Let's Organize And Train As We Would Fight

By LtCols Asad A Khan, Michael B West and Michael H Brown

Originally published in the October 2002 Marine Corps Gazette

"Faces change like men. Some cherished institutions and practices are inevitable casualties in the continual process of change that typifies any vigorous, self-renewing society."

Over the past century the Marine Corps has demonstrated flexibility in balancing and adapting to competing peacetime constraints and wartime requirements to meet the statutory challenge of maintaining the Nation's premier air-ground, expeditionary force-in-readiness. These competing issues plus the powerful pull of tradition have shaped the structure, permanence, and employment of the historical Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) as it has changed over the years. As the mid-sized member of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) triad, the modern MEB developed out of a requirement for a cohesive, rapid response, power projection force. It has been an important force structure in the Corps' operational history2 and needs to be a more central player in the Corps' operational future.

Since the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military has postulated that we are in the midst of a revolution in military affairs as a practical impetus for transforming the force and gaining a quantum leap in capabilities. This quest has spawned serious debates in the staff colleges, doctrine centers, and professional journals on how best to transform the force. As a result, various "vision" documents such as Joint Vision 2010, Joint Vision 2020, From the Sea, and Fonvard ... From the Sea have been published. Correspondingly, Service capstone documents and concepts such as Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare (EMW), Operational Maneuver From the Sea (OMFTS), and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver (STOM) have also been published. All Services have developed a series of concepts and experiments to preserve access to the billions of dollars that are being allocated for joint and Service experimentation. The Marine Corps is at a very precarious position in terms of its future. If we intend to preserve our legacy in this great Nation, it is time to reevaluate our warfighting structure and fully embrace the MEB organization. The purpose of this article is to articulate the importance of organizing our force the way that we intend to fight, so that we are most prepared to meet the realties of the new face of war and our enemies. We believe this might require eliminating our traditional division, wing, and force service support group (FSSG) structure in favor of "brigading the Marine expeditionary force (MEF)."

Collectively, many new Service warfighting concepts emphasize the importance of leveraging technologies, which has led to a variety of joint and Service experiments. Unfortunately, none of these experiments has evidenced a thorough analysis of the impact that changes in technologies and existing capabilities will have on our organization, doctrine, and training. Moreover, as we chase after the future, we might be blinding ourselves to the urgent need for a comprehensive evaluation of the efficacy of our current organization and doctrine and how efficiently we are meeting the myriad of operational requirements levied on our MEFs. Do we, as a Marine Corps, wish to remain reactive in this transformation, or do we want to become proactive once again? (The Marine Corps in the 1930s was the only Service to realize the utility of amphibious doctrine/operations. Then in the 1950s the Corps was the lead Service in the development of vertical assault with the realization that the helicopter had strong utility on the battlefield.)


Over the last decade, the Marine Corps has executed several force structure reviews, but the impacts of these reviews have been minimal. We have made several attempts at consolidating reconnaissance units, aviation control groups, military police, administrative clerks, and cooks to name but a few. The Marine Corps is no better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Marginal changes in organization will not aid us in applying the various operational concepts being proposed for the future. These are "Band-aid" solutions to a problem that could affect our Corps' long-term viability in future joint operations. Real change must occur now. We have to ask ourselves, are we best organized, trained, and educated to realize our new capstone concept of EMW, which demands the highest level of proficiency from all Marines, and also to execute the supporting operational concepts of OMFTS and STOM? Are we organized, and do we, in fact, train as we expect to fight? The authors believe not.

In the hopes of initiating a broad discussion, this article explores the urgent need for a new look at the Marine Corps and how we are organized to fight. Does our current organizational structure really reflect how we will be asked to operate? As currently organized, can the MEF effectively operate as an Army corps equivalent with its current mix of maneuver, aviation, and combat service support headquarters?

The Napoleonic (triangular) organization is no longer an efficient way to command and control (C2) traditional formations or MAGTFs. It does not leverage advances in doctrine, technologies, C2 and the training and education of unit leaders. More importantly, the Marine Corps can no longer offord two types of organizational headquarters-MAGTFs and divisions/regiments and wings/groups. With advances in information technology, the MAGTF headquarters does not need another layer of command between the MAGTF command element and its maneuver elements. As an example of this, Army corps, divisions, and brigade combat teams-with organic aviation and sustainment elements-operate without the intermediate functional ground combat element (GCE), aviation combat element (ACE), or combat service support element (CSSE) headquarters that our existing MAGTFs have. Perhaps even more important, in the Army at the corps level the commander has "his own corps assets" that he can employ to influence the deep fight or weight the main effort. (See Figures 1 and 2.)

