The Role of Logistics in Deterrence

Facing a peer competitor
>LtCol Gillett is Combat Engineer Officer who is currently assigned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a CMC Fellow. He was previously assigned to 3d MLG, III MEF as the Commanding Officer of 9th Engineer Support Battalion.


The most pronounced strategic military impact of the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union on the United States was the shift from maritime, air, and space superiority to one of supremacy. Multi-domain supremacy ushered in a period where the United States sat at the apex of a unipolar global system defined by an absence of existential security threats and a lack of comparable nation-state competitors, which led to a focus on crisis response and irregular warfare. In the last decade, the rise of regional challengers in Europe and the Pacific ended America’s “unipolar moment” of unilateral military supremacy.Strategically, this shift caused a reassessment of military strategy, organization, and doctrine and reoriented strategic policy from an exclusive focus on expeditionary deterrence to a more traditional balance between expeditionary response and nation-state deterrence. In the case of the Pacific, the United States faces an adversary with the capability to disrupt, deter, and limit the United States’ military effectiveness while offsetting other elements of national power that have been foundational to America’s grand strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union.2

The United States military is in an inter-war period that, like the 1930s pre-World War II era and 1945 to 1949 pre-Cold War era, is focused on developing capabilities necessary to meet global and regional challenges. Modernization has rightly focused on command and control, intelligence, fires, and maneuver in developing a force capable of deterring challenges to the status quo, providing flexible options for crisis response, and, if necessary, defeating an adversary in conflict.Though there has been substantive progress in the development of these capabilities, recent calls from Marine Corps and Joint Force senior leadership for modernizing the joint logistics enterprise reflects an acknowledgment that a relative combat power gap exists between strategic ways and means due to an inability to deliver and sustain capability in uncertain or hostile environments.4

Logistics modernization through investments in contested logistics and a global positioning network offers a measurable means to influence and deter peer adversary activities in the region by reinforcing strategic perceptions of credible military capability while demonstrating commitment to the defense of regional allies and partners.Logistics forces have the organic means to be a decisive capability in maintaining operational access and generating flexible response options in a competitive campaign against a capable nation-state actor. The artful application of the functions of logistics, fused with other joint capabilities, offers opportunities to conduct operations that can persist, shape, and deter without the escalatory signaling associated with the deployment of kinetic capabilities. The non-escalatory, dual purpose, and soft power nature of logistics in competition offers latent deterrence options that have been undervalued in the era of expeditionary deterrence but are critical to future strategic and operational success because the presumption of uncontested operational access to a crisis area has been directly challenged creating substantive strategic risk.

This article advocates that logistics forces bring credibility to general and immediate deterrence by ensuring that military forces deployed in response to a crisis have the speed, endurance, and capability to influence an adversary’s risk calculations, reinforcing strategic signaling. Additionally, logistics forces provide unique dual-purpose capabilities that reinforce the application of other strategic tools and build relationships with allies and partners in a manner that makes the United States the partner of choice with domestic audiences.

Logistics in Immediate Deterrence
United States’ strategic deterrence failed in March 1950 with Joseph Stalin’s communication to North Korean Kim II Sung, “The Soviet Union has decided also to satisfy fully this request (invasion of South Korea) of yours.”6 This approval ultimately resulted in the North Korean invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950 and was based on the perception that in the unlikely event that the United States responded to the invasion, there would be insufficient time, based on United States military capability, to stop the North Korean offensive and was thus the invasion was a perceived fait accompli.7

Conversely, the United States achieved strategic success during Operation Vigilant Warrior in 1994 because of a three-year investment in regional forward operating sites and cooperative security locations facilitated by low visibility and persistent deployments of support forces. These investments resulted in the development of mature infrastructure and robust regional stocks that were supported by the appropriate experts to operationalize those capabilities in crisis.These factors directly enabled the deployment and in-theater equipping of 4,000 combat troops in two days, with a further 36,000 moving to the region within three days, in response to the movement of two Iraqi Republican Guard Divisions to the Kuwaiti border. The speed of the response, compared to the 30 days for deployment required during the Gulf War, surprised Saddam Hussein and was the “primary source of U.S. deterrent power” in coercing, through signals, Iraqi withdrawal and de-escalation.9

Since 1945, the United States has been strategically involved in 368 international crisis events that met three criteria in the International Crisis Behavior database:

  1. A threat to one or more basic values;
  2. An awareness of finite time for response to a value threat, and
  3. A heightened probability of involvement in military hostilities.10

In 52 cases, the United States overtly deployed conventional military forces with the result of de-escalation or termination of the crisis in 73 percent of cases, escalation of the crisis in 15 percent of cases, and no definitive impact on the crisis in 11 percent of cases.

While speed is relative to the perceived threat and the rate at which a crisis unfolds, time is a finite and decisive resource in crisis response. On average, the speed at which forces were deployed from the initiation of the crisis to the first arrival of forces into the crisis area, using the International Crisis Behavior database, was 35.15 days for crises that resulted in de-escalation. In contrast, the speed of the crisis deployment was 57 days for cases that resulted in escalation.11 These findings, combined with historical case studies, indicate that speed is an unambiguous tool to signal capability and credibility. Furthermore, a critical enabler to facilitate speed is investment in strategic transportation, regional infrastructure, and regional pre-positioning as was demonstrated in the dataset by a mean speed of 48.71 days for deployments to immature theaters as compared with a mean of 14.88 days to a mature theater where personnel, infrastructure, and pre-positioned stocks were available in the crisis region.12 Thus, in all 52 cases, previous investments in transportation, pre-positioning, and forward positioning provided the foundation that enabled or inhibited the composition, speed, and influenced the credibility of crisis deployments.13

A robust sustainment network signals credible capability to an adversary and credible commitment to allies and partners. A crisis scenario in the Western Pacific would likely require forward forces to disperse regionally to act as the stand-in force until reinforced through global deployments.14 Based on current forces in the area, forward-positioned ground forces will require initial transportation of between 27,000 and 36,000 tons of personnel, equipment, and supplies regionally.15 Following dispersal, these forces would require between 300 and 600 tons of fuel, water, food, and ammunition daily for ground forces, with an additional 2,500 to 3,500 tons, mainly fuel and ammunition, required daily for aviation formations.16 The additional strain placed on strategic and operational transportation assets, moving forces, equipment, and supplies to reinforce the region magnifies the significance of logistical requirements. A significant crisis deployment from the continental United States, using five divisions and ten air wings as a baseline, would require the movement of roughly one million tons and would require, given optimal conditions, one month or more to complete.17

Logistics investments in general deterrence proportionally reduce, but do not eliminate, the strain on strategic and operational transportation systems in crisis through pre-positioning and forward positioning. Infrastructure, supply, equipment, and sustainment investments in volatile regions allow for the rapid deployment of credible forces that arrive with the necessary support to endure and deter immediately, increasing strategic credibility in crisis. Additionally, the proportional reduction of strategic transportation requirements transitions deployments in mature regions from expeditionary response to conventional strategic response where the threat and an adversary’s access to maritime, air, and space domains is at risk, improving the deterrence credibility and capability and reducing the probability of escalation.

Perceptions of Military Credibility and Capability
A lack of investment in sustainment creates a strategic and operational capability and credibility gap in the Western Pacific, undermining deterrence. A 2023 study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies reveals a series of salient tensions in response to a Taiwan scenario that presents significant risks in escalation and conflict. The two most significant findings related to logistics were the United States must respond rapidly and with its full capabilities to prevent Taiwan from falling, and movement of the intra-theater lift of forces, equipment, and supplies became untenable based on China’s anti-access capabilities early in the conflict, resulting in an abrupt reduction in the capability of combat forces.18 Thus, speed and endurance are two significant factors in the credibility of deterrence and effectiveness in combat against a peer adversary and are qualities that are directly shaped by logistics posture.

Investment in logistics modernization and capabilities in strategically contested regions offers a means to provide latent deterrence through the placement of multipurpose capabilities, which can be overt or concealed, and enhance capability across the spectrum of conflict without the impediment of being explicitly threatening or escalatory.19 The Joint Force has already begun this process through investments such as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative allotment of three and a half billion dollars into the development of main operating bases and the one-hundred-million-dollar investment in Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites in the Philippines.20 However, these investments provide a linear capability that does not align with the envisioned network and require operational and tactical investments to create a multi-tiered strategic and operational mosaic.21

Forward positioning of logistics forces and investments in a distributed network offers a means to reduce the initial burden on transportation networks during crisis deployments, increasing the speed of the deployment and thus bringing credibility to strategic signals. While agreements with partners and allies will not afford unfettered access, investments reduce transportation requirements, generate flexibility, and provide endurance that is not solely dependent on strategic and operational transportation capabilities.

Support to Allies and Partners
The Marine Corps stand-in-force concept emphasizes the necessity for a persistent presence in a contested area to disrupt an adversary in competition and form the “leading edge of a maritime defense in depth” in crisis and conflict.22 Access to contested areas is the core of the concept, with the most significant assumption being that political elites and populations of allied and partner nations will permit access to sovereign territories. Historically, the success or failure of basing agreements with allies depends on available resources, shared threat perceptions, and the cost to political leaders by the domestic audiences.23 Tactical formations offer a means to provide access by leveraging capabilities that do not present a similar threat perception, compared to traditional combat formations, to domestic and international audiences, enabling persistent access to locations inaccessible to other conventional formations.

Domestic audiences will fundamentally view infrastructure construction and repair, medical and dental services, water production and distribution, transportation, and other capabilities differently than combat formations and thus offer alternative and multi-functional solutions in developing agreements. For example, the April 2023 United States-Philippine bilateral announcement of four additional Enhanced Cooperation Agreement sites drew domestic condemnation, leading to statements by senior Philippine officials that the bases would be used primarily for logistics support.24 While a review of 1,430 media reports from February 2023 to August 2023 related to United States-Philippine agreements and regional geopolitical conditions reveals a balanced domestic debate, statements and reporting by leaders indicate that capabilities that are directly applicable to such military operations as humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response stimulates an alternative narrative and represent an opportunity to align operational and strategic ways, means, and ends.

Implications to the Logistics Enterprise
Campaigning. Nested with stand-in force and Joint Force requirements, logistics forces link campaign phases by providing a persistent presence that builds, maintains, and supports strategic and operational investments. Construction of infrastructure by engineers, embedding medical personnel in host nation hospitals, and maintaining stocks and equipment intended to provide responsiveness to natural and man-made disasters all represent activities that facilitate speed and capability in crisis response, bring credibly to strategic signals, and reinforce relationships with allies and partners across a range of time horizons.

General Support in Competition. Establishing a global and regional network to support operations in competition, crisis, and conflict is beyond the organic capabilities of combat formations. In order to build a regional capability that is adaptive, nested, and credible, logistics must evolve from a traditional focus of providing direct support for operations, investments, and activities to one of general support focused on persistent forward presence and increasing regional capacity. The logistics enterprise has a responsibility for the maintenance, development, and operation of main operating bases as key nodes; however, the development and operation of forward operating sites and cooperative security locations will play a critical role in evolving the logistics network from a linear and inflexible network to one that is multi-dimensional, resilient, and diverse. This requires an evolution in logistics formation’s doctrinal employment in competition.

Prioritization of Effectiveness over Efficiency. Effective deterrence requires a degree of risk in the allocation of finite resources. Developing a logistics network requires investment in nodes that may never be employed, where partner policies and strategic priorities change, resulting in expansion or reduction in access, or where elements of the network are out of position in the transition from general to immediate deterrence. However, the most significant risk to the credibility and capability of the joint force is a lack of investment, leading to strategic insolvency. Tactical and operational logistics formations are crucial in limiting risk by shaping through sustained investment while providing strategic flexibility in a crisis.

The employment of logistics forces directly imparts credibility and capability to strategic deterrence through both latent and active capabilities. Logistics and sustainment are essential to deterrence, crisis response, and the effectiveness of operational command and control, fires, intelligence, and maneuver capabilities. Fundamentally, logistics formations bring credibility to strategic signaling in general deterrence and enable tactical and operational effectiveness in crisis and conflict only through investment in competition.

Joint logistics formations’ primary task in the Pacific must be establishing, developing, and sustaining a multi-nodal, distributed network that is ruthlessly opportunistic in the application of engineering, maintenance, supply, transportation, medical, and other logistics functions. Even in competition, opportunities will be fleeting, and a force with the dexterity, creativity, and resources to exploit opportunities will be the force with the initiative and credibility in competition.

Logistics forces offer an optimal and uniquely postured capacity to facilitate access through organic capabilities, enhance perceptions of America’s commitment to allies and partners, challenge the adversary’s core deterrence calculus, and build credible capability into contingencies by enabling crisis deployment speed and endurance. Strategic transportation is finite, and every cubic foot of food, water, building materials, maintenance parts, and other supplies, forward-positioned or pre-positioned, reduces competition in the movement and sustainment of decisive capabilities in crisis and combat.


1. Barry R. Posen, “From Unipolarity to Multipolarity: Transition in Sight?” in International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

2. The White House, National Security Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2022).

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: 2022).

4. Staff, “A Conversation with General David Berger, Washington, DC,” Brookings Institute, May 23, 2023,; Richard R. Burgess, “USMC Calls for GPN,” Seapower, February 23, 2023,; and Jen Judson, “U.S. Army Has a ‘Gigantic Problem’ with Logistics in the Indo-Pacific,” Defense News, March 29, 2023,

5. Kristen Gunness, Bryan Frederick, Timothy R. Heath, Emily Ellinger, Christian Curriden, Nathan Chandler, Bonny Lin, James Benkowski, Bryan Rooney, Cortez A. Cooper III, Cristina L. Garafola, Paul Orner, Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey W. Hornung, and Erik E. Mueller, Anticipating Chinese Reactions to U.S. Posture Enhancements, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2022),

6. Allan Reed Millet, The War for Korea, 1950–1951: They Came from the North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010).

7. Jonathan Mercer, “Emotion and Strategy in the Korean War,” International Organization 67, No. 2 (2013).

8. Seth G. Jones and Seamus P. Daniels, “U.S. Defense Posture in the Middle East,” CSIS, 2022,

9. W. Eric Herr, “Operational Vigilant Warrior: Conventional Deterrence Theory, Doctrine, and Practice,” (thesis, School of Advanced Air Studies, 1996).

10. Michael Brecher, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Kyle Beardsley, Patrick James, and David Quinn, “International Crisis Behavior Data Codebook, Version 15,” ICB Project, 2023,

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, “The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan,” CSIS International Security Program, 2023,

15. Gordon I. Button, J. Riposo, I. Blickstein, and P.A. Wilson, Warfighting and Logistic Support of Joint Forces from the Joint Sea Base (Santa Monica: RAND, 2007).

16. Ibid.

17. Michael O’Hanlon, The Science of War: Defense Budgeting, Military Technology, Logistics, and Combat Outcomes (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009).

18. “The First Battle of the Next War.”

19. Kristen Gunness, Bryan Frederick, Timothy R. Heath, Emily Ellinger, Christian Curriden, Nathan Chandler, Bonny Lin, James Benkowski, Bryan Rooney, Cortez A. Cooper III, Cristina L. Garafola, Paul Orner, Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey W. Hornung, and Erik E. Mueller, Anticipating Chinese Reactions to U.S. Posture Enhancements (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022), Also available in print form.

20. Department of Defense, “Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” OUSD, March 3, 2023,; and Staff, “Fact Sheet: U.S.- Philippines 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue,” Department of Defense, April 11, 2023,

21. Headquarters Marine Corps, Installations and Logistics 2030, (Washington, DC: 2023).

22. Headquarters Marine Corps, A Concept for Stand-in Forces, (Washington, DC: 2021).

23. Bryan Frederick, Stephen Watts, Matthew Lane, Abby Doll, Ashley L. Rhoades, and Meagan L. Smith, Understanding the Deterrent Impact of U.S. Overseas Forces, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2020).

24. Staff, “Marcos: PH Won’t Allow Use of EDCA Sites for Offensive Operations,” CNN, April 10, 2023,

Leveraging Logistics above the MAGTF

The Joint Logistics Enterprise
>Col Angell is a Logistics Officer currently assigned as the Director, Logistics Combat Element Division within Headquarters Marine Corps, Combat Development and Integration.
>>Mr. Schouten is a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel who has helped update and refine doctrine, publications, and strategic guidance for logistics within the Marine Corps, to include the update to MCDP 4.


Marines traditionally focus on the tactical level of warfare. The FMF is a tactical fighting force—always ready to fight and win. Yet, the reach of our FMF depends on the naval and joint logistics enterprise (JLEnt) to get us to the fight and enable the force to persist in a contested environment. The rise of precision and long-range strike capabilities within the arsenals of our Nation’s adversaries changes the logistics calculus at all levels of warfare. The ability to effectively strike U.S. installations, ships, and aircraft almost anywhere in the world using all-domain capabilities means enemies can actively attack the military logistics system in depth. The Marine Corps must account for these attacks in ways not truly considered since World War II.

The JLEnt, and particularly the Navy in the maritime environment, provides the mission-critical operational and strategic-enabling capabilities for the Marine Corps to operate in any clime and place. In an increasingly contested environment, Marines must closely manage logistics posture and maximize resources to gain an operational advantage. Understanding how logistics above the tactical-level impacts operations is key to ensuring forces have feasible plans with resilient forces to ensure tactical success. Marines must be deliberate in taking steps to understand and leverage operational and strategic logistics capabilities to ensure the force can persist in the contested environments that we are already operating in today.

Operational Logistics for Marines
Operational logistics (OpLog) enables campaigns by linking the strategic means of war to its tactical employment in a specified geographic area. OpLog is inherently a Joint Force effort because of the direct relationship to theater posture and campaign plans managed by the respective theater geographic combatant commander. Logistics at this level includes setting the theater with forces, footprints, and agreements to ensure the supplies and associated distribution systems are appropriately postured to support campaigning as well as the rapid transition to crisis or conflict. Among many organizations conducting OpLog, some of the most significant are the Army Theater Sustainment Command, the Navy Fleet Logistics Centers, and the forward footprint of the Defense Logistics Agency. Logistics professionals are those who can effectively plan, collaborate, and orchestrate these OpLog capabilities across the competition continuum.1

Today, forces will have to fight to get to the fight through a contested environment. Historically, the Marine Corps has had the task of seizing and defending advanced naval bases. These advanced naval bases and expeditionary advanced bases are necessary to sustain the force in the fight. Just as in World War II, Marines will not be given the luxury of permissive port offloads, unfettered aviation operations, and iron mountains of supplies. These realities drastically impact the sustainment options available to commanders. Feasible battle plans in contested environments require intimate knowledge of how forces can be positioned, resourced, and sustained over time. Understanding the challenges and opportunities of OpLog helps commanders make viable plans and maximizes options for the force. This applies to the logistics capabilities within the FMF as well as the theater and local resources that can be made available.

Marine forces may also be assigned a role in executing limited OpLog tasks, particularly in contested environments. Forces and other resources must be dedicated to managing and preserving advanced bases and transportation assets that create theater distribution systems. Of note, advanced bases are key nodes in theater distribution systems, which may include permanent main operating bases or temporary advanced naval bases and expeditionary advanced bases. These locations are each critical nodes in the theater sustainment web that must be staffed and resourced to both meet the needs of the forward force and create resiliency of the base to take a hit and keep on operating. Marine forces will be expected to contribute to operating and defending advanced bases across vast operating areas, at remote locations, or in immature theaters that other forces cannot access. For example, the size and maritime nature of the Pacific Ocean may exceed the capabilities of the Theater Sustainment Command and require Marine Corps investment and reinforcement in specified locations to support joint forces. Conversely, a naval expeditionary force (Navy and Marine team) may be the first available force capable of reaching objective areas where there are no joint capabilities and sparse infrastructure to provide OpLog support to special forces or joint aviation platforms.

Strategic Logistics for Marines
Strategic logistics (StratLog) provides the Joint Force with the means of war by providing the resources needed to conduct campaigns. This includes getting to the fight and feeding the theater network from global sources. Logistics at this level focuses on installations, acquisition and procurement, enterprise inventory management, global health services management, strategic lift, and large-scale mobilization. Many StratLog functions are conducted by designated agencies and organizations to support the entire Defense Department, such as U.S. Transportation Command’s role as in providing strategic lift or inter-theater transportation. Additionally, each Service headquarters manages StratLog functions associated with manning, training, and equipping the force to fight. Marines that participate in StratLog efforts harness global resources, increase JLEnt interoperability, and facilitate naval expeditionary operations over broad time horizons.2

Most StratLog is performed by organizations outside of the Marine Corps, yet Marines influence these global resources. Marines develop requirements and inform solutions to ensure Marine Corps warfighting equities are accounted for in operational planning as well as long-term institutional planning. This coordination involves identifying capability and capacity requirements that drive investment in strategic lift capabilities (ships and aircraft) as well as the necessary infrastructure to sustain the force globally. It also involves providing input to policies that impact Marines globally, such as force health protection policies established by the Defense Health Agency. StratLog capabilities from outside of the Marine Corps are critical for ensuring Marine Corps forces have global reach and sustaining power.

The Marine Corps has StratLog capabilities and uses staffs balanced with FMF-experienced Marines and business-experienced civilians to drive programs across the Service every day. While most of these capabilities are not directly tied to the Marine Corps Task List, these are all mission-critical pillars required to build and sustain Marine Corps expeditionary lethality. These capabilities include installations management across 25 bases and stations, the acquisition and lifecycle sustainment of all weapons systems, and the global inventory positioning to maintain a balance between enterprise force readiness and prepositioning programs for global responsiveness and integrated deterrence. Each of these Marine Corps StratLog capabilities aligns with discreet regulations, and they are all mutually supporting to provide Marine forces ready to fight.

How to Improve Marine Corps OpLog and StratLog Awareness and Execution
OpLog and StratLog are critically important to tactical success and the long-term health of Marine Corps forces. Marines must learn to effectively leverage the Marine Corps StratLog capabilities and the JLEnt to ensure the FMF is maintained at a high state of readiness and globally responsive. Changes in organization, doctrine, and talent management will provide necessary enhancements to transform enterprise resources to FMF lethality and adaptability. The following are four specific recommendations.

First, include OpLog and StratLog issues in Service-level exercises and wargames. Marines have been reluctant to explore force closure and protracted sustainment issues because these operational challenges often come at the cost of tactical readiness objectives. This tendency is out of balance because tactical prowess is irrelevant for a force that cannot get to the fight or lacks the material to endure over time. OpLog and StratLog issues are also often disregarded because they are the responsibilities of agencies outside of the Marine Corps. However, not incorporating realistic theater and global logistics challenges to sustaining Marine Corps employment concepts dismisses fundamental problems that should be addressed prior to conflict. These types of rehearsals can form the foundation for Service requirements and capability gaps.

Second, analyze, assess, and inform the organization and resourcing of Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine component commands, and the supporting establishment that relate to the execution of OpLog and StratLog. Understanding how these organizations relate to force generation, force deployment, force closure, and force sustainment is crucial to informing the level of investment and risk the Marine Corps should take. Current and emergent discussions regarding integrated deterrence, operating across the competition continuum, and contested logistics are relevant for the FMF today and tomorrow. These discussions inform Service-level decision making regarding roles, relationships, and resources across the Marine Corps and the JLEnt. Changes in how other agencies and Services intend to overcome the challenges of great-power competition require coordination for adjusted relationships between organizations.3 Reviewing how the Marine Corps Installations and Logistics Enterprise conducts OpLog and StratLog functions may result in better equipment, resource efficiencies, and improved alignment and interoperability throughout the Joint Force.

Third, capture OpLog and StratLog definitions, relationships, and activities in Marine Corps doctrine to ensure this understanding endures. A consolidated reference for OpLog and StratLog can make issues more accessible to Marines much like MCWP 3-40.8, Componency, describes Marine Corps integration into Joint Force operations. Currently, logistics at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels are addressed differently across various publications and require updates to capture what has been observed through the Force Design Campaign of Learning. Taking inventory of applicable publications and then prioritizing sequenced efforts to update these publications is necessary. These are the publications that tie to Marine Corps training and education programs, and these publications are what Marines leverage as guides to effectively sustain forces in the most challenging operating environments. While updating publications does not seem like an impactful activity, these changes are necessary to ensure lessons from the past and present are carried into the future.

Lastly, invest in long-term talent management efforts to develop and assign the right individuals for critical enterprise logistics positions. In comparison to the vast manpower requirements across the FMF, billets within Marine Corps and JLEnt organizations that conduct OpLog and StratLog activities are limited. Further, few Marines directly engage with OpLog and StratLog activities, and those that do, typically gain this experience near the end of their respective careers. Notably, these few Marines have a disproportionate impact on setting the force and setting the theater for warfighting readiness and battlefield success. Many of these billets also require highly specialized training and education in acquisitions, contracting, environmental management, or land management, all of which may pull Marines away from the traditional career paths related to their primary military occupational specialties. Navigating career paths that balance FMF experience and these OpLog and StratLog skills requires attention at the individual level to align education, fellowships, and assignments. To ensure the Marine Corps remains competent and current, identifying and investing in manpower to take on these OpLog and StratLog billets is critical.

