General Alfred M. Gray, Jr – Warfighting Innovator

A profile view of General Alfred Gray Jr.

The Marine Corps lost one of its great and visionary leaders on 20 March 2024. In the many public eulogies that marked Gen Alfred M. Gray’s passing there were three aspects of his life and career that stood out: his leadership, his focus on combat readiness, and his role in promoting maneuver warfare and the creation of FMFM 1, Warfighting. This article focuses on the latter aspect, Gen Gray’s achievements as a warfighting innovator. His contributions in this role both deserve explanation and illuminate many of his other merits worthy of emulation today. 

Of the many models of military innovation presented by political scientists and historians, several highlight the importance of mavericks with new radical ideas and senior officer “champions” who protect them.1 Gen Gray’s greatest contributions to the adoption of maneuver warfare by the Marine Corps are not that he was an early adopter, or even that he served as the champion who fostered and promoted maverick innovators (though both of these are true). Instead, it was his genius for blending traditional Marine Corps values with unconventional ideas throughout his career. Gene Gray advanced bold new ideas and programs again and again over his decades of service, but was simultaneously a traditional leader of Marines who embraced the Corps’ customary expectations. “Al” Gray had a keen intellect and an open mindedness that helped him appreciate the importance of a new way of thinking about warfare but he also had unimpeachable credibility as a warrior and leader of Marines. This allowed him to blend the new ideas with the Corps’ traditional values, and in the process foster a fundamentally different approach to war for the Marine Corps.  

Background
Born in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1928, Alfred M. Gray, Jr. studied at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania for more than two years before the Korean War broke out, prompting him to enlist in the Marine Corps. He served in Korea as a sergeant in an amphibious reconnaissance unit and was selected for a commission in 1952. After training as an artillery officer, he returned to combat in Korea with the 11th Marines and then extended to serve as an infantry officer with 7th Marines. Even in the earliest years of his career, Lt Gray demonstrated not only strong leadership but also uncommon versatility. 

In the years following the end of open hostilities in Korea, Lt Gray was involved in several assignments relating to special operations and intelligence. He attended Communications Officer School and was then assigned to one of the Marine Corps’ first Cold War signals intelligence and cryptological efforts. Gray received linguistics training in several East Asian languages and spent the next five years in assignments focused on communications intelligence in the Western Pacific, including activating the 1st Composite Radio Company in Hawaii. His growing expertise in signals intelligence then led to command of a signals intelligence detachment supporting Headquarters Marine Corps, and he used this position to advocate for Marine linguistics and cryptological capabilities.

By the time Al Gray ended his first decade of commissioned service, he had repeatedly succeeded in positions creating new organizations and developing new techniques and tactics. He developed deep expertise in a field that focused on gaining insight into an adversary’s mind and routinely engaged in competition in the information domain. His talent for linguistics, which involves cultural aspects of communications, also indicated great flexibility of mind and perspective. For the East Asian languages and the military subjects on which he focused, this would include an appreciation for deception, indirect approaches, and stratagem. Long before Al Gray was exposed to the concept of maneuver warfare, he came to appreciate ideas that would be among its central tenets. 

Vietnam War experience figures prominently in the reasons many Marines took an interest in maneuver warfare. Gray’s first assignment in Vietnam began at the very start of the conflict, in 1964 as a major in charge of Marine Detachment, Advisory Team 1, the first Marine ground unit in Vietnam. After leading this unit in its sensitive intelligence-gathering missions, Gray extended his tour in Vietnam, returning to the artillery as a staff officer and aerial observer in the 12th Marines. After a brief respite, Al Gray returned to Vietnam in 1967, commanding an artillery-heavy task force along the Demilitarized Zone, followed by command of 1st Radio Battalion. In the latter role, one where it was important for Gray to advocate for intelligence-driven operations at the Marine Amphibious Force headquarters, LtCol Gray continued to distinguish himself as a “Marines Marine,” often going forward to ensure his Marines knew he understood their hardships. Although Al Gray’s next assignments were in the United States, leveraging his unique expertise in intelligence matters, he was not pigeonholed as a specialist. He went on to command an infantry battalion and regiment, then Col Gray commanded the 33d Marime Amphibious Unit and served as Deputy Commander of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade, returning to Vietnam in 1975 as the on-scene commander of the amphibious task force for the final evacuation of Saigon. By the end of the Vietnam War, Col Gray was a leader with broad experience in warfare and who appreciated the fundamental complexity and unpredictability of war. He understood the value of outsmarting one’s enemy rather than seeing war as a simple contest to find, fix, and finish the enemy with maneuver and supporting arms. It was this appreciation, one founded in a certain way of thinking about war, which primed him to see value in unorthodox ideas being expressed by some defense reformers he would soon encounter, William S. Lind and John Boyd. 

Exposure to Unconventional People and Ideas
Gray’s contact with Lind and Boyd came early in the time when they were each forming radical new ideas. In the spring of 1976, Lind, a reform-minded Congressional staffer, was engaged in a critique of a new U.S. Army doctrine he considered too static to succeed in the face of the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority in Europe. Lind thought a better answer lay in the German way of war, emphasizing mobility, aggressive action, and independence of action for capable commanders. To help his audience understand his argument, Lind created a model which contrasted the traditional American way of war based on firepower and attrition, with what he called “maneuver doctrine,” a style that emphasized disruptive mobility over firepower. It is clear in the definitions Lind offered at the time that he was explaining what is now known of as attrition warfare and maneuver warfare.2  It is also clear that in the same months Lind began making this argument, he encountered BGen Gray and considered Gray receptive to his new ideas.3 Soon after, as the head of the Development Center in Quantico, Al Gray was overseeing Marine Corps experimentation with mechanization and became an advocate for the Marine Corps to adopt the Light Armored Vehicle, a program that benefitted from Lind’s political influence. 

