Investing in Marines

by Maj Carl Forsling, USMC(Ret)

2016 Kiser Family Irregular Warfare Essay Contest: First Place

The military establishment once hoped that the drawdowns from Iraq and Afghanistan marked the end of irregular warfare as a driving force behind the manning and equipping of the Nation s military forces. The muchhyped “Pacific Pivot” gave the promise of a return to more traditional military combat, with preparations becoming more geared to deterring and fighting state actors.

The emergence of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), as well as Russian irregular operations in Ukraine and the Crimea, have made it clear that the adversaries of the United States are not going to let the United States have any breathing room to pivot or reset.

The Marine Corps is caught between the world it has planned for and the world as it actually is. In the Marine Corps Planning Process, Marines are taught to identify an enemy’s most dangerous and most likely courses of action. What is the likelihood of conflict and, equally important, the type of conflict with which they will confront the United States?

Many would contend that the most dangerous enemy course of action is a large-scale, state-on-state conflict with a near-peer competitor. Russia or China are often thrown out as potential adversaries. While such a conflict would indeed be extremely dangerous because of the threat of escalation such a conflict would entail, the actual likelihood of a direct conflict with those states is so low that they may as well be replaced with a “Competitor X” placard. Still, the United States prepares for such a fight in a manner disproportionate to its likelihood.

The most likely enemy course of action is a continuation of what the United States is dealing with right now, or something very similar. The United States is simultaneously waging a conventional battle against ISIL, especially in regard to fire support, while also conducting unconventional warfare through proxy fights via allied state and non-state actors. ISIL fights with a combination of semi-conventional warfare on the ground as well as terrorism and subversion in both its immediate area of operations and in Western nations. While the fight against ISIL has been a slow grind with the United States steadily increasing combat power on the ground, battlefield defeat of American units has never been at issue. The major threat from ISIL from an American perspective is the potential for wider export of Islamist violence, not ISIL destroying military targets. This type of fight will demand a far more complicated array of capabilities from the Marine Corps, and that complexity will be apparent at even the lowest echelons.

Analysts often portray the United States as facing a binary choice between variations on those themes. On one end. is a high-end force built to confront near-peer competitors on sea, air, and land. On the other is a force geared to fighting low-intensity conflicts, punitive air strikes, and doing such missions as advising foreign forces. One might just work out a matrix and design the force according to a formula weighing probability versus severity. If only the choices were so simple.

In actuality, the United States will face escalating hybrid threats from nation-states, non-state actors, and complex combinations of both. While certainly a relief in terms of not being the existential conflict the United States would face against, say, China or the Competitor X du jour, the hybrid threat means that the United States can’t simply forget about counterinsurgency and rebuild its air and sea armadas, nor can it completely re-center itself around being a crisis response and low-intensity conflict force. The vagaries of this challenge, in concert with relentless resource shortfalls, make planning the Marine Corps of the future far more difficult than either of these extremes.

The Challenge

Tomorrow’s force must be able to conduct operations, both direct combat and partnered, while under threat of attack not just from skirmishes or from rockets or mortars but also from unmanned systems, cyber, and electronic attacks. Almost as threatening for an expeditionary force, the seaborne support which they are accustomed to may have to be much further away than before because of the proliferation of antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) weapons. Commercial satellite and modern media technology have reduced the potential for operational surprise. Small countries and even non-state actors will have access to weapons and sensor capabilities previously only known to major powers. Over-the-horizon amphibious capability is no longer a shield but just a starting point.

Many proposals rely too heavily on breakthrough technologies. Present force plus carbon nanotubes/lasers/ robots equals force of the future. That’s not strategy, that’s wishful thinking. The United States needs to embrace emerging technology while realizing that technology is not going to suddenly transform the force. Resource constraints will prevent ambitious reengineering of the force, as exemplified by efforts such as the Army’s failed Future Combat Systems program.1 As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld infamously remarked, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish you had at a later time.”

