Pushing Lethality to the Edge

A smarter, deadlier MAGTF

>Capt Holden is a Marine Officer currently assigned to USSOUTHCOM where he has worked in security cooperation and collections management billets as well as managing a variety of projects implementing cutting-edge technological solutions to address the range of threats in the area of responsibility. He previously served in the INDOPACOM Area of Responsibility with 3d Mar and Combat Logistics Battalion 3, where he deployed in support of the PACOM Augmentation Team Philippines and aboard the USNS SACAGAWEA in support of Task Force KOA MOANA 17 to support a range of partner nation engagements across the Pacific.      

The threats facing today’s MAGTF have evolved significantly—even over just the last decade. Cyber capabilities, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and more have dispersed across a wide range of actors and become prominent factors in conflicts across the globe. Capabilities that were once the domain of advanced states can now be found in the arsenals of rising powers, transnational criminal organizations, and terrorist groups. These technological forms of warfare are cheaper to purchase, more user-friendly, and more portable than previous generations of military hardware. A 2021 Office of the Director of National Intelligence report assessed that these trends were likely to continue, creating new disruptions.1 The spread of these capabilities has some stark implications for how the Marine Corps needs to organize, train, and equip for the next fight.
Understanding the aggregate effect of all these changes in technology and domains is essential. This is a difficult task, with many experts disagreeing (and plenty making book deals) and speculating about these impacts on warfare. It is probably most salient how these technologies are applied to modern conflicts and to project those effects into the future. Current and recent conflicts provide an exciting window into what a future U.S. engagement might look like with some of these changes.
Battlefield experiences in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Ethiopia all point toward three clear lessons for the MAGTF of the future. First, advancements in technology have caused lethality to become more accessible and dispersed to lower echelons than previously feasible, which is pushing lethality to the tactical edge of formations. Secondly, the war in Ukraine has shown the value of joint integration at the lowest possible level, with members of each Service able to understand, access, and employ the capabilities of the other Services. Finally, having a deep reserve of technical capability is critical in a modern conflict. A technologically skilled base of citizens to pull from in times of conflict offers a distinct advantage in an age of technologically-focused warfare. These three elements will allow the MAGTF of the future to retain a competitive advantage in the future operating environment.