Gen Gray also took a great interest in John Boyd’s work, sitting through his lengthy “Patterns of Conflict” briefing several times through the years when Boyd was incorporating his own ideas on “maneuver conflict.”4 It is likely Gray was not just impressed by Boyd’s description of maneuver conflict, or even the OODA Loop, for which Boyd later became famous. The deeper message in Boyd’s briefing was a product of his own deep interest in Eastern ways of thinking, to include Taoism and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Boyd’s central argument in “Patterns of Conflict” was that success in war required leaders to appreciate its fundamentally unpredictable nature and adapt faster than their enemies. Boyd saw Variety, Rapidity, Harmony, and Initiative as the critical qualities needed to achieve victory, ideally by disrupting an adversary in the moral and mental domains, rather than by focusing on simple physical destruction. 

Gray was attracted to the ideas of these two outsiders to the Marine Corps because they comported with his own sense of and experience in war. He saw enough value in Lind’s and Boyd’s unconventional views to overlook the idiosyncrasies of the abrasive political operative and the retired Air Force fighter pilot considered a loose cannon by his own Service. Other Marines were less interested in looking past these eccentric personalities, especially in the case of Lind, who came across as a pedantic know-it-all despite his lack of military experience, and who used his political influence to push unwilling military organizations to change. 

Patron of the Maneuver Warfare Movement
As the Marine Corps lost interest in mechanization on a large scale, Bill Lind turned his efforts toward getting Marines to understand and adopt his broader notions of maneuver warfare. Part of this took place in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette, but Lind also worked closely with the Chief of Tactics at the Amphibious Warfare School (AWS), LtCol Micheal Wyly. Together they began fleshing out ideas about maneuver warfare and how to teach it. Wyly began to include these ideas in AWS’s curriculum, while Lind held an elective seminar where he was able to both shape and learn from some of the most eager students. 

For all the hard work that was accomplished at AWS, in 1981 the idea of maneuver warfare was still largely theoretical. Some supporting concepts had been worked out but remained unproven. This began to change that summer when MajGen Gray assumed command of the 2nd Marine Division. He immediately set out to make his division a place for experimenting with the new ideas and formed a panel of officers to collaborate, evaluate training, and make recommendations.5 Many members of this Maneuver Warfare Board were recent graduates of AWS and Lind’s elective seminar. Assignment to the board empowered the younger officers to steer the division and its activities according to what they had learned, with Gray serving as the driving force for getting their ideas implemented. A series of exercises were held to test and refine the new ideas, yielding insights into the core warfighting functions of intelligence, maneuver, fires, and command and control. The exercises also revealed many other aspects of operations that would need to be adjusted for the new approach, including general logistics, maintenance, and even food service.6 Another important product of this experimentation was the conversion of skeptics. After seeing the new concepts and tactics in action in free-play training, some began to appreciate just how effective they could be.  

An intense debate had begun in the pages of the Gazette, sparked by Lind’s initial efforts to explain maneuver warfare in 1980. It expanded and intensified as Marines were exposed to the new ideas in the field, in conversation, and in what they were reading. Some questioned the origin of the new ideas, arguing that the Marine Corps had little to learn from the Germans, who lost two world wars. Some also questioned whether the Corps should accept the advice of a civilian like Lind, whose pointed critiques of the officer corps were meant to provoke reform, but alienated many. Some debated the meaning of the ideas behind maneuver warfare, which were not well understood. Maneuver warfare called for a decentralized approach to command and control, and while some Marines recognized the dangers of micromanaging tactics in combat, others saw the notion of decentralization as a threat to discipline in the Marine Corps. Another major issue was the idea of attempting to disrupt an enemy rather than making direct attacks. To many, this suggested that the maneuver warfare advocates were making impossible promises of bloodless victories. In a Corps which embraced order and took pride in its heritage of prevailing in combat against impossible odds, maneuver warfare concepts provoked deep-seated cultural resistance, especially when they were misunderstood. 

As the debate raged through its first five years, Gen Gray did not contribute to it in the pages of the Gazette. He certainly saw value in the ideas expressed there, for he made several of those articles required reading within the 2nd Marine Division. When he did make public statements about maneuver warfare, though, Gray downplayed the conflict. For example, he described it as “a style that many Marines have employed over the years” and “at the conceptual core of some of our most successful amphibious operations,” citing the Pacific campaigns of World War II and Inchon landing in Korea.7 Even as he remained sensitive to the cultural objections and the suspicion Marines showed towards offensive outsiders like Lind, Gen Gray refused to dissociate himself from the most polarizing personalities. He invited Boyd to deliver his “Patterns of Conflict” briefing to the division’s officers, though many found his ideas too strange to be understood. Gray also employed Lind as a consultant to his Maneuver Warfare Board and invited Lind to observe the maneuver warfare exercises. And when Lind alienated many Marines during these events with his sometimes-outlandish dress, unmilitary appearance, and abrasive comments, Gen Gray still empowered him as an honored guest. At a debrief with the division’s officers at the end of one such exercise, Gen Gray passed up his own opportunity to speak and turned the microphone over to Lind. Some officers were shocked by the brutally critical analysis of an outsider expressing new ideas rather than listening to their commanders cite doctrine to justify their actions in the exercise. Others were intrigued. Al Gray created this experience because it was consistent with his understanding of war. As he summarized, “Above all else we try to orient our training upon the cultivation of the attitude that the only thing certain on the battlefield will be the uncertain—the unexpected. We train them to expect to find no recipes or formulas which will guarantee success in battle.”8 