Given that all three of our MEFs are different in size, for discussion purposes let's take a look within II MEF (notwithstanding the recent changes vis-a-vis 4th MEB (Antiterrorism) (AT)). Our GCE consists of nine infantry battalions-the lowest echelon with the C2 to synchronize and sustain combat power. At any given time, for training, exercises, and operations, each of the nine infantry battalions of this MEF can be assigned to eight different headquarters: division, MEB, three regiments, and three Marine expeditionary units (MEUs). With so many different headquarters operating with different standing operating procedures (SOPs) and combat operations center configurations, can we really expect the nine battalions to have the flexibility required to proficiently support each of these headquarters? Based on existing training exercise and employment plans (TEEPs), it takes over half of a year to train a battalion landing team (BLT) to become part of a deploying MEU. If we allow a BLT and a MEU 6 months to work together prior to deployment, then how can we expect the remaining staffs and units within a MEF to become cohesive and proficient with our ad hoc task organization of units for exercises and operations?

Historically, we as a Corps have taken a perverse pride in being able to throw together a task-organized MAGTF whenever needed. Though this advertised capability has helped to keep us relevant, it has not been without cost. Any organization that is built in an ad hoc fashion pays a steep price in staff friction, time, and cohesiveness. In MAGTF Staff Training Program exercises over the last 8 years, the single most detrimental factor in the performance of our Operating Forces has been high personnel turbulence, shortage of personnel, and lack of staff cohesion.

By design, the historical Marine Corps MAGTF concept has provided great flexibility in tailoring a force to meet specific mission requirements. This flexibility often came at the great cost of cohesion and habitual command relationships. The steps necessary to create a MAGTF and task organize the GCE, ACE, and CSSE continue to violate the principle of "training in peace like you will fight in war."

As an example of this evidence, lessons from a 1980 combat evaluation highlighted the clear need for cohesion in a MAGTF like the MEB. Hue City veteran and highly respected combat leader Col Robert H. Thompson had the opportunity to be the director for the 6-month combat evaluation that, because of its duration, institutional importance, and closely monitored results, is worthy of review. According to Col Thompson:

The first step in achieving a capability to fight combined arms is to structure combined arms organizations. Task organized units [e.g., ad hoc] will not be able to win on the complex modern battlefield. The difference is teamwork and cohesion. Understanding and belief in the system can only be achieved through months of living and training together.

This type of assessment has consistently drawn the Corps to the benefits of standing units and permanent MAGTF command elements.4

Recognizing that cohesion is critical to any unit, let's continue to look at II MEF's GCE training and cohesion prior to the creation of the 4th MEB(AT). Normally, because of operational deployments and other commitments, there are not enough forces to exercise a full MEB GCE, especially in II and III MEFs. Within the division in any given regiment, one battalion is typically deployed to Okinawa, one battalion is on a MEU deployment, and one is in MEU predeployment training. This leaves only six infantry battalions commanded by three regiment headquarters and a division headquarters. Do we need four headquarters commanding six infantry battalions or can we better organize ourselves? Given the lack of available infantry battalions (typically) in exercises involving regiments, division, or the MEB, the GCE consists of one infantry battalion with a regiment and a MEB headquarters on top of it.

In a 3-year period, an infantry battalion belonging to 2d Marine Regiment may go to a Combined Arms Exercise (CAX) with the 6th Marine Regiment, participate in a MEB exercise with the 8th Marine Regiment, and then go on a 6-month deployment with the 24th MEU. Then a year and a half later, ofter going through another training cycle with all of the regiments in the 2d Marine Division, the battalion deploys to Okinawa for 6 months under the 3d Marine Division and 4th Marine Regiment. This ad hoc organization of forces for training, exercises, and deployments violates the fundamental principle of cohesion and does not allow the battalion or the respective headquarters to organize and train as it would fight.

