In the September issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, Col Robert Dobson, USMC(Ret), presented a somewhat bold reconceptualization of how the Marine Corps should posture itself for the emerging security environment. Col Dobson argued that the Corps should allocate as many as 30,000 Marines to irregular warfare (IW) missions including dedicated training/advisory tasks.
This reconceptualization will have significant implications for Marine force design and posture. If resources were boundless and no strategic risks were acceptable, the Marine Corps would remain robustly sized and would build distinctive forces for discrete missions along the conflict spectrum. We would have separate counterterrorism forces, a force for protracted counterinsurgencies, expeditionary forces, and heavy conventional forces for those rare, but existential, interstate conflagrations. We could afford to optimize the training and equipping of these forces to their expected operating environments and threats. But we do not live in such a world. It is fairly clear, for the near period, that spending is going to go down and that rethinking long-standing assumptions and priorities is needed. We therefore need to prepare and shape our forces with a greater degree of uncertainty, acknowledge risk, and apply resources with greater discipline. We need fresh thinking as we pull back from a decade of war. Col Dobson’s article faced up to these issues. The purpose of this article is to lay out the full range of possible options that senior leadership might want to consider in addressing changes in the Corps’ structure and posture.
I applaud Col Dobson’s effort and I hope it will instill a debate, but I do have some concerns. First, we need to rationalize the Corps’ role from a national and joint perspective. How does replicating the Army/special operations force capability with 30,000 advisors/trainers fit within the national architecture? I think Col Dobson is correct that the need exists, although it’s not clear, as the defense budget shrinks, whether building partner capacity (BPC) tasks are retained or start becoming a “nice to have.”
Second, we need to assess the impact of the so-called “age of austerity.” Budget resources are in decline and a premium will be paid for capabilities that are applied to the country’s most vital interests and to those covering the greatest spread of contingencies at the lowest cost. Detachments for BPC may not meet the first challenge, but a full-spectrum Marine Corps clearly meets the second criteria.
Third, we need to understand the complexity of the mission range we now face. The current conception bifurcates the spectrum of conflict between IW and conventional warfare—a false choice if we grasp trends about proliferation and proxy forces. We need to assess our assumptions about frequency, consequences, and risk far more carefully and analytically. Additionally, it is not clear why BPC or any training/advisory role has to be lumped under IW. We may need to train future partners to conduct conventional warfare and create other security agencies, not to defeat an insurgency.
Let me begin with a list of assumptions and areas of agreement with Col Dobson:
• The conflict spectrum is becoming broader and more complex, straining the Nation’s capacity to prevent crises and its ability to respond promptly and appropriately without risk.
• The Corps’ role as the premier force-in-readiness is sound and will increase in required frequency and variation in the near future.
• Because of the shift to prevention, and the complexity of theater security cooperation programs, some variation in our force structure and institutionalized posture for IW is warranted.
• The evolving character of conflict requires troops that are well trained in the basics, but also more seasoned and educated. Our current manpower/training model does not produce the required outputs for these missions.
• A dedicated IW force with unique skills and highly skilled personnel may be needed, but it should be at least MEB-sized to retain a MAGTF flavor and capability mix.
Reduced resources, greater requirements, fewer forces, and more missions are a force planner’s nightmare. There are a variety of schools of thought on how to address this force posture problem. Col Dobson’s bold proposal has a clear logic, but a broader lens is needed. An assessment of the strategic environment, projections of the evolving character of conflict, the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) new strategic guidance, and integration with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Force 2020 should be considered. The Marine Corps’ culture—its “mask of war”—should also be assessed, as alterations to its ethos, fundamental mission, and force structure will have to be factored in.
To expand the aperture of the debate, this article lays out four competing schools found in today’s security literature.1 Each school addresses different threats and missions, and has a structural and resource impact for a different future Marine Corps.2
The Small Wars School challenges the retention of traditionally focused forces. There are strategists who believe that Iraq and Afghanistan represent far more than a passing blip in the evolution of conflict; they contend that massed formations comprised of traditional arms and large-scale conflict between conventional powers are no longer a realistic planning scenario or the focal point for shaping tomorrow’s military. They contend that the most likely challenges and greatest risks are posed by failing states, ungoverned territories, transnational threats, and radical versions of Islam.
