The United States Marine Corps has embarked upon a campaign of change as significant as any since the end of the Vietnam War. The Marine Corps’s collective efforts, named Force Design 2030, have emphasized a focus on China after nearly two decades of constant low-intensity conflict and counterinsurgency operations in the greater Middle East. The force design efforts are tied to two new operational concepts: Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations. These foundational concepts describe the future operational environment the Marine Corps anticipates and outline how it will fight. This significant reframing, however, is not without precedent. Following the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, the United States Army conducted a similar evaluative and reconstructive process that ultimately culminated in fielding the ground force that was victorious in Operation Desert Storm against an enemy modeled on Warsaw Pact militaries—precisely the force and set of capabilities that the Army set out to create.
As such, the Marine Corps should look to the Army’s history as a model for how to engineer successful organizational change in order to meet the challenge of a potential high-intensity conflict with a peer adversary. To facilitate organizational transformation and address its peer threat, the Warsaw Pact, the Army focused on three key areas: doctrine, equipment, and personnel policy. Simultaneously, the transition to the all-volunteer force also played a role in the Army’s post-Vietnam rebirth. Given the successful outcome of the Army’s efforts during the 1970s, the Marine Corps should emulate its sister service by properly resourcing these three lines of effort—doctrine, equipment, and people—in order to successfully redesign the force. Otherwise, it risks designing a brittle and incomplete Marine Corps for 2030.
Army doctrinal modernization was based around three consecutive iterations of Field Manual (FM) 100-5. For much of the 1970s, America’s capstone operational doctrine was 1968’s FM 100-5, Operations of Army Forces in the Field. In July 1973, General William E. DePuy took inaugural command of the newly formed Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and initiated a force-wide doctrine reassessment. In his view, the Army needed to shift its focus from “infantry-airmobile war [to] conventional combined arms warfare in the theater of primary strategic concern.” DePuy’s vision for defeating Soviet forces on the battlefield required NATO to win the initial battles along the inner German border. In 1974, he assessed that “the tactical doctrine set forth in current training literature had, in significant part, ceased to be valid on the modern battlefield,” which was seen as central Europe instead of Southeast Asia. Supplemented by work done at the Pentagon by Andrew Marshall, DePuy’s concept coalesced around the belief that new doctrine coupled with new technologies could defeat the Soviets. An intellectual fervor took hold within TRADOC and the Army at large as it sought to shift from Vietnam back to Europe.
In July 1976, TRADOC released a new version of its capstone operational doctrine, FM 100-5, Operations, whose overriding operating concept was commonly referred to as Active Defense. Prior to its release, drafts were shared with the West German Bundeswehr in an attempt to achieve doctrinal synergies between among NATO allies. The new text’s European focus was apparent with the inclusion of weather conditions and urban terrain typically found in central Europe. By incorporating the lessons of the Yom Kippur War—which heavily influenced TRADOC thinking at the time—addressing the Soviet Union’s increasing technological prowess, and reflecting the shift in American focus following Vietnam, DePuy’s Operations reshaped how the Army viewed combat. As the official TRADOC history states:
This “capstone” doctrinal handbook grew out of deep and penetrating inquiries into the meaning of the new technology of weaponry. It confronted directly the prime strategic problem the Army faced: a U.S. force quantitatively inferior in men and equipment on an armor dominated European battlefield.
TRADOC, however, did not rest on its laurels after the release of Active Defense. Significant debate occurred within the defense community and revisions were generally found to be needed. In August 1982, a new version of FM 100-5, Operations was released, instituting AirLand Battle as the doctrine of the United States Army. The transition from Active Defense to AirLand Battle was a significant one. With AirLand Battle’s adoption, the Army changed from “a methodical, mechanistic and instructed force, to one built on individual and collective initiative, well trained to cope with a complex environment.” This transition from Active Defense to AirLand Battle also changed the Army’s approach from a linear defensive model focused on fighting in central Europe to one emphasizing greater maneuver and initiative that saw increased coordination between air and ground forces. Furthermore, the number of troops available to either NATO or the Warsaw Pact in the event of a conflict in Europe had not changed appreciably since Active Defense’s release, meaning AirLand Battle intended to enable defeat of enemy forces without the traditionally requisite force ratios.