The United States will largely go to war with the Marine Corps it has, at least as far as equipment goes. There will be some near-term additions, such as the F-35B, and replacements of such mainstays as the HMMWV and MRAP, but most equipment of the future force will closely resemble what is operational today. Off-the-shelf acquisitions and mission kit modifications of existing equipment will make most improvements evolutionary, not revolutionary. In a resource-constrained environment, those methods will be the only way to keep up technologically vice major decades-long acquisition programs.

The key differences will be not in what we use but in how we use it. The way we select, train, and employ Marines will define the future force. The Corps must take advantage of emerging technologies but cannot mortgage its future to them, especially when it doesn’t know how big its next paycheck will be.

The Marine Corps, distinct from the Army, is defined by its expeditionary nature. Marines fight in the littorals, usually supported by, but not necessarily tethered to, amphibious shipping. As such, they must be able to provide maximum combat power while maintaining as light a logistical footprint as possible. This would seem to be self-evident, but the years since 9/11 have led the Marine Corps far astray from its expeditionary roots.

The Corps has answered the demands of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that has prevented the Corps from truly pivoting to a distributed model. For too long now, the Corps has been tied to major forward operating bases (FOBs). This is a luxury that may not exist in the future.

To begin with, political considerations may prevent the establishment of major bases ashore. Some of these considerations may be domestic, in that the U.S. political leadership will not commit large numbers of “boots on the ground.” Other times, foreign governments may not allow such facilities to be established on their soil. Recent events show that fiscal constraints may even hobble America’s ability to establish and sustain the large, logistical hubs that the U.S. military is accustomed to.

Additionally, these bases are tactically vulnerable to both simple threats, such as rockets and mortars, and to more sophisticated ones, be that by infiltration, such as at Bastion airfield, or evolving threats, such as swarms of drone-borne IEDs {improvised explosive devices).2 Their enormous logistics trains, often provided by civilian contract providers, are even more fragile.

Eventually they become an escalating “death spiral” of logistics and force protection, wherein the FOB is there to support Marines, Marines are required to protect the FOB, those Marines in turn require a bigger FOB, and so forth.

For these reasons, the more the Corps can keep support structure afloat instead of ashore, the better off it is. This means that distributed operations will become the keystone of the Marine Corps.

Bring Big Unit Capabilities to Small Units

Expeditionary Force 21, {Washington, DC: HQMC, March 2014), describes the battalion as the primary deployable unit of the Corps with a nod toward company landing teams as a crisis response force. The future will likely require the capability to further devolve the crisis response element down to the platoon or sometimes even squad level, while still requiring the ability to restack to the company and battalion level as the operational and tactical situation requires.

Those squads and platoons must have capabilities across the spectrum of war- fare. On the low end, they must be able to conduct training of foreign military forces and conduct partnered operations. On the high end, they must be able to conduct field and combat operations, both independently and in their more traditional role, as part of larger units.

The Corps already has strengths in the distributed warfare arena. More than any other units in the U.S. military, M AGTFs have integrated fires and logistics capabilities combined with an intrinsic modularity. The unique independence of amphibious forces is a huge asset. This too will continue to evolve into a more distributed environment, as Expeditionary Force 21 describe. This will begin with greater use of logistics ships such as T-AKEs and other MPF (Maritime Prepositioning Force) assets for operational mobility as Expeditionary Force 21 details, but it will need to accommodate even more non-traditional shipping. Every naval vessel with a rotorcraft capability must be prepared to transport and deploy Marines, from destroyers to aircraft carriers. This will be critical as the number of purpose-built amphibious ships continues to decrease relative to the number of places Marines must be prepared to deploy.

