October 2018

Integration across Domains

Information, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance task organization
Volume 102, Issue 10

Maj Jonathan M. George

Christopher Woodbridge
The lines between FORECON and battalion reconnaissance have been blurred.
Photo by Cpl Miquel Rosales.

2018 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest: First-Place Winner

Charles Darwin is often credited with saying, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

The Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC) is the capstone concept “intended to generate professional debate and discussion about our future challenges.”1 It is written from the perspective of the Future Operating Environment (FOE) 2015-2025: Implications for Marines, published by the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, which identified five key drivers of change in how we organize, train, and equip the Marine Corps: complex terrain, technology proliferation, information as a weapon, a battle of signatures, and an increasingly contested maritime domain.

The Problem

Relative to the current and future operating environments, the Marine Corps’ task organization for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and information operations (IO) is neither effective nor efficient in achieving the assigned mission-essential tasks. This article serves to challenge Marine Corps doctrine by assessing the negative ramifications of past and present task organization models of ISR and IO while suggesting solutions that, if exploited, could increase the overall effectiveness of the Marine Corps’ ISR and IO.

The Proposal

The Marine Corps should form a MEF Information, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (I2SR) Group consisting of units directly responsible for I2SR in order to synchronize its operations across the domains, gain unity of effort, and support the MAGTF commander’s decision-making process. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1.

Current Task Organization of ISR

The MAGTF will continue to be the primary organization for Marine Corps missions across the range of military operations. The key benefit of the MAGTF is the unity of command under the command element; however, there is no unity or synchronization of ISR and IO units at the MAGTF level. The Marine Corps has several units assigned the mission-essential task of collecting information to be used as intelligence, including reconnaissance battalions, force reconnaissance (FORECON) companies, light-armored reconnaissance battalions, Marine unmanned aerial vehicle (VMU) squadrons, intelligence battalions, and radio battalions. These units and their assets are currently echeloned at different levels across the MAGTF, reporting to different commanders with different missions, intents, and focuses. This results in an unsynchronized, ineffective, and inefficient effort that goes against the principles of unity of command and unity of effort.

The MEF Information Group (MIG)

In the fall of 1988, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Alfred M. Gray Jr., directed an effort which eventually led to the creation of the Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Intelligence Group (SRIG), a unit specifically constructed around a command, control, communications, and intelligence architecture.2 This group originally consisted of a radio battalion, an air naval gun liaison company (ANGLICO), a FORECON company, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) element, and counterintelligence and intelligence units. The SRIG was eventually replaced by the MEF Headquarters Group (MHG), which possessed the same units as the SRIG and had a similar mission statement. Recently, the Marine Corps has redesignated the MHG into the MIG, carrying with it all of the units that formed the MHG along with some minor additions in IO capabilities.

The MIG, like its predecessors, will struggle for the same reason: it possesses a broad mission statement built around the units at hand; it is not a unit built around a mission requirement. The law enforcement battalion, MEF Support Battalion, and ANGLICO currently fall underneath the MIG simply because there is no clear alternative. A command possessing subordinate units not directly contributing to a clear and validated mission statement is a distraction to the commander and a source of self-induced friction. These units more accurately fall underneath a supporting mission, not an I2SR mission. They should form a MEF Support Group separate from the MEF I2SR Group. We must not allow administrative efficiencies to dictate mission effectiveness.

The establishment of the MIG is a step in the right direction, however, as IO is an integral function of the MAGTF. The next step to truly enhance effectiveness in the IO and ISR domains is to transform the MIG into the MEF I2SR Group. It must be given a clear mission statement based on I2SR tasks and must be task organized with units that directly execute or contribute to those tasks. Within the current MIG construct, only the intelligence battalion, radio battalion, communications battalion, and communications strategy and operations company meet those criteria; the law enforcement battalion, MEF Support Battalion, and ANGLICO do not.

Reconnaissance and VMU Units

There is little or no mention of ground reconnaissance in the MOC, yet ground reconnaissance is of vital importance and must be brought back into the discussion for our future. It is the only undisputable, persistent, all-weather, all-terrain ISR capability within the Marine Corps. The roles of FORECON and battalion reconnaissance have blurred in recent years because of a number of factors. In reality, the only current difference between the two is their command relationships—FORECON in direct support of the MEF and battalion reconnaissance operationally controlled by the division. A reconnaissance unit will conduct both amphibious and ground reconnaissance prior to any forcible entry operations. The littoral battlespace during Phase 0 and Phase 1 will be owned by the MEF or MEB in a MAGTF area of operations or joint special operations area. Currently, FORECON companies lack the capacity to service all of the MAGTF’s reconnaissance requirements, and many operational plans already factor battalion reconnaissance in support of those requirements. This proposal calls for the merger of battalion reconnaissance and FORECON companies, to form a single battalion under the MEF I2SR Group with the more appropriate title of a FORECON battalion. In effect, this proposal eliminates the nomenclatures of amphibious reconnaissance battalions, or battalion reconnaissance, and FORECON companies.

