Cover: Equipping the 21st Century Marine Corps

Equipping the 21st Century Marine Corps

Alternative Equipping Strategies for Task-Organized Units

Published Feb 18, 2021

by Joslyn Fleming, Jonathan P. Wong, Matthew W. Lewis, Duncan Long, Angelena Bohman, Kathryn Connor, Rick Eden, Michael J. Gaines


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Research Questions

  1. How do provisional units currently source personnel and equipment requirements?
  2. Are provisional units temporary in nature or enduring requirements, and what is required for the sustainment of these units?
  3. Does the High Demand/Low Density disparity produce equipment shortages and management problems for provisional units only or the Marine Corps generally?
  4. What is the scope and the impact of the equipping problem?
  5. What are the specific costs, including any personnel, facilities, and maintenance costs, to solve the problem?

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) has implemented proactive measures to respond to global events and crises that have outsized strategic and geopolitical impacts. One such measure is deploying task-organized units, also referred to as provisional units, to respond to an increase in combatant commander demands for forces. Like regular units, these provisional units are manned, trained, and equipped to conduct a myriad of missions across the range of military operations. However, their temporary nature and provisional missions are at odds with the way that the Marine Corps normally deploys units. Furthermore, there is little infrastructure and a lack of specific policy to validate and manage resources being used by these units.

In documenting the extent of the equipping issues that provisional units face, the authors found that equipping challenges stem from a large number of small problems that collectively cause negative impacts. Since no single course of action can significantly improve provisional unit equipping, the problem demands a multipronged, hybrid approach that capitalizes on the strengths of several different equipping strategies. The authors' recommendations to mitigate provisional equipment challenges are informed by three imperatives: balance provisional unit equipping with overall readiness; minimize disruption to current Marine Corps practices; and accommodate provisional unit equipping needs while keeping policies and practices flexible enough to accommodate future needs.

Key Findings

Provisional units have high demands for certain equipment

  • Provisional units place strain on the Marine Corps for some types of equipment (e.g., communications and electronics).
  • Demand for some items is high relative to the approved acquisition objective for the force sourcing the provisional unit.

Marine Corps policies on provisional units need more clarity

  • Policies lack clear, consistent guidance on provisional unit equipping, especially what is required for the sustainment of these units.
  • There is a disconnect between how accountability is supposed to work according to policy and how it works in practice.

Information technology (IT) systems are not responsive to provisional unit needs

  • Enterprise IT systems to track authorized allowances and on-hand equipment quantities generally work only for standard units.
  • Most provisional units default to using spreadsheets, which do not enable visibility, tracking, and analysis.

Accurate utilization rates are lacking to inform equipping decisions

  • It takes subjective judgment to estimate how to equip provisional units taking on novel missions.
  • As the Marine Corps employs more provisional units, it becomes harder to refine estimates of equipment need without usage data.

Managing risk is a challenge when trading off support for provisional units and other Global Force Management commitments

  • The Marine Corps has prioritized preserving readiness for major combat operations rather than risk it on support for provisional units, which includes restricting provisional units' access to war reserve materiel.
  • While reserving war reserve material is important for maintaining readiness for major combat, this practice may put provisional units currently deployed at risk.


  • The problem of provisional unit equipping demands a multipronged, hybrid solution, implemented in a sequenced manner, in which the United States Marine Corp uses risk matrices to prioritize unit equipping in the Global Force Management process.
  • The USMC should employ more empirical assessments of provisional unit mission and equipment requirements because usage data can, over time, paint an increasingly accurate picture of what equipment is actually needed.
  • Policies that account for provisional and rotational unit equipping should be updated to address sustainment issues and include guidance on modernization of equipment.
  • Flexible equipping strategies should be developed that emphasize forward positioning and local acquisition to support the Marine Corps' more distributed operations.
  • Improved communication and visibility across IT systems will also help to mitigate problems.
  • USMC should eliminate the principal end item (PEI) rotation policy that requires 20 percent of a unit's equipment in theater to be sent back to the United States for upgrade during each rotation.
  • All recommendations are informed by imperatives to balance provisional unit equipping with overall readiness; minimize disruption to current Marine Corps practices; and accommodate equipping needs while keeping policies and practices flexible enough to respond to future needs.

This research was sponsored by the United States Marine Corps Operations Analysis Directorate and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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