Technology Pushing Lethality to the Edge of the MAGTF
Technology has improved across a broad range of metrics over the last two decades, thus becoming more reliable, resilient, powerful, lethal, and compact. Furthermore, the cost of technologically advanced systems has greatly declined, allowing more capabilities at a fraction of the price they would have cost in years past. Major advances in unmanned aerial systems (UAS), loitering munitions (LMs), and mobility options mean that the MAGTF needs to invest in ways to push high-lethality weapon systems to lower echelons while guarding against the same effect in adversary forces.
UAS can significantly extend the range of enemy fires. This allows them to reach well behind the forward lines of troops and strike at valuable targets for a relatively low cost in manpower and resources.2 This is a powerful incentive to disperse capabilities to lower-level units, leaving them less vulnerable to attack by UAS. UAS and LMs are not just a concern during combat operations against a major state. The MAGTF prepares to deal with this technology across the spectrum of adversaries. The Ethiopian Civil War against rebels in the Tigray region provides an interesting example of technological proliferation in a developing country’s warfighting capabilities.The second most populous country in Africa, it is one of the poorest and with less than one percent of its GDP for military funding leaving them with an annual military budget of around one billion dollars.Despite the constrained budget, Ethiopia’s fight has featured the use of several types of drones: Chinese-made Wing Loong 2 armed UAV, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 armed UAV, and Iran’s Mujaher-6 have all made appearances in the battlespace.As these technologies get cheaper and improve in quality, more adversaries will have access to drones across the spectrum of threats in future MAGTF engagements.
In Ukraine, small commercially produced UAVs have seen wide use at the tactical levels, serving in roles from reconnaissance to fire control to loitering munitions. Many of these UAS are commercially available and donated by outside groups. Drone enthusiast groups who ended up being part of the war effort produce some locally.These UAS are relatively inexpensive. If they are lost, broken, or destroyed, it is not a major event with replacement models available to purchase for $1000–$2000.Replacement parts can also be 3D printed by local groups of citizens or soldiers who brought those skills with them into the service.The relative cost and ease of replacement for these systems make them attritable, easy to disperse to frontline units, and well suited to the tactical edge of combat. The adoption of these systems provided significant benefits to Ukrainian forces across a range of operations.
LMs are a specific type of UAS which have become increasingly popular on the battlefield. Early versions of these munitions have been around since the Vietnam War, originally designed to home in on the radiation emitted by anti-air defenses.Advances in artificial intelligence have combined with the miniaturization of electronics to allow for munitions capable of much higher levels of autonomy.10 The ability of these munitions to loiter overhead while searching for targets within a certain signature parameter before striking or returning to base to be refitted and launched again creates a useful blend of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and munitions. These characteristics made them incredibly effective in the Azerbaijani war against the Armenians in 2020 when LMs played a key role in destroying enemy air defenses and armored assets.11 Furthermore, their lightweight design and relatively low cost (when compared to traditional air assets or missiles) provide an economic way to extend the umbrella of fires of a force with low cost in manpower and support. Turkey, Armenia, Iran, the United States, Israel, and China (among more than a dozen of others) have begun producing these munitions or incorporated them into their arsenals, which means that the MAGTF of the future will need to be prepared to handle them.12
The Marine Corps has done some experimentation with versions LMs and how they might be integrated into the MAGTF. The UVision Hero series of LMs have been integrated onto LAV-25 platforms with the intent to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and a precision-strike capability from one package on these vehicles—a significant enhancement for lethality.13 The Marines have also discussed intentions to test an air-launched version that could supplement traditional aircraft munitions, providing greater situational awareness for the crew while also providing fire support that could outlast the limited time on station for most aircraft in the Marine inventory.14 Incorporation of these types of munitions could provide enhanced battlefield awareness, close air support, and precision-strike capabilities at a fraction of the cost of traditional air assets while also maintaining the ability to disperse risk and capability. The Marine Corps needs to continue work to procure and develop lightweight, high-lethality systems that can be dispersed widely to forces.
Increasing the mobility of small teams empowered by these technologies also has a major impact on lethality. Electric bikes and motorcycles can increase the mobility and stealth of reconnaissance and sniper teams operating close to, or forward of, the front line of troops while allowing them to carry bulkier weapon systems into position. Ukrainian forces have employed versions of electric motorcycles with front-line troops for exactly this purpose. Domestically produced models of these bikes boast top speeds of 55 mph, a range of over 90 miles on one five-hour charge, and the ability to carry up to 330lbs—all having a relatively light weight of under 200lbs.15 These bikes have been used to provide greater mobility to anti-armor teams, carrying modern NLAW and Javelin anti-tank guided missiles into place, firing and displacing quickly.16 The combination of speed, lightweight build, and near-silent performance allows small teams to move into position to identify a target or to act as a shooter themselves. While the United States has invested in concepts like this in the past, Ukraine provides a fascinating proving ground that once again shows the value of quiet, highly mobile systems that can move high-lethality capabilities around the battlefield.17
The systems that the Marine Corps chooses to invest in for the MAGTF will play a large role in helping it maintain an edge in warfighting capabilities, but simple cultural shifts will allow access to much greater firepower and support by leveraging the unique capabilities of the Services fighting alongside them.

Jointness: It’s About Firepower
Integration between Services is critical on a modern battlefield, where sensors are ubiquitous and the interconnectedness of fires systems offers a major advantage. This interconnected web of sensors and shooters, each maximizing the most appropriate asset for the given task of finding, communicating, and shooting a target has been called “Mosaic Warfare.”18 The advantages of this high-level interoperability between Services have been demonstrated by the Ukrainian forces. They have been able to successfully link a variety of sensors to non-traditional shooters, allowing them to achieve some impressive battlefield results. During the back-and-forth battle for Snake Island, the Ukrainian forces were able to use Turkish Bayraktar UAVs to spot and target Russian forces and equipment.19 One impressive instance of this was in the sinking of the Russian flagship, Moskva, by a landbased, indigenously-produced Neptune anti-ship missile.20 The ability to string multiple sensors and shooters, taking advantage of various capabilities of other Services is a powerful force multiplier that the MAGTF of the future must be able to employ.
U.S. forces are going through great pains to ensure the interoperability of equipment and personnel across platforms, capabilities, and Services. The technical side of this effort is the Joint All Domain Command and Control program, which seeks to find solutions that will allow multiple generations of current platforms to become interoperable while laying a common groundwork for future systems to share that interoperability.21 The Joint Force offers a far greater variety of platforms and capabilities than those which are available to the MAGTF. This is a good thing since it allows Marines to access greater firepower, mobility, and support capabilities than would otherwise be available to them. But you cannot expect Marines who have been raised to view other Services as rivals or “less than,” led by officers whose time with the Joint Force can work against them for promotion, to fully grasp and maximize the full potential of the Joint Force.
There are cultural and materiel differences that are important to understand and navigate if you want to fully access the capabilities of a sister Service. Junior officers and staff NCOs need to be intimately familiar with the capabilities brought to bear by these forces to appropriately leverage them to accomplish the mission. What does the Army element have that can help address my challenge, how do I get it, and who do I talk to? These questions are vital for junior leaders to have the answers to before the next conflict starts, but unfortunately, the system does not incentivize junior leaders who are in the position to glean that knowledge and bring it back to the force.
The current structure (anecdotally) penalizes Marines for not having Marine raters on their fitness reports, making a tour at a joint assignment potentially damaging to a career, as non-Marine reviewers are seen as less valuable than Marines and there is a strong sense of what have you done for the Corps lately.22 Instead of penalizing young leaders for stepping into a situation that can potentially bring useful knowledge of joint capabilities back to the force, the Marine Corps should be encouraging rotations of junior officers and non-commissioned officers for that exact reason. To be truly effective across the domains of battle and enhance the firepower available to the MAGTF, jointness needs to be embraced.

