Tag Archives: FD2030

When Only a Chisel Will Do: Marine Corps Force Design for the Modern Era

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

Capt. Jesse Schmitt, U.S. Marine Corps

One of the U.S. Marine Corps’ greatest strengths has been a weakness of late. Its storied history and rich service culture make it an organization notoriously resistant to critical self-examination and change. If “man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor,” then the Marine Corps is particularly fond of its own marble and sensitive to the chisel.1 Such a fondness explains the spate of articles from retired Marine Corps leaders criticizing the “hasty” execution of 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) and lamenting they sacrifice critical aspects of the Marine Corps combined arms heritage.

Taken sincerely, it represents well-intentioned men and women expressing concern for a service they care about. However, they should not be heeded if the Marine Corps is to realize its status as a modern and relevant force provider. Change is at the heart of maneuver warfare philosophy. This framework should guide the Marine Corps’ plans strategically as it does tactically, given the trajectory of global affairs. Applied, this process will see the Marine Corps carve its own marble to provide relevant and novel capabilities to combatant commanders, while shedding legacy capabilities that are ill-suited for the realities of the modern battlefield.

Well Meaning, But Wrong

It is useful to understand the critiques leveled at the Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Some of the critiques can be specifically refuted, such as General Zinni’s (USMC (ret.)), assertion that the proposed changes “do not meet … requirements and do not meet the needs of the combatant commander.”2 Meanwhile, General Todd Wolters, current Commander of U.S. European Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that the changes “dramatically enhance(s) our options … a brown-water force that can shoot, move and communicate and is very expeditionary is priceless for 21st century security.”3 Lieutenant General Van Riper’s chief complaint concerns the speed of change and overall lack of due diligence. This commentary fails to account for years of wargaming and study dating back to Commandant Neller’s tenure and for several years’ worth of oversight from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Joint Staff, and Congress.4

Notably, nearly all of the capabilities slated for divestment (with the exception of tanks—shed for the incompatibility of tank units with expeditionary operations) have only been reduced in capacity to make way for novel and relevant capabilities. Despite changes to the III Marine Expeditionary Force, the domestic-based Marine Corp expeditionary forces remain largely unchanged, outside of reduced capacity in cannon artillery (to be replaced by precision long-range fires, such as rockets and missiles) and aircraft.

Change is the Answer

It must be accepted as fact that change is required. The last four Commandants all agree, dating back to 2011, that the Marine Corps must evolve beyond the force that deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve. Even those who oppose the CPG’s restructuring concede the point: Lt Gen. Van Riper (ret.) told Politico, “We recognize that the Marine Corps has to make changes,… what we want to see is these changes based on thorough study and analysis…”5 No serious commenter claims that the Marine Corps should not grow to take advantage of new capabilities and learn to operate in a more complex operating environment impacted by ubiquitous and emerging technologies. The disagreement, then, exists over the speed and extent of said changes.

Incremental change fails to achieve the objective of the change. The purpose of the Marine Corps’ evolution is to frustrate the adversary’s plans to mitigate Marine capabilities. Strategic competitors have observed the Department of Defense’s actions over the last two decades of operations and structured themselves accordingly.6 What they have not planned to directly counter and destroy, they have done their best to copy. A current Marine infantry battalion, equipped and enabled with legacy systems, represents a dangerous and noteworthy quantity, but a known one.

For example, the classical model of Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU)—consisting of three ships, with a composite squadron on the big deck, and a Battalion Landing Team organized as company raid forces — have routinely deployed for decades, establishing patterns of employment and capability. These are not incapable systems and their roles as flexible deterrents below the threshold of conflict are useful, but they have existed long enough in their current forms that adversaries have developed counters to reduce their deterrent value.

Taken further, Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) proliferation limits the MEU’s Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) littoral access (and relevance) in conflict.7 However, adding piecemeal capabilities, such as unmanned systems to an infantry battalion or Information-Related Capabilities (IRCs) to a MEU does not move the needle. An organization committed to maneuver warfare should recognize these adaptations by competitors and modify itself to maintain an advantage.

