We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

General David Berger became commandant of the Marine Corps on July 11, 2019 and immediately published his Commandant’s Planning Guidance, which laid out his vision for where the Marine Corps needed to go:

Central to Berger’s vision is the ability to operate within an adversary’s (read China’s) bubble of air, missile, and naval power (which the Marine Corps calls the weapons engagement zone, or WEZ). The concept is that the Marine Corps will be a “stand-in force” that will operate within this WEZ, not a stand-off force that must start outside and fight its way in. As the guidance states: “Stand-in forces [are] optimized to operate in close and confined seas in defiance of adversary long-range precision ‘stand-off capabilities.’”

One requirement to implement this concept is developing “low signature, affordable, and risk worthy platforms” because existing ships and aircraft are the opposite—highly capable but expensive, few, and highly visible.

Another element of the concept is “distributed operations,” the ability of relatively small groups to operate independently rather than as part of a large force, as in previous wars. “We recognize that we must distribute our forces ashore given the growth of adversary precision strike capabilities.” Thus, small Marine forces would deploy around the islands of the first island chain and the South China Sea, each element having the ability to contest the surrounding air and naval space using anti-air and antiship missiles. Collectively, these forces would hem in Chinese forces, prevent them from moving outward, and ultimately, as part of a joint campaign, squeeze them back to the Chinese homeland.

A third element was institutional: the Marine Corps would leave sustained ground combat to the Army and focus on the littorals. Ground wars in the Middle East, North Korea, and Europe would be Army responsibilities.

The final element was political: General Berger judged that defense budgets are likely to be flat for the foreseeable future. “My assumption is flat or declining [budgets], not rising…. If [an increase] happens, great, but this is all built based on flat or declining [budgets].” Thus, unlike in the previous five years, when rising budgets allowed new investment and stable force levels, trade-offs would now be necessary. If the Marine Corps wanted to invest in new capabilities, it had to cut some existing units.


Maintaining small and vulnerable units deep inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone will be challenging. Even small units need a continuous resupply with fuel and munitions. If that is not possible, or if the Chinese figure out a way to hunt these units down, the concept collapses.

The Wall Street Journal gives its own summary:

The 10-year plan to revamp the Corps, scheduled to be unveiled this week, follows years of classified U.S. wargames that revealed China’s missile and naval forces to be eroding American military advantages in the region.

“China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat,” Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, said in an interview. “If we did nothing, we would be passed.”

To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the Marines plan to get rid of all of their tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, Gen. Berger said.


Among an array of new high-tech programs, the Air Force is developing a hypersonic missile that would travel five times the speed of sound, and has been experimenting with the “loyal wingman,” an unmanned aircraft that would carry bombs and fly in formations with piloted planes.

The Army, which has established a Futures Command to oversee its transformation, tested a cannon at the Yuma Proving Ground earlier this month that fired shells about 40 miles—roughly twice the range of current systems. The Navy, for its part, has been developing tactics to disperse aircraft carrier battle groups to make them a less inviting target for Chinese medium-range missiles, and it is pursuing the development of unmanned submarines and ships.


The Pentagon’s $705 billion spending request for the 2021 fiscal year includes the largest research-and-development budget in 70 years: nearly $107 billion.


If war broke out, U.S. officials concluded, China could fire hundreds of missiles at U.S. and allies’ air bases, ports and command centers throughout the Pacific, jam the U.S. military’s GPS, attack American satellite systems and use its air defenses to keep U.S. warplanes at bay.

Russia similarly would use the surface-to-surface missiles, air defenses and antiship missiles deployed in Kaliningrad and on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

The [Marines’ Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va.] has run classified wargames such as “Pacific Surprise” and “Ghost Fleet,” which looked at how the Marines might counter the Chinese threat in the decade ahead.

For the Marines, the new Pentagon strategy raised questions about whether it should adapt for a toe-to-toe fight against China or should concentrate on lesser but still challenging dangers.

“The wargames do show that, absent significant change, the Marine Corps will not be in a position to be relevant” in a clash with a “peer competitor,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, who succeeded Gen. Berger as the head of that command.

Gen. Berger’s answer was to reconfigure the Corps to focus on a China threat. The Marines would fight within reach of Chinese missiles, planes and naval forces to blunt any aggression. While other services might lob missiles from long range, the Marines, in military parlance, would operate inside “the weapons engagement zone.”


At the heart of Gen. Berger’s plan is the establishment of new naval expeditionary units—what the Marines call “littoral regiments”—whose mission would be to take on the Chinese navy.

If a military confrontation loomed, the regiments would disperse small teams of Marines, who would rush in sleek landing craft to the tiny islands that dot the South and East China Seas, according to Gen. Berger and other senior Marine officers. Armed with sensor-laden drones that operate in the air, on the sea and underwater, the Marines would target Chinese warships before they ventured into the wider Pacific Ocean. The Marine teams, which could have 50 to 100 personnel, would fire antiship missiles at the Chinese fleet. Targeting data also would be passed to Air Force or Navy units farther away, which would fire longer-range missiles.

To elude retaliatory blows, the Marines would hop from island to island every 48 or 72 hours, relying on a new generation of amphibious ships, which could be piloted remotely. Other Marine teams would operate from U.S. warships with decoy vessels nearby.

Gen. Berger said the wargames showed that the new Marine capabilities and tactics would create “a ton of problems” for the Chinese forces. “It is very difficult for them to counter a distributed naval expeditionary force that is small, that is mobile, but has the capability to reach out and touch you,” he said.