Upskill for the Kill
A more technically demanding world demands technically competent personnel who can thrive by leveraging existing and emerging technologies. The United States as a whole is struggling to upskill the broader workforce, particularly in manufacturing jobs which have been replaced or moved out of the United States due to more competitive production locations overseas.23 Beyond the current workforce, the workforce of the future needs a higher level of education and technical training to hold meaningful jobs than previous generations.24 Trends in technologically advanced weaponry proliferating across the battlefield and allowing lethality to be pushed down to lower levels of the MAGTF requires a force that has the technical proficiency and mental capacity to embrace these changes.
The current changes to the Marine School of Infantry reflect that desire to upskill the MAGTF. Higher standards for intelligence, physical fitness, and longer training will all serve to lay a foundation for the skillsets that will be needed from their initial training.25 Increased training in crew-served and anti-tank weapons will provide additional skills that have proven indispensable in the conflict in Ukraine, where ATGMs have played such a key role across the battlefield. Beyond training, educational opportunities need to be provided and encouraged by leadership. Although the U.S. military has a higher percentage of the population with a high school diploma than the civilian populace, rates of enlisted attainment of higher education fall at the undergraduate and graduate levels to well below the average in the broader civilian population.26 This is a loss to the MAGTF of the future, which will desperately need both trained and educated service members serving in officer and enlisted roles to be competitive.
There are a variety of ways to upskill the MAGTF of the future. Extending the length of primary training schools to provide a longer period to learn and retain a broadening range of skill sets that are required for basic job proficiency is one way. Requiring more regular follow-on training at career waypoints to reinforce earlier training, update knowledge based on current best practices, and allow for a mixing of experiences by professionals with different operational experiences would have a major positive impact. There are also programs that could be used to incentivize Marines to pursue technical training or educational opportunities on their own time and with a greater benefit to the force. These could look like a structured program to help Marines achieve an associate’s degree or technical certification in a relevant skillset over the first two years of service through distance or night classes. It is a smart investment to make the changes that will maintain the qualitative edge that the MAGTF holds, upskilling the Marines of today and laying the groundwork for the Marines of tomorrow to be more skilled and educated for the next fight.

Smarter, Faster, Deadlier: The MAGTF of the Future
The Marine Corps will have to adapt to the increased pace of warfare in the coming decades. Adversaries across the threat spectrum will have more information, technology, and lethality at their disposal than ever before. By studying the lessons provided by ongoing conflicts across the globe, it is easy to see the path that the MAGTF must take as they move toward the future. A concerted effort must be made to push lethal capabilities and the supporting mobility further toward the edge of the tactical formation. Capabilities previously held at the battalion or regiment level have a place much lower now. The Marine Corps needs to get comfortable, even greedy, with joint opportunities for integration. This is a vital link to assets and capabilities that do not come at the expense of the Marine Corps but could provide the vital element for a successful operation. This needs to be encouraged and pushed to more junior personnel as an opportunity to learn and bring back value to the Corps. Finally, human capital is what has always made the Marine Corps the dominant fighting force that it is. Marines on Wake Island did not benefit from the best equipment as they lashed the Japanese forces. The Corps must continue that tradition, offering increased technical training and education to upskill the force while encouraging the next generation of Marines to come into the force more skilled and capable than ever.


1. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Global Trends 2040,” Director of National Intelligence, 2021, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/GlobalTrends_2040.pdf.

2. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Director of National Intelligence, February 2022, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ATA-2022-Unclassified-Report.pdf.

3. Global Conflict Tracker, “War In Ethiopia,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 20, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-ethiopia.

4. The World Bank, “Ethiopia Overview,” The World Bank, October 06, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/ethiopia/overview; and World Factbook, “Ethiopia: Military Expenditures,” Central Intelligence Agency, n.d., https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/ethiopia/#military-and-security.

5. Alex Gatopoulos, “How Armed Drones May Have Helped Turn the Tide in Ethiopia’s War,” Al Jazeera, December 10, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/12/10/how-armed-drones-may-have-helped-turn-tide-in-ethiopia-conflict; and Wim Zwijnenburg, “Is Ethiopia Flying Iranian-Made Armed Drones?” Bellingcat, August 17, 2021, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/rest-of-world/2021/08/17/is-ethiopia-flying-iranian-made-armed-drones.

