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Opinion War is a dirty business. Will the Marine Corps be ready for the next one?

(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

Charles Krulak served as the 31st commandant of the Marine Corps; Jack Sheehan served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic; and Anthony Zinni is a former combatant commander of U.S. Central Command. All are retired Marine generals.

It is a proven lesson of history that militaries must play a never-ending chess game of modernization and technological improvement. In that effort, the U.S. Marine Corps is undertaking a top-to-bottom restructuring called Force Design 2030. The move is well-intended, but we believe it is wrong. It will make the Marines less capable of countering threats from unsettled and dangerous corners of the world.

The core of the plan, initiated in March 2020, focuses on preparing the Marines to fight China in a potential Pacific-region conflict that would involve the extensive use of new and emerging technology.

To do so, the Corps plans to divest itself of a significant portion of its combat forces — including infantry battalions, tank units, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft squadrons, and logistics units. It will replace them with small units designed to man a yet-to-be-determined line of island outposts in the western Pacific, with the mission to detect, engage and contain enemy naval forces as they sail past the islands.

These units, in theory, would dominate the first battle of the next war by using sophisticated sensor-to-shooter capabilities, hypersonic weapons and other high-tech "goodies" — warfare largely conducted by the push of a button.

The plan reflects some mistaken notions about the future of war. Simply put, it is folly to bank on technology allowing us to fight our battles from a distance. War is inevitably a dirty business, and the war in Ukraine is a sample of what we may encounter in conflicts to come. Technology has not obviated the need for sustained artillery capabilities and armor.

War is also often unexpected: Force Design 2030 is tailoring the Marines to a narrow set of possible conflicts — but the world could just as easily throw us a curveball. Threats to global security are both varied and broad, and they are not confined to China and Russia. North Korea, Iran and non-state actors around the world have the potential to move tension and disagreement to conflict with little or no warning.

What’s more, it is not clear that the Marine Corps of Force Design 2030 would achieve even its narrowly focused goal against China.

First, all the islands the Marines would seek to occupy belong to some nation. Those nations will be unlikely to appreciate their territory being turned into a bull’s eye.

Second, our Chinese adversaries are likely to be able to quickly track and target these Marines’ positions, which would have to be in what the Marine Corps calls the “weapons engagement zone” — within the range of enemy missiles.

Claims that these units could remain hidden from the enemy — all while moving, resupplying and communicating with headquarters — discount the technology that we know China already has. As soon as hostilities commence, it stands to reason that the enemy will retaliate against engaged units with overwhelming force. And its systems would be more numerous and lethal, with a longer range, than the weapons available to the small Marine outposts./

Moreover, existing documents on Force Design 2030 do not clearly lay out a plan to evacuate casualties and resupply the island units during combat.

Much of the equipment, organization and training the Marines are building as part of Force Design 2030 already resides in (and is funded by Congress for) the Army, Navy and Air Force. Some redundancy is good, but duplication of an already existing and sophisticated skill set is not.

Marines thrive on innovation. It is in our DNA. From the development of landing craft before World War II, to the use of aircraft for close air support, to establishing the concept of vertical envelopment, to the use of the Harrier and development of the V-22, the Marine Corps has always been at the forefront of fighting wars in new ways.

Setting small groups of Marines on islands to wait for enemy ships to sail past is not innovation. Cutting significant combat capabilities that may be needed in all theaters to afford questionable capabilities in one theater is not innovation.

The stakes in this gamble require not only serious study and war-gaming both within and without the Marine Corps, but they beg closer scrutiny by the combatant commanders, the Defense Department and Congress. The national security ramifications of reducing the capabilities of our nation’s most ready, agile and flexible force are seismic.