Our Corps remains an indispensable element of our nation’s security and readiness. As I write, our 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) is providing our Combatant Commanders with a ready and lethal force which requires no access, basing, or overflight. Simultaneously, I and III Marine Expeditionary Forces are in the Pacific campaigning alongside our allies and partners to deter conflicts and build advantages to win if our conventional deterrence fails. This is what we contribute to national defense; this and so much more.
For the foreseeable future I will serve as the acting Commandant of the Marine Corps while we wait for the Senate to confirm a Commandant. This is the only waiting we will do; wasted time is an offering to our adversaries. We will continue to modernize and prepare ourselves via Force Design 2030, making refinements as needed to account for changing threats, new tasks, and my best military judgment.
To win we must be unified in who we are and what we do. We are a combined arms Marine Air Ground Task Force comprised of professionals who can conduct campaigning/ crisis response and combat operations against a peer adversary. We do this as part of a Naval and Joint force. Each of our missions is challenging in their own right. Conducting them all is a skill set few can master; but we are Marines. We volunteered because we seek to do difficult things. We represent our Corps and our country and understand that our actions today determine if we will be able to fill our ranks with volunteers tomorrow. Our discipline and courage are what Americans can count on and look up to. We fight, win, and return home with our honor clean. This is not bravado; it is who we are.
Our Marines are what make us unique among military forces and we must demonstrate our care for them. We will accelerate changes that allow Marines to be stakeholders in their careers, and to provide the facilities that show our Marines and families that they matter to us. This will be a long journey, but we will arrive at our destination together.
Every Marine must contribute to our future. Your thoughts, insights and opinions have value, and the Gazette and Leatherneck are among the venues to reveal them. These are publications built for respectful discourse and professional development for all ranks. These publications are part of our history and are often the birthplace of new concepts and visions, so place your idea guns on “full auto” and get involved. I’m truly proud of you Marines.
Eric M. Smith
General, U.S. Marine Corps
Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps
>Col Greene is an Infantry Officer and currently the Commanding Officer of Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group.
>>Maj Malcolm is an Infantry Officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 2/8 Mar. He previously served as Officer in Charge of the Advanced Maneuver Warfare Course at Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group.
“As the character of warfare continues to evolve, as it always has, under the pressure of technological, social, and geopolitical change, we may find ourselves compelled to reexamine assumptions we were able to take for granted when we formed our warfighting philosophy, and to communicate those ideas clearly and comprehensively across the Corps so that our ‘common language’ remain in keeping with the times.” 1
—Gen David Berger,
38th Commandant of the Marine Corps
In 2022, the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group recorded several interviews on the subject of maneuver warfare for its official podcast. The guests for these interviews included both proponents and skeptics of maneuver warfare in general and Warfighting specifically.
Among the criticisms leveled at Warfighting in these interviews, a few are worth noting for the purpose of this article. One issue of concern is the language describing maneuver warfare versus attrition warfare. Warfighting can too easily be interpreted as advocating maneuver warfare as a moral imperative (and by extension, attrition warfare as morally deficient) in all circumstances. While Warfighting does, in fact, state that “pure attrition warfare does not exist in practice” and “firepower and attrition are essential elements of warfare by maneuver,” it also introduces the terms maneuverist and attritionist; the latter is very clearly presented as inferior to the former.2 The connotation thus attached to maneuver warfare and attrition warfare is one of the most obvious, enduring legacies of Warfighting.
Another concern is that Warfighting makes no distinction when and at what level we should “seek to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”3 Collapsing the enemy system cannot be accomplished everywhere all the time. Moreover, collapsing the enemy system at a certain echelon, location, or time may not actually be accomplishing our higher headquarters’ intent. In fact, there are examples from history in which doing so at one level was actually detrimental to larger operational aims or even strategic goals.4
It must be said that John Schmitt, the author of Warfighting, agreed with some of these criticisms. In fact, the most surprising thing to come out of our conversation was that he flatly does not believe something many of his critics think he does, which is that systemic collapse can easily be achieved if one simply figures out the correct critical vulnerability and pokes it. Quite the contrary, Schmitt does not believe it is possible to get the center of gravity or critical vulnerability “correct.” The value of the center of gravity analysis is in the shared understanding of the enemy as a system derived from the discussion, not in getting the exact right answers. Schmitt has stated that the defeat mechanism of systemic disruption (the label he prefers to systemic collapse) is an aspirational goal that likely cannot be achieved most of the time.5 He has also stated in the past that he believes Warfighting can be improved upon by the inclusion of a discussion on the concept of defeat mechanisms.6
Interestingly, one thing that both critics and proponents agreed upon was that the Marine Corps should tread carefully in revising Warfighting. Despite their criticisms, all our guests were quick to point out how impactful the book has been to their lives and careers and counseled caution against tinkering with what by most assessments has been a successful formulation. As Schmitt put it, “FMFM 1 caught lightning in a bottle. It’s unrealistic to expect to do that again.”
Nevertheless, we feel that, for several reasons, the time is right to update our capstone doctrinal publication. To state the obvious, a lot has happened in the last 25 years since the last revision. While we believe that the type of doctrine represented by Warfighting should change with the climate, not the weather, it does seem to us that the era of the Global War on Terror, followed by the return of great-power competition, and the changes envisioned in Force Design 2030 constitute a considerable climate change. The current strategic context is significantly different from that of 1989 or 1997. Whereas the terms naval and joint are noticeably absent from Warfighting, today’s context has engendered a growing recognition across the Service that to be relevant, we must integrate with and provide value to the Joint Force. Doctrine has evolved, too. Since 1997, two domains—space and cyberspace—have been added to joint doctrine; a third, information, has been added to Marine Corps doctrine. Finally, though our warfighting philosophy is not beholden to technology, we cannot ignore the advances in military technology of the last three decades. To give just one example, in 1997 the majority of priority intelligence requirements were addressed by ground reconnaissance and surveillance units. Today, the majority of priority intelligence requirements are accounted for by airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.
Perhaps the best reason for a revision, however, has nothing to do with what has happened but with who makes up the Marine Corps. The percentage of the current active-duty Marine Corps that was serving when MCDP 1—let alone FMFM 1—was published is minuscule. Therefore, the vast majority of Marines lack the context of the debates of the 1980s and 90s that led to the adoption of maneuver warfare and publication of Warfighting, and they may have trouble relating to it as a result.
Though a revision to Warfighting is necessary, we take the concerns of Schmitt and others seriously. Therefore, we think it important to state and adhere to a few principles when revising and updating our foundational doctrine. First and foremost, there should be no change merely for change’s sake. Any part of Warfighting that does not absolutely need to be changed should be left alone, even if the authors tasked with the revision think they could improve upon the wording of the original. Second, additions to Warfighting should be kept short. The goal is to add content of value without a significant increase in the size of the publication. Third, as we will describe below, a revision should seek to add nuance but increase clarity. The language must be kept accessible to entry-level Marines without being condescending. Part of Warfighting’s magic is that its language is direct enough to be understood by all Marines while also being sophisticated enough to spur thought. Finally, a revision must not become an exercise in satisficing various interest groups. The salient reason why Warfighting is so coherent, readable, and compelling is that Gen Al Gray entrusted its authorship to one individual to craft within his guidance. A previous attempt at writing a capstone doctrinal publication was rejected largely because, as Col Michael Wyly wrote in his scathing critique, it bore all the hallmarks of having been “done by committee.”7
So, under those principles, what should be the focus areas for change in a new edition of Warfighting? First, we must seek to curb the virtue-vice characterization of the attrition and maneuver discussion. Understanding the post-Vietnam context in which Schmitt wrote the first edition of Warfighting, we can see why he framed the argument as two opposing styles of warfare. What he was arguing against was not seeking to destroy the enemy with firepower, per se, but an approach to fighting in which the enemy is merely a number, the body count is all that matters, and all bodies are treated equally. We argue that what should be cast in negative terms is not attrition warfare but unintentional attrition warfare in which no thought is given to the enemy as a system and efforts are not deliberately focused on critical parts of that system. An intentional attrition approach, on the other hand, is one in which a force assesses its combat power relative to its adversary and concludes that it has an advantage in firepower and a greater capacity to absorb casualties. This was exactly the calculus that underpinned Ulysses Grant’s vision for the Overland Campaign, one of the most brilliant in U.S. history. The reason a firepower-attrition approach to warfare is not suitable for the Marine Corps is not that it is objectively inferior to a maneuver approach, but because the Marine Corps will rarely, if ever, have an advantage in numbers or firepower relative to the U.S.’ peer adversaries. Therefore, the Marine Corps must adopt “a philosophy for generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves.”8
Second, the revised Warfighting needs to make clear that systemic collapse is aspirational and not to be pursued at all times and locations at every echelon. The desire to shatter the enemy’s cohesion must be balanced against an appreciation for the single battle. If we do not keep in mind our role within our higher headquarters’ battlespace framework, we may encounter a situation in which collapsing the enemy system in one zone of action prevents our higher headquarters from inflicting defeat on the larger enemy system. Similarly, there will be times when a total collapse of the enemy system at a certain echelon runs counter to the accomplishment of strategic objectives. For example, in a war with limited objectives, it would not be beneficial to collapse the enemy system at its national command authority level because there would be no one left with whom to negotiate a peace settlement. The important point is not that we achieve this aspirational goal (we rarely will), / but that by aspiring to it, we prevent ourselves from falling back upon the attritional approach without intentionality.
Third, we need to ensure that readers of Warfighting understand that the Marine Corps is an integral part of the Joint Force. Since long before the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was passed into law, the Marine Corps has had a culture of self-reliance. It has served us well in many respects, but it must be moderated with the understanding that against a peer competitor, the Marine Corps relies on the rest of the Joint Force for critical capabilities. On the other side of the coin, the Marine Corps must offer something that the rest of the Joint Force wants if it is to stay relevant. Our unique offering has changed over time and will continue to do so. Historical examples include the seizure of advanced naval bases, small wars, and crisis response. Warfighting should not go into the specifics; it merely needs to convey that the Marine Corps does not go it alone and has a responsibility to bring something unique to the table.
Finally, the verbiage used in describing the spectrum of conflict needs to be revised to align it with MCDP 1-4, Competing. The spectrum of conflict should be replaced by the competition continuum described in the latter publication and in the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, and the labels military operations other than war and small wars should be eliminated. U.S. military thinking has moved away from a black-and-white dichotomy of war and peace toward a theory of competition both above and below the threshold of armed conflict. Furthermore, Force Design envisions a Marine Corps whose value to the Joint Force is manifested just as much in competition as in conflict. Our foundational doctrinal publication should reflect these developments.
We attach no importance to a specific number of years; just because 25 have passed does not mean we are due for a revision to Warfighting. Rather, the changes in the character of war and the changes they have necessitated within the Marine Corps have brought us to a point in which a revision is warranted to make us stronger, more agile, and more valuable to the Joint Force. However, care must be taken to make these necessary updates without losing the goodness of the original. Edits and additions must be deliberate, focused, and concise. The author must be given a clear mandate and protected from interference. They must be answerable, as John Schmitt was, to the Commandant alone. Only under these conditions can we deliver an updated doctrinal foundation worthy of the title Warfighting.
1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Training and Education 2030, (Washington, DC: 2022).
6. Damien O’Connell, “John Schmitt,” Controversy and Clarity (podcast), April 15, 2021, https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/damien-oconnell/episodes/10–John-Schmitt-euoegn/a-a57jmmo.
7. Michael Wyly, “Review: Operational Handbook 6-1 Ground Combat Operations,” Marine Corps Gazette 72, No. 7 (1988).
8. MCDP 1.
>Authors’ Note: Tactics and Operations is the official podcast of the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group. If you would like to hear the discussions that informed this article, check out the following episodes:
“Criticizing Maneuver Warfare with LtCol John Meixner.”
“The Fantasy of MCDP 1 with LtCol Tad Drake.”
“Defeat Mechanisms and Maneuver Warfare with John Schmitt.”
Tactics and Operations can be found here: https://open.spotify.com/show/65qyMOctQ78NOXr7Y7fi1s.
2023 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest: First Place
Global and revolutionary over regional and evolutionary
>Col Milstein is transitioning from U.S. Navy Expeditionary Combat Command to Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa. He is a MAGTF Officer with a background in tanks, intelligence, and psychological operations, a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer, and an inventor with several patents. He has deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, and various other places, served with 1(UK) Armoured Division, German Fleet Command, and commanded 6th ANGLICO.
In 2018, the National Defense Strategy called for a change in focus from terrorism to great-power competition, specifying the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the pacing threat. This was reaffirmed in the 2022 National Defense Strategy. In 2019, the Marine Corps began a significant reform, Force Design 2030 (FD2030), with conflict against the PRC as the defining consideration. The vision is a Marine Corps optimized for a high-end fight within a naval campaign in the Western Pacific. In focusing on a theater-specific scenario, the Marine Corps is accepting risk everywhere else and, worse, has missed a historic opportunity for revolutionary redesign to prepare for the realities of 21st-century warfare regardless of venue. To be sure, the challenges posed by the PRC go beyond military concerns in the Western Pacific. An upgraded 21st-century Marine Corps, a naval expeditionary force with offensive character, is a magnificent weapon for executing to what Sun Tzu ascribed supreme importance: attacking the enemy’s strategy.1
Pacing Threat: It Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Means
When considering the PRC as the pacing threat it helps to start with an appreciation of their ends, ways, and means. What does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want? The end is no mystery, although the reasons behind it are often missed. The PRC has always had ambitions of becoming a superpower—Chinese exceptionalism is real.2 The ancient view of China as the “Middle Kingdom” deserves mention as “middle” refers to being between heaven and everybody else. Traditional Chinese views toward governance are instructive, with emphasis on hierarchy, Confucian views on legitimacy, and Sinification—having others adopt Han ways to make them more civilized. The last historically extended to culture, language, and ultimately the tributary system, where bordering peoples paid tribute to Han emperors and adopted some degree of Han culture, thus becoming less barbaric in the eyes of the Han imperial court.3
The PRC’s approach to statecraft extends far beyond the borders of China. With a long view toward economics, the PRC has been acquiring critical resources and commodities globally for decades, including key strategic terrain such as ports and mountains with major mineral deposits.4 Economic diplomacy is a common practice, with the Belt and Road Initiative a centerpiece of ensuring economic stability. A hallmark trait has been doing business without political or ideological strings. While predatory business practices are common, the PRC does not demand compliance with social agendas nor question the sovereign choices of trading partners. Predatory means include wholesale theft of industrially important intellectual property globally.5 PRC intelligence efforts are a key enabler of economic competition, particularly in high technology.6 Beyond espionage, the PRC has actively engaged in influencing the politics of countries where it believes it has interests.7
As an aspiring superpower, the PRC has been aggressively claiming leading roles on the global stage. Aside from active participation in international organizations, it has created competing bodies, such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, founded in 2014 as a rival to the World Bank and the IMF.8 The PRC has grown its role in international diplomacy. In an unprecedented move, the PRC helped negotiate the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.9 The logic behind the PRC’s development of expeditionary capabilities becomes clear with the PLA’s “Far Seas” doctrine. While six aircraft carriers add little value against Taiwan—well within range of landbased airpower—they offer far more value guarding interests away from home.
Taiwan is a special, yet complicated, case. The CCP regards Taiwan as a badly behaved province, governed by Nationalist exiles from the founding of the PRC. Despite belligerent language and periodic clashes, seizing Taiwan is fraught with problems beyond an amphibious assault. Taiwan is the center of global microchip fabrication, producing 41 percent of the world’s microprocessors and 90 percent of the most advanced chips. Taiwanese production requires supplies, delicate facilities, and a highly trained workforce, all relatively fragile and vulnerable to outright destruction in an invasion.10 Much of the PRC’s manufacturing uses chips imported from Taiwan. Disruption of this supply chain has grave economic implications. Worse is that many bleeding-edge PRC technological efforts, such as AI and quantum computing, depend on the most advanced chips made in Taiwan.