The Marine Corps is a tactical fighting force that thrusts forward from a foundation of operational and strategic logistics capabilities. Marines must master their understanding of these capabilities to ensure the Marine Corps has the operational reach to be a global expeditionary force. The more that Marines learn early how the entire JLEnt gets them to the fight and sustains them in the fight, the more they will understand what is possible in combat. Additionally, some Marines will be assigned the responsibility to conduct and provide oversight of OpLog and StratLog. This is particularly relevant for Marines involved in force generation and force deployment from homestation and then force closure and force reconstitution in the theater of operations. It is necessary to enrich our best Marines today with this understanding before they are assigned to positions where they will influence and be in charge of setting the theater to achieve campaign success. Every Marine must remain tactically competent, yet the more Marines understand the operational and strategic-level sinews of war, the more ready Marines will be to fight and win.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 4, Logistics, (Washington, DC: 2023).

2. Ibid.

3. Examples include the transition of responsibilities between Defense Logistics Agency and Transportation Command, Army cross-functional teams, the Navy’s Transforming Logistics for Great Power Competition, and Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21 “Agile Combat Employment.”

Barracks 2030

Improving quality of life through management, modernization, and material
>MajGen Maxwell is the CG of Marine Corps Installations Command.
>>Maj Boivin is the Legislative Aide for Deputy Commandant, Installations and Logistics.  At the time of submission, he was serving in the same role for CG, Marine Corps Installations Command.

LCpl Puller is excited. After graduating from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island as platoon guide and earning a meritorious promotion, he graduated at the top of his class at Marine Combat Training aboard Camp Geiger, NC. Now that he is on his way to Camp Lejeune from Fort Leonard Wood, a smile comes over his face—he is going to the fleet! Finally, no more squad bays, foot lockers, and listening to 30 other Marines snoring at night.

He looks forward to meeting his new roommate and settling into his role as a motor transport operator at 1/2 Mar. He arrives on base just before 1900; the battalion is secured for the day, but the duty NCO is prepared for new check-ins and directs LCpl Puller to a transient room until the barracks manager can provide him his permanent residence in the morning. After waking up and getting himself put together, LCpl Puller’s squad leader takes him through the time-honored tradition of the check-in sheet. After completing the bulk of his sheet, he finally meets the barracks manager, Cpl Krulak.

While an excellent infantryman, Cpl Krulak is still trying to figure out his new role as the unit’s barracks manager, a position he assumed two weeks ago. Unfortunately, he is still waiting on access to the barracks database because his email account was not set up, but he reviews his spreadsheet and sees an unoccupied rack in Room 201. After assuming that the room is in good order, he scans a key card and hands it to LCpl Puller. After exiting the office, Puller grabs his sea bags and starts walking down the catwalk to his room. He pauses in front of 201, takes a deep breath, and opens the door to his new home.

Here. Right here is a critical juncture in the relationship between a Marine and the Marine Corps. This is where the institution shows how it values the fundamental and physiological needs of Marines like LCpl Puller and invests in retaining them for the long term. The Commandant of the Marine Corps said as much in his August 2023 Guidance to the Force: “To recruit and retain the best we will focus on improving our barracks, base housing, gyms, chow halls, child development centers, and personnel policies.  I view QoL improvements as direct contributors to a more capable and lethal force.  Marines can always do more with less, but it is my job to make sure you do not have to do so with your living conditions or those of your families.”1

The Marine Corps prioritized FMF readiness and modernization over its installation infrastructure, including barracks, which has contributed to unacceptable barracks conditions.

The Marine Corps will improve its readiness by improving the conditions of barracks and demonstrating our commitment to Marines. As the Service that lauds itself as the most ready, it must set the conditions necessary to prepare Marines mentally and physically. A foundational element of this readiness is the physiological need to provide a space for warfighters to rest and recharge, which begins at the barracks. As leaders, we are obligated to provide Marines with safe, clean, and comfortable housing. Marines and our Nation that sends them to us should expect nothing less.

To accomplish this, the Marine Corps is implementing a multi-pronged approach to improve its barracks characterized as Barracks 2030.

Barracks Management
Today, when LCpl Puller is checking into his new unit, he will report to the barracks manager. This position is typically held by an NCO, a position Marines are not formally trained for and hold for one year. Cpl Krulak did not ask for the barracks manager billet, nor was he trained at the School of Infantry to execute his newly assigned role. Unfortunately, this often leads to inconsistent management and poor service to residents.. Due to the needs of commands and the lack of alternatives, units identify NCOs to perform the duties of a property manager with limited, to no, training and routinely hold for less than one year.

To improve the management of its barracks, the Marine Corps will hire civilian personnel to provide oversight and management of its barracks portfolio that mirrors private sector property management industry standards. Beginning in the Summer of 2024, the Marine Corps will begin hiring civilian personnel into these new positions to alleviate the pressures on operational units.  Professionalizing the management workforce with civilians can improve the oversight of room conditions and address systemic backlog issues such as tracking inventory and maintenance. A part of this change was upgrading the work request management systems. At Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the Marine Housing Office experimented with a barracks maintenance app, which allows Marines to scan a QR code and submit a work request for maintenance issues. This trial period informed improvements in the app before a broader fielding to the other installations.

This new management process will not absolve senior leaders from their role in the oversight of their barracks. Professionalizing the management of barracks with civilians will provide the continuity and requisite knowledge needed to ensure barracks standards are improved over time. This allows improved awareness of barracks quality for commanders and where to focus efforts for structural and quality of life improvements.

In addition to assisting commanders in the day-to-day barracks management responsibilities, the Marine Corps will implement a new resident advisor program. This voluntary program will allow one or two SNCOs to reside in a barracks with “resident advisor” like duties similar to colleges and universities. Ultimately, each barracks will have two SNCOs that live in the building and provide mentorship like a resident advisor program in a college dormitory. This also assists SNCOs who are living geographically separated from their families to receive quarters while assisting commands in good order and discipline at the barracks. The program can enhance living standards, ensure resident safety, and increase the leadership presence during off-duty hours. Today, the initial tranche of resident advisors are living in barracks aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar with the respective commands lauding the new program and the additional oversight and mentorship it provides Marines living in the barracks.

Currently, entire barracks buildings are assigned to commands, regardless of whether they can fill all rooms. Conversely, centralized billeting, which is employed by other Services, will assign rooms with no regard for a Marines’ unit. This means that LCpl Puller could be placed on the opposite end of the base from where he works with Marines from several different commands. To balance these two approaches, the Marine Corps will move to centralized unit allocation management, which assists in helping units maintain unit integrity while maximizing the available barracks rooms on base. Changing how the Marine Corps assigns rooms by rank will also assist in using more buildings.

The room configurations differ across all bases and installations. Depending on duty location and rank, a Marine can expect to have one or two roommates while potentially sharing a head with another room. As the Marine Corps matures its force, it must provide billeting commensurate with a Marine’s rank and responsibility. Current configurations of barracks will remain, with future designs moving toward NCOs having their own private space with a shared bathroom and common area.

There are over 150,000 bed spaces available in the 658 barracks the Marine Corps maintains.  Of these, about 88,000 are currently filled.  It is unproductive to pay for rooms not in use. A vehicle not driven in a year will have components breakdown due to non-use. Similarly, rooms that do not receive regular cleanings and upkeep will fall into disrepair. By assigning NCOs their own rooms, the Marine Corps can increase occupancy while acknowledging seniority within its ranks. Ultimately, this can improve the morale and quality of life for Marines to rest, reset, and recharge. All these initiatives will substantially transform how we manage our barracks.  But in order to ensure the long term health of our infrastructure we must invest in the buildings as well.

Barracks Modernization
Through the end of the 18th century, troops were customarily housed in private houses, inns, and other existing facilities, despite being a grievance listed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (and banned by the Third Amendment). It was also considered bad for the soldiers’ morale to continuously relocate, and consequently, a movement began for constructing permanent barracks wherever troops were regularly stationed. In the 19th century such buildings, mostly of brick, appeared all over Europe.2 In modern times, iterations of the barracks spanned various shapes and sizes, and as recently as the 1990s, Marines were still residing in squad bays.

In the early 2000s, the Marine Corps increased the size of its force by tens of thousands to meet the demands of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the short-term impacts were positive, the long-term sustainment of the increased barracks inventory became insurmountable. The Marine Corps currently operates 658 barracks buildings worldwide with 112 (17 percent) of these buildings in poor or failing condition.

To mitigate these impacts, the Marine Corps will review its inventory and right-size the number of barracks it owns and operates to ensure adequate space for the current force and an adequate sustainment inventory. This will improve our financial position and allow us to maintain the remaining barracks at a higher standard. There are numerous financial levers the Marine Corps can pull to right-size the number of barracks; these funding levers include new construction, demolition, renovation, and modernization. The Marine Corps cannot build its way out of this problem; it must focus its efforts on demolition, restoration, and modernization, which it will begin in 2024 and aim to be complete by 2031.

Maintenance processes will also need to change with a smaller inventory. The Marine Corps will mirror private hotel industry practices during its barracks renovations. While private hotel companies will renovate sections or rooms as they become available, the Marine Corps waits until a certain period (e.g., 25 years) before shutting down the entire barracks, relocating Marines, and then completely renovating the building. The Marine Corps’ methodology in updating its facilities inconveniences Marines, particularly when they must move multiple times during the same enlistment because of poor construction practices. During these renovations, the Marine Corps needs to account for the readiness impacts on the current generation of Marines.

Similarly, maintenance contact teams will be contracted to work for the installation housing offices. These contact teams will be available to respond to emergent maintenance requirements, much like private hotel companies have maintenance workers who can provide immediate assistance to maintenance requests by hotel guests. This is currently being successfully modeled at MCAS Miramar.

Another area where the Marine Corps will address unsatisfactory barracks conditions is specifically at Camp Pendleton, CA. Hearing the complaints from Marines living in barracks about the lack of air conditioning, particularly at Camp Horno (which literally means Oven in Spanish), the Marine Corps is developing a comprehensive plan to install new air conditioning units in the area. While this is expensive and difficult due to the original design of the buildings, it is a necessary improvement following the increasing heat waves occurring in Southern California. Notably, the Marine Corps reallocated funds to begin the renovations in the summer of 2023.

Fixing Fixtures, Furniture and Amenities
Our current accommodations, including furniture and amenities, are inadequate to recruit and retain the best talent. Rooms do not need to to mirror the $3,000 apartment out in town but are more closely aligned with dormitories of colleges and universities. When LCpl Puller makes it back to his barracks room after a long day at the motor pool, he needs a space to reset and recharge and an area to foster comradery with friends.

Some of these expectations are assured in the Marine Corps’ Unaccompanied Housing Guarantees and Resident Responsibilities, which requires Marines receive safe, secure housing that meets health, environmental, and safety standards; has functional fixtures, furnishings, appliances, and utilities; have access to common areas and amenities; and fast maintenance and repair when something breaks. Published in June 2023, this document establishes the standard every Marine can expect from their command for their rooms. New oversight from civilian managers will assist in this oversight and enforce standards during check-in and check-out procedures. Until this structure is established, it is critical that leadership advocate on behalf of their Marines to ensure barracks receive the attention necessary to resolve room issues quickly, including room fixtures.

Fixtures and furniture in Marines’ barracks are old, worn down, or broken. Currently, the Marine Corps’ 32-year lifecycle timeline has been insufficient to provide Marines with quality and reliable furniture and fixtures and impacts only 2,600 (or 3 percent) of Marines living in the barracks seeing new furniture each year. Updating the refresh cycle to a 10-year investment will outfit the barracks with more current fixtures and furniture and impact 8,700 (or 10 percent) Marines annually. The furniture ordering process will also be overhauled, centralizing the funding and standardizing furniture packages—to include washers and dryers—for different barracks types to leverage more buying power.

Ultimately, the Marine Corps must understand what its current force looks for in a barracks room. This may include kitchenettes, improved connectivity for gaming, or better recreation rooms to gather with friends. Thoughtful investments in amenities and recreation rooms can mirror amenities provided by private apartments out in town but should reflect what the current generation of Marines want. A well-intentioned billiards room will become a wasted space if the real desire is a recreational room with multiple gaming stations.

Barracks for the 21st Century
What was LCpl Puller’s reaction after he opened his door? Was it disappointment about the condition of the room or pride in a clean and well-furnished home as a Marine joining his unit? His response hinges on the actions the Marine Corps does or does not take to improve its buildings. The glaring shortfalls in the current barracks inventory are evident and changes must be made. The undercurrent of these changes is mindfulness for Marines’ mental health, well-being, and readiness.

During a period of budget uncertainty, these solutions will be done at a tempo that allows for the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. Although immediate solutions are preferable, a recent Government Accountability Office report published in September 2023 “found that oversight and funding has been lacking for years” [and] “It will take years to address the chronic neglect and underfunding.”3 The Marine Corps cannot overcompensate with significant sums of money that cannot be spent smartly and risk investing in the wrong initiatives because it must spend money now.

The Marine Corps already shows a willingness to reallocate fiscal resources to tackle immediate challenges like barracks air conditioning in Camp Pendleton or updating 75-year-old barracks in Quantico. During his confirmation hearing, then Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Eric Smith told Congress: “Taking care of Marines is a warfighting function. Otherwise, they cannot focus on the mission at hand. Barracks, chow halls and gyms are a key to retaining Marines, and investments in quality-of-life initiatives are truly warfighting needs.”

By improving the barracks through professionalizing management, modernizing infrastructure, and providing better amenities, the Marine Corps will provide its warfighters with a home appropriate to the professionalism and readiness we demand.

The individual Marine is the foundation of the Marine Corps being the most ready when the Nation is least ready. The Marine Corps must provide the necessary conditions to be ready—a ready home creates a ready Marine, which enables a ready force.


1. Gen Eric Smith, A CMC Guidance to the Force, (Washington, DC: 2023).

2. Britannica, c.v., “barracks,”

3. Karen Jowers, “‘Move Decisively’ to Fix Troops’ Barracks, Lawmakers Tell Austin,” Military Times, September 29, 2023,

Who We Are and Where We Are Going

United States Marines: America’s Expeditionary Commandos
>Maj Schillo is qualified in multiple military occupational specialties, to include Expeditionary Ground Reconnaissance Officer. He has deployed to combat multiple times, in both Iraq and Afghan campaigns, and deployed on a WESTPAC MEU. He is currently serving with Combat Development and Integration, Headquarters Marine Corps.

The purpose of this article is to initiate a thoughtful and exciting conversation among Marines and across the Marine Corps so we can realize who we are, who we have always been, and how we, as a Service, can best step into our important role within the Joint Force, the DOD, across the intelligence community, and in support of the whole of government for 2030 and beyond. This conversation should be a good and healthy conversation, not fear-based or designed to foment extreme reactions to evolving capabilities and skillsets, but a conversation through which we all better understand who we are, where we are going, and how to codify, own, and communicate who we have always been as we prepare for the future. Marines are known as America’s first to fight in any clime and place. The time is now to ensure that our Service’s role is articulated, codified, and implemented across the Joint Force through DOD policy and that the Marine Corps’ unique and relevant roles and capabilities are solidified through and within those policies. Additionally, we must effectively communicate our unique roles and capabilities through accurate and appropriate nomenclature and terminology as our Service steps into a critical place of importance aligned with the Joint Force and in support of the whole of government for 2030 and beyond. Across these efforts, we must communicate our unique capabilities and skillsets not only across the Joint Force but to our partners, allies, and our adversaries. The tone and tenor of this writing are informal, relaxed, and somewhat excited because that is how good conversations are. From good conversations, come good things—including good change. Semper Fi.

This article offers perspective and discussion on viewing the Marine Corps’ role through a Joint lens and recommends implementation of DOD-level policy to codify Marine Corps roles and responsibilities within the Joint Force in support of Force Design 2030 and beyond. It also proposes adopting the historically accurate term “commando” as a qualification-based naming convention to more accurately communicate and differentiate Marine Corps skills and capabilities within the Joint Force and across the whole of government. Lastly, it recommends an associated training solution to streamline numerous current programs of instruction (POIs) into a single well-resourced Marine Corps Commando course to enhance lethality, align and standardize training efforts, and ensure qualification of both officers and enlisted Marines across numerous occupation fields in the skillsets needed to operate in austere and geographically dispersed environments—agnostic of MOS.

These efforts are inextricably interconnected and mutually supporting. They are addressed together to synchronize policy, messaging, and marketing of Marine Corps organizational skills and capabilities, and the streamlining of qualification-based training to enable the Marine Corps to step into a perpetually relevant high-impact role within the DOD and across the whole of government. As such, the Marine Corps can lead the Joint Force in enabling the United States to effectively gain and maintain a dynamic advantage within great-power competition (GPC) to 2030 and beyond.

The conversation within and surrounding this article is intended to energize and excite Marines and the Marine Corps as we shape our own destiny, scope our operational futures, and lead the Joint Force in evolving to meet national and theater-level strategic objectives. To do this effectively, we as Marines must know who we are and who we have always been as a Corps before we can chart our course to the future in support of Force Design 2030 and beyond. Now is the time to remember our past, adapt to the present, and forge our own future. Let’s have a good conversation.

Who We Are and What We Do … from a Joint Perspective
From a multi-Service and joint perspective, the Marine Corps’ role, both historically and in emergent concepts, can be summed up in two words: expeditionary reconnaissance. The Marine Corps writ large is an expeditionary reconnaissance Service across all warfighting functions for the Joint Force. Traditionally, that role has been framed through the lens of the Marine Corps’ role in naval operations, as outlined in Title 10, Section 5063, which states the Marine Corps must “provide Fleet Marine Forces … for service with the fleet … in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.” Naval campaigns are part of joint campaigns, which means that the Marine Corps is acting in accordance with Title 10 requirements in support of a joint campaign. In fact, the Marine Corps is specifically tasked in DODD5100.01 to “Seize and defend advanced naval bases or lodgments to facilitate subsequent joint operations” (emphasis added).Even through a historical lens, this means that the Marine Corps is the expeditionary reconnaissance Service for the Joint Force as part of the Naval Service.

The Marine Corps is often the first in and often the last out, now more postured to serve in a persistent stand-in role, answering information requirements for commanders and shaping the battlespace for the Joint Force—through all its actions and across all warfighting functions. Interestingly, this is the same role of recon and force recon elements within the MAGTF—reconnaissance and battlespace shaping for the MAGTF. The Marine Corps, as a Service, fulfills the same expeditionary reconnaissance role for the Joint Force that recon and force Recon Marines fulfill for the MAGTF. When looking at the strategic, operational, and even tactical picture through a joint lens, the expeditionary reconnaissance role is the same role that the Marine Corps writ large fulfills for the Joint Force and even some other governmental elements across the instruments of national power. The Marine Corps is America’s expeditionary reconnaissance Service, designed for limited-scale, self-sustaining operations in austere environments—combat and otherwise—who, when task organized into tactical units, work directly for a specified commander at echelon. The historic and doctrinal appropriate military term for this type of unit and the individual warrior of which they are comprised is a commando.2

Marines are America’s Expeditionary Commandos. (Photo by Cpl Aziza Kamuhanda.)

For decades it was openly recognized and acknowledged across the DOD, within American society, and even globally that the Marine Corps was the first to fight and America’s 911 Force. The Marine Corps has historically blazed the trail for the rest of the U.S. military, operationally and conceptually, even though we have failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities to codify those advancements, roles, and capabilities through law and DOD policy. As we again lead the way for the Joint Force to 2030 and beyond, we must not repeat our past failures, we must now codify the Marine Corps as the Nation’s expeditionary reconnaissance Service and the DOD executive agent (DOD EA) for expeditionary reconnaissance. This does not change who we are. It simply officially codifies who we have always been, especially from a multi-Service and Joint perspective, and solidifies Marine Corps roles and relevance within the Joint Force and in support of Force Design 2030 and beyond. Now is the time to codify our role and solidify our future.

For clarity, when saying we are an expeditionary reconnaissance Service, that does not mean that our duties culminate with multiple six to eight-person teams geographically dispersed answering information requirements and conducting disruption operations, even though that may be a part of it; nor does it mean that we cease using combined arms or maneuver warfare; nor does it mean that we stop meeting traditional theater-level or Global Force Management requirements; nor does it mean we change who we are as a Corps. In fact, the opposite is true. Even though we may like to think that we are a decisive effort in large-scale combat operations, from a joint perspective the Marine Corps serves as a force that conducts self-sustaining expeditionary operations, limited in time and scope, in which we collect data to answer information requirements in support of the fleet commander’s, joint task force commander’s, or geographic combatant commander’s (GCC’s) decision-making cycle and are postured to conduct combat or non-combat shaping actions to secure footholds through which to flow other forces either into or out of an area. Even our influence operations are designed to support such actions. These operations are clearly all-domain expeditionary reconnaissance—certainly from a Joint Force perspective—even if from within our Marine Corps internal microcosm we call these forcible entry, amphibious raids, embassy reinforcement, non-combatant evacuation, humanitarian assistance, sensing, influence, etc. From a Joint Force and whole-of-government perspective, the Marine Corps conducts different types of all-domain expeditionary reconnaissance operations designed to inform higher-level decision-making cycles or create time and space, through combat or non-combat operations, to support other follow-on actions.

To continue the illustration through the lens of more recent concepts, the Marine Corps Stand-In Force and recon/counter-recon roles even more perfectly demonstrate the Marine Corps’ function as the expeditionary reconnaissance Service. Even though we have MOSs trained and tasked to conduct reconnaissance for the MAGTF or other formations, from a Force perspective expeditionary reconnaissance writ large across all warfighting functions is what the Marine Corps does as a Service—even if it has yet to be properly articulated or codified in doctrine or policy. This is why the Marine Corps has historically been viewed as an elite Service, not a special force within a larger, less specialized force. MAGTFs are the commandos of the Joint Force via the Naval Service, and we must acknowledge, own, communicate, and market that fact.

From all appearances, the Marine Corps seems to be intentionally moving more and more into the expeditionary reconnaissance space for the Joint Force while simply updating our approach and tool kit to do more effectively what we have always done but now in both physical and non-physical domains. As ever, the Marine Corps as a Service and across all warfighting functions conducts expeditions in any clime and place, now including the cyber, information, and space domains to answer information requirements for fleet commanders, joint task force commanders, or GCCs to inform decision points and be ready and able to conduct associated full-spectrum, all-domain operations (battle-space shaping from a joint perspective) to create physical maneuver space for follow-on elements of the Joint Force or create cognitive maneuver space to influence actors in a way which does not require an increase in the further buildup of U.S. forces. This is an all-domain expeditionary reconnaissance from a Joint Force and even whole-government perspective. This is what the Marine Corps has always done and who we have always been, we are currently just finding ways to accomplish the mission in new climes and places (e.g. new domains, within GPC and beyond.) The Marine Corps is and has always been the Nation’s expeditionary reconnaissance Service. We need to build on that fact as we adapt to new domains and codify within the Joint Force through DOD policy now.

Let’s Make it Official: Solidify and Codify Marine Corps Roles by Assignment as DOD EA for Expeditionary Reconnaissance
To solidify and codify the Marine Corps’ roles as the Joint Force’s expeditionary reconnaissance Service, the Marine Corps should be assigned as the DOD EA for expeditionary reconnaissance by either the Secretary or Deputy Secretary of Defense, or Congress.A DOD EA is defined as:

The DoD Component head, or official required in statute, to whom the Secretary of Defense or Deputy Secretary of Defense has assigned specific responsibilities, functions, and authorities to provide defined levels of support for operational missions, or administrative or other designated activities, that involve 2 or more DoD Components.4

The DOD further describes the concept of EAs as such: “DOD Executive Agents (DOD EA) designations are specifics, responsibilities, functions, and authorities assigned by the Secretary or Deputy Secretary of Defense to the head of a DoD Component, typically the Secretary of a Military Department” and are “most often used when the Secretary of Defense decides a DoD-wide support function or task would be most effectively, economically, and efficiently carried out if assigned to the Secretary of a Military Department.”5

Even though assigning DOD EA specifically to a DOD component, vice a secretary of a military department, is less common it can be done in situations where the “DOD Component (typically a Defense Agency or a Combatant Command) has substantial responsibility to execute a very noteworthy task or the function is particularly sensitive and/or complex, as differentiated from its overall organic mission.”As stated above, in some cases, Congress can specifically direct the establishment of a DOD EA.Currently, it appears that no other Service is assigned the function of expeditionary reconnaissance. The Marine Corps should be immediately assigned as the DOD EA for expeditionary reconnaissance, and this should be codified through updates to DODD 5100.01, Functions of DOD and Major Components, Enclosure 6. This will benefit the U.S. Government, the Joint Force, the Marine Corps, as well as U.S. partners and allies.