The Marine Corps’ Greatest Strength

Fortunately, the Marine Corps’ greatest asset has always been its people, particularly those that lead Marines in chaotic and unknowable environments. From the outset, Marine leaders are trained to act in the “intrinsically unpredictable” nature of war, because that is what enables success in combat.8 Do not take the Marine Corps’ word for it, either. In 2015, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Central Military Commission, chaired by President Xi Jinping released a document that came to be known as the Five Incapables.” The document detailed shortcomings of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) force, particularly the inability of enlisted and junior officers to judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, and deal with unexpected situations. This document has been referenced hundreds of times in the PLA Daily—the official newspaper of the PLAbetween 2015 and 2019.9

The contrast is clear: where strategic competitors struggle to cope with ambiguous situations the Marine Corps thrives in them. The reasons for this trait in autocratic systems are manifold, from a reliance on higher-ranking decision makers to political oversight of commanding officers.10,11 The best way for the Marine Corps to be a relevant, capable resource to Combatant Commanders is to be a force that can create those ambiguous, chaotic situations and then use its advantage in them to win. That principle holds true regardless of the adversary from the Indo-Pacific to the polar regions and points in between.

A smaller, less expensive, but uncertain and survivable entity can be more disruptive to the enemy’s understanding of the situation than any current systems, making it a more effective use of resources. Developing new capabilities to modernize the Marine Corps’ ability to defeat an enemy’s plan is precisely what maneuver warfare doctrine calls for to “circumvent a problem and attack it from a position of advantage.”12 With ubiquitous advances in long range fire — not just in the Indo-Pacific — highly nimble, survivable, and independent forces capable of operating inside a given weapons engagement zone will critical to a future fight.

Finally, what all critiques have failed to appreciate is that the most important change is not equipment or manpower, it is the creation and invigoration of a culture that seeks novel solutions to novel problems. By publishing the CPG, making important divestments, and following through, the Commandant of the Marine Corps has empowered an entire generation of Marines to think boldly about what comes next. The opportunity cost of maintaining antiquated structures and systems is not just fiscal, but one of growth. Necessity, embodied by a new environment, drives innovation and creates novel problems for competitors. The CPG has explicitly called out the new environment and situation; it is now the institution’s responsibility to adapt.

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance appropriately and meaningfully empowers institutional change in recognition of a shifting environment and the capabilities of strategic competitors. The inherent challenges of the modern battlefield cannot be met by legacy structures and systems. The process—akin to maneuver warfare at the strategic level—will not be painless, as the Marine Corps carves from its own marble to provide relevant and novel capabilities to combatant commanders in any clime or place.

Captain Jesse Schmitt is the S-2a for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa, Japan. He has a Master’s degree in International Relations and has written for CIMSEC, War on the Rocks, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and the Marine Corps Gazette


  1. Alexis Carrel, “Man, the Unknown”, 1935
  2. https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/zinni-marine-corps-role/
  3. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/01/corps-detat-how-two-dozen-retired-generals-are-trying-to-stop-an-overhaul-of-the-marines-00022446
  4. https://warontherocks.com/2020/02/to-deter-china-the-naval-services-must-integrate/
  5. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/01/corps-detat-how-two-dozen-retired-generals-are-trying-to-stop-an-overhaul-of-the-marines-00022446
  6. http://www.nids.mod.go.jp/publication/chinareport/pdf/china_report_EN_web_2022_A01.pdf
  7. https://www.andrewerickson.com/2014/05/a-low-visibility-force-multiplier-assessing-chinas-cruise-missile-ambitions/
  8. MCDP-1, Warfighting
  9. https://warontherocks.com/2019/02/the-chinese-military-speaks-to-itself-revealing-doubts/ 
  10. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/11/27/national/japan-china-military-report-integration/
  11. https://news.usni.org/2020/07/03/political-commissars-on-chinese-warships-play-crucial-role-in-interactions-with-foreign-vessels
  12. MCDP-1, Warfighting

