Equipping the Force

By Col Thaddeus Jankowski, USMCR

Then-LTC Paul Yingling, USA, famously published “A Failure in Generalship” (Armed Forces Journal, 1 May 2007) at the height of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF), cautioning that the United States was at risk of losing a second war in a generation. Deliberately forgotten lessons from Vietnam had threatened success in OIF. Success in OIF was also threatened by leadership shortcomings far from the battlefield, occurring deep in what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates termed the “Pentagon establishment.”

The Marine Corps’ mission is unique relative to other Services, but its support establishment is not. Mr. Gates repeatedly criticized the Pentagon establishment, including the Marine Corps portion of that establishment. Cultural precedent predicts future behavior, so the Marine Corps’ development of a new amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) capability is a worthy topic. This article presents the need for reform, addresses common counterarguments, and provides 10 guidelines required to build the next expeditionary fighting vehicle (EFV). Requirements for ship-to-objective maneuver must necessarily begin with maneuver in Quantico, else we’ll have impressive tactics but no way to execute them. Reform of the Pentagon establishment is a very important “warfighting” innovation: like it or not, the rate of technological change is increasing, and the importance of technology relative to other aspects of strategy is also increasing. Relevant amphibious forces for a combatant commander require a relevant support establishment.

Critiquing the support establishment organizational character is timely. Looking beyond OIF and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF), we seek to reset core amphibious capabilities. Even though the Corps is exemplary at counterinsurgency (COIN), COIN is not our Title 10 justification.

Now, leveraging the national pivot back to the Pacific region, we refocus on the amphibious mission. In refocusing, the Corps demonstrates some intellectual agility. But an expeditionary vision languishes as a mere hallucination if combat developers cannot realize it. The Marine Corps’ development of the ACV capability is critical in this: Marine Corps innovators must keep pace.

ACV innovation has been the charge of Supporting Establishment leaders, including generals who excelled operationally. The EFV program’s 2010 cancellation followed decades of chronic program underperformance. Outsiders unfamiliar with how Quantico really works ask how such a failure was even possible. The EFV was a top priority, and senior officers with distinguished careers were leading it throughout. What went wrong? How could the Marine Corps spend $3 billion in 30 years without producing a functioning vehicle? Is a failure of Marine generalship even conceivable? And if so, how do we make sure our next EFV-like initiative does not likewise fail? It is, after all, in the Supporting Establishment that the technology-dependent future of the Marine Corps is hatched and grown.

The EFV similarities to recent equipping debacles are compelling. Everything regarding combat development should be on the table for overhaul including organizations, their functions, recorded behaviors, and typical habits of leadership. Headquarters Marine Corps and other Marine and Joint influences warrant scrutiny. But in understanding the most problematic of the Supporting Establishment’s frameworks of thought, this discussion focuses on Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) and Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC).

Past As Prologue

During OIF/OEF a stark contrast existed between the performances of Marine Corps combat units and the Supporting Establishment organizations that equip them. Operating units were rightly praised for physical courage, adaptability, and foresight, while several very important Supporting Establishment decisions resulted in repeated, withering criticism for misplaced priorities and inertia. Repeated excoriations for lack of moral courage also came from the highest levels of the U.S. Government.

Throughout OIF we witnessed several high-profile cases where MCCDC/MCSC collectively failed to adequately prepare for or respond to capability gaps in the field. For example, the Marine Corps’ foreknowledge that the up-armored HMMWV would be a “deathtrap” when encountering landmines comes to mind. Alerted by experts in the 1990s who foresaw the tragic carnage that landmines would cause, MCCDC planners had no contingency plans for those vehicles. South African wheeled vehicles (from the 1970s) were even studied in 1989 at the Infantry Officer Course, right before going out to practice “hardening” a vehicle by stacking sandbags around the cabs of 5-ton trucks. If second lieutenants knew about South African vehicles in the 1980s, wheeled vehicle planners had to be aware of them. Worse, even after quantitative battlefield data was provided, the establishment in Quantico was still trying to minimize the number of MRAPs purchased irrespective of their utility on the battlefield.

