The Marine Corps is figuring out how to implement the guidance Commandant issued to the force, which called for a sweeping overhaul of how Marines equip, train, deploy, and occupy space in the world.
In building a vision for how to equip for an era in which its ships, aircraft, and overseas bases exist under constant threat from long-range precision weapons and electronic warfare attacks, the Marine Corps will try and go “smaller, lighter, less exquisite, more numerous.
The Corps hasn’t said much about how it’s going to move out on the plan, which questioned cornerstones of Marine doctrine like the need for 38 amphibious ships and supporting a two Marine Expeditionary Brigade-sized forcible entry force. The reason for the silence became clear: Marine leaders are just starting to do the heavy lifting to make it happen.
“We’re looking for ways to make ships more numerous, more autonomous, and more attractable with “alternate platforms” like unmanned supply ships and expeditionary basing options could partially replace, or bolster, large amphibious ships as the way Marines get to the fight. “There has to be a smarter way to do logistics and supply that we don’t need an amphib to do. We’re looking for alternate platforms to take the load off those ships.”
We’ve heard the Marines talk about lighter, cheaper gear before, when they were deployed by the tens of thousands to the grinding fights in over the last two decades. But the desire to go light in order to move across deserts and through mountains ran into the buzzsaw of the IED threat which tore apart lighter Humvees, leading to hulking MRAPs and more body armor, slowing down troops who were tied to static bases that themselves were targets.
But operating in the expanses of the Pacific, unmanned ships that act as forward observers and equipment haulers are a necessity in such environments, as big-deck amphibious ships would offer too obvious a target.
Marines want to buy more things — especially unmanned ships and aerial drones, but they need to be inexpensive, since lots of them will be needed, and there’s a good chance they won’t survive long in a fight. “We’re looking for autonomy, we’re looking for manned/unmanned teaming, and we need to get lighter.
Another way to put it is, the Corps wants its boats and drones to be and “light, lethal, and affordable.”
So, how do you do that? We want to do simultaneous exercises and allow the Corps to do more analytical work. “We’re looking at a force — despite long-range persistent weapons — to persist forward. We’ve got to wrestle with ship mix and their capacity; there’s a balancing act.”
One of the burning questions that has come up since the Commadant pushed the Corps reset button has been just how many ships the Navy and Marine Corps think they need.
Many were shocked to read that the new direction the Marine Corps is moving to reject the old requirement for amphibious ships: 38 amphibs across three ship types to support moving two Marine Expeditionary Brigades ashore in a massive joint forcible entry operation.
Calling this notion outdated in a contested anti-access/area-denial environment, the plan instead advocated looking into alternate platforms and alternate types of operations.
“We must accept the realities created by the proliferation of precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart-weapons, and seek innovative ways to overcome those threat capabilities.
We need to do experimentation with lethal long-range unmanned systems capable of traveling 200 nautical miles, penetrating into the adversary enemy threat ring, and crossing the shoreline – causing the adversary to allocate resources to eliminate the threat, create dilemmas, and further create opportunities for fleet maneuver.”
“We understand that we need to, where possible as a naval force, be with or be similar to the Navy so that there’s not a Navy solution and a Marine solution; there’s a naval solution. We understand that when we are together with the Navy, we are at our most powerful.”
That integration is playing out now, as the Navy continues with both its 2019 force structure assessment – which determines how many of what kinds of ships the Navy will plan to buy in the coming years – and the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request with Marine Corps input.
Noting the plan’s move away from a two-MEB joint forcible entry operation requirement, and therefore the 38-ship figure, we’re sitting at the table, and it’s an integrated force structure assessment,” with the Marine Corps conveying their ideas for how to make best use of L-class amphibious ships, E-class expeditionary ships and other alternate platforms.
Commandant also specifically called out the two-MEB lift requirement; that requirement’s been around for decades and is no longer relevant. Now what do we do? That’s one of the things we have to think pretty radically about.”
Part of the future of Marine operations on ships is that they can no longer be passive passengers. They need to help protect the ship, contribute to maritime domain awareness and sea control, and more.
Some Marines at sea have practiced this and service is looking for more ways to employ the Marines while they are en route to a location.
Another element of these future at-sea operations includes integrating Marine Corps logistics efforts into an overall naval logistics construct. To keep up with a changing environment, the Marine Corps and the joint force are looking at “nothing short of a strategic reorientation in how we do logistics.