With all due affection and respect to former SECDEF James Mattis, he is not what keeps CCP leadership up at night. It is their own population. The past five centuries have not been kind to Chinese emperors and dynasties, with the majority falling to internal strife. The CCP is painfully aware of this and takes extraordinary precautions to guard against internal discord. Draconian population controls and censorship are in place. Ironically, more PRC cyber capability may be directed against its own people than the rest of the world through the Golden Shield project, also known as the “Great Firewall of China.”11 The CCP obsession with economics is directly correlated with this fear: they are concerned about keeping the population satisfied. Extreme growth rates are needed to support the numbers of people entering the workforce, yet this is possible because the Chinese economy was agrarian until recent industrialization.12 Regime security is the CCP’s priority.
While the PRC aspires to global influence and reach, it is not ten feet tall. Despite aggressive diplomacy, economic, and cultural outreach, Beijing cannot match the soft power of the West and the United States specifically; they do not have the problem of people worldwide trying to get in. Aside from perpetual fear of the people, the CCP suffers from various forms of corruption.13 The CCP is inextricably linked with industry, with military leadership woven into this complicated tapestry. Generals essentially have to bribe their way up, requiring supporting business holdings to raise funds.14 The old Chinese proverb, “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far,” summarizes grounds for doubting the integrity of PRC institutions. Years of dubious decisions have created demographic time bombs without clear solutions. Finally, mind-bending technological progress coupled with cutthroat entrepreneurism complicates the CCP’s vision of harmony within China.15
Much as some wish to draw parallels, the modern PRC is not the Imperial Japan of the 1930s.16 Considering the strengths, weaknesses, and decision mechanisms, the challenges posed by the PRC are far more complex than the latter. It is safe to say that CCP strategy does not hinge on a Mahanian decisive missile battle at sea. There is ample opportunity to complicate their aims long before.
Thinking Bigger: Seizing the Initiative
Understanding the wide-reaching challenges posed by the PRC, what is to be done? A global strategy involving the whole of government is needed, which immediately creates tension within the confines of the DOD Unified Command Plan. The PRC’s intentions and capabilities go far beyond regional concerns and cannot be reduced to an INDOPACOM OPLAN that ignores the worldwide use of PRC national power while waiting for conventional war. What might the Marine Corps offer to such a strategy?
Like a latter-day Schlieffen Plan, the answer is not committing to a single course of action that crams a significant fraction of the Marine Corps’ operating forces into the beaten zone of a massive amount of PRC firepower. Parking limited and relatively immobile combat power in isolated and predictable locations cedes the initiative and offers plenty of opportunity for enemy target practice. At the same time, retrenching from the rest of the globe offers a vacuum for the pacing threat and ambitious adversary to fill. Worst of all, this approach wastes a historic Marine Corps strength: excellence at expeditionary operations.
Before a future high-end fight begins, engagement is a key enabler. This means naval presence, comprised of visiting forces, a traditional naval mission pre-dating the United States. These may be Marine units, possibly aboard ships, but could be as small as single representatives, such as defense attaches. Joint exercises, bilateral training, capacity building, or even community relations activities help build confidence and demonstrate U.S. resolve. Friends are invaluable, regardless of the stage of competition. Friendship begins with mutual trust and respect, and trust cannot be surged. Building relationships takes time and contact, ideally between consistent interlocutors. Presence is an opportunity to introduce Marine units back onto deploying ships other than L-class amphibs. More importantly, embarked “micro-MAGTFs” give every Navy vessel more options for expeditionary littoral operations and rapid intervention. Compared to the loss of access and confidence that creates voids for the PRC and others to exploit, engagement is cheap.
Where the PRC is comfortable running gray-zone operations in their backyard, the Marine Corps is ideal for returning the favor everywhere else. Marines can hold PRC strategic interests at risk, ramping threats up and down based on the needs of policy. From information operations to lethal force, a MAGTF’s presence and behavior can signal that critical resources are not as safe and secure as the CCP might prefer. Sometimes decisive action by Marines is unnecessary, as access is a requirement for anybody who presumes to operate in a foreign country. If, for example, whoever governs in Afghanistan decides to nationalize the Aynak copper mine, what options are available to the PRC for redress?
Should deterrence fail and a conventional conflict begins, Marine forces, as a naval striking arm, are perfect for attacking the strategic resourcing web the PRC has woven. Destructive raids, seizure of key terrain, terminal guidance of effects, and working with partners—all can be used against PRC holdings or installations to deny resources or access needed to sustain hostilities. The ability to dominate littorals, from the land or seaward side, allows the Marine Corps to turn the anti-access area denial problem on its head for the PRC to solve. Embarked Marine forces can employ ambush tactics on PRC sea lanes of communication, forcing the PRC to defend its transportation network worldwide. While the PLA is developing expeditionary capabilities of its own, being ready to deal with mobile, combined-arms threats globally will demand time and additional expense. Rather than fighting in the PRC’s backyard, Marines can force them to play away games against the expeditionary pros.
The Once and Future Corps FD2030is disappointing because it is more incrementalism. Despite some of the more aspirational literature surrounding it, such as Talent Management 2030, it is mostly an evolution of the existing force structure: get rid of tanks, swap some cannons for rockets, add some missiles and rejigger the size of battalions and squadrons. It falls short of its promise of creating a Corps for 21st-century warfare in favor of creating a force tailored for a specific scenario. It is striking how little adaptation to the modern environment is truly being pursued—this is neither Gen Holcomb’s sweeping reorganization nor Gen Gray’s intellectual renaissance.17 Even new capabilities are merely being bolted onto existing constructs that are conceptually seventy years old.18
Some of FD2030 has real merit. The emphasis on reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance embraces truisms about modern warfare: finding targets confers the opportunity to engage them. This was demonstrated during counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Marines often found enemies by being ambushed by them. In naval warfare, target detection and tracking are everything.19 Antiship cruise missile capability has value as well: a MAGTF can deny the use of waterways to enemies. An embarked MAGTF can give L-class shipping a limited ability to do more during war at sea than just be a target.
A better answer comes from asking what distinguishes a 21st-century force from a 20th-century one. Differences begin with the ability to disperse while employing vast capabilities across multiple domains. A truly revolutionary idea is redesigning Marine forces around command and control (C2). Technology has reached a point where individual Marines can be nodes in greater kill webs, but existing C2 architecture is firmly rooted in the 20th century. Conversely, the full range of effects across domains can be brought to bear to support Marines, except that existing C2 structures lack the flexibility to match the speed and complexity of modern conflict, from the tactical to strategic levels.
The idea is far from radical. The history of warfare is a history of C2 capabilities: commanders expressing their intent to forces that execute in the face of adversity. The Roman legions, Nelson’s fleet, Guderian’s panzer divisions, and many more examples demonstrate where superior C2 carried the day in battle. Combined arms is fundamentally a C2 problem that brings disparate capabilities together in time and space to generate disproportionate effects. The organization of most Marine Corps units, essentially modern expressions of the best lessons of the Second World War, is meant to enable combined arms from the fire team to progressively higher echelons.20
The thinking behind the panzer division is particularly instructive. The strength of these divisions was less about tanks, as early German tanks were inferior to their French and Soviet opponents than about their C2 architecture. Heinz Guderian, a signal officer, designed a C2 architecture that allowed panzer commanders to lead forces from anywhere in the command, using a relatively new technology called radio.21 The division was designed to rapidly bring combined-arms effects together—motorized infantry, tanks, artillery, and engineers, supported by aircraft—in the time and place of a commander’s choosing. Radio was a critical enabler to deploy combined arms faster than previously possible. Tanks were certainly useful, as they provided mobile armored firepower that could rapidly mass direct fires and exploit gaps, but they were just one capability in a panzer commander’s toolbox.22
Lest the technologists insist that C2 is about having the latest gizmos and information superiority hinges on having multi-cloud enabled modern applications using microservices and containers in a Kubernetes control plane with a satellite uplink, C2 encompasses people and procedures in addition to technology. Human factors are at least as important as the ability to pass data. Task organization, discipline, standard operating procedures, training, doctrine, initiative, and decision-making ability are all part of a C2 architecture. All contributed to the success of Rome’s legions, while their communications systems consisted of shouted commands, runners, flags, and musical instruments.23 While Nelson was a revolutionary tactician and legendary naval commander, his victories owed much to competent ship captains commanding well-drilled crews and the premier naval communication of the era, ADM Home Popham’s telegraphic signal flag system.24 Radio enabled Guderian’s successes, along with competent junior leaders, well-considered battle drills, and doctrine that built on the best lessons learned of World War I.
To redesign the Marine Corps around C2 pushes all the capabilities available to a MAGTF to the lowest echelon, shares a common data plane, and enables combined arms to be integrated so the individual Marine can enable reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance and kill webs. Task organization and interoperability, especially in objective areas in the face of uncertainty, is simpler with common C2 connections. It makes every Marine a sensor and a channel for the full array of effects of the Marine Corps, the Joint Force, and potentially the whole of government. It means that lethality and maneuverability per Marine can be significantly higher while supporting a faster tempo. It demands much more capable junior Marine leaders to make such constructs work, but the past twenty years have proven the value of strategic corporals in practice. It allows for graceful degradation in combat, allowing Marine units to win on modern battlefields when Murphy invariably interferes. It supports better operational decisions, allowing commanders to pick times and places for tactical actions that support meaningful objectives. Finally, it provides a framework to assimilate new capabilities.
The Marine Corps’ answer to the PRC’s ambitions for superpower status is FD2030, a plan that restructures the Marine Corps for conventional war in the western Pacific. In pursuing this effort, the Marine Corps is missing a golden opportunity to prepare for the full spectrum of 21st-century operations. The PRC’s strategy, strengths, and weaknesses leave a global range of options for an expeditionary naval force to credibly threaten. By taking a revolutionary approach to reorganization and redesigning the Marine Corps’ structure around C2 capabilities, the United States can have a lethal yet flexible force that can challenge the PRC in any clime or place. Such a force retains the ability to address other crises that might arise.
Aside from the benefits of enabling combined arms and the ability to win on 21st-century battlefields, such a change has one additional purpose: to set an example for the rest of the Joint Force. If the entire defense establishment is rebuilt around a common C2 architecture, many existing problems with interoperability and joint operations will be solved. This will not be the first time the Marine Corps has led the way in innovation, and it will result in forces well-suited for modern conflict and ready to incorporate new formations and technology to come. Being able to field a modern expeditionary force with a global reach will both give American leaders unprecedented options and give CCP leadership—or any other adversary—plenty of reason to think twice about the consequences of their decisions.
1. Samuel B. Griffith, Sun Tzu: The Art of War (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).
2. Daniel Burstein and Arne de Keijzer, Big Dragon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
3. Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine, Modern China (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
4. Dambisa Moyo, Winner Take All (New York: Basic Books, 2012).
5. Nicholas Eftimiades, Chinese Espionage (Vitruvian Press, 2020).
6. Daniel Golden, Spy Schools (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017).
7. Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion (Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2018).
8. Bhaskar Chakravorti, “China’s New Development Bank Is a Wake-Up Call for Washington” Harvard Business Review, April 20, 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/04/chinas-new-development-bank-is-a-wake-up-call-for-washington.
9. Saeid Golkar and Kasra Aarabi, “The Real Motivation Behind Iran’s Deal with Saudi Arabia” Foreign Policy, April 6, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/04/06/iran-saudi-arabia-deal-agreement-china-meeting-beijing.
10. Chris Miller, Chip War (London: Simon & Schuster, 2022).
11. Nigel Inkster, China’s Cyber Power (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2016).
12. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel describes the PRC as “the most definitely pessimistic place in the world today,” where the CCP worries they cannot stay ahead of demographic trends that lead to an inevitable crash. Peter Thiel, Zero to One (New York: Crown Business, 2014).
13. Paul Midler, Poorly Made in China (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009).
14. Ed. Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Joel Wuthnow, Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2019).
15. Kai-Fu Lee, AI Super-Powers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).
16. Sadao Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006).
17. David J. Ulbrich, Preparing for Victory (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011).
18. John A. English and Bruce I. Gudmundsson, On Infantry (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1994).
19. Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986).
20. Daniel P. Bolger, Death Ground (Novato: Presidio Press, 1999).
21. Dennis Showalter, Hitler’s Panzers (New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2009).
22. George Nafziger, The German Order of Battle Panzers and Artillery in World War II(London: Greenhill Books, 1999).
23. Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
24. Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).
How the MAGTF Training Command continues to evolve Service-level training to meet requirements for expeditionary operations
>MajGen Renforth is the Commanding General, MAGTF Training Command and Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center
The MAGTF Training Command (MAGTFTC) recently completed Service-Level Training Exercise (SLTE) 2-23, centered around 3D Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) and 7th Mar. SLTE 2-23 provided another opportunity for the 3rd MLR to progress while also providing an opportunity for 7th Mar to be better prepared to meet the future. As the institution continues to implement, develop, and debate core concepts to Force Design 2030 (FD 2030) and Training & Education 2030 (T&E 2030), the validity of training amphibious operations at Twentynine Palms has come into question by leaders at multiple levels. For decades the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) served as the foundation for training the Service in collective combined-arms exercises, though planners and leaders alike are examining the relevancy of MCAGCC in the era of FD 2030 and the re-emergence of the naval campaign. Questions surrounding the ability to train in sea denial, counter-landing, and naval-integrated kill-web operations in the desert lead planners in the FMF to seek alternate training locations that better replicate the conditions and environments of the Indo-Pacific.
Though the allure of creating a perceived irreconcilable chasm between MCAGCC and the realities of combat operations against the pacing threat may invigorate heated debate surrounding FD 2030, it is a surface-deep criticism. Service-level training is much more than an exercise on a piece of terrain. It is a comprehensive approach to training and readiness that supports the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Title 10 responsibilities to train and equip combat-credible forces to all geographic combatant commanders. Readiness generation is the product of training and readiness repetition of mission essential tasks (MET), regardless of venue. MAGTFTC supports FMF units to achieve readiness through the Integrated Training Exercise, Adversary Force Exercise, and synthetic training events through live, virtual and constructive training environments. The subordinate elements to MAGTFTC are unique capabilities nested within the training and education continuum. Though the live-fire combined-arms training at MCAGCC are exercises that are the options closest to combat, the readiness generation from MAGTFTC-sponsored events is not confined to the Mojave Desert.
MAGTFTC Trained the FMF Before 9/11 The publication of FD 2030 redirected the Marine Corps’ mission from countering violent extremists in the Middle East to peer-level competition, emphasizing the Indo-Pacific. It called on the Service to transform from traditional models of organization and training to meet a new desired state partnered with the Navy. FD 2030’s vision created a Service-wide debate that associated institutional components associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as adverse relics, much like the association with attrition warfare during the maneuverist transformation decades ago. This perception partly fuels contemporary criticism of MCAGCC’s role in training the force of the future, believing that training in Twentynine Palms is primarily relegated to exercises centered on the Global War on Terrorism, forgetting that the Mojave Viper series and mission readiness exercises focused on METs required for existing and emerging deployment requirements. It is important to have a perspective on the history of SLTE and its progression over time.
Before the attacks of 11 September 2001, MCAGCC sponsored the Combined-Arms Exercise through the Tactical Training and Exercise Control Group (TTECG). From the early 1980s, the Combined-Arms Exercise provided FMF units with live-fire maneuver training in core METs against a Soviet-threat template. Exercise events focused on the fundamentals of technical and tactical integration between elements of the MAGTF to prepare units to deploy to Europe, Africa, Asia, and as part of MEU. The terrain at MCAGCC did not necessarily match the deployable theater, though the training environment created combat conditions that the FMF could not replicate at home stations or in theater. Roles and responsibilities between TTECG and the FMF (though a unit-level training program) existed to ensure that the supporting establishment provided opportunities that the FMF could not. Theater/MEU-specific training continued at the home station so that unit-level and Service-level training complemented each other. Those expectations and opportunities still exist today.
As the Marine Corps transitioned into the 21st century, MCAGCC evolved to meet the needs of the Service and the Commandant’s Title 10 responsibilities in the new global operating environment. Training and Education Command stood up MAGTFTC in October 2000 to dedicate a command and staff focused on training the FMF apart from core competencies. MAGTFTC rapidly changed exercises and events over the next two decades to meet the emerging needs from lessons learned through Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM, ensuring the best level of readiness for deployable units to fight and win in combat. As operations in US Central Command dissipated after the surge in Afghanistan, MAGTFTC again evolved to meet the renewed emphasis on amphibious operations by creating the Integrated Training Exercise and Large-Scale Exercise. TTECG continued to provide training to FMF units in core METs while including the Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group and Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group focused on training advanced individual and collective tasks within the ground and logistics communities. As the Service continued its transformation into 2020, MAGTFTC continued to meet institutional requirements by leveraging unique training opportunities at MCAGCC with centers of excellence to develop the flagship force-on-force training event—the MAGTF Warfighting Exercise (MWX). Recounting the rich history of MCAGCC and MAGTFTC as a learning organization is essential to establish the credibility of its Marines to meet rapidly emerging requirements over time, which made the recent SLTE designed for the naval-centric employment of 3D MLR.