An important reason why Gen Gray was able to associate himself with such controversial figures is because he kept the end state clear—to challenge Marines to be open to new ideas if it could mean an increase in combat readiness. His ability to do this was a product of his reputation as a proven combat leader, and the warrior image he cultivated. Indeed, though it is unlikely that Gen Gray coined the term “warfighting,” it was clear by this time that warfighting had become his “brand.” Gray’s unimpeachable credibility as a warrior enabled him to be a patron to two highly iconoclastic outsiders and to like-minded Marines. 

In August 1984, Gray, after an unusually long three-year period in command of the 2nd Marine Division, was advanced to command of II Marine Expeditionary Force and a third star. He held that post three more years, enabling him continue progress with maneuver warfare at the head of his “Carolina MAGTF.” During this time, however, the debate over maneuver warfare became much more polarized. In 1985, the conversations which had flourished in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette swiftly dropped off, likely because the Commandant began to show displeasure with those associated with the maneuver warfare movement. This was not a matter of simple conservatism. It was at least partially, if not mostly, motivated by public attacks made upon the Marine Corps and the Commandant himself. Most vocal among the critics was Bill Lind, and the directness and harshness of his critique made many officers think twice before they were willing to publicly associate with his ideas.9 Gray was clearly the most senior officer associated with the maneuver warfare movement, but wisely continued to quietly promote maneuver warfare within II MEF, rather than joining the controversy surrounding the man who had been a trusted agent. Time would show, however, that Gray could continue to overlook Lind’s abrasive tactics and employ him to good effect. 

The decisive event for the maneuver warfare movement in the Marine Corps was Gen Gray’s selection as Commandant. Despite Al Gray’s considerable achievements, this was an unlikely outcome that only happened because of a radical intervention. LtGen Gray was considered a Washington outsider without strong political experience, having spent the last six years in the FMF. He was not on the initial list of finalists to succeed Gen P.X. Kelley in the summer of 1987, and he was approaching his statutory retirement date in that rank. Gray had applied and been approved for retirement. What changed everything was the sudden appointment of a new Secretary of the Navy, James Webb, a former Marine and highly decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Al Gray was Webb’s first choice for the job, though it is unlikely that Webb selected Gray with the intention of promoting maneuver warfare. Webb himself had been a harsh critic of military ideas being advanced by civilian academics and saw Lind as the prime example.10 Instead, Webb was looking for a Commandant who would restore the Marine Corps’ reputation and military ethos in the wake of several scandals. In true Marine fashion, Webb believed it was important to appoint the right man and then give him the latitude to take charge according to his own best judgment. In this case, Gen Gray’s leadership credibility and central focus on combat readiness also brought an entirely new way of thinking that would become synonymous with Gray’s brand, Warfighting. 

Promoting Fundamental Change as Commandant
When Gen Gray became Commandant of the Marine Corps on 1 July 1987, it was widely understood within the Corps that the manueverists had won, and maneuver warfare would be the new doctrine by which Marines would fight. Gen Gray undoubtedly understood the degree of division over the topic and did not start by simply imposing a new doctrine, as he had when he took command of the 2nd Marine Division. As Commandant he made no overt move to promote maneuver warfare at first, avoiding mention of the topic in his speeches for the first four months. Instead, he used those early speeches to show it was his priority to reform the culture of the Marine Corps around the image of the warrior and to improve training and education. The organizational changes he placed the most emphasis on were the consolidation of force generation activities in a new organization, the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and the institutionalization of a new professional military education program in what would become the Marine Corps University. Gen Gray did not get around to the project of developing a new doctrine until the fall of 1988, more than a year into his four-year term as Commandant.   

Gen Gray was, of course, widely associated with the maneuver warfare movement. As soon as it was clear Gray would be Commandant, doctrine writers began to insert ideas associated with maneuver warfare into their work. Their efforts lacked cohesion, however, for the additions were not consistent with the existing doctrine, which lacked a central focusing element. Gray understood that establishing maneuver warfare as the basis for all Marine Corps doctrine would require an altogether new foundation, a cornerstone publication that defined a particular way of thinking about war. To ensure its coherency, Gray wanted a single author and carefully selected a young captain named John Schmitt, a former member of the Light Armored Vehicle battalion in his 2nd Marine Division. Though Schmitt had the latitude to consult whoever he wanted while working on the project, he answered only to the Commandant. The final result justified Gray’s approach and confidence in the author he had selected. Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 was unique among Service doctrines in that it prescribed a way of thinking about war and essential qualities the Marines Corps needed to embrace, rather than defining specific actions. In this respect, it very much reflected the Eastern ways of thinking that Gen Gray had come to embrace throughout his career. 

Though the new doctrine was not published until almost two years into GenGray’s commandancy, his other initiatives to include manpower, training, and education, were all undergirded by the philosophy that would ultimately be expressed in FMFM 1. All of these efforts were energized and focused by Ge Gray’s warrior brand, which he imparted to the new doctrine by titling it Warfighting. Once it was published, FMFM 1 imparted greater focus and ensured a deeper level of engagement across the Corps, with Gen Gray charging his Marines to “read and reread” it.11 With the book written, however, much work remained, and Gray continued to employ the eccentric outsiders who had helped develop the new ideas. Boyd lectured in Quantico and Lind was sent to more distant stations, observing and reporting back as Gen Gray’s “directed telescope.” 

