MAGTF Warlords: A Naval Perspective

by LCDR Terry C. Pierce, USN

This article is the third in a series for Marines concerning the Navy’s composite warfare concept. It continues discussions begun by Col William M. Rakow (MCG, Jul90) and by Col Wallace C. Gregson (MCG, Dec90) on a subject that is revising our approach to the command and control of maritime operations.

In their recent and truly important articles, Col Rakow and Col Gregson both made several valid points for integrating amphibious doctrine into the Navy’s composite warfare (CW) concept From a naval perspective the concept of blending the two doctrines is farreaching. A strong argument for such a reformation is that it would reestablish the principle of unity of command. It would also facilitate the Marine Corps’ effort to apply the principles of maneuver warfare to amphibious warfare. The merging of doctrines, however, implies change in the command relationships between the Navy and the Marine Corps. Undoubtedly, many Navy officers would resist any doctrinal development effort that places all naval forces under a single operational and strategic concept if, as Col Rakow proposed, it meant that the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) commander would assume the status of a “naval warlord,” co-equal to the amphibious task force commander (CATF) and other major naval warfare commanders, such as the antiair warfare commander (AAWC), the antisubmarine warfare commander (ASWQ, the antisurface warfare commander (ASUWC), and the strike warfare commander (STWC). Without question, our reluctance to envision new command arrangements is the obstacle to achieving one doctrine for our forces. Therefore, resolving the command relationship issue is key and is the focus of this article.

Admittedly, an amphibious campaign requires unity of command. Based on doctrine that differs little from World War II, amphibious command relationships, as described in JCS Pub 3-02, are completely straightforward. The initiating directive, which establishes the amphibious objective area (AOA) and the relationship between the CATF and the landing force commander (CLF), requires the CATF to be the unified commander of all forces within the AOA. Nevertheless, recent deviations from amphibious doctrine during real world operations involving nonamphibious forces using the CW concept diminished the CATF’s powers as a unified commander.

In addition, for the first time within the CW concept, a Marine air-ground task force commander (MAGTFC) (Col Rakow’s Contingency MAGTF (CM) 2-88 deployed to the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War) was placed in a warfare commander status coequal with the senior amphibious commander and other naval warlords. Undoubtedly, these deviations from amphibious doctrine indicate that it is failing to provide a strong unified commander. This is unacceptable.

Col Rakow argues, however, that a viable amphibious doctrine is possible if the Navy’s CW doctrine is integrated with it. He is right. Such a change will reestablish the principle of unity of command and accommodate maneuver warfare. But for this change to occur, both the Navy and Marine Corps must be willing to accept new command relationships.

Traditional Amphibious Command Relationships

Traditionally, the CATF has operated with unique and wide-ranging authority over all friendly assets operating inside the AOA, Although the CATF is the unified commander, the principle of unified command has come to mean that after the landing phase of the operation has concluded, control of the troops ashore should revert to the CLF. This established procedure is possible because the conventional amphibious landing allows the Navy and Marine Corps to maintain separation in thought and tactics throughout the operation. Consequently, the Navy has been content to focus upon the tactical movement techniques of the ship-to-shore phase, and the Marines’ focus has been on the tactical transition from a landing force to a land force. Both Services see a logical dividing line, the so-called high-water mark, between the ship-to-shore movement and operations ashore. When the landing force has established a force beachhead this has usually meant it can have control passed ashore and the Navy can depart the area.

It is this tactical separation of responsibilities during traditional amphibious operations that precludes the amphibious forces from achieving more integration and mutual support at the tactical level. For example, there is the controversy of using embarked MAGTF assets for emergency defense of the amphibious task force (ATF). (See Maj Milstead’s article, “Defending the ATF,” MCG, Sep87.) Although an informal understanding exists that acknowledges MAGTF assets will be used, if required, in the emergency defense of the ATF, a formal understanding exists which states that the MAGTF commander must arrive safely with most of his combat potential. To be sure, when control is passed ashore the MAGTF commander is left alone to provide his own combat shield. Undoubtedly, this will require that he arrive with most of his assets intact.

Challenges to Amphibious Doctrine

In operations that bring amphibious and nonamphibious forces together under the CW concept, the CATF’s authority is clearly diminished. Specifically, the command procedures that evolved in Grenada and Beirut essentially shifted power and command authority from the CATF to the adjacent composite warfare commander (CWC). In fact, what occurred during these operations was the result of an officer in tactical control/composite warfare commander (OTC/CWC) and CATF having their first mutual combat experience.