Senior Department of Defense (DoD) and Congressional leadership obviously concluded that thousands were killed and wounded unnecessarily. Only an embarrassing spotlight forced MCCDC and MCSC staffs to correct armor and other neglected areas. The Naval Audit Service Report on the Marine Corps’ urgent universal needs process (28 September 2007) eventually led to a new Marine Corps order on urgent needs, forcing Quantico bureaucrats to apply at least some maneuver warfare principles to their areas of responsibility. Remember: Maneuver warfare theory does not just apply to the battlefield. Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret), also quoted Taiichi Ohno, applying Ohno’s perspectives on maneuver in business to his military theory.

Unfortunately, MCCDC has not been fundamentally reformed. The same culture that enabled unnecessary OIF casualties and the EFV cancellation appears to be intact. Organizational adjustments have evidently occurred to decrease some civilian influence, but no officers or bureaucrats have been held accountable. The same personnel continue in Quantico—those who neither foresaw the need for COIN toolsets nor exhibited moral courage to change priorities when battlefield realities were repeatedly documented for them. These permanent personnel remain in place and continue to get promoted.

With OIF at an end and OEF drawing to a close, Marine Corps Order 3900.17, The Marine Corps Urgent Needs Process (UNP) and Urgent Universal Need Statement (Urgent UNS) (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, 17 October 2008), has lost its immediacy and bite. As with similar instances in nature where accountability and consequences are absent, the spotlight gets turned off and the problems invariably return. This is especially true whenever transient and overwhelmingly nontechnical operators are at the helm.


Some dispute any assertion that leadership, vision, or execution were lacking, flatly contradicting 4 years of speeches from Mr. Gates. They repeat the traditional Marine argument that leaders who perform well operationally can perform well anywhere, including in the Supporting Establishment. They tell us leadership is a fungible character quality. A generalist is sufficient at the top, assuming that competent and honest subordinates permanently populate the staff. Marines at all levels rise to new challenges. And by placing revered general officers in charge of organizations like MCCDC, permanent personnel are energized. Technological foresight is not so difficult that retired or former officers cannot populate the MCCDC/MCSC staffs.

Supporting Establishment leaders had the opportunity to critique a draft of this article in October 2013. One identified a recent decrease in civilian influence in MCCDC. This is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, but suggests the Hydra can actually be defeated with minimal reform effort. Another leader mentioned that there are no examples herein postdating 2011, as if to suggest meaningful change in MCCDC actually has occurred since 2011. Yet, if MCCDC really has been reformed, why do calls for reform still continue? How many more calls for comprehensive, expansive change must there be in military management technology? Experience in leading change—not to mention change management literature—suggests that leading change in large organizations requires a much more fundamental overhaul.

Given the hubris in the Pentagon establishment, reformers’ critiques are reflexively discounted by officers with dubious backgrounds in technological foresight. Important calls for reform continue in 2014. Senior DoD leaders advocate fundamental overhaul. Examples: The January/February 2014 issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine featured an article by recently retired Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Ashton B. Carter, entitled “Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need.” On 24 June 2014, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Resources and Plans, Dr. Christopher J. Lamb, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on very similar themes. Finally, recall the slow-burning anger in former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ autobiography! Calls for reform are not just coming from one Reserve colonel.

If these minor changes were really efficacious, if these counterarguments were really plausible, the EFV would be available right now for amphibious contingencies. If they were plausible, Mr. Gates, the U.S. Congress, and DoD auditors would not have felt compelled to intervene in Marine Corps combat development and acquisition processes to insist on rapid and immediate change, to stem the rise in OIF casualties. The media would have had no incentive to dedicate an inordinate amount of time, ink, and bandwidth to report on Marine Corps casualty and combat equipping issues if they had no basis in fact.