Conclusion
Gen Gray has been described as the product champion for maneuver warfare, but he was not merely that. He was deeply involved over an extended period and sought to instill in his Marines a fundamentally new way of thinking about war that would undergird all their efforts in war in peace. As radical as these ideas and the changes they involved were, Al Gray was no maverick, either. He personified Marine ideals of combat leadership and a Spartan focus on combat readiness, and it was exactly his commitment to this warrior ethos that enabled him to simultaneously promote new ideas and change. Gen Gray remains an inspiration to today’s Marines not just for his leadership but also for his distinctive ability to blend new ways of thinking with traditional values and his willingness to personally invest in promoting unconventional people and ideas.   

>Dr. Shawn Callahan is the Director of Marine Corps History DivisionHe retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel in 2014, and worked as an educator at Marine Corps University for a decade before assuming his current position. 

Notes

1. See, for example, Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991).

2. William S. Lind, “DRAFT, Some Questions for TRADOC,” unpublished draft, William S. Lind Papers, Collection 4939, Box 32, Unnumbered and unlabeled brown folder, Marine Corps Archives, Quantico, Virginia, 13.

3. William S. Lind, Letter to Major General F.E. Haynes, Jr., June 9, 1976, William S. Lind Papers, Collection 4939, Box 6, No Folder. Marine Corps Archives. Quantico, Virginia, 2.

4. Ian Brown, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, The U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018).

5. U.S. Marine Corps, “Maneuver Warfare,” newsletter, undated. Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: 2d Marine Division Maneuver Warfare Board. William S. Lind Papers, Collection 4939. Box 15, Folder 6. Marine Corps Archives, 1.

6. P.R. Puckett, “MCCRES,” Marine Corps Gazette 65, No. 12 (1981), 13; G.I. Wilson, “Maneuver/Fluid Warfare: A Review of the Concepts,” Marine Corps Gazette 66, No. 1 (1982); and P.J. Klepper II, “Food Service and Maneuver Warfare,” Marine Corps Gazette 66, No. 1 (January 1982).

7. John C. Scharfen, “Tactics ad Theory: An Interview with Major General Alfred M. Gray, Jr.,” Amphibious Warfare Review 2, No. 1 (July 1984).

8. Ibid.

9. William S. Lind and Jeffrey Record, “The Marines’ Brass Is Winning Its Battle But Losing the Corps,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1985, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1985/07/28/the-marines-brass-is-winning-the-battle-but-losing-the-corps/7e1d1c1e-c8d7-42fe-a0d1-52b14b670e3d/.

10. James H. Webb, Jr. “Military Competence,” speech, San Francisco, CA, August 28, 1986, Military Competence, http://www.jameswebb.com/speeches-by-jim/military-competence.

11. Headquarters Marine Corps, FMFM 1, Warfighting, (Washington DC: 1989).

Aleutian Allure

“Key Maritime Terrain—Any landward portion of the littoral that affords a force controlling it the ability to significantly influence events seaward.”-Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, Second Edition 2023 

 Alaska is the most central place in the world … in the future, he who holds Alaska will rule the world.”BGen Billy Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Corps, Congressional Testimony, 1935 

The Aleutian Campaign may be one of the most forgotten U.S. undertakings of World War II. Its human carnage and materiel costs were not insignificant for both American and Japanese forces, yet few today know anything about it. Even among military history enthusiasts, names like Attu and Kiska often go unrecognized. Such obscurity is hardly surprising when one considers the large number of campaigns that took place across Admiral Chester Nimitz’s vast Pacific Ocean Areas during the war. Not only was the North Pacific Area a decidedly peripheral operational theater to Nimitz, but the campaign’s surprising and anticlimactic conclusion was also not one U.S. and Canadian commanders wanted to be remembered for. The subsequent decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) not to use the Aleutians as stepping stones to invade the Kuriles and attack the Japanese home islands from the north further contributed to its historical ambiguity. 

As a case study, however, the Aleutian Campaign offers numerous insights for commanders and planners on the tensions that frequently arise between theater priorities and strategic imperatives driven by time-sensitive political expectations. It also provides lessons on why the value of key maritime terrain should be periodically reassessed from both friendly and enemy perspectives. Considering the tremendous operational and logistical accomplishments of both Japan and the United States, the inclusion of this campaign in professional military education and on reading lists could elevate discussions on distributed maritime operations as envisioned today by the Navy-Marine Corps team. Certainly, the strategic implications of seizing, occupying, and/or controlling key maritime terrain in the context of amphibious operations and expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) deserve study.  

In the case of the Aleutians, the law of unintended consequences affected both sides. By seizing and retaining key maritime terrain for purposes subject to broad speculation by the United States, Japan set in motion events that reverberated well beyond the region and achieved outsized strategic effects on the pace and direction of the wider U.S. war effort. From this perspective, observations and decisions from the North Pacific Theater may have relevance to future naval campaigns against a peer adversary. 

