OMFTS: Innovation, deep maneuver, and aviation

by Col Gary I. Wilson, USMCR, Maj Chris Yunker, & Franklin C. Spinney

Gen Charles C. Krulak in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) Frag Order notes that in order to create the agile, adaptable, combined arms forces the Nation needs in the 21st century, the Marine Corps is focusing its efforts on three areas: Operational Maneuver From The Sea (OMFTS), Innovation, and the Individual Marine. This article will outline several innovative concepts currently stirring in the Marine Corps’ “marketplace of ideas” and suggest that these concepts serve in part as linchpins for OMITS.

The Marine Corps’ capstone operational concept of OMFTS was established in January 1996. OMFTS does more than describe how Marines will conduct power projection operations in the 21st century. It begins a process of proposal, debate, and experimentation building on the foundation laid by “. . From the Sea” and “Forward. . . From the Sea.” As a naval concept developed by the Marine Corps for execution in concert with the Navy, OMFTS places unprecedented emphasis on the littorals and demands greater cohesiveness between naval warfare and maneuver warfare. The Marine Corps will meet OMFES challenges by coupling new ideas, force mix, hardware, and technology to improve our combat power. In order of importance, people, ideas, and hardware are the fundamental elements of combat power. The hard-learned lessons of history demonstrate that combat power is improved by the creative combination of these factors working together in harmony.

OMFTS seeks this creative combination through a marriage of maneuver warfare and naval warfare. Maneuver warfare provides an understanding of dynamic conflict and the requirement for skillful operations at a high tempo. Naval warfare demonstrates the advantages inherent in seaborne movement and seabased logistics. OMFTS capitalizes on naval forces’ ability to use the sea as a maneuver space. The intent in employing this concept is to achieve decisive objectives, selected from across the broad operational reach, and achieved in large measure through ship-to-objective maneuver, a major implementing concept of OMFTS. A key element of OMFTS is sea-basing the command and control, logistics, and the preponderance of fire support functions in order to maintain the use of the sea as maneuver space, and enhance the mobility of ground forces ashore. Sea-based, these functions also reduces the force’s “footprint” and vulnerability ashore.

Sea-basing allows combat service support (CSS) forces to concentrate on providing support to warfighters without rear area security concerns inherent in shore-based logistics operations. Furthermore, sea-basing provides the joint task force commander with the capability to maneuver combat forces seamlessly from the sea to decisive objective areas without the traditional impediment of securing the beach. Sea-basing thus allows putting the “teeth” ashore while leaving the logistics “tail” afloat, significantly leveraging land maneuver operations.

Change of this magnitude is not easy. While rising to the challenge of working out the mechanics of OMiTS, much of today’s combat development and operational thinking tends to be smothered by the quest for technology. Clearly technology influences operational concepts, but we must not lose sight of the relationship of new technology to true innovation in the conduct of war. Maneuver warfare recognizes that the activity of war can never be predictable, and that advances in technology alone do not master war. Any application of technology in a maneuver or operational context must be applied in a way which takes that into account. At the operational level, we strive to develop a tempo of activity that is superior to that of the enemy, throw our strength against his weakness, and leverage individual initiative and decentralized execution. In tactical engagements, combined arms are used to defeat an enemy who has been selectively engaged by attacking with unpredictable, swift, dilemmaproducing actions. While the Marine Corps has all the components needed to employ this doctrine robustly, our institutional structure, training, and equipment have not been adjusted sufficiently to enable its full implementation. Towards this end the Corps needs to take a serious look at increasing its operational potential based on OMFTS, innovation, current equipment and force mix.

Although the Marine Corps broke new ground both conceptually and technologically with the adoption of maneuver warfare and the acquisition of light armored vehicles (LAVs), the full merger and exploitation of the two initiatives has yet to occur. Today, however, interest in fielding an amphibious force that can carry out operational level mission is growing. The concept was outlined in three Gazettes last year and versions of it are now being tested in field exercises. The concept employs an operational maneuver element (OME), a force built around LAVs, to conduct deep maneuver operations. The OME is an organization and concept based on current equipment and forces that seem particularly well adapted to the threats and adversary orders of battle most likely to be encountered by our Marine air-ground task forces in the foreseeable future.

