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Force Design 2030: Operational Incompetence

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Operational Incompetence Dangerously Crippled America’s Expeditionary Force-in-Readiness

The United States Marine Corps is no longer capable of effectively conducting combat operations across the spectrum of conflict. Who is responsible? Over the past five years, some Marine Corps senior leaders have myopically reorganized and restructured Marine forces to perform regional small unit operations focused on a single enemy. The results of these efforts have become clear: the Marine Corps’ ability to project force “in every clime and place” to maintain global deterrence and to fight and win the Nation’s battles has been compromised.

Today, the Marine Corps is hard pressed to field a robust and resilient combined arms Marine Expeditionary Brigade (brigadier general level command) and unable to field a Marine Expeditionary Force (lieutenant general level command), such as those that fought in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. As a result, the Marine Corps can no longer support those combatant commander requirements that call for major combined arms forces to engage in mid-to-high intensity sustained ground combat.

How did this happen? A flawed operational concept termed Force Design 2030 eliminated Marine Corps capabilities to maintain forces forward in global hotspots and fight and win across the warfighting spectrum should deterrence fail. But one needs to look deeper to truly understand the genesis of this destruction.

Where did Force Design 2030 come from?

In theology and philosophy there is a theory known as “first cause”: an acknowledgment that any event or outcome has a precipitating cause. What was the “first cause” for Force Design 2030? The culprit was a lack of operational competence in some current and recently retired senior Marine Corps leaders.

These officers’ operational experience was developed during almost twenty years of fighting the Global War on Terrorism. Following the defeat of the Iraqi Army in 2003, our adversaries, while deadly, fought asymmetrically at the lower end of the tactical spectrum. In countering them, there was no need to employ strong combined arms capabilities. Absent were requirements to conduct armored operations; counterfire operations against powerful artillery threats; breaching, obstacle clearance, or bridging operations; and large scale coordinated combined arms maneuvers. Instead, operations were often conducted from fixed bases supported by contracted logistics. As a result of this narrow combat experience, it should be no surprise that capabilities not exercised during the wars against terrorists are those that have faced the Force Design chopping block.

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In their rush to restructure the Marine Corps for a limited mission in a known location (the sinking of Chinese Navy warships inside the Pacific First Island Chain), the advocates of Force Design essentially reduced Marine operating forces into tactical Stand-in Forces and Marine Expeditionary Units (colonel level command).

What are Stand-in Forces and Marine Expeditionary Units?

Stand-in Forces are small, single purpose units designed to be forward deployed inside contested areas on remote islands in the First Island Chain. Armed with short-range, subsonic missiles, these units are isolated and vulnerable. The Marine Corps has yet to articulate a viable concept for inserting, repositioning, and logistically supporting these tactical units, sans reliance on an ill-defined future Landing Ship Medium (formerly Light Amphibious Warship). This small, slow, and lightly armed ship is neither survivable nor likely to be built in numbers approaching Marine Corps requirements. While arguably ineffective in the Indo-Pacific Region, Stand-in Forces have virtually no utility outside it.

A competent warfighter would never have put forward an untested and unproven operational concept without first having determined its logistical supportability. The Corps has yet to find an answer to the logistics needs of Stand-in Forces, isolated and unsupported inside contested areas.

Marine Expeditionary Units are highly versatile and capable air and ground task forces. While built for global employment, they are not suitable for sustained combat against a determined enemy, as they lack the requisite firepower and logistics. Unless quickly reinforced or resupplied, they have limited utility in the close or rear battle.

Force Design is about fighting China in the Pacific – while neglecting other theaters

The adoption of Force Design and its supporting concepts suggest that Marine Corps leadership is predominately focused on a Pacific War with China and has given minimal consideration of how the Marine Corps may be called upon to meet the challenges presented by great power competition across the globe. The architects and proponents of Force Design apparently forgot that a war with China, if it comes, will be fought globally and not just in the South China Sea. China, through its Belt and Road initiative, has been cultivating access to key countries in nearly every continent by providing financial aid and building infrastructure that could support the Chinese military during a future conflict. Expeditionary forces will be needed to deter or defeat threats from China or its allies and proxies emanating from these strategic locations inside and outside of the Pacific region. This has been the Marine Corps role since the Barbary Wars in the early 19th century.