Advocates of this school stress that this should be the focus of effort for the American military. Some even deride the notion of “irregular” warfare in our military’s culture as fallacious, and criticize the U.S. military’s conceptual blindness about the frequency and complexity of nontraditional forms of conflict. As the former Deputy Director of the Marine Corps’ Center for Advanced Operational Culture, Dr. Barak Salmoni, once argued:
It will only be when American military and civilian leaders recast the irregular as regular that they will begin to fundamentally restructure forces, properly re-educate personnel, effectively plan operationally and usefully deploy as well as employ military forces . .”3
Within the Marine Corps, this is a small community generally associated with fourth-generation warfare, but I would call this our small wars camp.4 This school argues that IW is not only different and of greater priority, but also that it cannot be successfully conducted by general purpose forces that only marginally prepare for it. This school challenges “current orthodoxy [which] says that what is needed is a one-size-fits-all medium force that is both strategically mobile and tactically robust.”5 Instead, they argue for a greater emphasis on wars amongst the people and a force particularly shaped for sustained IW. As Max Boot argued, the Marine Corps should return to its small wars roots and drop its pursuit of major programs designed to preserve its forcible entry mission.6 Even retired Marines have argued that the Corps stop perceiving its mission based on the iconic Iwo Jima model built around its World War II experiences, and urge it to conceptualize its development efforts on more relevant and modern enemies.7 The Small Wars School focuses on today’s fights and what could be tomorrow’s most likely scenarios.8 Instead of allocating 30 percent of our Operating Forces to IW, this school would make this the central focus of the Marine Corps, consistent with projections that Col Dobson wrote about: that the large majority of crises we respond to actually fit with the small wars paradigm.
As David Kilcullen recently noted, about 83 percent of all conflicts since Waterloo have been irregular in character, and there is little to suggest that this is changing back to state-centric conventional war.9 This leads some authors to assert that we should structure and focus ourselves on the most likely contingencies. However, small-scale crises are rarely existential to U.S. interests or survival. We should not confuse prevalence with prioritized strategic objectives.
Structure and programmatic shifts would not be significant, but expensive hardware acquisitions like the Joint Strike Fighter and the amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) would have a lower priority. The Small War School would markedly improve Marine preparation for stability operations and counterinsurgency tasks by improving individual cultural and language skills, small unit tactics, and training/advisory missions. At the same time, this focus would leave the Corps less prepared for rare, but demanding, conventional conflicts.
The Traditionalists sit at the opposing end of the spectrum of conflict. This school seeks to reestablish the traditional focus of the Armed Forces on “fighting and winning the Nation’s wars.” They focus on major, high-intensity, interstate wars. They advocate against reorienting forces, especially ground forces, away from their traditional emphasis on large-scale, Industrial Age warfare against states or an alliance of states.
Within the Marine Corps, this school includes those who insist that the Corps’ raison d’être is founded in its amphibious capability, and that its force structure, equipment, and training must be focused on projecting power “from the sea.” Despite years of operational usage and strategic demand signals that suggest that high-risk amphibious assault missions are not in high demand (see Figure 1), this school would insist that the strategic and operational benefits of a robust amphibious assault capability outweigh the trends of the last 50 years.10 This school does not ignore the frequency of IW or dismiss its persistent nature, it just believes that such scenarios are not amenable to military intervention and that these contingencies should not be the focus for American strategy or its military. Traditionalists want to retain the Pentagon’s current procurement profile and its emphasis on the “big guns” for a future they predict will be conventional in nature, and for which a large and expensive military is strategically necessary. This school would concur with a key assessment in future assessments that competition and conflict among conventional powers will continue to be the primary strategic and operational context for the Joint Force over the next 25 years.11
This state-based and conventional warfare school is particularly wary about the newfound embrace for messy, protracted counterinsurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are rightfully concerned about the degradation of combat skill sets within the Army and Marine Corps due to the severe operational tempo of today’s conflicts. This school would preserve the Corps’ 2001 force structure, and the Joint Strike Fighter and ACV would be the highest procurement priorities.