By assigning the Marine Corps as the DOD EA for expeditionary reconnaissance, the U.S. Government and the Joint Force would enable a streamlined and standardized process for certifying and validating training requirements, operating procedures, and reporting procedures across the Joint Force and potentially the whole of government where appropriate. This will directly result in promulgating unified standards, requirements, and procedures across DOD and beyond. As the Marine Corps takes the lead in these efforts for the DOD, this will streamline reconnaissance methods and standards between Services and functional components. It will also streamline information reporting across all types, means, and methods of expeditionary reconnaissance, resulting in a smoother-flowing system across the DOD for more rapid formulation of information from across multiple domains into actionable intelligence. This can then be used to directly enable joint, combined, and whole-of-government operations. As the standards develop and solidify across the DOD, they could be exported as appropriate to key partners and allies resulting in more effective communications and intelligence sharing in current and future multi-national operations—which will be key to success within GPC. This will not detract from any other Service or functional component conducting reconnaissance training or operations, nor would it detract from current Marine Corps Global Force Management requirements. It simply enables the Marine Corps to take on the role within the Joint Force of validating and certifying reconnaissance requirements, training, procedures, and reporting. This would be done in a similar fashion as the Army’s EA role for all parachute training and the Navy’s EA role for all diving and explosive ordinance disposal training. Furthermore, this would solidify the Marine Corps’ tactical role and relevance as the go-to force for expeditionary reconnaissance within the Joint Force, in perpetuity, potentially even enabling the Marine Corps to establish a Joint Reconnaissance Training Center—justifying access to funding and authorities not previously available. This is talent management at a joint level, which codifies the Marine Corps as an integral and indispensable part of the Joint Force now and well beyond 2030.

Where We Are Going: Differentiating the Marine Corps’ Market-Share within the Joint Force
So how does the Marine Corps, through a joint lens, effectively articulate, communicate, and differentiate its market share from other Services and functional components?

Marines acting as the Nation’s Expeditionary Commandos: 31ST MEU–Golf Company Marines operating from the sea, on the land, and in the air. (Photo by by Cpl Brennan Pries.)

We have already discussed how the Marine Corps is and has been the Nation’s expeditionary reconnaissance Service and even how our combat and non-combat operations are designed to be self-sustaining, limited in scale, and pave the way for follow-on Joint operations tied to operational and strategic objectives. That means that most—if not all—Marine Corps tactical operations, from a joint perspective, are either some type of advanced force effort to answer information requirements (i.e. reconnaissance) or they are follow-on battlespace-shaping operations within the larger reconnaissance picture which culminates in a planned withdrawal (i.e. a raid). Again, all these actions pave the way for and are in support of joint operations, with the Marines as a Service conducting forward expeditionary reconnaissance operations. As stated before, this is why the Marine Corps has historically been viewed as an elite Service, not a special force within a larger, less specialized force.

As stated earlier, the historically accurate military term for units and the warriors who conduct these types of operations is commando.That same term accurately communicates elite combat unit capabilities but still differentiates the smaller elite group from larger not-as-elite Army infantry formations. That term communicates skills and capabilities retained by Marine Corps units which are based on but also exceed traditional infantry skills. That term also communicates that a force can operate within territory potentially controlled or influenced by an adversary—as a stand-in force might. The term commando has its roots in deep military history that is much older than one might initially consider.

Even though the term is used currently by the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines, it goes back further than that. The term was used by the Dutch Afrikaans-speaking Boers during the Boer Wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s.The Boers used this term to describe their all-volunteer horse-mounted scouting and raiding parties, whose hit-and-run guerrilla-style tactics were very effective at sabotaging and disrupting large-scale British operations, communications, and logistics.10 The Boer “Kommando” operations were so successful that the British reverted to controversial scorched-earth tactics across thousands of farms to eventually pull out a so-called victory—something that would likely result in crushing political repercussions or even allegations of international war crimes today.11 The British eventually won because of their brutal tactics, but in today’s GPC environment, the results could be very different. This makes one consider the potentially significant impact of dispersed commando operations when looking at smaller nations versus larger nations—specifically the potential for the Marine Corps and its partners within INDOPACOM—influencing and shaping the actions of larger-nation adversaries there. The term commando even has deeper roots than South Africa. It can be traced all the way back to the late or Vulgate Latin word commendare, which is the root word for the words command, commander, commend, commendation, and commando.12 All these terms have to do with authority: ordering, recommending, entrusting, or bestowing.13 When looking at ancient Roman military formations, two units emerge that appear very similar Boer Kommandos, Royal Marine Commandos, and Marines: the Roman Exploratores and Speculatores, who conducted operations designed to answer commander’s information requirements and shape the battlespace ahead of and in conjunction with their respective legions.14

If one considers a Roman legion, operating in the far reaches of the empire, it could be considered similar to a modern day joint task force. The Exploratores were troops, many of whom were horse-mounted, who conducted long-range reconnaissance for the Roman commanders and operated ahead of the legion’s main body.15 Given their mobility, they could have been used as a persistent reconnaissance and battlespace-shaping force while maintaining a limited-scale raid capability and even fighting as light cavalry during pitched battle. This sounds very similar to LtCol Adam Yang’s description of the Marine Corps Stand-In Force as a “Maritime Cavalry” element in his September 2022 War on the Rocks article—certainly a commando function from a historical perspective.16 The Speculatores conducted deeper reconnaissance and forward battlespace shaping for Roman commanders through more clandestine and persistent reconnaissance and intelligence operations.17

Given that these units conducted operations to answer information requirements and shape the battlespace for the Roman commander ahead of the main body—and the Latin word commendare communicates ordering, recommending, entrusting, or bestowing, and is the root word for both commander and commando—one can see the logical evolution from the Latin of the military term commando. The commander of a large military formation, also referred to as a commandant (sound familiar?) in some Latin-based European languages, directly orders and entrusts a group of elite troops to operate ahead of the larger less elite force and conduct reconnaissance, raids, and battlespace-shaping operations in support of the commander’s end states.18 Following that linguistic evolution, one can see how these types of elite units and their warriors, over time, became referred to as commando.

Marine Corps 03XX and combat arms are more than infantry from a Joint Force perspective. (Photo from DVIDS.)

When comparing these Roman units to current Marine Corps capabilities, parallels can be drawn between the Exploratores and Marine reconnaissance/force reconnaissance and light-armored reconnaissance units. When looking at the Speculatores, parallels can be drawn between Marine reconnaissance/force reconnaissance and other elements within the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise. That would make these units the MAGTF’s commandos. As outlined previously, what Marine reconnaissance/force reconnaissance, light-armored reconnaissance, and certain Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise elements do for the MAGTF, the MAGTF and the Marine Corps—as a Service—do for the Joint Force, across all warfighting functions. Therefore, Marines are the Joint Force’s commandos via the Navy. We always have been. Now is the time to recognize and own who we are and who we have always been: Marines, America’s Expeditionary Commandos.

Concerns and questions surrounding the Marine Corps infantry and their role may immediately rush to mind. Well, what if I told you that from a joint perspective that Marine Corps infantry is not actually infantry; you guessed it, they are commandos whose operations largely consist of raid operations at echelon. This is so because, from a joint perspective, the Marine Corps should always be prepared to turn over seized areas or battlespace to the Army occupation force, conduct a planned withdrawal, and be prepared for follow-on raid operations. Of course, shoot-move-communicate infantry skills are baseline training for all Marines, officers and enlisted. All Marine Corps combat-arms units, and the infantry field especially, are and have always been more than simple infantry personnel. We are and always have been America’s Expeditionary Commandos. We, as a Corps, must recognize that and claim that reality now. By continuing with an inaccurate infantry naming convention, we are hurting our marketability to the GCCs, our Marines, and our Nation by failing to differentiate our market share.

To understand why, from a joint perspective, all Marines are qualified as infantry personnel, we must go back to a Marine Corps World War II-era MOS manual. The United States Marine Corps Manual of Military Occupational Specialties, NAVMC 1008-PD (Revised) of June 1945 outlines the infantry officer “1542,” infantry chief “812,” and the rifleman “745.”19 Of specific note, the infantry officer and infantry chief were the only MOSs that specifically contained the “infantry” naming convention.20 Of course, mortarmen and machinegunners existed, but the description of the rifleman was very telling:
Loads, aims, and fires a rifle, and employs hand grenades and bayonets to destroy enemy personnel and to assist advance against an enemy position. May operate a flame thrower. May perform supervisory duties incident to the control coordination, and tactical employment of a fire team or one or more squads.

Must be capable of field stripping, assembling, and performing minor maintenance of weapon. Must have general familiarity with the fundamentals of infantry tactics. Should be proficient in the use of such weapons as a rifle, automatic rifle, carbine, pistol, rocket launcher, rifle grenade, hand grenade, flame thrower, and bayonet. Should be proficient in the techniques of hand-to-hand combat.21 When reading the description of a rifleman, while not using terminology as detailed as current Training and Readiness (T&R) standards or terms that have evolved since 1945, it becomes clear that this rifleman is nearly identical to the Marine Corps infantryman today, specifically when considering the emergent Company Arms Room concept.22 Therefore, the phrase every Marine a rifleman is intended to communicate that every Marine is qualified in infantry skill sets as a baseline. This is evident in the infantry T&R standards across the Marine Combat Training program of instruction (POI) through which every non-infantry enlisted Marine is trained. The same is true for Marine Corps officers and is evidenced in the length and focus of The Basic School when compared to the Army Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (IBOLC). The Basic School is a 29-week long course, for all Marine Corps officers regardless of MOS, which focuses on infantry-centric T&R standards and culminates in a “war” between two reinforced infantry companies. The U.S. Army’s IBOLC is a 19-week course, specifically for U.S. Army Infantry Officer Platoon Leaders, which focuses on similar infantry skills as The Basic School but appears to not go as far in the company-level reps and sets within that course.23 This is not to take anything away from the outstanding training that the Army conducts across its occupational specialties but merely to point out that within Marine Corps training and qualifications, from a joint perspective, infantry skillsets and qualification are the baseline for every single Marine, both officer and enlisted. Every Marine a rifleman and every officer a rifle platoon commander communicate that all Marines are qualified as infantrymen, especially from a joint perspective. This is one of the things that makes us so unique within the Joint Force and across military services globally. This is a key component of our ethos. We cannot and should not ever forget this fact. In fact, we need to recognize and own this fact and build upon it now. The Marine Corps needs to acknowledge that infantry qualification is already the baseline for every Marine, and from a joint perspective, what we have considered Marine infantry and even other combat arms and support to combat arms fields are really Marine Corps Commandos. As such, we must evolve our training solutions, qualifications, and naming conventions to reflect this fact and differentiate our unique Marine Corps market share within the Joint Force and across the whole of government.

Now is the time to recognize and codify what Marines have always been–America’s Expeditionary Commandos, via the Navy. (Photo by Sgt Chris Stone.)

If we want to communicate the fact that the Marine Corps is an elite Service, specifically within our combat-arms formations, we must not continue to insist on infantry as the naming convention of our 03XX MOSs when the word itself is historically relatively derogatory when communicating capability sets, since infantry are “foot soldiers, [a] force composed of those too inexperienced or low in rank to be cavalry” and is derived from the same root word as infant.24 Additionally, continued use of the term infantry for Marine Corps 03XX MOSs fails to differentiate the Marine Corps’ unique capabilities and market share from those of Army infantry. This could have potentially negative impacts when seeking missions from the GCCs, our customers; seeking funding from Congress; and seeking best-suited recruits across our Nation. By adopting the term commando to distinguish Marines who already are or who will become qualified as such across Marine combat arms and support to combat arms formations, we will begin to effectively distinguish and communicate the Marine Corps’ essential market share within the Joint Force and across the whole of government.

What the United States Marine Commando Course and Qualification Concept Could Look Like
While this term should be adopted as outlined above, the Corps should not limit commando qualification training only to specific MOSs. It should certainly be required across all ground combat arms, reconnaissance, and certain Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise occupational specialties and also with support to combat arms billets within these units and formations. The reasoning behind this is that within the littorals, island chains, mountains, rivers, and jungles (specifically in INDOPACOM), no matter what a Marine’s MOS may be the skillsets required to operate effectively within those environments between line of departure and objective rally point on any movement are:

  1. Small unit patrolling, scouting, and associated mission planning.
  2. Small boat operations and associated combat swimmer techniques.
  3. Long-range communication and call-for-fire training.
  4. Small arms and claymore employment training to effectively execute immediate action drills while patrolling and scouting.

Commando qualification training, across multiple MOSs, would work much in the same way Ranger School works in the Army. If someone is going to a ground combat arms, “Victor,” or reconnaissance unit within the Marine Corps, or maybe even a Marine Littoral Regiment, no matter what their MOS is they must first graduate commando qualification training to ensure that they have a common baseline in the necessary hard skillsets outlined above to not only survive but effectively do their job in those environments, thrive in cooperation and competition, and win in combat—no matter what their MOS may be. However, the commando qualification will likely not be a requirement for personnel in units that do not require those skill sets to effectively do their job.

Interestingly, the Marine Corps already has a standing POI that trains all the needed skillsets outlined above. That is the Basic Reconnaissance Course, the course that qualifies reconnaissance Marines in their primary MOS. If the Corps uses Basic Reconnaissance Course as a baseline and integrates key elements of the relatively new Infantry Marine Course and the long-standing Infantry Officer Course to create a streamlined Marine Corps Commando course, then the Corps will have established a single streamlined and consolidated qualification-based training course to enhance lethality, increase survivability, and qualify Marines across multiple MOSs in the hard skills needed to win within GPC and beyond. As this occurs, the Corps can divest from multiple duplicative POIs across numerous fields and reinvest wisely for maximum capability gain. Skills previously trained across numerous POIs (to include some elements of officer training, scout training across multiple MOSs, combat swimmer courses, small boat courses, etc.) could all be streamlined and consolidated into a single tailored POI which would become the standard for being qualified as a Marine Corps Commando. Of course, a grandfather plan would be built into the concept to recognize those who have already completed similar training and attained these types of qualifications previously within their Marine Corps careers.

Specifically, for the Victor units, this concept would train and qualify all infantry Marines going to these units in the amphibious and scouting skillsets previously only trained to within Marine reconnaissance schools and thus enabling Victor units to have Marines fully qualified to conduct scouting and amphibious operations upon arrival to their units from entry-level training. Once at the Victor units, the battalion gunners could then build commander-driven weapons packages to reinforce the arms room concept—with Marines attending additional follow-on formal schools as needed. For other combat-arms units, it would provide the same baseline training and commando qualification while enabling their units to focus on whatever their specified function may be. Furthermore, this in no way detracts from the absolute necessity of the Marine reconnaissance/force reconnaissance units and the associated skillsets, capabilities, and MOSs. In fact, this concept codifies a required commando qualification course (note: currently met under Basic Reconnaissance Course T&R standards) for all recon Marines, including recon officers. This continues to ensure that all hard skills and current follow-on qualifications are achieved; however, with the commando qualification becoming the baseline training across numerous occupational fields, the door can now be open for potential follow-on cross-training and certification in specific disciplines which enables relevant, timely, and effective all-domain reconnaissance, across numerous echelons, without divesting any of the current capabilities achieved within the Marine recon occupational field.

As the Marine Corps moves toward 2030, it must be able to sense, make sense, and act across all domains in support of the Joint Force and the whole of government. The “act” part may include various types of further sensing and reconnaissance, counter reconnaissance, precision limited-scale raids, securing footholds for follow-on forces, larger-scale combat operations, building naval kill-webs, and other key actions with high-impact outcomes at the operation and strategic levels. It may include information collection, influence operations, or reconnaissance for and facilitation of expeditionary logistics. It may include partnered operations or interactions with U.S. or foreign diplomats or also support to the intelligence community. The possibilities are endless. By adopting the term commando, and the associated qualification training, we are differentiating our market share across the Joint Force and accurately communicating the role the Marine Corps has always filled and will continue to fill. This term communicates that the Marine Corps is owning its role in the Joint Force as an elite, mature, and combat-capable force that conducts expeditions in austere places and can operate across the entire sense, make sense, and act spectrum. By establishing Marine Corps Commando qualification training, available to numerous Marines—regardless of MOS—we are ensuring that these Marines have the hard skills and survivability to win in dynamic and austere environments.

Marine Corps Commandos–it’s not just the 03XX’s. A joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I MEF Information Group. (Photo by LCpl Gadiel Zaragoza.)

Finally, Marines should be recognized by being authorized to wear a Marine Corps Commando badge upon graduation from the course. By awarding a badge, we are incentivizing and recognizing their efforts in achieving this qualification, at an extremely minimal cost, which will likely result in increased opportunity and feeling of fulfillment across that population equaling higher retention. As with most other demanding qualifications (not primary MOSs, but qualifications) such as Naval aviator, astronaut, aircrew, Marine Corps combat aircrew, Naval parachutist, explosive ordnance disposal, or combatant diver, a qualification badge should be associated with achieving the Marine Corps Commando qualification. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon,” the same is true of Marines and certainly would apply to a Marine Corps Commando qualification badge.25 Let us start recognizing our Marines for what they have achieved within the Service and leverage that to positively and more effectively communicate our capabilities and unique skillsets across the Joint Force, to the GCCs, to Congress, and to the American people.

Actions Now for Beyond 2030 …
Immediately, the Marine Corps should be assigned as the DOD executive agent for expeditionary reconnaissance and fulfill that role and function as a Service across the DOD. As the marker of the year 2030 is fast approaching, we must consider the role of the Marine Corps beyond that time as well. Understanding that as Marines we have been the ground combat force for the Naval Service and must maintain that role, we must also understand that we support the Joint Force through all our actions. As this article has articulated repeatedly, from a Joint Force perspective those actions are all types of expeditionary reconnaissance—across all domains and warfighting functions. When the Marine Corps becomes the DOD EA for expeditionary reconnaissance, we will have taken the first step in codifying and solidifying our future as an indispensable, unique, and relevant asset—as a Service—to the Joint Force and within the DOD in perpetuity. Since every operation, both now and in the future will require the movement of things and people (an expedition) to sense, make sense, and act on information in some way, shape, or form while being prepare to take follow-on actions, the assignment of DOD EA for expeditionary reconnaissance codifies the Marine Corps’ role as the lead across expeditionary reconnaissance considerations for these types of operations—forever.

Additionally, the Service needs to immediately recognize that infantry qualification is the existing and historic baseline for all Marines. The Service must also recognize Marine Corps combat arms and certain support to combat arms elements for who and what they have always been—Marine Corps Commandos. Such a term is historically accurate and differentiates the Marine Corps’ market share from other Service and functional components across the Joint Force. As such, the Marine Corps needs to establish a Marine Corps Commando course to qualify both officers and enlisted—not tied to only specific MOSs but to required skillsets—and adopt naming conventions across the Service that reflect this qualification. Additionally, the Corps must institute a grandfather plan for current Marine Corps combat arms and support to combat arms personnel who have already qualified in these skills across their careers and establish a Marine Corps Commando qualification badge to visually communicate capabilities and qualifications accurately to the Joint Force, to GCCs, to Congress, and to the American people.

For the last twenty-plus years, the Marine Corps has been used as a second land army, much in the same way it was in Vietnam. This has caused Marines to forget who we are and from where we came. We have forgotten who we are as Marines; we have forgotten that we are an elite Service, leading the way for the Joint Force across many operations both special and otherwise. In forgetting who we are and failing to adapt our perspective, we have ceded our role to others and become force providers to others doing our missions in our place. Historically, we have led the way for the rest of the military across air, land, and sea. We have reconned, scouted, and raided; we have seized key terrain, secured footholds, and cleared entire cities leading the way for the Joint Force and other Services; we have blazed their paths and spearheaded the way for others as part of the Joint team; we have fought and bled and died in any clime and place and across all-domains for our country, for other peoples’ countries, for our families, and each other. Going back to 1775, we are and have always been Marines—America’s Expeditionary Commandos.

Now is the time to recognize and reclaim who we are and who we have always been as we take on our correct roles within the Joint Force. Let us remember who we are; let us help our Joint Force and our Nation remember who we are; and let us make our adversaries remember who we are. Now is the time to build on our history, adapt to the present, and forge our own future. As we, the Marine Corps, take the next steps outlined in this article we will continue to shape ourselves, our Marines, and the generations of Marines to come to lead, fight, and win within GPC and beyond.

We will adapt. We will overcome. We will blaze the way for others. We will go where others fear to tread and make a way for them—on this world and others—because we are Marines. We have a limitless future ahead. It is time to write our next story.

I will see you on the objective. Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat. Semper Fidelis.


1. Department of Defense, Department of Defense Directive 5100.01, Functions of the Department of Defense and Its Major Components, (Washington, DC: 2010). Incorporating Change 1 September 17, 2020.

2. Collins Dictionary Online, “commando,” s.v.0

3. Department of Defense, “Welcome to DoD Executive Agent Program,” Department of Defense Executive Agents, n.d.,

4. DOD Directive 5101.01, 8.

5. “Welcome to DoD Executive Agent Program.”

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. “Commando.”

9. Matt Fratus, “Why Today’s Commandos Trace Their Lineage Back to South Africa’s Boer Wars,” Coffee or Die Magazine, May 21, 2022,

10. Ibid.

11. Staff, “Boer War,” The Army National Museum, n.d.,,not%20without%20adopting%20controversial%20tactics.

12. Word Sense Dictionary, s.v., “commendare,”

13. Ibid.

14. David Friel, “Exploratores and Speculatores,” Imperium Romanum, n.d.,

15. Ibid.

16. Adam Yang, “Call the Maritime Cavalry: Marine Corps Modernization and the Stand-In Force,” War on The Rocks, September 13, 2022,

17. “Exploratores and Speculatores.”

18. Ibid.

19. Headquarters Marine Corps, NAVMC 1008-PD (Revised), Manual of Military Occupational Specialties, (Washington, DC:1945).

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. United States Army, “Mission & Task Organization” and “IBOLC as part of Initial Military Training,” Fort Moore, August 9, 2022,

24. Online Etymology Dictionary, “infantry,”

25. Staff, “Quotation Napoleon Bonaparte,” English Club, n.d.,

Technology and the Nature of War

Four vignettes
>Col Greenwood is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He was an Infantryman who commanded the 15th MEU (Special Operations Capable), served as Director of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and completed multiple assignments in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council staff.

>>Mr. Savage is a Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He is a graduate of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and previously served as a staff member in the Washington D.C. office of U.S. Representative Betty McCollum (MN04).

Military forces throughout history have pursued and embraced new technology for the combat edge it seems to portend. Superior surveillance platforms, weapons systems, communications equipment, and transportation methods can be decisive combat multipliers. The hope and promise that high technology will offer asymmetrical advantages is what imbues it with allure and appeal. It also helps explain why technology is heralded as a sterling example of American ingenuity, scientific research, and engineering prowess harnessed to serve national defense.

To claim that America’s affinity for military technology is engrained into the very way it wages war is no exaggeration. As Thomas Mahnken noted in 2008, “Reliance on advanced technology has been a central pillar of the American Way of War, at least since WWII. No nation in recent history has placed greater emphasis upon the role of technology in planning and waging war than the United States.”1 Since then, competitor and potential adversary China has followed this example, increasingly placing technological development as the key factor in its military modernization and expansion.2

Yet, technology is no panacea: it must be tailored to plans, concepts, and a specific operating environment. Moreover, technological dominance over an enemy does not guarantee strategic success in achieving the political aims toward which nations fight. In World War II, U.S. materiel and technological dominance still required a grueling fight across the Pacific to the Japanese homeland before an exhausted and starving adversary ultimately capitulated.More importantly, technological advancements in that conflict were utilized by the United States in service of established operational plans and strategies, some of which—such as War Plan Orange, the plan for war with Japan—had been in development for decades.4

Robert Johnson makes this point even more emphatically:

New technologies, from unmanned aerial vehicles to robotics, and new methods such as cyber denial of service or disruption, do no more to guarantee victory than did the faith in air and sea power in the early twentieth century. The novelty of technology has never ensured success in its own right—it is the integration of innovation into effective methods and means that gives a strategic or tactical edge.5

To Gray and Johnson’s points: while NATO coerced Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo in 1999, Operation Allied Force required an 11-week bombing campaign and the threat of ground invasion before Slobodan Milosevic capitulated.In the end, the air campaign failed to destroy Serbia’s air defense network or prevent massive harm to Kosovo’s civilian population—a key NATO objective for going to war.7

In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. technological overmatch proved equally ineffectual against low-tech insurgents. The latter’s imaginative use of IEDs prompted a U.S. high-tech response that included employing synthetic-aperture radars mounted on drones to identify “tiny disturbances in the soil where insurgents might have buried IEDs or the command wires that triggered them.”Yet, insufficient forces and surveillance platforms in both countries prevented coalition units from inspecting thousands of such soil disturbances in search of casualty-producing explosives.

