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)

7 thoughts on “When Only a Chisel Will Do: Marine Corps Force Design for the Modern Era”

  1. Well stated Skipper. Change is hard and it always gives rise to criticism. That’s why there is only one CMC. Gen Berger can endure the criticism and still make an overdue and well thought out force structure adjustment for the Marine Corps. War evolves so we must.

  2. Retired Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper tell the truth to the commander in mid-2002.

    Marine Corps commander say the predict of future brown-water combat, such as the original operation of LCS.

    But the reason for two disagreements is President’s wrong thought. His wrong thought is whether the naval battle in Western Pacific will be nuclear weapons war, and whether aircraft carrier will be sunk.

    President’s wrong thought will cause major casualties, and conceal his thought will make the same failure as former President Johnson. But no matter major casualties is risk or destiny, it is about the faith of Navy and Marine Corps to accomplish mission.

    So I hope Navy and Marine Corps to trust God.

    I don’t agree that soldier have right to blame officer, but I hope soldier and officer pray to God together as General George Washington and Lincoln confess to God.

    I hope Navy and Marine Corps to think about the origin of Constitution and the meaning of war. We sacrifice ourselves to help other people in order to fulfill our promise with God by justice of God.

  3. Capt. Schmitt errs at the outset of his article when he asserts that the Marine Corps is “an organization notoriously resistant to critical self-examination and change,” unless he believes that of his own generation. If so, that is truly sad, for the Corps I served in for 41 years had a reputation just the opposite, and the historical record proves the point.

    It was such critical self-examination and willingness to change that led to the creation of amphibious warfare doctrine in the 1930s, development of close-air support techniques in the 1940s and vertical envelopment tactics in the 1950s, writing of counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1960s, the stand-up of maritime prepositioning forces in the 1970s, and the fostering of maneuver warfare philosophy in the 1980s and Operational Maneuver from the Sea in the 1990s.

    And these are only the highlights, for there existed underneath each concept new and often unique units such as the 13-man rifle squad, battalion and regimental landing teams, Raider battalions, Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, the Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), and a Chemical Biological Incident Response Force. There were also unique weapons and equipment including amphibious tractors, flame throwing tanks, heavy-lift helicopters, VSTOL aircraft, the M50 Ontos anti-tank vehicle, and many more.

    What the Corps has routinely resisted is uncritical acceptance of the latest supposed bright idea or adoption of the newest fad, such as effects-based operations (EBO) or network-centric warfare (NWC), which promised to eliminate the fog of war.

    I must confess I take considerable exception to Capt. Schmitt’s mischaracterization of those who are speaking and writing against Force Design 2030, specifically the “Stand-in Force” concept. He appears to believe we are unaware of or unwilling to abide by the precepts of maneuver warfare, which he argues is at the heart of change. (The statement that change is at the heart of maneuver warfare indicates the captain is woefully ill-informed; it absolutely is not.) We developed maneuver warfare! We know maneuver warfare, and the “Stand-in Force” is not maneuver warfare!

    I fully agree with Capt. Schmitt that the Marine Corps must change—although as I note, his statement “Change is at the heart of maneuver warfare philosophy” left me scratching my head—but it should be informed change based on frank and open discourse and not the change emerging from a small group of retired Marines cloistered outside of the combat development process and prohibited by non-disclosure agreements from testing the ideas widely.

    Capt. Schmitt’s claim that “years of wargaming” justifies Force Design 2030 Marine Corps does not hold water. Professionals familiar with wargaming will be the first to tell you that war games are not intended to be the basis for decisions on cutting or adding force structure and divesting or acquiring weapons and equipment. Wargames are only a means of exploring operational concepts. Decisions on structure and equipment must be based on experimentation and analytical studies, most of which the Corps has only recently begun to perform—long after it has made irreversible decisions. It has put the proverbial cart before the horse!

    Those Marines who stand in opposition to Force Design 2030 are a varied assembly. They are certainly not just the “old guys” such as me. Among us our some of the most recently retired Marine Corps three- and four-star generals, a plethora of retired one and two-star generals, noted defense analysts, the author of Warfighting, and most importantly a host of retired and former Marines who fill our email accounts daily with messages of support and outrage. We are also applauded by active-duty Marines who believe they cannot speak out because of the risk to their careers.