Both post-Vietnam iterations of FM 100-5 explained how the Army intended to confront the Soviet threat in Europe. Similarly, the Marine Corps has led the transition from counterinsurgency operations in the greater Middle East to great power competition in East Asia with its two new concepts, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base operations (EABO). EABO, which is classified and not publicly available, was approved nearly concurrently with the release of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance and Force Design 2030. Force Design 2030 mentions EABO throughout and is clear that future iterations will continue to “focus on capabilities required to satisfy approved naval concepts of DMO [Distributed Maritime Operations], EABO, and LOCE.” Supporting these concepts, the Marine Corps also published the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations that is designed to be updated at regular intervals.
As the Army recognized with its revisions to FM100-5, doctrine and operating concepts need to be updated and revised to meet current and projected needs. Similarly, the Marine Corps should continue to release iterative revisions. Updates should reflect changes in the operational environment, technology, and joint doctrine. Moreover, the Marine Corps should update its capstone publication, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, to better align with force design, joint requirements, and technology, all of which have changed since it was published a quarter century ago.
Starting in the early 1970s, the Army began an intense modernization campaign focused on five key weapon systems: a main battle tank, an armored infantry fighting vehicle, an antiaircraft missile system, an attack helicopter, and a utility helicopter. These systems, nicknamed the “Big Five,” came into reality as the M1 Abrams tank, the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Patriot surface-to-air missile system, the AH-64 Apache, and the UH-60 Black Hawk. An additional asset, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, was not part of the Big Five but emerged nearly simultaneously. All of these systems would have significant impact on the Army of Desert Storm. All were designed to meet or overmatch comparable Soviet systems and work together on the battlefield. Modernized and upgraded variants of all of these systems are still in widespread use today—a testament to their success.
The Marine Corps similarly has several key modernization and acquisition programs underway. The service is in the middle of what is intended to be the acquisition of 420 F-35 Lighting II jets to replace its legacy F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers. The service is also beginning to receive the first of approximately two hundred CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, and is in the midst of acquiring over six hundred Amphibious Combat Vehicles to replace its fleet of 1970s-era Amphibious Assault Vehicles. All three of these acquisition programs are critical to the future capability of the Marine Corps but they significantly predate both LOCE and EABO. As such, they are not tied to either concept. To date, the Marine Corps’s efforts to reequip the force in accordance with Force Design 2030 plans have been mixed. The service is benefiting from the long-planned arrival of platforms like the F-35, CH-53K, and ACV that will certainly help the service modernize, but they are not explicitly tied to requirements related to force design efforts and are likely to face cuts due to an overall downsizing of the Corps and a projected flat or declining top-line defense budget.
At least two acquisition programs are intended to directly support the operationalization of LOCE and EABO. The ROGUE Fires Vehicle is an unmanned platform based on a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle chassis with antiship missiles intended to be critical to the Marines’ plans to “place ships at risk” and contribute to a naval campaign. Yet, despite the ROGUE’s direct applicability to new doctrinal concepts, Congress has historically not supported the effort at the funding level that the Marine Corps has asked for—although the most recent National Defense Authorization Act rectifies some of that deficiency. The Marine Corps and Navy have also been moving forward to quickly acquire a new platform to meet their requirement for a light amphibious warship that “enables distributed maneuver and logistics” in order to make LOCE and EABO possible. While these platforms have direct ties to LOCE and EABO, the service has had a hard time explaining why it needs them and communicating how they fit, collectively, into its vision of how the Marine Corps will fight in the future—something the Army did well by bundling its acquisition programs together as the Big Five. The disadvantage the Marine Corps faces—compared to the Army, especially during the Reagan presidency—is the likelihood of tightening defense budgets and consequently difficult decisions about which programs to prioritize. This, though, makes it all the more important that the Corps has not only a credible vision of the future operational environment and how it will fight in it, but a cohesive narrative explaining both—and what equipment will be required for that fight.
Perhaps the most important difference between the situation confronting the Marine Corps today and the Army’s experience during the 1970s is that there will not be a manpower change anywhere near as sweeping as the transition to the all-volunteer force in 1973. But that does not mean the Marine Corps would not see similarly remarkable benefits from changes to personnel policy. The Marine Corps is investing in better training, which is critical. But besides telegraphing that the Corps should shrink to pre-2001 levels, the commandant has not outlined any major changes in Marine Corps personnel policy. The current manpower system is an “industrial era” holdover that is not optimized to support the Force Design 2030 effort. According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution on enlisted personnel management practices:
Today’s Marine Corps enlisted manpower management practices are unnecessarily disruptive to cohesion, wasteful of talent, inimical to the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy, and incompatible with requirements of the modern battlefield. The hidden assumptions underpinning the way the Marine Corps fills its enlisted ranks require urgent, sober, dispassionate, thorough, and courageous reexamination.