The third and most prevalent school, at least among American ground force commanders, is full-spectrum operations. This school recognizes the need to adequately deal with both strictly conventional tasks and irregular threats. It seeks to cover the entire spectrum of conflict and avoid the risk of being optimized at either extreme. Instead, it seeks to spreads this risk across the range of military operations by investing in quality forces, educating its officers for agility in complex problems, and tough, but flexible, training programs.
The Full-Spectrum School is officially represented in the Army’s new doctrinal manual, Field Manual 3–0, Operations (Department of the Army, Washington, DC, June 2001), which declares that “stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that must be given priority comparable to that of combat (offensive and defensive) operations.” This construct rejects the narrow mission profile of the Traditionalists and claims the Army must train its units in the application of “full-spectrum operations” to ensure it provides a balanced, versatile force to offer to joint and combined force commanders. These full-spectrum operations emphasize the importance of adaptive, flexible forces able to fight and win in combat, whether facing a terrorist entity or the modern forces of a hostile nation.
This school is similarly reflected in the Marine Corps’ long-range vision and capstone operating concept that extols the versatility of “multicapable” MAGTFs across the full range of military operations. In their latest long-range Service vision, the Marine Corps claims to cover an “extraordinary range of operations,” but seeks to add new competencies only “without losing our conventional capabilities.”12
How reasonable is it for general purpose forces to be able to train, equip, and be proficient at such a wide range of operational missions and contexts? How can our ground forces be good at many things, and shift emphasis in training, doctrine, and equipment without losing time and resources for so-called conventional capabilities? Are increased resources or a much larger ground force implied? Is it operationally feasible for troops to cover such a wide mission profile, and is the military hiding behind the rhetoric of full spectrum while remaining devoted to yesterday’s battles? After the painfully gained experience in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, are the Services really making the necessary doctrinal, organizational, and equipment changes needed to succeed across the range of military operations?
These questions are moot if the threat is converging in the middle of the conflict spectrum, which suggests a lethal new “knee in the curve” of probability and lethal consequences. Care should be taken that we do not design forces for situations to the left and right of this projection, where they might be at a disadvantage. (See Figure 2.)
Division of Labor
There are a number of analysts who reject the fundamental premise of the Full-Spectrum School. This alternative school agrees with the British veteran Charles Callwell who noted that irregular and conventional warfare are markedly different modes of conflict. Callwell claimed that “the conditions of small wars are so diversified, the enemy’s mode of fighting so peculiar . . . that irregular warfare must generally be carried out on a method totally different” from conventional wars.13 The Marine Corps’ own Small Wars Manual (Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1940, reprinted 1 April 1987 by Headquarters Marine Corps) suggests the same, stating that success may require distinctive forces with different training, equipment, and force designs. This camp places a great emphasis on preventing conflict, on stability operations, and on investing in indirect forms of security forces with a greater degree of specialization for security cooperation tasks and warfighting. Because this school specifically divides and specializes roles and missions between the Services or within a Service, I’ve labeled it the “Division of Labor” option.
Col Dobson’s proposal falls within this camp. His position is consistent with other scholars, including Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who proposed that the U.S. Army divide and organize its brigades between stability operations and warfighting.14 He challenges the critical assumption of the Full-Spectrum School:
. . . because the range of missions is so broad, and the skill sets required sufficiently different, attempting to field forces than can move quickly and seemlessly [sic] from stability operations to high-intensity conflict appears destined to produce an Army that is barely a “jack-of-all-trades” and clearly a master of none.15
His proposal divided the Army into 2 components: a warfighting force of 27 brigade combat teams, and a stability operations force comprised of 15 security cooperation brigade combat teams. This arrangement would ensure higher readiness for these distinct tasks by ensuring that forces were organized, trained, and equipped to fulfill the missions. Should a long and sustained conventional fight arise, the stability formations could be cycled into more traditional combat forces over a 12- to 18-month cycle for protracted wars.