From a training standpoint, it is difficult for a battalion to focus on the basics and train its Marines and staff to the mission essential task lists and priorities of potentially eight different headquarters during an 18-month cycle. This begs the question, are we really training our Marines to the level of proficiency required for our doctrine of maneuver warfare and emerging concepts? The answer to this question is no. In the absence of relevant training and readiness standards to accurately gauge how good we really are, we base our conclusions from the lessons learned and after-action reports of various organizations that are responsible for training our MAGTFs. "Ad hoc-ery in MAGTFery" leads to the same mistakes being made over and over rather than the mastery of fundamentals of MAGTF operations.

To master these skills, our Marines require organizational stability, adequate training time, resources, and ranges. Similarly, we need to stop chasing the future from one deployment to the next exercise or experiment. We need to discipline ourselves and safeguard the "white space" on the TEEPs for unit training that focuses on MAGTF fundamentals.

Future Concepts and the Need To Revisit the History of the MEB

The Marine Corps' future doctrine resides in the concept of EMW. This concept, once tested and developed into doctrine, will afford Marine forces the capability of providing future joint force commanders (JFCs) with a dynamic expeditionary warfighting organization.

The capstone document EMW was built, in part, from the Marine Corps Strategy 21 by providing the future capability enhancements that will keep the Corps relevant. EMW focuses on the following broad concepts: joint/multinational enabling, strategic agility, operational reach, tactical flexibility, and expeditionary logistics. Perhaps Task Force 58's remarkable success in realizing these concepts into operational realities during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM provides us a unique window to the future. In order for all Marine forces to realize the concept of EMW, we need to realign ourselves as brigades within the MEF.

EMW promises to the JFC an:

. . . enabling force-in-readiness, prepared to operate effectively alongside other services and allied forces in the full range of military operations from peacetime engagement to major theater war.5

The Marine Corps has, in our opinion, depended too heavily on the reputation of the special operations capable MEU, or MEU(SOC), program to remain viable in a joint arena. With an eye toward the future and notwithstanding the remarkable successes of the two MEUs under Task Force 58 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the days of MEUs dominating the "ready, relevant, and capable" headlines are quickly diminishing. With the Army's advent of the interim brigade combat team and the recent use of the USS Kitty Hawk as an afloat forward staging base, the other Services are catching on to the primacy of expeditionary operations. With an eye to the past, we must not forget that the largest amphibious/expeditionary operation (Operation OVERLORD) was conducted by the Army and Army Air Corps. Therefore, the transformation initiatives of our sister Services require that we analyze our current force structure and determine if we are optimally positioned to support our theater commanders/JFCs with a more operationally relevant and responsive warfighting organization.

The MEU has been a symbol of expeditionary readiness and excellence for the Marine Corps since the early 1980s. It provides the supported theater commander with a very well-trained and credible, albeit small, task-organized crisis response force. This MAGTF is capable of a wide range of missions with limited ability for sustained, independent combat operations. In 1992, during a period of force reductions, to retain the capability for MEB-level operations the Marine Corps embarked on the MEF forward concept. This construct was not fully understood or articulated within (or outside) the Marine Corps. Subsequently, to provide the combatant commanders with an operationally viable force capable of sustained expeditionary operations to enable follow-on forces or conduct independent operations, the Marine Corps reactivated three MEBs. Unfortunately, given our manpower constraints, the command elements of these MEBs are imbedded within each MEF headquarters rather than the separate standing headquarters of the past.

Let's take a look inside our existing imbedded MEBs. Despite the best efforts of our leadership to train and exercise our MEBs, the reality is that when the MEB trains or participates in an exercise, productivity in the rest of the MEF command element is significantly degraded. Our embedded MEB staffs are nothing more than a manning document. A MEF does not have the C2 capability or the staff to allow a MEF and a MEB to operate independently in sustained operations. The embedded staff concept does not work to the degree that we claim it does, and the costs of doing business this way undermine the capability of the MEF command element as a whole. A staff cannot work for two masters-the MEF commander and the MEB commander.

During a recent MEB exercise at II MEF, the underlying theme was that the MEB required more staff augmentation across all of the staff sections. The dilemma is that as you peel away more personnel from the MEF staff, the MEF and its major subordinate commands (MSCs) suffer. If you bring in Reserve augments, you are adding to the problems associated with creating ad hoc staffs because these personnel have not trained with their active duty counterparts and, therefore, lack cohesion at the early part of an exercise/operation.

