Fighting Smart

Information in 21st-century competition, deterrence, and warfare
>LtGen Glavy is the Deputy Commandant, Information.
>>Mr. Schaner is a retired Intelligence Officer currently serving as the Deputy Director for the Plans and Strategy Division within the Deputy Commandant for Information.

The character of warfare is changing faster than most could have imagined a decade ago. In just the last four years, Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan resumed conflict with Armenia, Hamas attacked Israel, Houthis impeded the Red Sea, and China rammed Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. These events and China’s now frequent crossing of the Taiwan Strait median line highlight just how much the world has changed in recent years. We observe from these events that the character of warfare is now faster and more connected than ever before.War remains the ultimate contest of human wills and may be long-lasting, but battlefield engagements from sensor to shooter occur faster than ever and are decided quickly by converging multi-domain effects.Kill chains are evolving into complex but resilient kill webs. State and non-state actors are building kill webs by combining readily available capabilities to improve their maturing precision-strike regimes. For state actors, this includes using widely available low-cost sensors, publicly available information, commercially available sensor data, social media, and state-owned sensor data to employ a widening array of precision stand-off weapons, ranging from low-cost unmanned aerial systems and loitering munitions to long range hypersonic and ballistic missiles.

Highly connected technologies such as social media are also fundamentally transforming the battle over narratives. From the conflicts already mentioned to numerous other potential flashpoints in East Asia, opponents in competition and conflict and their supporting public are continually bombarded with messaging through an unending stream of videos, images, and other forms of communication. This messaging is aimed at influencing the enemy to quit, or rival public to acquiesce, or both. What is at the center of all this change?

Information—and the battle to dominate with it—is fundamentally transforming the character of warfare. The side that wins both the technical and cognitive fights for information will most likely succeed in battle and win in war. Peer adversaries understand this well. They are leveraging the global proliferation of sensors, abundant data, virtually unlimited computing power, artificial intelligence, social media, and hyperconnectivity to adapt, evolve, and in some cases transform their capabilities to offset historical U.S. military advantages.3

The Marine Corps must continue to adapt to meet today’s technology-driven challenges in our highly connected world. Marines who harness information to achieve decision advantage, combine multi-domain effects, close kill webs faster than the adversary, and influence the narrative will achieve advantage in current and future warfare. The Marine Corps’ adaptation will continue by learning from current events and taking advantage of the opportunities that access to data and information provides. FMFs are doing this today through formations like the MEF Information Group and the Marine littoral regiment, among others. We must do more.

The Commandant’s Task to DC I.
In anticipation of these challenges, the Marine Corps created the Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I) position and supporting organization in 2017. The DC I organization brings together the intelligence and information warfighting functions, plus the data and communications functions, into one organization, among other changes.4 From the beginning through today, the DC I team has worked hard to:

  • Develop new doctrine including MCDP 8, Information, and MCWP 8-10, Information in Marine Corps Operations, to help institutionalize the information warfighting function.
  • Establish the Marine Corps Information Command to help Stand-in Forces (SIF) connect with the authorities and permissions they need to operate, as well as leverage intelligence community (IC) capabilities.
  • Foster the MEF Information Group’s growth from a fledgling operational unit to a fully functional command that can command and control forces across the globe.
  • Establish the Network Battalions to secure, operate, and defend the Marine Corps Enterprise Network, providing global support to our MEFs and Marine Forces.
  • Create the new 17XX information maneuver occupational field by combining cyberspace, space, and numerous legacy information operations fields into a single coherent professionalized series.
  • Implement hybrid cloud through network modernization to prepare us for artificial intelligence (AI) enabled data-centric operations.
  • Establish the Information Development Institute to provide quality training, education, and experiences for information technology, cyberspace, and the data and AI civilian workforce.

All the above are necessary footings for what is coming next.

In August 2023, Gen Smith provided guidance affirming that information plays a major role in supporting his vision for the Marine Corps’ continued evolution. Additionally, Commandant Smith’s guidance recognizes the fundamental shift in the character of warfare, and that Marines, above all else, remain at the center. Echoing Col John Boyd’s simple but time-tested wisdom of “People, Ideas, Things—in that order,” Marines remain our ultimate source of strength and advantage. So long as warfare remains a contest of human wills, Boyd’s influence on the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy discussed in MCDP 1, Warfighting, still drives us to embrace, empower, and trust the creativity and ingenuity of our Marines. Our Commandant and the DC I recognize this and will always put Marines first. We will focus on Marines and enable their creativity by giving them the data, information, and cutting-edge technologies that are available today. Empowering and trusting Marines differentiates us from all our adversaries. It is what gives us a competitive edge. Our duty is to empower and trust Marines with 21st-century capabilities—so that we can fight and win 21st-century battles.

To move us faster in this direction, the Commandant tasked the DC I team to develop a top-level vision for information in the Marine Corps. This task requires us to deliver a unified vision for how data, information, communications, intelligence, cyberspace, space, electromagnetic spectrum, and all other information-based capabilities and functions across the DC I portfolio empower Marines and contribute as an integrated whole to joint warfighting. This is no small task. To build this vision we must apply what we learned over the past several years of Force Design to help drive the next phase—force development.