SLTE 2-23: Preparing for the pacing threat and to fight tonight SLTE 2-23 demonstrated MAGTFTC’s ability to develop a niche exercise at the forefront of FD 2030 while also providing legacy formations the opportunity to improve operational readiness for existing global force management requirements. One-half of the exercise-trained 3D MLR in expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) under 3D MarDiv as a Naval task group supporting sea-denial operations. The other half of SLTE 2-23 provided 7th Mar the opportunity to execute offensive and defensive operations with adjacent and non-organic subordinate elements, replicating realistic composite formations likely used in current expeditionary operations. The exercise introduced two new MAGTFTC-sponsored events based on guidance and requirements outlined in FD 2030, the Tentative Manual for EABO, and the Concept for Stand in Forces (SIF).
MAGTFTC demonstrated its breadth by creating the MLR Training Exercise as part of SLTE 2-23. This tailored five-day exercise was built off Exercise SPARTAN TRIDENT, the capstone constructive event in September 2022 led by the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group that completed a fourteen-month training package for 3D MLR to support a naval campaign. The exercise was distributive in nature, establishing the MLR’s expeditionary advance bases and command and control (C2) nodes ranging across Southern California from MCAGCC to San Clemente Island, while 3D MarDiv served as a task group headquarters from the Joint Expeditionary Warfighting Laboratory in Coronado, CA. The MLR Training Exercise design and execution demonstrated the potential of the live, virtual, and constructive training environment by incorporating physical and synthetic joint/naval capabilities with organic MLR assets to complete resilient kill webs from MCAGCC into the Pacific Ocean. MAGTFTC’s Service-Level Training Division designed scenarios for 3D MLR and 3D MarDiv to train in reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance operations, maritime strike support, EABO, and support to sea-denial operations. The resident expertise in exercise design and control across MAGTFTC led to the continued evolution in training envisioned in both FD 2030 and T&E 2030, striking a delicate balance between training in the fundamentals of combat operations and validating emerging employment concepts required to prepare for conflict against the pacing threat.
While MAGTFTC adapted SLTE 2-23 to meet the needs of 3D MLR to train for future employment concepts as part of the SIF, the exercise did not lose sight of training core competencies in MAGTF operations to prepare for expeditionary operations in the current operating environment. To support I MEF global force management readiness, TTECG developed the MAGTF Distributed Maneuver Exercise to train a regimental task force in offensive and defensive METs. The five-day exercise provided 7th Mar and its attachments two days of synthetic training in multi-domain operations across the ground, aviation, and logistics combat elements while culminating in a three-day live-fire combined-arms event in MCAGCC’s maneuver corridors. SLTE 2-23 also provided advanced collective urban training to a battalion task force as part of the Adversary Force Exercise, generating readiness in METs difficult to train for larger formations elsewhere in the Marine Corps. As the Service maintains transformation into 2030, MAGTFTC is prepared to maximize the training opportunities at MCAGCC that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the Marine Corps while continuing its legacy of evolving exercises to prepare the FMF to succeed in future conflict regardless of the combat theater.
To validate the more than 30 training days of SLTE 2-23, MAGTFTC facilitated the MWX between 7th Mar and 3D MLR. Casual observers see MWX as a bare-knuckle fight between two commands, which is an oversimplification of what the exercise provides the Service in lessons-learned and technical feedback to FMF units. The exercise design and control of MWX are built on the above-mentioned concepts and other emerging requirements to support a naval campaign. While the 7th Marines employed traditional concepts expected of a MAGTF, it was tasked with seizing key maritime terrain through an amphibious assault on behalf of a naval task force. 3D MLR employed concepts outlined in the Tentative Manual for EABO and the Concept for SIF, though the regiment supported a forward passage of lines with 3/5 Mar (serving as a battalion landing team) in a counter-landing operation against 7th Mar. The counter-landing operation between the SIF and battalion landing team is critical to providing the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with a capability linking the SIF to expeditionary forces in a conflict. Though the terrain at MCAGCC is not the first island chain, the training in fundamentals, exercise design, exercise control, maneuver space for large formations, and exercise observation is a value that cannot be replicated at a home station training venue or theater security cooperation exercise.
Exercises at MCAGCC are Much More than Premier Live-Fire Combined-Arms Training One of the critiques against SLTEs at MCAGCC is the limitations of realistic training terrain related to the first island chain and the costs associated with mobilizing an exercise force to move to the Mojave Desert. Though both of those points provide some validity to the value proposition for SLTE in its current form, it misses the essence of Service-level training as it fits within T&E 2030. SLTE is designed to complement the FMF’s unit-level training program by providing fundamental training in core METs, not to conform to or replace training provided by a commander. Though China is identified as the Nation’s pacing threat and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command the priority theater of operation, the Marine Corps continues to deploy and posture worldwide. The Service is still responsible for providing combat-credible forces to all geographic combatant commanders. The perspective of over 40 years of combined-arms training at MCAGCC saw the Marine Corps succeed in operations during the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. It prepared the FMF for contingency operations in Somalia, the Balkans, and the Middle East. After Task Force 58 returned from operations in Afghanistan and I MEF crossed the line of departure into Iraq, MAGTFTC prepared the FMF for counter-insurgency operations. Training at MCAGCC does not reach the end of history with the termination of the last conflict, it prepares the FMF for the next fight. MAGTFTC is adapting SLTE for the pacing threat while also training deployable units to succeed in expeditionary operations outside of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command theater. This is best demonstrated by the command’s capability to create the MLR Training Exercise, creating an event that expands the latitude beyond the narrow focus of the traditional perception of training at MCAGCC. The fundamentals in core METs do not change with the terrain. The latter point of the cost to deploy the exercise force for training pales compared to the resource and opportunity cost to mobilize MAGTFTC outside of MCAGCC. Exercises at MCAGCC are more than live-fire training in the Mojave Desert.
SLTE is one component of MAGTFTC’s training portfolio. It is an integral learning tool for evolving formal schools, doctrine development, a tailored Fleet Support Program, and the mentorship of the future battalion, regimental, squadron, and group commanders. The instructors at MAGTFTC’s centers of excellence and expeditionary warfare training groups support SLTE as observers and exercise controllers. The wealth of experience from the Marines and civilians supporting exercises at MCAGCC pays dividends to a campaign of learning that reaches every corner of the Service. Observations and lessons learned to inform the courses producing the tactics and operations instructors serving across the FMF. Final exercise reports collected from high-end events at the Marine Corps’ most permissive training area update and create new doctrine to prepare for future conflict. Assessments of core METs in finely tuned live-fire events refine a fleet support program that reinforces home station training and unit-level training programs. The comprehensive career experience of commanders and staff of MAGTFTC subordinate elements from all corners of the FMF and supporting establishment produces a first-class Facilitated After-Action Report that focuses on individual warfighting functions to prepare the exercise force for their upcoming deployment at every echelon.
SLTE 2-23 proved that MCAGCC can still meet the needs of the service in the era of FD 2030. Simultaneous regimental exercises distributed across hundreds of miles between the Mojave Desert and the Pacific Ocean demonstrates the adaptability of MAGTFTC to train the FMF in skills to succeed in conflict against the pacing threat and any other adversary threatening the nation’s strategic interests. A single exercise training in future employment concepts and MAGTF operations shows that MCAGCC is the crossroads for force design and force development. The Marines and civilians of MAGTFTC demonstrated that training for sea-denial operations could be facilitated in the desert and that MCAGCC will continue to be the premier training venue for expeditionary operations in the future.
>MajGen Maxwell currently serves as the Commander, Marine Corps Installations Command, Commanding General, Marine Corps National Capital Region Command, and Assistant Deputy Commandant, Installations and Logistics (Facilities). He most recently served as the Vice Director for Logistics on the Joint Staff. He previously served as the Assistant Deputy Commandant, Installations and Logistics (Plans, Policies, and Strategic Mobility), Commanding General, 2nd MLG, and Combined Joint Director of Logistics for the NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.
Force Design 2030and Installations and Logistics 2030 describe evolving missions and new capability requirements driven by a changing operating environment. Installations and Logistics 2030is explicit about challenges associated with installations in contested environments and makes the following key points:
To posture ourselves against the threat of peer and near-peer competitors, we need to rethink our view of Marine Corps installations.
Our installations must be able to provide the full range of infrastructure and trained personnel required by the future force.
Our installations must enable training, force readiness, experimentation, mobilization, and deployment while also improving quality of life for Marines, their families, and the civilian workforce.
Smart, resilient, networked installations will provide stand-in forces with enhanced capabilities to recover quickly from attack, persist in contested spaces, and sustain distributed formations.
We must ensure force protection efforts enable continuity of operations, protection, and safety of our families, and our forces to meet operational requirements.
The following vignette explores the contours of the changing operating environment and the associated implications for our installation through a fictional account of a security crisis occurring in 2027. While longer than most articles, a vignette is the most efficient way to animate the guidance in Force Design 2030 and Installations and Logistics 2030 while also illuminating the many challenges and opportunities associated with making our installations ready.
The Taiwan Crisis of 2027 System Attack–Systemic Defeat
Cloudy, with late afternoon rain was the forecast as Col Kay Smith headed up the gentle rise skirting the Okinawa Expressway toward Taiyo Golf Course for an early morning tee time with Col John Harmon and Col Steve White. As on most Saturday mornings in Okinawa, the plan for Kay was to get her mind focused on having a good round of golf after a week of non-stop mini-crises in her job as the Deputy Commander of Marine Corps Installations Pacific, but today there was something else on her mind: the rising tensions between China and Taiwan had serious implications for the operations and safety of the bases and stations under her command. Eighteen holes with Harmon, the III MEF G-3, and White, the Commanding Officer of 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, offered an opportunity to discuss her concerns with respected friends and colleagues. She seldom saw White, but she looked forward to catching up since they had known each other since The Basic School.
Driving into the parking lot afforded a glimpse of the verdant dark green course, having benefited from the above-average rainfall of the past few months. Unsurprisingly, John and Steve were running a little late, so Kay signed in and started some warm-up swings. After some additional stretches and a brief chat with a friendly groundskeeper, John came hustling over with Steve in trail.
“Hey, sorry we’re late. Let’s get going or we’ll miss our tee time,” said John.
“Right,” Kay said with a wry smile as she glanced at her watch. “Let’s get to it.”
By the 9th hole, the trio had settled into the flow of the game, and Kay ventured some shop talk.
“So, guys, the Chinese seem to be stepping up their Taiwan torment; more aircraft intrusions and more saber rattling. The G-6 says cyber intrusions are way above average. I think we should be stepping up preparations. I know we’re reviewing our base and station readiness.” John and Steve cocked their heads and looked at each other.
“There she goes again, always the professional,” Steve quipped, having known Kay for 23 years.
Niceties dispensed with, John took on a serious tone and said, “Yes Kay, you’re right to be concerned. Indications and Warnings are tipping into the red; we could be in for some unpleasantness in the coming months.”
“We’re ready,” Steve added. “The regiment is in good shape, and we’ve got several elements doing reconnaissance/counter reconnaissance in the lower Ryukyus and northern Luzon. We’ve actually detected some atypical PLAN submarine activity well east of Taiwan. But I’m not sure I get it Kay, what’re you worried about; our bases and stations aren’t going anywhere.”
“That’s precisely why I’m so concerned,” Kay responded. “It’s much easier to target a fixed installation than a low-signature distributed force. Would the PLA be more inclined to use expensive missiles on large, fixed bases or a small, hard-to-target, mobile unit? We’re sitting ducks.”
Somehow that game flow had evaporated. “OK,” John offered, “let’s call it at nine and talk about this over some yakisoba and a Sakura.”
At the table, John picked up where they left off. “OK, let’s remember where we are, so keep it unclass, but let’s think this through a bit. Kay, you started this, so what’s bothering you most?”
“Well, starting at the top, strategically, it just doesn’t make sense to me that we’re treating our bases and stations like we did when we UDP’d here as lieutenants. The threat’s very different now. We’re in the same arc of fires as our deployed operational units. That’s a big difference, right?”
“An attack here would be really escalatory, and might bring Japan in as an active combatant,” Steve opined.
“Remember Putin?” John interjected. “That insanity was just five years ago. It’s hard to predict an autocrat’s decision calculus,” he continued, looking ever more serious. “Kay, tell me what has been done to improve the posture of our installations as of late.”
Looking askance, Steve muttered, “But look where that got Putin: six feet under. Maybe Xi learned something.”
Kay had hoped the discussion would get to this point. “We’ve done a lot, but so much still needs to be done. We’ve barely moved the needle with Headquarters Marine Corps on resources. I think it’s important that we’re now tied into the theater missile defense early warning system and we can send warnings out to all smartphones if the threat dictates. That’s critical for Marines, civilians, and their families. Unfortunately, we’ve still not gotten the mobile cell towers we requested, in part because we’re still working on spectrum access with the Japanese. We need to keep pushing this. Steve, your folks might find them of use tactically, if we go Corregidor.”
Range and capability analysis of People’s Liberation Army Air and Rocket Forces. (Photo provided by author.)Steve chuckled while John’s arched eyebrows conveyed some skepticism over the World War II analogy, but his demeanor was now quite serious.
“And to be fair,” she continued, “there have been some other notable improvements over the last five years, and not just in IT upgrades. After pushing the issue for a couple of years, all our Installation Marines have a T/O [table of organization] weapon assigned and do annual FAM [familiarization] fire at a minimum. We have also developed healthy habitual relationships with elements of MARFORRES. Using reservists to fill holes created by our reduced reliance on FAP [Fleet Assistance Program] billets, and we now have the ability to fill vacancies with individual augments for the remaining FAP personnel when they get pulled during a crisis. Also, while there are IT and sensor elements associated with Global Logistics Awareness, hopefully, you’re seeing a difference in the responsiveness of logistics to operational requirements. The biggest deal has been the change in mindset. Logisticians are no longer waiting to be told the requirement, they are anticipating and planning for future requirements by integrating logistics into operational planning. The old way just won’t cut it given how distributed we are nowadays—and it also helps Installations by improving our situational awareness on LOGCOM [Logistics Command] and FMF logistics support requirements.
“OK,” John said, “balanced argument noted Kay, but give us the wavetops of today’s challenges,” the golf game already a distant memory. “What else?”
“Let me do it in terms you guys might best understand: the seven warfighting functions—it’s still seven right? We haven’t added yet another one recently, have we?” Kay jested, trying to lighten the mood she had precipitated, if only just a tad.
Kay opened a firehose of pent-up frustration. “Let’s start with command and control. John, whether you’re in Guam or here in Okinawa, you obviously understand the importance of your operations center. It needs to work 24/7 regardless of weather or enemy action. You know that, but did you know the communications grid that underpins it is brittle and lacks adequate capacity? You know our computers are old and slow; you see them every day, and you might guess that routers and servers need to be upgraded, but you might not think about the cables running down the streets and in the walls of our facilities. They are from a different era.”
“I’ve been told you might need to actually fight the MEF from your garrison facilities given the ranges of our latest missiles—and the PLA’s. The bandwidth required to support the surveillance, tracking, and targeting of enemy assets is growing constantly. Our IT pipes are strained passing PowerPoint slide decks. So much for full-motion video and passing target data back to CONUS! And it gets better; the power grid that runs the communications grid is even less resilient. Much of our communications grid is buried, but most of our power grid is overhead. We lose power with every hurricane or typhoon. What will it be like if the PLA comes knocking? Steve, you’ve at least got your tactical communications. That’ll work locally, but what if space is denied? A redundant underwater fiber line might be essential for off-island comms.”
“Every Marine loves to shoot stuff—fires is a perennial investment favorite—so you’d think we’d be good to go, right? Well, not exactly. First, Steve, you understand the limitations we have with ranges. Individual and crew-served weapons aren’t too bad, although we probably don’t shoot enough, the big challenges are the limited areas we have to do live fire and maneuver and where we can shoot artillery and missiles. We’re still waiting on funding to build virtual training ranges. Admittedly, a big part of the problem is a posture that mal-positions one-third of our operating forces for training, but we’ll save that one for another day.”