The VMU falls under the MAW because it is an aircraft and is best supported under the umbrella of MAW logistics. Yet it is the sole platform in the ACE that provides only one of the six functions of Marine aviation: air reconnaissance.3 The SRIG possessed a UAS element because it was primarily responsible for conducting reconnaissance. The VMU mission states that it provides aerial reconnaissance to support the MAGTF and not the MAW, so why does it not belong to a subordinate commander solely tasked with reconnaissance? We must not allow logistical efficiencies to dictate mission effectiveness.

Similar Visions

In October 2016, RAND Corporation’s National Defense Research Institute published a mission analysis paper with the purpose of developing courses of action through which the Corps’ expeditionary ground reconnaissance units could support Expeditionary Force 21. Out of the four courses of action presented, three of them called for the alignment of ISR units under a single commander.4 The commonality of these recommendations provides the Marine Corps with an answer to the problem, and it should be exploited.

The German Army ISR Corps employs this principle and has a task organization similar to the MEF I2SR Group proposal. The U.S. Army is currently working toward developing brigade combat teams that operate in the multi-domain battle. It is likely that they will come to a similar conclusion of task organizing IO and ISR into units that can thrive in multiple domains.

Proposal Impacts and Benefits

Intelligence is generated to support the MAGTF commander’s decision-making process. With all MAGTF-level I2SR under a single commander focused on the primary task of I2SR, unity of command and unity of effort are achieved, and forces can more effectively synchronize and collaborate efforts to facilitate the MAGTF commander’s requirements. By separating units according to mission type, we also reduce the friction self-imposed by administrative constraints. Unit effectiveness for both the MEF I2SR Group and MEF Support Group will increase, as neither will be strained by a broad and unfocused mission statement.

Second, this proposal assures that the Marine Corps will be postured, in terms of task organization, for the next large-scale engagement. I2SR capabilities will first be employed by the MAGTF commander prior to any follow-on operations or subordination of assets. The SRIG was a concept before its time, but now we have the technology, means, and requirements to realize it. We learn from our past failures by providing I2SR units with a clear mission statement and proper task organization.

Third, this proposal eliminates false training presets. The GCE currently has the luxury of several reconnaissance units directly under its command. Light-armored reconnaissance battalions serve a variety of roles other than reconnaissance and so should remain under the GCE commander. However, this is not the case for battalion reconnaissance. As previously stated, battalion reconnaissance and FORECON units support the MAGTF through Phases 0 and 1. The GCE thus trains with a handicap, comfortable with battalion reconnaissance teams organic to the GCE and often attached to subordinate commanders. But that is not how we will initially go into combat. By aligning those units back into the MAGTF, we can facilitate training the way we plan to fight. We must task organize and train in garrison the way we task organize and fight overseas. This, of course, does not preclude the GCE employment of I2SR assets, as the MAGTF commander can attach I2SR units to subordinate commands based on mission requirements.

Fourth, the proposed structure supports the formation of smaller MAGTFs more effectively than the current model. Rather than detaching elements from the MIGs and reconnaissance battalions to the MAGTF command element, the I2SR Group commander forms a smaller replica of itself—an I2SR battalion for a MEB, or an I2SR company for a MEU/SPMAGTF. Both the I2SR battalion and I2SR company would possess an organic command structure with subordinate units drawn from each one of the subordinate elements of the I2SR Group. The effectiveness of MAGTF I2SR operations increases because all of the units derive from the same I2SR Group and have already built relationships through common training and garrison activities.

Fifth, by merging FORECON companies and battalion reconnaissance into a single FORECON battalion under the MEF I2SR Group, the Marine Corps enables the focused and efficient sourcing, integration, and employment of manned-unmanned teaming in I2SR operations. The authors of the February 2016 Gazette article “Manned/Unmanned Teaming to Transform the MAGTF” rightfully conclude that manned-unmanned teaming will create the conditions for our future success.5 The MEF IS2R Groups can advocate and synchronize manned-unmanned teaming projects within the Marine Corps ISR Enterprise (MCISRE) and their subordinate end users, bringing 21st century I2SR to the battlefield.

Finally, this proposal facilitates more effective integration and collaboration with the MCISRE and Marine Corps Information Operations Center. The I2SR Group will serve as the conduit that links institutional levels of ISR and IO to the operational levels on the battlefield and the joint force.

Bottom Line

There are gaps in Marine Corps ISR and IO because of improper task organization, and these gaps will present themselves in the future if the status quo remains. The Marine Corps must adapt in these domains in order to thrive in the 21st century battlefield, for if it does not, we risk losing critical advantages necessary for victory.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, The Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century, (Washington, DC: September 2016).

2. Marine Corps University, The Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Intelligence Concept and Organization, (Quantico, VA: 23 March 1992).

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 3-2, Aviation Operations, (Washington, DC: 9 May 2000).

4. RAND Corporation, Expeditionary Ground Reconnaissance: A Mission Analysis, (Santa Monica, CA: October 2016).

5. LtCol Kevin F. Murray, LtCol A. Ché Bolden, Maj Scott Cuomo, and Maj James Foley, “Manned/Unmanned Teaming to Transform the MAGTF: Deus ex Machina,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: June 2016).

Capt Hanks is an Infantry Officer with the additional MOS of Reconnaissance Officer. He was a student at EWS when he wrote this article.