The Corps’ long-time emphasis on small unit leadership will be critical in building units able to operate in a distributed environment. The Corps needs to further accentuate the strengths of Marine small units down to the squad level. This will get more “bang for the buck” than any other option the Marine Corps has. Fiscal constraints are a fact of life for the foreseeable future, and the ROI (return on investment) in people will be far greater than on investments in things. The principles of a knowledge economy will be just as transformational in warfare as they are for business.

Logistics, intelligence, and medical expertise cannot solely reside at higher echelons. If the Corps is to execute distributed warfare, those skills have to be present in the smallest unit capable of independent action. In distributed warfare, this may go as low as the reinforced squad level. While the squad doesn’t need to be able to do everything itself, it has to be able to fight and maneuver in a given area of responsibility, coordinate with higher headquarters and adjacent units to get what it needs, and work with foreign forces to improve their capabilities.

In the Marine Corps, this capability already exists in Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). Unfortunately, that command is overtasked, as are the rest of the Nation’s special operators. They are overtasked not only because they are top-notch but because the nature of warfare has changed, and they are already aligned to it.

While MARSOC will continue to support national objectives, it cannot be everywhere the Corps needs it to be. The Corps cannot be MARSOC writ large, but it can build a large measure of MARSOC’s capability in supporting partnered operations and foreign internal defense, while retaining the conventional combat skills needed for major combat operations.

Strong Marines, Stronger Units

This can be achieved in large part by altering the way the Marine Corps manages personnel. Leaving the same individuals in the same squad for multiple tours will afford the opportunity to build both the diverse skills necessary for quasi-special operator capability while budding the unit cohesion that makes for combat ready units.

Small unit cohesion enables the development of, and adherence to, standard operating procedures that allow the upscaling and downscaling of units. This is what will enable a MAGTF to move up and down the continuum of conflict. This cohesion needs to be integral to everything that unit does.

Selection and training of Marines generally, and infantry Marines in particular, will also have to change. In order to be prepared to support and conduct small unit operations ashore, all Marines will have to be tougher and possess greater individual combat skills. Every Marine must be prepared to go to the field and hold his or her own with a platoon-sized or smaller infantry unit as an enabler. It will require looking at additions to the squad beyond the traditional specialties the Corps has known for decades.

For example, the inclusion of an unmanned systems operator at the squad level is an idea being actively explored by the Marine Corps right now.3 This is exactly the sort of enabler that needs to be available to Marines at the lowest level. Unmanned systems will soon be just as ubiquitous and as essential as automatic weapons on modern battlefields.4 The use of robots at the small unit level will continue to expand for tasks from small-scale strike to providing over watch in danger areas during a long movement to helping clear the next room in an urban environment. They will not be luxuries but necessities. The tactical unmanned systems operator needs to become universal and an actual infantry MOS alongside riflemen and machine gunners.

When small units operate in distributed fashion, they may need any number of different enablers in addition to an unmanned systems operator, though generally on an ad hoc basis. Depending on the scenario, this may include communicators, logisticians, motor transport, and many other MOSs. Any Marine must be prepared to go to the field if his or her MOS is needed, no matter how remote, austere, or kinetic. They cannot just tag along under the protection of infantry Marines. In such a unit, they will have to be ready to engage in combat as a fully participating member.

To accomplish this, the Corps must be willing to kick more recruits out during initial training. This won’t be because of capriciousness. Currently, very few Marines are attrited during recruit training for reasons of aptitude. Fraudulent enlistments, injuries, and conduct drive what little attrition there is.3 The Marine Corps must screen and evaluate for higher standards of intelligence and physical fitness throughout the accession process, from recruitment through assignment. Distributed operations require the highest levels of independent thought and physical conditioning. There will be no room for hangers-on.

Furthermore, the length and difficulty of Marine recruit training, combat training, and School of Infantry needs to increase. Marine combat training, in particular, cannot merely be an ori- entation program. Initial training for all Marines needs to resemble what infantry Marines receive today. That means that the School of Infantry for enlisted and the Infantry Officer Course for officers would become graduate education on top of, not in place of, that challenging foundation. “Every Marine a rifleman” needs to mean far more than a trite saying that actual infantryman giggle at. Think, “Every Marine a rifleman. Every infantryman an operator,” to use the oft-overused operator descriptor once more.

