Radically Re-Shaping US Marines to Take on China–e.g. no more Tanks

Further to this post,

The Eagle increasingly challenged in case of war with the Dragon in the western Pacific

and related efforts by the US Navy and Air Force to reshape themselves to deal with the Dragon (see posts listed at end of this one), the Marine Corps has itself been planning a really big restructuring (will Congress go along? one imagines they will if costs are reduced). Note open naming of China–by Joseph Trevithick (tweets here):

Marines To Radically Remodel Force, Cutting Tanks, Howitzers In Favor Of Drones, Missiles

The Marine Corps says the ambitious shift toward smaller units, distributed operations, and unmanned capabilities is essential to staying relevant.

The U.S. Marine Corps has an ambitious 10-year transformation plan that could see the service eliminate its entire tank force, dramatically scale back howitzer batteries, and cut a significant number of aviation units in favor of land-based rocket artillery and stand-off missile launchers and unmanned aircraft. The proposal follows an already dramatic announcement from the Corps’ top officer last year about the need to move away from reliance on large traditional amphibious warfare ships, something The War Zone explored in depth. All of this is rooted in the prevailing view that Marines will have to fight in small groups and in a distributed fashion in any major conflict in the future, especially in the Pacific region, in order to remain relevant. 

The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on the Marines plans for the radical shift on Mar. 23, 2020. The newspaper interviewed Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger about his proposal, which would fundamentally change the face of his service for years to come.

“China, in terms of military capability, is the pacing threat [emphasis added],” Berger told the Journal. “If we did nothing, we would be passed.”

“I have come to the conclusion that we need to contract the size of the Marine Corps to get quality,” he added.

“The wargames do show that, absent significant change, the Marine Corps will not be in a position to be relevant” in a high-end conflict against a “peer competitor,” U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Eric Smith, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, also explained to the Journal. Berger had been head of this command, which is responsible for developing new and improved concepts of operations for the Corps, before becoming Commandant.

Berger’s contraction is significant and wide-ranging. Over the next decade, he wants to shrink the entire size of the Corps from approximately 189,000 personnel to 170,000. 

[A tweet quoted in the story]:

“To reinvent themselves as a naval expeditionary force within budget limits, the Marines plan to get rid of all of their tanks, cut back on their aircraft and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000, Gen. Berger said.” https://t.co/ubSemEHyYk pic.twitter.com/I8j6oDMlfb— Kingston Reif (@KingstonAReif) March 23, 2020

To do this, he would get rid of a number of units, including all seven existing Marine tank companies, along with their M1 Abrams and support vehicles. Three bridging companies, necessary to get those heavy vehicles across waterways, would go get shuttered. Marine armored vehicles fleets would be limited to the service’s existing fleet of LAV-25 8×8 wheeled armored vehicles and its new Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACV), another 8×8 wheeled design. The ACV will increasingly supplant the tracked Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAV) in the coming years.

“We need an Army with lots of tanks,” Berger said. “We don’t need a Marine Corps with tanks.”

The total number of 155mm howitzer batteries would also drop from 21 to just five [emphasis added]. Three of the 24 infantry battalions are also set to get cut under the plan, though the Marines have talked about increasing the size of infantry squads, and by extension the remaining infantry units, at the same time.


A Marine 155mm M777 howitzer in Norway during an exercise in March 2020.

The total number of Marine fighter attack squadrons, all of which are transitioning to variants of the F-35, would remain at 18. However, the size of each of these squadrons will shrink from 16 aircraft to just 10, according to a separate report from USNI News [emphasis added–that would be a reduction of 108 front-line fighters, 6 times 18–from April 2019, presumably these numbers will come down: “The Corps’ approved Program of Record remains 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs.”]

Despite this contraction, Berger is planning to make additions, as well, including tripling the size of land-based rocket artillery and stand-off missile units from seven to 21. This would include M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) launchers that the Marines want to be able to fire Naval Strike Missile anti-ship missiles in the future [emphasis added, against PLA Navy], in addition to 227mm guided artillery rockets and short-range quasi-ballistic missiles. The Corps is also planning to introduce land-based launchers able to fire the Tomahawk cruise missile [emphasis added, The Marine Corps wants to use the ground-launched cruise missiles primarily as long-range anti-ship weapons“]

These massive force structure changes are driven in part by budgetary concerns, as well as a new, over-arching operating concept the Marines have been experimenting with, on paper and during exercises, called Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO), for some years now. EABO is heavily center on an idea of an island-hopping blitzkrieg of sorts during a major conflict in the Pacific region where ground units could easily find themselves distributed across a front thousands of miles long separated by large expanses of water.