Another problem associated with the embedded MEB is that it owns no consistent, standing forces or subordinate commands with which to develop SON and cohesion. When a MEB wants to exercise, the ramp up for the MEB staff and the MSCs is very steep. The MEB must go from a standstill to conducting operations in a short period of time without the benefit of habitual relationships with subordinate forces and staffs. In essence, the MEB staff competes with the other MSCs of the MEF for forces, training, and exercises. Given the limited resources and the multiple exercise requirements for the MEB staff embedded in the MEF, the MEF often experiences another phenomenon where, on occasion, the division or the wing staff has had to transform itself and serve as a MEB staff while the embedded MEB staff is planning or executing another exercise. This is a challenging endeavor for both a wing or division staff because they are not designed to be a MEB staff, nor do they have the SOPs to be one.

If our new capstone concept is built around the MEB construct, then shouldn't we organize ourselves fully into MEB organizations within their associated MEFs? Imagine the true combat power that a MEB brings to a theater commander when a MEU is too small to throw at a regional crisis by itself. MEUs are great enablers and should be advertised as the lead force of a follow-on MEB. We should, therefore, revisit our structure of the 1980s and task organize our MEFs to train and fight in this fashion now.

Rather than limiting ourselves to reorganizing reconnaissance units, military police, and cooks, we need to look at reorganizing the MEF. Technology has made it easier to C2 multiple units and formations. Therefore, the object of our recommended reorganization should be to reduce the multiple layers of redundant headquarters and task organize our forces into standing MAGTFs that have trained together for more than a passing exercise. We need to move away from ad hoc MAGTF staffs as a standard course of action.

Echoing a logical concern over three decades ago that continues to this day, Maj Glen H. Barlow made a compelling argument to stop "robbing Peter to pay Paul" with ad hoc MAGTF staffs in his April 1964 Gazette article, "Staff the Fire Brigade NOW." At this early point in MAGTF history, he recommended maintaining full-time MEU and MEB staffs.

Let's reduce the wing and division headquarters staffs to the advantage of our most probable initial echelon of deployment: the integrated, air-ground MEU and MEB .... To present a force in readiness to our country in a time of national crisis, we must organize now for combat.6

His argument makes even more sense in 2002. Our proposal, which listens to the argument against ad hoc staffs, would reorganize the MEF into a MEF command element, two standing MEBs, and three standing MEUs-- with the appropriate staffs and forces to provide MAGTFs that are truly ready, relevant, and capable of expeditionary operations. The reorganized MEF command element would subsume the division, wing, and FSSG headquarters and their respective functions. Where appropriate, duplicate functions would be consolidated, and the savings in structure would be applied toward the Operating Forces. The two standing MEB staffs would come from the consolidation of the MEF MSCs headquarters and the elimination of the various regimental and the group headquarters. (See Figure 3.)

Many have questioned the logic of why we have developed and:

.. institutionalized an approach whereby regiments and aircraft groups have become largely administrative or 'type' commands, that provide battalions and squadrons to MEU or UDP [unit deployment program] deployments, while MAGTF command experience is concentrated in relatively few, small units outside the peacetime chain of command.7

For example, imagine a MEB being able to conduct a CAX with all of its subordinate units, vice units from other organizations that it probably wouldn't fight with in combat. The scenario that we propose would allow a MEB staff to deploy to Twentynine Palms to train half of the MEB for one CAX, then transition the remainder of their MEB for the second CAX rotation. What a novel idea-training for combat with the units that are organic to your organization. Additionally, each MEB would be required to source units to support the UDP rotation as well as provide support to other training/exercise commitments both within the Marine Corps and those levied upon us by a theater commander.

Within the existing MEF command element, the MEF commander lacks the necessary depth in flag officers to be able to meet his increased responsibilities in joint and combined operations. With increased reliance on coalitions, MEF commanders spend a lot of their precious time servicing the coalition partners and fulfilling the theater commander's engagement requirements. Personal relationships between senior coalition military leaders are now an operational imperative. Typically, to ensure proper representation at the various joint and combined boards, MSC commanders are tasked to fill in, or flag officers are brought in from other organizations to augment an exercise or an operation.

As Figure 4 depicts, a MEF currently has seven general officers. As part of the proposed reorganization, the MEF, having subsumed the MSC headquarters and functions, would have five general officers in the command element. (See Fig ure 5.) The MEF commanding general (CG) (lieutenant general) and the deputy MEF commander (major general) would remain as is. The division CG would become the deputy commander (brigadier general) for operations. The wing CG would become the deputy commander (brigadier general) for aviation. The FSSG CG would become the deputy commander (brigadier general) for logistics and rear area, while the remaining two general officers would become MEB CGs (brigadier general). In case of a situation requiring the three MEUs within a MEF to be composited into a third MEB, any one of these deputies could take over as the MEB CG.