Egregious Supporting Establishment failures not coincidentally occurred during OIF on the watches of general officers whose operational credentials were superior. Misunderstanding of technological innovation is common. Active duty officers have the same basic set of very deep and very narrow training and experience. Structural reasons in academia exacerbate this knowledge gap, a topic for another monograph.

With the recent and parallel experience of OIF/OEF as a backdrop, we can now focus on the to-date futile effort to replace the amphibious assault vehicle (AAV).

Ten Guidelines for a New ACV

We know the proverbial definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. The following 10 principles can guide Marine Corps officers as we consider our next attempt to replace the AAV.

Question every assumption about how to do business in MCCDC and MCSC. What did Boyd say when he took over the F–X (F–15) development program? Start with a blank sheet of paper. Start with cold air comes in the front, and hot compressed air goes out the back. Similarly, when Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (MCDP 1) (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, March 1989), was first published, Boyd warned senior Marine Corps officers not to let doctrine become dogma. Without reform in Quantico, we will likely make the same errors the Air Force’s F–X (F–15) program was making before Boyd got involved. MCCDC/MCSC need a multiyear, comprehensive reform program planned as carefully as former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Al M. Gray, planned and executed the maneuver warfare revolution. Both crisis technology planning during OIF/OEF and deliberate technology planning experiences warrant this rethinking.

Don’t just tolerate the proven innovators—embrace them as you embrace chaos on the battlefield.

The proven military innovator is sometimes—but not always—a maverick. The innovator is a thoroughbred looking for a track to run on. He might see the world just a little bit differently than that all-too-common officer who is always yearning for his next command (to be Someone) and speaking derisively of staff jobs (to do Something). Yet it is that diversity of thought that makes him valuable—say, for example, in avoiding thousands and thousands and many more thousands of unnecessary casualties, as we all observed in OIF and OEF.

Using the innovators is often more effective.

Toolsets initiated using military innovators are usually much more effective in combat and much less expensive for the taxpayer. Consider the Higgins boat (World War II), the light armored vehicle (1980s), and the MRAP (2005–07). Consider the deliberate stalling and roadblocks placed in the way of GBOSS (Ground-Based Operational Surveillance System) (2006), or short-sheeting unmanned aircraft system requirements (2006–07). All of these examples have been variously written about in military biographies, the Small Wars Journal, and multiple internal audits. All these ideas were born outside typical Quantico innovation processes. All were resisted in varying degrees before they were embraced. Yet these toolsets all proved to be highly useful in combat.

Hold Quantico bureaucrats to the same standards of integrity that we require of officers in the field.

For example, fire anyone in MCCDC or MCSC who engages in character assassination. This is the seedy side of what it means for a retired officer to attempt to hold on to power over budgets. This tactic is not uncommon. When an officer proposes change, all too often the establishment intentionally generates fog and sows confusion as a means to keep control of budgets. Officers and civilians in MCCDC start ludicrous rumors about an individual that, once repeated, become “true.” Since the imagined “truth” is convenient, it is allowed to stand, because it serves the end of protecting existing programs. This author’s contempt for this particular tactic is grounded in direct, repeated, personal observation.

Put your innovators in charge of new initiatives like the ACV. In the late 1960s, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force did the unthinkable: He put a blunt-speaking innovator in charge of the F–X (F–15) program. Eventually Col Boyd and his circle of acolytes would build the F–16 and another aircraft that became the F–18—and yet another aircraft, the A–10. The keys to air supremacy came from this group of innovators.

We have institutionalized a pipeline of successful combat commanders—now do the same for military innovators. The establishment, by hubris and habit, makes it incredibly difficult to change anything. The innovator has to thread the needle as the perfect field officer, the perfect internal diplomat, the perfect navigator of the treacherous bureaucracy. Even then, someone in Quantico teams up with a vendor or an ally on another staff and begins a whispering campaign such as, “He’s not a team player.” Meanwhile, the accepted standards of conduct for the Quantico bureaucrat are wide. He can repeat establishment technobabble with impunity. Turn this on its head: figure out how to embrace the innovators, and make it difficult for bureaucrats to be bureaucratic.

