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US Marine Corps to Re-Focus on Sea Control

Few developments within the Marine Corps during my time in Service have been more revolutionary than that undertaken in PME

“…the spread between physical jobs and thinking jobs has increased dramatically.

General David H Berger, USMC, 38th Commandant in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance.1


General David Berger assumed command of the US Marine Corps on 11 July 2019 and within days published his “Commandant’s Planning Guidance”.  Such documents are often exercises in Public Relations, with statements of the obvious like “our aim is to prevail in combat” or “we strive to be the best ….. (fill in the blank)” without any real substance behind them.  This document is different and shows that General Berger has put a lot of thought into where he sees the US Marine Corp currently, how the strategic environment is changing, what  those changes means for the US Marine Corps and, most importantly, discussion and guidance on how to re-shape the Marines for the contemporary world. He has broken his intent into five broad focal areas: Force Design, Warfighting, Education and Training, Core Values and Command and Leadership.  His Commandant’s Planning Guidance has the potential, in my view, to be one of the more significant documents on US Sea Power since the end of the Cold War.

Why is this relevant for Australia?  For a number of reasons. First, as Australia’s key strategic ally, developments in US thinking are key factors in Australia’s calculus.  The US National Security Strategy 2017 and National Defense Strategy 2018 both articulated changes in the international strategic environment and focused on what they term a “return to great power competition” based on the rise of China, a resurgent Russia and the shift of global power to Asia.  General Berger’s Planning Guidance is the most substantial operational level manifestation of what those changes mean and gives a valuable perspective on contemporary US thinking. 

Secondly, and more directly, Australia’s amphibious capability has matured extremely quickly thanks in large part to the dedicated efforts of Navy and the Army (particularly 3 Bde and 2 RAR) in the early stages of its development to collaborate on the basics and build a common mindset.  Even so, the size of the ADF means that Australia will not be able to execute sustained, high end combat operations against a significant power unilaterally. We can, however, make a substantial contribution to a coalition effort where Australia’s interests are judged to warrant such action.  In all likelihood, such a coalition will involve the US for the foreseeable future and, as Australia’s key strategic ally, it is important to understand how Australia can best be prepared for such a role.   

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance is not a detailed plan, but rather provides clear direction on what Berger wants the Marines to be able to do given the contemporary strategic environment, how they should work with the other Services (particularly greater integration with the US Navy) and the core changes that he sees as necessary to achieve his vision.  He seeks major adjustments in the structure, concepts of operations, workforce management and PME programs within the USMC, including rolling back some of the initiatives brought in under the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act that sought to make the US military more joint. Some of his ideas represent major departures from USMC history and culture which will make them a challenge to implement, but I think he has correctly analysed the drivers for change.  

The key change General Berger seeks is to refocus the Marines on supporting the US Navy’s mission of gaining and maintaining Sea Control.  During World War 2 this mission was well understood and executed; the US Marine Corps has a proud history of combat operations across the Pacific, at tremendous cost, to gain bases and maritime access in support of the Navy’s quest for the Sea Control which eventually led to the defeat of Japan.  In subsequent years the US had the luxury of maritime superiority, with the result that the Navy’s role shifted to supporting the Marines (and land forces more broadly) ashore. Sea Control was assured, so the Navy’s efforts could be focused on operations from the sea, as they didn’t need to conduct operations at sea to fight for Sea Control.  

This dominance has also meant that over the last 30 years the US Marine Corps has understandably acted more as a land than a maritime force, particularly since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  USMC capability development has been correspondingly focused on supporting infantry and ground manoeuvre operations, and as a result the corps is now heavier and more representative of an army. It also means that many current Marines have no experience at sea.

I recall during Exercise RIMPAC 14 talking to a USMC Colonel and commenting that the Australian Army was in the process of building the skills to operate at sea and be deployed in amphibious shipping and the Navy was adjusting to having a landing force as the primary weapons system onboard the LHDs.  He responded that the US Marine Corps had exactly the same challenge - it had been 15 years since he had last deployed in a ship and most of his marines had never done so. Many had multiple tours in the Middle East, but had no substantial amphibious or maritime experience. This is not a criticism of the US Navy or Marine Corps - it was entirely appropriate given the circumstances.  But it is indicative of Berger’s concerns as it has led to a force not necessarily well suited to the future operations it is likely to be called upon to execute, like supporting the fight for Sea Control.  

