Force Design: Future-Proof Yourself

By Major Scott Humr

The equivalent of a papal conclave is currently taking place within the Marine Corps.  With Force Design as the 38th Commandant’s (CMC) number one priority, Marines of all stripes are now looking for the analogous smoke signal to arise from the Pentagon as an indication to the future of their beloved occupational field.  The CMC is clear in his recent planning guidance (CPG): “If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so.”  We as Marines will need to embrace our ethos of adapt and overcome by future-proofing ourselves if we desire to remain relevant to this force of the future.  Force design changes will take time to implement, no doubt.  Marines will, therefore, need to “skate to where the puck will be” in 2030 by actively pursuing additional educational opportunities, new skill sets, and reading broadly if they desire a sure future in the Marine Corps.


Recently speaking about education, the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly echoed, “I think that the one thing that’s predictable about the future is that it’s going to be unpredictable.”  Education helps prepare us for that unpredictable future particularly because it is not prescriptive.  Instead, it provides us the tools for how to think, not necessarily what to think.  This is an important, but often overlooked distinction that separates it from training.  Education also helps hone our critical thinking skills by allowing us to properly scrutinize new ideas.  It can also provide broad exposure to history, social sciences, scientific disciplines, and frameworks of thinking, which can help broaden our perspectives.  The education required for relevance in the future of the Marine Corps will likely require a more concentrated focus on STEM education given the trajectory of new technologies outlined in the CPG.  The force design of 2030 will likely be enabled and supported by a great deal of currently nascent technologies and others that may require the battalion commander of 2030 to be more similar to a chief technology officer with skill sets to integrate many different technologies to achieve the best effects.  

New Skill Acquisition

Fortunately, educational opportunities currently abound in the Marine Corps and Naval Service.  From undergraduate and graduate education to professional military education, there is no shortage of occasions to pursue the skills we will need for the future force.  Additional online courses offered by many universities can also supplement these efforts.  With the forthcoming introduction of the Naval University, pursuing education should become even more accessible.  As Marines, we cannot rest on our laurels of past successes or assume our undergraduate degree from ten years ago will be enough to sustain us an additional ten years into the future.  No, education must be continually pursued if you desire to have relevance in the future.  Ignoring the pursuit of additional education on a continual basis is tantamount to professional negligence and should be a clear indicator of one’s impending irrelevance to the Naval Service.

Force design could result in the divestment of particular platforms and increased demand for others.  Marines in these fields who have years of valuable experience could find continued relevance through the pursuit of new skills.  For instance, as the CH-46 was sunset almost a decade ago and many pilots easily transitioned to the new MV-22 platform.  However, the path ahead for force design is not yet clear and it cannot be assumed that Marines could as easily transition without developing the new skill sets the Marine Corps will need in the future.

Valuable skill sets will go hand-in-hand with the education of the future force and will go a long way towards future-proofing oneself.  From data science to artificial intelligence, the CPG is clear that these technologies will require strategic investments.  The CMC states clearly in the CPG, “All of our investments in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are designed to unleash the incredible talent of the individual Marine.”  Marines who begin acquiring these skills through persistent self-study will likely find themselves well-prepared to be the future leaders in their fields.  The demand for these skills will likely permeate every level of command, creating no shortage of opportunities for those who are prepared.  


Force design will require competent, agile leaders who can embrace the CMC’s vision to implement it effectively.  Military professionals who are ignorant of the latest technological progress in warfare will be quickly relegated to the sidelines.  In Secretary Mattis’s recent book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” he states, “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”  Technological progress is happening at a break-neck pace and the military professional who is not keeping abreast of such progress will soon be labeled as ‘incompetent.’  For these reasons, reading is fundamental to our profession for not only understanding the arcs of military history, but what future war may entail.  Our profession demands we consistently contemplate how we may fight in the future, both near and short-term.  We must have the mindset that we are continuous students in the art of war.  And as students, we need to have a constant infusion of new ideas from a panoply of disciplines.  Reading helps provide the seeds for the well-educated soil of the mind to allow new ideas to grow.  We need leaders who can synthesize both military history and understand technological progress to develop new warfare concepts today, and in the future.  Again, Secretary Mattis: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before.  It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”  Indeed, the path ahead for future warfare in 2030 is opaque at best.  For the leaders of today who are not grounded in military history, while also keeping pace with latest writings on future warfare, and the latest technologies, force design may reveal how ‘flat-footed’ they really are. 


The writing has been on the wall for quite some time now.  We do not have to wait for the bishops and cardinals of the Marine Corps to adjourn the Force Design conclave to begin preparations.  Developments in military technology continuously point to a future where the military will become more highly technical in almost every respect.  “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  We cannot rest on the laurels of our previous accomplishments.  We can ensure our future relevance by embracing continuous education, new skill acquisition, and reading broadly.  Leaders will need to encourage these habits and behaviors while helping to create the necessary whitespace to allow their Marines to pursue such opportunities.  Strive to become a relevant player in supporting the CMC’s force design concepts.  Otherwise, heed the advice of US Army General (ret.) Eric Shinseki, “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”