“We need to be able to simulate the entire kill chain for our anti-ship missiles, and we’re just not there yet. The sim center is still just a POM30 unfunded deficiency,” Steve chimed in. “Kay, don’t forget ranges for our loitering munitions. We can do some training at Fuji and Tinian, but that’s it, and since the smaller loitering munitions are integral to squad, platoon, and company operations, we need more reps and sets.”
“Force protection—wow, where to begin?” Kay said. “Of all the priorities in my job jar, this one worries me the most. Talk about multi-domain; we’ve got threats coming from every direction: cyber, drones, SCADA attacks, ubiquitous sensing, insider threats, CBRNE—heck we even have space-based and sub-orbital challenges, plus the usual concerns for hypersonic cruise missile and ballistic missile attack. We just haven’t adapted fast enough to have answers to these threats. From my time in P&R [Programs and Resources], I know there hasn’t been the trade space given our constrained budget topline and we had to get the basic new warfighting capabilities fielded.”
“Damn right,” Steve interjected. “We wouldn’t have been able to provide the sensing and fires to the Joint Force that we can now.”
“I’m with you,” Kay continued, “but now we need to think like the Chinese. This is a warfighting system we’re talking about, a system that doesn’t work without protection, sustainment, and installations that can operate in a contested environment. The PLA doesn’t think in terms of our stovepipes, they see a system and look for the weak link in the chain, and yours truly is holding the weakest link. I feel a disturbance in the Force.”
John had to say something at this point.
“Kay, come on. You SAW [School of Advanced Warfighting] Jedi always love those Star Wars references, but maybe you’re being just a bit too dramatic. We can’t afford to do everything.”
“Maybe … maybe,” Kay replied, “but when a lone Chinese SOF operator drops his backpack and releases ten loitering munitions that put holes in six JSF on the flightline, we’ll see how dramatic things can really get. Anyway, that’s a good segue to information and intelligence challenges. Both of these functions have increased steady-state requirements far beyond what they were when we were lieutenants. In competition, especially here in the Pacific, we’re in the fight every day. We need to have 24/7 intel on below-the-threshold threats, and we all read the CHINFO [Chief of Information] media summary every morning. There’s a constant back and forth as we, and our allies and partners, try to expose Chinese bad behavior and counter their disinformation campaign.”
“From my standpoint, we’ve had to band-aid our communications grid, which wasn’t built for the bandwidth and security requirements associated with these new demands. I mean, even battalions and regiments need PED [processing, exploitation, dissemination] facilities and these things often run 24/7, which means 24/7 chow hall hours and IT support. Security of these facilities is an issue as well.”
“You’re not being overdramatic in the least about this point, Kay,” Steve said nodding. “We were running an MQ-9 mission last week and we had some comm problems. We had to call the Enterprise Help Desk, the same service an action officer gets sitting at a desk building slides. I couldn’t believe it. We had to scrub the mission.”
“OK, well my soliloquy is almost over; just two more functions,” Kay said, picking up where she left off. John rolled his eyes.
“Maybe more of a diatribe than a soliloquy Kay,” he said, “but I like your passion. I get where you’re coming from. We need to have a conversation with the CG.”
“So, logistics is still logistics, always key, but Steve you mentioned loitering munitions. We need some additional funding to get the ammo storage facilities up to speed to allow us to store the munitions and their batteries in adjacent facilities, and our NMESIS missile systems would benefit from humidity-controlled storage. But the bigger picture, I’m concerned we could actually be like Corregidor in World War II. We’re at the end of a tenuous line of communications. The PLAN might decide to interfere with them with actions that drive up shipping insurance costs, and they could even get more aggressive and actively interdict shipping to Okinawa. We can’t prepare for everything of course, but we should at least have some extra stores on hand to ensure we have enough fuel, food, and ammo to sustain us should the Chinese decide to cut us off. John, do you agree?”
“I do, as long as we don’t get too crazy. I think I’m going to name the MEF CP Malinta,” he said with a little less sarcasm than his previous quip about World War II analogies.
Kay continued, “There’s also the potential for huge expenditure rates of munitions and the possibility for substantial combat attrition. We need to have a distributed and resilient stockpile of munitions that our operating forces can access, both at home base and when deployed with allies and partners in their territory. Unfortunately, our PGMs [precision-guided munitions] are located in known Navy ammo supply points. We’ve just not been able to get the resources to do distributed prepositioning, which, ironically, is substantially less costly than the old maritime prepositioning approach. I guess ships are just more interesting than warehouses, which is unfortunate because the relevant combat power of our new missiles is on a par with previous configurations and doesn’t require ships, connectors, escorts, and vehicles—all without the delay of RSO&I [reception, staging, onward movement, and integration]. Old paradigms die hard, I get it, but we’ve got to get folks to understand the increased power density of new weapons systems and their amazingly low cost per strike mile … but I digress.”
“Back to the need for reconstitution. We haven’t had to worry about this for decades; it’s just not in our psyche to increase planning factors to account for the kind of expenditure rates and attrition we’re likely to face. We need to have more robust facilities to accommodate repair and refit. This will need to be a long-haul effort to change our cultural proclivities. Finally, I promise, we come to maneuver.”
“Yup, got it,” said Steve.
“Yea, me too, got it, maneuver is key,” John reiterated.
“OK, sure but what about installations?” Kay replied.
“Good grief,” said John. “You’re not going to try and sell us on mobile installations are you?”
“Of course not,” said Kay, “but have you considered that installations, at the very least, provide a base for maneuver? If we were not postured across the first and second island chains and you moved your regiment tactically to the same geography currently occupied by our bases and stations, would you say we have conducted operational maneuver in relation to our adversary? I would say yes!”
“Hmm, hadn’t really thought about it in those terms,” said Steve.
“As we increase our inventories of PGMs at all echelons and their ranges increase, we will increasingly maneuver not to assault, but to gain positional advantage for indirect and long-range precision fires. Our bases and stations occupy terrain in the mutual weapons engagement zone of our forces and those of our adversaries. So, it’s not inconceivable we could be firebases for these weapon systems. It might not be our primary COA [course of action], but if we’re cut off, it might be our only option to take the fight to the PLA. Of course, that moves us up the PLA’s list of target priorities, which gets me to resilience.”
“Obviously, we can’t afford to harden everything, but we need to think deliberately about how to maintain continuity of operations for all of our critical infrastructure. Our critical infrastructure must be resilient and some assets may even need to be hardened for weapons effects vice just resilience.”
“Like in a tunnel or underground,” John winked. He was ready for this one. “The CG has been talking about this issue at nearly every weekly staff meeting. He understands it’s an issue that needs attention. He gets it.”
“Awesome,” Kay said, “That’s what we get for having a loggie as MEF commander. Only the second time, if I recall correctly!” She continued. “Resilience is a term of art in the installations community, but I like to keep things simple. The Air Force has a succinct definition: the capability of an installation to sustain the projection of combat power by protecting against, responding to, and recovering from deliberate, accidental, or naturally occurring events. I think that about covers it.”
“The CG is really worried about fuel,” John said.
“That makes sense; it’s a critical vulnerability. Of course, it’s the vulnerability of the storage tanks, but perhaps the most problematic is the fuel handling infrastructure, especially for aviation. It’s a tough nut,” Kay affirmed.
Two Months Later
Two months after their golf outing, and five years to the day since Xi Jinping was proclaimed “ruler for life,” the onslaught began, not with a bang, but with an incremental, yet unmistakable escalation across multiple fronts.
It appears the Chinese paid as much attention to our doctrine, concepts, and force posture as we had. For over a month, they gathered an amphibious armada that tripped indications and warning systems, so we knew something was coming. We assumed it was a massive amphibious assault on Taiwan, a Chinese version of D-Day, but to our surprise, that did not happen. Instead, they began a graduated, slowly expanding interdiction of Taiwan’s connections to the outside world. Undersea fiber optic cables stopped working, then space-based communications became unreliable, maritime militia significantly ramped up interference in commercial fishing operations throughout the South China Sea, and a northbound container ship sank suspiciously in moderately foul weather.
One month into China’s campaign of intimidation, their playbook of malign activities appeared limitless. It was at this point that one of Kay’s worst fears was realized. Through an intense information campaign, China made clear that any interference in their Taiwan campaign by the United States would result in devastating attacks upon U.S. bases and stations. They explicitly called out Camp Humphries in South Korea, Kadena AFB, Marine Corps installations on Okinawa, and Anderson AFB and Camp Blaz on Guam. The warnings were very precise and stated that any damage to property or personnel other than those named U.S. installations would be unintended collateral damage. China emphasized the attacks would be precision strikes, focused solely on U.S. property and personnel.
The Chinese thus presented our President with a dilemma—support Taiwan’s defense or risk attacks on tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel and their dependents. The President was in a difficult place. If he took overt military action against the Chinese anaconda plan to constrict Taiwan’s line of communications, the United States would be the first party to initiate combat, and at the same time, potentially thousands of U.S. citizens would lose their lives. Xi apparently was taking notes in 2022 when Putin catalyzed Western resolve with a massive, violent military assault on Ukraine. It was a black-and-white situation, whereas China’s actions were all shades of gray.
Early on, when Chinese preparations were accelerating, Marine Stand-in Forces had been deployed from Okinawa and Guam to northern Luzon and Miyakojima, Kumejima, and Tokashiki Islands to the west and south of Okinawa. These distributed Stand-in Forces provided surveillance and sea denial fires options for the Luzon and Miyako Straits while providing enhanced situational awareness to the Joint Force. Given the gradualist approach adopted by China, having a thicker and more diverse range of sensors proved to be especially important to national command authorities given the large uncertainties associated with China’s chosen approach—a massive all-out attack with missiles and an amphibious assault would have provided a more simplified, black and white decision calculus for U.S. response. The options for ISR, cyber ops, information ops, targeting, and strike that Stand-in Forces add to the Joint Force’s expanded decision-maker options to allow for a measured and agile response, able to scale commensurate with China’s incrementalism.
One Month Later
“BREAKING NEWS—CHINA REPEATS THREATS TO U.S. PACIFIC BASES,” read the TV banner in Marine Corps Installations Pacific’s crisis action center adjacent to the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander Forward/III MEF COC.
It did not help Kay’s mood that she had been warning about such an eventuality. Told you so was not a helpful attitude, and she knew it. Now was the time to do the best with what was at hand.
“OpsO, I need to see our most recent SITREP,” she requested.
Kay ran through a mental checklist of installation functions to ensure all necessary measures had been taken given China’s demonstrated propensity to avoid surfaces and look for gaps that could be exploited. It looked like installations were truly a gap in PLA eyes.
Law enforcement personnel were working extra shifts and perimeter security was stepped up. Fortunately, the recently fielded AI-enabled drones substantially reduced the manpower required for conducting patrols, but there were still concerns over operatives able to deploy electronic warfare in support of cyber operations, as well as jamming and physical damage to communications infrastructure. The 2024 decision to issue installation Marines weapons was proving to be a wise move, enabling them to provide additional support to perimeter security. Hard to believe we had become so assured in our security we had forward-stationed Marines without weapons or weapons training.
Thankfully, the reservist rotational augments were fully incorporated into bases and stations—yet another manpower improvement over the last few years. Kay made a note to request a surge to get the next rotation in early and to encourage as many currently assigned personnel as possible to extend.
Tenant commands were operating around the clock, so there was an increased demand for chow halls, IT support, and maintenance. Kay made a mental note to talk to John to see what MEF might be able to do to help with surveillance and security operations to allow Marines with specialized installation skills to support base surge ops.
Cpl Sanchez interrupted, “Ma’am, the MEF G-2 is on the phone.”
“OK, I’ll take it,” said Kay with some apprehension, as she had a good idea what Joe wanted. “Joe, how can I help you?” she asked.
“Kay, we’re getting crushed, we’ve got the majority of our tactical sensors deployed and we’re getting fire hosed with data, but the network is clobbered, our PED’sters can’t get their jobs done, and they say it’s not processing capacity, it’s a bandwidth problem.”
As Kay suspected, installations communications grid upgrades had been an unfunded deficiency for four years running. Base comm grids were largely still copper and simply lacked the capacity. Back in Virginia, she recalled having fiber run to her house by a commercial vendor years ago, providing one gigabyte per second upload and download speeds. Her house had more bandwidth than the MEF-sensitive compartmented information facility, which is crazy but true and not to mention electromagnetic pulse attack was not a big consideration when she decided to shift to fiber for her home—so there was that vulnerability to think about as well.
“Joe, sorry, we understand the problem. Tell you what, I’ll talk to our comms folks. Perhaps we can have them team with Comm Battalion to run some fiber to a tactical SATCOM link,” Kay offered. “I’ve already asked engineers to disperse their generators to ensure we have backup tactical power generation if needed.”
“Kay, OK I appreciate that, but you know space is going to be unreliable. Perhaps they could tie into a commercial fiber point of presence,” said Joe.
“Right, we’ll look into that as well,” Kay agreed. “I’ll let you know tomorrow where we are with the band-aid.”
Kay looked up to see Sanchez back at the hatch looking serious.
“Ma’am, we just got a message saying the next UDP battalion won’t deploy on time—some sketchy stuff going on in Pendleton, Twentynine Palms, and Lejeune.”
“Need some specifics Sanchez, like what?” asked Kay.
“Well, in addition to the interruptions in the Global Logistics Awareness systems you’re already aware of—like sensors dropping off and recurring network outages—there’s been a number of intrusions into our range control systems stateside, and it’s been affecting the training cycle. That ankle-biter stuff set the battalion back a few weeks, but now there’s been major disruptions in contract air operations—but that’s not the worst of it. Third Battalion 2d Marines was at Cherry Point forming up in the parking lot after the buses dropped them off and a quadcopter flew over; they’re thinking it might have dispensed anthrax. They’ve got to all be tested, and it’ll be a day or two before they can confirm what it was. I got a text from Sgt Mulvaney who’s a grunt in 3/2 Mar. He was looking forward to escaping the Lejeune heat since his barracks A/C was broken again, but now they’re back in barracks waiting on test results. Just lots extra friction regardless of whether it was an actual bio-attack or not.”
Kay turned back to the situation report and the logistics support section. Two dry store ships had been delayed due to maritime militia activities in the South China Sea and Naha Port authorities were reporting other delays as well. The commissaries would be out of fresh produce in a week, and there was only a two-week supply of baby formula. Fortunately, the base had gained funding for an additional two-month supply of MREs that could feed all tenants and dependents, but good luck feeding MREs to infants. Maybe we can frag a C-130 to make a run to the mainland for formula, putting a whole new meaning to the old term milk run, thought Kay in disbelief. How did we get to such a place?
At least the training ranges were in pretty good shape, but ammo levels were not what they should be. The arms room concept placed an increased requirement for ammo to qualify a wider number of Marines, whereas before only specialized MOSs qualified on crew-served and shoulder-fired rockets. It was unquestionably critical to have more Marines trained in more weapons platforms, but ammo allowances had still not increased to levels necessary to get everyone trained to standard.
Virtual and constructive training helped with training on artillery and missile systems, but the facility envisioned by Project Tripoli just had its groundbreaking last month. Despite MCICOM’s efforts, it was still taking five years to get new facility construction started and then there were the inevitable construction delays. At any rate, no reason to dwell on this now; it is what it is, she thought. There were more immediate concerns.
Two Weeks Later
There was now no question that China was all in on gaining control of Taiwan. Essential supplies were still arriving in Guam and Okinawa, but merchant ships were now organized into escorted convoys after the investigation of the lost container ship EVER GENTLE revealed ambiguous but highly suspicious indications that there had been a PLAN submarine in the area of the sinking.
Evacuation of dependents proceeded apace with charter flights leaving at regular intervals from Naha International Airport and Kadena Air Force Base. Once these flights were completed, the concerns over food and medical care for tenants would be substantially reduced, but it remained to be seen whether the departure of dependents would make the bases and stations more or less likely to be targeted. On the receiving end, Marine Corps Installations–West was busy with the influx of new families. It would have been good to have rehearsed this non-combatant evacuation operation beforehand to develop a playbook for how to secure quarters, guidelines for what could be taken, and more information to give the displaced about what to expect on the other end. Still unresolved was who would care for all the pets remaining behind.