This will undoubtedly reduce the inflow of new Marines. That means keeping Marines in operational billets longer, but that’s not a bug; it’s a feature and a force multiplier. The Corps will have to re look at the rank distributions as well as time-in-grade limitations, especially at the squad and platoon level. Small units in special operations routinely have more senior personnel. Line combat arms units need to move toward this model as their mission starts to more closely resemble special operations.

If a Marine unit is together for just a few months, it can train to one mission. If it is together for years, it can serve as a cohesive unit in many. Infantry Marines must be proficient in missions from foreign military training to civil affairs to counterinsurgency operations to high-intensity conflict. This will require them to have what might be termed a “doctorate” in three-block war.

In addition, looking at military training and education holistically will aid greatly. Currently, the Corps generally sees education as a part of a retention or transition tool, e.g., a benefit of enlisting or a step in the transition process. Unless a Marine is applying for special education or similar program, what he or she studies doesn’t really matter. This is a waste. Subjects such as foreign languages, regional studies, medicine, and engineering disciplines should be free to Marines or even have bonuses for completion.

The PME system as a whole needs to reflect the broader scope of responsibility that Marines will potentially face at junior grades. Even at such schools such as the Corporals’ Course, the Corps must not just train but also educate. If it expects independent actions from NCOs, it must also expect a high level of independent thought.

Working from people outward, vice just seeing them as operators of the next generation of equipment, means a huge increase in capability for a comparatively small cost. A relatively small sum spent on recruiting, incenrivizing, and training the right people can result in an increase in capability far in excess of what can be done for the same amount spent on gold-plated weapons systems.

Making the Main Thing the Main Thing

Centering the Corps around the small unit means decentralizing control of fires and logistical support.

While technology will continue to make evolutionary improvements in infantry equipment, their organic firepower is not going to change markedly within the foreseeable future. New Service rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and individual equipment will incrementally increase their capabilities, but they will not be game changers.

Fortunately, the firepower of the MAGTF can bring continues to improve. The air portion of the MAGTF can bring the Harvest Hawk, the AV8B, as well as the F-35B and possibly MV-22Bs with offensive weaponry in the near future. Joint armed unmanned systems are proliferating. HIMARS, the M777 howitzer, and the Expeditionary Fire Support System can bring all-weather fires to bear when aviation is not available or responsive enough.

The firepower exists, but the capability to bring it to bear is not always there. While JTÀCs (joint terminal air controllers) have proliferated greatly over the last several years, giving every squad the capability to control fires of all types is something the Corps has not yet done yet needs to. Keeping Marines serving in their units longer would afford the opportunity to train more Marines in aviation and indirect fires without losing highly-trained Marines in the constant churn of today’s normal career rotation.

Existing and programmed logistics capabilities can allow units to be sustained independently at great distances from their logistics bases. Aerial delivery from both KC-130J and MV-22Bs has been effectively used in Afghanistan for several years now. The upcoming fielding of the CH-53K will further enable the delivery of heavy equipment and supplies without using vulnerable overland logistics.

In concert with this, as new ground vehicles are fielded, they have to retain their ability for aerial transport. Inter- nally transportable vehicles need, to be the mainstay of small units. As the Marine Corps replaces the HMMWV, it has to vigilantly guard against size and weight inflation in order to retain transportability via air. At least one company of every infantry battalion needs its vehicle support to be entirely transportable by MV-22Bs. This will facilitate tactical mobility by ground in addition to the operational mobility afforded by the Osprey. The preponderance of the battalion’s remaining vehicle support should be CH-53K and KC-130J transportable. If the Corps is to operate in an expeditionary environment in the future, it cannot depend on LCACs and LCUs (utility landing craft) to deliver essential vehicles to shore.

