Video Above: US Sends Drone Boats to Ukraine
Island-hopping amphibious sea-land attack, operating dispersed, yet networked formations linked by air and surface drones and conducting integrated, fast-moving land-assaults with tactical vehicles armed with destructive anti-tank weapons … all represent the operational vision of the evolving US Marine Corps as outlined in the service’s “Force Design 2030” strategy document.
The Corps’ transformation shifts the force away from tanks, heavy armor and slower-moving, heavy operations in favor of a faster, lighter, more disaggregated yet highly-lethal attack and reconnaissance force able to both destroy the enemy from standoff ranges and close-with-an-enemy for lethal close contact.
“The Marine Corps must be able to fight at sea, from the sea, and from the land to the sea; operate and persist within range of adversary long-range fires; maneuver across the seaward and landward portions of complex littorals; and sense, shoot, and sustain while combining the physical and information domains to achieve desired outcomes,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger writes in the Force Design 2030 document.
Lighter, faster and more dispersed forces, fortified by precision fires and hardened networking, can operate with a reduced footprint or signature requiring less logistics and being less visible to an enemy.
“Focus on capabilities required to develop a truly DO-capable force that can mass effects while minimizing signature; maximize efficient tactical mobility; reduce logistics demand; and expand the range of mutual support across all tactical echelons,” the document explains.
The plan specifies a large degree of force restructuring, including large-scale divestiture of infantry, artillery, tanks and other heavy systems while adding drones, reconnaissance vehicles, and long-range precision fires to support a lean, quick, networked and highly lethal force.
Video Above: Tank Modernization in the Russia-Ukraine War and Tank Battles in the Gulf War
As part of the Corps plan to architect a faster, leaner more expeditionary land-sea force, the service wants to divest 3 infantry battalions, two reserve battalions, 16 artillery batteries, zero tank companies,
As part of the restructuring, the Corps seeks to reduce each infantry battalion by 200 Marines.
On the other side of the equation, the Corps is planning to massively increase its long range fires technology and forward expeditionary scouting capacity by adding 14 rocket artillery batteries and three companies of Light Armored Reconnaissance vehicle companies, bringing the force up to 12 companies.
These moves are consistent with the Corps’ interest in enabling a distributed, yet networked force able to both project power and attack from stand-off ranges, while also maneuver close-in with high speed scouting and forward reconnaissance vehicles.
As part of the armored formation transformation, the Corps is arming faster, more mobile tactical vehicles such as its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle with anti-armor weapons. The concept is to enable tank-like lethality, yet without the logistics, mobility and deployability challenges presented by 70-ton tanks. To accomplish this, the Corps document details plans to arm JLTVs with Multi-Canister Launchers able to fire anti-tank weapons such as the Javelin. Should forward units be deployable, more mobile and much faster, yet still capable of delivering impactful anti-armor lethality, the Corps will grow closer to its longer-term objective.
This includes bringing tank-like destructive power in a faster, lighter and more dispersed location. This concept is intended to align with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy designed to reduce force vulnerability through the use of networked, yet dispersed and disaggregated forces able to leverage long-range sensors and weapons.
“Achieving this end state requires a force that can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons,” the text of the plan states.
No More Tanks for the Marine Corps
Why is the US Marine Corps planning to operate a fleet of exactly “zero” main battle tanks as part of its broader, service-wide transition away from a heavier, mechanized force into a lighter, expeditionary, more deployable networked force of highly lethal, interconnected nodes.
The Corps’ Force Design 2030 document articulates the need for the service to adapt and evolve such that it can operate in land-sea, high-optempo, multi-domain threat environments in which enemy forces have long-range precision weaponry, high-fidelity sensors and unmanned systems. This translates into the need to have a faster, lighter and more easy to deploy amphibious force capable of transitioning from sea to land quickly and with precision lethality.
Simply put, this means that the Corps is officially “divesting” all of its main battle tanks and instead arming its faster, tactical vehicles and reconnaissance vehicles with highly-lethal anti-tank weapons. The text of the Corps document describes its rationale for divesting its tanks by stating ….”we have sufficient evidence to conclude that this capability, despite its long and honorable history in the wars of the past, is operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority challenges in the future. Heavy ground armor capability will continue to be provided by the U.S. Army.