To date, the Chinese have still not taken overt military operations and the United States has decided to work with the international community to impose economic sanctions on China while also increasing naval and air forces in between the first and second island chains.
Kay could only hope that sanctions worked. The evacuation of dependents from Japanese locations reduced the burden substantially, but that did not increase ammo levels or ensure that theater air and missile defenses would make much difference if China decided to go kinetic.
Maybe the installations would weather the storm. Kay could only hope because there was nothing else to be done; it would depend on the Chinese.
Can a fait accomplibe slow and progressive? Does it have to be so sudden the opponent is unable to offer a timely response in hours or days?
With the benefit of hindsight, what appeared at the time to be a progressive ratcheting up of intimidating actions by the Chinese looks today more like a fait accompli given China’s studied exploitation of our vulnerabilities and the recognition that they had tailored a long-term campaign to gain control of Taiwan and then executed it to near perfection. America and its allies and partners did respond to Chinese provocations quickly but in a measured series of economic, information, diplomatic, and military actions, with varying levels of effectiveness. Yet today, China controls Taiwan’s apparatus of government and is working to consolidate total control over the island.
As an adversary with a mature Long-Range Precision Strike complex, the Chinese changed the battlespace in novel and unanticipated ways. The ability to create effects, without changing location, meant the Chinese could threaten to attack or conduct an attack at very low cost. By manipulating our Indications and Warnings, they were able to force us to react, executing flush plans, conducting a noncombatant evacuation operation, and focusing on internal housekeeping matters while they had none of the traditional logistical or temporal costs associated with moving into battle position.
Attack or threat of attack was fast and cheap for the Chinese, whereas we had to move large forces great distances, evacuate families, and implement ad hoc defensive measures to cover installation vulnerabilities. Also, their attack options had the benefit of being precise, thus allowing them to modulate collateral damage. Importantly, they could attack any target set within range of their munitions while we had perhaps overfocused on protecting tactical formations to the detriment of fixed installations.
The DOD rightly recognized the need to improve its abilities to target and attack PLA forces back in 2018, but this focus evolved into tunnel vision given resource constraints across the Department that forced budgets to focus only on the “top” priorities vice the Joint Force’s system priorities. Underinvestment in system enablers opened a seam the Chinese drove their missiles through. The Chinese viewed all U.S. assets within their weapons engagement zone as valid targets, and without the baggage of our cultural propensities, they were clear-eyed as to where the U.S. was most vulnerable and what targets would best achieve their political objectives.
The Chinese knew our democracy demanded the President pay close attention to public sentiment, and Taiwan did not resonate with the American polity as had Putin’s attack on Ukraine. This was not because Americans had a greater affinity for a European war. Rather, it was because of the way the Chinese had learned from Putin’s mistakes and adopted a gradualist approach that avoided bloodshed until the very end of their campaign. By then, it was too late to walk back the chain of events they had orchestrated.
China’s strategy leveraged American ambivalence by threatening to attack U.S. citizens and military personnel at U.S. bases and stations located within their desired sphere of influence, and the President decided to avoid escalation until U.S. non-combatants could be evacuated. Perhaps savvily, China chose not to interfere with the evacuation. They understood they were losing some of their leverage, but the vulnerability of U.S. installations left plenty of targets possessing both military and iconic value for them to threaten. In return, they gained more of their most valuable commodity: time.
It is clear now that posture matters greatly. Vulnerabilities are vulnerabilities, whether operating force or supporting establishment, especially in the eyes of an adversary who may understand political vulnerabilities better than the U.S. military, given they have the benefit of not being burdened by the U.S. military’s inclination to focus primarily on military outcomes.
The Joint Force and the Nation’s infrastructure and industrial base comprise a system that was perhaps better understood by previous generations. In World War I and World War II, key cities, bases, fortresses, and industries were early military objectives of both sides, but during the long interregnum of our military hegemony since then, we forgot. The Chinese had not.
How multi-disciplinary Marines provide maximum flexibility to a distributed force
>Capt Sanderfield is currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1/2 Mar. He was the Company Commander for Alpha Company, the experimental Force Design 2030 company from July 2021 to April 2023.
The character of war is changing, and the Commandant has taken ambitious steps to redesign the force to confront a capable adversary in the Pacific. One of the most contentious aspects of the Commandant’s Force Design initiative is the Arms Room Concept. Under this concept, the Marine Corps infantry would transition away from some specifically defined MOSs to a force that leverages a multi-disciplinary Marine capable of employing a variety of different weapons systems on the battlefield. Responding to a question about the Arms Room Concept, BGen Watson, Commanding Gen Marine Corps Warfighting Lab said, “So the arms room means that you would have a sort of an armory of many different systems, and your Marines would be trained in all of them, and then you pick the weapons suited to the mission … as opposed to having single-threat Marines who are only experts at one system.”(1) As a company commander of Alpha Company 1/2 Mar, an experimental Force Design 2030 rifle company, my team and I have been on the forefront of creating multi-disciplinary Marines utilizing the Arms Room Concept over the last eighteen months. This period has resulted in many lessons learned and recommendations on how infantry battalions can overcome systematic shortfalls and effectively implement the Arms Room Concept going forward. With additional investments of time, resources, and an adjusted approach to enlisted infantry schooling, infantry battalions can employ multi-disciplinary Marines to provide maximum flexibility on a chaotic and distributed battlefield.
The push towards the development of the multi-disciplinary Marine is not one of desire, but one of necessity. Static positions and massed formations are terribly easy to find and target, especially against an adversary like Russia and China who possess a robust suite of sensors and persistent ISR capabilities. However, as this technology continues to develop and spread, it is no longer just the major power players who possess the ability to leverage space-based ISR platforms and unmanned-aerial systems to hunt their adversaries. These systems, coupled with precision-guided missiles, long-range rockets, and cheap loitering over-the-horizon suicide drones will force military formations to become smaller and more dispersed to survive. Operating within this type of environment makes it no longer tenable to train Marines to become experts at one singular weapons system. As formations operate further away from their higher headquarters, small units will be required to possess a multitude of assets, weaponry, and capability sets.
The common question that comes up when discussing the creation of multi-disciplinary Marines is which weapons systems should encompass the arms room and which capabilities will require a Marine with a specific MOS. While training every Marine to become proficient and qualified in every weapons system is desirable, it is unrealistic in application. Within Alpha Company’s Force Design structure, specialty-trained Marines and weapons traditionally held at the battalion level, such as Javelin missiles, heavy machineguns, mortars, and loitering munitions, have been transferred from what was previously weapons company to the company’s hunter killer platoon. These complex weapons systems require Marines with advanced-level training and were not included in our training to create multi-disciplinary Marines.
What Does the Arms Room Concept Provide the Service? Flexible/adaptive force
A leading benefit of the Arms Room Concept has been the flexibility it has provided the company. As the 2nd MarDiv Experimental Force Design rifle company within 1/2 Mar, the company had the privilege of executing a series of difficult experimental training exercises across the United States. These exercises were designed to push the limits of an infantry company, employing advanced sensors and weaponry within exercise scenarios for the company to distances exceeding 50 kilometers from the rest of the battalion. In each of these instances, the company’s platoons and squads were distributed another five-ten kilometers to accomplish independent tasks assigned by the company commander. Upon insertion of the company into the exercise operational area frequently dominated by adversary sensors and anti-air missile systems, there was virtually no ability to adjust or reallocate key assets or crew-served weapons across formations. Doing so would require the use of already limited transportation platforms and would expose the force to the risk of detection and subsequent targeting.
Alpha Company’s employment of multi-disciplinary Marines and access to previously held battalion-level assets at the company level were key components that enabled success in a distributed operating environment. By having medium machineguns, rockets, long-range precision rifles, and recoilless rifles within each platoon, platoon commanders and squad leaders have the unique ability to custom tailor their table of equipment to provide a mission-ready force to accomplish the task assigned. For the platoons and squads within Alpha Company, this has at times resulted in one squad carrying multiple medium machineguns and rocket systems while another is operating with a much lighter footprint carrying only their primary service rifle into the fight. Only by training Marines on every weapons system could these custom-tailored units have the flexibility required to be successful in a distributed fight against a capable adversary while simultaneously possessing the firepower required to mass when necessary.
Redundancy is another beneficial aspect of the Arms Room Concept. If the Marine who is typically responsible for employing the medium machinegun or Carl Gustav recoilless rifle is incapacitated, there is a squad’s worth of Marines who can pick it up and employ it effectively in the fight. This occurred during several of our exercises and will undoubtedly happen in the next big conflict. While the most common example included a simulated casualty for the Marine carrying a specific weapons system, there were other instances where a Marine became ill or was simply needed to execute some other task. By having this redundancy, the unit never lost the capability that the weapons system provided because there was a ready bench of capable Marines who could pick up and employ that weapons system in the fight effectively.
Redundant capabilities have additional benefits beyond providing a company with a strong bench of utility players. It provides the option to weigh units in a way that was not previously possible. By having thirteen Marines who are trained to employ the medium machinegun or recoilless rifle within a squad, a company commander has the option to weigh that unit with additional weapons to allow for the accomplishment of a task such as an attack by fire or support by fire. The availability of these options has undoubtedly made the unit a more capable, flexible, and deadly force.
It is important to note that although redundancy means that a squad could theoretically hand a medium machinegun, grenade launcher, or recoilless rifle to any Marine within the squad to effectively employ, naturally the proficiency levels amongst the Marines will vary. We have addressed this by striving to train all Marines to be incidental operators with each of the weapons within the Arms Room. This means mandatory, across-the-board cross-training built into the training schedule to ensure every Marine can at least pick up a weapon, load it properly, conduct appropriate misfire procedures, and manipulate a machinegun’s traversing and elevation mechanism or a recoilless rifle’s sight system to engage various targets on the battlefield.
A point often used to argue against the Arms Room Concept is that there is no requirement to have these weapons capabilities organic to the rifle platoons and squads, for they can be attached by the company if required. While this argument is true on the surface, it overlooks the significant benefit of having Marines with those capabilities organic to each small unit. By platoons having access to the weapons and Marines during training, they will be best postured to accurately understand their capabilities, limitations, and how to best employ them on the battlefield. The valuable trust built through time and repetitions cannot be replicated with an attachment that may or may not have worked with the unit before. Instead of receiving an attachment whose true physical capability and overall proficiency are unknown and largely assumed, the Marines are already an organic part of that small unit. Under the new construct that employs multi-disciplinary Marines, a single rifle platoon can serve as a heavy support-by-fire element complete with a full complement of machineguns while also providing organic internal security. Previously, this same task would require several attachments from outside the platoon to accomplish. Now, each platoon commander and squad leader have the capabilities required within their units with their multi-disciplinary Marines.
The implementation of the Arms Room Concept provides the Marine Corps infantry with a much more capable, lethal, and flexible force, but it does come at a significant cost. To create highly proficient multi-disciplinary Marines, the Marine Corps will have to adjust the way we man, train, and equip future infantry formations. Below are some recommendations for how infantry company commanders can approach this issue to support its implementation and future use across every infantry battalion.
Building Capabilities Incrementally
Training all Marines within an infantry rifle squad to effectively employ every weapons system available does take an extraordinary amount of time and energy. That said, it is achievable if you take an incremental approach to building capabilities over time. Those who typically push back on the concept will point out that it is impossible for every Marine to have the same level of proficiency as a current machine gunner who has years of fleet experience and advanced-level training. However, the goal of the Arms Room Concept is not to blindly hand weapons to any Marine in your formation and expect the same results. Instead, the goal is to create highly lethal teams made up of multi-disciplinary Marines who can perform a laundry list of tasks and employ a variety of weapons systems. With a future operating environment characterized by contested airspace and severe distribution of maneuvering forces, Marine Corps units cannot afford to fill a critical seat on any insert helicopter with someone who can only carry out one singular task or employ one specific weapon.
Critics of the Arms Room Concept express concern about losing a level of technical proficiency by moving away from designated Marines who employ some of these weapons in the previous, legacy construct. Although a valid concern, the argument tends to exaggerate the complexity of certain weapons while also ignoring that the Marine Corps has long trained Marines to employ multiple weapons systems. Combat engineers and artillerymen each cross-train Marines to employ machineguns for localized security. Even within the infantry, squads for decades trained traditional riflemen to employ the M249 squad automatic weapon, a light machinegun organic within each fire team. Marines carrying this machinegun achieved much success in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before the Corps transitioned to the current service rifle.
To accomplish our goal of incrementally creating multi-functional Marines who can employ each weapons system in the Arms Room Concept, Alpha Company started by selecting the most common weapons systems the squad would likely use on the battlefield. These included the Infantry Automatic Rifle, the M320 grenade launcher, Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, and the M240 medium machinegun. With the agreed-upon understanding that it would take a large amount of time and ammunition for all Marines to become experts on each of these weapons, we started by qualifying every Marine on the basics, such as the ability to load, unload, and conduct misfire procedures for each weapon. As each Marine effectively demonstrated the ability to conduct these incidental-operator-level tasks, they were classified as qualified Marines capable of employing this weapons system if required. As each Marine trained to become qualified, small-unit leaders identified top performers who were evaluated in employing that weapon on a live-fire range. Those who were successful in this evaluation were designated as certified on that weapon and could now fire that weapon system in support of a maneuvering friendly element. Over the course of the pre-deployment workup, the company was able to qualify nearly every Marine in the rifle platoons on each weapon system while also building an impressive number of certified Marines who were the first ones within that unit to employ the weapon if the requirement was identified during planning.
Use of Simulators to Build Proficiency
Certifying every Marine on each weapon within the Arms Room Concept would require a massive increase in the amount of ammunition typically available to each infantry battalion. To continue to train multi-disciplinary Marines under this resource constraint, infantry companies will need to maximize the use of technology and simulators. The Marine Corps has made great strides over the years to ensure Marines have access to realistic simulators to train and build proficiency, and these systems will only get better as technology improves and becomes cheaper to replicate. Currently, every base installation has an Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer (ISMT) available for units to schedule and use for training. Although Alpha Company did leverage these systems to a limited degree, this is admittedly a resource we should have used more. Company commanders should embrace the use of available simulators and incorporate them into their weekly training schedules to build individual weapons capabilities without expending the limited ammunition available.
Although the ISMT is a valuable resource for training Marines, there are currently several limitations associated with these systems. First, the limited number of simulators available on each installation will be insufficient to support every infantry battalion as they each transition to the Arms Room Concept. Either the current ISMTs will need to expand, or additional facilities will need to be constructed to meet the increasing demand. There will also need to be an expansion of weapon systems available within the current ISMTs to ensure they encompass the M320 and Carl Gustav, critical weapons within the arms room. Another option could be the investment in an ISMT type similar within each infantry battalion’s office space. While this would require significant initial investment and continued attention to keep them working and operational, the benefits would be well worth the cost. 1/2 Mar has seen the benefit of having an in-house simulator first-hand. Within a battalion command post, there is a dedicated training room with multiple Javelin and TOW missile simulators. Utilizing these training aids does not require an extensive request process or deconflicting with dozens of other units across the base. As a result, the company and battalion have been able to sustain proficiency with these weapons systems while building an impressive number of incidental operators despite not receiving the necessary number of missiles to train effectively. With additional investment in the access and quality of simulators, infantry units can overcome the limited availability of live ammunition and develop a capable unit of multi-disciplinary Marines.
Leverage/Create Subject-Matter Experts
The Arms Room Concept and the creation of multi-disciplinary Marines within infantry battalions are only possible through the possession of unit internal instructors and subject-matter experts to train Marines on the technical proficiency necessary to employ various weapon systems. Alpha Company, 1/2 Mar has been fortunate in this area. To achieve the task organization in the company that included an increased rank requirement, the rifle squads were built from Marines from every infantry MOS. This was particularly important at the small-unit leader level. Each squad was comprised of staff sergeant squad leaders, sergeant team leaders, and several junior NCOs who were school-trained machine gunners, mortarmen, and anti-armor Marines. The presence of this diverse set of skill sets allowed the company to leverage these warriors to develop a team of multi-disciplinary Marines within each rifle platoon.