Changes in weapons technologies show potential to bolster the viability of this type of force, suggesting that large conventional armored combat formations are waning in significance. Larger combat formations are becoming more vulnerable as technology improves munition performance, spreads globally, and provides smaller forces the means to unleash as much destructive power as larger and easily targeted combat formations. Conversely, an agile light armored force with speed, range, communications, and precision munitions is increasingly capable of displacing mass as a principle characteristic for decisive ground engagement. These technologies also make light armored forces suitable for deep maneuver operations.

Rigorous thinking regarding OME and other concepts is taking place in the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) as ways are sought to bolster and emphasize operational level doctrine. The FMF’s interest in deep maneuver was reported on in the article, “I MEF Eyes Deep Maneuver” (MCG, Feb97, p.6). The purpose of the I MEF’s Deep Operations Working Group is to examine current Marine Corps deep ground operations capabilities considering among other alternatives, the inherent mobility of the light armored vehicle. A unique series of exercises were born of this endeavor culminating in DEEP STRIKE, conducted in August of this year. (See accompanying article.)

DEEP STRIKE’S exercise goal was to explore the capabilities of a large LAV force operating without ground lines of communication and relying on fixed and rotary wing aircraft for sustainment. DEEP STRIKE successfully demonstrated long-range (air) sustainment and command and control of a 300-vehicle LAV-based task force. The concept of deep maneuver by light armored reconnaissance (LAR) units at the operational level was considered generally as viable.

In a separate but related experimental effort, Col Gary W. Anderson with III MEF is developing a battlefield shaping task force (BSTF) concept that is similarly focused on limited objectives at the operational level. Proposing a BSTF designed for battlefield shaping, it provides a framework for ground, fire support, and aviation to execute a faster observation-orientation-decision-action cycle.

A third parallel concept, one that relates specifically to sea-based aviation, has been proposed in the form of the aviation from the sea (AFTS) initiative that regards aviation primarily as yet another maneuver element of the ground force. AFTS seeks to use air (both Navy and Marine) in a maneuver context, integrating air (Navy and Marine) with ground elements at the tactical level in order to be employed optimally at the operational level. The combination of deep maneuver and AFTS, employed within the BSTF framework, represents an enhanced and innovative use of resources and force mix. The common theme of these efforts is to seek operational solutions supporting OMFTS.

A combination of an OME and AFTS, when correctly used to implement OMFTS, can provide our Marine expeditionary forces (MEFs) with a unique operational level capacity. These initiatives herald a move to closely integrate deep fires with a maneuver force of LAVs, Navy and Marine air, conducted against an OMFTS backdrop to prosecute the strategic objectives of a unified command.

During the HUNTER WARRIOR Experiment in March, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) experimented with technologies that could enhance these concepts. These experiments also generated healthy debate regarding aviation from the sea and operational maneuver capabilities. One of the more controversial issues involved .’S’s predecessor, Hunter or Jaeger Air, which was judged by some as ineffective and failing to present a credible force. Military journalist, Elaine M. Grossman, recorded part of the dialog within the Marine Corps on that portion of the experiment noting in Inside the Pentagon, (14 Aug 1997):

Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory officials noted that. . ., among other `lessons learned’ from its March HUNTER WARRIOR experiment …. their use of T-34 trainer aircraft to test Jaeger’ or ‘hunter’ aviation tactics and techniques was ill-conceived and likely will not be repeated. Backers of the Jaeger aviation concept-using airpower more aggressively in concert with a ground commander’s objectives, as an arm of maneuver warfarehad proposed using the slow trainer aircraft…. because that might eliminate debates over “platforms” from the experiment, and instead allow for free-play tests of warfighting concepts alone.

Not all that participated in the experiment shared that view. For example, during the segment involving deep maneuver operations, both Marine and Navy aviators worked in concert with the MAGTF commander to gain an intimate understanding of the commander’s intent. The aviators enabled the LAV-based OME to maneuver, in the words of the seasoned LAR company commander, “twice as fast and far more aggressively” than anything he had previously experienced.