Unlike the other U.S. military services, even the U.S. Army, the Marines do not expect to have the capacity to conduct large-scale stand-off operations and plan to fight almost exclusively inside “the weapons engagement zone” of a potential opponent, such as China, according to the Journal. China, in particular, has invested significant resources in the development and fielding of anti-access and area denial capabilities, including air, sea, and ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, including air-launched ones, some of which carry hypersonic boost-glide vehicles or that may have anti-ship capabilities. Longer-range surface-to-air missiles and supporting sensors are also part of the picture. All of this forces large traditional amphibious warfare ships to operate further and further from actual objectives, limiting the ability of the Marine Corps in its present configuration to contribute in the minds of Berger and other senior service officials.

Under the EABO concept, smaller elements of Marines would use air assaults and smaller ships, including unmanned surface vessels, to seize control of small islands and rapidly set up forward operating bases. Unmanned platforms, including drones, unmanned ships, and unmanned ground vehicles, including remotely-operated mobile artillery systems, would be important to giving these Marine units additional capabilities without the need for significant amounts of additional manpower [emphasis added].

Missile units, especially with anti-ship missiles, would then be able to conduct strikes on hostile ships from this constellation of island outposts. Depending on the facilities available or that could be readily made available, they might also support forward manned or unmanned aviation operations. Targeting data from forward-deployed Marine units would also be passed back to other assets, including Navy ships and U.S. Air Force aircraft, which could then conduct their own stand-off attacks.

To keep the enemy on edge and to prevent them from effectively counter-attacking, Marines would reposition from one outpost to another every 48 to 72 hours [emphasis added]

In principle, the EABO concept certainly presents a number of potential benefits. There are also real questions about just how viable it would be in practice, especially from a logistical standpoint [no kidding–this all sounds very Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson-ish to me, esp. if bases are under Chinese attack by land, air and sea-launched missiles of various sorts. The USAF’s plans for quickly-built “austere” bases in the Western Pacific strike me as equally problematic, see the article here]

It certainly remains to be seen how much of the Commandant’s ambitious proposal comes to fruition. However, it is clear that the Marine Corps’ present senior leadership sees radical changes as essential to ensure that the force continues to be useful in future major wars, especially in the Pacific region.

No tanks = no USMC land war in Asia itself, i.e. Chinese mainland. One trusts the same for US Army. Recent related posts:

Equipping the USAF to fight both China and Russia

What the US Needs to Do to Be Ready to Fight China

End of the Line Coming for the US Navy’s Supercarriers as they Face the dragon’s Ever-Longer Fiery Breath?

Getting tough for the superpower that’s no longer hegemonic. Plus an excellent book by Heather Venable (tweets here) on how the Marines, a tiny service most of the time, preserved and protected themselves in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries–early masters of modern PR amongst other things:


Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Theme song (pretty obvious):

11 thoughts on “Radically Re-Shaping US Marines to Take on China–e.g. no more Tanks”

  1. And from “Aviation Week”:

    “U.S. Marines Sacrifice Key Aviation Assets

    The Marine Corps proposes reducing the maximum number of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in a given squadron. The service would have 10 Lockheed Martin F-35Bs and Cs in each squadron instead of 16. The Marine Corps currently has four F-35 operational squadrons. Three squadrons fly the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant and one operates the F-35C carrier variant.

    The 2019 Marine Corps Aviation Plan shows that nine squadrons were to each receive 16 F-35Bs, five squadrons would each have 10 of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft and four squadrons would each have 10 F-35Cs. “[The reduction] comes out to about 45 in the squadrons, and probably another 15 or so in overhead—I would guess a total of 60 fewer F-35s,” Cancian [senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program] says…”

    Mark Collins


  2. Now note China’s marines:


    2) To which a friend responds with info from the actual article (https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/april/chinas-marine-corps-rise):

    ‘”This includes an IFV [infantry fighting vehicle] variant with a 30 mm cannon known as the ZBD-05, an assault gun variant with a 105 mm gun (known as the ZTD-05), and a 122 mm self-propelled howitzer (SPH) variant called the PLZ-07B…The new vehicles provide the marines with organic fire support as well as full and uniform amphibious capabilities across mechanised infantry and armoured battalion”

    So while the USMC is divesting itself of tanks and artillery (so it can better fight the Chinese) their Chicom counterpart is muscling up.’

    Mark Collins


  3. Guam:

    Mark Collins


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