As infantry battalions adopt the Arms Room Concept and explore ways to replace the different specialty MOSs into a consolidated all-encompassing 03XX MOS, the Marine Corps must ensure units have access to a bullpen of school-trained instructors to fill this critical role. Until the Advanced School of Infantry redesigns its infantry school pipeline to meet this new challenge, infantry battalions must continue to leverage courses such as Advanced Machine Gunners Course, Advanced Anti-Tank Missile Gunner Course, and Infantry Unit Leaders Course. Marines returning from these courses will have the technical proficiency necessary to help develop and train the other Marines in their platoons. In addition to maximizing the use of these current advanced schools to train Marines and build a cadre of capable instructors, each infantry division needs to play a part by crafting division schools that help units achieve the goal of creating multi-disciplinary Marines across their formations.
Warfare is experiencing a technological revolution where precision-guided munitions and unmanned systems will continue to proliferate and dominate the future battlefield. To meet the challenge of a future fight against a smart and capable near-peer or peer adversary, the Marine Corps infantry will need to transition away from a force of single-threat Marines to a more capable and flexible team of multi-disciplinary Marines capable of employing a variety of different weapons available within the unit’s armory. While Alpha Company 1/2 Mar has made a tremendous number of mistakes along the way and certainly does not have all the answers, our experience on the cutting edge of Force Design 2030 experimentation for the past eighteen months has informed us of the benefits of Arms Room Concept and the necessity of multi-disciplinary Marines within the infantry. With additional investments of time, resources, and an adjusted approach to enlisted infantry schooling, infantry battalions can employ multi-disciplinary Marines to provide maximum flexibility on a chaotic and distributed battlefield.
1. Megan Eckstein, “Marines Update Force Design 2030 After a Year of Experimentation in the Field,” United States Naval Institute News, April 26, 2021, https://news.usni.org/2021/04/26/marines-update-force-design-2030-after-a-year-of-experimentation-in-the-field.
>GySgt Knight is an Infantry Unit Leader (0369) currently serving as an Operations Chief. He has served as every billet from Rifleman through Platoon Sergeant in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM. He has also served as Heavy Machinegun Platoon Sergeant, Scout Sniper Platoon Sergeant, and Weapons Company Operations Chief in support of Unit Deployment Program Okinawa.
The Marine Corps was rendered combat ineffective during the opening weeks of the U.S.-China War in December of 2039. First, Second, and Third MarDivs were systematically engaged by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy, air, and ground forces, which resulted in the reduction of these divisions by a combined 75 percent. China had used a specific and effective strategy to cripple the U.S. military. This process was the development of a worldwide trade route controlled by them, ceasing all trade with the United States and forcing military funding cuts.
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the development of the Belt and Road Initiative. Seventy-one countries pledged to join in the endeavor.1 China quickly began making deals with these countries to build rail lines, improve roads, and build seaports in strategic locations. They would loan the money to the host country to build each project with only one stipulation, Chinese contracted companies would be hired to assist in the construction. China knew these countries would not be able to repay the accrued debts which allowed China to employ debt-trap diplomacy to gain strategic advantages in some of these areas.2 By 2017, the countries along the Belt received 35 percent of global foreign direct investments and accounted for 40 percent of global merchandise exports.3 This had all been part of China’s bigger concept of Tian Xia or world domination.4 The ground and maritime trade routes expanded their reach throughout the entire globe. This opened the trade routes and allowed China to influence a dominating portion of the trade deals made in the world. China began slowly arranging for resources to be acquisitioned from the countries along the Belt to reduce the number of materials they would need from U.S. suppliers.
During a press release in 2036, President Xi Jinping announced China would no longer receive any imports from the United States effectively gouging the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by fourteen percent. China again used debt-trap diplomacy to convince many of its partner countries to do the same. In total, the U.S. GDP was reduced by 24 percent over the next two years. This drastically affected the markets in the United States and caused an unexpected recession for which the American people were not prepared. Many companies that relied on exports went bankrupt and millions of Americans were laid off. The unemployment rate rose to eleven percent and the government was forced to start cutting its spending. By 2038, the defense budget was reduced by fifteen percent forcing the different branches to begin tightening their belts.
Due to these budget cuts much of the equipment the military used, including ships, could not be maintained. The Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to reduce the number of personnel in each of the branches to free up some funds to maintain its gear. The Marine Corps was reduced to 165,000. This forced the Marine Corps to disband all three battalions of the Fourth Marine Regiment and both battalions of the Eighth Marine Regiment as well as numerous support battalions. The Navy was also required to put 30 ships in long-term storage. The Third and Seventh Fleets took the brunt of the reduction as their ships had seen more use and required the most maintenance. This left a crucial gap in the maritime defenses in the Pacific, which Chinese military leaders exploited when they attacked the West Coast of the United States.
On 7 December 2039, U.S. Navy ships from the Third and Seventh Fleets came under fire from Chinese DF21D anti-ship ballistic missiles. These missiles were simultaneously launched from PLA Navy ships, cargo ships, and ground bases. The missiles were controlled by the Yaogan family of defense satellites they had launched between 2009 and 2012. The PLA Navy was able to target U.S. ships by monitoring their electronic emissions from the 8G personal electronic devices used by sailors aboard the ships. This attack successfully rendered both fleets’ combat ineffective. The PLA Navy then moved eight group armies (approximately 650,000 troops) from the PLA Ground Force to the West Coast of the United States unimpeded by utilizing ships that had been pre-staged and trade routes they had already established. Simultaneous with the attack on the U.S. Navy, the PLA Air Force conducted a massive aerial bombardment of Marine Corps Base Hawaii and Camp Butler Okinawa Japan. This raid was conducted by Xian H-6 long-range bombers launched from the Chinese Xi Jinping Air Station on the man-made Mischief Reef Island in the South China Sea. The raid effectively targeted the infrastructure and equipment of 3rd MarDiv resulting in a reduction of 90 percent. The PLA Ground Force invasion was contested by the 1st MarDiv as well as the U.S. Army’s 40th Infantry Division and the California National Guard. This joint task force, named Task Force Bear, was able to hold the PLA Ground Force in California until they could be reinforced by the 2nd MarDiv and the rest of the U.S. Army but not before being reduced by 85 percent. The 2nd MarDiv took 50 percent casualties during the intense fighting that followed. The loss of two of the three divisions was a fatal blow to the Marine Corps as a fighting force.
In the aftermath of the bloody U.S.-China war, Congress established a policy to prevent the country from becoming reliant on exports for such a large percentage of the GDP. This would prevent an adversary country from being able to reduce our GDP and defense budget just by monopolizing trade. When it came to the Marine Corps, Congress was also left with a choice. Re-constitute the divisions or amend Title X thereby dissolving and abolishing the Marine Corps. Ultimately, they chose the latter. On 10 November 2040, the Marine Corps Colors were retired for the final time. The remaining personnel and equipment were absorbed into the other branches.
1. Lily Kuo and Niko Kommenda, “What Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative?” The Guardian, July 30, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/ng-interactive/2018/jul/30/what-china-belt-road-initiative-silk-road-explainer.
3. Caroline Freund and Michele Ruta, “Belt and Road Initiative,” The World Bank, March 29, 2018. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/regional-integration/brief/belt-and-road-initiative.
4. Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape Chinas Push for Global Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2018).
>Capt Borinstein is an Intelligence Officer currently assigned to Company B, Marine Cryptologic Support Battalion at Fort Meade, MD. He holds a Master of Science in Data Analytics from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Although generally not top of mind when considering the Marine Corps’ most pressing future warfighting challenges, mental fitness, and suicide prevention unquestionably remain a chief priority across the DOD. Today, suicide rates among service members are among the highest levels in their recorded history.1
In response to increasing suicide rates, the Marine Corps has resorted to requiring commanders to become more involved in Marines’ lives and applying the risk management process to those subjectively deemed at-risk through the Force Preservation Council (FPC) program. The FPC order directs commanders to “use engaged leadership and risk management guidance … to recognize and intervene early when stressors and potentially risky behaviors first develop in Service members in order to interrupt the chain of events that can lead to an adverse outcome.”2 Unfortunately, the Defense Suicide Prevention Office’s 2020 Annual Suicide Report shows that the Marine Corps’ suicide rate has increased on average since at least 2014, with suicide rates in 2020 being the highest ever recorded in the wake of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic.3 This trend suggests that the Marine Corps will continue to battle with and for the mental health of its Marines well into the future, which poses significant challenges to the future force’s ability to remain ready to respond to our Nation’s calling.
Despite the Marine Corps’ good intentions, the FPC program in its initial form was riddled with flaws. One of its primary problems occurred when losing and gaining commands often failed to exchange information on Marines’ past and potential struggles. When they did exchange this information, it was often through informal, non-secure means. Although the Marine Corps FPC Order (MCO 1500.60) required losing commands to “ensure the gaining command is provided the necessary and relevant force preservation information,” there were no mechanisms by which to hold units accountable for failing to comply with policy.4 Such a lack of standardization and security meant that commanders rarely received all the information needed to contextualize Marines’ behaviors and issues and that Marines’ personal data was often put at risk through the unnecessary use of PowerPoints and other informal dissemination mechanisms.
In August 2020, the Marine Corps sought to resolve these issues by adopting the Command Individual Risk and Resiliency Assessment System (CIRRAS), which is essentially a standardized database for FPC data.5 Although certainly an improvement upon the legacy FPC process, CIRRAS will sell the Marine Corps short if it remains only a tool for data storage. Indeed, CIRRAS presents a unique opportunity for the Marine Corps to experiment with using artificial intelligence—and more specifically machine learning—to combat the threat of suicide within its ranks. The Marine Corps should examine the efficacy of using the CIRRAS database in conjunction with supervised classification machine-learning algorithms to help commanders better identify Marines who are most at risk for self-harm.
What is CIRRAS?
CIRRAS is a secure application developed by Marine Corps Systems Command that standardizes the FPC program across the Marine Corps, giving commanders the ability to monitor their Marines’ holistic health and combat readiness.6 It allows commanders and their representatives to input and track the various stressors that Marines regularly experience, including information regarding mental health, relationship disputes, alcohol- and drug-related offenses, and other significant issues that could impact operational readiness.7 Though it offers a new, more secure way of storing and transferring sensitive data about Marines, CIRRAS does not make any fundamental changes to the FPC program.
Although CIRRAS offers the means to standardize and secure Marines’ holistic health information, it does not seem to offer any additional analytical advantage to commanders. In other words, CIRRAS improves commanders’ abilities to securely communicate raw data, but it does not use that data to provide valuable insights to make better decisions.
The primary purpose of collecting standardized data in any capacity is to detect trends and patterns to better inform decision making. Human minds are very good at detecting simple, linear trends in two or three dimensions, but are very limited in their capacity to detect complex, non-linear trends, which can be common in multidimensional datasets such as those involving personal health information.
Machine-learning algorithms happen to be especially adept at identifying complex, non-linear trends in vast amounts of data. They can take datasets on the scale of thousands of dimensions, identify their most important factors, and detect patterns that no human brain could hope to understand or recognize. These algorithms are regularly used in the private sector to determine which Netflix shows would best suit you, which songs you will most likely enjoy on Spotify, and which products you should next consider purchasing on Amazon.
At its most basic level, machine learning is using past data and consequent outcomes to identify complex patterns, generate models from those patterns, and then combine those models with future input data to quickly deliver predictions of future outputs. The machine-learning algorithms used by tech companies take the data you and others give them, such as browsing activity and personal information, to detect patterns and build statistical models that can quickly calculate high-probability outcomes.
By centralizing and standardizing FPC data in a single database, the Marine Corps has created a venue through which it could use machine-learning algorithms to identify under-the-surface trends common among Marines who have expressed suicidal or other life-threatening tendencies. If provided with the right types of data, these algorithms could prove useful in providing commanders indications of Marines who are more likely to engage in self-threatening behavior.
Among the many different types of machine-learning algorithms, the most useful for the purposes of predicting future behavior are classification prediction algorithms. These types of algorithms are trained to predict specific categorical outcomes (green/yellow/red), and not numerical ones (1, 2, 3). Among the most popular types of classification prediction algorithms are decision trees, random forests, k-nearest neighbor classifiers, logistic regression, and support vector machines. The Marine Corps should experiment with these types of algorithms to determine whether any of them can effectively predict Marine behavior.
Issues and Requirements
Using machine learning to make impactful decisions in Marines’ lives obviously presents several potential problems. The data science and tech worlds are alight with debate over the moral and ethical use of machine-learning algorithms with others’ personal information. Moreover, no model or algorithm is perfect and, if not properly understood, can result in unfounded dependence on “the numbers” and remove commanders’ responsibility to use their judgment.
First, one should note that no model is infallible. Models are abstract representations of reality and are optimized to represent historical data. They are susceptible to developing a narrow focus and will always produce some measure of error. No model or algorithm can perfectly describe previous forms of reality nor perfectly predict future ones.
Because of this, commanders using mathematical models to make decisions must remember that such models are tools designed to supplement decision making and should never replace well-informed human leadership and judgment. It seems too often that we settle for reducing complicated situations into PowerPoint slides with boxes colored green, yellow, or red. No Marine’s personal situation can be adequately captured by a simple color, and we should be wary of similar behavior when using other models to predict which Marines are most susceptible to suicidal behavior. Instead, commanders should use such tools to identify who they should be spending more time observing.
All prediction algorithms produce false positives and false negatives. The Marine Corps must avoid a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to using machine learning and artificial intelligence of all types. Tools that use such technologies are designed to inform better and faster decisions but are never intended to generate decisions in lieu of humans.
Garbage in, garbage out is a common saying among data scientists. Because machine-learning algorithms live on the data that they are given, poor data quality can easily result in models which fail to adequately reflect reality. Leaders responsible for inputting data into CIRRAS must do so properly. The notion of no data in is also worthy of consideration. Given that prediction of at-risk Marines is the ultimate goal, a lack of data on risk factors means some Marines could slip through the cracks.
Data used in machine learning must also be computable, meaning that it should be standard throughout the dataset (think multiple choice responses or numerical data with common formatting). Supervised classification learning algorithms work by identifying which characteristics were most prevalent among Marines who expressed self-harming inclinations, generating a model by appropriately weighing each of those characteristics based on their correlation with the outcome, and then applying that model to other Marines as needed. To make this work, however, these algorithms require standard data values, especially for the metric in question, which in this instance is whether a Marine has demonstrated a predisposition for self-harm. Machine-learning algorithms cannot easily interpret free-response data without additional processing, which often involves manual interaction. CIRRAS must provide standard datasets to generate effective models.
Not all models work well and there is no guarantee that these models will provide any value at all. It is very possible that none of the models listed would be able to accurately predict which Marines are most susceptible to self-harm, and in doing so could add unnecessary noise to an already-complicated FPC system. If, however, these models can generate correct predictions even as low as 50 percent of the time, they could prove very valuable to commanders.
In recent years, Marine Corps dialogue has become consumed with some of the Nation’s favorite tech buzzwords: artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and the like. Nevertheless, we have yet to find ways to implement these at scale in the same way multi-billion-dollar corporations have been doing for years. There is little question that we should be researching and experimenting with means to harness the power of these technological advancements. In reality, however, reluctance to adapt quickly and try new things at middle and lower echelons demonstrates that research in these fields may not truly be a top priority.
Exploring the use of machine learning in conjunction with CIRRAS’ database offers an easy opportunity for the Marine Corps to showcase its long-held reputation as the Nation’s most innovative force. Further research on this topic may prompt widespread use of this technology and could prove valuable to commanders by quickly providing automated actionable data in one of the Pentagon’s top challenges: service member mental health. If our people are truly our greatest strength, then we should leverage every advantage, technological or otherwise, to their benefit and that of the Naval Service.
1. U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 2020 Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report (Washington, DC: 2020).
2. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCO 1500.60 Force Preservation Council (Washington, DC: August 2016).
3. Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, U.S. Department of Defense, Calendar Year 2020 Annual Suicide Report (Washington, DC: 2020).
4. Stephen Losey, “Military Deaths by Suicide Jumped 25% at End of 2020,” Military.com, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/04/05/military-deaths-suicide-jumped-25-end-of-2020.html; and MCO 1500.60 Force Preservation Council.