Strategic Context 
The persistent presence of a relatively small but capable Japanese amphibious force in the Aleutians starting in June 1942 was an audacious affront to the nation’s sovereignty and a psychological burden on Washington. With the United States now in a global world war tilting precipitously in the Axis’ favor, the intense political pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to push the Japanese out of the Western Aleutians was counterbalanced by regional fears bordering on paranoia about a Japanese invasion of the North American continent. Service commanders in theater began uncoordinated actions against the Imperial Japanese Navy and its advanced bases before they were fully ready. As the perceived Japanese threat in the North Pacific grew, a cumbersome and disjointed command and control structure was hastily concocted to oversee the massive buildup of land, sea, and air capabilities unsupported by prewar planning. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen, along with millions of tons of equipment and supplies, were diverted to the Alaskan theater on short notice. This military might would aggregate steadily into overwhelming land, sea, and air power until it could be focused on the annihilation of two isolated Japanese garrisons doing little more than occupying the most remote American territory in the world.  

The Aleutian Allure 
Comprising over 660,000 square miles of mostly wilderness and 34,000 miles of coastline, Alaska stands out prominently on the globe because of its enormous size and strategic placement in the North Pacific adjacent to the Eurasia land mass. The Alaskan Peninsula extends to the southwest from the mainland over a thousand miles before transitioning to the Aleutian Archipelago which continues in a gentle westward arc for another thousand miles. Comprised of 14 large islands, 55 smaller islands, and innumerable islets, the Aleutians appear on a map to form a natural approach route to either the North American or Asia continents. Their appeal as an invasion route in either direction quickly fades under analysis, however. The remoteness, inhospitable topography, and relentlessly harsh weather make the Aleutians unforgiving to all forms of movement and sustainment. Most of the islands are dominated by snow-covered peaks rising to 9,000 feet above the frigid, turbulent waters of the North Pacific. What level ground can be found is usually covered by muskeg—a thick, wet, spongy bog into which vehicles quickly sink up to their axles. Harbors and airfields essential for intratheater movement or to support landward operations are scarce and underdeveloped. When the islands are not shrouded in thick clouds and mist, they are battered by shrieking winds, driving snow, and freezing rain. Not even trees grow in the Aleutians. Despite these daunting conditions, neither the United States nor Japan discounted the possibility that the other side might make strategic use of the Aleutians in a war.  

Preparing Alaska for War
Although the Aleutians’ strategic linkage to control of the North Pacific was generally understood, little was done to protect the archipelago until war loomed. In 1938, Congress appropriated nineteen$19 million dollars for the construction of air, submarine, and destroyer bases in Alaska but few military forces were assigned until after the war began in Europe.1 The only military presence in the Aleutians themselves was a Navy radio station and a small Coast Guard base at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island.2  In early 1940, the War Department developed plans to increase the Army garrison in Alaska, establish a major Army base near Anchorage, develop a network of airfields across Alaska, and provide troops to protect the naval installations at Dutch Harbor, Sitka, and Kodiak.3 The 750-soldier-strong Alaska Defense Force was created in July 1940 under the command of the energetic and flamboyant Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner of, the US Army. The remoteness of the proposed base locations, poor weather, and the lack of existing transportation infrastructure delayed progress on these plans until mid-1941—though Buckner spared no effort in tackling the myriad of tasks before him.4

Buckner was emphatic that Japan not be allowed to gain an expeditionary lodgment anywhere in Alaska from which they could launch air and naval operations across the North Pacific.5 He focused on defensive preparations, but remained convinced of Alaska’s offensive potential, believing the Aleutian Chain formed a “spear pointing straight at the heart of Japan.”6 He traveled throughout the archipelago identifying every island where an airfield could be built:  Umnak, Adak, Amchitka, Kiska, Shemya, and Attu. Before the war’s end, all would host advanced air bases with semi-autonomous garrisons to support maritime reconnaissance and offensive air operations.7 

Japan’s North Pacific Gambit  
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial High Command commenced a war of conquest to establish its long-desired Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. By late April 1942, Japan had swept aside Allied power and seized strategic terrain across the Pacific at the cost of nothing larger than a destroyer.88 The elated Japanese High Command chose to capitalize on this momentum and press on to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to set conditions for an invasion of Australia. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, respected American industrial capacity enough to know that time was not on Japan’s side. He believed their only hope for victory lay in keeping America on the defensive while striking a decisive blow against what remained of the U.S. Pacific Fleet—principally its aircraft carriers—while Japan still had the advantage.9 Such a victory might compel Washington to recognize Japan’s expanded empire and negotiate an end to the war. To this end, he sought to draw the American fleet from Hawaii into the Central Pacific where it could be destroyed by Japanese air power. To lure in the American carriers, Yamamoto developed an ambitious plan to seize Midway and conduct diversionary attacks in the western Aleutians. From Midway, he could project enough land-based air power to form a protective barrier for Japan straddling the North and Central Pacific.  

