Will the USMC Fumble Maneuver Warfare and defy the Nature of War?

Summary: Force Design 2030 is the USMC’s plan to smash its traditions and re-configure itself to fight China. See the USMC website and the Wikipedia entry for details. Many retired USMC officers believe this to be an unrecoverable error. Here is a second post explaining why.

“Force Design 2030 Fumbles Maneuver Warfare
and the Nature of War”

By Col. Gary I. Wilson, USMC (ret.), LtCol. William A. Woods, USMC (ret.), and Col, Michael D. Wyly, USMC (ret.).

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In the ongoing spirited debate concerning Force Design 2030 (FD2030, the Marine Corps’ singularly-focused-tactic, technique, and procedure (TTP) for the reorganization and employment of its forces in the Indo-Pacific region in the event of a war with China, reaches a very revealing milestone with the publication of the Force Design 2030 Annual Update – May 2022. This, the third iteration of FD 2030, was encouraging in its reference to maneuver warfare – the first such reference to the Corps’ warfighting doctrine of maneuver warfare in any FD 2030 document. In the Conclusion (page 17) the Commandant Gen. David Berger emphatically states that “our ethos, our discipline, and our maneuver warfare approach is not changing.”

This is a significant but hollow claim. The original iteration of FD 2030 (March 2020) did not reference the Corps bedrock maneuver warfare warfighting mindset, doctrine, and philosophy (Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1). Nor did the Annual Update for FD 2030 of April 2021 make any references to the Corps’ warfighting doctrine of maneuver warfare. Up until the FD2030 May 2022 Update concordant with the implementing documents for FD 2030 (A Concept for Stand-in-Forces and Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations), the Marine Corps leaderships appears to have abandoned maneuver warfare and the time-tested concept of the Corps as America’s Force-in-Readiness.

Our concern is that FD2030 is ill-suited to counter the realities of the nature of war. It is a given that war, from low-intensity to near-peer conflict, all share the very same nature of war a greater or lesser degree; it is chaotic, uncertain, disorderly, complex, bloody and violent. Other truisms of war …

  • you will never have enough of the things that are critical to your success, that includes people, ideas and supplies,
  • your carefully planned operations will change the moment you come in contact with the enemy,
  • your weapons and technology are not as effective as you thought they would be,
  • what can go wrong will and everything is difficult,
  • being able to move quickly will greatly enhance your chance of survival (the corollary being that the ability to run away from a fight is just as important as the ability to run towards it), and
  • one of the more important “givens” of war: a moderately resourceful enemy will always seek and likely find a counter to your best laid plans, low-signature deployments, and new-fangled weaponry/technology.

No concept of operations or fighting style can escape these truisms of war. They cannot be dismissed, ignored or violated. They just are part and parcel of human conflict, at any level. The best any force can do is to develop a concept of operations that is flexible and responsive enough to mitigate these “truisms.” The authors of this article are “plank holders” in the adaptation of maneuver warfare by the Marine Corps, intimately involved in its development and eventual acceptance. We believe that FD2030 is a giant leap backwards.

The operational concept of maneuver warfare allows the USMC to operate in a chaotic environment. It increases a Marine force’s odds of survival and success. Doctrinal directions that specify a sequential series of actions will naturally lend themselves to disruption by the unpredictable nature of war. The USMC must embrace chaos. Combatants cannot plan for it but they can replicate it in their training, education. This conditions combatant leadership to expect it.

To be sure, the debate (e.g., here) over the adoption of maneuver warfare did not end with the publication of Warfighting MCDP 1. Nevertheless, the idea that the Marine Corps was an offense oriented, global force-in-readiness designed for rapid deployment to any crises in “any clime and place” was never questioned. Yet, the development and eventual adoption of maneuver warfare by the marine Corps was a “bottom-up” decade-long effort by a number of individuals, civilian and military alike, throughout all the Services.

It is not an exaggeration to say it was student, argued, scrubbed, wire brushed in the field, and vetted throughout the ranks, from private to general, in barracks, headquarters, classrooms, halls of Congress, and even pubs and bars. What the adoption of maneuver warfare was not was the creation of sequestered top-down group working against a backdrop of non-disclosure statements (NDAs) relying on the questionable results of limited number of wargaming iterations a quest for certainty.

The offensive features of maneuver warfare are speed and decentralization of decision-making and focus of effort against critical enemy vulnerabilities within the context of the higher commander’s intent, which would be the basis of combat decision-making throughout the battle. Maneuver warfare was designed not only for possible combat between the United States and the numerically superior forces of the Soviet Union but for other forms of warfare as well. The Cold War ended without a direct confrontation between the superpowers, but maneuver tactics were employed with dramatic success in actions such as Urgent Fury in Grenada (1983) and the Persian Gulf in Kuwait (1991).

