The Marine Corps’ Shifting Focus: What to Know

An MV-22B Osprey disembarks marines on a runway in Guam.
An MV-22B Osprey disembarks marines on a runway in Guam. Antonio Rubio/U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr

After decades of sustained land operations, the U.S. Marine Corps is looking back out to sea, embracing its roots as a naval expeditionary force.

April 1, 2021 9:00 am (EST)

An MV-22B Osprey disembarks marines on a runway in Guam.
An MV-22B Osprey disembarks marines on a runway in Guam. Antonio Rubio/U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The U.S. Marine Corps is conducting a historic, top-to-bottom review of its mission and structure in recognition of the evolving threats posed by China and Russia. Here’s what to know about the military’s rationale for the shift and some of the major changes the force has underway.

How does the U.S. military view the global security environment?

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The post–Cold War international order in which the United States was the preeminent power is giving way to one where there are multiple rival powers, particularly an aggressive Russia and an ascendant China. The United States is now struggling to compete with China and Russia in sophisticated, multi-domain, gray zone competition [PDF].

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U.S. President Joe Biden recently released his interim national security guidance [PDF], which acknowledges that global dynamics are at a critical inflection point, calls for a renewed focus on diplomacy, and orders a shift in priorities at the Defense Department.

Does it see China as its top competitor?

Yes. China’s economy has grown tenfold over the last thirty years, and the country is nearing completion of a decades-long transformation of its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is shifting from a territorial defense force to a maritime power. This overhaul has been supported by a sevenfold increase in defense spending, which has modernized the PLA into a top-tier military distinguished by its potent missile defense systems. Foreign policy experts suggest that by 2027, Beijing will have completed its military modernization, nearly a decade ahead of schedule.

How is the U.S. military preparing?

The Defense Department is reassessing the structure, size, and capabilities of the joint force. This includes moving away from legacy systems and toward cutting-edge technologies and capabilities.

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In December 2020, the Defense Department issued a new strategy for maritime deterrence, called Advantage at Sea [PDF], that includes the three U.S. sea services: the Navy, the Marines, and the Coast Guard. The strategy focuses on forward-deployed forces (i.e. those stationed abroad) being more assertive, without being too aggressive, in day-to-day competition with China and Russia. And it addresses the dramatic changes in security environment that have occurred since its predecessor [PDF] was issued in 2015, including that the United States “can no longer presume unfettered access to the world’s oceans in times of conflict.”

As part of the new approach, the navy prioritizes controlling the high seas, a hand-in-glove fit for its “blue-water” strength. The coast guard brings its legal authorities and its expertise in global engagement and capacity building. And, for its part, the Marine Corps focuses on generating expeditionary combat power while operating within the range of the PLA weapons systems that are designed to deny the U.S. military access.

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Is the Marine Corps ready?

The Marine Corps is not equipped, trained, or organized to fulfill this role, so the force must be fundamentally redesigned. Over the past two years, the Marine Corps has undertaken a foundational shift in mission focus, moving from three decades of sustained land operations to becoming a naval expeditionary force optimized for contested maritime spaces. The Marine Corps of the future will be much different than today’s. Its new focus is China, the only peer competitor capable of mounting a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.

What changes is the Marine Corps making?

The top priority for General David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, is implementing a new strategic plan called Force Design 2030 [PDF], a threat-based endeavor designed to provide the United States with a globally employable naval expeditionary force. Among the important changes planned, several stand out:

First, the new Marine Corps will be lighter, more mobile, and able to operate from more diverse maritime platforms and aboard allied partner ships. It will possess the capability and maneuverability to join allies and partners in shallow littoral waters, using smaller, less provocative platforms such as the newly designed light amphibious warships. New formations will integrate into small naval task forces to support joint and combined activities.

Second, it will be more resilient and survivable. This does not necessarily mean armored and invisible. It means there will be smaller, distributed Marine Corps elements that can persist inside an adversary’s missile systems, such as the first island chain off China’s east coast. These forces will be the eyes and ears of the joint force, contributing to what the chief of naval operations calls “sea-control and sea-denial missions.” Consistent with the Defense Department’s recent Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy [PDF], the Marine Corps is prioritizing cybersecurity and information to better enable freedom of action in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Third, the force will be more maritime in nature. For example, ground aviation units that were used in the Middle East in the past decade are being transformed for naval missions. Investments are being made in more naval-oriented platforms, such as long-range precision weapons, and away from less relevant, land-centric systems such as tanks.

Fourth, unmanned systems will be much more prominent. The Marine Corps is doubling the number of unmanned aerial squadrons for maritime reconnaissance competition. Likewise, future units will have surface and subsurface unmanned platforms equipped with sonar buoys specifically tailored to help deny adversaries use of areas of the sea. The Marine Corps is also the Defense Department’s lead for developing an aerial unmanned logistics system [PDF], or “delivery drones,” to help automate the distribution of supplies in the maritime environment.

Finally, there will be changes in talent-management processes and a modernization of training and education establishments. A highlight of this initiative is an overhaul of the promotion-board process to facilitate a more inclusive, diverse force.

Will this entail an increase in defense spending?

The Biden administration has already signaled it will seek to sustain the United States’ military advantage to avoid ceding any further ground to China or Russia. The Marine Corps is planning to keep spending stable to fulfill its role in the new strategy.

When will the new Marine Corps be ready?

Force redesign is intended to be completed by 2030 and will include ongoing experimentation. The first of many redesigned units will be ready by 2023.

Will military readiness suffer at all along the way?

It depends on how readiness is defined. This was the subject of a recent article by the chiefs of the Air Force and Marine Corps, in which they argue that the Defense Department’s definition of readiness is limiting and outdated.

The Marine Corps is currently able to meet all Joint Staff mission assignments. However, readiness is an articulation of available units and assumes combat preparedness, irrespective of the adversary’s capability. The current definition therefore encourages defense industry spending on a “fight-tonight” force. But to compete with China and Russia, the military needs to adopt a new framework for readiness that more accurately indicates when a service is prepared to meet future mission requirements. This would help establish the critical link between financial resources and force strategy.

What role will the revamped force play in U.S. foreign policy?

Although the future force will be different in terms of structure and capabilities, it is consistent with the Marine Corps’ historic roots and directly supports the Title 10 legal requirement to seize and defend advanced naval bases. As General Berger commented, “It is also important to note that the Marine Corps will continue to serve as the nation’s premier crisis response force around the globe, and contribute to the deterrence and warfighting needs of all combatant commands.”

The conclusions and opinions expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

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