Heavily armored 70-ton main battle tanks are very difficult to deploy and need to be “massed” over time with transportation ships and pre-combat staging areas. Tanks also require a heavy amount of sustainment, supply and logistics support, including a need to transport very large amounts of fuel to support movement. Tanks can also have great mobility limitations and are unable to cross certain bridges or pass through more narrowly configured passageways. This, according to Corps thinking, makes them less optimal for fast-evolving land-sea amphibious warfare operations.
The divesting of tanks is also made more possible by the advent of higher-tech, longer-range, more precise and more explosive transportable anti-armor weapons. For example, the Force Design 2030 document details plans to arm Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicles with Multi-Canister Launchers able to transport and fire Javelin anti-tank weapons and other anti-armor munitions. The concept here is to leverage longer-range sensing and targeting, in coordination with surveillance and speed to launch hit-and-run anti-armor attacks with a faster, lighter, more dispersed, expeditionary force.
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The Corps’s strategic adjustment is, among other things, specifically geared toward enabling operations in the Indo-Pacific where land-sea, island-hopping kinds of fast-paced land-sea warfare operations are needed. The plan does recognize the importance of armored vehicles, yet emphasizes deployability, speed and forward surveillance by adding larger numbers of Advanced Reconnaissance Vehicles for scouting, Marine transportation and amphibious attacks.
Weapons Engagement Zone
The new Marine Corps Force Design 2030 document prioritizes speed, deployability, long-range fires and distributed operations, yet its transformation away from heavier, slower moving armored forces is not intended to sacrifice or limit lethality .. and the Corps’ ability to destroy enemies in close proximity.
While seeking to remove 70-ton, hard-to-deploy tanks from the force, reduce force concentrations of massing and correlating the number of heavy aircraft, the Corps’ Force Design 2030 seeks to sustain and even improve upon an ability to close with and destroy heavily armored enemy forces.
The Corps document, written by Commandant Gen. David Berger in May 2022, identifies the need for Marines to operate and prevail in high-threat, close-in Weapons Engagement Zones (WEZ). Stand-off forces and disaggregated operations bring paradigm-changing advantages to the Corps as it seeks to confront a future threat environment, yet not at the expense of an ability to close in upon and eliminate heavily armed enemies, according to the document.
“Forces that can continue to operate inside an adversary’s long-range precision fire weapons engagement zone (WEZ) are more operationally relevant than forces which must rapidly maneuver to positions outside the WEZ in order to remain survivable,” Berger writes.
Operating from a highly-dangerous, yet strategically advantageous position, these so-called WEZ “stand-in” forces can “attrite adversary forces, enable joint force access requirements, complicate targeting and consume adversary ISR resources, and prevent fait accompli scenarios.”
As a “stand-in” force of the future, the Marine Corps requires a family of UAS capabilities.
To enable this “stand-in” force to operate within enemy fire and in close proximity to hostile forces, future Corps units will need to leverage support from a vertiale, multi-domain capable fleet of drones.
“We need to transition from our current UAS platforms to capabilities that can operate from ship, from shore, and be able to employ both collection and lethal payloads. These future capabilities must be expeditionary and fully compatible with Navy platforms and command and control networks,” Berger writes.
The Corps plan describes this as T-UAS, or Tactical - UAS, to enable a “hunter” capability to track and attack enemies. The Force Design 2030 documents identify several small drones being identified and developed to perform these tasks, to include Black Hornet, Sky Dio, Puma and Stalker for long, medium and short-range endurance surveillance missions.
Some of these are hand-held small drones, equipped with EO/IR cameras able to send back real-time video feeds from nearby enemy locations in close proximity such as on the other side of a building, hill or uneven terrain. The concept is to enable small, mobile units to attack with an organically-built-in ISR capability enabled by small drones. This increases lethality, greatly improves force networking and can help generate precision-strikes in populated areas. A more dispersed, yet highly networked force could attack with increased survivability in close-quarters by not having to “mass” in visible formation detectable to an enemy.
Fewer manned Helicopters?
The Marine Corps Force Design 2030 strategy document outlines the service’s need for a lighter, smaller, faster yet better networked and more lethal sea-land attack force, a shift which is leading the service to divest its tanks, decrease its infantry, increase reconnaissance and mobile anti-armor weapons and reduce the size of its aviation component. The document calls for the Corps to divest three of its heavy lift helicopter squadrons, two light attack helicopter squadrons and three medium tiltrotor squadrons. By contrast, the Corps document calls for a decided increase in unmanned systems for the force by operating six active component drone squadrons.