In both operations, the conscious decision to depart from amphibious doctrine and not to establish an AOA served to undermine the doctrinal powers of the CATF. Without an AOA it became unclear if the senior amphibious commander had the power to task nonamphibious assets to perform the amphibious mission. For example, CATF, requiring destroyers for gunline duty, now had to compete for them with the OTC/CWC, who had screening requirements for the carrier battle group (CVBG). Furthermore, during the Beirut amphibious operation, the senior amphibious commander actually was required to obtain permission from the ASUWC before he could conduct counterbattery and suppressing fires. Consequently, without an AOA the amphibious force commander did not have CATF’s customary unity of command authority.

Perhaps as alarming were the MAGTF deployments of CM 1-88 through CM 3-88, in which amphibious forces sailed to the Persian Gulf without doctrine for nonamphibious employment of the MAGTF. After CM 1-88 deployed, the Navy made the unprecedented move to make the MAGTFC of 2-88, Col Rakow, a naval warlord within the CW concept. Accordingly, Col Rakow, as a naval warlord, was able to perform numerous nonamphibious tasks in a most exemplary manner.

Although these ad hoc approaches of addressing command relationships between the senior amphibious commander, the MAGTFC, and the OTC/ CWC appear to have worked for Grenada, Beirut, and during the Iran-Iraq War, they were primarily personality dependent and should be avoided. Accepting the CW concept as our one operational doctrine would resolve this issue.

Unfortunately, since most Marine Corps officers are unaware of how the CW concept works, they do not understand how it can enhance amphibious forces capabilities and Marine maneuver warfare ashore. Certainly, any concept that facilitates the prosecution of amphibious campaigns and maneuver warfare is important and worth learning. For this reason, a brief explanation of the CW concept should help us grasp the meaning of a concept that, when integrated with amphibious doctrine, will result in the promotion of the MAGTF commander to the status of a naval warlord.

Understanding the CW Concept

The naval warlord concept as practiced within the CW concept evolved much later than amphibious doctrine. Furthermore, the two doctrines have never had any connection with each other. The CW idea originated from the Navy’s effort to defend its aircraft carriers from the credible Soviet threat that emerged during the 1970s. If an aircraft carrier were to retain its ability to conduct offensive strikes at long range, then “shields at sea” that could deny an enemy the opportunity to shoot at the force or otherwise disrupt its operations were needed. (See LtGen Shutler’s article, Thinking about Warfare,” MCG, Nov87.)

The aircraft carrier and the remaining combatant ships in the carrier task force are able to generate this “combat shield” by the combination of tactical actions of subordinate warfare commanders. These commanders operate like strong barons or warlords and are expected to wage aggressive combat operations against threats in their particular warfare area.

A warlord can be either assigned as the ASWC to defend against submarine attack (ASW shield), or as the AAWC to counter enemy air threats (AAW shield), or as an ASUWC to counter surface threats (ASUW shield). Coordinating their tactical actions by a decentralized command and control structure is the OTC/CWC.

With the tacit approval of the CWC, each warlord has the authority to request and task assets throughout the task force. Certainly, the situation will arise when two warlords simultaneously task the same asset This situation is resolved by the OTC/CWC deciding which warfare commander has the greater need. Accordingly, the OTC/CWC expects the individual actions of the warlords to have a synergistic effect that results in an effective defense shield behind which the task force can safely carry out its primary mission.

CWC Concept and Amphibious Doctrine

No doubt, making the amphibious warfare commander (AWC) and the MAGTFC* coequal warfare commanders, as Col Rakow proposes, would be a very practical way to integrate amphibious doctrine with the CW concept. In fact, since all forces would be directly under the OTC/CWC, such an arrangement would reestablish unity of command among nonamphibious and amphibious forces. For nonamphibious operations this would be ideal and would resolve such issues as the MAGTF defending the ATF.

Also, amphibious operations could be successfully conducted with the MAGTFC not having to chop to the AWC. Of course, this is assuming both the Navy and Marine Corps are still using a traditional style of warfare. However, maneuver warfare will soon be institutionalized throughout the Marine Corps. Assuredly, this doctrine shift will significantly alter the way amphibious landings will be planned and executed.

