The Main Effort of the Marine Littoral Regiment

A credible deterrent

>Maj Schedler is a 7202 Air Command and Control Officer currently serving as the Ground Based Air Defense Division Head at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1. Prior to promotion to Major, he was a Low Altitude Air Defense Officer and has been stationed at both 2d and 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalions.

>>MSgt Stepp is a 7212 Low Altitude Air Defense Gunner currently serving as the Ground Based Air Defense Battery Operations Chief at 3d Littoral Anti-Air Battalion. Prior to promotion, he was stationed at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 and 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion.

In 2018, under the guidance of the National Military Strategy (NMS), three fundamental approaches were outlined regarding the future of the United States armed forces. These three policies were force employment, force development, and Force Design.1 The NMS along with the National Defense Strategy have led to many changes in the way we fight as a Joint Force. With the end of the war in Afghanistan and the reduced presence in Iraq, the Marine Corps is looking to reshape and restructure itself with the shift to the Pacific and the inherent maritime nature of conflict in the region. The Marine Littoral Regiment’s (MLR) design is part of this change. Some may argue that MLR is not a traditional MAGTF or even a MAGTF because the centerpiece is not the infantry and the lack of aircraft. Our current standard of warfighting and doctrine needs to adapt to support the NMS and this new formation.
Force Design is changing more than just structure, it is changing the way the Marine Corps thinks and fights. A notable example of this new model is that the infantry formations that form the core of the Littoral Combat Team (LCT) are not predestined to be the sole main effort of the MLR. Depending on the phase of the competition continuum and with the evolution of precision-guided munitions, other elements may be better suited to be the main effort. The MLR is a supporting effort to the naval force, not the MEF. Instead, it provides several critical capabilities to the naval force due to its unique design.2 The elements such as the forward arming and refueling point (FARP) battery, the air control battery (ACB), and the medium-range missile (MMSL) battery all have the ability to be the main effort of the MLR due to their ability to directly support the warfare commanders within the Navy Composite Warfare Commander construct. The infantry, like the Ground Based Air Defense Battery, will be in support of those elements by providing force protection. These force protection elements will maneuver to new terrain features and secure them to allow critical capabilities the ability to enable the Joint Force without prohibitive interference.

Since introductory training, all Marines have been indoctrinated into their reason for existence—to support the Marine infantryman as “the tip of the spear.” To corroborate this mentality, Marine Aviation lives by Maj Cunningham’s, the Corps’ first aviator, quote: “only excuse for aviation in any service, is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground.” Leaders continually remind disenchanted Marines that they, in their own small way, are supporting the lance corporal infantryman. The Corps’ culture was developed from a focus on a landbased enemy: either in the deserts of Iraq or on the beaches of Guadalcanal. However, the purpose of the MLR, much like the Marine Defense Battalions, is to counter a threat from the sea or air. The MLR is designed to exist within the maritime domain, contributing to sea control and performing sea denial from key maritime terrain within their assigned area of responsibility as part of a Stand-In Force across the competition continuum.3 Thus, it needs to be postured to support naval integration and freedom of navigation within critical sea lines of communication.4 As the primary ground formation within the Stand-In Force, the MLR seeks to establish itself during the competition phase without escalation. While this is not a new concept to the Marine Corps, it has become unfamiliar after twenty years of fighting a non-conventional force.

We require a fundamental shift in the way we perceive warfare as Marines. The MLR should not be thought of as just a traditional infantry-centric organization, the most capable weapon that can support the Joint Force in the LCT is a naval strike missile (NSM), a weapon originating from artillery. The MLR is designed to support the Joint Force’s collective kill chains and keep pace with the threat of our adversaries.5 Evolving technology refined the targeting cycle and has eliminated the requirement for a human observer with unmanned aerial systems and satellites taking this critical role in the targeting cycle. Precision-guided munitions such as cruise and ballistic missiles, with ranges of hundreds of miles, have eliminated the need for the enemy to put a pilot at close range to the target to ensure effective fires.6 These new threat capabilities may not require an adversary to control terrain or sea lines of communication to accomplish national objectives; instead, the act of denial of battle, economic, and transportation space to friendly forces allows an adversary to complete strategic objectives.7 The U.S. national policies outlining our commitment to our allies in the region require our military to adapt to support deterrence within regions of strategic importance.8

The MLR’s main effort needs to be the elements that can support the Joint Force and integration within the Navy Composite Warfare Commander. The MLR’s key fires asset, the NSM, will deter threats, and when needed, defeat enemy naval surface combatants providing an area denial capability to the Maritime Component Commander. The ACB provides sensor data building the situational awareness of naval aviation assets patrolling key maritime terrain and enabling kill chains when needed. The FARP battery extends the range of joint aviation assets, enabling friendly naval vessels to be stationed in safer waters while supporting the Maritime or Air Component Commander. The combination of these tasks makes the MLR a critical enabler to the Joint Force’s anti-access/area denial system that can counter an adversary increasing aggression within regions of strategic importance to the United States.9

The Marine Corps infantrymen cannot be the MLR’s main effort in these types of operations because their weapons do not have the capability to operate outside of a force protection capacity against irregular or gray-zone forces. Furthermore, the Marine Corps is not the main effort. In an effort to support the NMS, the U.S. military has adopted an adaptive and innovative Joint-Force capability that will enable seamless operations across multiple regions and all domains. This concept is called Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.10 This allows Stand-In Forces to persist inside the enemy weapons engagement zone while supporting the warfare commanders within the Navy’s Composite Warfare Commander, and their ability to affect targets within their respective areas of responsibility.