In his February 1992 Annual Report to the President and the Congress {pdf here}, the Secretary of Defense said that the Marine Corps validated its maneuver warfare doctrine in combat.

“The effectiveness of our Marine Corps forces was most dramatically demonstrated by the brilliant movement of 1 MEF through numerically superior defensive forces into Kuwait City – revalidating the maneuver warfare doctrine adopted by the Corps.”

Although the majority of combat actions post-Cold War fell in the realm of counterterrorism and counter-insurgency, the lessons learned confirmed the validity of maneuver warfare concepts, concepts relevant to this day and into the future. John Boyd’s dictum remains relevant today and for the future (see more of Boyd’s insights here).

“Terrain doesn’t wage war. Machines don’t wage war. People do and they use their minds!”

Despite the nod to maneuver warfare in the FD2030 Update, FD2030 still seeks the methodical battle. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as everything goes as planned and your enemy does exactly what you want him to do. The French learned the fallacy of that in May, 1940 when attacked by a highly mobile, maneuvering, and aggressive enemy.

Unfortunately, FD2030 unwittingly undermines any offensive maneuver warfare approach by mandating the specifics of employment and deployment in the event of a war with China. It speaks to force design methodology, organization, training, equipping, technology, and the range, accuracy and lethality of modern weapons. Its focus on the destructive power of long-range precision fires has driven the requirement for smaller, lower signature forces and has resulted in the reduction or divestiture of armor, direct support artillery, ground mobility assets, assault support aviation, light attack aviation and combat support capabilities.

Force Design 2030 is defensive in nature and the antithesis of maneuver warfare thinking. FD2030 sows the seeds for a defeat in detail by trying to defend an Indo-Pacific island chain within the Chinese Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ). FD2030 fundamentally positions the majority of the Corps’ warfighting capability on island fixated positions within easy striking range of the Chinese.

These small, isolated Marine units will not be able to avoid detection for long given the electromagnetic energy generated by their weapon systems and a more mobile enemy will easily locate, isolate and destroy them. Additionally, logistically supporting such far-flung detachments would pose considerable challenges, either by air or sea, given the immense distances of the Indo-Pacific region and China’s sophisticated sea mining capabilities. The immobility and relative isolation of units under this TTP will certainly be less-than-adequate when confronted by a mobile maneuvering attacking force (explanation here). It does not reflect our Corps’ warfighting doctrine of maneuver warfare.

As Col. Wyly summed it up well: “FD 2030 is one plan, for one situation, for one theater, based on one technology (missiles), in hopes of doing one thing … and is less than inspiring.” The Marine Corps’ adoption of this singular TTP as strategy is very defensive and reactive to a point of being shallow and non-threatening to potential adversaries. In our estimation, it amounts to surrendering without a fight.

The Marine Corps adoption of TTP (i.e., FD2030) as warfighting concept aimed at a singular threat and in a single theater only encourages potential adversaries to (in the not-too-distant future) take aggressive action against the United States across the entire spectrum of conflict in a range of geographic locations – literally in “every clime and place.”

A study of the history of war reveals that expectations of what a new technology will do are almost always superseded by reality. The telegraph, the airplane, the machine gun were all were expected to change the nature of warfare. They had their effects, but none of them revolutionized war. The heralded dominance of long-range precision fire, and the belief in technology that underwrites it, remains questionable.

FD2030 was developed as a counter to the anticipated lethality of long-range precision fires by avoiding the massing of forces that characterizes traditional amphibious operations. This approach emphasizes distributed operations, a form of maneuver warfare where small units operating across a large area can create an advantage over an adversary through the deliberate use of separation and coordinated tactical actions.

Unfortunately, FD2030 takes these small units and cements them to fixed island positions for the express purpose of delivering long-range precision fires, forgetting that incoming enemy precision fires can prove fatal to those clinging to fixed island positions (explanation here).

As three Marines who were “present at the creation” of maneuver warfare and part of the initiative to get it adopted as the Corps’ dominant warfighting philosophy we know maneuver warfare and FD2030 is not it. FD2030 fumbles maneuver warfare and the nature of war.

See the previous post in this series:
A bad trade for the US Marines.

Authors

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Gary “GI” Wilson is a former infantry officer, has written about maneuver warfare and fourth-generation warfare. He is now an adjunct professor at Palomar College, where he teaches criminology courses. He was a co-author of the seminal paper “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” (Marine Corps Gazette, CC 1989). See his other articles.

William Woods is a retired U.S. Marine LtCol who was involved in the early development of maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps

Michael D. Wyly is a retired U. S. Marine Colonel, has taught and written extensively about maneuver warfare, and is a former Head of Tactics Instruction at the Amphibious Warfare School.