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To implement Force Design, it was believed necessary to divest proven combined arms capabilities needed to prosecute a “single battle” approach to warfighting. Single battle is the understanding that battles and campaigns are fought by Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, supported by complementary logistics, seamlessly integrated for combat across the rear, close, and deep areas of the battlespace.

What a commander needs

A full array of combined arms capabilities (including cannon, armor, close-in fire support from rotary/fixed wing aviation – – not just missiles) is required to allow a commander to deliver long range and close supporting fires in all areas of the battlespace; to maneuver the force by air or ground; to logistically support the force; to sense throughout the battlespace; and to effectively command and control forces. The divestitures of combined arms capabilities mandated by Force Design have jeopardized the Marine Corps’ ability to conduct major combat operations without significant support and augmentation from the U.S. Army. Even with Army augmentation, the ability of disparate units to operate as an effective fighting force in combat is questionable absent extensive pre-deployment training and exercises.

Of all the flaws evident in Force Design and the Stand-in Forces concept, none is more consequential than the alarming reduction of amphibious assault ships. It has long been accepted that a minimum of 38 large amphibious ships are required to maintain three Marine Expeditionary Units forward, support the training and preparation of the next deploying units, maintain a surge capability of ships required to deploy an amphibious brigade for crisis response or contingencies, and allow for programed ship maintenance and refit.

Reduction in force

The previous Commandant arbitrarily reduced the requirement to 31 ships. This was a strategic blunder from which it will be difficult to recover without immediate action by Congress. The reduced number is insufficient to quickly deploy an amphibious brigade and barely sufficient to meet global requirements for two forward deployed Marine Expeditionary Units and one forward based Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Another smoking gun is the lack of appreciation for maritime prepositioning. The rapid deployment of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and especially a Marine Expeditionary Force is not possible without a robust and strategically located fleet of maritime prepositioning ships. Marine Corps leadership have remained silent as the U.S. Navy emasculated the three squadrons of maritime prepositioning ships, reducing capabilities from 3 squadrons of 17 ships to 2 squadrons of 7 ships. Previously, each squadron was capable of rapidly deploying weapons and equipment for a 16,500-man combined arms brigade with 30 days of sustainment. For operational context, the rapid and effective deployment of the Marine Expeditionary Force during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Iraqi Freedom would not have been possible without robust support from the maritime prepositioning force.

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Force Design resulted from lack of operational experience

To reiterate, the “first cause” in crippling the Marine Corps as the nation’s 911 force was the lack of operational competence by some senior leaders. These generals are focused on Stand-in Forces and Marine Expeditionary Units – – small unit formations that lack an offensive punch or staying power. They neglect the larger Marine Expeditionary Brigades and Marine Expeditionary Forces, which can conduct “single battle” operations in support of a combatant commander against a determined enemy with peer or near peer level capabilities at major theater of war levels.

We do not intend to imply that the entire generation of current and recently retired senior Marine Corps leaders are operationally incompetent because we know several who display exceptional competence. We also know that the former Commandant asked some of the most operationally competent to retire when they still had much to offer the Corps. And the law of averages tells us there must be at least a few on active duty, but they remain silent.

Force Design is an operational and strategic dead end. It invites defeat in detail. But even worse, renders the Marine Corps irrelevant because it offers virtually nothing to combatant commanders in a full spectrum war against a determined enemy.

The national defense desperately needs Marine Corps leadership and members of Congress to speak up and help rebuild Marine Corps capabilities to fight any foe, anywhere, and win. The American people deserve no less.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.

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General Walter (Walt) Boomer, USMC (ret.), is a career infantry officer. He was the Commander Marine Corps Forces Central Command and Commanding General I MEF during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. His last assignment was the 24th Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.

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General James (Jim) Conway, USMC (ret.), is a career infantry officer. He was the Commanding General I MEF during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the First Battle of Fallujah. His last assignment was the 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

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