The Marines Are Marching toward Irrelevance

U.S. Marines take part in Cobra Gold 2017 joint military exercises in Thailand in 2017. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

A strategy handing the future of the Corps to the technophiles would leave America weakened in the conflict with China.

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A strategy handing the future of the Corps to the technophiles would leave America weakened in the conflict with China.

T he defining feature of the development of U.S. military policy is the tension that exists between the lessons of history and the promises of technology, a contest between those who see the past as prologue and those who view it as irrelevant. For centuries, history was considered the only laboratory of warfare. One studied history to glean insights about the nature and conduct of war. To be sure, there have been technological advances through the ages, and some of them have brought dramatic changes to the battlefield, but they were always understood within the continuum of history. It is only within the last 70 years that we have seen the growing belief that technology has the power to make everything that came before obsolete. Among the armed services, that creed is strongest in the Navy and Air Force, although it is also present in the Army.

This is more than simply an argument over which weapons to buy. It goes to the heart of competing views about the nature of war. For decades, the Marines stood resolutely against the techno-centric view, and it is fortunate for the nation that they did. The technophiles have consistently touted one emerging technology after another as the thing guaranteed to revolutionize warfare, especially since the turn of the millennium. Yet they never seem to deliver the revolutionary impact expected. The latest technology elixir — guaranteed to change everything, we are told — is the combination of unmanned systems, precision-guided munitions, and artificial intelligence. The vision is of warfare facilitated by near-perfect information and waged clinically at long range by keyboard and mouse.

The Marine Corps view, however, has always been more visceral. They expected war to be brutal, dirty, chaotic, bloody, often at close range — and deeply human. Had they not, they could not have prevailed in hellish places such as Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Hue City, or Fallujah.

But, apparently, no longer. Marine Corps leadership anticipates a war with China in the Western Pacific. With Force Design 2030, a force-planning document published in March 2020, the Marine Corps seems to have adopted the techno-centric view of push-button warfare at long range. The foundation of that view is a belief in the invincibility of the Chinese anti-access capability, a network of advanced sensors and lethal precision weapons supposedly able to detect and kill anything that moves.

Faced with that obstacle, the Marines will not even try to fight their way into the theater. Rather, they will deploy small detachments on islands, in the East and South China Seas, already within the Chinese anti-access envelope before the conflict starts — tying up combat forces indefinitely and putting the United States at the mercy of regional partners who will come under intense economic pressure from China to deny U.S. basing rights. Armed with missiles the Marines do not yet possess — but the Army does, in abundance — these isolated detachments are expected to engage the Chinese anti-access barrier from the inside out. They also are expected to remain, somehow, undetected and survivable in the process, while also being largely self-sustaining. To foot the bill for this new vision, the Marine Corps has already eliminated all its tanks and plans to cut its cannon artillery batteries by 76 percent, reduce the number of Marines serving in infantry battalions by 41 percent, and decrease its aviation by roughly a third.

The Marine Corps leadership clearly believes in the power of new weaponry but fails to appreciate the dynamic of war whereby every innovation inspires a countermeasure — and that countermeasure then inspires a counter-countermeasure, in a cycle of continuous coevolution. The result is that neither side gains the decisive advantage it sought but warfare becomes more complicated for both, as the innovation and its countermeasures must now be integrated with all the other battlefield activities.

These countermeasures may themselves be technological, or they may be tactics developed in response to a specific operational challenge. One such tactic is combined arms, a foundational concept that the technophiles do not seem to appreciate. Combined arms is the employment of two or more arms together in complementary ways. This allows each arm to exploit the strengths and protect the weaknesses of the others with which it is combined. The three main components of combined arms are infantry, tanks, and artillery, to which the Marine Corps adds aviation and other capabilities.

By eliminating tanks and gutting infantry, artillery, and aviation, Force Design 2030 severely degrades the Marine Corps’s ability to conduct combined-arms warfare.

The Chinese anti-access barrier is formidable, without a doubt, but to assume it cannot be overcome is defeatist. U.S. forces will develop tactics to defeat the anti-access system, just as they developed the tactics necessary to seize fortified islands in the Pacific in the Second World War, penetrate integrated air defense systems (IADS) in the 1980s, and counter networked Islamist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Technology will march on, but — for many reasons, but not least as a counterbalance to unbridled faith in the latest gadget — the nation desperately needs somebody to approach war as the Marines traditionally have. That is, the nation needs somebody to see war for what it is — brutal, bloody, dirty, and chaotic — rather than for what we would like it to be.

The Marines should kill Force Design 2030 and return to what the nation needs them to be — a combined-arms force in readiness, primed for any fight.

John F. Schmitt is a former Marine infantry officer. Under the guidance of two commandants of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray and General Chuck Krulak, he authored the Marine Corps keystone doctrinal manual, Warfighting. In the years since, he has continued to author documents for senior leaders in the Department of Defense.
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