To carry out the strategy, the Marines would deploy new missile batteries, armed drone units and amphibious ships. A major push is being made to ease the logistical burden, such as exploring the use of 3-D printing on the battlefield to make spare parts. The strategy requires deeper integration with the Navy, and Marine teams might perform other missions like refueling submarines or sub-hunting planes. While most of the effort to transform the Corps is focused on the Pacific, the Marines would retain other forces to respond to crises world-wide, including floating 2,200-strong Marine expeditionary units

To fund the new capabilities, the Marines will dispense with all of its tanks over the next few years, eliminate its bridge-laying companies and cut back on aviation and howitzers. “We need an Army with lots of tanks,” Gen. Berger said. “We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war.

Ghost Fleet is a reference to the book of the same name, which I’ve discussed a few times.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    This sounds like a very light infantry force, equipped and trained like parachute regiments or SOCOM, little firepower and little mobility (mostly foot). The units would depend on the Army for artillery and armored support and for transport of all kinds.

    Such units would be easily overrun by regular infantry.

    It has been clear for quite some time that amphibious assaults against a major power like Russia, China, India or even Pakistan, Brazil, and maybe Iran were literally impossible and suicidal. That includes air assaults.

    Attacks by surface ships, especially carrier strike groups, is also suicidal and impossible.

    So, the real question is whether there is a function for the Marine Corps in the modern world. One can still imagine a sea-control role for the carriers, at least one that keeps them out of range of modern anti-ship weapons.

    On the other hand, if a war were to break out and persist for more than a month or two, all the modern stuff and the highly trained troops would be used up without replacement, and everyone would go back to badly trained, ill-equipped conscripts.

  2. Kentucky Headhunter says:

    What Bob said, only more so. It just seems like an extremely stupid plan.

  3. Kirk says:

    I’ll be over here in the corner, ambivalent as I can be.

    The Marines have been on a bit of an “out of lane” tangent since WWII, in that they’ve been playing way out of their league in terms of role and mission. The Marines are not, and should not be a small, bitched-up Army, no matter how badly the Army itself is cocking up its assigned role. The Marines have a bit of a problem, in that they do not envisage themselves as being for anything other than the traditional “90 days, 90 miles from the sea” sort of thing, but at the same time, they’ve refused to give up the delusions of grandeur that go with equipping themselves with toys that encourage going beyond those limits. You don’t need M1 tanks for the sort of missions they want to do, and if they are going to try to play Army, then they need the tools and staff to do so, which means that they’re no longer the strong right arm of the Navy, and more some neither fish nor fowl affair that lends itself to misuse.

    You saw the sort of thing I’m talking about with regards to Somalia; the Marines were put in charge of that, and maybe it was a good place for them to be in charge, but… The Army looked at the mission, said “Yeah, you’re gonna need X and Y, along with Z, y’all don’t have that on your MTOE, so we’ll get it spun up for you guys…”. At which point, the Marines said “Nope, don’t need none o’that boooolsheeet… Y’all just stand back and watch how real men do things…”. Two weeks later, with Marines way beyond their logistical tethers and starting to eat the relief supplies themselves, they were like “Uhm, yeah, Army…? You guys need to support us better!! We need X and Y, and some of that Z stuff as well, and we need it NOW!! Get off your asses and get it to us… Oh, and don’t send us none of them girls, either…”.

    Stories I could tell. That was a total clusterf**k, from the standpoint of logistics and what the Army terms the “TPFDL” or “Time Phased Force Deployment List”, which specifies where and when you need each specialty unit. That whole concept is apparently so much Greek to a lot of Marines on their staffs, because they apparently couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that if you’re gonna haul supplies, you need truck companies, and if you’re gonna run a port, you’re gonna need stevedores and supply wienies to run that port… Even the Navy guys were frustrated with the Marines who were pooh-poohing what the Navy said they’d need to do their part of things, and it was just nuts. At that state of things, the Marines were unable to cope with the “big picture” end of things. During Iraq and Afghanistan, they were better, but… There is still this mindset of austerity and “thinking small”, rather than “Yeah, let’s do this right, logistically…”.

    So, maybe this is the Marines getting back to what they properly should be–A small, elite force that does the difficult sort of work that the Navy needs done ashore, a raiding force rather than an entry force. I think that might actually be more in keeping with the nature of things, but I also remain dubious that future reality is going to conform to expectations. Anyone’s expectations.

    Just like with the Marine choice for a squad support weapon, I’m sitting here on the sidelines going “Well, if that’s what you think you need…”, and keeping my belt-fed solution instead. Y’all wanna play fast and loose, go for it: I’ll opt for pure firepower, and maybe move a bit slower while retaining the capability of blasting the crap out of the enemy, thankyouverymuch…

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    The Marines actually appear to be trying to recover their original role and rasion d’etre, and good for them.

    Recently they have been doing “Army” things in Iraq and the like, and not concentrating on their true role. This is understandable, since one generally wants to get in on whatever is going on and getting operational experience and their “share of the pie”, so to speak.

    A battalion of Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan is not doing anything an equivalent Army formation couldn’t do, and in many cases, is not quite as well equipped to perform that role as said Army formation. On the other hand, if they DON’T participate, they risk losing money and prestige.

    They went through this before in the ’30′s, when the actual existence of the Corps was called into question, and what saved them was WWII and the need to actually do Marine stuff like assaulting beaches etc.

    Looks like the current Commandant is going back to basics. Turning the Corps back into something like what they are actually meant to do, and role and mission focused. If they turn into something a bit more like the British Royal Marines, so much the better, IMHO.

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