Today’s geostrategic challenge of trying to deter both China and Russia—nuclear-armed states threatening U.S. global supremacy—coupled with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and emerging technologies, has accelerated America’s quest to regain and maintain its previous high-tech military dominance. The growing confluence of a diverse array of technologies is unprecedented both in their scope and potential impact on society.Yet the synergy that may result from connecting so many technologies is likely to be more important than any one capability.10 This could significantly transform the character of war (i.e., the ways and means armies use to fight) but not the nature of war as Carl von Clausewitz defined years ago as the realm of uncertainty, chance, suffering, confusion, exhaustion, and fear—all factors that create friction.11 Echoing Clausewitz more recently, historian Margaret MacMillan contends that war will remain a violent, bloody, and destructive affair organized by humans who are fueled by “greed, fear, and ideology.”12

New weapons and equipment require new tactical approaches, doctrinal changes, and most importantly, coherent overarching strategies before armies can reap their benefits. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is unlikely to alter this truism or necessarily make the world a more peaceful place. The diffusion of technology continues to erode the nation-state’s long-held monopoly over violence and enables hyper-empowered global citizens to expediently leverage commercially available technologies toward destructive ends. Thus, as technology marches inexorably forward, military organizations will continue trying to integrate the emerging capabilities into their forces’ warfighting approach. As the following four vignettes highlight, this is no easy task.

The ME 262 was one of the “wonder weapons” that illustrate the quest for a technological solution to winning a war. (Photo: National Museum of the USAF.)

Vignette 1: World War II Wonder Weapons and Technological Determinism
By 1943, the tide had turned against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany after earlier military successes. The advantages that Germany had enjoyed in marrying new military capabilities with innovative employment methods—such as Blitzkrieg combined-arms warfare in 1939—and superior maneuver and battlefield initiative had been steadily nullified and reversed. This reversal was due partially to the Allied power’s superior materiel and manpower resources as well as Germany’s loss of its first-mover advantage with regard to adopting military technology. Moreover, Allied adaptation after their early defeats made them more proficient in combined arms tactics and operational art.13

Among the means that Germany pursued to stave off defeat was the development of the so-called Wunderwaffen (“Wonder Weapons”): novel and advanced military capabilities still in their infancy. Germany invested considerable time, money, expertise, and critical resources into developing Wunderwaffen throughout the latter half of the war. Many of these inventions have become household names among military history enthusiasts: Panther and Tiger tanks, Type XXI U-boats, Me-262 “Swallow” jet fighters, and the now-infamous “vengeance weapons” such as the supersonic V-2 rocket—the first long-range ballistic missile to be used in combat (for which the Allies had no countermeasure or warning mechanism).14

While some of these Wunderwaffen capabilities would be fielded in impressive numbers and contribute to localized tactical successes, they failed to turn the war back in Germany’s favor. The select few Wunderwaffen that survived leaps from the design table to scale model to production line yielded minimal strategic impact before Germany was defeated in May 1945. While it is highly unlikely that even if Germany had more effectively utilized these technological developments the Nazi regime would have escaped destruction at the hands of an alliance of most of the world’s great industrial powers, they may very well have fundamentally changed the character of the final years of the War in Europe if they had been more adroitly utilized.

The historical literature offers multiple reasons for the Wunderwaffen failure to manifest the potential that Hitler and his regime had envisioned: political and military interference in force development matters, industrial shortcomings, and effective Allied bombing raids on Germany’s infrastructure, among others. However, Todd Schollars argues that the primary reason for the failures was Germany’s lack of strategic vision—a failure not unique to Wunderwaffen programs but endemic throughout Nazi leadership and planning. This was nowhere more manifest than within Herman Goering’s short-sighted leadership of the Luftwaffe—especially as the war worsened for Germany and the search for miracle weapons intensified—Goering forsook pre-war, long-term plans for training, staffing, and industrial and technological development in order to focus more on quick, short-term strategic goals.15

Underpinning all of this was the lack of a coherent and overarching Nazi plan for developing and employing Wunderwaffen. Thus, Germany’s dogged search for a technological breakthrough that could end the war on Berlin’s terms remained unattainable, unaffordable, and untimely.16 Like Goering, Nazi leadership eschewed developing new strategies, operational concepts, and doctrine for integrating Wunderwaffen capabilities into frontline forces. Instead, they focused on developing capabilities to solve their near-term military problems. Marcus O. Jones characterizes the Nazi approach as “a special, superficial kind of technological determinism, a confidence in the power of technology to prevail over the country’s strategic, operational, and doctrinal shortcomings.”17 To that end, Jones argues that Nazi leadership was ignorant of technology’s inability on its own to favorably decide battles and wars. Moreover, they misperceived how technology critically interacts with other human and cultural factors.18

Today, the United States develops operational concepts and doctrine to help deter potential adversaries and, if necessary, to fight as a Joint Force to achieve key national strategy and defense policy goals. The individual Services strive to formulate, refine, and adopt their own warfighting concepts and doctrines that will enable them to most effectively contribute to a joint campaign. While this process is not without its shortcomings, the Wunderwaffen example illustrates what can happen when technological development for its own sake becomes the catalyst for military change.

Vignette 2: The 1950s, the Pentomic Division, and Misjudging Future War
After World War II, the United States Army embarked on its own ill-fated attempt to harness burgeoning technology in the 1950s with the design of the Pentomic Division. Born out of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policy that embraced the concept of Massive Retaliation—whereby the United States would respond to any attack on its interests with nuclear weapons—the Pentomic Division was an attempt to figure out how to most effectively design and organize U.S. ground forces to fight in a nuclear conflict.

The Pentomic Division’s primary operational goals were to be more survivable on the nuclear battlefield and to be able to effectively employ its own organic tactical nuclear weapons by focusing on dispersion, mobility, and flexibility. Units would disperse both laterally and in-depth to avoid massing and presenting the enemy with lucrative targets. Mobility—by way of mechanized transports—would ensure that the division could disperse and re-mass quickly, even across an extended battlefield. Finally, a flexible command structure would ensure that even if the division’s leadership were destroyed, sub-units could continue fighting effectively.19

With these guiding principles in mind, the Army abandoned its World War II “triangular” structure that was based around “threes” of maneuver units: three regiments per division, three battalions per regiment, three companies per battalion, three platoons per company (not counting support units).20 In its place the Army adopted the new “pentomic” structure, dividing divisions into five “battle groups”—each bigger than a battalion but smaller than a regiment and comprising five maneuver companies each with five platoons.21 While smaller than a triangular division by more than 3,000 troops, the Pentomic Division was envisioned to be faster, more lethal, and more survivable on the nuclear battlefield, with most of the troop reductions asserted to be coming from training and staff positions rather than combat billets.22

The Pentomic Division would never be tested in combat, let alone on a nuclear battlefield. In the early 1960s, the Army initiated steps that would return it to a more traditional triangular structure after only a decade of reorganization.23 Multiple factors led to the division’s failure as a warfighting concept. First, it was born in large part out of interservice politics. Under Eisenhower’s New Look, Army leadership faced considerable pressure to maintain the Service’s relevance and prestige even though resources were prioritized by the Air Force which had been assigned the primary mission of nuclear defense. Thus, to help preserve its budget and end strength, the Army began to pivot in the 1950s to think about how ground forces could best employ tactical nuclear weapons, which further increased competition with the Air Force.24

Second, the Pentomic Division depended heavily on technological developments that either fell short or did not materialize. The wide battlefield dispersion envisioned under the concept required communications technology that did not exist in the 1950s, and the Army would not invest the resources to develop such capabilities. The concept also required long-range artillery that the Army could not afford.25 Army leadership also asserted that all Pentomic Divisions except the heaviest be air transportable; however, the Air Force refused to stop producing other aircraft—particularly strategic bombers—to provide the Army the air transport fleet it required.26

Third, these miscalculations and misjudgments were exacerbated by the tactics designed for the Pentomic Division. It was assumed that flanking attacks would be unnecessary on a battlefield where nuclear weapons would blast massive gaps in enemy lines. This, in turn, would enable Army forces to penetrate enemy defenses with direct, frontal attacks that would no longer require such critical supporting actions as surprise and deception. Unfortunately, this made the Pentomic Division’s tactics more closely resemble those of World War I rather than of World War II. In short, instead of using nuclear fires to enable decisive maneuver to destroy the enemy, the Pentomic Division became fixated on holding terrain in static defense.27

The concept’s final and most significant shortcoming was the assumption that the next war would be nuclear. This limited the Pentomic Division’s flexibility to respond to other limited, conventional war scenarios. Emerging Cold War flashpoints in the late 1950s—the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Revolution, the Algerian War, and the Vietnam War—all demonstrated how ill-suited the Massive Retaliation concept was to meet the security challenges of that era. History would subsequently show that the nuclear-centric New Look, Massive Retaliation, and Pentomic Division policies were ill-suited for the future.

Fortunately, U.S. and Soviet leaders grew to appreciate the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and worked to manage their geopolitical rivalry below the nuclear threshold. While the threat of nuclear conflict loomed over the Cold War, nuclear weapons were never employed in the various proxy conflicts that characterized great-power competition during this time. Battlefield nuclear weapons did not disappear, but both superpowers began to conceive of the possibility of a large-scale war without nuclear weapons.28

While the Pentomic Division was a relatively short diversion for the Army, it still consumed precious time and resources during a strategically tumultuous time in U.S. history. Moreover, flawed assumptions about key technologies and the future operating environment—including the likelihood of nuclear war—were fueled by interservice politics that further incentivized the Army to squander almost a decade developing and implementing a concept that would have failed to serve the Nation’s interests in the emerging security environment of the 1960s.

Vignette 3: Vietnam War and Superior Technology in Search of a Winning Strategy
Wars of liberation against colonial powers across much of the developing world set the stage for the Second Indochina War during 1965–75. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military embraced new technologies and pursued operational adaptations in search of a war-winning approach. Ultimately, the adaptations that occurred could not compensate for flawed U.S. policy and strategy.29 U.S. technology could not win the Vietnam War, but neither did it lose it. Rather, it was the failure to prevent North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces from infiltrating the South along the Ho Chi Minh trail and allowing them to use Laos and Cambodia as cross-border sanctuaries that led to America’s defeat.30

During the Vietnam War, numerous emerging and maturing technologies were employed across a diverse spectrum, such as laser-guided munitions, radar warning equipment, ground sensors, and more. But perhaps the most heralded adaptation of the Vietnam War was heliborne or “air mobile” units.31 This innovation enabled GEN Westmoreland, the Commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam, to meet the mobility requirements necessary to pursue his big war strategy in jungle and mountainous terrain by allowing air-mobile forces to strike deep into enemy-controlled territory.

To that end, from 1966 to 1967, GEN William Westmoreland adopted a strategy that prioritized large unit sweeps (called “search and destroy operations”) over the fledgling counterinsurgency and pacification efforts ongoing during the war’s early years. Westmoreland intended to exploit America’s advantage in air power—reconnaissance aircraft, helicopters that could transport assault troops, and strike aircraft that could bomb or deliver close air support—to try to locate, fix, and engage NVA regular units infiltrating the south.32

While interdicting and containing NVA forces may have been necessary to help isolate the country’s more heavily populated coastal regions, Westmoreland believed it was an insufficient theory of victory. In his judgment, winning required the NVA forces (and to a lesser degree, Vietcong [VC] guerrillas) to be decisively engaged and destroyed. A flawed assumption underpinning this approach was that the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces could mass combat power which would entice large enemy formations to commit to decisive battles.33 This happened episodically during 1966–67 but not on a scale that yielded decisive results.

Some major operations successfully drove the NVA’s 9th Division (and later the 5th and 7th Divisions) out of the Iron Triangle near Saigon, seriously disrupting the enemy’s regional command and control.34 However, the NVA retreated into Cambodia where it found sanctuary for the duration of the war. Rules of engagement prevented U.S. forces from pursuing and engaging the NVA in sustained cross-border operations outside of South Vietnam.35 As Rupert Smith noted, “the North Vietnamese found a way to employ their relatively meagre means against the U.S. forces in such a way that negated the Americans far better equipped and trained industrial forces and technological capabilities.”36

Overestimating the effectiveness of U.S. technology and firepower throughout the war led to unwarranted optimism and unrealistic expectations regarding what soldiers and machines could deliver on the battlefield. Efforts to quantify progress during the war manifested themselves in the Hamlet Evaluation System that morphed in military channels into the “body count,” which misled field commanders and Washington policymakers alike into believing that favorable kill ratios would eventually exceed Hanoi’s ability to replace its combat loses. Porous borders into South Vietnam prevented the United States from ever reaching a favorable tipping point. As Lewis Sorley noted, America’s unwillingness to activate the reserves led Washington to run short of manpower before Hanoi.37 While it is doubtful that activating the reserves would have altered the war’s outcome, it arguably would have enabled U.S. forces to more effectively isolate enemy forces flowing into South Vietnam from sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.

Frustrated with the near-continuous flow of NVA forces and supplies into South Vietnam, the United States devised the “McNamara Line” (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was an ardent supporter of the concept) in 1966. It was envisioned as a high-tech, anti-infiltration barrier system spanning across South Vietnam from the South China Sea to the border with Thailand. Hand-emplaced and air-delivered sensors and relay aircraft would provide high-tech support to physical emplacements, fencing, and obstacles.38 Construction began in 1967 and required approximately five million fence posts and 50,000 miles of barbed wire at an estimated cost of between $3–5 billion.39

The concept included a 400-person Infiltration Surveillance Center in Thailand, tasked with fusing information from a vast array of sensors that detected enemy movement, then vectoring in strike aircraft to attack enemy units.40 The Infiltration Surveillance Center’s mission was a complicated one, given the number of false reports frequently generated by the sensor strings. Ultimately, enemy countermeasures reduced the operational effectiveness of completed portions of the McNamara Line.41

The Navy also attempted to adapt during the war in how it conducted riverine warfare. In addition to supporting the air war over North Vietnam and conducting maritime operations in the South China Sea, the Navy expanded its “brown water” riverine capabilities by fielding the Patrol Craft, Fast (also known as the “Swift boat”) and the follow-on more powerful and quiet Patrol Boat River.42 Both enabled the Navy to conduct inshore operations along key South Vietnamese rivers, which included establishing a Mobile Riverine Force afloat in the Mekong Delta. This force employed a floating barracks large enough to billet the U.S. Army’s 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division, who then used helicopters, modified landing craft, and armored troop carriers to conduct maritime hit-and-run operations against VC strongholds in the Mekong and to secure the 45-mile Long Tau shipping canal to Saigon.43

One of the sad ironies of the war occurred during the 1968 Tet Offensive when U.S. and South Vietnamese forces tactically defeated the enemy. Both NVA forces and VC guerillas suffered heavy losses. But as Harry Summers noted, “While they may have been tactical failures, they were strategic successes since, by eroding our will, they were able to capture the political initiative.”44

Vignette 4: Future Combat Systems and Technological Overreach
Vietnam would not be the last time the U.S. military—alongside other significant shortcomings—became over-reliant on technology. However, future misjudgments would not be just about machines triumphing over soldiers, but whether the technology was even feasible. The Army’s aborted Future Combat Systems (FCS) would encounter this problem, with its expectations vastly exceeding engineering and technical realities.

Emerging at the dawn of the new millennium, FCS was the Army’s primary modernization program going into the 21st century. Described as “the Army’s most ambitious and far-reaching modernization since World War II,” FCS aimed to replace much of the Army’s Cold War-era arsenal of ground platforms to fundamentally change the way that it fought.45 FCS was envisioned as a “system of systems”: lightweight and linked into an extensive sensor network for greater situational awareness and fire support. The main goals for this system of systems were to enable the Army of the future to deploy more quickly and then to rapidly locate, outmaneuver, and destroy the enemy.46

Unfortunately, FCS’ main legacy is as a case study of large-scale acquisition failure, spending around $18 billion on research and development that produced few tangible results by the time it was officially canceled in June 2009.47 As with any failed acquisitions program, FCS did not materialize as intended for a number of reasons. Following the September 11 attacks and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a two–decade–long focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism shifted force development priorities and adversely impacted FCS. The ballooning of FCS’ already substantial budget did not help.48 However, these factors were exacerbated by conceptual and technological challenges also at the heart of FCS’s shortcomings.

First: FCS planned to employ a range of new and emerging advanced technologies. But by 2009—on the eve of FCS’ cancellation—critical program technologies had not yet matured, highlighting the program’s technological infeasibility, which had been glossed over from the beginning.49 A key example of technological overreach and shifting requirements can be found in FCS’ Intelligence Fusion model—key to its ability to find and destroy the enemy first, thus compensating for FCS vehicles’ lack of armor. This requirement to gain a decision advantage over the enemy depended on the automated fusion of intelligence directly from FCS’ vast network of sensors. However, such automation required aggregation, deconfliction, and other data management tasks that were technically infeasible above an elementary level. This setback meant that FCS could not reach the level of situational awareness for its units upon which the entire concept depended for success.50 Much like the Pentomic Division four decades earlier, the Army had again made unrealistic assumptions about technological feasibility and availability.

Second, according to a March 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the challenges facing the program, the Army elected to develop FCS without defining the specific operational requirements or mature technologies that should have been in hand before the program officially started in 2003 (and remained aspirational at the time of the GAO report’s publication).51 Before the program’s cancellation in 2009, most of FCS’ key technologies were not mature enough to be tested as prototypes. By February 2009, it was estimated that the first FCS component prototypes would not be available for testing until 2013, and only after a final production decision had been reached. This would have put FCS into production without any comprehensive testing of its systems, raising additional risks.52 Not surprisingly, FCS was canceled several months later with only a handful of its constituent parts being spun off into new modernization programs, many of which were also canceled without reaching final production.53

Unlike the case of Nazi Germany’s Wunderwaffe, one cannot say that FCS failed because the Army lacked a strategic vision. As with the Pentomic Division, the Army had a distinct vision—not only of the type of future war it anticipated fighting but of the type of forces and combat systems it thought would deliver victory. The fundamental issue was that vision was unachievable with the current state-of-the-art in the relevant technology.

A RAND Corporation study on lessons learned from the project observed that the Army’s propaganda promoting the program outpaced what could be delivered and made it difficult for the Army to backtrack on grandiose public promises without understanding the impact on requirements and technologies.54 The Army’s plan failed to balance technological realities that senior leadership had tacitly acknowledged would be a challenge at the outset. In 2004, then-Army Chief of Staff, GEN Peter Schoomaker, stated he gave FCS only a 28 percent chance of succeeding. As the program progressed, he raised his prediction to more than 70 percent; however, neither he nor the Army ever clearly defined what success would look like.55

Recent conflicts serve as sober reminders that while technology and the correlation of opposing forces may be important, human factors are ultimately more decisive than machines and equipment. Despite a number of advantages in technology—particularly at the outset—Russia’s war against Ukraine launched in February 2022 has failed to deliver victory, bogging down Russia’s forces in a protracted and bloody stalemate while Western-provided lethal aid arms Ukraine with advanced weapons to defend itself against Russia aggression. Likewise, despite possessing what it is arguably the most effective and well-equipped military in the Middle East- and despite being a producer and exporter of advanced military technology in its own right—Israel did not foresee the terrorist group Hamas’ horrific combined-arms surprise attack of 7 October 2023 which sent shockwaves across the world.

Regardless of technology, in the end, the side with better battlefield leaders, resolve, and esprit de corps will have the advantage. The intangible and unquantifiable human factors—fear, self-sacrifice, courage—have greater influence on battlefield performance than the technology soldiers fight with. As historian John Keegan has observed, human factors are the ultimate arbiters in war: “What battles have in common is human: the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them … above all, it is always a study of solidarity and usually also of disintegration—for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed.”56

Even when technophiles appropriately value human factors, there remain unmet challenges when leveraging new technology for military purposes. First, attempting to develop new miracle weapons during war is a high-risk proposition (Wunderwaffen). Second, a warfighting concept that hinges on a particular vision of future war and technology requires that its key assumptions be closely scrutinized (Pentomic Division). Third, technological superiority in war cannot compensate for flawed strategy and poor operational design (Vietnam). Finally, a warfighting concept that centers on technology and engineering that cannot be fielded until reliable hardware catches up with the big idea may never reach maturity (FCS).

In his military analysis of the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, historian John Antal noted that while “drones set the conditions for Azerbaijan’s success, it took well-trained and aggressive ground forces to seize decisive terrain and secure the center of gravity (town of Shusha). New precision weapons make the battlespace more lethal, but fires without maneuver are indecisive.”57

As defense intellectuals debate what number of off-sets and revolutions in military affairs the United States has experienced since World War II, various staffs within the DOD responsible for developing future warfighting concepts and force capabilities should pay increased attention to the difficult task of how best to integrate emerging technologies with new warfighting approaches if U.S. military forces are to enhance their battlefield effectiveness.


1. Thomas G. Mahnken, Technology and The American Way of War Since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

2. Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, (Washington, DC: 2022).

3. Colin S. Gray, Weapons Don’t Make War: Policy, Strategy and Military Technology (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).

4. Staff, “Prelude to War,” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 3, 2021,

5. Robert A. Johnson, “Predicting Future War,” Parameters 44, No. 1 (2014).

6. Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Washington, DC: Brookings University Press, 2000).

7. Martin Andrew, “Revisiting the Lessons of Operation Allied Force,” Airpower Australia Analysis, June 14, 2009,,targeting%20and%20destruction%20by%20firepower.; and Winning Ugly.

8. Technology Quarterly, “All the Targets, All the Time,” The Economist, January 27, 2022,

9. Peter Layton, Prototype Warfare, Innovation and the Fourth Industrial Age (Canberra: Air Power Development Center, 2018).

10. David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “War in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” War on the Rocks, June 19, 2018,

11. Michael Howard, Clausewitz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

12. Margaret MacMillan, War: How Conflict Shaped Us (New York: Random House, 2020).

13. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, A War to Be Won (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).

14. Marcus O. Jones, “Innovation for Its Own Sake: The Type XXI U-boat,” Naval War College Review 67, 2 (2014); and T.D. Dungan, V-2: A Combat History of the First Ballistic Missile (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2005).

15. Todd J. Schollars, “German Wonder Weapons: Degraded Production and Effectiveness,” Air Force Journal of Logistics 34, 3/4 (2010).

16. Ibid.

17. “Innovation for Its Own Sake.”

18. Ibid.

19. Richard W. Kedzior, Evolution and Endurance: The U.S. Army Division in the Twentieth Century, (Santa Monica: RAND Corp., 2000).

20. Combat Studies Institute, Sixty Years of Reorganizing for Combat: A Historical Trend Analysis (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College).

21. Evolution and Endurance.

22. Sixty Years of Reorganizing for Combat.

23. Kalev I. Sepp, “The Pentomic Puzzle: The Influence of Personality and Nuclear Weapons on U.S. Army Organization 1952–1958,” Army History 51 (2001).

24. Evolution and Endurance.

25. Jack F. Smith, Pentomic Doctrine: A Model for Future War, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994).

26. “The Pentomic Puzzle.”

27. A.J. Bacevich, The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army Between Korea and Vietnam, (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1986).

28. John S. Duffield, “The Evolution of NATO’s Strategy of Flexible Response: A Reinterpretation,” Security Studies 1, 1 (1991); and Director of Central Intelligence, “Soviet Nuclear Doctrine: Concepts of Intercontinental and Theater War,” SR RP 73-1, 1 June 1973, 8. Originally Top Secret; declassified 21 December 1993.

29. Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, (Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute–U.S. Army War College, 1981).

30. On Strategy.

31. Technology and The American Way of War Since 1945.

32. On Strategy.

33. Ibid.

34. Letter between Col A.R. Finlayson and authors on 2 May 2022. Col Finlayson spent 32 months in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1967–70) working entirely in combat billets that included long-range reconnaissance, infantry, and special operations in four provinces and two different geographic areas of that country (I Corps and III Corps).

35. Ibid.

36. Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).

37. Lewis Sorely, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999).

38. Technology and The American Way of War Since 1945.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. On Strategy.

45. Staff, “Defense Secretary Gates Observes Army Future Combat Systems Progress,” Federal News Service, May 9, 2008,

46. Andrew Feickert, CRS Report RL32888, The Army’s Future Combat System (FCS): Background and Issues for Congress, (Washington: Congressional Research Service, Office of Congressional Information and Publishing, 2009).

47. Robert N. Charette, “U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems Program Formally Terminated, Transitions to Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization,” IEEE Spectrum, June 24, 2009,

48. Noah Shachtman, “Pentagon Chief Rips Heart Out of Army’s ‘Future’,” Wired, April 6, 2009,

49. Paul L. Francis, Decisions Needed to Shape Army’s Combat Systems for the Future, GAO Report GAO-09-288 (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 2009).