In the levels below armed conflict, the purpose of the MLR is to establish expeditionary advanced bases that support or enable Joint Force operations. As crisis transitions to armed conflict, the mission of the MLR is to deny the adversary’s use of key maritime terrain buying time for the Joint Force, specifically the Air Force and the Navy, to arrive and assume operational control. In both levels, the infantry provides force protection in defense of vital areas, conducts actions such as maritime search and interdiction in support of host nation forces, and reconnaissance/counter reconnaissance operations.11 The infantry also has the capability to conduct small-scale offensive operations to clear small pockets of enemy ground forces and raids against bases to enable the rest of the MLR to operate without prohibitive interference at the lowest tactical level. The remaining MLR elements will conduct supporting actions in direct support of the Joint Force, which is beyond the capabilities of the infantry battalion alone. This reinforces the need for a shift in our historical warfare mentality of supporting the 0311 as the main effort. The MLR provides the Joint Force critical enabling capabilities. The infantry, and their force protection capabilities at the lowest tactical level, are not considered one of these critical capabilities. Thus, the FARP battery, ACB, and the medium-range missile battery should be the MLR’s main effort as key enablers in accomplishing its mission as a supporting effort to the greater joint or combined force.

As the conflict matures, the MLR still does not have the ability to shift the main effort to the infantry. Just like the MEU, the infantry element within the MLR consists of a battalion reinforced. It is important to note that the MLR does not have the aviation assets to support the infantry like the MEU. The LAAB, the closest thing to an ACE of the MLR, consists of command, control, and communications enablers that help sense and make sense of the environment.12 They also extend the range of aviation assets not organic nor in support of the MLR but in support of the Navy or combined forces. The MLR is a critical enabler for the Joint Force, not the main effort, it is unlikely that the Joint Force’s limited assets in theater will be put into harm’s way to support the MLR. The MLR was designed to excel in the enemy’s weapons engagement zone, not to be defended within it.13

A counterargument to the concept of the infantry not being the main effort of the MLR is the Marine Corps’ Title X requirement to seize and defend advanced naval bases. This article has identified a few key elements within the MLR, the ACB, the medium-range missile battery, and the FARP battery that will serve as the MLR’s enablers to the Joint Force. Since the MLR is designed to establish, utilize, and then displace from vital areas such as airports, seaports, and logistical lines of communication, the challenge comes from the fact that the infantry is the only element that can seize key terrain. The rest of the MLR elements can either directly or indirectly support by denying the adversary use of key terrain. This again highlights the need for a shift in doctrine to move away from the mentality that the infantry is the main effort during offensive operations. The Marine Corps is an offensive organization. Thus, LCT could argue that they should serve as the main effort of the MLR. If this is not held as a guiding priority, then MLR will not be postured to take the fight to the enemy.

This logic is flawed. Offensively seizing terrain does not happen when the MLR is designed and planned to be inserted during the level below armed conflict.14 The MLR is not intended for forcible entry operations. Title X is also a Marine Corps requirement, not an MLR requirement. Instead, the ground that the expeditionary advanced bases would be located on would be provided by and at the invite of a friend and ally. Instead, the main effort in lodgment operations may be the comptroller or person in control of cash that could pay for use of a basing site if the State Department has not already arranged host-nation support. In defensive operations where the primary mission is the protection of a seaport that enables the flow of friendly forces, the infantry will still not be the main effort for the MLR because of precision-guided munitions fired from hundreds of miles away.15 With this change in the enemy weapon systems, the main effort may be the ACB cueing air defense assets in general support of the Composite Warfare Commander’s Air and Missile Defense Commander.16 These actions are what the MLR exists to do instead of traditional infantry-based operations.

The MLR exists to persist and thrive within the weapons engagement zone of our enemy to support and extend the joint or combined force’s warfighting capabilities which enable the use of strategic sea and airspace. The infantry element in the MLR’s LCT has limited ability to degrade enemy kill webs to support the Joint Force similar to the adjacent LAAB. However, this change to Marine Corps culture is not a total transformation. The MEF’s main effort remains the Marine division as the primary warfighting element of the Marine Corps. The conversion is within the MLR, where the infantry exists to secure the next micro-terrain and provide force protection to support extensions of Marine Aviation, command and control, and surface fires, required to support the joint or combined force. As with force design, the culture of the Marine Corps in the MLR needs to adapt to meet the next war ready to fight and win.

Notes1. The Joint Staff, Description of the National Military Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2018).

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Design 2030, (Washington, DC: 2020); Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR), (Washington, DC: August 2021).

3. Marine Littoral Regiment.

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for EABO, (Washington, DC: 2021).

5. Ibid.

6. Christian Brose, Kill chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (New York: Hachette Books, 2020).

7. United States Department of the Navy Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, (Washington, DC: 2015) and Tentative Manual for EABO.

8. The Joint Staff, Description of the National Military Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2018).

9. Tentative Manual for EABO.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Marine Littoral Regiment.

13. Force Design 2030.

14. Tentative Manual for EABO.

15. Kill Chain.

16. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century SeapowerForce Design 2030; and Tentative Manual for EABO.