Updated: Aug 18, 2022
We are witnessing an historic moment in U.S. military history: the dulling of the Marine Corps mind. Take the current debate on Force Design 2030 (FD 2030), the Marine Corps’ plan to modernize for a possible war with China. In pieces and posts for and against, we’ve read everything from ageist sleights and patronizing tones to strawman arguments and needless taunts. The intellectual standard bearers of the Marine Corps, people like James Breckinridge and John Greenwood, would be embarrassed. By both sides.
"Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel" by Henri Vidal, 1896 [modified from the original]
What’s happened to the Corps’ discourse? A breakdown in trust, it seems. Partisan politics, COVID, and other stressors have eaten away our trust. Americans have little faith in institutions and each other. This comes through in the FD 2030 debate. The critics, made up mostly of retired Marine generals, dismiss the claims of FD 2030 as unproven and faulty. The proponents, active-duty Marines and retired field grade officers-turned contractors, dismiss the retirees as people who don’t “get” FD 2030 and show bad faith in their arguments. Both camps are right.
FD 2030 contains serious conceptual holes and questionable assumptions. For instance, if the Marine Corps doesn’t fundamentally reform its manpower, recruiting, and training models, FD 2030 will fail. This requires gargantuan efforts across several commandants, each rowing in the same direction. It also requires steadfast support from successive heads of the Navy and other services. Good luck with that. And assuming this does happen, when the reforms take full effect in 2030, the world will have changed dramatically. Most importantly, the Chinese and other foes will devise counters to FD 2030. Like the Marines of the late 1950s and early 1960s, FD 2030 proponents may create a force optimized for the nuclear battlefield but sent to fight in Vietnam.
It’s true that FD 2030 has been blessed by Congress, multiple secretaries of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the Marine Corps claims it’s sufficiently stress-testing FD 2030 and will continue to do so. But the critics say this isn’t enough, and they are correct. The future force structure and capabilities of the Marine Corps demand the highest scrutiny. Until now, FD 2030 has been given an easy pass in the public space, including the military journals (more on that below). In the Marine Corps itself, few Marines have openly challenged FD 2030 in writing, questioning its validation process, core concepts, and assumptions. This is alarming. And if, as some claim, Marines aren't willing to challenge FD 2030 out of deference for the chain of command or fear of career damage, then we stand by our thesis: The Marine Corps mind is dulling.
The most discrediting aspect of the FD 2030 enterprise, however, is that some of its wargames have been cooked. A source who helps run FD 2030 wargames shared this with us in late 2020. It makes us wonder: With plans for FD 2030 so far along, what incentives exist for future wargames to disprove, diminish, or delay their implementation?
The critics are at fault, too. They’ve fired a fusillade of generally impassioned, unconvincing diatribes. While often powerful in language and alarm, they provide little data, nuance, and convincing reasoning. Their op-eds fail to seriously address the strategic and operational challenges of war against China in the Pacific or the realities of modern weapons and technologies. They brush aside the proponents’ arguments and concerns, offering positions that typically boil down to “Keep the Corps as is. And get back our tanks.” Faced with counter-arguments like these, the FD 2030 proponents are right: The critics don’t get it.*
Military journals, especially the Marine Corps Gazette, have also contributed to the Corps’ intellectual malaise. The Gazette, once the home of vigorous debates in the 1980s and early 90s, is a shadow of its former self, a Marine Corps Pravda. It publishes dozens of official and pro-FD 2030 pieces but rarely contrary views. Its editorial board features several prominent FD 2030 advocates but few people who offer significantly different stances. Its pages grown under the weight of ads for the defense contractors whose technologies promise to make FD 2030 a reality. It even proudly displays the financial support its publisher, Marine Corps Association, receives from these companies. This is no longer a place for serious discourse.
Page 5, January 2022 issue, Marine Corps Gazette
So, what is to be done? First, the Marine Corps must start to rebuild trust. Both proponents and critics of FD 2030 need to offer more cogent arguments. For instance, they should minimize appeals to the war in Ukraine to justify their points. As we're learning from deeper analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, drawing meaningful lessons from modern wars requires reliable data, perspective, and tempered skeptcism, not armchair op-eds and Twitter hot takes. Second, to reset the conversation and restore good faith, critics and proponents alike should publish a devil’s advocate of their positions. Third, the Marine Corps must expand the conversation on FD 2030. It should incentivize its company and field-grade officers, and staff non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) especially, to share their takes on FD 2030 in public forums. These people will execute FD 2030—or whatever takes its place. We need to hear from them. The Gazette in its present form is not the place to have these conversations. Officers and SNCOs should share their thoughts at The Maneuverist, CIMSEC, and other venues. Fourth, Congress must convene an oversight committee on FD 2030, complete with expert testimony and devil’s advocates. Between a Marine Corps energized to debate FD 2030 and a Congress subjecting both to sustained expert scrutiny, the Marine Corps can begin to reclaim its sharpness of mind, a mind steeped in intellectual rigor, courage, and, most of all, humility.
*However, we dismiss the argument that the retirees are somehow ignorant of FD 2030 or don’t understand all its moving parts. The critics, remember, include Joseph Dunford, James Mattis, and Robert Neller, all men who have not only been fully briefed on FD 2030, but who also helped lay the groundwork for the Corps’ current efforts.
Author Bio: Easton is an American defense critic.