5. Headquarters Marine Corps, “Announcement and Implementation of the Command Individual Risk and Resiliency Assessment System (CIRRAS),” Marines, August 12, 2020, https://www.marines.mil/News/Messages/Messages-Display/Article/2310545/announcement-and-implementation-of-the-command-individual-risk-and-resiliency-a.
6. Marine Corps Systems Command, “Marine Corps Develops Secure App to Monitor Holistic Health and Combat Readiness of Marines,” Marines, February 11, 2021, https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2500948/marine-corps-develops-secure-app-to-monitor-holistic-health-and-combat-readiness.
A lecture to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College
>Dr. Kohn is a Professor Emeritus of History and Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was Chief of Air Force History for the Air Force at the Pentagon, 1981–199l. This article is a revised and updated version of a lecture to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in May 2022.
Thanks, LtCol Anthony, for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure and an honor to speak to the College class, and my thanks for this opportunity. I must note special appreciation to your Dean, Dr. Jonathan Phillips, whom I have known and appreciated for nearly 30 years, from his time in the UNC PhD program in history: one of the finest teachers and most honest, careful, and insightful scholars in my experience. And a personal friend whose advice, on professional issues as well as on what sailboat and bicycles to buy—two items of his special expertise.
In discussing dissent, we are not talking about simply disagreeing; we all disagree about many things, and frequently.1 After all, we are Americans, at least most of you in this audience. Nor is dissent insubordination or disobeying orders, although dissent can lead to such. Dissent is not about defying or disobeying lawful orders.
Where dissent differs from simple disagreement is that dissent implies disagreement with the majority opinion or judgment, with a consensus, or with established authority, or with traditional and commonly accepted institutional norms, or even orders. Fundamentally, dissent is simply thought. Sometimes, with certain people, it can be an attitude. But in your readings and in the common parlance today in civilian society and within the military, both in general and in the Marine Corps in particular, where it has something of a long tradition all the way back to Smedley Butler and Evans Carlson in the 1920s and 1930s, and after, it is accompanied by the voicing of disagreement in private or even publicly—in other words, expressing a contrary opinion. Not remaining silent. And another part of the definition is that dissent implies acting at the risk of self-interest, personal or professional, or both, and thus that it requires some courage. Risking the personal self-interest of a relationship with a boss, or peers or simply professional self-interest in promotion or reputation. As officers, you know and possess physical courage; dissent is something different, something we might call moral courage. We all know, and are educated to, or to be capable of understanding, right from wrong, and have the training, experience, education, or ability in any given situation to figure out what is a proper course of action, or ought to be, even if one is not aware of all the facts, have all the necessary information, the wider perspectives, and necessities that people at higher levels might have.
Every profession or trade expects dissent. Lawyers, doctors, professors, clergy, business executives, supervisors in factories, carpenters, electricians, social workers, nurses, and the like face, on a regular basis, problems that involve discussion with peers, supervisors, subordinates as to how to accomplish a task or solve a problem. We are a practical, pragmatic, problem-solving people and our culture thrives on differing perspectives and ideas. It is built into our culture. Our politics is infused with dissent. One of our norms—respect for alternative viewpoints—is indispensable, although it seems, unfortunately, to have declined. The country was founded on dissent from British policy, laws, and institutions; our religious traditions from earliest times involved dissenting—splits in established churches and even migration, from Roger Williams leaving Puritan Massachusetts to the Mormons leaving upstate New York and Illinois and settling in the Mountain West—and many of you know that earliest Mormon settlements had their own dissenters and breakaway groups.
Think of countries that do not permit, or do not value, dissent that arises from freedom of thought and expression. Their governments are autocracies, arbitrary, capable of terrible mistakes—such as Russia has committed in invading Ukraine—and the militaries of such governments are less flexible, more corrupt. Businesses across the world, in all societies, that are top-down and do not encourage independent thinking and open discussion often waste money, choose wrongly, misjudge the market or the popularity or appropriateness of their products, and flounder.
In the armed forces, where lives can be on the line and the country’s security or even existence can be at stake, dissent seems to me as important as in any walk of life, simply because of the stakes in military service. It seems to me that dissent is not only a moral and ethical imperative, but an obligation. Think of it at the personal level. If you witness a mistake about to be made, a decision that will lead in your judgment to unnecessary death and destruction, to counterproductive results, to self-defeating consequences, do you not have the obligation to raise questions? To stand by without asking for explanation or clarification, or further discussion, can be something of a dereliction … not serving the mission, your superior, or the people for whom you are responsible, very well or even perhaps adequately.
On the other side, in command of others, would you not want your people to express their views, give you the benefit of their experience, knowledge, and judgment in the process of deciding a course of action—if not whether to act, how to act, what are the alternatives and the risks. It seems to me that every supervisor needs to encourage subordinates to make their views known in some way or in some venue, to know that they are heard and considered, that the boss is open to ideas and thoughts that might be out of the box or unpopular. That there will be no penalty for disagreeing with the boss. You must be careful not to intimidate your people into silence. At the beginning of his tenure, as the legendary Army Chief of Staff during World War II, George C. Marshall, reputably told his immediate staff that they were not doing their job. The staff was surprised, some even shocked, and they asked for an explanation. Marshall told them that they had been working with him for a week and not one of them had disagreed with him.2
At least this is the theory of dissent and leadership. I have made it sound simple, cut and dried, no problem. But we all know that the devil is in the details. The realities, as many of you know and probably have experienced, is that dissent is always situational. That is, it depends on a number of factors, and on the circumstances.
First, the situation, the context. Is it at the tactical level, as a junior officer, or higher, at the operational level, or even higher in a geographic combatant command or in Washington or the strategic level? Is it in the field, in combat, in a unit engaged, or at a command post or headquarters, or on a staff, at home or abroad? Is there time to dissent, to discuss? Does it involve allied forces or is it all Americans? If the latter, are other Services involved, or civilians, or local populations and civilians, local leaders or institutions or partners? Is it about a policy or its implementation, say the rules of engagement, established recently or further in the past, by your command, at a close level above you or in Washington far away? Does the dilemma involve a decision or its execution? Is there time to discuss or debate the policy, decision, order, or action? Are lives at stake? Is accomplishing the mission at stake?
In other words, how important is the issue? How consequential, and is the officer in a position, because of experience, knowledge, information, and the like, to make that determination accurately? All of this requires judgment and sensitivity, acute observation, and considerable thought.
Additionally, the people involved in a situation are a crucial consideration. One has to gauge the situation, and how often to dissent. With your peers, it seems easier to dissent. To your superiors, more difficult.
And then there is the problem of how to express dissent. Speaking up, in private or within an organization or up the chain of command, but not out to the public or people who will make your views public seems to me more problematic. That is, you can speak privately one on one, or in a small group with people you know and where there has already, through personal knowledge or time together, a bond of respect and trust. Perhaps a contrary view is best offered in private, with carefully crafted language. One has to read not only the boss, but the context, and one has to make clear, always, that you are subordinate, not just in words but also in tone, body language, and understanding of the issue and the person in charge.
When I worked in the Pentagon in the 1980s, there was a saying, “that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Think about that. Like all aphorisms, it can be untrue or even dangerous. My father, a canny Illinois lawyer with a likeness of Abraham Lincoln on his office wall, loved aphorisms. One he often expressed was in my judgment wrong: “You’re never sorry for what you don’t say.” Well, I disagree with that, particularly on the subject of dissent, as I will explain in a moment. On another aphorism, he was dead right: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” The points are these: what counts are the situation, the circumstances, the importance of the problem, the people one is trying to reach, to engage, to influence, and more.
But if dissent is a moral and a professional obligation, one with personal and professional risks, in a discussion with important consequences, and an officer who disagrees and remains silent: has he or she fulfilled the duty to his or her subordinates and the loyalty to superiors? It is a ticklish question, an important question, but also one that should not be paralyzing either in the abstract, as a matter of theory, or particularly troubling in the everyday carrying out of your duties. It is simply a part of your profession, as it is with all of the professions, with life in general. When to speak up, when to remain silent. Do not make a big deal of it, or think about it all the time, making it a defining element of your officer-ship and relationships with your contemporaries and superiors. It is just a natural part of officer-ship in a professional military service. As one retired four-star admiral said to me recently, “All of us carry out orders we disagree with, occasionally and sometimes often.”3
George C. Marshall was particularly candid about the necessity for choice. He established an independent and candid relationship with Franklin Roosevelt when, newly promoted and appointed Assistant Chief of Staff of the Army in the late 1930s, in a meeting the President made his own views clear and went around the room asking those present if they agreed. All did until Marshall, who told Roosevelt that he most definitely did not agree and why. People there told Marshall his career was over, but Roosevelt respected Marshall’s bravery and honesty, and in 1939 appointed him Chief of Staff over several other higher-ranking people. And for the next six years, when dealing with Roosevelt and with Congress, the general admitted after the war that he always saved voicing his dissents for the most meaningful, important, consequential problems or issues, and let the unimportant pass without offering contrary views, lest he forfeit his credibility or influence with these politicians on matters he considered crucial. “I never haggled with the President,” Marshall remembered. “I swallowed the little things so that I could go to bat on the big ones. I never handled a matter apologetically and I was never contentious.”4
A good example of the necessity for silence occurred at an Army Air Forces base in North Africa in 1943. Years ago in discussion with two retired generals, both four stars, the mission to take out the Axis oil refineries at Ploesti in Rumania came up. Then Col Jacob Smart, a member of the chief of Army Air Forces colonels group at Headquarters in the Pentagon, said he thought up the idea of a low-level bombing mission to avoid the fighters and flak. Hap Arnold, the Army Air Forces chief, accepted the risk and told Smart that since he came up with the idea, he should go over to North Africa and sell it to the crews that would have to fly it. Leon Johnson, the other general, then a colonel and group commander, told Smart and me that he knew the attackers would be shot to pieces and the mission likely would fail—and it did—and Johnson won the Medal of Honor for his bravery and leadership. I asked him why, if he thought it would fail, why did he not refuse to fly the mission or object to it? He was dumbfounded. In the middle of World War II, against a murderous enemy in an existential world war, it never occurred to him to refuse the mission. As far as I know, he did not dissent; to do so, in retrospect, might have unhinged his unit.
I would be particularly careful not to confuse dissent with disobedience and even insubordination, at the various levels of combat and command, as in the reading by Andrew Milburn. He cites personal instances when he disobeyed or violated orders. But every example is from the tactical or operational level, the example of the Prussian officer and king. Milburn avoids the strategic level and above, as when, in an essay over a decade ago, he cited Douglas MacArthur in Korea as an example to be followed.5 This was and is nonsense; MacArthur was guilty of insubordination and disobedience at the policy, strategy, and presidential levels. The necessity for civilian control of the military, so pervasive in the U.S. Constitution and so foundational to the American government, admits of no disobedience. Officers can dissent in discussions with civilian superiors, but in private, speaking up but not out (i.e. to the press or the public), and even in testimony to Congress, senior officers must be extraordinarily careful in discussing their advice to the most senior civilian officials.
As the field officer, and throughout the military in many and perhaps most situations at the tactical and operational level of war, there is the expectation that officers have the discretion to adjust their orders and their decisions, if necessary, to implement the commander’s intent. The Armed Services seem in the last generation to try to locate decisions at the lowest level where commanders on the ground are likely to have the best knowledge to judge what needs to be done to accomplish that intent. Officers must navigate uncertainty and risk, not just in battle, staff work, or in deciding when it is imperative to dissent, to speak up. When it comes down to it, moral courage and physical courage come out of the same wellspring of character and judgment.
One other example. There may be times when orders can be disobeyed and perhaps should be. On a trip to Vietnam some ten years ago, the group I was with visited tunnels used by the Viet Cong near a town northeast of Saigon. One member of our group told us that, as an Air Force major near the end of the war, he had been a forward air controller marking enemy targets on the ground. When an order came through to vector an attack on a certain village because a South Vietnamese brigade was taking fire from it, he refused—twice. He told his superiors that he had flown over it many times, never taking fire, that if the South Vietnamese brigade was being fired upon, it should assault and take the town, not level it and kill all its innocent civilians. The major was accused of insubordination, taken off flying duty, and hauled before the four-star commander of U.S. air forces in Vietnam. His superiors presented the situation to the four-star. Legal orders; clear situation; twice ordered, threatened, consequences made clear. At the hearing, the major explained why he refused the orders to mark the town for destruction. Gen John Vogt, the commander—a distinguished officer, a fighter ace from World War II—then cleared the room and asked the major again, what happened and why. Same story. Vogt pondered, then told the major to return to his unit, that he would be put back on flying duty, and the incident was closed.
Now another commander might have thrown the book at the major. The man had made a moral and professional decision not to kill in his mind innocent people because the South Vietnamese brigade commander did not want to risk his own casualties in a ground assault. You make up your own minds. Was this moral courage? The right choice?
Command at any level is not a popularity contest, even if officer evaluations are being done with 360-degree inputs. Situations are often unclear, information lacking, choices difficult. Just as command is filled with uncertainty, so too is the need and appropriateness for dissent. Officers are often forced to “lead from the middle,” that is to help their superiors get through ambivalent choices, advocate and argue for a course of action that runs against the thinking of a group. Or, as is more often the case, take a decision or order that is disagreeable or that even appears wrong to one’s subordinates, and make the best of it. As one former Marine officer said a few years ago, when at a conference on wars of choice, when asked how one leads people in battle when they think the war is wrong and they oppose it: he answered that he always did everything in his power to accomplish his mission with the least harm to the people under his command and to the Iraqis involved in the action.
There are times when one has to speak truth to power, but as Marshall understood, you cannot do it all the time or you become a nag and a problem. As you rise in rank and responsibility, you will learn the instinct to assess the audience and the situation. Do not take counsel of your fears any more than you do in combat situations. One Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had to deal with a most difficult, frequently abusive, dismissive, and yet indecisive Secretary of Defense, told me that he always wanted the Secretary to be glad when he, the chairman, came into the room, knowing that he needed to be listened to. That it was essential to tell the Secretary what he needed to know even if he did not want to hear it. Marshall said essentially the same, in dealing with FDR: pick spots, save dissent, or unpleasant truth for what really mattered.
Let me close with one more thought. The Marine Corps is going through a set of dramatic changes as we speak. The law of averages tells me that some of them, hopefully, a tiny, tiny few, may be wrong or need adjustment or modification or whatever. This means that Marines at every level must be even more willing to dissent than in “normal” times, lest a mistake from the top—or near it—cause difficulties, even inefficiencies or deaths, that otherwise could be avoided. You who are not Marines in this audience should also take notice, and be prepared to dissent equally. I know the other Services face great challenges brought on by technology—to name only a few, cyber and drones, artificial intelligence, uninhabited ships and planes and vehicles—and a rapidly changing, and threatening, international situation. Not to speak of funding limitations, of changes in our alliances, and in leadership, all of which reverberate downrange. Be prepared for such; be attuned to the contributions you can make not by going along to get along, but by contributing your experience and expertise, reading widely and thinking critically, and dissenting when it is called for, and it can be helpful. Your Service and the country will be the better for it.
1. As a verb, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “dissent” as “to differ in sentiment … To withhold assent or consent from a proposal, etc.; not to assent; to disagree with or object to an action … To think differently.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Dissent.”
2. Marshall and his staff at the beginning of his tenure.
3. Conversation in 2021, repeated in the fall of 2022 in Durham, NC. The Admiral had been a COCOM commander and after retirement, a senior civilian reporting directly to the President.
4. Quoted in Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope, 1939–1942 (New York: The Viking Press, 1965); and Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General (New York: The Viking Press, 1963).
5. Andrew Milburn, “When Not to Obey Orders,” War on the Rocks, July 8, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/07/when-not-to-obey-orders; Thomas E. Ricks, “Richard Kohn Fires a Warning Flare about a Joint Forces Quarterly Article,” FP, September 29, 2010, https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/09/29/richard-kohn-fires-a-warning-flare-about-a-joint-force-quarterly-article; Andrew R. Milburn, “Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional,” Joint Force Quarterly 59 (4th Quarter 2010).
>Col Tiger is an F/A-18 Pilot and the Commanding Officer of Marine Aviation Training Support Group 22 in Corpus Christi, TX.
>>1stLt Grier is a Villanova University graduate and is awaiting jet training in Kingsville, TX.
>>>2ndLt Appel is a Naval Academy graduate and a prior-service Nuclear Electricians Mate. She is awaiting primary flight training in Corpus Christi, TX.