50. Christopher G. Pernin, Elliot Axelband, Jeffrey A. Drezner, Brian B. Dille, John Gordon IV, Bruce J. Held, Scott McMahon, Walter L. Perry, Christopher Rizzi, Akhil R. Shah, Peter A. Wilson, Jerry M. Sollinger, Lessons from the Army’s Future Combat Systems Program (Santa Monica: RAND Corp., 2012).

51. Paul L. Francis, GAO Report GAO-08-408, 2009 Is a Critical Juncture for the Army’s Future Combat System, (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2008).

52. Hans Ulrich Kaeser, The Future Combat System: What Future Can the Army Afford? (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009).

53. Lessons from the Army’s Future Combat Systems Program.

54. Ibid.

55. The Army’s Future Combat System (FCS).

56. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

57. John Antal, Seven Seconds to Die: A Military Analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Future of Warfighting (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022).

Military Force Design in an Age of Accelerating Technologic Change

Modernization in the Marine Corps
>LtCol Williams is a Technical Fellow at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc and provides strategy and policy support to Headquarters Marine Corps.

“The war had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman.”

—Siegfried Sassoon,
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

While there has been a great deal written about the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 (FD2030) efforts, much less attention has been given to what the Marine Corps provides the Joint Force—a new distributed operations-capable system—with “system” being the key term. While individuals, organizations, and capabilities are the elements that compose FD2030, it is how this force design is animated by concepts, doctrine, tactics, and technologies that combine synergistically to make it a functionally effective system.

FD2030 recognizes the significance of emerging, interrelated technologies and therefore focuses on developing a functional system as opposed to a toolbox of discrete capabilities—a system that includes not just weapons, but the people, command and control, sensing, logistics, and installations capabilities (especially those located across the Indo-Pacific) that enable expeditionary operations.

In systems warfare, the ability to attack effectively first is highly desirable, and this is best achieved with a composable force structure that provides a complete combat system at all echelons with the ability of these echelons to federate into a cooperative system of systems. This system must be able to attack and defend in all physical dimensions and the electronic spectrum for combined-arms effect while also being a node in a multi-domain federation (connected, functionally complete elements—think Napoleon’s Corps extrapolated down to infantry squad level).

Doctrinal conceptions of combat— tactical organization and equipping of units, new sensing, connectivity, autonomy, and the emerging diversity of highly effective munitions with reduced logistics tails—will be examined in this article to demonstrate the parameters of future tactical warfighting systems.

Tactical Offense Versus Tactical Defense: A Distinction Worth Making?
The tactical offense and defense are taught as two distinct modes of combat. But, increasingly, the distinctions between the two are diminishing, and the force that can move most rapidly between offense and defense will have a distinct advantage.

Doctrinally, the defense is taught as the strongest force disposition, and it is true that when a tactical formation leverages terrain and prepared defenses that cause the attacker to expend more energy and resources than the defender has expended in developing defenses, it can be a beneficial tactical and operational choice.

Prepared defenses are typically focused on providing an asymmetric advantage that causes the attacker to cross difficult terrain while exposed to obstacles that slow the advance and exhaust the individual attackers while attriting the force with mines and covering fires.

However, FD2030 posits that an attack by indirect precision munitions can help bypass these defensive strengths while an uncrewed direct assault helps avoid the effects of human casualties. In fact, Azerbaijan’s success in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reinforces this observation. Because uncrewed systems can be fielded more cheaply than human-oriented systems while avoiding human casualties, they are able to sacrifice themselves at scale, thereby creating the advantages that only an individual or individuals of exceptional courage could achieve—likely at the cost of their life/lives, which is what tens of thousands of courageous Ukrainian soldiers have learned over past months.

The Hero-400 is a loitering munition that the Marine Corps and other DOD entities have been experimenting with and employing for specific missions since 2022. (Photo by LCpl Daniel Childs.)

Combining increased ratios of precision indirect fires with uncrewed systems, enabled by a wide diversity of sensors, allows for the development of a new warfighting system that renders the advantages of the defense substantially less relevant.

It is tempting here to say that this new tactical system makes the tactical offense stronger than the tactical defense, but it is more accurate to say that the traditional conception of offense-defense at the tactical level is obsolete. The offense-defense dialectic is becoming more about intention than physical disposition given that even the lowest tactical echelons are distributed and possess the organic ability to sense and engage beyond line of sight.

In systems warfare, the objective is for one system to gain advantage (hopefully permanent by attrition) over another, and since the physical states of each system can now change with the intention of the commander, rather than by physical repositioning of his forces, this compression of time to shift between the two states makes distinctions between offense and defense irrelevant in practical terms. That said, given the complexity of warfare, there are never absolutes and these conditions will not apply to every situation, but they will apply in enough situations where the design of our tactical system should be influenced by the advantages derived by an ability to fluidly shape-shift across modes of combat and do so more quickly than the opponent to gain surprise and control tempo.

Squad, Platoon, and Company Tactics
The efficacy of small infantry formations is increasing as technologies empower small units to counter larger systems (like armored forces) that have large numbers of vulnerable interdependent elements (weak links in the chain). The strength and advantage of the infantryman may not have been this strong since the early days of the Swiss pikeman.

Militaries around the world are in a period of transition, so what is occurring in Ukraine should be viewed as a signpost to the future rather than a definitive test of whether new technologies will combine with tactics, techniques, and procedures to create a new character of warfare. Those who claim that we are simply witnessing a slow progression of trench warfare miss the implication of what is happening tactically in Ukraine for the near future—if not today.

Systems, like armored forces, that have complex support dependencies create increased surfaces for attack and are therefore highly vulnerable in a battlespace of sensors and long-range precision fires. Tactical precision attacks of armored forces’ logistics trains greatly increase the vulnerability of such formations. Eighteen inches of homogenous steel is irrelevant if an adversary can easily engage unprotected refuelers and ammunition haulers. The increasing reach and precision of weapons make the entire system, not just its frontline elements, vulnerable. Thus, it is essential to think in terms of systems, and not individual platforms, at the tactical level and inform our force design accordingly.

Alternatively, systems like distributed operations-capable infantry formations have fewer high signature dependencies, thus allowing them to better manage their exposure to sensors and adopt more resilient employment postures.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether defense is dominant, with a number of analysts using the difficulties experienced in Ukraine as evidence. Again, this is a myopic focus on the present rather than what these events portend for the future. The Ukrainian problem in the current counteroffensive is that they are attacking symmetrically, perhaps influenced to their detriment, by the training they have received from NATO militaries. When they engaged asymmetrically, at the beginning of the war, they exceeded expectations. So, projecting forward, what might the Ukrainian counteroffensive look like if they were breaching the minefields with swarms of uncrewed ground systems? It would matter little whether these small, cheap robots hit a mine, and the intent might well be for them to do so. A deliberate breach employing a range of uncrewed systems and precision munitions could make quick work of Russian defenses and could open a breach that might be exploited by manned maneuver forces.

A primary tactical challenge in modern warfare has been finding ways to overcome the “storm of steel” to allow for infantry assault. The artillery barrage was a primary means to achieve this end. But as the world observed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, much of the effects required to close with and destroy the enemy can be accomplished with indirect precision munitions, and the initial assault can be accomplished with machines vice humans.

While the former (indirect fires) is a variation of the artillery barrage, the latter (unmanned assault) is novel and constitutes a substantial step change in battlefield tactics. That said, while a variation, there are important differences in the application of indirect fires as well. During World War I, artillery progressively moved its emphasis from direct to indirect fires and increased the distance between its guns and the supported infantry.This separation required better communications capabilities if adjustments were required to preplanned fires. In a contemporary analog, a similar challenge has manifested in the challenges of adjusting the air tasking order to address emergent needs. In the evolving FD2030 warfighting system, communications capabilities are further improved, but this is not the most significant advancement.

In FD2030, all echelons, from squad to division, will be complete fire and maneuver elements. While it is necessary and important to connect this mesh of elements to derive the full advantages of the larger system of systems, each echelon’s system possesses organic sensing, fires, maneuver, and command and control capabilities. For example, small drones provide an infantry squad with an organic aviation element, while man-packed and even hand-held electronic warfare systems are able to sense and characterize opposing enemy signatures to inform attack options with organic loitering munitions or other means.

How the Near Future Will Be Different
In the very near future, being in a prepared defensive position will be to invite destruction because battlespace geometry is changing. The infantryman will not race up to the pillbox and hurl a satchel charge but will instead fly a munition into the aperture or employ small submunitions that can move autonomously to seek out and attack the weak point. The world is, of course, already seeing aspects of this reality in eastern Ukraine today.

Thus, those who argue the Russo-Ukrainian war is just a return to the trenches have a point. The primary tactical problem is the same, overcoming the “storm of steel,” but they miss the massive change in tactics made possible by uncrewed systems, loitering munitions, and dense sensing grids. Simply because neither Russia nor Ukraine is currently fully kitted to realize the potential of this new system of systems does not mean military operations are not on the threshold of a tactical revolution.

Defensive positions require investments in time and material, both of which create new vulnerabilities in a sensor and precision strike-rich battlespace. It is true that today there are substantial benefits to digging in and building overhead cover, but these benefits will diminish substantially as families of new munitions come into service that can deploy at distance and then fractionate into multiple munitions that possess organic mobility and, in some cases, autonomy. Tactical weaponeers at the lower tactical levels will conduct engagement assessments and provide engagement options reminiscent of those currently only possible at the component level (air, ground, land). This progression in munitions options and sophistication of weaponeering will be revolutionary.

Analysts, like Steven Biddle writing in Foreign Affairs, miss this point.2 It is not the tank that has become obsolete, it is the armored combat system that sustains it that is obsolete, and without that system, the tank is simply a supplemental artillery system as the Russians have discovered in Ukraine.

Consider a scenario like that described in the Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn, where Marines establish defense positions on high ground to allow for observation of the surrounding area and as a base from which to conduct reconnaissance patrols.Aside from the fact that drones, uncrewed ground vehicles, and unattended sensors could provide better information about enemy dispositions than the patrols that cost so many Marine casualties in the novel, the nature and location of their forward operating base would need to be completely different today. During the Vietnam War, as in previous wars, it made sense to position defensive positions on high ground (or perhaps reverse slope). Not only did this assist in observation, but it required an enemy to expend greater energy by attacking uphill. Unfortunately, clearing fields of fire and building covered positions on today’s battlefield is to also create a huge signature that allows adversaries to know exactly where your concentrations of forces are located and provides ample time for the opponent’s kill chain to develop a tailored strike plan.

Precision Sensing, Precision Strike, Fractionating Maneuvering Munitions
Munitions will become increasingly adept at maneuvering in air, land, and sea autonomously, in relation to an adversary, and work cooperatively with other munitions to seek out optimal locations and opportunities for attack. This will be the next fractal in the system of systems, below the squad level, where munitions will function in an analogous fashion to an infantry squad. This is the near-future, and it is in no way comparable to a return to the trenches. It is also why the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps made fielding these capabilities his top FD2030 investment priority.

In a precision-strike regime, where there is no need for a ground force to assault uphill into the teeth of prepared defenses, the only benefit to concentrating on strong points is the ability to develop covered (protected) defensive positions and to benefit from direct mutual support.

This certainly made sense against the Vietnamese adversary portrayed in the novel since they were heavily weighted toward light infantry while still possessing capable, if not overwhelming, indirect fires. Typically, this will not be the case in future battles where all adversaries have substantial indirect fire capabilities. Importantly, these indirect fires capabilities cannot be eliminated by gaining air superiority as we have experienced since World War II, as small elements can engage from near or far with a range of loitering munitions. This constitutes a capability shift that must be considered in any force design.

The Russo-Ukrainian War shows that digging in still provides very substantial protection, but this will become less efficacious in future conflicts when sensors are ubiquitous and a far wider range of smart munitions and uncrewed delivery systems are available. For example, increasing the incorporation of thermobaric munitions with loitering weapons will leverage the physics of enclosed protected spaces (like underground shelters) to amplify their killing effect while uncrewed and autonomous systems will be able to find apertures to access these defensive positions. While thermobaric weapons are available today, and while these novel delivery systems are technically achievable today, they have yet to be implemented at scale. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the limited use of traditional aviation, as we are seeing in Ukraine, is unlikely to be the case in many future conflicts where uncrewed and manned aviation will provide an important means for stand-off delivery of multi-stage, fractionating munitions.

Cluster munitions are highly effective and most munitions in the future will have key similarities to them—small, widely distributed, and numerous. Future munitions will be far more sophisticated than today’s artillery and aviation-delivered ordnance, and are similar only in the sense that they are deployed by other means through multi-stage delivery and fractionate upon arrival in the target area. While possible now, in the near future very small attack drones will be delivered by larger drones, aircraft, and missiles at scale. Current cluster munitions are contact or sensor fused, and by covering a wider area than a unitary munition, they create substantial challenges for the opponent, such as denying terrain. Future cluster munitions will be able to move, cooperate, and be commanded remotely or operate autonomously. Multi-stage delivery, where delivery platforms become progressively smaller but more numerous, overcomes the range and endurance challenges of small systems by delivering them to the intended target area. Thus, the basic physics of tactical engagement is changing.

The ability to concentrate effects without concentrating the means of producing them is a key design consideration for any future warfighting system. While a machinegun might have the effect of twenty riflemen, it is much easier to neutralize a concentrated gun crew serving a machinegun than twenty individual riflemen. This was understood in World War I, and the British continued to emphasize the importance of rifle fire throughout the war for this reason. It was not only the better survivability of distributed effects but also the better mobility of the effectors (rifleman). A World War I British Manual noted the mobility of a weapon depends to a great extent on the mobility of its ammunition (~nine personnel supported a Lewis Gun with ammunition).4

Today, many munitions possess their own mobility, allowing disaggregated forces to concentrate effects by “maneuvering” their munitions, vice their formations, to accommodate the logistics of supporting arms ordnance. This is another key factor to exploit when developing tomorrow’s tactical system.

Improved sensors, mines, and precision fires combine to create a No Man’s Land when combined into an effective system. Importantly, these benefits apply to the defense, perhaps leading one to logically conclude that the defense is ascendant yet again. However, this is only half of the story, with only one subcomponent of the tactical system considered. What is different is that the offensive elements of our future tactical system need not traverse No Man’s Land with humans. In many cases, the defense can be defeated with smart weaponeering of precision munitions against well-surveyed defensive positions. When this is insufficient or when terrain must be seized immediately, the ground assault need not be led by human force elements. Given that defenses are primarily focused on killing humans and gain their deterrent effect from this quality, removing humans from the attack substantially reduces the efficacy of the defense.

Fires, Fires, Everywhere
The democratization of indirect precision fires will be as revolutionary as advances in the control and employment of artillery during the First World War.

As Paddy Griffith explains in Battle Tactics of the Western Front, artillery was the most complex and significant development in the art of war in World War War I, causing approximately 60 percent of battlefield casualties. Whereas infantry experienced one casualty for every 0.5 casualties it inflicted on the opponent, artillery incurred only one casualty for every ten it generated.Artillery thus achieved substantially greater lethality efficiency than infantry during the Great War, and the world is already seeing a similar trend develop with loitering munitions in Ukraine.

We obviously lack comparable data to assess the performance of the evolving indirect fires component of FD2030’s tactical system, but it is not unreasonable to assume it will be of similar, if not greater, significance than the evolution of the artillery systems of World War I. This is not an unreasonable assumption because future fires systems will have organically mobile ammunition (loitering munitions) and will thus not need to be concentrated for the efficiency of munitions resupply. Also, traditional tube artillery will gain mobility by conversion from towed to wheeled, and missile systems will benefit from a range of new missile options (cruise and ballistic). Adding in vastly improved C2 capabilities provides connectivity to the length and breadth of the battlespace, obviating the need for a force laydown tied to the end of a fragile telephone cable terminus as was the case in World War I.

However, the biggest improvement, again, as the world is observing in the nascent stages in Ukraine, will likely be the democratization of precision indirect fires. Unlike the clear distinction between infantry and artillery as in previous wars, future wars will see infantry performing indirect fires formerly only achievable by artillery, given burgeoning organic indirect fires enabled by organic aviation. This is an instance where the overused term “multi-domain operations” is fitting.

Improved mobility and positioning options, combined with robust connectivity, provide options unimaginable in the recent past, let alone World War I. The fusion of indirect precision fires from infantry, artillery, and aviation elements could provide the greatest innovation within FD2030’s warfighting system when one factors in the range of munitions options, the mobility, dispersibility, precision targeting, precision engagement, and the information technologies that tie the system together. Factoring in the benefits of reducing counterbattery fires should these fires elements attack the opposing system effectively first, per Hughes salvo equations, the contribution will only be greater.6

Additionally, the maneuverability of loitering munitions is more similar to aviation than artillery as they can attack across any axis.In short, distributed infantry employing a family of loitering munitions can attack faster, more precisely, and from greater range than a traditional infantry/artillery team while creating effects typically associated with tactical aviation, but at much lower cost per target. These infantry elements also present a massively reduced surface for adversaries to target when compared to more complex and interdependent systems like armor.

Thus, Joint Force and Allied force design transformation efforts should embrace the democratization of aviation through the adoption of uncrewed platforms and loitering munitions, especially given that air superiority can no longer be guaranteed by traditional aviation.

Distributed operations are the nucleus of FD2030. Distributed operations are enabled by talented individuals, effective command and communications, a family of loitering munitions, uncrewed systems (air, land, surface, and subsurface), tactical electronic warfare, as well as improvements to pre-existing artillery, aviation, and mobility assets. The lethality efficiencies discussed above are significant design parameters for the FD2030 force as a whole. FD2030 delivers a distributed operations-capable, combined-arms force that balances traditional forms of fire and maneuver with novel forms of fires and maneuver to achieve a highly capable multi-purpose force with increased range and lethality.

In conclusion, the new warfighting system made possible by FD2030 recognizes and leverages the benefits of systems warfare and is perhaps the first force designed to support the systems approach addressed in the Joint Force Warfighting Concept. Of course, FD2030 is not a destination, but a dynamic journey, and the Marine Corps’ organizational design and associated force structure will continue to evolve through experimentation and battlefield experience. The Marine Corps is doing what any peacetime professional military should endeavor to do: anticipate opportunities and challenges, perform a net assessment, examine alternatives, and move boldly to develop the concepts, doctrine, and capabilities needed to leverage the opportunities and mitigate the challenges in order to ensure future success. Other elements of the U.S. Joint Force, along with America’s allies and partners, would be well-served by aggressively following suit.


1. Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

2. Stephen Biddle, “Back to the Trenches, Foreign Affairs, August 10, 2023,

3. Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).

4. Battle Tactics of the Western Front.

5. Ibid.

6. Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

7. J. Noel Williams, “Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive ,” War on the Rocks, September 8, 2017,


Marines Are Who We Are, Special Operations Are What We Do

Fellow Gazette Readers:

The ever-evolving environment we live in has and will continue to significantly shape how the Joint Force operates. The nation’s quest to outpace near-peer competitors has never been more important. Accordingly, MARFORSOC moves with purpose by acting deliberately today in preparation for a crisis or conflict tomorrow. MARFORSOC recognized an inflection point in emerging global trends and emerging threats. The need was identified for a new operating concept that not only focused on tactical actions but also creation of effects with strategic impact. In response, we created and are implementing Strategic Shaping and Reconnaissance (SSR). SSR’s premise is weighted towards illuminating, characterizing, and shaping across all domains, spanning competition to conflict. Through operational shaping and tactical reconnaissance, MARFORSOC is optimally positioned to provide Joint Force Commanders with viable options to deter, deescalate, or defeat adversarial aggression, be it towards our valued partners or our own national interests. To do this effectively means exploring how to create maximum capacity while conserving capability through internal investments and external engagements.

MARFORSOC’s modernization approach is strongly connected to the USSOCOM “SOF Next” force design and the USMC 2030 Force Design concepts. We embrace emerging technologies that best support integration, interoperability, and interdependence (I3) not only within the Special Operations Forces (SOF) enterprise but also with Marine Corps formations. Focusing on multi-domain sensing and resilient communications architectures, MARFORSOC seeks to provide a decisional advantage to connected command nodes increasing the lethality, resilience, and mission effectiveness of the warfighter. This will enable our allies and partners to recognize and respond to malign activities.

In all our eff orts to enhance our employment efficacy while balancing our resources responsibly, MARFORSOC maintains its primary platform as its number one priority: our people.

Regardless of how MARFORSOC moves forward, it is our people who will always make the difference. The Marine Raider perpetually promotes a mindset of “creator, innovator, connector,” leveraging the support of the latest technology. A Raider’s presence, along with their superb judgement, creativity, resilience, and invincible spirit, provides the access, placement, and expertise to produce the effects we seek to achieve. As we meet the many diverse and distinct demands of dynamically shifting situations, we strive to strengthen the Marine Raider legacy by generating silent professionals who ensure success today, while setting the example for future generations who will answer the call to take their place within it.

MARFORSOC proudly remains ready, resilient, and committed to shaping the operating environment to generate decisive advantage for the Joint Force. Spiritus Invictus and Semper Fidelis!

Semper Fi,

Major General, U.S. Marine Corps Commander
Marine Forces Special Operations Command

The “SOF Touch”

How MARSOC can contribute to strategic competition
>GySgt Hopper is a Marine Raider with infantry and special operations experience that spans three theaters of operations. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in International Service with American University School of International Service and a Master of Science in Defense Analysis in Special Operations and Irregular Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School.

As the United States shifts some of its focus from counterterrorism toward strategic competition with near-pear competitors, U.S. special operation forces (SOF) are left to figure out how they will contribute to U.S. strategic efforts. Of all U.S. SOF, Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) is poised to provide the “SOF Touch” needed in today’s strategic competition continuum. Where and how MARSOC can contribute its SOF Touch will first be defined by its orientation toward an objective and the development of concepts to achieve that objective.

To develop an objective, MARSOC should first view adversarial gray-zone operations as a front line in the strategic competition continuum. Today, many U.S. allies and partners face security challenges brought about from Russian or Chinese gray-zone operations. These adversarial irregular warfare operations undermine the international rules-based order and are meant to coerce or deter competing states by means below the threshold of armed conflict. Many U.S. partners and allies are left with few options for answering the security challenges brought about by adversarial gray-zone operations and turn to the U.S. for assistance. U.S. SOF need an objective of countering adversarial gray-zone operations and, by doing so, will also need to develop an indirect approach that undermines these adversarial irregular warfare campaigns.

MARSOC can work to counter adversarial gray-zone operations with an indirect approach by working to streamline the United States’ security cooperation with the partners and allies that are subject to these adversarial operations and work toward aligning U.S. government resources to counter them. MARSOC can affect adversarial gray-zone operations with an indirect approach that works to streamline existing U.S. security cooperation efforts with the partners and allies that are subject to these adversarial operations and work towards aligning the U.S. government resources best suited for the situation. The current U.S. security cooperation system contributes over $6.5 billion annually in military assistance to U.S. allies and partners worldwide. However, the system could be improved with a deeper inception of the U.S. SOF into current security assistance programs. The injection of U.S. SOF into the security assistance process will not only streamline development but will also provide emplacement and access for U.S. SOF globally and better tie U.S. SOF to the various U.S. country teams as a resource for solving problems in their respective regions.

With an objective for the U.S. SOF to disrupt adversarial gray-zone operations, MARSOC should develop an indirect special operations approach that consists of two concepts. The first is the creation of special warfare campaigns that are directed toward degrading adversarial gray-zone operations. The second is constructing specialized teams within U.S. country teams to conduct better security force assistance (SFA) centric operations with allies and partners. With the design of this new concept, MARSOC will be able to provide the much-needed SOF Touch in today’s strategic competition continuum.

A Need for Change in U.S. SOF’s Approach to Global Operations
For the past two decades, U.S. SOF has been heavily occupied with conducting counterterrorism operations. This employment led U.S. SOF to become primarily focused on a direct approach to conducting special operations. SOF’s direct approach was mostly conceptualized through direct action operations such as conducting raids on enemy compounds or kinetic operations that were unsuitable for conventional military forces to navigate.However, it is believed that reliance on a direct-only approach is insufficient when combating U.S. adversaries and that the U.S. SOF should readjust part of its efforts toward an indirect approach as well.A successful approach is one that realigns U.S. SOF toward global campaigns that work through partner-nation forces and U.S. agencies to combat global issues.3

In a 2013 report to the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “The Future of U.S. Special Operations,” the author Linda Robinson presents the shortcomings of U.S. SOF and provides recommendations for ways U.S. SOF can approach the future operating environment. Robinson explains that the lack of an indirect approach and orchestrated efforts to use special operations capabilities for long-term effects “remains the most serious operational deficit.”4 The issue is that a direct approach to conducting special operations is easy to understand and compose, but an indirect approach is difficult to conceptualize and develop.5

Robinson’s report suggests recommendations that the U.S. SOF should produce a doctrine for special operations that describes how special operations forces achieve decisive or enduring impact through the surgical application of force coupled with long-term campaigns of enabling and operating with various partners, in conjunction with other government agencies. This doctrine should include a theory of special operations that describes how they can achieve strategic or decisive impact, particularly by affecting the political level of war.6

Robinson’s recommendation is exactly where MARSOC can fit into the space of strategic competition. MARSOC possesses the ability to create a force that can provide the framework for an indirect approach in the current operating environment of strategic competition.