A similar proposal for the Marine Corps might designate three MEBs for intense amphibious operations (and forward deployed missions) and retain two MEBs for BPC, security cooperation, counterterrorism, and small wars. Additional resources might be allocated to the Marine component at U.S. Special Operations Command as well.
Brief overviews of the various schools and the implications of their implementations is presented in Table 1. The traditionalist/amphibian camp preserves today’s competitive advantages in large-scale conflicts and assumes we can avoid entanglements in messy, protracted stability operations or that well-trained Marines and agile commanders who are prepared for high-intensity amphibious operations can adapt to protracted complex expeditionary operations.
The Full-Spectrum School covers a larger mission range and has the greatest aggregate utility but has no specific posture or focal point. Proponents of this approach accept some risk that forces will be suboptimal for any specific threat but strives to increase their effectiveness across the whole range of military operations. This posture may assume that force size and resources will remain high. It may also assume that crises will not occur suddenly, and that deployment training programs can be designed and implemented to bring forces up to greater readiness in months. Under all but the most favorable resource projections, the force would be spread thin, and most units and individuals would not obtain proficiency in many tasks. Because of the manpower, training, and equipment costs, the full-spectrum option may be more expensive than the other options as it underwrites the development of high-end systems, higher personnel tempo, and training costs.
The Traditionalist/Amphibian School retains a strong cultural attraction inside the Corps. But the lack of major conventional threats and the limited historical usage of seabased assaults (vice amphibious operations) have to be addressed if this is to become the rationale for the Marine Corps. If this is our primary focus, the fact that we can only lift the assault echelons of 2 regimental landing teams out of a total force structure of 12 infantry regiments has to be justified as well.
Finally, the Division of Labor School offers dedicated and separate forces or services for discrete missions. It offers high levels of unit readiness for stability operations and conventional state-based scenarios. However, it exposes the United States to some risk that U.S. forces would lack of depth/capacity for long-duration scenarios.
Dr. John Nagl has made a similar proposal for the U.S. Army but it has been met with official disdain.16 I am not sure why. Our military strategy professes the notion that preventing wars is as important as winning them, but we don’t act upon it. Devoting 5 percent of the Army’s end strength to preventing wars (or preventing the need for U.S. involvement) and 95 percent to fighting/winning wars sounds like a solid trade-off. Both Col Dobson’s and Dr. Nagl’s proposals have a strategic logic to them. Furthermore, if we are forced by economic circumstances to cadre a regiment or two, the officers and SNCOs devoted to training/advising can quickly provide the leadership needed to rapidly mobilize and expand the Corps (or Army) for a major conflict. The DoD’s new strategic guidance calls for exactly this sort of hedging to support “reversibility.”17
We should be having a substantial debate about the future of conflict and the role of the Marine Corps. I understand the need to reestablish core competencies at and from the sea. However, we need to be clear about the operational risk posed by trends in the evolving character of conflict, particularly the convergence of modes of conflict presented by a so-called hybrid threat, as defined by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory a few years back. Future opponents will exploit whatever methods, tactics, or technologies they think will thwart us. We need to better posture our forces, reduce the risks we face, and allocate scarce resources against those threats that pose the most operational risk.
The choice may not be as simple as black and white, irregular or conventional. As LTG David Morrison, Chief of the Australian Army, noted:
In Afghanistan we are confronted by a range of irregular forces, ranging from religious extremists and tribal militias through to potent criminal organisations. However, the increasingly widespread availability of modern technology and weaponry is blurring the distinction between regular and irregular forces and rendering theoretical differences between conventional and guerrilla war to the almost meaningless.18
If this trend holds true, which echoes the Marine Corps Strategic Vision Group, two iterations of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC), and the National Intelligence Council, then the lethality available to irregular forces today means that a requirement for deploying agile, mobile, and flexible combined arms teams across the entire spectrum of conflict is growing. “The era when combined arms warfare was only synonymous with conventional state-on-state conflict,” Gen Morrison notes, “has gone forever.”