What Have We Learned So Far?
The Marine Corps is transitioning from a simpler view of the battlespace organized around physical maneuver combined with supporting arms to a more sophisticated view of all-domain combined arms. While we have made great progress in this transition in recent years, trend reporting from our MAGTF Warfighting Exercises shows we have more to do.The core challenge we face is how to create and sustain the ability to close complex kill webs while preventing our adversaries from closing them on us. To meet that challenge, we must help Marines understand the role of information and how to use data to enable and support that effort. Another primary challenge is helping Marines understand they are always in a narrative battle and giving them the tools they need to successfully fight that battle. These are information problems that we can and will solve.

To achieve the above, the Marine Corps must solve several human capital issues. Putting Boyd’s philosophy of “People, Ideas, and Things—in that order” into practice, we must first address an all-Marine education and training issue. Every Marine, especially commanders, must better understand their role in data-centric operations and how to integrate and exploit information across warfighting functions. Next, the Marine Corps must fix problems related to the development and retention of Marines and civilians serving in the information-related fields. These problems range from lack of specialization in essential high-demand, low-density skills to career stagnation and inefficient utilization. Additionally, the Marine Corps must overcome similar problems in producing and retaining sufficient personnel in the intelligence occupational fields.

The Marine Corps is not maximizing the use of data to empower people and help them make decisions. While data is at the root of all Marine Corps functions, missions, and activities, the Marine Corps’ data is not currently organized, structured, governed, processed, and presented in a way that allows for effective use or decision making. This suboptimal use of data puts Marines in a situation of seeking information-based advantages through constant trade-offs among data, intelligence, and communications needs. Until such time as we finally synchronize “information” into a single unifying concept that integrates these areas along with cyber and space, the Marine Corps will continue to fall short.

With respect to intelligence, the findings of force design-related analysis, wargames, and exercises match observations of the contemporary operating environment: winning the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance (RXR) fight is critical. The Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISR-E) must continue to modernize to anticipate and stay ahead of changes in the environment to enable Marines to win the RXR fight as part of joint competing and warfighting. The MCISR-E must incorporate the use of data and information technologies that enable rapid sense-making of large, multi-disciplinary data sets and intelligence feeds, as well as software-defined two-way connectivity across the Marine Corps and to the Joint Force and IC.

In a highly connected two-way data-centric environment the exquisite capabilities of the IC are instantly available, globally. The findings show a need to leverage this connectivity to enable SIF to not only be the eyes and ears of the Joint Force but also the IC. In response to this need, the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Information Command to tie the SIF closer to the IC and global combatant commanders like CYBERCOM and SPACECOM. This connection crucially enables mutually supporting relationships between the SIF and combatant commanders—allowing for the exchange of data, authorities, and permissions, as well as using placement and access to generate effects.

We have learned a great deal from current events and the Marine Corps’ collective campaign of learning. We must now capitalize on what we have learned to continue improving.

Toward a Unified Vision for Information.
The diverse functions and capabilities within the DC I portfolio exist to help Marines and the Marine Corps gain or exploit some kind of information-based advantage or effect. The Commandant’s task to create a unified vision for information is a task to help him organize, train, and equip the Marine Corps to harness the power of information and technology for the purpose of gaining and exploiting information-based advantages and effects. This is the basis for “fighting smart” as a unified vision—a vision that draws directly from the last sentences of MCDP 1, Warfighting, which state: “Maneuver warfare is a way of thinking in and about war that should shape our every action … [it] is a philosophy for generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves—a philosophy for ‘fighting smart.’”6

How do Marines fight smart in the 21st century? How do Marines develop insight, leverage their imagination, and innovate to adapt to disruptive environments? How does the institution deliver cutting-edge technologies to turn data and information into tactical advantages and combat power? How do Marines use these advantages to out-think, out-compete, and out-fight the adversary? These are some of the fundamental questions Fighting Smart will answer.

To build toward this vision and answer these fundamental questions, the Marine Corps must close gaps associated with the Commandant’s priorities of peoplereadiness, and modernization. Concerning people and readiness, we must educate and train individual Marines to know what to do with information and their role in using it effectively, and then match people to billets to take maximum advantage of their skills and available technologies. This includes integrating individual talent into realistic and challenging unit training. This combination enables a data-centric approach to operations. Commanders and Marines at all levels benefit from their ability to make better and faster decisions than the adversary, and their ability to manipulate or deny information to the adversary in ways that maintain or increase warfighting advantages.

With respect to modernization, we must improve our ability to combine all available data using advanced technologies to move relevant and trusted information in a timely manner—this makes distributed operations possible, as well as all domain RXR through a modernized MCISR-E. Additionally, combining all available data enables ally, partner, and Joint Force integration into all-domain combined arms to close joint and combined kill webs, which greatly increases the potential dilemmas Marines can create for their adversaries. To accomplish this, the Marine Corps must develop an organizing concept and formations that integrate signals intelligence, electromagnetic spectrum operations, and cyberspace operations.

