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DisArmorMent: How the US Marine Corps’s changing armor capabilities reflects the military’s shift to the Pacific

During World War II, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) engaged in an island-hopping campaign against the Japanese Empire. 80 years later, the Marine Corps is revisiting its mission of working closely with the US Navy to counter a different powerful peer adversary in the Pacific: China. The watershed moment in this transition occurred in March 2020, when USMC Commandant General David H. Berger issued “Force Design 2030,” a memo declaring the complete transfer of the Corps’s heavy tank capability to the Army. The memo also provided for other major shifts in mission, focus, and force makeup. As Gen. Berger predicts that the need to counter powerful peer adversaries will arise in naval and coastal environments rather than inland non-state insurgent groups, the Corps will transfer its tank capability to the Army, shift from cannon to rocket artillery, and increase its number of lighter, more maneuverable vehicles. The change in the Marine Corps’s force makeup is a proactive move that will strengthen the military as US foreign policy priorities shift towards the Pacific. 

In the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Corps needed the support of tanks for sustained inland conflict. Of the 1,848 Abrams tanks—the US military’s primary heavy tank— deployed in the Gulf War, only 9 were destroyed. Of these, seven were accidentally destroyed by friendly fire and two were scuttled to prevent capture. A more powerful adversary like China, however, will be armed with advanced drones and missiles, which are a more formidable threat to US tanks. Recent conflicts in Syria and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh have shown that drones and missiles pose a serious threat to relatively slow-moving armor. In Nagorno-Karabakh, medium-sized Azerbaijani drones wreaked havoc on defenseless Armenian tanks. Syrian tanks suffered the same fate at the hands of Turkish drones, missiles, and aircrafts. Gen. Berger likely understands the vulnerability of tanks in the presence of relatively cheap drones and missiles, reflecting the USMC’s newfound concern with China. 

The American military operates extremely advanced but ultra-expensive equipment, like aircraft carriers, F-35 fighter jets, and the Abrams tank. China has made serious strides in missile technology and will be able to utilize cheap and effective long-range precision ballistic missiles and cruise missiles against these expensive platforms. As the wargaming described within “Force Design 2030” demonstrates, winning in combat in the Pacific will depend on who can strike first from long-range. Given its missile advancements, China is already equipping itself for war in the Pacific. 

Gen. Berger aims to do the same by optimizing the Marine Corps to complement the Navy. To do this, the Corps will have to engage in a mission akin to island-hopping in World War II. Marine Corps troops will disperse throughout the Pacific, establishing firebases that will be able to strike adversaries before they can hit the United States. However, since most of these firebases will be in territories already occupied by allies, the Marines would not have to engage in the kind of beach-storming—which requires powerful tanks—that was integral to the island-hopping strategy. Tanks have a large logistical footprint, requiring tremendous amounts of fuel, equipment, and other forms of support. Their size, weight, loud engines, and support requirements make them much more easily detectable than lighter vehicles, so they are not conducive to creating a nimble and stealthy fighting force. Eliminating armor and investing in rocket artillery, therefore, are major steps needed to accomplish what Gen. Berger sees as the Corps’s future mission against China. 

Critics argue that Gen. Berger’s decision to eliminate all tanks from the Corps is brash. Although Gen. Berger claims that the Marines will be able to access the Army’s tanks when necessary, Army and Marine armors operate in fundamentally different ways. In the Marines, tanks have an explicit infantry-supporting role, while in the Army, tanks operate as a form of cavalry, trained to engage enemy tanks in large-scale battles. The transfer of the USMC’s tank capabilities to the Army may mean the loss of the Marines’ tank strategy, where tankers work closely to support their infantry counterparts. Critics also argue that once the tanks are transferred to the Army, Marine Corps attempts to temporarily procure the tanks may result in inter-service bickering. Furthermore, once the Marines eliminate their tank capabilities, retraining infantry and reinstituting armor will be difficult. If the Corps’s mission shifts once again to one where they face sustained inland combat and need heavy armor, they will need time to adapt. In response, Gen. Berger contends that a nimble, dynamic Marine Corps designed to counter China, with its advanced technologies and powerful military, will be able to adapt quickly to fight a foe with inferior capabilities. A Corps designed to fight inland Iraqi militants will likely have a much harder time adjusting quickly to fight in the Pacific. 

The US shift towards the Pacific also requires collaboration with its allies. The recent Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) submarine deal created a multilateral defense agreement to contain and deter China. The United States agreed to sell nuclear-powered (not nuclear-armed) submarines to Australia, which can patrol while staying undetected for long periods of time, striking targets from long range. The AUKUS deal is an important step in augmenting Australian forces so they can complement their American allies. This goes hand in hand with the changes seen in the Marine Corps. US policymakers see our next war, hot or cold, happening in the Pacific. The AUKUS deal demonstrates that the new Marine Corps strategy is not unilateral: The United States is simultaneously collaborating with its allies to implement the proper technologies and strategies to counter China. 

If conflict stirs in the Pacific, it will be important that the Corps effectively support the Navy in coastal and maritime environments. The elimination of tank capabilities will help build a Marine Corps that has a greater level of maneuverability and self-sufficiency within budget constraints. These changes will be needed for conflict in the Pacific, where speed, stealth, and range can spell the difference between victory and defeat. The United States has just embarrassingly withdrawn from Afghanistan, marking a failed intervention project. But these changes in force makeup, as well as deals like AUKUS, signal to allies and adversaries that the United States is engaging proactively with changing international conditions.