Adversarial Gray-Zone Operations are the Battlefields for MARSOC to Compete Against Strategic Competitors
Working through partners and allies in contested spaces should be the framework for MARSOC’s indirect approach to strategic competition. For the United States to strengthen its alliances and partnerships in its bid to maintain a competitive edge in great-power competition, MARSOC should focus on addressing the individual security needs of those allies and partners that directly contend with China or Russia in some capacity.MARSOC could further narrow its focus to disputes that allies and partners have with China or Russia where military applications across multiple domains can play to some effect. One arena for MARSOC to concentrate on is enabling U.S. allies and partners to combat adversarial gray-zone operations.

A significant example of a recent state-sponsored gray-zone campaign is China’s decades-long territorial expansion in the South China Sea (SCS). Gray zone refers to the space where states compete in multiple spheres by unorthodox means to derive the intended results of coercing or gaining an advantage over an opponent without starting a conventional conflict.China’s campaign consists of activities such as the forceful annexation of outcroppings and islands within neighboring states’ maritime territories, the building of military installations on artificially constructed islands with anti-access and denial capabilities, and illegal fishing and oil exploration practices within other states’ exclusive economic zones.All of these efforts are supported by a 5,000-vessel Chinese paramilitary maritime force that aggressively patrols, fishes, and most notably, occupies the majority of the SCS by its overwhelming presence.10 This force has even been known to ram into and sink other boats that fish legally within their respective countries’ exclusive economic zones.11

China’s maritime para-military activities are overpowering for countries like the Philippines, which do not possess an adequate maritime capability to respond effectively. To garner support, the Philippines cannot rely on mechanisms such as its mutual defense treaty with the United States because there has been no direct attack on the armed forces of the Philippine military.12 With its gray-zone campaign in the SCS, China has undermined the rules-based order and created unique challenges that allies like the Philippines cannot solve without an increase in their maritime capabilities and capacity. Support that the United States can provide that falls below the threshold of armed conflict with China.

MARSOC should see adversarial gray-zone operations as the front lines in the battle of strategic competition. Adversarial gray-zone operations are a state’s way of conducting irregular warfare to erode another state’s power, influence, or will.13 Whether those gray-zone battles take place in Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, or the Arctic, MARSOC can look to focus its efforts on countering adversarial operations to any degree possible. Adversarial gray-zone operations should receive a MARSOC indirect approach that sees special warfare campaigns aimed at working by, with, and through partners and allies to enable them to meet their security challenges. These special warfare campaigns can encompass not only the various military domains such as land, sea, or even cyber but also intergovernmental agencies that aim at strategic- or decisive-level impacts.

SFA as a Primary Means for MARSOC’s Indirect Approach to Gray Zone Activities in Strategic Competition
Security force assistance (SFA) is the activity that would allow MARSOC to accomplish its indirect approach to strategic competition. SFA is the best method of enabling partners and allies to meet their security challenges and opens the opportunity for MARSOC to build better partner capacity of self-defense and deterrence for states who are victims of adversarial gray-zone operations.

SFA is one of the U.S. SOF core activities that fall under the U.S. security cooperation umbrella and is defined as “the set of Department of Defense activities that contribute to unified action by the [U.S. Government] to support the development of capacity and capabilities of foreign security forces (FSF) and their supporting institutions. While SFA is primarily to assist a host nation to defend against internal and transnational terrorist threats to stability, it also prepares FSF to defend against external threats and to perform as part of a multi-national force.”14 Although other SOF core actives, such as foreign internal defense (FID), can also build better partner capacity and capabilities, SFA moves the focus from the tactical level further into the institutional level’s ability to engage both internal and external threats.15 Not only would SFA hinder Chinese or Russian gray-zone operations by building better-enabled opposing forces with the capacity and capabilities to diminish the effectiveness of gray-zone operations, but it would also strengthen alliances while ensuring the United States stays the partner of choice for addressing those states’ security concerns.

In an article written by the former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Gen Joseph Votel, titled “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” U.S. SOF “are optimized for providing the preeminent military contribution to a national political warfare capability because of their inherent proficiency in low-visibility, small footprint, and politically sensitive operations.”16 Votel argues that FID becomes a significant instrument of working by, with, and through indigenous forces in special warfare campaigns. These campaigns are designed to bring stability to situations brought on by adversarial gray-zone operations.17

However, Kevin D. Stringer, Chair of Education for the U.S. Irregular Warfare Center, argues in Joint Forces Quarterly that SFA should instead be used as a primary means for U.S. security cooperation with capable allies and partners.18 Stringer clarifies that FID, although similar to SFA in nature, is not enough when working toward achieving the goal of building a better-enabled and more capable partner-nation forces due to FID’s more focused emphasis on the tactical level aimed more toward internal threats. Stringer suggests that SFA is more suitable due to its focus on building better partner-nation forces institutional-level capacity and capabilities aimed more toward external threats.19

Where Can MARSOC Conduct SFA Operations?
If MARSOC were to use SFA as a means of combating adversarial gray-zone operations, it could look to interject itself into already existing platforms under the U.S. security cooperation umbrella. To allow SFA operations that are a part of a special warfare campaign to be more effective during strategic competition, MARSOC needs to better coordinate a whole of government approach by directing the numerous resources of the many departments of the U.S. country team toward its partner-nation forces’ ability to overcome the difficulties of gray-zone operations.

In some U.S. embassies around the world, SOF already maintains a small presence. As of 2022, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has officers serving as special operations liaison officers (SOLO) in over 37 countries.20 These SOLOs are important for maintaining key relationships with partner-nation forces’ SOF leadership while providing a conduit to communicate their requirements for U.S. support.21 Additionally, some U.S. embassies have joint U.S. military assistance groups (JUSMAG) that further advance security cooperation by providing millions of dollars of military equipment, aid, and the coordination of joint training with the U.S. military.22 JUSMAGs are an indispensable link in security cooperation between the U.S. government and its partners and allies as they are a channel for the Department of State’s Office of Security Assistance, which manages the distribution of over $6.5 billion in military grant assistance annually.23

The SOLO program, JUSMAG components, or even already-established U.S. SOF Augmentation Teams that are present in many of the combatant commands are avenues for the enhancement of U.S. allies’ and partners’ security capabilities. Still, they are not enough when it comes to meeting the pacing threats of China or Russia. The SOLO program is typically staffed with one officer per country. This can be a problem if the host nation has a varying degree of challenges that cross multiple domains such as land and sea. Aside from their limited capacity, the issue is each SOLO officer has a varying degree of expertise and experience. Should they be Army, they may lack the necessary guidance would their respective state develop a maritime dilemma. If they are in the Navy, they may be less experienced with land warfare.

Additionally, the JUSMAG program faces similar limitations; however, they operate in a joint environment due to being staffed by representatives from the various Services to cover different domains, their number of staff and the level of expertise also limits their ability to conduct security cooperation across a host nation’s array of forces. Depending on the size of the state’s military, partner-nation forces are comprised of untold numbers of units whose numerous requirements can be too much for only a few personnel to manage. Moreover, JUSMAGs are not staffed with U.S. SOF personnel. Aside from conventional forces, partner-nation forces are comprised of various land and sea SOF units as well. Non-SOF personnel within JUSMAGs are not suited or qualified to purchase the appropriate military equipment for these host nations’ SOF units to be able to conduct special operations.

When non-SOF personnel attempt to purchase equipment for SOF units, many of those resources provided to partner-nation forces can create problems in and of themselves. Some equipment that is purchased for partner-nation forces can be viewed as wishful thinking. Though the equipment may be sound military equipment or the latest and best in its classification and is purchased to provide needed capabilities or to enhance existing ones, the nature of the equipment in relation to the environment or conditions for its intended use may have been misunderstood. An example is the purchasing of equipment that may be too technologically advanced for units without the competency to use it. Additionally, spare parts, proper training, or sustainment resources may not be provided or cannot be procured by the partner-nation forces—creating new problems for those forces to overcome. This leaves many partner-nation forces with equipment they cannot use or equipment that is inadequate in answering the requirements for its intended use.

MARSOC elements need to have a greater involvement in the security assistance process. Without assistance, neither the SOLO nor the JUSMAG programs are not enough to fully maximize the benefits of U.S. security cooperation as both elements are limited by capacity and by the restraint of being a point of contact to the United States or only an acquisition force for U.S. security assistance. It is about getting the right equipment to the right people so that partner-nation forces are better enabled to meet their security challenges. Furthermore, JUSMAG elements do not have the wherewithal to adequately advise or assist partner nation SOF forces receiving U.S. resources regarding how that equipment and resources should be best utilized once acquired.

The SOLO and JUSMAG programs and augmentation teams can provide adequate platforms for MARSOC to advance an SFA agenda. All programs offer placement and access to host nation forces at the command level and up. But, more importantly, the JUSMAG, in particular, provides MARSOC the ability to directly link its partner-nation forces to millions of dollars of U.S. aid and equipment. Those resources could be focused on filling caps in the host nation’s existing capabilities. Gaps that are typically exploited by adversarial gray-zone operations.

For MARSOC to use SFA to combat the irregular warfare tactics its adversaries have employed for strategic competition, MARSOC should develop an indirect approach concept with two aspects. The first is the organization of teams that enable these campaigns by being a force that acts as the connecting element between partner-nation forces and U.S. country team’s assets with an agenda to enhance both U.S. security cooperation efforts and partner-nation forces’ abilities to address security challenges. The second is the development of special warfare campaigns with an objective to degrade U.S. adversaries’ irregular warfare efforts toward achieving their regional and strategic objectives. These campaigns should focus on countering malign gray-zone operations that exploit gaps in U.S. allies’ and partners’ security capacity or capabilities.

MARSOC should explore developing SFA teams with the wherewithal to operate in the space between partner nation SOF forces and U.S. country teams’ assets. These teams could provide adequate assessments to each party as to which resources to acquire and the appropriate employment of those resources. MARSOC teams can join current programs such as the SOLO, JUSMAG, or established augmentation teams to work within the U.S. country team. By attaching to these existing programs, MARSOC can swell those programs’ ranks with badly needed personnel with various technical skills, expertise, and experiences that cross various domains in conventional and SOF warfare spectrums. While MARSOC teams work to identify gaps in partner nation SOF or conventional forces’ capacity and capabilities, they can simultaneously connect the various departments within the U.S. country team to acquire the best resources to help mitigate those gaps.

Including MARSOC teams in the U.S. security cooperation architecture will help to provide the much-needed support or expertise that will streamline the process and save money. The correct equipment or resources can be identified from the beginning by interjecting special operations experts into the security assistance assessment process. The benefits from this interjection can be compounding. As MARSOC alleviates the chances of purchasing unsuitable equipment for partner-nation forces, units can get the needed equipment sooner and without the burden of problems that derive from acquiring the wrong equipment. Allowing the right units to get the right equipment or resources at the right time will enable them to focus on their mission more effectively. The United States cannot afford to waste the precious commodity of money and time in a process that can take several months to years from the assessment to the request, procurement, and arrival of the equipment or resources.

These specialized SFA teams can become the tool used in the larger concept of counter-gray-zone special warfare campaigns that MARSOC uses in its indirect approach toward special operations. Adversarial gray-zone operations have provided an opportunity for MARSOC to get into the strategic competition continuum. As Robinson pointed out in her Council on Foreign Relations report, USSOCOM needs to refocus and develop an indirect approach to conducting special operations.24 If countering gray-zone operations becomes an objective, MARSOC can provide the indirect approach that special operations can bring to the environment. The creation of special warfare campaigns whose agenda is to enable partner nations forces to counter U.S. adversaries’ operations is just the tactic needed for an indirect approach. An agenda that can align both the security requirements of a partner nation and the United States’ aim of degrading its adversaries’ ability to fulfill their regional or strategic objectives.

The embodiment of a MARSOC special warfare campaign would be a MARSOC SFA team that established itself with a U.S. embassy whose host nation was subject to an adversary gray-zone operation. The MARSOC team will coordinate with the U.S. country team to receive political and military concurrence and to determine the country-level problem. The MARSOC team can then work by developing their assessment from the ground up. Partnerships with partner nation SOF, conventional forces, or police units will provide the MARSOC teams the emplacement and access to move throughout the country to gather the ground-level detail. Partnering with multiple host nation units at the command level and up allows MARSOC teams to move throughout the country and interact with the individual units closest to the problem. MARSOC teams can then assess the units’ current capacity and capabilities and feed that data to the proper departments or agencies of the U.S. country team. Not all issues can be solved through military applications or military hardware. Therefore, MARSOC teams will have various departments or agencies of the U.S. country team to reach for their resources or permissions or to feed them the on-the-ground data that better enables those organizations the ability to complete their mission. Examples of groups for nonmilitary applications would be the U.S. Agency for Internal Development or non-governmental organizations.

Once MARSOC teams establish partnerships with host nation units and assess the situation from the ground up to provide the data to the various members of the U.S. country team, MARSOC can then work to coordinate its partner-nation forces toward degrading the gray-zone problem. Aside from determining the correct military equipment, MARSOC works to align U.S. and host nation interests in using the equipment and resources toward the gray-zone problem. By working with partner nation’s forces commands, MARSOC can work to ensure the equipment or funding from the United States is the correct equipment for its application and that the application of the equipment is put toward the purpose of its procurement. This process would take years to execute over time and require a lasting presence, but it would have a much more significant and lasting effect.

Counter-gray-zone special warfare campaigns would span multiple nations and include joint U.S. conventional military intervention. MARSOC should look to placing teams with multiple allies and partnered states who are victims of the same gray-zone issue. MARSOC teams can act as a network that coordinates with one another for guidance, to share information, or even implement joint training or coordination of the many partner-nation forces into combined efforts. Aside from coordinating with USSOCOM to develop special operations joint combined exchange training, MARSOC can also coordinate joint host nation and U.S. conventional forces training opportunities or emplacement as well. MARSOC’s forward presence with its emplacement and access allows them to determine which U.S. military conventional force or assets would benefit the host nation or U.S. interests. MARSOC can request that U.S. naval ships or Marines or Army units gain access to particular ports of interest or host nation bases for joint training opportunities. MARSOC’s coordination with the U.S. country team will marry U.S. interest to the region and be more effective at placing U.S. strategic assets in advantageous positions globally.

Why MARSOC? Because MARSOC Can Provide the SOF Touch 
For the U.S. SOF to be able to provide the SOF Touch in strategic competition, USSOCOM needs to implement an indirect approach. MARSOC is an excellent component that can adapt its force quickly and has the structure and skill to integrate into the U.S. country team and partner-nation forces. MARSOC is also endowed with the skills and expertise required for SFA missions and is designed to operate both in the land and maritime domains.

MARSOC is the ideal component for SFA special warfare campaigns because of its recent force redesign. MARSOC’s force redesign is centered around a Strategic shaping and reconnaissance (SSR) model that focuses on the operational preparation of the environment.25 MARSOC’s SSR is characterized as:

“activities conducted by special operations elements in cooperation, competition, and conflict. SSR encompasses a wide array of skills employing SOF-specific equipment to provide shaping and influence effects. SSR is conducted through a hybrid approach utilizing selected SOF core activities and programs. Effects are achieved by reconnaissance and intelligence operations, and persistently developing regional relationships.”26

MARSOC’s SSR mindset displays MARSOC’s desire to shape and influence the environment through regional relationships.

MARSOC’s SSR model can quickly structure teams for the strategic competition continuum that enhances existing security cooperation operations. Augmenting U.S. country team programs with fully enabled MARSOC teams has numerous advantages. For ally or partner countries where units are spread throughout non-permissive environments, MARSOC teams would be better suited to operate given the security challenges that embassy personnel face. MARSOC operators are optimized to work in dangerous environments, and depending on the parameters of the status of forces agreement with the host nation, MARSOC operators can be armed to provide for their security. As U.S. country team staff would be restricted to working within the National Capital Region, MARSOC teams would be able to access areas of the country to provide these staff with the needed on-the-ground data.

Just as MARSOC operators are optimized to work in non-permissive environments, MARSOC maintains various capabilities and can operate in cross domains such as land and maritime operations. This means MARSOC teams would have a wide array of knowledge and expertise readily accessible to the embassy. With that knowledge and expertise, MARSOC can identify host nation vulnerabilities being exploited by adversaries’ gray-zone operations and recommend correct and timely solutions—significantly cutting the time it would take to achieve similar results. Finally, MARSOC operators possess foreign language proficiencies and a legacy of working with indigenous forces, making MARSOC more culturally adept at operating well with partner-nation forces. With MARSOC’s SSR strategy and its tactical and technical experience in various domains of warfare, MARSOC can be a terrific force for the whole-of-government approach to solving regional or strategic problems.

In the near future, U.S. SOF can play a significant role in the strategic competition continuum. How that role is played is still being determined, but this article should serve as a catalyst for how U.S. SOF or MARSOC, particularly, could support U.S. strategic interests.

The utilization of MARSOC as an SFA element that uses counter-gray-zone special warfare campaigns that span the strategic competition continuum meets the requirements for both MARSOC and USSOCOM. The first is the embodiment of a mission for MARSOC’s latest force design that meets MARSOC’s 2030 vision and allows for the global emplacement and access of MARSOC elements from the tactical to the strategic level.27 The second is the outline for an indirect special operations approach to today’s operating environment that achieves the central means of delivering lasting effects that encompasses a by, with, and through strategy of U.S. and partners’ political, civilian, and military resources.28

As adversarial gray-zone operations become the front lines in strategic competition, an SFA-centric MARSOC campaign that stretches across many allied and partner nation-states to combat adversarial gray-zone operations will find many opportunities for employment of both U.S. SOF and conventional forces. MARSOC’s approach will align many U.S. resources already provided to partner-nation forces and direct them toward degrading adversarial gray-zone operations. Such an approach will affect U.S. adversaries’ regional or strategic objects or ambitions to some degree.

SFA is nothing new and has been a special operations core concept since the development of the U.S. SOF. For MARSOC to compete in the strategic competition, it simply needs to realign some of its focus toward SFA and capitalize on its existing talents. MARSOC’s inception into the security assistance process plays to the many advantages that SOF can provide and aids the U.S. and its allies and partners with a more streamlined practice. Ensuring allies and partners get the right equipment more quickly and without the burden of new problems would save time, money, and resources. Also, by providing on-the-ground data and tactical and technical expertise to the U.S. country team in a coordinated indirect SOF campaign to degrade adversarial gray-zone operations, MARSOC will help to improve the whole governmental approach to integrated deterrence. Once MARSOC demonstrates its value and builds a reputation with an indirect special operations approach to strategic competition, U.S. country teams may begin to request MARSOC’s SOF Touch in their regions—something that may ensure MARSOC’s relevance in U.S. strategic competition for years to come.


1. Linda Robinson, The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Office of the Presidency, Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2022).

8. Joseph L Votel, et al., “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” Joint Forces Quarterly 80, No. 1 (2016).

9. Gregory B. Poling, On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2022).

10. Lonnie D. Henley, China Maritime Report No. 21: Civilian Shipping and Maritime Militia: The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion, (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2022).

11. On Dangerous Ground.

12. Winston and Sachdeva, Raging Waters in the South China Sea: What the Battle for Supremacy Means for Southeast Asia (Irvine: Lizard Publishing, 2022).

13. Headquarters Department of the Air Force, 3-2-AFDP, Irregular-Warfare, (Washington, DC: 2020).

14. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JP 3-05, Special Operations, (Washington, DC: 2011).

15. Kevin D. Stringer, “Special Operations Forces Institution-Building: From Strategic Approach to Security Force Assistance,” Joint Force Quarterly 110, No. 3 (2023).

16. “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone.”

17. Ibid.

18. “Special Operations Forces Institution-Building.”

19. Ibid.

20. Erin Dorrance, “Spec Ops Liaison Program Evolves to Further Strengthen Partner Nation Relations,” USSOCOM, May 3, 2023,

21. Ibid.

22. U.S. Embassy Manila, “Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group,” U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, December 31, 2021,

23. State Department, “Office of Security Assistance,” United States Department of State (blog), accessed August 22, 2023,

24. The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces.

25. Mr. David Pummell, “MARSOC Operational Approach For Modernization,” Marine Corps Gazette 106, No. 1 (2022).

26. Ibid.

27. Special Operations Command U.S. Marine Corps Forces, MARSOF 2030, (Camp Lejeune: 2018).

28. The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces.

A Strategy for What Winning Looks Like

>Capt Carraway is a MAGTF Intelligence Officer with eight years of experience. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Peace, War, and Defense as well as History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, MD.


The Marine Special Operations Forces (MARSOF) 2030 strategy for the future states that the future operating environment will be characterized primarily by regional competition and instability.1 In Lawrence Freedman’s analysis on the curiously consistent failure in predicting future conflict, he sums up the current mood with:

“a common theme of those reflecting on the state of the military art was of the blurring of boundaries—between peace and war, the military and the civilian, the conventional and unconventional, the regular and the irregular, the domestic and the international, and the state and the non-state, the legitimate and the criminal.”2

A future potentiality for the geopolitical world and likely operating environment for 2040 indicates the United States will face less operational freedom and maneuver in the physical and virtual spaces compared to today. Revisionist powers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Russian Federation, and the Islamic Republic of Iran present pivot points that seek to persistently degrade the current liberal international order. Moreover, the PRC’s integrated effort to blunt the current order and build its own alternative will create a perennial undertone of strategic or great-power competition (GPC).Such priority mission requirements will be punctuated by emergent flashpoints requiring resolution by the United States as the world’s most responsible and involved stakeholder. The MARSOF 2030 strategy goes on to say that “the US response to these revisionist bids will, in many cases, be the employment of SOF to define the problem, achieve ends, and demonstrate resolve without unnecessarily escalating them into open conflict … [to] buy decision space for senior leaders to observe and orient on the problem.”Such a turbulent and complex future with an eroded U.S. strategic advantage begs the question of what winning looks like (WWLL) both for U.S. special operations forces (USSOF) in general and MARSOF in particular.

Defining What Winning Looks Like for USSOF and MARSOF
As Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), GEN Bryan Fenton characterized USSOF as “uniquely positioned to draw upon [its] joint, global, full-spectrum, all-domain capabilities to provide asymmetric options for our nation and create dilemmas for competitors, allowing our Joint Force to gain warfighting advantage and close warfighting vulnerabilities.”Under current efforts to develop a co-authored Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict-USSOCOM future operating concept, GEN Fenton lists winning to “succeed for the nation” as one of his three priorities.USSOF may win “with a range of options to deter aggression and counter coercion … [supporting] Joint Force deterrence, including by bolstering Allies’ and partners’ resilience and resistance, ensuring precision access, countering misinformation, and mitigating risk.”While the current mission and requirements are not guaranteed to last for another fifteen-plus years—against a backdrop of instability—the previous statements can be taken to derive WWLL for USSOF.

A concept for WWLL for MARSOF must be nested within the USSOF vision. Practically, this should translate each of the aforementioned requirements for MARSOF by adding the qualifier in the littorals and geographically focusing on the application of MARSOF resources in that liminal domain. Forming a MARSOF WWLL statement could look like the following:
MARSOF wins by providing a range of asymmetric options to create dilemmas for adversaries and competitors by deterring aggression, countering coercion and misinformation, and building partner capacity with precision access, while persistently mitigating risk in the littoral domain.

More conceptually, WWLL for MARSOF is creating an organizational competitive advantage with the most proficient skillset at the application of full-spectrum special operations in the littorals to support the Joint Force but, more importantly, with the ability to provide the preeminent military option bolstering a whole of government approach. Supporting the long-term MARSOF development for WWLL, the requirements for progression can be broken down into four categories to improve the current MARSOF 2030 core pathways: experimentation campaigning, operationalizing assessments, global placement and access expansion, and malign actor illumination.

MARSOF Initiatives to Posture for WWLL: Experimentation, Assessments, Expansion, and Illumination
Experimentation directly affects the posture and access capabilities of MARSOF. Experimentation extends throughout the formation and across requisite warfighting functions, foremost among them being sustainment, intelligence, information, fires, and command and control.Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) is already addressing some of the experimentation gaps here by providing an overarching concept in Strategic Shaping and Reconnaissance. Experimentation in future development must identify a flexible employment model that provides scalable units of action apart from a Marine special operations company (MSOC) that supports small footprint and low visibility operations. Acknowledging that it is a current effort for the formation, it is hard to envision a future where MARSOC has a single solution for every global and complex problem. Experimentation would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of MARSOF as a connector, combined arms for the connected arena, and the cognitive raider.

