Marine Planners Using Commandant’s Guidance to Start Crafting Future of the Corps

September 18, 2019 1:53 PM
U.S. Marines with Task Force Koa Moana (TF KM) conducts a night live fire exercise during the TF KM Mission Rehearsal Exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. on July 19, 2018. US Marine Corps Photo

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. – Two months after new Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger released his commandant’s planning guidance, the Marines charged with plotting how the service will operate in the future showed a glimpse into how the new guidance is shaping their work.

The CPG document was referenced repeatedly at the annual Modern Day Marine exposition on Tuesday. For those who have followed the development of a pair of concepts over the past several years – Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – the guidance was a natural outgrowth. Berger called for more naval integration, made possible in part by new command and control ideas and in part by Marine systems that were lighter, smaller, more portable, and “attritable.”

Many were shocked to read that the new direction the Marine Corps is moving in also led Berger 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 Calling this notion outdated in a contested anti-access/area-denial environment, Berger instead advocated looking into alternate platforms and alternate types of operations.

“I do not believe joint forcible entry operations (JFEO) are irrelevant or an operational anachronism; however, we must acknowledge that different approaches are required given the proliferation of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) threat capabilities in mutually contested spaces. Visions of a massed naval armada nine nautical miles off-shore in the South China Sea preparing to launch the landing force in swarms of ACVs, LCUs, and LCACs are impractical and unreasonable,” he wrote.
“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. I encourage 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.”

With those words, and other ideas in the 26-page document, the Marine Corps has already moved out to support Berger’s vision.

Naval Integration

Marines and Sailors watch as ships of Expeditionary Strike Group 7 transit in formation through the Tasman Sea alongside the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) on July 11, 2019. US Marine Corps Photo

Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, who replaced Berger as deputy commandant for combat development and integration and the head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said Tuesday that naval integration is among his top priorities under the commandant’s planning guidance.

“My closest partner right now is not my fellow deputy commandants … it’s a guy named Jim Kilby, Vice Adm. Jim Kilby. He’s the N9, he’s the Navy integrator. I’m on the phone with Jim … talking to Jim, in his office, three times a week,” Smith said during Tuesday morning’s keynote speech.
“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 Berger’s move away from a two-MEB joint forcible entry operation requirement, and therefore the 38-ship figure, Smith clarified that, “what he said is, I’m not using the 2009 or previous force structure assessment, which is how the Navy determines ship numbers. Instead we’re going to use the 2019 force structure assessment, of which myself and Gen. (John) Jansen, who is our money guy, are a part of. 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.

Despite the focus on the 38-ship figure – a number that Col. Kurt Schiller joked his aviation combat element and maritime expeditionary warfare division of the Combat Development Directorate are no longer allowed to utter – Schiller said the bigger issue is, “the 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; though some Marines at sea have practiced this, Schiller said during a panel presentation that the 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, Col. Jesse Kemp, the logistics combat element division director at CDD, said in the same panel.

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,” he said. Naval integration is his first of six lines of effort, with Kemp saying 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.

And, Kemp added, the Navy will have to rethink its Maritime Prepositioning Force that the Marines count on to flow in gear for a big fight.

The current MPF is “quickly becoming not as relevant as it was in the past” given today’s A2/AD environment.

“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,” he said, adding that today’s “successful” MPF 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.

Smith threw out one potential solution to the logistics problem the Navy and Marine Corps face: unmanned surface ships.

The general said the Marine Corps recently conducted a simulation exercise with MITRE, 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. I’m very interested in that to be able to do resupply,” he said, describing his takeaway from the simulation.
“So let’s just say I 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 that I’m looking for, the key supplies. And I need to send six of them; I’m hoping three of them will get through because I can live on three. And because a peer threat is focused on those six things that are bouncing around and not focused on a frigate, or an [amphibious ship], because I may have 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.

Smith concluded that the USV would also have to, while transporting goods across the sea, be “sniffing and telling us something, and it has to be able to look like something that it’s not, and I’ll just leave it at that,” he said, referring to a new focus on deception and decoys in the Marine Corps. In sum, though, “eventually we start putting a cost imposition on the person who’s trying to prevent me from going where I want to go.”

Lighter, Cheaper, Smaller

US Marine Corps Cpl. Cullen, Tolmsoff left, and Cpl. Justin Johnson, both with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, pose for a photograph with an InstanEye quadcopter, during a Quads for Squads training event on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Feb. 28, 2018. US Marine Corps Photo

For Smith’s vision of USV 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 idea.

“Numerous and more affordable over exquisite” is how Smith expressed the idea, with Schiller later adding that “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.

Schiller described an Army Stryker Brigade in the Middle East that lost a small UAV and, knowing they’d be in trouble if they came home without it, sent soldiers into a conflict with local insurgents so they could retrieve the downed drone. “We need to be able to accept risk, be able to lose platforms without worrying,” he said.

Beyond just unmanned systems, Smith said, the Marine Corps overall needs to get lighter and more transportable under the priorities in the CPG.

“We have not gotten lighter in a long time. We’ve slowed the rate of growth of weight; I don’t want to slow the rate of growth of weight, I want to actually get lighter,” he said.
“It’s extremely hard to do, which means we have to accept some risk, and I’m willing to accept a lot of risk.”

Noting that thousands of Marines living west of the international date line are living within the range of potential adversaries’ weapons, he said the Marines need systems that are both useful in combat and also transportable enough that Marines can take them wherever they go.

“We can’t be in a training exercise in Thailand, and something happens, and say, oh, adversary, if you could just hold for two weeks I’m going to go back to Okinawa, get my stuff and then I’m ready to fight. We have to take it with us; it has to be transportable and light,” he said.

Col. Scott Stebbins, who oversees the information warfare portfolio within the combat element division at CDD, said the 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 EABO.

For example, he said, the Marines’ CREW system – Counter Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare – was great to counter IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan and keep Marines on patrol safe. However, under EABO and LOCE, they’ll need EW capabilities to counter IEDs, unmanned systems, communications and more. Rather than continuing to pay to operate and maintain the CREW system, the service needs to spend that money “reinvesting in something that does more than just one thing.”


Marines disembark a Landing Craft, Utility during a tactics exercise in Sweden for Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2019 on June 19, 2019. US Navy Photo

Finally, under Berger’s CPG, 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,” the document reads. “The National Defense Strategy has directed us 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.”

Col. Tim Barrick, the director of wargaming at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, said at a separate panel that critics have charged in recent year “that we have lacked, as a Department of Defense, the right set of analytic information to support the direction we’re going.”

His division of MCWL is about to grow from a staff of 22 to 150 and will get a state-of-the-art wargaming center “to deliver the right set of results that can inform … the way forward.”

The new center, located at Quantico, will be primarily a Marine Corps asset but will also be available to the joint force, being the closest such facility to the Pentagon. The larger staff will accommodate wargames involving as many as 300 to 400 people, and the staff will be able to run multiple events at once, conduct more extensive post-game analytic work and use more sophisticated modeling and simulation tools.

An ongoing effort on the wargaming side, to support Berger’s 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.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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