In the late 1980s, an intellectual renaissance occurred in the Marine Corps. Gen Gray was looking for someone to help him rewrite all Marine Corps doctrine from top to bottom. He began with an outcast colonel whom a number of general officers had been systematically and deliberately suppressing for quite some time—Col Mike Wyly. Gray called Wyly home from “exile” in Okinawa and put him in a position of influence. Gray also tapped a captain—a captain!—to write FMFM 1, Warfighting (now MCDP 1). He did not assign the warfighting manual to a 1980s equivalent of a gold-plated retired colonel GS–15 with a well-worn DESERT STORM coffee mug and three DoD master’s degrees. Gray found new blood, new thinking, new ideas, new perspectives. Where would the Corps be now if former Commandants John A. Lejeune or Gray did not personally embrace LtCol “Pete” Ellis or Col Mike Wyly, respectively?

We embraced disobedience of a direct order in a recent Medal of Honor winner when lives were at stake: Apply that same logic to innovators. In other words, don’t court-martial or fire your innovators for specious reasons when larger principles—lives, limbs, combat effectiveness—are at stake. This may seem obvious, yet the AAV/EFV record ($3 billion, 30 years, no vehicle) requires underlining the obvious. The Air Force attempted to court-martial Boyd four times in his career while maintaining its treatment of him was always just. Boyd sometimes had to reach outside the Air Force to get proper reform. Similar treatment occurs today in the Marine Corps. Consider the case of the only 100-percent successful DoD whistleblower of the past 10 years. Senior Marine Corps leaders would maintain that GS–15 Franz Gayl, Science Advisor, Plans, Policies, and Operations, was granted due process after approximately 1 year on administrative leave. But any DoD officer or civilian who would consider bucking the system to advocate reform, note carefully: Gayl had to reach outside the Marine Corps to get justice. Only after the White House Office of Special Counsel got involved (7 October 2011) was he reinstated. The message from senior leaders today is no different than in Boyd’s day: If you rock the boat, you will be made to pay a severe price. You will be exiled to a remote island, accused of magically becoming a poor performer after decades of stellar performance, or quieted to a remote corner of the Marine Corps far away from innovation. That is the real lesson of Pentagon “leadership.” Careerism stems directly from the treatment Boyd and Gayl received; most officers conclude it is just not worth bucking the system. Mr. Gates liked to give speeches about Boyd and moral courage, but he never supported any of the innovators on his watch. Driving this point home, Gayl was correctly singled out for praise for his contribution to the war effort, once again by someone from outside of the DoD: On 1 October 2012 he was praised by Vice President of the United States Joe Biden during the MRAP program transition ceremony. Establishment mavens may feel like innovators bring chaos, yet do we not honor our best warriors for thriving on chaos? “Chaos” was one famous officer’s call sign.

Foster and promote officers who have technological competence. Tools are integral to warfighting, yet we teach officers to be commanders while leaving military technology to serendipity. The Marine Corps finds innovators by accident, tolerates them for a short time, and discards them, only to deliberately forget the lessons of innovation.

If a civilian in MCCDC or MCSC lacks foresight, get rid of him. Do not reward those who preside over chronically underperforming capabilities with promotions, lofty titles, awards for “foresight,” or highly prized school seats at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The bureaucrats who need to be replaced often fit the following intellectually incestuous profile: they retire as a major, lieutenant colonel, or colonel on Friday and come back to work at MCCDC or MCSC on Monday in a business suit, in the same building, at the same office, sitting at the same desk. As Col James Burton, USAF, taught us in Pentagon Wars (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1993), intellectual inbreeding yields feeble minds.