Maj Lawrence Roberts (“Flying In Hunter Warrior” Proceedings, Sep97) notes that, despite the limited nature of the HUNTER WARRIOR experiment, he was excited about the potential capability of the AFTS concept and the possibility of getting carrier tactical aviation more involved in supporting troops ashore.

Dialog and debate such as this is healthy, exactly what we need in the current environment. It further serves to point out the importance of ensuring clear conceptual underpinnings are articulated and employed before embracing new technologies in combat forces. Regardless of one’s views on the concepts employed in HUNTER WARRIOR, DEEP STRIKE, or BSTF exercises, it is clear the experiments dramatically moved Marines beyond their comfort zones resulting in new views and broadening the dialog on expanding carrier aviation, integrating LAR operational level capabilities, and exploring them in support of fighting in the littorals.

Operational concepts and planning can play a critical part in military undertakings. They serve to establish favorable conditions for the subsequent introduction of the main force. They perform a shaping and enabling function designed to locate and identify the enemy, impede and paralyze enemy movement, and shatter enemy command, control, communications, and cohesion by striking critical nodes.

We propose that combining the AFIS capabilities with a task organized LAR battalion within the BSTF framework provides the MAGTF an ability to focus at the operational level to influence MEF objectives, shape the battle space to set up tactical advantages, and operationally shape the campaign without the commitment of the main force. Surprise is possible through a high tempo of operations, or by penetration to unanticipated depth attacking critical nodes.

An OME positioned within a naval expeditionary task force, working with AFTS would enable the ground commander to fight deep where naval aviation has for the last 30 years engaged targets as air interdiction or deep strike. Technology infusions to weapons continue to strengthen the light ground force and enhance both a ground and aerial combined arms action in the enemy’s rear, presenting an unacceptable risk to the enemy commander.

In short, the combination of AFTS and OME, organized around LAVs and employed within the BSTF framework, offers to provide the MAGTF a force that is:

Seaborne and therefore strategically and operationally mobile.

Heavy enough in air power to provide air strikes alone if required.

Heavy enough in ground power to provide an enabler for follow-on ground and air forces.

Forward deployed and therefore on the scene and operationally proactive, with robust combat power.

Experimentation with AFTS and OME deep maneuver concepts can enable the MAGTF to introduce changes in technology within a conceptual framework, and accept or reject technical applications based on an understanding of the implications of the technology. The essential element of these emerging capabilities is balance. In the long view, these ideas offer increased combat power through operational and intellectual insight rather than overreliance on technology.

Ongoing and well-coordinated limited object experiments like those taking place at I MEF (i.e. DEEP STRIKE) and III MEF (i.e. BSTF) are providing a field venue where the importance of people, ideas, and hardware is taken into account. Such experiments are consistent with the Commandant’s Planning Guidance Frag Order, articulating how the MCWL supports the combat development process. That support uses the Fleet Marine as the centerpiece for testing and implementing reforms, the MCWL as the conduit for operational reform within the Marine Corps, and the Marine University and schools as the idea factory. They have the potential of providing operational level solutions that could be invaluable in the emerging world.

These three efforts offer a jumping off point for exploring the relevance of technology to our operational repertoires. They can contribute, together with the Sea Dragon Experiment series, to developing the agile, adaptable, combined arms forces needed by the Nation for the 21st century. As Gen Krulak notes his Planning Guidance Frag Order:

We must be a forward-thinking, learning organization that strives, day in and day out, to improve our efficiency, to improve our effectiveness and to challenge the status quo.


The Marine Corps Gazette has published each of the key documents/articles cited by these authors as well as other related concept papers:

“. . . From the Sea” Nov92

“Forward . . . From the Sea”Oct94

Commandant’s Planning Guidance Aug95

Operational Maneuver From the Sea Jun96

“MEU(JOC) and Operational Maneuver” Jun96

“MEU(JOC) Stage II: Growing an Operational Capability” Sep96

“An Operational Maneuver MAGTF” Dec96

Commandant’s Planning Guidance Frag Order Oct97

Future Operation on Urbanized Terrain Oct97

Ship-to-Objective Maneuver Nov97