Featured Image: Marines with 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, arrive at one of their launch positions with the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System at the Air Combat Element landing strip as a part of Integrated Training Exercise 3-18 aboard the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., May 21, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal William Chockey)

Marine Corps Metamorphosis: Legal Considerations

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Brent Stricker

The ongoing transformation of the U.S. Marine Corps has raised some controversy and prompted wide-ranging discussions on the future of the Corps. Opponents of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, or EABO, are concerned that proven combat power like tanks and tube artillery, are being sacrificed to create a new force that is less flexible, and would provide a single tool fit for only one operational problem. EABO and the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) are supposed to be an answer to the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). EABO is best understood as a virtual network of scout snipers extending the eyes and fires of the fleet. Marines, operating as Stand-in Forces, will hide in the littoral spaces inside an enemy’s Weapons Engagement Zone or “WEZ,” where they can support a friendly fleet that has to remain outside the WEZ. These forces will also rely on use deception and signature management, displacing every 48 to 72 hours using high-speed, low signature craft and use decoys that an enemy will struggle to target. Critics have also argued that TMEABO abandons the Marines Corps’ fundamental doctrine as described in MCDP-1 Warfighting. But this ignores the warnings of General Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, in the preface to MCDP-1: “Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.” EABO is firmly based in the tenants of maneuver warfare where speed, surprise, deception, and ambiguity are essential. Preliminary doctrine for this force has been laid out in the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, or TMEABO, a publication that pays homage to the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations—and a previous effort to remake the Marine Corps for amphibious warfare during the interwar years.

Despite the breadth of conversation surrounding EABO, operational law has been largely ignored in the discussions, by both critics and proponents of the new concept. As the U.S. Marine Corps develops and transforms its doctrine for EABO, it must consider what impacts international law will have on future operations. Key factors to consider include targeting, degraded logistics, deception plans, and territorial access.


 EABO will see the Marine Corps embrace a new form of targeting, particularly when integrated with the Navy. In the past, Marines were concerned with targeting military objectives on land, while limiting collateral and incidental damage to civilians and civilian objects. EABO will see Marines engaging naval platforms, like enemy submarines and warships, where the make-up of the vessel’s crew is irrelevant in the targeting process.

The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations provides a concise reference for the law concerning targeting such platforms. During conflict, enemy warships, naval auxiliaries, and military aircraft may be attacked or captured anywhere outside neutral territory without warning. Attacks on surface ships must cease when they have indicated an intention to surrender such as striking their colors, stopping, or surfacing if a submarine. A submerged submarine or disabled aircraft are subject to attack until destruction due to the uncertainty of surrender.

Enemy merchant vessels and civil aircraft are subject to capture outside neutral territory. They may be attacked if they are engaged in belligerent acts or conduct war-sustaining/war-supporting activity. If they actively resist visit and search or capture, persistently refuse to heave to after being ordered to do so, convoy with enemy warships, or are armed with weapons greater than needed for self-defense from pirates or terrorists, they may be attacked. In such case, enemy merchant vessels and civil aircraft are not innocently employed and they risk destruction.

Some enemy vessels may not be attacked or captured. Enemy hospital ships and medical aircraft may not be attacked, but they must be appropriately marked and registered. Other vessels are also immune based on their use. This status could include ships involved in prisoner exchange, or religious, scientific, or philanthropic use. Finally, small coastal vessels engaged in local fishing are immune from attack.

Contested Logistics

Marine Stand-In Forces will not be able to rely on a global supply chain and may be forced to subsist off the civilian infrastructure of a host nation or what may be seized from the enemy. As the Marine Corps develops new doctrine for EABO, it will need to consider how to requisition property in a host nation or in occupied enemy territory.

The initial question is where the property to be acquired is located, in host nation or enemy territory? In host nations, the Marine Corps will use local contractors and venders through contracting officers and purchase agents. If local property is seized or damaged, a Foreign Claims Agent will step in to pay compensation.