In building a MARSOF 2040 strategy, it makes sense to take a page out of former CMC Gen David Berger’s Force Design 2030 that has rippled throughout the FMF, the DOD, and civilian national security circles to include famous Marine Corps alumni such as LtGen Paul Van Riper.9 Despite critics of the current path, few can argue the significant changes and ultimate impact of Force Design or the progression of it as a methodical process throughout the Force Development Enterprise captured in the CMC’s Force Design 2030 Annual Update. If nothing else, the deliberate action of providing “directed actions” and identifying “issues requiring further analysis” is a phenomenal starting point for driving the Marine Corps Campaign of Learning and the associated Service-Level Experimentation Campaign Plan.10

A MARSOC analog to the Marine Corps Campaign of Learning and Service-Level Experimentation Campaign Plan would be the highest payoff effort in contributing to WWLL for MARSOF 2040. Such an effort would increase the requirements at the O-6 and assistant chief-of-staff levels for management and assessment; however, due to the peculiarities associated with USSOF writ large, MARSOF will need to take a more deliberate approach to develop succeeding Raider generations. This is the only way to develop an effective approach to MARSOF force design as it will not be done through the Marine Corps Force Development Enterprise or USSOF acquisitions, technology, and logistics. There exists even more fertile ground with six parallel and progressive training cycles with three units simultaneously focused on either unit training programs I or II. With deliberate and centralized experimentation planning, (12) distinct events could be leveraged for discrete experimentation efforts or specified tasks to feed an annual experimentation campaign plan. Considering MARSOC now has its first official operating concept, conditions are set for such experimentation planning. Potential priority engagements could include any of the culminating annual exercises for each TSOC that provide temporal, functional, and geographic variety. While MARSOC may change the mechanics of its pre-deployment training plan in the future, especially if the units of action are adjusted to better satisfy global force management, there will be similar versions of a pre-deployment training plan. Additionally, MARSOC purposefully employs Marine special operations teams in an experimentation capacity; however, it does not do so with other critical elements such as its direct support teams. A successful MARSOF 2040 strategy will include experimentation requirements across all aspects of its formation from the critical skills operators and special operations capability specialists (SOCS) to combat service support including intelligence, communications, and logistics. This could be as simple as signals intelligence SOCS being given new platforms and equipment to test within extant collective training events as either blue or red forces and providing formal after-action reviews to appropriate component offices (e.g. G-24 intelligence systems). Such experimentation efforts would provide positive feedback loops with a component-driven operational assessment process.

MARSOF have maintained consistent deployments on a rotational basis to the same and similar locations for an extended period throughout the Global War on Terror and associated counter-violent extremist organization missions. MARSOC has yet to capitalize on its consolidated, co-located, and relatively flat command structure to leverage its Raider brain trust for effective campaign planning and assessments. Fully acknowledging that deploying MSOCs, or whatever future units of action are provided for global force management requirements, are subordinated with designated operational control under a higher headquarters organization within the Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC), a MARSOF 2040 strategy will require more. Due to the unique Service-like authorities of USSOCOM holding combatant command authority exercised over USSOF and TSOCs as a sub-unified command, it may be more reasonable and feasible to do so than any other force provider (apart from U.S. Cyber Command).11 Assessments would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of enterprise agility and the Cognitive Raider.

With the regional alignment for Marine Raider battalions matching the established alignment of Marine Raider support battalions, MARSOC is poised at the O6 level and below to operationalize the formation outside of its standing mission to man, train, equip, and deploy MARSOF. One significant change that will have to occur to support this requirement is an adjustment in the pre-deployment training plan methodology to adjust its historic countering-violent extremist organizations (CVEO) focus to a broader lens of GPC and instability with various aspects of irregular warfare included. Similar to the point regarding experimentation, this will increase headquarters requirements at the O5 and O6 levels; however, it may provide a unique opportunity for portions of the formation that must participate in the certification, verification, and validation program outlined in USSOCOM Directive 350-12.12 Assessments are something that the DOD historically struggles with, even more so with assessments on complex problem sets. Imbuing the current command structure within MARSOC with assessment responsibilities in support of its rotationally deploying units will establish and formalize this capability for larger MARSOF operations while providing additional support to traditional MSOC deployments. With high-demand/low-density capabilities such as cyberspace operations personnel, this may also be the best method to leverage finite subject-matter expertise more efficaciously requiring familiarity with the operational problem sets at the TSOCs.

Expansion of Placement and Access
MARSOF participates in major TSOC engagements globally to a lesser extent compared with other elements of USSOCOM mainly due to the tight nature of the current supply and demand of deployable MARSOF units. In addressing a more scalable unit of action outside of a comprehensive MSOC, such as experimental Marine special operations teams or direct support teams, MARSOC may look to expand its participation globally enhancing its placement and access physically, logically, conceptually, and cognitively. Potential priority engagements could choose one exercise within SOCCENT.13 While all of these exercises are modern-day events and have no guarantees to last over the next two decades, MARSOC may deliberately look to expand its global placement and access, provide varying opportunities outside of its persistent CVEO mission, and begin to look at developing key partnerships that are crucial to supporting effective GPC. Separate from major TSOC exercises, current programs that will provide long-term benefits to MARSOF capabilities, build connective tissue with other elements of USSOCOM, and reinforce global connectivity would be participation in the USSOCOM-managed Integrated Survey Program. Expansion of placement and access would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of MARSOF as a connector and the Cognitive Raider. The three activities and investments would thus enable effective operations for malign actor illumination.

Malign Actor Illumination
The indelible mark left by the 11 September 2001 attacks has been codified, reimagined, and perpetuated in every subsequent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. Prior to 9/11, President George W. Bush’s administration prioritized both the PRC and Russia as its major foreign policy challenges requiring the attention of American grand strategy.14 In the presidential administration’s struggle to de-emphasize and rebalance from Global War on Terror, the United States, the DOD, and USSOF find themselves reimagining a form of GPC in a menagerie of terms: integrated deterrence, strategic competition, near-peer competition, and GPC. The re-entrance of USSOF to GPC in medias res creates a mission requirement that will likely persist until the middle of the 21st century with the second Chinese Communist Party centenary goal of 2049 for “national rejuvenation” and achieving “world-class” armed forces.15 The Russian problem may not persist to the same extent since a large part of the current Russian system is based around President Vladimir Putin’s cult of personality; however, this could prove false with his “program of political, economic, and military rebuilding” and essential appointment as “president for life.”16 Nevertheless, both present complex problem sets that require credible capabilities to address now, even if the Russian threat presents more like a “hurricane” and the PRC more like “climate change.”17 Illumination would support adjustments to the MARSOF 2030 pathways of MARSOF as a connector, enterprise agility, and Cognitive Raider.

MARSOF will have the ability to actively demonstrate WWLL with persistent and precise malign actor illumination. At the strategic level, MARSOF counter-PRC efforts must address “conceptual envelopment” which would generally require a greater use of a whole-of-government approach and the interagency process.18 Any counter-Russia efforts must address “liminal warfare” or better known as grey-zone warfare, sometimes referred to as hybrid warfare.19 MARSOF 2040 must build more proficiency and alacrity in leveraging unique authorities for nontraditional USSOF mission sets as counter-threat finance provides a potential asymmetric option that supports both counter strategies.20 By way of implementing MARSOC assessments to support rotational forces and expanding global placement and access with the previously discussed opportunities, a more federated approach to GPC may be the best way MARSOF supports counter-PRC and counter-Russia efforts. Supporting the USSOF enterprise, but more importantly strategic requirements from both the Defense Intelligence Enterprise and greater intelligence community within the littoral domain, could be the biggest benefit across each MARSOF pathway. Undergirded by an expansion of capabilities through a dedicated and deliberate MARSOF campaign of learning and component-level experimentation campaign plan—MARSOF 2040 can provide an overarching strategic advantage to the U.S. government, which is what winning looks like, tantamount to victory.

Conclusion: Innovating During Our Interwar Period
Characteristics of an Interwar Period. With the intentional effort to divest of the CVEO fight in light of GPC requirements, success in the future mission of 2030, 2035, or 2040 will ultimately be contingent on MARSOC’s willingness to innovate during this “interwar” period. Against the backdrop of CVEO’s transition to GPC, MARSOC may further be required to prepare for a war 1) that will occur at some indeterminate point in the future, 2) against an opponent who may not yet be identified, 3) in political conditions that one cannot accurately predict, and 4) in an arena of brutality and violence which one cannot replicate.21

Despite this explicit uncertainty, we must contend with the fact that “military cultures in particular seek to bring order and linearity to a world governed by chaotic complexity.”22 Furthermore, MARSOC may choose to accept risk here in identifying a viable adversary to plan against, much like CMC Gen Berger and the greater FMF. The MARSOC initiatives discussed provide a path for “evolutionary innovation” contingent on “organizational focus over a sustained period of time rather than on one particular individual’s capacity to guide the path of innovation for a short period of time.”23 For a successful MARSOF 2040 strategy, there is no other choice than a “long, complex process involving organizational cultures, strategic requirements, the international situation, and the capacity to learn realistic, honest lessons from past as well as present military experience.”24 MARSOC organizational culture will play a decided role in effective innovation for a winning MARSOF 2040, characterized by the “intellectual, professional, and traditional values” of its Raider culture.25 The initiatives may mold a MARSOC that can bolster the requirement for creativity, establish a culture of experimentation, operationalize the formation to support assessments, and ultimately cultivate a global mindset. Additional requirements of the Cognitive Raider will necessitate “upgrading [their] strategic education” to “win in an age of durable disorder if we understand the new rules [of war].”26 The changes are a continuation of the strategic drift in the U.S. national security enterprise since the end of President Barack Obama’s administration and the inflection point within President Donald Trump’s made most explicit in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Christian Brose described the decision making and dialogue during this period with, “It is not just what America is prepared to fight for that must change but also how the US military plans to fight.”27 While MARSOF has no control of the former, it is unequivocally responsible for facilitating the latter.

MARSOF conceptual gains that could take a decade or more to fully develop, codify, and transmit throughout the whole of USSOF may mirror the diffusion of amphibious operational expertise during the early years of World War II. With the dedicated Marine experiments throughout the interwar period, two Marine Corps major generals were selected by the Army-Navy Joint Board in 1941 to lead two Joint Training Force Headquarters beginning with four U.S. Army infantry divisions and ultimately transitioning into Atlantic and Pacific Fleet Amphibious Corps Headquarters.28 Such efforts reveal the benefit in the development of a Service strategic advantage that may then be translated to America’s fighting forces as a whole, culminating with this example in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day 6 June 1944—the largest amphibious operation in history. Strategic Shaping and Reconnaissance combined with a culture of progress may one day prove a similar contribution to WWLL for USSOF.


1. Marine Special Operations Command, MARSOF 2030, (Jacksonville: 2018).

2. Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History (New York: Public Affairs, 2019).

3. Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

4. MARSOF 2030.

5. Statement for the Record, Before the Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence & Special Operations, 118th Cong. 1 (2023) (statement of the Honorable Christopher Maier, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and General Bryan Fenton, Commander of United States Special Operations Command).

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-0 Joint Campaigns and Operations, (Washington, DC: 2022).

9. Paul Van Riper, “This is the Marine Corps Debate We Should Be Having,” Marine Corps Times, December 7, 2022,

10. Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Design 2030 Annual Update, (Washington, DC: May 2022).

11. Andrew Feickert, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress, (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2022).

12. U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-23-105163, Special Operations Forces: Better Data Necessary to Improve Oversight and Address Command and Control, (Washington, DC: 2022).

13. United States Special Operations Command, Fact Book 2023, (Tampa Bay, FL: USSOCOM Office of Communication, 2023).

14. Melvyn Leffler, “9/11 in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs 90, No. 5 (2011).

15. State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in the New Era (2019), Government of the People’s Republic of China (Beijing: 2019); and The Long Game.

16. David Kilcullen, The Dragon and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Alexander Marrow, “Kremlin Calls Vote Allowing Putin to Rule Until 2036, a Triumph as Russians Ponder His Next Move,” Reuters, July 2, 2020,

17. Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer and Paul Charon, “Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare,” War on the Rocks, January 21, 2020,

18. The Dragon and the Snakes.

19. Ibid.

20. U.S. Department of Defense, DOD Directive 5205.14 DOD Counter Threat Finance Policy, (Washington, DC: 2017).

21. Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allen Millet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

22. “Innovation: Past and Future.”

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Sean Mcfate, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (New York: William Morrow, 2019).

27. Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (New York: Hachette Books, 2020).

28. The Army-Navy Joint Board was an organizational precursor to the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff. See also Allen Millet, “Assault from the Sea: The Development of Amphibious Warfare Between the Wars,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allen Millet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Artificial Intelligence in the Marine Corps Logistics Enterprise: Part 3

Part 3: It’s not pretty: How can we start making AI progress ‘prettier’?
>See first article in series for bios.

In our first article, we discussed the definitions of artificial intelligence (AI), business analytics, data, and other similar terms to level set understanding. In our second article, we described how “ugly” the precursors of AI are within the Marine Corps logistics enterprise and alluded to fixes that must occur for successful AI implementation.

We began this research as an effort to describe how to implement AI in logistics applications. However, through our research, we uncovered an inconvenient truth that the current personnel involved in logistics do not possess the multitude of technical skills required to manage, enable, or implement AI systems.

In this article, we present to you a business case that outlines a fundamental shift in how we view our logistics operators in a data-driven world. AI applications require constant and realtime development, maintenance, and updates. AI applications are also specifically targeted at well-defined decision points. We cannot ask contractors to build thousands of different AI applications to manage deck plate issues. Global Combat Support System is our current enterprise resource planning database, and it has a lot of information that may or may not be useful, depending on the decision point at hand. However, what is more important is reliance on an individual’s ability to carve out the right data from the system, create the right inferences, then present the information to the decision maker. Business analytics, the use of technology and software tools, the creation of decision trees grounded in data, and a basic business understanding of what needs to be done must be built by our own logistics personnel. In business, executives are continually faced with a question: do they make a capability within the organization, or do they buy it by outsourcing the capability? We argue that professional skills need to be developed within Marine Corps logistics personnel instead of trying to purchase systems or contracts to develop AI applications.

The purpose of this article is to formalize our ideas about the training, education, and recruitment of logistics professionals that will enable AI development and improve our broader logistics community in a rapidly advancing technology- and data-driven world.

To achieve this purpose, this article will highlight the need for designing a sound business strategy, propose solutions that should be included in the strategy, and ensure implementation is tracked through a strategy map. Strategic implementation will ensure changes are well-founded, made based on the strategy, and not lost as leaders make permanent change of station moves and shuffle between billets. And finally, the Marine Corps can incrementally build a logistics force that is astute in the data domain.

The strategy must tackle key shortfalls:

Vision: Marine Corps logistics is at a critical decision point: take a risk to rapidly move toward the shiny object of AI without the appropriate strategic building blocks and talent, or take the prudent risk to patiently wait and build from within. A long-term strategic vision is necessary here.

Labor: Ideas like postponement and supply chain design/strategies are rooted in business analytics. So, who is responsible for business analytics? Who is trained and capable? Who has refined abilities to perform proper business analytics?

Talent: Make the capability, do not buy it. If the Marine Corps logistics enterprise decides to buy commercial solutions (consultants, contractors, or systems), they are not going to have the Marine Corps’ business understanding. Likewise, having underprepared Marines tackle the problem is like asking a right-handed person to write with their left hand. Therefore, specific talent, expertise, and aptitudes need to be brought in at the entry-level and woven into the fabric of logistics professionals.

Figure 1. (Figure provided by authors.)

To maintain a productive focus on AI implementation for logistics decision making throughout the organization, established frameworks for data mining and strategic implementation should be used. Above is an example of how IBM’s Cross-Industry Standard Process for Data Mining would support a strategic framework aimed at optimizing the supply chain (Figure 1). Notice that business understanding, data understanding, data preparation, and modeling are parts of the core structure of the chain. Data handling is the bedrock of their network design. Indeed, these core elements are the anchor points in any logistics operation—Marine Corps logistics included—no matter the desired end state. This combination of the Cross-Industry Standard Process for Data Mining and the “Framework for Supply Chain Design” is one of a thousand models of business processes and tools used in almost all industry efforts.

Solution: Enterprise-Level Conceptual, Strategic Actions
To unpack the statement below, we need to have a common understanding of business strategy, permanent structure change, operational effectiveness, and types of innovation. We will discuss each of these components; but first, here is the statement:

As the assessment in preceding articles indicates, the Marine Corps does not have a sound business strategy to keep up with advancements surrounding AI. We are stuck in stage one operational effectiveness, trying to implement AI as disruptive innovation. We do not understand that we are at the precipice of permanent change to the logistics structure regarding data usage and visualization. Data is critical because the future of supply and logistics is rooted in data. People at all levels in the organization will have to understand data, how to collect it, manage it, manipulate it, and translate it into relevant and timely decisions. The ability to do so rests in technical skills, knowledge, and access to relevant systems.

Business Strategy
Business strategy is a well-defined, overarching, and long-term plan to achieve a certain goal. Strategies include well-understood plans, timelines, goals, and assessments to be successful. The Marine Corps’ logistics challenges match what current business executives are seeing in various industries (Figure 2)—a shortfall in technical skills to perform business analytics. Businesses are aggressively identifying these gaps and deliberately developing business strategies to address the shortfall; it is a matter of survival because they are realizing that without these competitive advantages, they will not succeed against competitors who are able to make better decisions faster and more efficiently. The following statement is a synopsis of survey results from 60 senior-level supply chain executives:

They see an urgent need to get better control over their supply-chain technology, which will likely be possible only with a skilled workforce trained to use new digital tools at speed and scale. Some 90 percent of leaders surveyed say they plan to increase the amount of digital supply-chain talent within their organizations, through a combination of in-house reskilling and external hires. Just over half also expect permanent changes to their planning processes as the next normal, such as greater centralization of planning activities, shorter planning cycles, and introducing advanced-analytics techniques.1

Figure 2. The Information Warfighting Function and Stand-in Forces. (Figure provided by author.)

Therefore, if 90 percent of companies are planning to increase digital-supply-chain talent in-house and introduce advanced analytics (Figure 2), the Marine Corps should keep pace with these strategies.

Permanent Structure Change
Before such adaptations can be made, operational effectiveness must be internally supportive versus internally neutral. In his article, “Triple A Supply Chain,” Hau L. Lee describes how successful businesses tackle permanent structural changes in their organizations. He says they foster agility, adaptability, and alignment to keep pace with permanent structural changes in industry. AI is undoubtedly a permanent structural change in the way Marine Corps logistics operations will be executed and managed.Case study reviews show us that time and again, organizations that do not appropriately manage change cannot keep up with rapid and critical advances. For Marine Corps logistics, the currency is time and accuracy—sometimes the most important factor is a fast decision, and sometimes the most important factor is an accurate decision. The Marine Corps will struggle to make competitive, timely, and accurate decisions if it does not properly manage the transitional changes that lead to AI.

Lee also addresses the most common pitfalls and mistakes. He describes that supply chains often become uncompetitive because they do not adapt to changes in the structures of markets or remain aligned with the strategic objectives of the organization. Adapting to technology and data and remaining aligned with the commandant’s talent management strategies is needed. According to Lee, “companies may find it tough to accept the idea that they must keep changing, but they really have no choice” and “most companies don’t realize they face near-permanent structural changes/shifts in the market like advances in technology.”Companies must adapt to the permanent change in technology and data advancements, and the Marine Corps must do the same. At first, failure to make these appropriate adaptations will make it difficult to make the most basic logistics decisions; subsequently, it will be difficult for the Marine Corps to interface with other Services, industry logistics organizations, and open-source systems. Ultimately, it will hinder the Marine Corps from making rapid and accurate sustainment decisions to support units fighting an adversary.

Operational Effectiveness
There are four stages of operational effectiveness commonly understood in business education and execution (Figure 3). In the book, Operations and Supply Chain Management for MBAs, organizations are expected to progress through these stages to meet strategic objectives. This framework guides organizations to actions that move them to being healthy, sustainable businesses.

Marine logistics sit firmly in stage one—having poorly focused objectives, firefighting, outsourcing to experts, and being reactive. At a minimum, the Marine Corps needs to elevate its logistics operational effectiveness from stage one to stage two. The aim of achieving competitive parity with standard-setting logistics organizations like Walmart, FedEx, and West Marine is to help focus efforts and establish limits. By understanding and following industry standards, it is possible to have a benchmark for comparison. The thing the Marine Corps has in common with leading organizations is that everyone uses enterprise resource planning systems, and Oracle databases (like Global Combat Support System) are high-caliber systems. However, unlike leading companies, the Marine Corps does not hire skills and talent to utilize these resources. In fact, moving from stage one to stage three would probably be the most ideal. Our business model in the Marine Corps is unique and requires specific tailoring. Therefore, specifically formulated strategies supported by operations investments are required, in other words, alignment. Advancing to stage four is unnecessary. Stage four implies that the organization is leading development and innovation. We do not need to be ahead of commercial industry in this effort; we do not have the research and development resources. We need to be at stage four for Marine Corps warfighting, not for logistics applications.

Types of Innovation
Innovation is not truly understood without understanding where effective innovation is best implemented. In the article “How Many Supply Chain Innovations Are Truly Revolutionary?” the author discusses two kinds of innovation: sustaining and disruptive.Disruptive innovations are drastic. They change the whole idea about something—its process and design. It gets everyone excited. Sustaining innovations move organizations forward at a steadier pace with innovations and ideas that are more grounded and incremental. Executives view disruptive innovation as the shiny object in the room and as the most glamorous object to pursue. The author warns that executives tend to gravitate toward the disruptive when they should be more focused on the less exciting sustaining innovations. The author goes on to say that “incremental change represents one of the most powerful weapons companies have to stay ahead of the competition.”5

Figure 3. (Figure provided by authors.)

Wrap-Up for Strategic Enterprise-Level Solution
Is AI a sustaining innovation or is it a disruptive innovation? It should be treated as a sustaining innovation. However, it is currently and incorrectly viewed by leadership as a disruptive innovation. We must not misjudge where to align our innovation. The way companies are moving toward AI is radically different than our current logistics design. Our design should be matured through a strategic and incremental approach. We are not rejecting AI. In contrast, we agree that it is likely the way of the future, but conceptual shifts in thinking are needed to move to stage two of operational effectiveness. Therefore, our idea is to ratchet down the glam of AI and focus on sustainable measures to improve the AI building blocks or precursors discussed in our first article: data, information, knowledge, automation, and deep/machine learning. Shifting our focus on AI from a disruptive innovation to a sustaining innovation will enhance and grow our response to the permanent changes we are seeing in data and technology. There are very important things needed to strengthen our logistics capability to remain agile, adaptable, and aligned to the permanent structural changes of data and technology. Investing in people, training, and education will likely enable AI in the future as well as make us better in many other areas of logistics operations.

Solution: Immediate, Targeted Actions
We have identified achievable actions that can be developed now to prepare the logistics landscape for permanent advancements in technology and data proliferation. We outline specific logistics fault lines that must be improved to better position the logistics enterprise to compete in the data and technology domain.

Dr. Langley, a professor who teaches Supply Chain Innovation and Transformation at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business gave his answer to the question, “What are the precursors that have the best chance of success at implementing AI for logistics and supply chain management?” as follows:

Facilitating the uses of AI can be accomplished with the help of capable people who have the math and statistics qualifications to understand and implement relatively concisely defined applications of AI. This would need to include having capable talent in the relevant areas of math and statistics, in coordination with those having operational and strategic involvement in logistics and supply chain. Then, this could be a steppingstone to conceptualizing and launching a larger and more organizational-encompassing plan that would involve AI.6

Dr. Langley’s analysis is well aligned with the key observations we have made in our research and based on our experiences in the operating forces. Namely, we are lacking technical talent in entry-level (supervisory management) positions. Furthermore, the skills need to be developed and cultivated through clear talent management practices; AI is not a commercial off-the-shelf system that can be purchased.

Professional Education Opportunities (Enlisted and Officer)
Professional education opportunities are already in place to some extent in other areas, but they have not been fully executed within business analytics, for logistics. Again, the future of logistics is rooted in data, and we must firmly plant Marine talent in appropriate jobs to fully optimize the benefit of data collection. The goal is to start building a base from within our ranks that can maneuver through rapidly advancing technology and exponential information flows. A start is to direct and fund ten enlisted and ten officers to complete a certificate in business analytics from Smeal Business College, Penn State University, and then grow this number over time; make it mandatory for logistics and supply chain officers to get analytics certifications from reputable sources before attaining the rank of captain; and send Marines to formal Oracle training programs and place certified Marines within Marine Logistics Groups, Logistics Command, and Logistics Division, Installations and Logistics to function as operational, business, and data analysts.