Japan’s Aleutian operation was intended to capture or destroy “points of strategic interest” in the Aleutians and check further U.S. naval and air movements from the north.10 Interestingly, this was not the first time the Aleutians had been identified by Japan as key maritime terrain. Just a year earlier, the Japanese Army had proposed a plan to sever U.S. and Soviet lines of communication by seizing some portion of the Aleutians. Moreover, from a strategically defensive perspective, Japanese planners saw the Aleutians as a potential northern axis of advance on Japan well before the United States had developed the capability to use them as such. After the bombing raid on Tokyo by Lieutenant ColonelLtCol James Doolittle in April 1942, some on the Imperial Staff suspected his B-25 Mitchell bombers had originated from a secret base in the western Aleutians.11

Japan Seizes Key Maritime Terrain
On 5 May 1942, Japanese Imperial General Headquarters issued Navy Order 18 to capture Midway as well as the islands of Attu and Kiska in the western Aleutians. It also directed an air attack on the U.S. base at Dutch Harbor, some 200 miles east of Adak. As Yamamoto’s armada set course for Midway, a smaller Northern Area Fleet under Vice Admiral Hoshiro Hosogaya composed of two light aircraft carriers, six cruisers, a dozen destroyers, and various amphibious support vessels moved east from the Kuriles to attack the Aleutians. The element of surprise was crucial, but U.S. success in breaking portions of the Japanese naval code informed Nimitz in mid-May of Yamamoto’s plan. Buckner’s Alaska Defense Command was duly warned as Nimitz prepared to confront both Japanese fleets simultaneously. While three U.S. aircraft carriers converged on Midway, a smaller force—Task Force 8 under Rear Admiral Robert “Fuzzy” Theobald—raced to the North Pacific to defend the Aleutians.

During 34 June, Japanese carrier-based aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor, killing 43 soldiers and sailors, wounding another 64, and damaging infrastructure. The Japanese also destroyed eleven U.S. aircraft while losing ten, including an A6M Zero fighter that U.S. forces recovered largely intact. It was quickly disassembled and shipped to the States, where a complete technical analysis was performed that was later credited with influencing U.S. fighter designs.12 Throughout the two days of attacks on Dutch Harbor, Theobald’s Task Force 8 had remained just south of his headquarters on Kodiak Island, wary of being discovered by Japanese aircraft but frustrated by his inability to locate Hosagaya’s fleet with his PBY Catalina patrol aircraft and help from Eleventh Air Force bombers.

Japan’s crushing defeat at Midway temporarily delayed their planned landings in the Aleutians as the two actions were loosely coupled. However, Yamamoto thought a small naval success would help offset the disaster at Midway, and the defensive value of establishing advanced bases in the western Aleutians remained valid. At the very least, they would bedevil the U.S. Navy’s control of the North Pacific.13 So Yamamoto directed the Attu-Kiska landings to go forward. During 6–7 June, Hosagaya landed 2,500 troops on Kiska and Attu—the first U.S. territory captured by an enemy force since the War of 1812. The landings were effectively unopposed. Once established ashore, Japanese soldiers and sailors set about fortifying positions, building seaplane ramps, and installing antiaircraft batteries. They would later attempt to construct two airfields with little more than hand tools.

America Retaliates
The occupation of Attu and Kiska dealt a serious blow to American prestige. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff directed that the effort to recapture the islands begin as soon as possible. This operation, the first U.S. counteroffensive of the war (preceding Guadalcanal by two months), required a joint littoral campaign whereby a series of advanced bases would be constructed from east to west along the Aleutian Chain, with airfields suitable for heavy bombers situated close to sheltered harbors. The selection of mutually supporting airfields and harbor sites required close cooperation between the Services— a level of cooperation between the Army and Navy that had heretofore proven difficult.

Unfortunately, a unified theater commander for the Aleutian Campaign was never identified, exacerbating already tense command and personal relationships between Buckner and Theobald. In a rare oversight by Nimitz, the respective commanders of the Alaska Defense Command and North Pacific Force were directed to conduct a joint campaign through “mutual cooperation” and share the use of the Eleventh Air Force. Predictably, Buckner and Theobald were never able to set aside their differences and achieve a productive command relationship based on mutual trust and respect, and halfway through the campaign, Nimitz replaced Theobald.14

The campaign was slow to get organized and gain momentum, but Army and Navy engineers prevailed in unimaginably tough conditions, defying the skeptics, and proving essential to the ultimate success of the campaign.  Meanwhile, the fledgling Eleventh Air Force mounted a sustained long-range bombing campaign while the Navy prowled the fog-shrouded seas searching for Japanese vessels with the electronic eyes of radar.15 The weather was as much an enemy as the Japanese. Shifting winds, squalls, and low clouds made air operations extremely hazardous, while rough seas and limited visibility made the U.S. naval blockade challenging. Japanese Navy submarines were a constant menace, while its destroyers and transport vessels still managed to periodically slip past U.S. air and sea patrols to resupply and reinforce the garrisons. Japanese forces ashore not only survived the bombardments but also, over the course of the campaign, increased their concentration of antiaircraft guns, redistributed forces between Attu and Kiska, reinforced Attu, defended Kiska with seaplane fighters, attacked the new U.S. airbase at Amchitka, and most importantly continued to deny the Americans a northern approach to Japan.16 

Finally, on 4 May 4, 1943, ten months after Japanese forces seized Attu and Kiska, an American amphibious task force set sail from Cold Bay to recapture Attu. Kiska, the closer and more heavily defended of the two occupied islands, was bypassed for the time being.17 Operation LANDCRAB, the assault on Attu, began on 11 May and was spearheaded by the untested 7thth Infantry Division (7thth ID). Intelligence reports estimated Attu to be defended by a force of 1,600, but a successful Japanese reinforcement effort by fast transports and destroyers in early April had clandestinely raised the number of defenders to over 2,600. (18)  

Poor weather and difficult terrain hindered the entire U.S. operation. Dense fog caused at-sea collisions, and mist ashore delayed the multi beachmulti-beach landings and limited the use of naval gunfire. Trucks and artillery pieces became hopelessly mired in the muskeg, causing supplies and ammunition to pile up on the beach and ultimately be carried inland by hand.  

