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The US Marine Corps Opened Up About Its Shortfalls

March 31, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

A 15-page document released by the United States Marine Corps (USMC) on its official website and social media accounts on March 27 caused a bit of a stir. Force Design 2030 is best described as a white paper that envisions the changes the branch should make in this decade. Among its prescriptions, nearly all of them drawn up by the USMC’s Commandant Gen. David H. Berger, is streamlining total manpower in preparation for “great power/peer-level competition with special emphasis on the Indo-Pacific.”

What this means is the USMC is now committed to deterring China. But Force Design 2030 gives a lot of other recommendations for the branch.

“Expeditionary Long-Range Precision Fires”

A single paragraph in the beginning of the document encapsulates “shortfalls in capabilities” or how much work the USMC needs to get done for its new mission. Foremost is “long-range precision fires,” a complicated term for all kinds of missiles, and mentioning how the USMC lacks such admits its current weaknesses. Going by the missile bombardment Iran unleashed on two sites in Iraq last January, an incident that left more than a hundred US military personnel with brain injuries, the USMC is another branch outgunned and out-ranged by the new weapons arrayed against it by the US’ main geopolitical rivals.

Without being too specific, Force Design 2030 makes it clear the Corps’ needs its own organic missile systems for either surface-to-surface strikes or coastal defense against maritime threats.

Air Defense

A glaring weakness of the US military at the moment are its meager air defenses now reduced to Patriot batteries unsuited for intercepting ballistic and cruise missiles. Force Design 2030 emphasizes the need for not just medium and long-range SAMs to protect Marines on the ground but point defense anti-aircraft weapons too. These brand new systems are supposed to accompany expeditionary forces rather than be integrated with the Corps’ naval transports. Their eventual adoption means a return to the Cold War when the US military enjoyed an abundance of static and mobile air defenses. But the exact size and composition of these new anti-aircraft defenses are fuzzy at the moment.

On page 10 of Force Design 2030 is a recommendation to keep the USMC’s fighter squadrons although the need for F-35B’s “requires additional study.” These are essential when the Corps have missions involving island capture and must neutralize enemy air defenses and protect the area of operations at the same time.

All Sorts of Drones

Another shortfall Force Design 2030 cites are a lack of drones, with the USMC stuck with aging low altitude models. Its recommendations are long endurance models for three missions. These are intelligence and surveillance; electronic warfare; and lethal strike. This is an interesting mix as it suggests the Corps adopts brigade-level UAV formations composed of the General Atomics Predator and the armed Gray Eagle with the former able to balance ISR and EW while the latter provides close air support. (Unless the USMC envisions acquiring its own tailor-made UCAVs.)

But all sorts of drones in use today are vulnerable to jamming and traditional anti-aircraft weapons. Acquiring long endurance drones offers close to no protection from hostile swarms and loitering munitions, neither of which are expensive to acquire or develop by potential adversaries.


“Disruptive and less-lethal capabilities…for countering maritime gray zone strategies” may ring ambiguous but condensing the term to information operations or just plain cyberwar makes the intent clearer. With the US homeland under constant threat from cyber attack by state-sponsored actors the USMC itself is slowly mobilizing resources to protect networks and the information environment; compromising these may have grave consequences for the Corps leadership. Exploiting personal information of individual marines, whatever their rank, is another threat that needs to be mitigated. Since the “maritime gray zone” is acknowledged then perhaps counter-propaganda for deterring Chinese proxy activities is another fault line for Marines in the future. Force Design 2030 doesn’t mention cyberwarfare at all so the Corps approach to information ops could be defensive for now and result in training groups of Marines for such tasks.

Force Design 2030 is available as a free download on the USMC’s HQ site. The USMC remains the largest amphibious warfare branch in the world and is battle tested by three decades of complex operations in the Middle East. Its commitment to upholding alliances with regional militaries in East Asia is just as formidable.

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