Apply maneuver warfare principles to the Supporting Establishment. MCCDC had to be repeatedly asked for multiple years to revise the urgent technology rule sets so that they would have a meaningful “seat at the table” in MCCDC at MCSC. MarCent officers asked MCCDC several times in 2006 for major revisions to MarAdmin 045/06, Urgent Universal Need Statement Process. Major reform to urgent UNS handling was advocated via the first Lean Six Sigma project at MCCDC in 2006, but meaningful urgent UNS reform would not be fully implemented until October 2008 with MCO 3900.17, The Marine Corps Urgent Needs Process (UNP) and the Urgent Universal Need Statement (Urgent UNS) (HQMC, Washington, DC, 10 October 2008). Naval Audit Services auditors asked at least twice for MCCDC to comply with its finding to write a Marine Corps order for urgent needs in 2007 and again in 2008, and Department of Defense Inspector General auditors in 2008 were similarly involved with advocating that MCCDC reform the urgent needs process. This was all a big, multiyear bureaucratic game of rope-a-dope to protect careers and prevent changes in the MCCDC staff’s budgetary priorities for military technologies while troops went unsupported in the field: stall any meaningful change, erect every possible barrier to technological maneuver imaginable. Battalion or regimental commanders get fired for this level of performance, but it is rewarded at MCCDC as stated above. All these multiple internal reform efforts anticipated many of then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ frequent appeals to actually support the troops in combat by prioritizing toolsets needed for current wars instead of what would be proven to be poorly designed technologies for potential future wars (like EFVs). The establishment has still not internalized that maneuver warfare must apply to the support establishment too. This means the Marine Corps needs to write doctrine for technological aspects of strategy—and apply it as soon as practicable. Consider the typical staff functions at a MEF or in Marine forces. Each is aligned with an MCDP of the same title: intelligence, logistics, operations, plans, and so forth. We need an MCDP 10, Technology, that links MCDP 1, Warfighting, to two downstream orders, MCO 3900.15B, Marine Corps Expeditionary Force Development System (EFDS) (HQMC, Washington, DC, 10 March 2008), for deliberate planning and MCO 3900.17, The Marine Corps Urgent Needs Process (UNP) and the Urgent Universal Need Statement (Urgent UNS) (HQMC, Washington, DC, 10 October 2008), for crisis technology planning. This needs to be written by officers with proven technological foresight and expertise in rapid technological maneuver. Note the use of war planning terms in describing these two orders—we will need technology requirements for all contingency plans. MEFs and Marine forces will need uniformed, trained principal staff officers for technology and innovation. The MEF/Marine forces’ science advisor does no science: rename that billet “technology advisor,” reporting to the senior uniformed trained technology strategist on the general officer’s staff.


The prescription to build an EFV is not complex, but it is enormously difficult to do. Follow Gen Gray’s example: Bring in the innovators. Rehire the thoroughbreds. Put a new generation in charge of important technology programs. Treat them like welcome members of the team. By leveraging good ideas even from those who knew how to evaluate technological efficacy when the chips were down in a real war, the likelihood for creating an ACV vehicle that works actually increases.

The Marine Corps Gazette, as the professional journal for Marines, provides articles that may, on occasion, address topics that “keep officers up at night.” Any young officer faced with the prospect of conducting an amphibious attack in the next 20 years should lose sleep over existing Quantico establishment organizations in charge of building the next ACV. Albert Speer, the German’s chief technologist during World War II, was actually pleased when the Allies bombed his requirements and acquisition command, ridding him of unnecessary “ballast” for a few months. If LtCol Ellis were alive in 2006 he’d have had his character assassinated by twilight-tour colonels in Quantico or HQMC as someone who was difficult to work with and, well, kind of weird.

On the other hand, if we apply these lessons to the son-of-EFV effort today and begin using all our resources—even all those highly successful innovators—the Marine Corps will be much more likely to get a new amphibious troop carrier with an over-the-horizon as well as inland capability much sooner than we would otherwise.