In the past, invading armies have foraged for their supplies. This allowed for the seizure of food and livestock to support an invading army. During the American Civil War, for example, the Lieber Code made a distinction between private and public property. Public property could be seized and used by the invading army. Private property was protected and could be seized only when military necessity required it. Even in such case, the property owner was entitled to fair compensation.

The 1907 Hague IV Convention for Land Warfare expanded the protection of both private and public property. In addition to a prohibition on destruction, unless required by military necessity, compensation was expected for damage or destruction. Hague IV also addressed the use of property during an occupation by a foreign power. An occupying army was only permitted to requisition property for its needs and the items taken had to be proportionate to the ability of the locality to provide them. Civilians were expected to be compensated in cash or issued a receipt.

The Hague Regulations were supplemented or superseded with four Geneva Conventions in 1949: 1. GC I (Wounded and Sick in the Field) ; 2. GC II (Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked at Sea) ; 3. GC III (Prisoners of War); and GC IV (Civilians). Article 34 of GC I notes that aid societies’ property be treated as private and subject to requisition only in “case of urgent necessity” and after the wounded and sick have been cared for.

GC III also makes a distinction between requisition of private and public property. Article 18 of GC III notes that POWs have the right to retain personal property including clothing, feeding utensils, and protective equipment. This was felt necessary because during the Second World War, many POWs were stripped of personal property and their issued equipment. This was an incorrect interpretation of a belligerent’s right to seize an enemy’s public property.

Since the right of requisition is tied to occupation of enemy territory, a discussion of what constitutes occupation is necessary. The 2016 Commentary to Article 34 of GC I notes occupation does not begin at the front lines. Article 42 of Hague IV defines occupation as control of territory. The DOD Law of War Manual requires that the occupation be actual, effective, and the territory must be under the authority of the hostile army.

GC IV (Civilians) placed certain obligations on an occupying power toward the civilian population. Article 55 discusses the obligation to provide food and medical supplies to civilians. Requisition may only be used to support the occupying force, not the war effort. If requisition does occur, compensation must be paid, and requisitions must consider the needs of the civilian population. The 1958 Commentary to Article 55 and Article 147 label excessive requisitioning a grave breach of the convention subject to prosecution as a war crime.

The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare provides a summary of the U.S. policy on protecting public and private property. It prohibits pillaging and the destruction of property “unless imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.” It notes that requisition may occur, but only in occupied areas and with the use of receipts and compensation.

Deception and Distinction to Protect Civilians

EABO relies on deception to ensure the survivability of Marines. The Stand-in Forces guidance suggests the use of civilian infrastructure to achieve this by using civilian vessels, vehicles, and civilian communication infrastructure. This deception plan must be balanced against the requirement to protect civilians and civilian objects. This principle is known as distinction where the law recognizes the protected status of civilians and civilian property from that of combatants and military objectives.

GC IV and Additional Protocol I represent what many countries accept as customary international law. The United States’ position on protected persons and places is contained in the DOD Law of War Manual and the Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare. These publications note that commanders must take feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to protected persons and objects and to separate civilians from military operations where possible. Similar principles appear in Article 57 and Article 58 of AP I.

Any deception plan must be balanced with these requirements. Marines operating in and among the civilian population must ensure that they are distinct from noncombatants and do not place noncombatants at risk. Article 58(b) of AP I requires the parties to the conflict to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas. Moreover, the use of human shields is expressly prohibited by U.S. Policy and Article 51(7) of AP I.

The plan must also avoid perfidy. Marines may not employ a deception plan that leads the enemy to believe the Marines have a protected status. Perfidy is defined in Article 37 of AP I, the DOD Law of War Manual, and Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare. Examples include the use of symbols of protected organizations, such as the International Red Cross; pretending to be a non-combatants, feigning surrender the use of flags of a neutral country. At sea, however, false flag operations are permitted until such time as naval combat is undertaken. For example, if Marines employ the Light Amphibious Warship, the law of naval warfare would allow the use of a false flag until hostilities commence.

