When New Concepts and Capabilities Meet the Test of Major War





Eighty years ago, the final act of the Battle of Guadalcanal (Operation WATCHTOWER, 7 August 1942–9 February 1943) was playing out in the Southwest Pacific.

The six-month struggle had taken on epic proportions, as both the Allied and Imperial Japanese leadership committed nearly all available resources to win what both sides recognized as a potentially decisive test of arms. For the Navy and Marine Corps, Guadalcanal represented the hard but successful first major test of new concepts, doctrine, equipment, and organizations, some of which had been under development and testing for two decades. Operation WATCHTOWER was launched on very short notice in response to the Japanese seizure of Tulagi Island in the lower Solomon Islands chain in April 1942.

When intelligence indicated that the Japanese had begun to build an airfield on nearby Guadalcanal, the focus shifted to the nearly complete airstrip there, and plans were adjusted mid-stride. The operation, launched in early August 1942 at the direction of the Joint Chiefs, was to seize both islands before the Japanese could further strengthen their defenses, using a hastily organized Joint Expeditionary Force under VADM Jack Fletcher. This effort—born out of the opportunity presented after the battles at Coral Sea and Midway—turned into a critically important and ultimately successful first counteroffensive by the hard-pressed Allies.

As Guadalcanal was declared secure in February 1943, Allied commanders and planners put the finishing touches on the next offensive: Operation CARTWHEEL. CARTWHEEL was designed to advance “up the slot” through the Solomons and, in conjunction with Allied forces under GEN MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific fighting up the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea, push Imperial Japanese forces away from Australia. Commanders and their staffs viewed the major Japanese base at Rabaul on the eastern tip of New Britain Island as the key objective of the operation.

Throughout 1943, and covered by growing Allied air and naval power, Allied ground forces were used in short, sharp amphibious assaults on both sides of the Solomon Sea, bypassing wherever possible known Japanese concentrations in New Guinea on the southwest edge and the Solomons chain on the northeast. These dual drives would involve numerous large and small landings, capped by those at Cape Torokina on Bougainville in November 1943 and Cape Gloucester on New Britain in January 1944. Their success neutralized Rabaul and capped the major allied actions in the South Pacific.

The extraordinary history of the larger effort, running from initial organization and planning of the naval force in July 1942 through early 1944, was documented in detail by the Marine Corps Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters Marine Corps in its first and second volumes of The History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, respectively subtitled Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal and The Isolation of Rabaul. Among other things, these volumes highlight the key Allied and adversary decisions, the ebb and flow of the campaigns, and the remarkable array of units and capabilities devoted to the expanding fight. Of note to contemporary force designers is how many of these were repurposed or employed well outside their normal operating mode. Finally, these volumes convey the extraordinary determination and valor of Marines, sailors, and soldiers of the Allied team during those trying months.

For today’s Marines, the many hard-learned lessons of that period inform our understanding of the future. The circumstances of 1942–43 remind us that the FMF must be responsive to the changing strategic context. Evolving geopolitical conditions and technological advances dictate that our Force Design choices account for a broad range of threats and challenges. We must balance our ability to address the most concerning near term ones with the imperative to be ready to respond in any clime and place. This is an incredibly difficult task, but our Corps has a tradition of accomplishing such things.

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate remains committed to conceiving of and contributing to the development and realization of the most lethal, persistent, and resilient FMF possible. Driven by national and defense guidance, and informed by statutory functions and composition, our activities are designed to ensure the FMF wields modern and relevant capabilities across a broad range of military operations. The example of eighty years ago, which started as a relatively modest naval step to block further enemy gains, grew to a truly a joint and combined effort. This ultimately involved multiple amphibious assaults, defensive counter-air, deep air strikes, coast watchers, close infantry combat, air, and sea interdiction of enemy sea lines of communication, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, air and sea search and rescue, and hundreds of minor tactical actions by light forces as they sought to sense and make sense of enemy intentions and actions. A plausible future conflict will feature variants of all of these, and more.

In the pages that follow, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate personnel and others discuss ongoing Marine Corps efforts to conceptualize, design, evaluate, produce, and sustain a FMF that will succeed in a 21st-century version of a broad, deep, and deadly war. It is a sobering topic, but it must be addressed. Our present focus centers on the likely missions and necessary composition of Stand-In Forces, and the operational concepts and required capabilities to execute Reconnaissance/Counter-reconnaissance missions and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations. While these are clearly applicable in the Pacific, they are designed to be employable in contested regions across the globe.

Per national guidance, Marines are committed to standing with allies and partners in competition and conflict. Our immediate Force Design choices underscore our seriousness of purpose regarding this direction. In an ideal world, the development and fielding of such forces will serve to help dissuade and deter unwanted conflict. However, as a Service that is founded as an Expeditionary force-in-readiness, our ultimate task is to prepare for the worst case. We must develop capabilities and capacities which will increase the likelihood of success in joint and naval operations during major war. Such a conflict will be a combined arms one, waged across all domains, and with many actions executed before the first kinetic round is launched. This is the fight we must be prepared for, and a wider array of capabilities is necessary if we are to win our part.

Finally, the fundamentals of maneuver warfare remain at the center of our Force Design effort. Much like the Marine experience of 1942–43, early battles and operations may be defensive due to circumstance, but the means to translate success in the defense into effective offensive operations will be sustained and improved. Even as we develop, refine, and field Stand-In Force capabilities, we are working with Joint, Navy, and allied partners to enhance littoral strike capabilities and enhance littoral mobility and maneuver in contested battlespace. A centerpiece of this effort is our ongoing development of a 21st-century amphibious operations concept in close cooperation with the Navy. We are confident that these many related efforts are bearing fruit, and the Marine Corps of the mid-21st century will remain relevant, ready, and effective across the range of conflict

Commanding General,
Marine Corps Warfighting Lab