Acceptance of Risk

Employing smaller units independently means accepting the possibility that they will experience losses while far from friendly forces. Even with assets such as Ospreys, quick reaction forces and casualty evacuation may not always be available in a timely fashion during distributed operations.

One of the benefits of distributed operations is the ability to influence a large area with a small number of Marines. That also brings with it the need for those units to conduct operations with what they have, not necessarily everything they want.

The French experience in their Mali campaign is a prime example of the type of independence and ingenuity the method requires.6 As a mediumsized country with outsized aspirations dating to their days as a colonial power, the French have accepted the need to do more with less. Even more so than the Marine Corps, the French learned to project power far from major logistical bases. They maneuvered without overwhelming fires when necessary and operated independently at no level higher than the brigade, often at the company level and below. French units made several ground movements of over 500 nautical miles during the Mali campaign.

French forces subscribe to the same “golden hour” philosophy of casualty evacuation as Americans, but they were willing to expose themselves to tactical problems well outside the golden hour standard. They conducted maneuver warfare in conjunction with local partners. They travelled light but packed a disproportionately heavy punch, mostly because of their willingness to accept risk.

All too often, Marine units pack everything but the kitchen sink, just in case. Our leadership too often practices risk mitigation by the “what if” method. While this can be effective in peacetime or in a situation where they possess an extreme overmatch in capability, the Marine Corps may not have that luxury in the future. Economy of force is something the Corps must be prepared to practice, not just say.

Units as small as squads must be prepared to maneuver independently, fight, and call for fires as required. They must be prepared to move without casualty evacuation coverage, providing self-aid as required. Units in Afghanistan became used to stopping when air went “red.” That will no longer be an option in battlefields of the future, be they conventional or not.

The United States has had the luxury of using technical solutions to defeat tactical problems. Witness the overuse of the MRAP series of vehicles to defeat the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That vehicle was only sustainable in the context of a massive base infrastructure. While it gave some measure of tactical mobility, albeit constrained by roads, it was nearly impossible to move operationally with assets organic to a MAGTF. Lighter vehicles expose individual operators to greater risk in the form of vulnerability to IEDs and small arms, but offset this with the fact that they are less road bound, and are easier to move both operationally and strategically. Just as importantly, they reduce the need for logistical support and, thus, the logistical death spiral of escalating levels of support ashore. This exemplifies the importance of solving problems by maneuver not by throwing assets at a problem.

Marines First

The advantages obtained by an extreme devotion to decentralization and an acceptance of risk are greater contributors to combat power than any breakthrough technology. Distributed operations are facilitated by the embrace of technologies like the MV-22, unmanned systems, and communications, but they are really just facilitators of the maneuver warfare doctrine that the Marine Corps has embraced for decades.

The Marine Corps has avoided the logical endpoints of that embrace because our operational and tactical advantages have allowed it to. Allowing small units to operate fully on their own is a risk that the Marine Corps must take as the playing field becomes more level and assets become scarcer every year. Investing in small units will provide the best return on investment for the Corps’ increasingly scarce capital. Marines are undoubtedly willing to accept this. Is their leadership?


1. Christopher Pernin, et al, “Lessons Prom the Army’s Future Combat Systems Program,” (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2012).

2. Sidney J. Preeburg, Jr., “Small Drones are a Big Danger; Think Flying IEDs: CNAS,” Breaking Defence, (Online: 10 June 2015).

3. Hope Hodge Seek, “Marine Infantry Squads May Get Their Own Drone Operators,” DefenseTech, (Online: 11 August 2016).

4. MG Robert Scales, USA(Ret), Scales on War, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).

5. Aline O. Quester, “Marine Corps Recruits: a Historical Look at Accessions and Bootcamp Performance,” (Washington, DC: Center for Naval Analysis, September 2010).

6. Michael Shurkin, “France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army,” (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2014). usJV«”c