Territorial Access

The Stand-in Forces guidance envisions the Marines defending the territory of an allied nation. EABO does not exclude seizing hostile territory, but it is more likely that the EABO A2/AD strategy will be used on a host nation’s territory in collective self-defense. The issue of access to this territory is key, and the stakes in international law are quite high. States exercise and enjoy sovereignty over their national territory and the territorial sea and the airspace above the land and the territorial sea.

East China Sea

The 1960 Japan-U.S. Security Agreement establishes a U.S. defense obligation to protect Japan and U.S. in Japan. Cooperation with Japan’s Self Defense Force must consider its limited authority. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution was written to renounce war and the threat or use of force to resolve international disputes. A 2014 Japanese Cabinet Decision and the passing of the Armed Attack and Existential Crisis Situations Act potentially allows for Japan to act in what might be considered collective self-defense with the United States or another country when the situation poses a threat to Japan. The government has described three potential scenarios for the use of force: an anticipatory armed-attack, an actual armed attack, and an existential threat to Japan by an attack on a closely allied nation. This third scenario would likely include an attack upon the United States that threatens the U.S. ability to defend Japan. A crisis concerning Taiwan also might give rise to such a situation.

Security ambiguity is at the heart of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is authorized to provide Taiwan with weapons sufficient for Taiwan’s self-defense. The Act makes no commitment to defend Taiwan only stating an expectation that the One China policy must be peacefully resolved. Nonetheless, the United States would consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.

If the People’s Republic of China invaded or were preparing to invade Taiwan, both Japan and the United States may be drawn into the conflict. Japan exercises sovereignty and control of the Senkaku Islands adjacent to Taiwan. This claim is disputed by both the PRC and Taiwan. The United States acknowledges that its defense commitment extends to the Senkaku Islands under the administration of Japan. If an invasion crisis emerges in the region, the Marines may establish EABs on the Senkaku Islands to defend or deter aggression against the Ryukyu Islands or Japan proper. The inherent threat to U.S. forces in Japan would likely draw the Japanese Self Defense Forces into taking measures in concert with U.S. forces for collective self-defense.

South China Sea

The most likely country to allow the Marines ashore in the South China Sea is the Philippines. U.S.-Philippines relations have been turbulent dating back to the Philippine-American War when the United States invaded, and colonized the Philippines. Cold War pressures led to the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines which provided for mutual support if there was an attack on the territory of either of the parties, island territories under their jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, or their armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific. The end of the Cold War and growing anti-American sentiment led the Philippine government to reject renewing a basing agreement and all U.S. forces were removed from the Philippines in the early 1990s. The subsequent Global War on Terror and continued bi-lateral training missions have seen U.S. forces return. U.S. service members are governed by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which has been a football in Philippine national politics. It was renounced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on February 11, 2020 only to be reinstated July 30, 2021. Nonetheless, under the VFA, U.S. personnel may only be temporarily in the Philippines in connection with activities approved by the Philippine government. 

The ability of Marine forces to access key maritime terrain in the Pacific will ultimately be determined by diplomacy and legal agreements. Every country will weigh its own diplomatic, economic, and defense requirements before granting access to US forces. As events unfold in the struggle of competition, to crisis, to conflict, new partners may emerge and old ones may fall away.


The future codification and operationalization of EABO will be constrained by international law. Marines will have to adapt their targeting to a new missions which target platforms and not individuals. Degraded and contested logistics will increase the demands on purchasing and contract agents. Deception plans will be forced to consider the obligation to protect civilians. EABO will be conducted in cooperation with host nation forces granting access in collective self-defense. Ultimately, EABO is a transformational warfighting concept that requires careful input by legal advisers and USMC judge advocates to ensure it unfolds consistent with international law and U.S. policy.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as the Director for Expeditionary Operations and as a military professor of international law at the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Stephen Mathews, a Liberty, Indiana native, and rifleman with 3d Battalion, 3d Marines conducts a combat patrol during Bougainville III at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patrick King)