For More Information

See my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about ways to reform the military,  and especially these …

  1. Why a Marine Corps? – by GI Wilson and Tom Hayden (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  2. Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps – by a sergeant in the USMC.
  3. Will feminizing the Marines win wars?
  4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military – By GI Wilson.
  5. The future called the Marine Corps. It refused.
  6. Has our military become a force of pussycats? – William Lind’s review of Martin van Creveld’s book, Pussycats.

Also see these selections from “The Attritionist Letters,” written by junior officers in the USMC, based on their experiences in our mad wars since 9/11.

  1. The US Marines turn away from the future.
  2. The Marines shackling their field-grade officers & losing wars.
  3. Teaching Marine junior officers to obey, not think.
  4. Require Marine officers to do as they’re told so – we can continue losing the WOT!
  5. We prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t worked since WWII).
  6. Train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes.

2 thoughts on “Will the USMC Fumble Maneuver Warfare and defy the Nature of War?”

  1. American tourist

    It is an interesting development and reminds me of WWII, when the USMC was kept out of the European theater. There was a backroom Pentagon war for missions and associated funding, and the MC lost. That’s pretty unfortunate, but perhaps predictable. The Marines went “all in” on becoming a second land army with an identical SOF mission to the actual Army, but naval infantry can never be as good an army as the actual army, so it was predictable they would lose, and lose they did. They’re going to miss out on the ritzy force deployments to Poland, Estonia, and Romania, and miss out on the special forces missions supporting the Ukrainian right sector, Georgian legion, etc. I hope the USMC brass weren’t hoping for a piece of the Army’s pie because if they were, it was a delusional idea.

    That’s why I can’t agree with GI Wilson when he paints this as a huge blunder. It’s a blunder in the same sense as asking your boss for a pay raise and the corner office and he laughs at you and tells you to get back to your cubicle. Will he regret not giving you the pay raise? Maybe but probably not.

    The core of GI’s argument seems to be that the USMC is being relegated to a static, passive posture rather than a proactive dynamic one and paints this as a mistake. But he doesn’t provide any compelling evidence for it. Any argument for a military maneuver or policy being a mistake requires explaining the intended adversary, but he doesn’t do this. Yes, in theory, China could do a preemptive attack on American forces in the Pacific, but do they have the interest or even the capability of such a thing? Frankly, the “Chinese threat” to the Pacific only exists in their heads. What’s much more likely to happen is that this new USMC mission is pointless and they get major budget cuts in favor of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and even the Space Force.

    1. American Tourist,

      “Any argument for a military maneuver or policy being a mistake requires explaining the intended adversary, but he doesn’t do this.”

      The USMC’s leadership agrees with you, and explicitly says it is China. That’s the context in which GI is writing.

      GI (and me, too) disagrees with them. The value of a flexible mix of forces is the ability to respond to new or unexpected threats -vital since force planning requires a time horizon of a decade.

      GI says, incontrovertibly imo, says that the USMC must retain the ability to fight the wars that we actually fight – small to medium wars against 4gw forces, far from bases. Focusing on a single threat is the fast track to oblivion for the Corps.

      “the “Chinese threat” to the Pacific only exists in their heads.”

      Agreed.

      US elites have long seen China as our primary rival and sought to contain or destroy it. This was so in the 1960’s, as described in the memorandum from Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson, dated 3 November 1965. The opening of the memo:

      “The February decision to bomb North Vietnam and the July approval of Phase I deployments make sense only if they are in support of a long-run United States policy to contain Communist China. China — like Germany in 1917, like Germany in the West and Japan in the East in the late 30’s, and like the USSR in 1947 — looms as a major power threatening to undercut our importance and effectiveness.”

      https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v03/d189

      As China returned to the world stage as a major power after 2000, my articles described DoD’s increasingly hostile focus on China in the QDR and NDS documents. The USMC’s leaders might be responding to policies given by the most senior levels of the US government, which they have not the desire (or perhaps the will) to challenge.

      Have they considered how our actions are seen by China? China is frantically arming since the US is overtly threatening them, and for decades has bombed and invaded everyone from annoyances to rivals. Their leaders have been clear about this, as described in this 2015 speech by Major General Qiao Liang of the PLA, a co-author of “Unrestricted Warfare.”

      The American Empire, as seen by a Major General of the PLA.
      https://fabiusmaximus.com/2015/10/09/qiao-liang-describes-the-american-empire-89951/

      “What’s much more likely to happen is that this new USMC mission is pointless and they get major budget cuts…”

      Agreed.

      “when the USMC was kept out of the European theater.”

      First – If the USMC had been allowed in Europe as a microscopic force, it would have lost its major role in the Pacific. There were only 16k Marines in 1932, and 28k in 1940.

      Second – The big success of the USMC was during 1930s, identifying Japan as their foe and preparing for amphibious warfare. My guess is that the current Corps’ leaders are attempting to repeat this triumph.

      I agree with you. That is a big and unwise bet.

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