The fortunate circumstances the United States and her allies have enjoyed over the last three decades, where Sea and Air Control have been a given, are changing rapidly.  The ‘return of great power competition’ is fundamentally changing the strategic landscape, and the consequences are playing out most notably in the Western Pacific. Aspects of the global order are being challenged by rising powers such as China, whose economic development and military evolution mean that even a superpower such as the United States can no longer assume Sea Control in contested areas.  

  This reality manifests itself in General Berger’s guidance, where he is directs the Marine Corps to restructure in order to support Sea Control operations designed to maintain the Navy’s freedom of action.  He sees a return of the Fleet Marine Force concept that was used to good effect during the Pacific Campaign of World War 2 where Marines were integrated into Navy Sea Control operations - in effect working directly for the Navy - rather than being the main effort with the Navy supporting them.  

Berger foreshadowed the release of a new concept - the Stand-in Forces - to support the US National Defense Strategy and the US Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept.  The Stand-In Forces are designed to generate “technically disruptive, tactical stand-in engagements that confront aggressor naval forces with an array of low signature, affordable and risk-worthy platforms and payloads”. 2  This requires them to be able to operate within the Weapon Engagement Zone of an adversary using greater numbers of smaller, low signature, affordable systems capable of deploying lethal and non-lethal payloads to restore the strategic initiative to the Navy’s Sea Control efforts.  

Complementing this is the idea of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) which is a conceptual way of operating rather than a physical entity.  EABO seeks, in conjunction with the DMO concept, to adjust naval deployments away from fewer, more concentrated formations to a greater number of smaller, more agile, lethal and resilient components seeking to undermine potential adversaries’ long range, precision fires that increasingly render fixed runways, ports, bases and large cumbersome formations vulnerable.  For example, the US has maintained Maritime Prepositioning Forces at various locations around the globe - essentially large, Sea Lift ships loaded with everything required to allow a Marine Air-Ground Task Force to fight for 30 days without resupply. The concept is the Marines fly to the location where their equipment is pre-positioned and concentrated. However, Berger acknowledges that this capability is increasingly vulnerable as it requires Sea Control to be effective, and he has directed a review into how the idea of prepositioning equipment and supplies can work in the contemporary environment.3

The idea of land forces exercising influence at sea is one advocated by Andrew Krepinevic in relation to countering Chinese efforts to restrict freedom of movement inside the First Island Chain. He argues for a greater use of land forces stationed along the nations marking the edge of the First Island Chain,4 in conjunction with maritime forces, to use a mix of Sea Denial capabilities such as land based anti-ship missiles, mines and air defence systems to, if deemed necessary, hinder the PLA-N’s ability to transit freely outside the First Island Chain.  Under this strategy, most US naval forces would remain outside the range of China’s Sea Denial systems (many of which are land based) with a US Sea Denial strategy using aircraft, submarines and long range strike weapons within the First Island Chain to disrupt China’s ability to maintain Sea Control within that area.  A blockade of the access points through which Chinese forces have to pass to access the open ocean would maintain US freedom of action outside the First Island Chain. General Berger’s changes to the fundamental role of the Marine Corps aligns with this concept.

Australia’s Defence White Paper 2016 and the associated Integrated Investment Plan articulated the need for greater long-range strike capabilities for land forces 5 including deployable land based anti-ship missiles.  As these capabilities mature, the Australian Army will be well placed, should the government direct, to operate in conjunction with the US Marine Corps (and others) in this role of exercising Sea Denial and supporting the naval force’s freedom of movement. Even some who advocate for a wholesale restructure of the ADF to become a Sea Denial force see a role for land-based anti-ship missiles to control maritime access in the Australian context.7

Berger also advocates for changes in the way Marine forces are commanded, trained and educated.  He views the current training and education systems as “industrial age” and advocates for more flexible, adult learning systems to be developed.  He seeks increasing cross pollination between his Marines and the other Services in staff and war colleges and has mandated that all USMC Brigadier Generals undertake the Navy’s Joint Force Maritime Component Commander’s course to better understand the drivers of Fleet operations.  Rather than a new Fleet Marine Force being separately commanded, he prefers greater Marine presence in Maritime Command Centres to drive the integrated nature between Marine and Fleet operations that he seeks.  

