WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps has updated its Force Design 2030 plans, putting a stronger emphasis on the reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance competition as foundational to lethality, the commandant said.
Gen. David Berger told reporters May 5 the original Force Design 2030 focused heavily on the lethality of small, distributed units of Marines — whether hauling ground-based anti-ship missiles around island chains, jamming or shooting down aircraft or even detecting and firing upon submarines going through chokepoints.
But, asked by Defense News what he’s more confident about now than a year ago, Berger said none of those lethal effects matter much if the Marines can’t effectively see and hide from the enemy.
“Although we began three years ago heavily focused on lethality, which remains important, now coming to the fore is the importance of the hider/finder, reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance, screening/counter-screening, whatever term you’d like to use — the importance of winning that upfront and always,” Berger said.
“It doesn’t diminish the importance of lethality, but you can’t use the lethality if you can’t find them. Or, said another way, if you’re so big and fat and immobile and vulnerable to their sensors, all the lethality in the world ain’t going to help you. So winning that first part, and staying on it,” has become an increasingly important aspect of Force Design 2030 modernization priorities as the service iterates.
In the Force Design 2030 update, released May 9, Berger wrote that the “security environment is characterized by proliferation of sophisticated sensors and precision weapons coupled with growing strategic competition.”
A new concept for stand-in forces “describes the ways Marines will intentionally disrupt the plans of these potential adversaries and defines Stand-in Forces (SIF) as small but lethal forces, designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area as the leading edge of a maritime defense-in-depth,” he continued. “The enduring function for SIF is to help the fleet and joint force win the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance (RXR) battle at every point on the competition continuum.”
Berger first released a Commandant’s Planning Guidance in July 2019, paving the way for Force Design 2030, which was released in March 2020 and then updated in April 2021 and again this month.
In a May 6 roundtable with reporters, the leadership behind Force Design 2030 experimentation and development explained the new focus on sensing as a means of ensuring lethality.
Marine Corps Warfighting Lab Commanding General Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson told Defense News “we’re not coming off the gas on lethality at all,” but “looking at the increasing range of weapons on not just the future battlefield but today, you’ve got to be able to sense the target before you can engage.”
The Marine Corps doesn’t want to be reliant on non-organic sensors — sensors from larger units elsewhere in the theater, Marine forces on U.S. Navy ships or even satellites or other sensors in the joint force — so the small distributed units the Marine Corps plans to deploy have to be able to see farther than they can shoot and incorporate non-organic sensing capabilities as a nice-to-have rather than something they’re dependent on.
The goal, Watson said, is to “develop a balanced portfolio of capabilities so that when we are trying to close kill chains against a modern, multi-domain adversary, we’ve got a complete tool kit.”
Maj. Gen. Eric Austin, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate at Marine Corps headquarters, told reporters the small, distributed units also need resilient communications pathways to use this targeting data, both for their own weapons and to share with the joint force.
Through the past few years of experimentation in support of Force Design 2030, “we’re finding that there is real value in our ability to sense and communicate what we’re coming up with to the broader force.”
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, noted signature management is the other side of the coin of the hider/finder fight with an adversary. He said unit commanders must practice operating with a reduced signature so the enemy has to work harder to spot and target them, despite sensors growing in capability and quantity.
The updated Force Design 2030 plans continue to make investments in lethality, too, with a particular emphasis on loitering munitions and other technology that can add range and precision to what the infantry and artillery communities use today.
Berger said the Marine Corps fundamentally revolves around its three Marine Expeditionary Forces that are each organized around their infantry — and that hasn’t changed under Force Design 2030. What has changed is the idea of how these forces can contribute to a 21st century combined arms fight, and the range of tools they’ll have to locate, close with and destroy enemy forces.
Austin said the Corps is making “considerable investments” in two types of loitering munitions: In the near-term, the service will buy a more technologically mature vehicle-mounted weapon that can be used on the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Light Armored Vehicle — and perhaps future unmanned ground vehicles — to fill an “organic precision fires – mounted” requirement.
Later on, the Marines want loitering munitions in a smaller form factor that could be carried by infantry Marines on foot.
“We absolutely plan to field loitering munitions of substantial quantity and capability, organic to the infantry battalions and the light armored reconnaissance battalions and elsewhere in the Marine Corps,” Austin said.
Watson noted in the call that investment is meant to provide ground units with more capability, not to replace any existing weapons or the Marines that operate them.
Today, he said, mortars have short ranges and lack precision, making them more useful to suppress incoming fire than to hit precise targets — but they’re reliable and all-weather. Loitering munitions have the range and the precision the Marines want, but today are still vulnerable to jamming and bad weather conditions.
Watson said further experimentation will help clarify the right balance of mortars to loitering munitions, but he said the Marine Corps is confident it needs both.
He also noted loitering munitions technology is evolving rapidly and the Marine Corps must remain agile to bring in the best technology available, rather than tie itself to a single system through a long-term contract that doesn’t keep the Marines competitive on the contemporary battlefield.
Austin said the Force Design 2030 update includes a mandate from Berger to take a holistic look at fires across the Marine Corps, identify gaps that have arisen as changes have been made in recent years, and then aggressively find the resources to fill those gaps.
Berger said the 2022 update shows the Marine Corps is dedicated to thoroughly testing new concepts and ideas, collecting data and iterating and changing course as needed, based on the evidence.
“It’s factual; there’s no emotion, there’s no hypothesis,” he said of the updated plan.
Lessons learned from the ongoing war in Ukraine, changes in China’s investments in its People’s Liberation Army Navy, and even the evolution of the battlefield — including a proliferation of space-based and ground-based sensors — are all driving inputs to Force Design, Berger said, but nothing he’s seen has made him question the general path the Marine Corps is on.
“All that we know from our understanding of the environment today and in the future, and technology, and the vector that the PLAN is headed on — which is our pacing challenge, not the most likely challenge but the pacing one — that all points us in this direction,” he said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.