To leverage data for battlefield advantages, the Marine Corps must learn from current events where adaptability through rapidly engineering software applications and data solutions at the point of need has proved advantageous. The 18th Airborne Corps provides a prime example, demonstrating the effectiveness of deploying a skilled team of software coders and engineers to dynamically create data solutions that support evolving missions and the commander’s need for information. Our MEF commanders should possess similar capabilities.

Toward a Fighting Smart Institution
Service leaders and staff can also fight smart by modernizing to support institutional operations. Leaders and staff at all levels benefit from their ability to organize, structure, govern, and process data in ways that allow for effective use and decision making. Modernizing data-centric operations at the institutional level would greatly improve institutional planning; force design and development; acquisition; budgeting; recruiting and retention; assignments; training and education; force generation and employment; posture decisions; strategic communication, and installations and logistics planning.

Fighting Smart applies to all Marines, emphasizing the instant and interconnected global nature of the information environment. It underscores the visibility and potential consequences of actions and words by all, including civilian Marines and support contractors. Achieving a unified information vision necessitates practicing information discipline—maintaining professionalism and awareness that every word and action is visible globally. This recognition can either enhance or hinder the Marine Corps’ reputational narrative, affecting public perceptions both domestically and internationally.7

To continue the Marine Corps’ evolution, we must also implement changes to how we conduct defense acquisitions. Marines recognize the need to go faster, with operational commanders using O&M dollars to acquire capabilities. External leaders and Congress have long called for changes. Marine Corps Systems Command recently reorganized to enhance acquisitions, but more work remains. The Commission on Defense Innovation and Adoption, in its January 2024 publication, underscores the urgent need to swiftly adopt cutting-edge technologies from commercial and defense sectors. Doing so will enable the timelier delivery of high-impact solutions to the warfighter.8

This necessitates a fundamental shift in focus within our programs of record to emphasize software requirements over hardware. This shift also requires our programs to allow for rapid software modifications and updates to ensure our warfighters can maintain a competitive advantage by fusing and correlating data to drive decisions, actions, and outcomes. Organizations like the Marine Corps Software Factory are designed to support and enable rapid software development. Fighting Smart will identify necessary actions to steer the Marine Corps toward crucial reforms in requirements development and acquisitions, as well as in providing software development support to FMF.

Where Are We Headed?
Fighting Smart is a way of operating that turns data and information into combat power by enabling Marines to make better decisions at a faster pace than their adversary while using data as an asset that makes all-domain command and control and combined arms more effective. To take full advantage of this operating method, the Marine Corps needs to educate and train its people in how to create and sustain it. Every operating approach relies on skilled people to make it work—Fighting Smart is no different. Marines must know how to get the most from data to make it effective.

Fighting Smart will look familiar to most Marines. It will read like other major Service-level initiatives (e.g., talent management) that were developed over the last several years. However, a key difference is that Fighting Smart will relate to and enable these other initiatives, especially the Commandant’s three major priorities mentioned above. Additionally, Fighting Smart will establish directed actions and areas requiring further study within specific focus areas. In the current draft, these areas include mobilizing talent, achieving data-centricity, modernizing the MCISR-E, and enabling 21st-century combined arms. Fighting Smart is expected to be published in June 2024.

Fighting Smart represents an expanding opportunity for 21st-century combined arms, extending beyond traditional domains to include space, cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the information environment. It embodies converging effects from multiple domains to drive advantages and outcomes. Taking Boyd’s philosophy to heart, people and their ideas, empowered by data and technology, are at the center of Fighting Smart. It is Marines, not technology, who will ultimately maintain the Marine Corps’ competitive edge. Future success demands data-literate training, including AI/ML training within applicable areas of the Marine Corps. Fleet Marine Forces and the supporting establishment require a workforce with specialized skillsets for improved decision making.

People empowered by data are also central to modernizing the MCISR-E. Modernization and Joint Force relevancy require the Marine Corps to function as an RXR force in both competition and conflict, engaging in a daily fight for information and influence. Modernizing the MCISR-E is essential to help close kill webs, which makes 21st-century combined arms possible. A modernized MCISRE also helps create decision advantage and Joint Force resiliency as well as supports understanding and competing in the battle for narratives.

Achieving the above hinges on empowering people with data, providing necessary education and training, and enhancing the institution’s speed in delivering data-centric capabilities. Fighting Smart serves as a blueprint for the Marine Corps’ evolution in the technology-driven, highly connected world, addressing the need for organizational adaptability to meet modern challenges and reduce the warfighter’s operational risks.


1. John Antal, “The First War Won Primarily with Unmanned Systems, Ten Lessons from the Ngorno-Krabakh War,” Madscriblog, April 1, 2021,

2. Ibid.

3. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Final Report: National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, (Washington, DC: 2021).

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Bulletin 5400, Establishment of the Deputy Commandant for Information, (Washington, DC: 2017).

5. Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Marine Air Ground Combat Center, Final Exercise Report for MAGTF Warfighting Exercise 2-23, (Twentynine Palms: 2023).

6. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997).

7. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 8, Information, (Washington, DC: 2022).

8. Atlantic Council, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Commission on Defense Innovation and Adoption, Final Report, (Washington, DC: 2024).