intelligence.
Taken together, the above issues call into question the overall operational usefulness of SIF. These issues, rather than a specific platform or staff cuts, are the things we should be discussing.
John F. Schmitt is a former naval infantry officer. As a captain, he authored Fleet Marine Force Manual (FMFM) 1, Warfighting, and FMFM 1-1, Campaigning. He has authored numerous joint concepts, including the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Globally Integrated Operations. He is the author of Mastering Tactics: A Tactical Decision Game Workbook.
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