Marines Awaiting Training
In naval aviation, there is a fictional character named Grandpa Pettibone. Borne out of desperation in World War II, this grumpy old codger would impart aviation knowledge to his readers with cartoon drawings and sarcastic humor in a desperate attempt to reduce flying accidents.1 Every naval aviator since 1942 has learned some vital lesson from the cantankerous, pithy, and humorous old Grandpa Pettibone.2
If Gramps saddled up with his cane and book o’ knowledge to tour our training bases, he would probably say, “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat Devildogs! Why aren’t your Marines awaiting training using this time wisely to further their professional development?”3
Commandant Berger would agree with Gramps. The Commandant’s five priority focus areas include force design, warfighting, education and training, core values, and command and leadership. Our Marines awaiting training focus on all five priority areas, with particular attention directed toward education and training.
From commissioning to winging as a fleet aviator, Marine student pilots can spend two years or more in a Marines Awaiting Training status. As Grandpa Pettibone says and the Commandant directs, this time must be used wisely. Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21 (MATSG-21) in Pensacola and MATSG-22 in Corpus Christi are developing unique, low-cost, low-overhead training events that intellectually develop Marines. Some of these events may also be useful to other commands with large student populations awaiting training.
The Marine Corps is a learning organization.4 Marine Corps Order 1553.4B states individual Marines are responsible for their own learning, and it is incumbent upon commanders to foster a culture of lifelong learning. This intellectual ability is cultivated through “active engagement with the brightest minds and the most challenging material, which forces Marines to contend with their assumptions, perceptions and concepts.”5
To foster a culture of lifelong learning, MATSG-22 executes a syllabus that teaches lieutenants to read critically, write articulate essays on their subject matter, and brief peers on the lessons derived from various works. Distilled from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps War College syllabi, the MATSG syllabus focuses on both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The final module focuses on military aviation history. Each module begins with a war college-produced lecture, available online and taught by resident experts that describe each war in detail. Students then read, write and think critically about lessons from the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war.
The background students receive in reading, writing, and speaking critically about military history will support them throughout their careers. Confidence when briefing aviation operations as a captain, credibility with overseas partners as a major, historically based planning as a lieutenant colonel, and strategic-level depth and insight as a colonel are only some of the positive outcomes our students will achieve with their focus on critical reading, writing, and speaking.
To complement this intensive reading program, MATSG has experimented with critical thought workshops. Instructors and students recently participated in a two-week workshop in a live classroom setting with the Ground Truth Design Company, a private-industry program designed to equip leaders with tools, doctrine, and techniques to think critically and better solve complex problems. The initial results are promising.
Instructors and students were broken into five teams, each with a different problem to address. Using the techniques provided by the instructors, our teams set to work and contacted industry experts, general officers, and even one Congressional Staff who agreed to take our student’s proposal and incorporate their solutions into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024. The success our students achieved exceeded all expectations in many cases. These lessons will serve our students well throughout their careers as they address complex problems in the Indo-Pacific region, Force Design implementation, naval integration, and more.
To complement the intellectual development program, MATSG has implemented a three-tiered system that trains students in the tactical application of their profession.
Our primary tactical training period is called MATSG-22 University, focused strictly on flight training. This week-long course is taught by recent flight school graduates to those awaiting flight training. This course prepares students for the rigors of flight school using books, lectures, chalk-talk, and simulator events. The desired end state of MATSG-22 University is to reduce time-to-train while producing higher quality aviators outside the official period of instruction. As with the intellectual development program, this is a low-cost, low-overhead, repeatable event taught by peers under the supervision of fleet instructors. The course delivery method also demonstrates a transition from the industrial-aged model of learning towards a student-centered, 21st-century learning style supported by Training and Education Command.
Battlefield staff rides, museum visits, and case studies provide the second tier of tactical training evolutions. The Marine Corps Association produces excellent military case studies, ranging from Mogadishu to Guadalcanal to the Chosin Reservoir. Students are selected to lead various case studies, leveraging the Marine Corps Association’s pre-built case studies that describe the historical significance, tactical importance, and strategic implications of each battle. Each package includes detailed maps with the scheme of maneuver and terrain depicted with recommended articles, podcasts, videos, and books that complement the case study. Similar to the critical reading, writing, and speaking from the intellectual development module, students gain experience briefing and leading events among their peers, with guidance and structure provided by the instructor cadre.
The third tier of the tactical training module is Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS). Recently implemented and with direct assistance from the Commandant, Assistant Commandant, and Commanding Generals of Training and Education Command and Training Command, this program will aid students in completing their professional military education requirements while awaiting flight training. This program has enormous potential for newly winged aviators entering the fleet as senior first lieutenants and junior captains who must focus on the tactical employment of their aircraft while expeditiously completing their PME requirements prior to the promotion board. To compensate for each student’s lack of real-world experience in the course, the Expeditionary Warfare School instructor selected senior Marines to augment the class so that students can leverage their experience. This “hybrid” approach to Expeditionary Warfare School will serve aviators and the Marine Corps well.
“We must elevate our standards and deliver a more capable Marine to the FMF, while also incentivizing and expanding MOS-specific development opportunities afforded throughout the Marine’s career.”6 MATSG-22 turned commander’s intent into action and sent students around the country and the world to support individual professional development while simultaneously supporting fleet commanders in accomplishing their mission.
One of the most anticipated events in MATSG’s arsenal to expand career developmental opportunities is the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course, held semi-annually at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One, in Arizona. Here, students gain an appreciation for graduate-level aviation employment as they observe flight line operations, live ordnance procedures, classified briefs and debriefs, realtime execution from secure facilities, and more. With great support from the MAWTS-1 Commander and his staff, and with proper risk-mitigation measures in place, this evolution is the most sought opportunity among all flight students awaiting training.
Other opportunities for temporary duty exist on a case-by-case basis. For example, a Japanese-speaking Marine flight student recently served as an interpreter for Marine Forces Japan, enhancing joint interoperability between U.S. and Japanese naval forces. MATSG routinely pairs flight students with fleet units who can effectively leverage and employ their unique skills. Fleet units in need of temporary and specific skills are encouraged to contact MATSG-21 and MATSG-22 who can properly vet its 450 students awaiting training to support your mission.
Lastly, MATSG-22 began a monthly program where flight students interact with the Joint Staff J-3 via the Secret video teleconference network. These classified briefings from some of the Pentagon’s resident experts provide valuable insight for young officers interested in European, Middle Eastern, and Asian operations. This interaction sparks students’ intellectual curiosity and provides a frame of reference for the world they are about to enter once they graduate from flight training.
It is important to note the tremendous support MATSG receives from senior leaders, MAWTS-1, the Joint Staff, Marine Aircraft Groups, the Marine Corps Association, and others that assist in mentoring, instructing, employing, empowering, motivating, coaching, and teaching young flight students awaiting training. Their efforts help develop a student’s intellectual curiosity and support critical thinking and builds the bench of future leaders needed to fight and win the Nation’s wars.
The Marine Corps requires leaders at all levels who can achieve intellectual overmatch against our adversaries.7 Names such as Alfred T. Mahan, U.S. Grant, John J. Pershing, George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, John A. Lejeune, Matthew Ridgeway, O.P. Smith, and Colin Powell are noted for their ability to devise, implement and execute military operations at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. Today’s Marines must learn to do the same. MATSG-22 supports this endeavor with intellectual development exercises, tactical training evolutions, and real-world exposure events within a 21st-century learning construct. Grandpa Pettibone would be proud to know our young leaders are dedicated, disciplined, and focused on professional and intellectual development while awaiting flight training.
1. CAPT Rosario Rausa, “Jumpin’ Josephat! 50 Years of Gramps” Naval Aviation News (Jan–Feb 1993).
4. Gen David H. Berger, Training & Education 2030 (Washington, DC: January 2023).
>BGen Walsh is currently serving as the Commander of Marine Corps Systems Command.
“All of our analysis leads us unequivocally to the conclusion that the defense acquisition system has basic problems that must be corrected. These problems are deeply entrenched and have developed over several decades from an increasingly bureaucratic and overregulated process. As a result, all too many of our weapons systems cost too much, take too long to develop, and, by the time they are fielded, incorporate obsolete technology.” —1986 Packard Commission Report
Never has the Demand for Faster Delivery of Capabilities Been Greater
Global competitors are developing and fielding capabilities that challenge our Nation’s competitive advantage. The advancement of near-peer adversaries, along with the tremendous pace at which technology is progressing, demands rapid modernization of our capabilities for the future operating environment. To contribute to the joint fight as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness, we must be able to compete, deter, and facilitate escalation in an increasingly contested battlespace. Yet, despite the urgency of the geopolitical situation we face, the DOD has struggled to accelerate the fielding of cutting-edge technology to provide high-impact operational solutions for the warfighter.
There are Inherent Challenges to Acceleration
Our acquisition system (inclusive of our requirements and resourcing processes) has long been a source of tremendous frustration. It has been characterized as sluggish, rigid, inadaptable, and unresponsive. Even 37 years after the Packard Commission identified many of the issues that impede warfighting innovation, a pernicious set of underlying problems often prevent us from fielding fully capable equipment, with mature sustainment systems, in the time frame needed by our operational fleet. Too often, we take opposing sides: an exasperated fleet staunchly defending poorly defined, shifting requirements on one side versus a bureaucratic acquisition system mired in risk aversion and a culture of compliance on the other. Add in a multi-year planning, programming, budgeting, and execution (PPBE) process and a regulatory system optimized for oversight vice responsiveness, and our Marines are left wanting.
A great deal of work is being done to address the large, systemic issues. Congress has already granted additional authorities, such as the middle-tier of acquisition and the software acquisition pathway, that the DOD has incorporated in the adaptive acquisition framework and that the Marine Corps is already using. A congressional commission on PPBE reform and an Atlantic Council Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption will provide recommendations that may ultimately result in additional acceleration opportunities such as more rapid requirements validation for mature capabilities, broader capability-based budget line items, and adjusting reprogramming authorities to allow additional flexibility in the year of execution. But even in the current environment, there is a way to accelerate.
“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” —Gen George Patton
We Can Go Faster by Balancing Risk, Tilting More Toward Schedule
One of the basic principles of project management is balancing the triple constraints of cost, time, and requirement scope. Optimizing for one inherently creates risk or compromise in another. Recognizing the deep-rooted friction that exists in the acquisition system, we can meet the challenge of accelerating capabilities to the fleet by tilting these constraints in favor of schedule, making well-informed trades, and accepting prudent risks in the other areas.
Program managers are incentivized to reduce financial risk. Programs are regularly measured against financial execution benchmarks and under-execution could mean a loss of program funds. Of course, it goes without saying that our acquisition professionals are bound to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. However, that does not necessarily mean the lowest cost or lowest financial risk. The taxpayers, and our Marines, need and want the best warfighting value for every dollar. That may mean paying a premium for more engineers to accelerate a design or moving engineers from a less critical program to accelerate a priority program. It could mean making an expensive capital investment to speed production or adopting a contract strategy that incentivizes industry to go faster, even if it increases the financial risk to the government. In a time of constrained resources, this will require close collaboration with resourcing organizations to make the necessary budgetary accommodations.
Our Marines deserve the very best, cutting-edge technology. That axiom, while appropriate and well-intentioned, often drives a dogged reluctance to accept any technical risk. This can manifest as high-end, unique requirements that may be unachievable without significant developmental efforts (i.e. time) or as a reluctance to field a system that satisfies 80 percent of requirements now as a minimum viable product with an executable plan for iterative maturation. In the acquisition community, this can take the form of extended test programs that seek to reduce uncertainty to a minuscule level, or application of strict specifications to uphold compliance, without critical thought to validate the warfighting applicability of those specifications. For the fleet, accelerated fielding may imply supply chain risk and reduced initial readiness as the industrial base builds to full capacity. Technical risk must be accepted thoughtfully, especially where safety and security are at stake. However, a well-informed collaboration can allow smart technical trades for the sake of getting the capability to our Marines as quickly as possible.
Enable Well-Informed, Collaborative Trades, Deferring to Users
Decisions such as these are made every day across the requirements and acquisition communities. Too often, those trades are made by well-intentioned stakeholders who may not have full visibility of second-order effects or the correct perspective to appropriately weigh considerations. The key to acceleration is to enable fully informed trades, at the right level, deferring the final vote to those that will have to live with the results of those trades—the operational Marines.
Close, transparent collaboration between designers and developers, resource managers, program managers, acquisition professionals, users, and requirements owners throughout the entire process is essential to fully inform and define the decision space for the ultimate decision authority. Tilting the constraint equation toward schedule will require trust and a yes, if approach by all stakeholders.
For our acquisition corps, this will mean pushing back against the compliance culture—reducing bureaucracy, documents, and reviews by understanding what is truly essential to delivering capability and tailoring out those that are obsolete, redundant, or unnecessary. There will be resistance from those who own the processes that have been abridged. Avoid the temptation to acquiesce to this risk aversion—know where boundaries are and why, push through toward them, and when you get there, elevate your best assessment of the risks and opportunities of pushing beyond. Do not take a no from someone who cannot give you a yes. Reject the attitudes of the guardians of sacred specifications or processes. In execution, embrace experimentation and prototyping. Put early iterations in the hands of Marines to gain feedback and use all available authorities to optimize acquisition and contracting strategies to incentivize industry for speed and agility to incorporate that feedback. Do not go so far as to become a cheerleader for your program but embrace our role as the truth-tellers who can present operators with the information they need to make well-informed decisions to enable speed.
For resource managers, embrace funding strategies consistent with risk-based acquisition decisions. Help defend these strategies during the planning, programming, and budgeting processes. Advocate for greater flexibility in budget execution and partner with requirement owners and program managers to adjust resources when circumstances change.
For requirement owners and fleet users, resist the urge to demand satisfaction of all requirements in one big bang for fear of never fully achieving the desired capability in a resource-constrained, elongated traditional development program. Specify a minimum viable capability or product—the smallest product that provides usable warfighting capability—and plan for refinement of requirements and maturation of technology over time. Engage with developers early and define requirements collaboratively to ensure they’re achievable within the time and resources allocated. Be prepared to consider commercial or joint solutions that may save significant time but may not meet some of the niche requirements we sometimes levy as Marines. Recognize that there will be hard decisions about the prioritization of resources between many important programs.
Examples of these types of decisions are:
A partner’s tactical vehicle is already in production in large quantities (i.e. lower cost) and is available now, but does not meet the full fording requirement of the Marine Corps. A new development program will require tens of millions of dollars of development over several years to field a new fully compliant vehicle. Which vehicle does the Marine Corps buy?
A commercial UAS is available now, at a low cost, but does not meet all of the cybersecurity requirements of the Marine Corps. Does the Marine Corps buy that system or invest in a secure new development?
A new system has completed testing and meets all technical requirements. However, parts demand history is scant, and suppliers have not built robust supply chains to ensure the availability of parts. Does the Marine Corps field the system or wait until there is higher confidence that readiness can be maintained?
A program has verified by testing that a new system operates reliably and safely throughout 90 percent of its operational envelope. Clearing the remaining 10 percent will take an additional nine months of testing at a significant cost. Should the Marine Corps field the system with a restricted envelope, accept the risk of operating in the unknown region, or delay fielding until testing can clear the full envelope?
In reality, the choices are rarely that simple. There are multiple intertwined dependencies that must be considered. The key is to have the right stakeholders represented in the discussion. For senior leaders, actively encourage this collaborative approach. Reward creative problem-solving and measured risk-taking. Make time for you and your Marines to participate in this vital work. Send your best and brightest—a small cadre of acquisition Marines at Marine Corps Systems Command and Naval Air Systems Command, working closely with requirements Marines at Capabilities Development Directorate, are making tactical-level decisions with strategic impacts similar to these every day. In the spirit of talent management, invest in an acquisition corps and requirements community that you have confidence in to inform and adjudicate these trades.
While this approach will not address the larger, systemic PPBE and regulatory challenges, it does provide an avenue to move faster in the modernization of our Corps. Proactively engaging in well-informed trade-offs and risk management in favor of schedule will allow us to put new capabilities in the hands of our Marines more quickly than our traditional approach. The Nation’s ability to meet the demands of the global environment and the viability of the Marine Corps as an enabler to the Joint Force count on us.
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.” —John F. Kennedy