March 24, 2020 10:15AM

Marine Corps Changes Inch U.S. Closer to a Restraint‐​Friendly Military Posture

The U.S. Marine Corps wants to make some very big changes over the next decade. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the Marines plan to get rid of all their tanks, cut back on their aircraft, and shrink in total numbers from 189,000 to as few as 170,000.” While these capabilities are cut, the Marines plan to expand their long‐​range missile and rocket batteries and unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons.

Supporters of a U.S. grand strategy of restraint should greet the Marine Corps’ push to transform itself with cautious optimism. The USMC’s plan does not indicate a broader shift in U.S. strategic thinking, but if the change is successful it would put the military in a better position to implement a different grand strategy in the future. The military doesn’t determine America’s grand strategy, but if the other branches follow the USMC’s lead they will be better positioned to carry out a restraint‐​oriented grand strategy enacted by a future president.

Strategic prioritization is perhaps the most heartening thing to come out of the Corps’ transformation plan. Military quagmires in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 have eaten up attention and resources for nearly two decades with little benefits to show for the lives and treasure spent. Yet during these conflicts the United States also tried to counteract other great powers like China and Russia. Presidents have paid lip service to prioritization but have done little to turn rhetoric into reality.

The Marine Corps’ plan is a welcome departure from this pattern. The service’s leadership has made it clear that these changes are intended to counter China’s growing naval power and keep the service relevant in a potential conflict in East Asia. Focusing on one adversary will force the Marines to become less flexible, in both force structure and doctrine, but prioritization necessitates decreased flexibility.

The pro‐​restraint community should welcome strategic prioritization for two reasons. First, it helps narrow the range of threats that the U.S. military is trying to counter. Reducing the number of threats the U.S. military is expected to address is a major goal of a restraint grand strategy.

Second, a less flexible military means that Washington will have to rely on other tools of statecraft to deal with lower‐​level threats. If the military is handling fewer threats, then other institutions like the State Department need to pick up the slack. This in turn should help the United States move away from the militarization of foreign policy.

The scope of the proposed adjustments to the Marine Corps is also noteworthy. The Corps’ leaders don’t want to fiddle at the margins, they are pushing for serious changes. The 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance and the measures outlined by the Wall Street Journal will alter the appearance and warfighting approach of the Marine Corps in deep, fundamental ways. This will certainly rub parts of the service and some members of Congress the wrong way, but it sends a powerful signal about what sacred cows a military branch is willing to sacrifice in order to be better prepared for new threats. If other services follow the USMC’s lead, the U.S. military could look substantially different in a decade or two.

The Marine Corps is not transforming itself to implement a grand strategy of restraint and there is much work that still needs to be done to put the United States on the right path. However, by encouraging strategic prioritization and showing that services can consider radical adjustments to how they are organized and think about armed conflict, the USMC could move the military closer toward restraint.