Japanese light infantry occupied carefully prepared defensive positions on high ground that dominated the landing beach exits. Concealed from observers below by a protective mist that hovered a few hundred feet above the landing beaches, the dug-in Japanese soldiers could nevertheless see well enough to deliver deadly accurate fire on American soldiers below as they struggled to advance over the wet, spongy ground. By massing indirect fires, the 7thth ID was eventually able to close on the Japanese defenders from multiple points and drive them into a pocket. The last of the Japanese, some 800 soldiers, ended the battle abruptly on 29 May with a vicious banzai charge that overran several frontline formations and a field hospital inflicting horrific casualties before being stopped by a hastily formed defensive line on a promontory known as Engineer Hill.  

Only 28 Japanese soldiers survived the Battle of Attu. Burial parties counted 2,351 enemy dead on the battlefield with another three hundred found to have been buried earlier by the Japanese.  Of 15,000 Americans in the invasion force (10,000 of whom constituted 7thth ID), 549 were killed and 1,148 wounded in action. Another 2,132 soldiers were evacuated for sickness and severe cold-weather injuries. What was planned as a three-day operation had taken a reinforced infantry division backed by overwhelming air and naval power three weeks to accomplish. The 25-percent casualty rate inflicted on the landing force was only exceeded in the Pacific war at the Battle of Iwo Jima.19

The suddenness and ferocity of the final Japanese banzai charge left a deep impression on one of the few Marines in the Aleutians at the time. Major General MajGen Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who had overseen the amphibious training of the 7thth ID in southern California, was present as an observer during Operation LANDCRAB. After the banzai attack, Smith made a conscious decision to train specifically for such occurrences in the future.20 He would later credit this experience on Attu with his anticipation of both the time and location of the fanatical banzai attack that would occur in the closing days of the Battle of Saipan a little over a year later.21

The Kiska Surprise
With Attu in American hands, preparations for Operation COTTAGE, the amphibious assault on Kiska, shifted into high gear. Intelligence estimates fixed Japan’s Kiska garrison at around 10,000 men. With the painful lessons of Attu still fresh, American commanders assembled a massive invasion force of 35,000 troops (including 5,500 Canadians) and 100 ships at Adak over the next three months. After weeks of preparatory bombing and naval gunfire, the landing took place on 15 August.  It was unopposed. As U.S. and Canadian soldiers ventured inland, they encountered no resistance whatsoever. A cautious but thorough search revealed only abandoned and destroyed Japanese equipment, numerous bunkers, and an extensive network of underground tunnels.  

The news that so large a Japanese force had slipped away undetected despite daily bombing and aerial reconnaissance missions—to say nothing of the vastly superior American armada that encircled the island—was greeted with shock and disbelief by nearly all senior leaders. One notable exception was Major MajGen General “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, who, along with some of his staff, had returned to the Aleutians to direct amphibious training for the landing force. He had no direct role in planning the Kiska invasion but remained in Adak as an observer. For two weeks prior to the landing, Smith studied intelligence reports and aerial imagery of Kiska and, recalling how six months earlier approximately 11,000 Japanese troops had quietly slipped away from Guadalcanal on destroyers at night, concluded that the Japanese had already left the island.22 His call for a small ground-reconnaissance element to scout the island before the landing was rebuffed as too risky by the Army’s landing force commander, Major General Charles Corlett, who dismissed Smith as an interloper and would not even show him the landing plan.23 The decision was ultimately left up to Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, the North Pacific Force commander who had replaced the prickly Theobald months before the Attu operation. Kinkaid considered the risk to the scouts greater than to the landing force and directed that the full-scale invasion proceed as planned, even if it turned out to be, in his words, just a “super dress rehearsal, excellent for training purposes.”24 

Despite the absence of any Japanese defenders, however, the landings proved far more dangerous than a training exercise. Casualties ashore included 21 men killed and 50 wounded either by booby traps or shot by fellow Americans or Canadians, as edgy soldiers fired at each other in the mist, mistaking adjacent comrades for the dreaded Japanese.25 The last and most serious casualties of COTTAGE occurred when a destroyer, the USS Abner Read, had its stern ripped off by a moored mine in Kiska Cove, killing 70 sailors and injuring 47. (26) In his memoirs, Smith called the failure to allow a proper reconnaissance in advance of the landings an act of inexcusable negligence by senior commanders.27 Kiska was declared secure on 24 August 1942. Operation COTTAGE brought the Aleutian Campaign to an anticlimactic but frustrating end. 

Only after the war would Americans learn how a Japanese surface task force, under the command of Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, had accomplished the evacuation. Kimura had waited patiently for weeks until weather conditions favored an unobservable approach from Paramushir Island in the Kuriles to Kiska. Navigating by dead reckoning in a tight formation under radio silence, Kimura guided his task force through thick fog for a week to slip quietly into Kiska Bay on the afternoon of 28 July.  Immediately upon anchoring, Kimura’s task force and the Kiska garrison began the evacuation with remarkable precision and efficiency. In less than one hour and again under complete radio silence, the entire Japanese garrison of 5,183 men was transported by landing craft and loaded aboard six destroyers and two cruisers.28 The Japanese aptly described the evacuation as a “perfect operation”; it was undoubtedly one of the most daring and successful evacuations in military history.29 

