November 09, 2015

CNAS Releases Report on Institutional Innovation in the U.S. Marine Corps


Washington, November 9 – As the United States Marine Corps prepares to celebrate its 240th birthday, Ben FitzGerald, director of the Center for a New American Security Technology and National Security Program, and Lieutenant Colonel Brian Bruggeman, a former Senior Military Fellow at CNAS, have released a new report, Crisis Response: Institutional Innovation in the United States Marine Corps. The report examines how the U.S. Marine Corps successful met then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ 2010 challenge to adapt from a “second land army” to become a vital crisis-response force-in-readiness component.
The full report is available here:
Please find the introduction to the report below:
In the summer of 2010, the United States Marine Corps was under severe pressure from the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. Its significant contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan had led to concerns that the Marine Corps was becoming a “second land army.” Worse, its attempts to return to the sea were perceived as a stubborn focus on amphibious assault that some civilian leaders believed to be outdated and unnecessary. The pressure culminated in August 2010 when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tasked Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to review the structure of the Marine Corps. Five months later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), an amphibious assault vehicle once referred to as a “service-defining capability.”
Five short years later, the U.S. Marine Corps is widely recognized as the United States’ vital crisis-response force-in-readiness. It has restructured effectively to address this mission set, remain relevant beyond Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and weather the storm of budget sequestration arguably better than any of the other services.
This report examines how the Marine Corps made this dramatic turnaround in such a short period of time.
Redefined Purpose
Following an initial reluctance to accept the views of civilian leaders, Marine Corps leadership ultimately embraced the Secretary’s review (initially as an act of self-preservation borne of the Marines Corps’ historic paranoia of being “merged out of business.”) During the review effort, senior Marines asked and answered hard questions about the purpose and nature of the Marine Corps. They undertook the painstaking analysis of force-structure reviews and budget cuts and questioned the service’s capability needs. While those activities were necessary, they were not especially novel. Had they been conducted in isolation, these review processes may not have led to the positive outcomes the Marine Corps needed.
However, the Marine Corps also redefined its historic purpose within the operating context articulated by civilian policymakers. In this way, they deliberately provided decisionmakers with more effective military tools for implementing policy. Previously, the Marine Corps and other services established their own future-operating environment, relying on prior force-sizing constructs or narrow readings of history. These processes supported the service’s internal preferences while claiming alignment with policymakers’ explicit or implied needs.
Instead, the Marine Corps shifted its review to a force-sizing construct optimized for crisis response. This allowed the service to return to its amphibious roots without having to justify an existence based on large-scale amphibious assault – a mission central to Marines Corps history, culture, and thinking, but viewed with increasing skepticism across the rest of the Department of Defense.
This change in bureaucratic method and operational focus was the critical first step that enabled a period of institutional innovation, marking a significant departure for the Marine Corps. Subsequent innovations then linked this updated crisis-response purpose to rigorous analysis, a process endorsed by senior leaders. This created an agreed vision among senior Marine Corps leaders and established a clear message to explain and gain buy-in for these innovations.
Taken in sum, these interrelated elements provided the philosophical and analytic rigor to support the development of a compelling message from the Marine Corps to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, White House, and Congress – ensuring civilian support. Support from civilian leaders helped generate positive reviews in the media, creating a virtuous cycle that propelled the Marine Corps from perceived intransigent to innovator – moving it from a defensive crouch into the forward-leaning, aggressive posture it prefers.
Institutional Innovation
While the initial impetus and process to innovate at the institutional level was forced upon the Marine Corps, the experience ultimately provided an opportunity. The Marine Corps’ capability to innovate institutionally improved significantly during this period of internal reviews, with effective organizational responses to sequestration, budget uncertainty, and events such as the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi. The Marine Corps, while far from perfect and with much work still to do, is in a better position today than it was in 2010 in spite of the irresponsible Congressional actions associated with the Budget Control Act.
The Marine Corps’ experience predates the Pentagon’s current fixation on innovation – a term that that has become dangerously fashionable in defense circles. The recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was replete with references to innovation. In one of his first major speeches as Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter focused on innovation and collaboration with Silicon Valley. And, most notably, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is leading the “Defense Innovation Initiative” aimed at reversing the decline in U.S. technology superiority. This high-level focus is warranted. But such widespread attention raises the risk that innovation will be misappropriated into meaninglessness and lose favor without the DoD undertaking the real innovation – institutional, technological, operational, or otherwise – it so desperately needs. The Marine Corps’ recent experience of institutional innovation both within This change in bureaucratic method and operational focus was the critical first step that enabled a period of institutional innovation, marking a significant departure for the Marine Corps. While the initial impetus and process to innovate at the institutional level was forced upon the Marine Corps, the experience ultimately provided an opportunity both within and outside standing DoD force-design processes serves as a practical example of what the Pentagon now desires. It provides useful lessons for subsets of the Marine Corps, other services, and the militaries of other western nations facing declining defense budgets.

FitzGerald is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact JaRel Clay at or call 202-457-9410. 


  • Ben FitzGerald

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Ben FitzGerald is a partner at Lupa, a private investment firm, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). At Lupa he leads the firm’s inve...

  • LtCol Brian Bruggeman

  • USMC