How to End the US Marine Corps’ Intellectual Civil War

FD 2030 earned praise from the administration and Congress for its innovative approach but sparked an unprecedented internal strife when senior retired Marines expressed dissent.

When the former Commandant of the Marine Corps introduced his new strategic approach, dubbed Force Design (FD) 2030, many in the administration and Congress applauded it as a forward-thinking, innovation-based approach based on emerging technologies.

They were subsequently puzzled when many senior retired marines, including virtually all the living former commandants, expressed dismay.

The resulting intellectual civil war has been unprecedented in the history of the corps.

Battle of Poitiers: Not All Innovation Is Good

Those who think FD 2030 is a disaster waiting to happen point out that not all innovation is necessarily good.

During the 1356 Battle of Poitiers, French knights were ordered to dismount and attack the army of the English Black Prince on foot. The rationale for this was that the English had defeated a similar French force 10 years earlier with an army made up overwhelmingly of infantry. It was a disastrous French innovation.

The French king failed to realize that the English victory at Crécy a decade earlier came about due to the range and killing power of English longbows, not the fact that they were fighting as infantry.

The flower of French chivalry was again slaughtered, and the king was captured. It would take decades and one more disastrous battle (Agincourt in 1415) before the French developed a combined arms approach to negate the longbow.

Focus on China

FD 2030 is designed to help gain naval superiority in the South China Sea in a potential war with China. The concept calls for the Marine Corps to acquire anti-ship missiles and other equipment to deny Chinese naval superiority in the region.

To accomplish this new mission, the former commandant divested the Marine Corps of all its tanks, much of its cannon artillery, its heavy engineer capability, and a significant portion of its manned aviation. In addition, several infantry battalions were discarded along with a reduction in strength of the remaining battalions.

Politicians love it for two reasons. First, it focuses on China, which is the primary threat of the moment identified by the National Command Authority. Second, it is the first time a service has voluntarily divested itself of capabilities without a guarantee of a return on investment.

The Chinese flag is raised during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base
The Chinese flag is raised during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region in 2017. Photo: AFP

FD 2030 Criticism

We retired marine critics of FD 2030 do not like it for several reasons; the most important of them is that we don’t believe it will work. We see it as a maritime Maginot Line.

Second, the lost capabilities were critical to what has made the Marine Corps the nation’s global 911 force because they could respond to any type of crisis ranging from a local natural disaster to a major regional conflict.

Finally, it is redundant with capabilities that exist within other services. Even if the theory behind the concept proved useful, it could be done just as well with a joint task force made up of capabilities that reside in other services. It is wasteful duplication.

More disturbing is the feeling of many retired and some active marines that the results of the war games that “validated” FD 2030 were manipulated to get the right results. My sources include several participants who believe the original analysis was edited to make the outcome more favorable to the concept than was the case. Since the final report is classified, no one can prove that assertion.


Billions of dollars in capabilities were discarded to buy the new equipment that FD 2030 requires. If the games were manipulated, an investigation is in order.

Quite frankly, both the Defense Department Inspector General and the Congressional Research Office have been asleep at the switch. They both have the capability to look at the classified report and determine what happened. I am loath to use the word fraud, but I firmly believe that waste and abuse are afoot here.

The former commandant made it clear that FD2030 was not a subject of internal debate. Active-duty marines who argue against it in blogs do so using pseudonyms out of fear of official retaliation, and debate at the Marine Corps University has been stifled.

Commandant of the Marine Corps General Eric M. Smith
Commandant of the Marine Corps General Eric M. Smith. Photo: US Marine Corps

Ending Internal Strife

The new Commandant of the Marine Corps has a way out of ending this intellectual civil war among marines. He could sponsor a new series of games run by an independent organization, such as the National Defense University using a red team that is familiar with Chinese doctrine and tactics and an unbiased analysis team.

If the game results indicate FD 2030 appears to be an operable concept, the Marine Corps can continue to march in the current direction, and we critics will be silenced. If not, the commandant can call a time-out and reevaluate the organization’s strategic direction. I am confident that the second case would prevail.

Such a move would go a long way toward restoring faith in the Marine Corps senior leadership among the retired community as well as active duty dissidents who are quietly waging an insurgency in the ranks.

Headshot Gary AndersonGary Anderson served as the Chief of Plans (G-5) of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Force responsible for the Indo-Pacific area.

He lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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