6. Andrew Kramer, “From the Workshop to the War: Creative Use of Drones Lifts Ukraine,” The New York Times, August 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/10/world/europe/ukraine-drones.html.

7. Information available at https://store.dji.com.

8. Amy Feldman, “Putting 3D Printers to Work in Ukraine’s War Zone,” Forbes, March 31, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyfeldman/2022/03/31/putting-3d-printers-to-work-in-ukraines-war- zone/?sh=70814225015f.

9. Weapon Systems, “AGM-454 Shrike,” Weapons Systems, n.d., https://weaponsystems.net/system/1066-HH08%20-%20AGM-45%20Shrike.

10. John F Antal, Seven Seconds to Die: A Military Analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Future of Warfighting (Philadelphia: Oxford: Casemate, 2022).

11. Ibid.

12 Manu Pubby, “Indigenous Loitering Munition Successfully Hits Target at Pokhran,” The Economic Times, September 22, 2022, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/indigenous-loitering-munition-successfully-hits-target-at-pokhran/articleshow/94383125.cms?from=mdr; Stew Magnuson, “Loitering Munitions Proliferate as Tech Changes Battlefield,” National Defense, August 9, 2022, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2022/8/9/loitering-munitions-proliferate-as-tech-changes-battlefield.

13. Dan Parsons, “Marines Handoff Loitering Munition Control Between Air, Sea, Land Platforms,” The Drive, June 3, 2022, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/marines-handoff-loitering-munition-control-between-air-sea-land-platforms.

14. Ibid.

15. Howard Altman, “Commander in Ukraine Wants Quiet Electric Bikes for His Sniper Teams,” The Drive, May 11, 2022, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/commander-in-ukraine-wants-quiet-electric-bikes-for-his-sniper-teams; and Rachel Pannett, “Ukrainian Fighters Take to Electric Bikes in the War Against Russia,” The Washington Post, May 26, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/05/26/ukraine-russia-war-electric-bikes-weapons.

16. Matthew Gault, “Ukraine Is Using Quiet Electric Bikes to Haul Anti-Tank Weapons,” Vice News, May 24, 2022, https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgde8k/ukraine-is-using-quiet-electric-bikes-to-haul-anti-tank-weapons.

17. David Leffler, “New Spec Ops Dirt Bikes Combine Stealth and Speed,” Task and Purpose, June 15, 2016, https://taskandpurpose.com/tech-tactics/new-spec-ops-stealth-bikes-freakishly.

18. DARPA, “DARPA Tiles Together a Vision of Mosaic Warfare,” DARPA, n.d., https://www.darpa.mil/work-with-us/darpa-tiles-together-a-vision-of-mosiac- warfare#:~:text=The%20concept%20is%20called%20%E2%80%9CMosaic,that%20its%20forces%20are%20overwhelmed.

19. YUSUF ÇETINER, “Ukrainian TB2 Destroys Russian Mi-8 Helicopter On Snake Island in First Reported Aerial Kill,” Overt Defense, May 10, 2022, https://www.overtdefense.com/2022/05/10/ukrainian-tb2-destroys-russian-mi-8-helicopter-on-snake-island-in-first-reported-aerial-kill/; and Xavier Vavasseur, “Watch Ukrainian TB2 Striking Two Russian Raptor Assault Boats,” Naval News, May 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/05/watch-ukrainian-tb2-striking-two-russian-raptor-assault- boats.

20. David Hambling, “Ukraine’s Bayraktar Drone Helped Sink Russian Flagship Moskva,” April 14, 2022, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2022/04/14/ukraines-bayraktar-drones-helped-destroy-russian- flagship/?sh=3fe003753a7a.

21. Congressional Research Service, “Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2),” In Focus, January 2022, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11493/16.

22. Paul W. Mayberry, et al, Making the Grade: Integration of Joint Professional Military Education and Talent Management in Developing Joint Officers (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2021), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA473-1.html.

23. Aspen Institute, “Upskill America,” Aspen Institute, n.d., https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/upskill-america/about- upskill-america.

24. Kausik Rajgopal and Steve Westly, “How Tech Companies Can Help Upskill the U.S. Workforce,” The Harvard Business Review, Feb 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/02/how-tech-companies-can-help-upskill-the-u-s-workforce.

25. Otto Kreisher, “Marine Infantry to Become More Commando-Like,” Sea Power, May 12, 2022, https://seapowermagazine. org/marine-infantry-to-become-more-commando-like/#:~:text=Among%20the%20training%20changes%20 underway,14%2DMarine%20element%20during%20training%2C.

26. Kim Parker, Anthony Cilluffo and Renee Stepler, “6 Facts about the U.S. Military and Its Changing Demographics,” Pew Research Center, April 13, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/13/6-facts-about-the-u-s-military-and-its-changing-demographics.