Keeping in mind that other Services have flag officers in these types of billets, this depth in flag officers at the MEF level enables proper flag officer representation (and a seat at the table) at the various joint boards, video teleconferences, et al. The depth also allows adequate representation above the colonel level to coordinate multiple issues and the capability to truly be a joint functional land, air, or rear area component commander/coordinator, if required.

The proposed MEF reorganization removes a layer of command (divisions/wings and regiments/groups) and allows units to train and fight as complete, cohesive MAGTFs. More importantly, it allows for two standing MEBs within each MEF. This would allow the MEF command element to focus on the responsibilities of a MEF rather than trying to be the MEF and the MEB at the same time. Currently, expertise to conduct MEB- and MEF- level amphibious and maritime prepositioning force (MPF) operations is shallow at best. Ideally, one of these MEBs would focus on amphibious operations while the other focuses on maritime prepositioning operations. This return to our amphibious roots is sorely needed if we are to realize EMW.

In many exercises, due to overcommitments of the Marine Forces (MarFor) and the MEF command element, the division has been assigned as a MarFor, while in another exercise we have seen the aircraft wing assigned as both the MEB and the MarFor. This may fulfill the exercise requirements but does not make much sense, nor are the MSC staffs designed to do this. With the proposed reorganization, the MEF will have the appropriate staff and the functional leadership to focus on the MEF sustaining and synchronizing combat power (rather than trying to be both a MEF and a MEB).

This proposed restructuring of the MEFs would fall within the spirit and intent of Marine Corps composition and functions as detailed in Title 10, U.S. Code 5063. This public law requires the Marine Corps to be organized to include not less than three combat divisions, three aircraft wings, and such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic. Collectively, the three MEFs would be organized to include the forces as outlined in Title 10 but without the historic division and wing headquarters. The current garrison staff functions of the division and wing headquarters would be consolidated within the MEF command element. For Washington budget battles, this would be an added benefit because rather than counting Marine forces in terms of divisions and wings, the Marine Corps would be counted in terms of MEFs-our principal warfighting MAGTF.


Regardless of the peacetime manning and budget constraints placed on the Corps over the years, the wartime requirements for cohesive, well-trained MAGTF staffs and the ability to project combat power rapidly have remained constant. From its official inception, the MEB was designed to play a critical role in the force projection equation as the lead element for a MEF or as an independent amphibious or MPF force.

To face future challenges, the Marine Corps needs to be willing to adapt to new requirements and organize and train how we claim we will fight. To do this we need to keep pace with the realities of the Operating Forces and demonstrate the same organizational agility and vision (coupled with an implementation plan) that is clearly articulated and adequately resourced. As part of this vision, we need to evaluate a new paradigm for our MEFs. Otherwise, out of operational necessity our MEFs will continue to undercut the MSCs by asking them to participate in various exercises and operations other than those for which the MSCs have been organized, trained, and equipped.

Obviously, this proposal requires more than a passing discussion or a Gazette article. It requires serious study and a commitment to warfighting (organizing and training as we would fight) that balances the existing realities with promised capabilities of concepts and future equipment. Lastly, we understand that the decision to effect change is difficult and sometimes painful, especially for an organization as rich in customs and traditions as the Marine Corps. As a Corps we need to commit ourselves to make this decision if we wish to remain relevant while other Services transform.


1. Marine Corps MAGTF triad approximate personnel strengths: MEU: 2,000; MEB: 14,000-17,000; MEF: 30,000-50,000.

2. West, M.B., "Evolution of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade," School of Advanced War-fighting, Marine Corps University, Fall 1999, p. 1.

3. Thompson, Robert H., Col, Lessons Learned from Armor Evaluation, July 1982, p. 36-44.

4. West, M.B., p. 14.

5. Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare (Working Paper), 7 September 2001, p. 3.

6. Barlow, Glen H., Maj, "Staff the Fire Brigade Now," MCG, May 1964, pp. 30-31.

7. Quinn, John T., Maj, "The Future Fleet Landing Force", MCG, June 1996, p. 24.