Naval integration line of effort means that supply chains, concepts of operations, communications and more need to be integrated between the Navy and Marine Corps. Logistics Marines will have to get as used to doing their jobs from the steel deck of a ship as they are from a logistics center ashore.
“We talk about prepositioning programs based on very large ships that have to come in to a benign port with a lot of infrastructure. We’ve got to really flip the script on that and think differently.
Today’s “successful” offload could take a month to several months to actually deliver gear to a MEB ashore, whereas in the future success will be measured in 48 or 72 hours if the Marines find themselves trying to blunt a peer-adversary fight.
One potential solution to the logistics problem the Navy and Marine Corps face is unmanned surface ships. Marine Corps recently conducted a simulation exercise using long-range unmanned surface vessels that were fully autonomous and had a range of several hundreds of miles.
“Something that can carry 50 tons, 100 tons, a couple hundred tons, and it’s truly autonomous. We’re very interested in that to be able to do resupply.
“So let’s just say we have unmanned surface vessels that are truly autonomous, programmed to go and avoid commercial traffic that’s out there and respond to threats and deliver the key part, the key thing we’re looking for, the key supplies.
Because a peer threat is focused on things that are bouncing around and not focused on a frigate, or an amphibious ship, because we fuzzed up the picture and everything from above looks about the same, then three of them got through” – which means the Marines get the supplies they need and a manned ship was able to safely conduct its mission because unmanned ships deceived the adversary.
The unmanned surface ship has to while transporting goods across the sea, be telling us something, and it has to be able to look like something that it’s not, and we’ll just leave it at that for now.
We have new focus on deception and decoys in the Marine Corps. In sum, though, “eventually we start putting a cost imposition on the adversary who’s trying to prevent us from going where we want to go.”
For the vision of unmanned vehicle operations to work, the Marines, the Navy and Congress will have to accept a fact: unmanned vehicles will be lost at sea, shot from the sky, stolen by an adversary or otherwise lost.
“Attritable” being the Pentagon’s buzz word this year, the Marine Corps is fully embracing that concept.
“Numerous and more affordable over exquisite means “we cannot continue to try to procure exquisite systems. We need kind of a cheaper …. ‘we can use and lose it’” model for procuring unmanned systems especially, as well as other gear potentially.
But there’s a big difference between exercising new concepts and actually working new drones into the force in a big way. “The initial driver for integrating robots into operations was don’t put a human being in there when you can put a machine in there, and lower the risk to the human.
Now the additive part of unmanned is how can you make your force look bigger, operate bigger with unmanned / manned teaming? How can my wingman, or two of them, be unmanned? How does that enable me to accomplish the mission in a better way?”
That will take big changes from the top on down. “Unless you artificially demand a rate of advancement, it won’t happen. It’s not that we don’t like them, it’s just that everything is built to be manned…So unless you say, ‘Five years from now, I want 50 percent of it unmanned.’ Okay, now you’re driving it. You may not achieve that but you need a driver.”
The operators teaming with those machines will also fight differently. The Marines are exploring new “methods like expeditionary advanced bases, small units, distributed, mobile, that can re-arm, refuel, sense forward, attack forward, and then move, all with a low signature.”
Beyond just unmanned systems, the Marine Corps overall needs to get lighter and more transportable under the priorities in commandants guidance.
“We have not gotten lighter in a long time. We’ve slowed the rate of growth of weight. We don’t want to slow the rate of growth of weight, we want to actually get lighter.
“It’s extremely hard to do, which means we have to accept some risk, and we’re willing to accept a lot of risk.”
“We can’t be in a training exercise somewhere, and something happens, and say, oh, adversary, if you could just hold for two weeks I’m going to go back to base get my stuff and then I’m ready to fight. We have to take it with us; it has to be transportable and light.
Marine Corps needed to decide which legacy systems it would divest of, to create the money to invest in new, lighter and more capable systems to support the expeditionary operations.
Wargaming and data analytics will play a larger role in charting a path forward.
“We must invest robustly in wargaming, experimentation, and modeling & simulation M&S if we are to be a successful learning organization,” We’ve been directed to focus in new areas, and this requires us to think, innovate, and change. Addressing these new missions starts with ideas, ideas are developed into concepts, and concepts that are then tested and refined by wargaming, experimentation, and M&S.”
