Marines with 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment (1/2), 2d Marine Division, board a KC-130J Super Hercules at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, April 22, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo
THE PENTAGON – Reducing the Marines to 175,000 and adding more sensor capability to smaller units are part of a wide swath of adjustments the Marine Corps is pursuing in the latest iteration of its modernization drive.
Released on Monday, the Force Design 2030 annual report is the Marines’ latest refinement of plans to orient the service to face complex threats in the maritime environment within the next decade.
“We’ve gained quite a bit of momentum on Force Design but the learning continues,” Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl told reporters last week in a roundtable ahead of Monday’s release.
The revision, in line with the latest budget submission, calls for shrinking the service down to 175,000 Marines with an emphasis on developing more mature Marines who stay in the service for longer.
“Over the past two years, we reduced our end-strength by approximately 7,000 Marines primarily through [divestments]. In the next year, we will continue our balanced approach and reduce the number of personnel in the service headquarters, supporting establishment, and component commands by 15 percent,” reads the revision signed by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger.
At the same time, there is a parallel drive to keep Marines in for longer. The service only retains about 25 percent of the 38,000 Marines it recruits annually past their first term of service.
Marine Corps Gen. David Berger, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, speaks to Marines and Sailors assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), during a distinguished visit aboard Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) on Feb. 20, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo
Berger and Deputy Commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs Lt. Gen. David Ottignon have been vocal about working to change the Marine Corps culture into one that retains its personnel, instead of the high turnover that has characterized the service.
By the summer, the service owes Berger a plan “to change the ‘recruit and replace’ paradigm, we will implement measures to professionalize our career retention force and further incentivize retaining our most talented Marines,” reads the design.
The plan looks to “achieve greater average time in service and thickening of the E-4 to E-7 ranks to support a more mature force, while not disadvantaging or disincentivizing the most talented Marines—who must be allowed to move as rapidly as their talents dictate.”
The service is weighing how it will develop the more mature force, either by incentivizing Marines to stay on active duty longer in an ‘invest and retain’ model, improving training and education or a combination of both, Maj. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate, told reporters last week.
“When you say more mature forces, it’s probably somewhere between an older, more experienced Marine and a better trained Marine,” he said.
Some of that will come from how Marines are trained, Berger told reporters last week. The Marine Corps will still rely on physical aspects and endurance and perseverance already featured in training programs, but the service is also understanding that new Marines learn differently.
“We want to send him to a school for two weeks, and they’re like, ‘Give me half an hour on my own, I got it. If I got a question, I’ll let you know.’ They learn in a different way at a different speed,” Berger said.
Marine Corps AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system (G/ATOR), assigned to Marine Air Control Squadron 2, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), scans for and tracks aircraft at Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, April 26, 2022. Marine Corps Photo
In particular, the service wants to retain Marines who are trained in information and cyberwarfare, disciplines that are prized by civilian industry and where service members are heavily recruited for jobs after they’re trained by the military.
In particular, the Marines want to include signals intelligence and electronic warfare Marines in the infantry battalion, “which is obviously kind of a low-density, high-demand skill set. So that’s changing how we train and how many of those Marines we have to train,” Austin said.
A major investment for the service will include more sensors controlled by Marines instead of relying solely on joint tools for targeting awareness for the Marine Littoral Regiments, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab director Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson told reporters.
“You got to be able to sense the target before you can engage and a complete reliance on non-organic capabilities, like somebody else to do that sensing for us and find the target, confirm it, etcetera as part of the kill-chain is a position we prefer not to be in. We’d prefer not to have that as our only option,” Watson said. “If we have a missile that shoots 100 nautical miles and we want a sensor that’s organic to us that can find a target well beyond that … What we’re trying to do is develop a balanced portfolio of capabilities that when we try to close kill-chains against a modern, multi-domain adversary, we’ve got the complete tool kit.”
The idea is in line with the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) philosophy in which Marines support other Marines on the ground, in the air and in the logistics chain.
“Our [Marine Littoral Regiments] will possess an organic capability to sense the maritime battlespace in order to gain and maintain custody of targets as a reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance task and to assure their ability to deliver maritime fires, even when the larger sensor network is degraded or compromised,” reads the revision.
The service’s Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) and the future sensor payloads on its emerging fleet of unmanned aerial and surface vehicles will be part of a larger targeting net that will work with the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), a converted Joint Light Tactical Vehicle chassis that carries a battery of Naval Strike Missiles and other netted weapons, the new document says.
As part of the ongoing Force Design testing, “with the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Navy, we also conducted a ground launch of a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile mounted on a remotely operated mobile launcher,” reads the report.
US Marine Corps Rouge Fires missile system.
The new revision comes as the service has drawn criticism from retired general officers who have argued that Berger cut too much heavier equipment too quickly in his modernization overhaul and that the Marine Corps is placing too much emphasis on countering China, and not enough on the service’s other missions, like crisis response.
In particular, Berger has been the subject of criticism from former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, who penned an opinion piece criticizing Berger’s decisions, like the Marine Corps shedding its M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks for a lighter force that focuses on anti-ship missiles.
“So I take criticism on my shoulders, not Gen.Heckl’s, but mine, for if it’s not balanced over the last three years, I need to recognize where to rebalance and to push information and to draw feedback from more proactively,” Berger said. “Part of the challenge, as it always has been, is at a certain limit in one or more of those audiences reach a classification barrier that’s a bit of a challenge.”
In its report, the Marines said the service placed too much emphasis on the radical changes that would create units like the MLR, crafted to hunt Chinese surface ships, rather than acknowledging the enduring Marine Corps mission based on larger amphibious ships and the Marine Expeditionary Units.
The service “does not have the luxury of focusing on a single threat, to the exclusion of all others, and basing our design on such a narrow point of view. We are building a force capable of executing our concepts, not a force exclusively tailored to them,” reads the report.
In comments to reporters, Heckl drew a distinction between the MLR and the larger MEU.
“The MEU and the MLR are designed to be complementary, but they’re organized differently and they operate differently. A MEU being a more robust organization that’s designed to operate persistently from amphibious platforms, and execute operations really across the range from humanitarian assistance, disaster relief up to amphibious raids or higher-end combat operations,” Heckl said. “The Marine Littoral Regiment – although we believe it has applicability globally – it’s not designed to execute operations across that entire range. It’s tailor-made really, to operate as part of a force that stands in close to an adversary that minimizes its vulnerability by operating in small, low signature, highly mobile formations, but packs a big punch, particularly in maritime littoral combat.”
Sailors and Marines man the rails of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) as they depart Naval Station Norfolk, March 16, 2022. US Navy Photo
As the Marine Corps continues to refine the Force Design, a key unanswered question is how many amphibious ships the Navy needs to support the Marines’ mission. Berger and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday are split over how many large amphibious ships the Navy needs and how quickly the planned Light Amphibious Warship enters the fleet.
“This will require a mix of vessels that are complementary to, but different from amphibious warships. We must conduct a thorough analysis to understand and resource all aspects necessary to realize these capabilities, to include manpower and training, as we consider resourcing these as requirements,” reads the document.
The Navy is currently working with the Marine Corps on an amphibious lift requirement study due to Congress in the next several weeks.
Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.