Thus, we must maintain the ability to wage successful campaigns against both large, conventionally armed states and their militaries, and against widely dispersed terrorists, and against everything in between. We must be smart about our force posture and lean toward agile, rigorously multipurpose forces capable of being adaptive in approach to the unique conditions each conflict poses. Some degree of specialization might be necessary, but from a joint perspective. Our MAGTFs must be postured for the greater lethality and complexity of hybrid threats in urban terrain, and complex operating environments with many noncombatants.
Col Dobson’s proposal merits a serious debate. We normally eschew specialization, but this is really about readiness and balanced risk. America’s “crisis response force” must be postured for many challenges, not just raids or noncombatant evacuation operations or intense assault from the sea. A training/advisory capacity may be useful as a start. Force adaptations do not exclude Marine operating forces from combining both irregular and conventional components in original ways, bringing out our stated intent of mastering combined actions with the same skill we have demonstrated with combined arms. In a world of complex and shifting security dynamics, this modular array of capabilities extends our MAGTF’s applications and further burnishes our reputation for innovation and vigilant readiness.
1. For an examination of these schools at the joint level, see F.G. Hoffman’s article, “Hybrid Threats: Reconceptualizing the Evolving Character of Modern Conflict,” Strategic Forum 240, Institute for National Strategic Studies, Ft. McNair, Washington, DC, April 2009.
2. This framework has been used to examine Army force structure as well. See William Flavin, Finding the Balance, U.S. Military and Future Operations, Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Carlisle, PA, Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute Paper, March 2011.
3. Salmoni, Barack, “The Fallacy of ‘Irregular’ Warfare,” RUSI [Royal United Services Institute] Journal, London, August 2007, p. 18.
4. For more on what a small wars Marine Corps would look like, see F.G. Hoffman’s article, “What Pete Ellis Might Think About Today,” Marine Corps Gazette, November 2009.
5. Betz, David, “Redesigning Land Forces for Wars Amongst the People,” Contemporary Security Policy, Norfolk, VA, August 2007, p. 223.
6. Boot, Max, “The Corps Should Look to its Small Wars Past,” Armed Forces Journal, Springfield, VA, March 2006.
7. Wood, Dakota L., The U.S. Marine Corps: Fleet Marine Forces for the 21st Century, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, DC, 2008, pp. 58–76.
8. Kilcullen, David J., “The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience,” Fletcher Forum, Medford, MA, Summer 2012, pp. 19–39.
9. Ibid., p. 29.
10. See F.G. Hoffman’s article, “21st Century Amphibious Capability: Strategic and operational advantages,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 2011.
11. Mattis, Gen James N., Joint Operating Environment, U.S. Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, VA, December 2008, p. 23.
12. Conway, Gen James T., Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, June 2008.
13. Callwell, C.E., Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, University of Nebraska, Omaha, NE, 2003.
14. Krepinevich, Andrew, An Army at the Crossroads, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Washington, DC, 2008.
15. Ibid., p. 65.
16. Nagl, John A., Institutionalizing Adaptation: It’s Time for a Permanent Army Advisor Corps, Center for a New American Security, Washington, DC, June 2007.
17. Panetta, Leon, Sustaining America’s Global Leadership-Priorities for 21st Century Defense, DoD, Washington, DC, 5 January 2012, p. 7.
18. Morrison, David LTG, Speech to the Sydney Institute, Sydney, Australia, 12 February 2012, p. 4, accessed at http://www.army.gov.au/Our-work/Speeches-and-transcripts/~/media/Files/Speeches/SydneyInstituteSpeechV2.ashx.