From the training perspective, he argues that there is currently too much focus on Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, SOPs and technical execution of Command and Control functions and not enough on a commander’s decision-making ability under uncertain, dynamic and confusing conditions.  Both are required, and both are practiced; his point is that the emphasis on the later is insufficient in times of growing (and perpetual) uncertainty. This later point is evident across most western militaries and was the subject of an earlier article on The Forge that argued that a key attribute required of warfare officers is decision making in ambiguous circumstances. 8

Berger seeks greater efforts in wargaming to inform concept, tactical and capability development.  He seeks to exploit the success the US Navy achieved in the inter-war period with wargaming at the US Naval War College; success so complete that Admiral Nimitz commented after World War 2 that he had been prepared for everything he experienced during the Pacific campaign except Kamikaze attacks. 

In terms of personnel management he advocates for greater flexibility in career management, removing the US “up or out” policy for promotions, expanding maternity leave arrangements to better balance family and military life and a re-focus on the Marine Corps culture, esprit de corps and values.  He forecasts plans to reduce unnecessary discharges and to challenge the ongoing unacceptable behaviour issues with in the Corps. 

These later developments are common to many militaries, including the ADF, but his war fighting changes to re-integrate the US Marine Corps back into the Naval Service is perhaps the most fundamental and important change to be proposed for the Marines since the 1980s. That said, the document is not perfect; for instance, he talks about having to decommission legacy systems to free up resources for new capabilities, without any clear guidance on what types of systems he means.  This is at odds with his greater specificity with the other things he wants to change. This aspect will be a particular challenge in the United States where domestic politics plays a major role in equipment selection so retiring capabilities is not easy politically. There is also very little discussion around the role of allies, which are only mentioned briefly. This was surprising given the network of alliances the United States has forged over the last 70 years is a particular strength of the United States.  Berger does state that more detailed plans on his core areas of focus will be promulgated in the near future which may expand these areas.  

As a window into contemporary US thinking about how to respond to changing strategic circumstances, the Commandant’s Planning Guidance is an excellent document.  At the operational level it forecasts how the USMC plans to operate in conjunction with the Navy to support the gaining and maintenance of Sea Control now that it is being challenged.  As a trading nation that relies upon the freedom of the seas, Australia is well vested in any challenges to that freedom. While we all seek to avoid conflict, if it does eventuate and the Australian government decided to commit the ADF, it behoves us to understand how our major strategic and military ally is evolving and to see what we can learn from them that is relevant to Australia.  

The 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Planning Guidance is well worth reading.

Image taken by ABIS Kieran Dempsey  Defence Image Library


1Berger, D.H., 2019, Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, US Marine Corps

pp 10, available at's%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf

?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700, (Accessed 24 Jul 19)

2 Berger, 2019, pp 10

3 Berger, 2019, pp 5

4 Krepinevic, A., 2015, How to Deter China: The Case for an Archipelagic Defense, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015

5 Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper, Commonwealth of Australia, pp 98

6 Department of Defence, 2016 Integrated Investment Program, Commonwealth of Australia, pp 87

7 White, H., 2019, How to Defend Australia, Black Ink, Melbourne, pp 168

8 Leavy, P.J., 2019, Balancing the Science and Art of Warfare, The Forge, 5 June 2109, (Accessed 28 July 19)

Cite Article
(Leavy, 2019)
Leavy, P. 2019. 'US Marine Corps to Re-Focus on Sea Control'. Available at: (Accessed: 08 December 2023).
(Leavy, 2019)
Leavy, P. 2019. 'US Marine Corps to Re-Focus on Sea Control'. Available at: (Accessed: 08 December 2023).
Peter Leavy, "US Marine Corps to Re-Focus on Sea Control", The Forge, Published: September 09, 2019, (accessed December 08, 2023).

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