Establish Lower-Tier Corporate Business Fellowships with Large Logistics Enterprises
Through the Marine Corps top- and intermediate-level schools, we send individuals to think tanks, academic institutions, interagency programs, as well as a few corporate businesses every year. These programs target more senior Marine officers to develop conceptual-level understanding. They do not target developing technical skills or the how-to of business operations. No one seems to be learning best practices for distribution, warehousing, procurement, or network design for holistic logistical or supply-chain operations. These opportunities and skills should be offered and taught to the lower tiers (e.g., first lieutenant, captains, sergeants, and gunnery sergeants). It would be beneficial to send logistics specialists to supply-chain industry leaders like Walmart, Home Depot, Scotts Miracle Grow, Amazon, and many others, giving them a clear directive to understand the companies’ business models, the systems, software, and technology they use, the analytics they espouse, and how all these elements translate into executive decision making.

Adjust Logistics and Supply-Related MOS Pipelines
The Marine Corps should recruit college graduates with degrees in supply chain management, statistics, data science, analytics, and other similar areas to be contracted as logistics or supply officers instead of assigning an MOS at The Basic School. To do so means to hunt for the talent we need to survive in this data environment and slowly begin to embed it within the foundation of Marine Corps logistics. Industry would never hire an art studies student to work logistics operations and data management, but the Marine Corps does. Instead, industry would recruit the specific talent that they need, and the Marine Corps should begin this process incrementally. Not all logistics and supply officers need to fit this model, but five to ten percent could be an achievable initial goal. To take it a step further, the Marine Corps should look to establish a new MOS for maintenance management officers (e.g., school trained in business analytics, data visualization, etc.).

Funded Internships for Professional Graduate Students from Relevant Degree Programs
Businesses are doing this on a large scale. Companies like Dell, Johnson & Johnson, Shell, and FedEx, to name a few, team up with universities and provide paid internships for business school students during the summer prior to their graduation. The Marine Corps could take the first step by coordinating with Smeal College of Business at Penn State University. This would strengthen the already strong Marine Corps fellowship program at Penn State. A productive start would be providing one to three positions at the MLG and Headquarters Marine Corps Installations and Logistics levels.

Strategy maps provide organizations with better visualization of strategic business processes and provide an understanding of strategy interactions. Our proposed solutions are aligned with the strategy map Figure 4 (on following page). It is essential to note that as the Marine Corps onboards talent and skills for this effort in the form of internships and recruiting efforts, those individuals need to be clearly aware that they are walking into newly defined roles. They cannot have the misperception they are walking on well-trodden paths. They will be the individuals expected to mature the effort and make progress.

Figure 4. (Figure provided by authors.)

Failure is a certainty if we remain on the current path. Right now, Marines are seeking education opportunities independently by completing degree and certification requirements on their own while often personally funding their programs. Marines that have an interest in this area are watching YouTube videos and getting self-help books to read on the weekends and after hours. This is the type of great personal initiative that we love to see in the Marine Corps, but it is not a strategic business model to follow at the enterprise logistics level.

High-Level Timeline
Billet turnovers, shifting priorities, and lack of focus will be hindrances to implementing these changes. The timescale for changes to take effect will be slow. The people and organizations that implement the changes will not be the same people and organization to assess the effectiveness and make adjustments. Therefore, understanding the timescale is critical to achieving success. Just as the Commandant’s Force Design is not a one-year project but a ten-year plan to slowly move the Marine Corps toward his vision, so also our concept to infuse targeted logistical talent within our ranks to harden Marine Corps logistics conveys long-term vision. To survive changing technologies and remain flexible and inclusive of the nature of AI and analytics involves incremental steps to populate the force with the talent needed. At a minimum, this is a five-year process to infuse the force with critical technical skills, and talented logistics and supply-chain managers. The results of this type of effort will be seen over longer periods of time, and in this case, more training, and over longer periods of time, is better. For example, sending more Marines to get formal skills will result in faster progress toward AI management.

Essentially, the goal is to use AI to make better and faster decisions. A lot of time is wasted trying to put information into context, but by understanding infographics, statistics, and probabilities, an individual can quickly put information into focus for quicker and better decisions. Humans conducting analytics are the foundation to stay in step with changing information and technology environments. To keep pace with future innovative advancements like AI, employing the correct people is a top priority, then the systems—not the other way around. For example, only trained drivers drive Formula One race cars. If a random person is asked to drive the car, he would not even know how to get in, much less buckle in and start the vehicle—and then drive it? He would be lost. The environment is foreign, and the levers, buttons, and diagnostics would be meaningless. Business analytics tools and AI are high-performance vehicles. Without the proper talent and training, a person is looking at blank screens and mounds of data that mean nothing. Great information is embedded within the tools Marines use. Having talented Marines with the background and training in advanced analytics is critical to “driving” the AI innovations of the future. Having the types of people that will drive AI innovation involves taking what we have— plenty of Marines that possess a deep understanding of Marine Corps logistics and supply—and giving them the skills and education required to push business analytics into AI applications.

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, but he is not going there tomorrow. He and many others in his organizations have been working for over a decade with many precursors and contributing factors to inch closer to the goal. The DOD, the Joint Staff, and the Marine Corps all want some level of AI. This is a great vision and something we should move toward, but it will not happen overnight. There are precursors and contributions that must be made to get us there smartly.

These articles represent our contribution to the vision of implementing AI in Marine Corps logistics. We hope others will build on the concepts we have mentioned and take it to the next phase of development.


1. Knut Alicke, Richa Gupta, and Vera Trautwein, “Resetting Supply Chains for the Next Normal,” McKinsey, July 21, 2020,

2. Hau Lee, “The Triple-A Supply Chain,” Harvard Business Review, October 2004,

3. Ibid.

4. Jim Rice, “How Many Supply Chain Innovations Are Truly Revolutionary?” Supply Chain 24/7, January 2019,

5. Ibid.

6. Email correspondence between authors and Dr. Langley in June 2022.

Artificial Intelligence in the Marine Corps Logistics Enterprise: Part 2

Part 2: It’s not pretty: How ugly is AI progress in the Marine Corps logistics?
>See Part 1 for bios.

This is the second article in our three-part series. The first article discussed the topic of artificial intelligence and how it relates to Marine Corps logistics operations. This article describes how the advancement of our logistics enterprise toward artificial intelligence (AI) cannot rest on highly developed technologies alone.

LtCol Wolfe: I was a previous commander of the 3rd Supply Battalion, a large multifunctional logistics organization; I had a 75 percent and 25 percent rule. Success and effectiveness in running an organization extend beyond effectiveness and efficiency at the operations level. Seventy-five percent of my time was devoted to the tone, temper, and climate of the organization. In other words, things like vision, influence, morale, equality, leadership, mentorship, and decision making affect the entire organization. Beyond this, there were the daily requirements that consumed my time: substance abuse control, legal matters, personnel management, medical/dental readiness, training, inspections, safety, career planning, package routing, maintenance, facilities, budget, and the endless amount of paperwork that must be signed. Twenty-five percent of my time was left over for operations improvement and development. I focused on the conceptual aspects of command, not the technical ones. I relied on and trusted the technical acumen of those professionals embedded within the organization.

Maj Barnes: I was the operations officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 22, a small battalion with a broad set of capabilities (motor transportation, maintenance, medical readiness, supply, engineering, landing support, explosive ordnance disposal, and communications). The battalion had roughly 300 Marines and sailors who possessed around 80 occupational specialties. Due to the broad scope and narrow depth of the battalion, all personnel issues and considerations were unequivocally linked to battalion operations—Marines and sailors become the “one-of-one” capability. The cornerstone of the job was a balancing act to ensure capabilities are maintained and ready amidst incredibly dynamic personnel shifts (permanent change of station orders, promotions, disciplinary actions, end of service, injuries, etc.).

The Problem: Conceptually
The Marine Corps has a group of smart officers that adapt very well. The Marine Corps culture fosters adaptability and decision making with uncertainty extremely well. Unfortunately, the manpower system pays little attention to innate talents, college degrees, or commercial work history. It does not seem to be recruiting specific talent to handle our future data-driven challenges. Instead, it is purely a numbers game. For example, the offensive coordinator does not recruit specific quarterback talent from a pool of college baseball and minor league players. Likewise, Amazon is not recruiting supply chain managers or business analytics or distribution experts from the geology department at Penn State; they are looking for top-performing applicants from the business and statistics departments who have internship experience. The Basic School is often the luck of the draw, with Marines thrown into the logistics world with no formal understanding or passion for the field, and they then receive cursory training in our schoolhouses. There is no clear path to an advanced understanding of how logistics operate and the data that supports decisions and feeds new technology. Some military skills need to be developed within the Marine Corps because there is not a commercial industry talent pool: infantry, artillery, etc. However, this is not the case with logistics. Logistics and analytics are in every industry, every university, and every business model. But the Marine Corps training model for logistics and supply officers takes a wide range of individuals and begins their training from zero. This method does not allow for gaining efficiencies provided by university degrees or the latest industry applications. Progress, improvements, and innovation are systematically stunted by the current methods of assigning occupational specialties.

The battleground for AI progress is ugly and full of shortfalls that must be addressed. We will describe the people and skills shortfalls within the Marine Corps’ logistics enterprise, which we believe must be addressed prior to the exploitation of AI. We are not saying that we are bad at logistics; however, through the spectrum of business analytics, the Marine Corps logistics enterprise is not prepared to transition current practices toward AI for logistics command and control and decision making. Logisticians across the Marine Corps possess the conceptual understanding, but there is an exceptionally large gap in the technical abilities to transition raw data and information into useful AI systems.

We propose that our logistics business structure is off. Structurally, Marine Corps logistics is missing key business attributes within its skills progression. Do not be fooled—the Marine Corps logistics enterprise is a business, even though the business is not driven by profit. It is a business because it is driven by decisions about how to manage scarce resources. Business analytics is a significant technical skill required at supervisory and middle management levels, and we propose that it is an altogether missing element in the administration of our logistics structure. Advanced systems will not solve people problems. Back to the football example, a perfect system, designed by the greatest football offensive coordinator, will not reach its full potential without appropriately skilled players to execute it. So, who are the players?

Data Skills Requirement
The major players in implementing artificial intelligence must possess two critical attributes. First, they must have a deep understanding of Marine Corps logistics. Secondly, they must have a high aptitude for technical skills around data analytics.

In the previous article, we described that business analytics is the precursor to artificial intelligence. We also explained that business analytics encompasses data, information, and knowledge. To expand on that concept further, the science of analytics is generally divided into three fields of study: descriptive analytics, predictive analytics, and prescriptive analytics. The core competencies of descriptive analytics are rooted in statistical analysis. Predictive analytics builds on descriptive by creating models to predict outcomes based on information. And, finally, prescriptive analytics focuses on what should happen in the future. In other words, based on the predictions, what decision should be made to affect the predicted outcome?

Across the three fields of analytics, data visualization is a key component. Data visualization serves two very critical functions. First, the human brain has strong and natural abilities to observe patterns. Therefore, data visualization is a critical step for understanding data and relationships. Second, data visualization is a very powerful tool to convey relationships and communicate concepts to individuals with a wide range of skills and abilities. Data visualization makes concepts from analytics tangible and understandable to people, even when they do not fully understand the deepest technical aspects.

Business analytics software generally falls into two categories: business intelligence and business analytics applications. According to IBM, business intelligence is “an umbrella term for the technology that enables data preparation, data mining, data management, and data visualization.”The software company, Oracle Corporation, compares business intelligence and business analytics by stating the purpose of business analytics:  To make data-driven predictions about the likelihood of future outcomes, business analytics uses next-generation technology, such as machine learning, data visualization, and natural language query.2

The variety of available tools and resources to perform business analytics/intelligence are too numerous to cover in this article. However, it is worth mentioning a few entry-level software platforms that are well-known and highly used. First and foremost, Excel can run various basic analytics and Marine Corps logistics personnel do not typically scratch the surface of its inherent capabilities; for example, think solver. Going beyond Excel, other powerful data analytics programs include PowerBI, Tableau, R, and R-studio. These programs are more powerful than Excel and are specifically designed to perform business analytics/intelligence tasks. These programs are important because they are capable of handling data and transforming information into actionable insights to inform leaders as they make decisions.

Current, Disorganized Systems
Maj Barnes: While at Penn State, I chose to pursue a professional certification in business analytics in addition to a master’s degree in supply chain management. During the coursework, my eyes were opened to the expansive world of business analytics and its applications. Reflecting on what I learned in the classroom, I looked back on my recent operations officer billet. I had hands-on, daily interaction with a multitude of digital platforms to perform and track battalion operations. The best way to describe the experience is segregated and misaligned. It is a common occurrence that, when there is a data call for training, organizations will use Marine Corps Training Information System metrics, but the Marine Corps Training Information System does not match the morning report, and the morning report is different than 3270 because updates are pending. Then, once the final roster is identified, it is discovered that a lance corporal that checked in two days ago received the training at his previous unit, but it never got entered. Furthermore, there is a corporal that checked out of the unit on temporary-duty orders 25 days ago, but he is at a remote training location and cannot be reached, and he did not receive the training that is reflected in our Marine Corps Training Information System. The S-1, S-3, sergeants major, and the individual sections spend hours tracking this information down. All this is, of course, happening in the background as general update briefs, along with PowerPoint representations of maintenance readiness information, are being refreshed. Furthermore, there is other information that must be collected, analyzed, and reported for readiness reporting in DRRS-MC. Put simply, it is too much—too much information, too many systems, and too much redundant effort.

Excess in anything is not a good thing. There are seven deadly sins in supply chain management implementation that are routinely discussed, one of which is having too many options from which to choose.In our search among high-level organizations, it was discovered that the Marine Corps logistics enterprise has over one hundred information systems that are used, partially used, or available but ignored by the logistics community, and it is unclear who owns and controls the systems. There are too many managing systems functioning in fast-changing environments. Too many tools and data repositories lurk in the shadows. It is hard to keep pace and know where these systems hide. Most do not interact with one another; rather, they are silos that operate independently. The number of systems is so numerous that many officers do not know they exist, much less how to maneuver within them. Marine Corps logistics information and data are everywhere and nowhere. AI cannot save that business model.

Data collection is a good thing, but with unbounded collection comes risk; indeed, too much data can be worse than not enough. It is clear that there is a wide variety of elements within Marine Corps logistics production that must be monitored. Collecting everything just because it is easy to gather the data is not an appropriate monitoring system.Too much irrelevant data can hide the more valuable data and make an already complex and disjointed network of systems more complex, resulting in faulty control measures that keep repeating themselves. Silo monitoring policies from shadow logistics element “mafias” has added to the dilemma. In the end, if we want our systems to have better performance, we must simplify data collection, alter the processes, and have personnel on hand who fully understand analytics. AI will not fix these persistent process gaps. Therefore, AI should not be viewed as a savior for something that is deeply rooted within our core business practices:
Digital waste is especially detrimental to the supply chain. It refers to redundant or unnecessary data that is collected, managed, and stored for no tactical or strategic reason. The amount of digital waste within an organization is typically great. It increases exponentially when one considers the data flow among members in a supply chain.5

AI implementation requires special analytics talent and skills. Determining where to position the talent is a critical decision in an organization as large as the Marine Corps. The division of labor is not only broken down between officer and enlisted but goes much further into a large array of MOSs.

Within the managerial hierarchy, there are essentially three levels—top, middle, and supervisory. Top-level managers are responsible for controlling and overseeing the entire organization. Middle-level managers are responsible for executing organizational plans which comply with the company’s policies. They act as an intermediary between top-level and supervisory-level management. Supervisory-level managers focus on the execution of tasks and deliverables and serving as role models for the employees they supervise.6

Figure 1. (Figure provided by authors.)

In any organization, there are certain skills associated with each management position. These skills are technical, human, and conceptual. The transition of technical, human, and conceptual skills corresponding with the supervisory, middle, and top management roles is a well-described framework in the business environment (Figure 1). Looking specifically at the business skills required for Marine Corps logistics operations at the battalion level, the top management are the battalion commander, majors, and sergeants major; middle management is captains, CWO3-CWO4, master sergeants, first sergeants, and gunnery sergeants; and supervisory management is first/second lieutenants, CWO/CWO2, and corporals through staff sergeants.

Not all levels of management need the same skills and points of view shift depending on an individual’s level. For example, a general officer does not view the skills framework from the same perspective as a battalion commander. At the level of general officer, it is very easy to imagine how battalion commanders can be considered middle management (possibly even supervisory management) when there are regiments, divisions/groups, and MEFs between the most senior generals and battalions. With respect to AI and supply and logistics operations, the supervisory management level requires understanding independent versus dependent variables, knowing how to make statistical predictions, and understanding the scope of the data needed (e.g., six weeks or ten years’ worth). I (Maj Barnes) did not learn these things until participating in my intermediate-level resident school at Penn State—too late when I am already at the top management level, where conceptual thinking prevails over technical.

LtCol Wolfe: In my previous organizations, (for example, Supply Battalion) we collected a lot of data. In my conceptual leadership role, I did not have the time, resources, or, unfortunately, the training in higher-level analytic skills to precisely develop, read, or formulate massive amounts of data and information into something actionable. Holistically speaking, I was already past the technical and was operating from a conceptual level. I relied on supervisory- and middle-level managers to oversee this task. All the while knowing that the business-level analytics needed was not taught in Marine Corps schools. This knowledge gap forced my personnel to learn on the go, and often on their own. My CWOs, who specialized in specific domains of logistics, had to take personal initiative to get up to speed with industry to stay above water. I was keenly aware that most of my staff were not trained for that type of technical understanding. Additionally, prior to my assignment with Supply Battalion, I had served as the Field Supply Maintenance Analysis Office–Western Pacific officer in charge. In this data-centric organization, I also saw that something was missing within all the Marine units my teams analyzed. Not until becoming a fellow at Penn State and participating in the supply chain management coursework did I realize the missing component was business analytics. Today, these functions are often the cornerstones for advances in operations at any level of commercial business operation. If any organization should have the training, specialized skills, and current industry supply chain management tools to assist with analytics, it should be the supply battalions and Field Supply Maintenance Analysis Office–Western Pacific, yet neither did! Unfortunately, the norm is to fall back to spreadsheets or ACCESS, regurgitate the data into it, and then attempt as well as possible to formulate conclusions. My experience highlights an area where the Marine Corps logistics enterprise is behind in advanced business analytics. With these skills being the cornerstone of AI, Marine Corps logistics is not positioned to establish AI systems and practices.

In conclusion, no matter your point of view, information wrangling requires the technical understanding of middle and supervisory managers. Logistics technology, information systems, and business analytics tools are not commonplace in our entry- or mid-level training models. We tend to be broad in scope and rarely, if at all, incorporate commercial industry practices or state-of-art tools to implement advanced analytics for logistics operations.

Current Skill Set Pipeline
It is unnecessary for the Marine Corps to create its own talent pool of software engineers that can develop from scratch these complex systems. That is a bridge too far. However, Marine Corps logistics does not have a group of professionals with the technical skills to manage data on an advanced level. Rather, there is a pool of Marines looking at white noise, trying to understand what it means and where it may fit into complex AI systems or even basic decision making.

Brooks McKinney, in his Northrop Grumman article, “Defense AI Technology: Worlds Apart from Commercial AI,” says:

AI is not simply a “bolt-on” capability that will make everything more capable than before. It doesn’t instantly make things smarter. AI must be integrated into a system from the ground up. According to Jackson Bursch, an AI software engineer for Northrop Grumman, defense AI requires a diverse skill set, including more disciplines than the domain of software engineering. “We’re not just developing software, we’re developing complex systems that work in every domain,” he explained, So, we need people who specialize in specific sensors for data collection, others who can build AI software and still others who can handle the network engineering that connects those sensors to our software.

Figure 2. (Figure provided by authors.)

Talent Management 2030 states, “Every Marine treated like a round peg, every billet like a round hole.” The tangible aspect of this concept in the logistics community is that there are approximately 1,540 second lieutenants through captains with a supply or logistics MOS. The 1,540 Marine officers in that category have approximately 170 degrees among them (Figure 2). The degrees range from ocean engineering and forestry to advertising, art studies, and biblical studies.

Therefore, these individuals were processed as if through a meat grinder. In other words, they were assigned a supply or logistics MOS, sent to three months of supply and logistics school, and then assigned as maintenance management officers, platoon commanders, supply account holders, etc. Logistics problems have always been calculus problems—constantly changing in space, time, and scope. The future of logistics problems will be driven by data, restricted communications, and deep understanding. As an example, consider the following situation.

A logistics unit will be on the move from Objective D to Objective E. They know Objective E is seven days away. The maintenance team is thinking about where they will be seven days from now. Due to communications restrictions and security considerations, it is unsafe to transmit from the locations. So, the team programs a quadcopter to take off from Objective D in three days. Therefore, they will be four days from Objective E with new requirements. Applying an eighty percent accuracy to the timeline, what are the high and low estimates of the team’s actual arrival? What are the risk factors of early or late delivery? What will the future requirement be?

To think about data and information in this manner, both the person transmitting and receiving the information must understand probabilities, error rates, sensitivity analysis, rates of change, and so forth. LtGen Wissler (Ret), in his article, “Logistics: The Life Blood of Military Power,” says that logistics is the most complex capability provided by the military. The depth, breadth, and scope of logistics are immense and intricate. Alan Estevez, former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics says, “Logistics isn’t rocket science … it’s much harder!”7

The skills gap does not go away by redefining roles. One could argue that all officers must be conceptual thinkers, or that filling unrestricted officer seats by targeting specific business analytics skills would be too restricted. These arguments make sense because leaders that are required to make decisions and influence outcomes are needed and are a major part of the management hierarchy. However, recruiting talent in this specific way results in an enlisted skills gap. From either point of view, the skills gap remains; it simply shifts from a shortfall in the officer population to the enlisted population. In contrast, industry is specifically targeting these skills in their recruitment. If they need a supply chain manager or business analytics skill set, they are not recruiting forestry majors from college or the workforce; rather, they are targeting the skills they need. This goes back to Figure 1 and identifying where the organization needs the technical skills.

System Security and Bureaucracy
Another strategic business consideration is that, if we had the talent pool today, the bureaucracies and security measures in place would prevent these individuals from accessing the tools required to perform AI precursors of analytics. Delving into the systems and information security risks that are naturally inherent to the subject is beyond the scope of these articles, and indeed, free-flowing information and unhindered access to data is a risk. Furthermore, open-source programs are an integral part of developing AI systems. In the article, “Why Is Open-Source So Important? Part One: Principles and Parity,” the authors discuss the importance of open-source programs.

‘For every single branch of IoT and AI there’s an army of companies competing to have their technology become the ‘new standard,’ says Ontañon, ‘those companies developing their technology the open-source way are in a much better position to get ahead of the rest.’ Quite simply, this is because open-source technology has thousands of skilled workers building, checking, and testing code in real-time and in any number of different applications, and thousands of heads are better than one.8

It would be a monumental hurdle for a lieutenant to get permission to have a lot of leading-edge tools such as PowerBI and Microsoft Project, which are basic business tools. Access to open-source tools like R-Studio and Tableau is even harder and more restrictive, with limited licenses. With systematic Marine Corps restrictions on commercial industry logistics tools, the transition to artificial intelligence cannot be realized at a rapid pace.

From our perspective, data overload, skills and talent shortfalls, thousands of people with hundreds of degrees and multitudes of occupational specialties, hundreds of systems, untethered information collection, and restricted software access in the logistics and supply community makes the landscape for AI implementation very ugly. This is a system in disarray. Moreover, artificial intelligence and data analysis are rapidly developing fields, and staying at the cutting edge requires serious strategic decisions aligned with future visions.

In our next article, we will present and discuss solutions that would chip away at the ugly, making it prettier for AI and other advanced technology to flourish.


1. IBM Corporation, “IBM Docs,” IBM, March 8, 2021,

2. Oracle, “What Is Business Analytics?” Business Analytics, n.d.,

3. Inbound Logistics, “Seven Deadly Supply Chain Sins,” Inbound Logistics, January 1, 2004,

4. Jack Meredith and Scott Shaffer, Operations and Supply Chain Management for MBAs (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2020).

5. Ibid.

6. Emily Barr, “The 3 Different Levels of Management,” SpriggHR, July 15, 2022,

7. John Wissler, “Logistics: The Lifeblood of Military Power,” The Heritage Foundation, October 4, 2018,

8. Charles Towers-Clark, “Why Is Open-Source So Important? Part One: Principles and Parity,” Forbes, September 24, 2019,

Quote to Ponder

“What makes the general’s task so difficult is the necessity of feeding so many men and animals. If he allows himself to be guided by the supply officers he will never move and his expedition will fail.”
—Napoleon, Maxims of War, 1831