    Among the “old guys” are many who have remained active within the larger defense community since retiring. We frequently teach and lecture at professional military schools, are sought after by other Services to share our experiences, and mentor widely. We have also continued our own educations and marvel at accusations that we fail to appreciate innovation when we have such examples as General Anthony Zinni, whose doctoral thesis was on innovation in organizations. We were the leaders who introduced computers into the Marine Corps including creating the IT occupational field, oversaw the standup of the Marine Corps University, revitalized doctrine with publication of the MCDP series of manuals, restructured the Intelligence occupational field, lengthened recruit training and created the Crucible, spoke to the “Strategic Corporal” and the “Three-Block War,” and fought for the V-22 Tilt-Rotor aircraft and the F-35.

    The Corps we inherited and passed to Capt. Schmitt’s generation was one where open and frank discussion was encouraged, where it was never the billet or the rank of the person that we found more important, it was the merit of his or her ideas. The plans we produced came from deep intellectual study, were historically informed, and had survived the ordeal of spirited debate across the Corps before the commandant promulgated them. I along with many others are deeply disappointed with the way the Corps’ legacy has and is being mishandled. If these plans are allowed to continue, I fear we will eventually see the demise of our beloved Corps.

    Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, US Marine Corps (Retired)
    Former Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command

    1. Well said and thank you General Van Riper. Unless Congress listens to the critics and soon steps in, Commandant Berger’s “FD2030” will eventually lead to the demise of our beloved Corps. Berger is transforming the Corps into a future Navy Infantry Unit trained spicifically to occupy and defend littoral waters for Navy ships and operations. Like castrating a Pit Bulldog! And the demise will be Berger’s legacy, as he totally owns it hand in foot……… and our USA will suffer.

  4. The hammer and chisel in the hands of an amateur can wreck the statue.
    Was pretty tough to follow the author’s logic and flow. Change is certain, progress is not. The wrong change invites disaster. The French response to the carnage of WWI was the Maginot Line. The result was catastrophic failure. Amateurs often fixate on a specific change as critical to success. It soon become legend and the true complexity and coordination is ignored. War is like no other human endeavor. The full understanding of how things link, support, enhance and compliment is complex. Simple statements that point out that Missile X, Y or Z has a given range and can sink ships is sophomoric dribble. Much of General Berger’s approach is woefully ignorant of what a combined force brings to the fight long before the first amphibious ship sails within range. Every amateur strategist declares air craft carriers, tanks, artillery, amphibious landings, manned aircraft and infantry obsolete. Not just yet.

  5. The Heart of Maneuver Warfare Philosophy is a Way of Thinking, a Mindset, Fighting Smarter

    Kudos to Capt. Jesse Schmitt for addressing FD2030 and touching upon maneuver warfare. It is good to hear from a company grade officer on this extremely important topic. Hopefully, he will inspire a broader debate to include more company grade officers, SNCOs, and NCOs.

    Capt. Schmitt contends, “Change is at the heart of maneuver warfare philosophy.” To use Capt. Schmitt’s words, this statement is no doubt “well meaning, but wrong”. General Al Gray often posits that maneuver warfare is “a way of thinking, a mindset”; it is about “fighting smarter.” If one researches Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications (MCDP) such as MCDP1 or MCPD-7 one will find references to maneuver warfare being “a way of thinking, a mindset”.1

    Why is maneuver warfare “a way of thinking, a mindset” because it is human-centric. FD2030 is techno-centric. Maneuver Warfare practitioners observe, orient, decide, act and react to changing situations. Can stand-in forces as envisioned by FD2030 really do any of that? Or are tech-centric stand-in forces betting on a come employing technology against a thinking enemy hoping that the technology works. If the technology doesn’t work, or work as well as desired, than what?

    To be sure, the heart of maneuver warfare philosophy is a way of thinking, a mindset, fighting smarter, not change. Change in military bureaucracies more often than not creates the illusion that something is being done or is happening. In reality this change amounts to nothing more than “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.

    Lastly, I was curious about Capt. Schmitt’s quotation attributed to Alexis Carrell: “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.”. While Carrell was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine (1912), it made me very uncomfortable to learn that the British Journal of General Practice (2019) went to great pains explaining why Carrell died “in disgrace:” This was a consequence of his support for eugenics and his “eugenic research in the Third Reich, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics.” 2 I respectfully caution against using sources that may be associated with extreme beliefs, particularly, in today’s social media environment.

    1 https://grc-usmcu.libguides.com/research-topics/main/usmc-doctrine
    2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31249090/

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