In fact, a maneuver-styled approach means that the operational level of war is now a separate level of military activity. The impact of this change is that the commanders of maneuver warfare amphibious assaults must stop thinking of sea and ground operations solely in tactical terms and visualize, plan, and execute the amphibious operation in its entirety at the operational level of war.

But unless we recognize that the Marine Corps has adopted a maneuver style of warfare, we are in danger of returning to the command relationships used during the Gallipoli Campaign. At Gallipoli, the amphibious operation floundered at the very outset because of conflicts in command jurisdiction occurring between the Navy and landing force. A simple realignment of AWC and MAGTFC as coequal warfare commanders under the OTC/ CWC will not resolve the questions of respective duties and who is in command over whom, when, and where-the kind of questions that caused many of the difficulties that led to the Gallipoli disaster. As the Marine Corps shifts from attrition warfare to maneuver warfare, similar jurisdictional controversies will arise.

The Navy commander who is charged with the responsibility for conducting a maneuver warfare amphibious operation must be thoroughly familiar with MAGTF capabilities, land warfare, and the theory and concepts of maneuver warfare. The OTC/CWC is not. The Marines expect strong naval leadership in this area, and it is required if maneuver warfare is to be successful.

Maneuver warfare requires that the AWC and MAGTFC have an operational link, a connection that did not exist before. This link is essential to ensure that the sea and land maneuver elements work in concert at the operational level. Furthermore, because the command relationships are now based at the operational level, the how and when of transfer ashore becomes situational. In fact, due to the advantages of the maneuver warfare concepts of seabasing and seaborne operational mobility, it is to our advantage to operate from the sea as long as possible. Consequently, the AWC will probably retain control for a much longer period.

Having described the operational level as the primary link between the AWC and MAGTFC, we must ask ourselves if the Navy truly appreciates the mental process and the considerations involved in commanding a maneuver warfare campaign. It probably does not. In other words, maneuver warfare requires that the naval officer commanding the amphibious forces not only understand maneuver warfare, but also be competent enough to participate in the process. To achieve this the AWC will be required to have nearly the same indepth understanding of the ground tactical and operational levels of war as the MAGTFC.

This requirement demands a careerlong study of the art of littoral warfare and should involve an indepth association with the education offered at Quantico. We cannot, nor should we, expect that a naval officer of the talent that will rise to assume the position of OTC/CWC of a CVBG will have had the opportunity to acquire these skills. However, we should expect this of our amphibious officers who have traditionally become CATFs and are now called AWCs. Accordingly, to execute a maneuver warfare amphibious operation will require the MAGTFC to chop to the AWC during amphibious operations. On the other hand, once AWC has passed control to MAGTFC, the AWC may well chop to the MAGTFC.

Therefore, unity of command for the amphibious operation lies with the AWC until he passes control to the MAGTFC, who then assumes responsibility as unified commander. Because the CW structure allows the AWC and MAGTFC to be under the command of a common on-scene superior, the OTC/CWC, nonamphibious support of the amphibious operation should not be an issue. Thus, we should see nonamphibious assets being used to support the forces ashore for the entire amphibious operation. (See Col Gregson’s example of the Aegis-based cooperative engagement system reinforcing MAGTFC antiair warfare combat power, MCG, Dec90.)

MAGTF Warlord

In short, resolving the command relationship issue is key to achieving one doctrine for our forces. Because of the operational command requirements of maneuver warfare, the MAGTFC should still chop to AWC for amphibious operations. A new change, however, is that once control is shifted ashore to the MAGTFC, the AWC should chop to him. For nonamphibious operations the AWC and MAGTFC should remain coequal with no need for either to chop forces to one another.

Certainly, one of the challenges to accepting one operational doctrine will require the Navy to recognize that the arguments presented by Marine Corps writers for creating a MAGTF warlord are not a calculated power move meant to diminish Navy authority. Rather, a MAGTF warlord depicts the outcome of an effort to integrate the MAGTF in both nonamphibious and amphibious operations. If the Navy and Marine Corps can accept these new command relationships, then there is a very real possibility that MAGTFCs will soon become warlords within the CW concept.


* As implied by earlier discussion, AWC and MAGTFC are new titles for CATF and CLF, respectively, that seem better suited in the broader context of the CWC concept.