An ongoing effort on the wargaming side, to support vision of a more robust learning organization making smarter decisions, is to tap into operational units’ data to better inform wargaming.
For example, in a fight-tonight scenario in a wargame, accurate and recent readiness data would show which units could actually deploy immediately based on training, material readiness and other factors. Maintenance data too could inform what operations the Marines could support, on what scale, and for how long.
The new guidance responds to those concerns by charting a distinctively new course for the Marine Corps while remaining the nation’s elite force-in-readiness. Marine Corps must be boldly transformed for the very real challenges of the future.
The planning guidance specifically rejects the notion that the Marine Corps is a standalone fighting force that the Navy simply supports with sea transport, airpower, and logistics.
Instead, the plan intends to forge a tight, supporting partnership with the Navy, making the Marines an essential component of all forms of naval warfare.
Current operational concepts are no longer adequate for the wars of the future, especially given the ever-growing threat from anti-access and area denial capabilities. Since Marines will have to operate within the range of proliferating enemy precision fires, they will need to disperse into small units to avoid being targeted.
It will require many new capabilities, including high-endurance loitering sensors and munitions, communications and radars with a low probability of intercept and detection, and advanced air defense systems.
Marine Corps leaders want to develop precision land-based fires with ranges beyond 350 nautical miles, to attack moving targets afloat and ashore. The new guidance also notes that the Corps has already started experimenting with novel ways to use existing capabilities.
For example basing up to 20 F-35B aircraft on big-deck amphibious ships will provide more dispersed and survivable airpower to the Navy. These changes will revolutionize how marines fight well into the future.
Large and expensive manned platforms will become ever more exposed to attack and will make marines ever more vulnerable by concentrating them in too few places so Marine Corps “must continue to seek the affordable and plentiful at the expense of the exquisite and few.
The Marine Corps needs a greater number of smaller and more specialized ships, as well as “an array of low-signature, affordable, and risk-worthy unmanned and expendable platforms and payloads.”
Since the threat environment will require increasingly distributed operations, leaders want combined arms operations to be pushed from infantry companies down to individual rifle squads and reconnaissance teams. That means an even greater emphasis on mission command, a flexible doctrine that trusts subordinates to take a great deal of initiative to achieve their commander’s intent.
The commandant’s guidance stresses doing everything possible to ensure that marines focus on warfighting instead of an excessive number of administrative tasks, like basic data entry and redundant processes. Even more importantly, it warns against the corrosive effects of commanders who impose too much rigidity on their subordinates while training at home.
While every Marine is still expected to be a rifleman, the guidance makes clear that the exclusive dominance of infantry and aviation inside the Marine Corps is slowly eroding.
The commandant’s guidance provides a revolutionary new direction for the Marine Corps, but it also presents some serious challenges to the other services as they prepare for the future fight.
Other services must increasingly plan to work with — and perhaps even rely upon — the Marine Corps for missions to seize and protect advanced bases, provide elements of air defense, and conduct long-range fires against enemy platforms that threaten air operations.
Increasingly dispersed Marine rifle squads and recon teams should also be authorized to call in air strikes .
Although the Navy will surely welcome the return of the Marines as full partners in naval warfare, the sharp critique of big, expensive legacy platforms deeply undercuts current Navy shipbuilding priorities. The need for platforms that are small, plentiful, specialized, and unmanned or minimally manned so that naval forces can continue to operate effectively inside the contested zone even if they absorb substantial losses.
The Marine Corps of the future is more likely to be smaller than bigger. It will rely more on sea, air, and land drones to aid Marines storming the beach, and do more to defend warships. It will work in smaller, distributed teams with low signatures, closer to the way Special Operations Forces have worked traditionally.
The new vision of dispersed, small-unit operations closely resembles how special operations forces operate today. As the new guidance is implemented, the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command should increasingly work together to develop new operational concepts and capabilities — including weapons, communications gear, intelligence systems, and insertion platforms.
“We have to do force design and we have to change our posture around the world. We should not be content to merely try to keep up. We should set the pace.”
The plan is to allow for better situational awareness to inform the rest of the force as the fight unfolds. It also means more effective deterrence than coming in from outside that zone.
“We have to take the gear with us. “It has to be affordable and light.”