The transition reveals a clear Marine Corps shift toward the use of air and surface drones to decrease risk by reducing manned-platforms and increasing range and capacity for multi-domain networking, however it seems unclear how a large reduction in rotorcraft might impede this transition in any way. Conversely, it seems manned rotorcraft could provide indispensable advantages when it comes to supporting a faster, more expeditionary and deployable force.
Regardless, the Corps plan calls for what could be called a “drone explosion.”
“As a “stand-in” force of the future, the Marine Corps requires a family of UAS capabilities. We need to transition from our current UAS platforms to capabilities that can operate from ship, from shore, and be able to employ both collection and lethal payloads. These future capabilities must be expeditionary and fully compatible with Navy platforms and command and control networks,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger writes in the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 Document.
The plan raises an interesting question regarding whether a plan to increase drones and greatly reduce manned helicopter production is the optimal path forward given the changing threat environment. While adding drones clearly seems to increase networking and surveillance capacity and also add new elements of speed to attack operations in a maritime environment, a large-scale reduction in manned rotorcraft could potentially impede successful amphibious operations.
Manned helicopters, particularly when it comes to the concepts of operation intended for the FLRAA program, will offer an irreplaceable tactical advantage to amphibious warfare operations. Larger rotorcraft can of course reinforce landing forces with additional Marines, supplies and weaponry as well as greatly expand air support for any amphibious attack effort. Added to this, rapid advances in manned-unmanned teaming enabling faster connectivity and real-time data sharing between forward operating unmanned surveillance nodes and manned helicopters is greatly improving and expanding the envelope of tactical possibility for commanders. Essentially, why not maintain the current size of manned rotorcraft and simply fortify it with a new fleet of integrated drones?
Heavy armor is very difficult to quickly move from land-to-sea in amphibious operations, whereas lighter, faster units empowered by manned helicotpers, drone surveillance and precision weaponry might be positioned to move from ship-to-shore and back as needed in fast-evolving amphibious warfare operations. However, fast-moving manned helicopters provide a unique, high-speed capability to support amphibious operations. Manned rotorcraft can greatly support this mission by adding surveillance, force delivery and MEDEVAC options to a lighter, faster, more mobile expeditionary force. This is particularly true in light of the speed and range advantages which will be brought with the FLRAA program.
Using manned rotorcraft to support amphibious operations can prove particularly advantageous when it comes to disaggregated or dismounted amphibious attack across a wide envelope, something envisioned in the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy. In this respect, rotorcraft and drones can also help decrease a logistics footprint and lessen any “signature” potentially detected by an enemy force. It could also better facilitate high-speed multi-domain connectivity and transition. The strategy seeks to help the Corps move toward a “meshed,” interconnected series of air-land-sea combat nodes able to share real-time information and decrease sensor-to-shooter time.Manned helicopters are a crucial part of this and should arguably be increased in scope rather than decreased, given that they offer networking, surveillance, infantry delivery and precision-attack to an amphibious operation.
The Corps paper specifies a number of key drone platforms intended to extend reach and lethality across multiple-domains in real time in support of an expeditionary posture. Referring to a small group of “hunter drones” as T-UAS for Tactical UAS, the Corps text identifies short, medium and long-endurance drones to support infantry battalions on the move in combat. They are the handheld Puman drone along with Black Hornet, SkyDio and Stalker. These unmanned systems enable precision attack while allowing dismounted units to disaggregate yet remain networked for coordinated attack. With forward nodes such as hand-launched drones, Marine Corps infantry can achieve a desired battlefield effect with a smaller, yet more lethal overall force. Added to this, the addition of networked drones is also intended to support rapid amphibious maneuvers such as quick sea-to-land attack operations for force repositioning.
Relying more heavily on drones and unmanned systems can decrease the need for heavier manned platforms such as tiltrotors and heavy lift helicopters. This can also help decrease a logistics footprint and lessen any “signature” potentially detected by an enemy force. It could also better facilitate high-speed multi-domain connectivity and transition. The strategy seeks to help the Corps move toward a “meshed,” interconnected series of air-land-sea combat nodes able to share real-time information and decrease sensor-to-shooter time. This approach makes a lot of sense if viewed in the context of an island-hopping kind of operation in the Indo-Pacific, and represents the Marine Corps shift back toward its Maritime roots in preparation for amphibious operations and maritime warfare.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.