But the commandant has at least acknowledged that the redesign “will hinge on our ability to match it with some kind of talent management process. . . . If not then we’ll end up with a structure or equipment that we can’t match with the right human beings.” The Brookings report argues that in order to meet its stated goals, the Marine Corps needs to increase retention and mature the force instead of relying on a high turnover of junior personnel to keep manpower costs low. Increasing retention and maturing the force would also increase the return on investment that the Marine Corps receives when it trains Marines and would lower the pressure on the Corps to meet its recruiting goals in support of high personnel turnover.
The commandant is seeking to reform and revise an industrial model of manpower management. The most drastic policy changes in the last decade were the opening of all combat jobs to women in 2015 and the ongoing gender integration of recruit training. Neither are related to the force design efforts. Major reforms of the ways that the Marine Corps retains, promotes, and assigns Marines could generate the level of positive change similar to the boost from shifting to the all-volunteer force if it received the appropriate focus from Marine leadership.
Talent Management 2030, released in November 2021, helps illuminate the path forward. The changes here come largely as no surprise but they are insightful and a welcome revelation after the most recent Force Design 2030 update only called for relatively minor changes to personnel policy in specific Marine Corps communities like the infantry, aviation, and health care—and even those changes are not prioritized nor particularly significant. Talent Management 2030 “charts a new course for our personnel system,” and recognizes that the industrial model of talent management, recruiting, and retention need significant overhauls.
In terms of training and education, the Marine Corps has made progress and is far ahead of where the Army was in the 1970s, largely because it has already incorporated the lessons of the post-Vietnam era. The Marine Corps established Training and Education Command, similar to the Army’s TRADOC, in 2000 and it is not only responsible for doctrine and training but also education and Marine Corps University. The Marine Corps also already runs battalion-level combined arms training exercises in the California desert at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms not far from where the Army runs its own exercises at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin. While the Marine Corps’s major service-level exercises still have a distinct Cold War feel, with enemies patterned on Soviet formations, they have also been reinvigorated with large-scale, force-on-force action and new technologies like drones. At the individual training level, the Corps recently completed the pilot course for a complete revamp of its basic infantry training intended to better prepare Marines to face an adversary like China. And the force will likely benefit from a Department of Defense–wide mandate that professional military education focus more on China in its curriculums. Overall, the Marine Corps is already giving the appropriate focus on updating training and education as part of its redesign while benefiting from already well-developed organizations. This is important. But it remains to be seen what kind of larger and much-needed personnel policy changes it may make.
The time is right for the Marine Corps to execute the changes envisioned as part of Force Design 2030 in order to adapt to the changing operational environment. The Army’s successful reforms after the Vietnam War provides a clear model to emulate. Doing so would entail sufficiently significant investments in doctrine, equipment, and personnel management. So far, the Marine Corps has taken steps in the first two areas—LOCE and EABO explain how the Marine Corps wants to fight, and ongoing acquisition programs will give Marines the tools they need to do so. But more work remains to be done. In the third area, to date the Marine Corps has neglected major reforms and investment in personnel policy, which could blunt the effectiveness of the force design effort. Though many of the control levers for manpower reside with the Department of Defense and Congress, the service needs to find ways to improve personnel policy, or it may fall short of its overall Force Design 2030 goals.
The Marine Corps is off to a strong start on its ambitious force design efforts, but that is what it is—only a start. As efforts continue over the coming years, the US Army’s transformational experiences after the Vietnam War offer a guide to the Marine Corps and highlight the most important pieces of the reforms.
Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer at the Colombian Naval Academy. He is a nonresident master of arts student at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Security and Defense, a nonresident fellow at the Krulak Center for Innovation and Future War at Marine Corps University, and a nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. He holds an MA in international relations and modern war from King’s College London and received a BA from Brown University in history and archaeology.
Timothy Heck is the deputy editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is an artillery officer in the US Marine Corps Reserve, currently assigned as a joint historian with Marine Corps History Division. He holds a BA in American Studies from Georgetown University and an MA in War in the Modern World from King’s College London.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: PHC D. W. HOLMES II, US Navy