The recent leadership change in the U.S. Marine Corps occurs at the same time the Marine Corps is drawing down from sustained combat operations and re-evaluating its role in the defense establishment.  Contractors that support Navy and Marine Corps operations can profit from understanding these developments.

On October 17, General Joseph Dunford became the 36th Commandant of the Marine Corps, relieving General Jim Amos, who retired after a four-year tour.  The change of command ceremony was remarkable, and not just because an Ebola scare among the guests added some excitement to the proceedings.  Not since 1999 has an incoming Commandant taken responsibility for a Marine Corps that was not heavily committed to land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

General Dunford published his first message to Marines on the day he became Commandant.  The one-page letter uses the word “relevant” twice, but the word “combat” only once.  What happened?   Every Marine knows the phrase “prepare for combat,” but few have ever been told to “prepare for relevance.”

General Dunford will lead the Marine Corps through a period of profound change.  Contractors who deal with the Marine Corps must understand how the Corps is framing the discussion of its role in broader military strategy.  Business leaders who understand that discussion have the chance to capitalize on new opportunities, even in an environment of fiscal austerity.  The Commandant’s first message has some intriguing hints, and we expect to see a major overhaul of joint maritime strategy from all three sea services: the Marine Corps; the Navy; and the Coast Guard.  In this post, we explain what these changes mean for the sea services’ partners in industry.

Relevance is not a new concern for the Marine Corps.  The nation’s smallest service has weathered challenges with some regularity over the past century, as the changing nature of wars required different approaches to combat.  For example, the Marine Corps’s existing Amphibious Assault Vehicle (“AAV”) is overdue for replacement.  Given the recent proliferation of cheap and effective anti-ship missile technology, the Navy’s amphibious transport ships must position themselves far off shore to avoid the threat of land-based weapons, and the lightly armored and relatively slow AAVs cannot survive a long “swim” from ship to shore.

The Marine Corps continues to struggle to find the right replacement vehicle.  General Amos, the outgoing Commandant, was forced early in his tenure to cancel the first proposed successor, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (“EFV”).  The next proposal, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (“ACV”), is currently in prototype testing.  Recently, however, the entire premise of that vehicle family has been challenged.  At issue is the fundamental question of how to put Marines into a fight quickly and effectively, especially when the front shifts from the desert to the littorals.  Some observers have even called for scrapping the entire sea-based maneuver and adding more heavy-lift helicopters to ferry Marines and their fighting vehicles into battle.

We will soon see how far the Marine Corps is prepared to go in revamping its amphibious strategy.  In the near future – possibly by the end of 2014 – the sea service chiefs will issue a joint maritime strategy.  The previous version of that strategy dates to 2007, so the potential for large-scale change is real.  Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, previewed the new strategy at a recent conference, and noted that final publication depends, in large part, on input from General Dunford and the Marine Corps.

What does this mean for contractors?  The Office of Naval Research recently distributed a Broad Agency Announcement describing some of the key upcoming priorities for the Navy and Marine Corps.  The largest manufacturers will have opportunities to propose major programs that can facilitate potential changes in maritime and amphibious warfare doctrine.  More broadly, though, contractors of all sizes should be attuned to the shifting currents and institutional motivations, particularly within the Marine Corps.  Contractors should not simply pitch good value and battle readiness to their Marine customers.  Instead, they should explain how their proposals help to position the Marine Corps to evolve and thrive as an independent and relevant fighting force.

The widely respected four-star combat veteran who now leads the Marine Corps has assuredly not shifted his focus from combat readiness to bureaucratic infighting.  He does, however, have to ensure that his service can continue to define its unique and key role in national defense.  Contractors may benefit by understanding how they can help him achieve that mission.