Echoes of Attu and Kiska in the 21stst Century
While the Aleutian Campaign is rarely examined from the Japanese perspective, the accomplishments and shortcomings of Japan’s forces and methods offer some intriguing lessons and planning considerations for emerging operational concepts such as EABO—particularly in a conflict with a peer adversary such as China. Japan’s operational practices can be instructive for some of the challenges the United States currently faces in the strategic island chains of the Western Pacific. Certainly, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s operational reach, stealth, speed, and tenacity both on and below the surface were critical to the sustainment, mobility, and command and control of Japanese “stand-in forces” conducting a form of EABO in the Aleutians. That Japanese naval forces were able to evade detection, strike Dutch Harbor, seize key maritime terrain, and persist in their advanced Aleutian bases for well over a year was a remarkable feat. The weather conditions naturally helped in this regard. The adverse weather routinely shielded Japan’s most vulnerable assets from American eyes and bombs. At the same time, the Japanese Navy managed to exploit prolonged periods of darkness, fog, and cloud cover to evade U.S. air patrols and run the U.S. Navy’s blockade on several occasions. Japanese successes during the campaign were manifold. They were able to reposition and resupply their forces, deliver reinforcements, conduct seaplane operations, and build a formidable air defense capability. Their evacuation of an entire garrison completely undetected in an incredibly compact time period defies the imagination and remains an unrivaled achievement in the annals of amphibious evacuations under pressure.   

Given the ongoing focus within the Marine Corps on light and mobile “littoral” formations, the effectiveness of the Japanese Army’s landward defense of key littoral terrain is also worth studying. Small numbers of well-trained, dispersed light infantrymen were able to attract considerable attention and impose severe costs on a far larger, multidomain task force after it landed on Attu. The defenders’ resilience and tenacity, despite prolonged isolation and severe conditions, were perhaps their most obvious attributes. These attributes remain relevant today, particularly for an isolated force conducting EABO. During the campaign, the Japanese ability to exploit difficult terrain and turn unique weather conditions into an advantage was equally impressive.  

While it might appear that today’s advanced technologies such as long-range precision fires and unmanned aerial vehicles make comparisons between 1943 and the present (or even the near future) problematic, there are capabilities that remain valid for any outnumbered force defending a salient of key maritime terrain. The tactical value of all-weather, suppressive fires; anti-invasion obstacles; antiship weapons; air defense; and over-the-horizon reconnaissance assets is clear; these are enduring requirements for the defense of EABs. Stand-in forces operating inside an enemy’s weapons engagement zone may also require the ability to perform heavy engineering tasks to rapidly build airfields to project power and fortifications to survive sustained attacks. Furthermore, a force executing EABO that can organically emplace maritime sensors and undersea effectors (e.g., sea mines and decoys) to interdict enemy surface and subsurface vessels around vital, littoral chokepoints can contribute asymmetrically to sea denial with virtually no signature. Bringing such effects to bear requires a deep and modular inventory of maritime capabilities from across the naval force to build balanced or specialized task organizations as required.  

In many ways, this depth in capabilities was the decisive American strength that eluded the Japanese, who were unable to complete even a single airfield during their year-long occupation of two Aleutian islandsAleutian Islands. Yet their ability to construct fortifications and tunnels dramatically improved their ability to survive bombardments requiring a sizable landing force to dislodge them from the advanced bases they had established. Had their diligence and determination been complemented by such capabilities as long-range radar and engineering, the Japanese would likely have been able to build and operate airfields which would have delayed both U.S. amphibious assaults for many months.

Conclusion
The impact of Japanese forces landing on American soil reverberated all the way to Washington. The political pressure to clear two Aleutian islandsAleutian Islands of fewer than 8,000 Japanese troops drained substantial resources at a dangerous time for the global Allied war effort. The Japanese achieved disproportionate effects against U.S. forces whose strategic objective became increasingly shaped more by emotional sentiment than reasoned assessment. Even when the actual invasion threat to the North American mainland was determined to be minimal, Washington had no strategic patience for any course of action that failed to yield a decisive tactical defeat of Japanese forces in the Aleutians. Thus, the United States adopted an attrition-centric operational approach that culminated in the costly recapture of Attu and, unknowingly, the embarrassing amphibious assault on Kiska nearly three weeks after the Japanese had departed.  

In the end, the 15-month campaign drew in over 300,000 Americans, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of warships, transports, and merchantmen. It also necessitated an immense diversion of military engineering resources to build dozens of U.S. bases and supporting infrastructure where none previously existed—including the 1,640-mile Alaskan Highway across Canada to link the “Lower 48” with Alaska. The heavy commitment of manpower to the North Pacific disrupted mobilization plans and delayed global force deployments to primary theaters for nearly two years. It also forced the U.S. to pour billions of dollars of materiel into a physically taxing and dangerous theater that in the end contributed very little to defeating Japan and hastening the war’s end.  

The phenomena and interactions just described will likely be a feature of future wars and again prompt disproportionate, unnecessary, and even reckless decisions by distant political leaders seeking immediate results. The Aleutian Campaign case suggests that, in addition to contributing to sea denial, stand-in forces executing EABO can generate strategic effects by forcing an adversary to divert substantial resources from principal objectives to honor or neutralize the threat the stand-in forces appear to pose. Whether they can succeed in this regard will depend on their location and their attributes. Do they pose a credible and durable threat? Are they resilient, tenacious, stealthy, and survivable? Now, as then, the value of stand-in forces in the face of a regional hegemon will likely be tested. Whether they stand and fight, or slip away in the night, may once again be more a matter of strategy than tactics.

>Col Sinclair retired in 2018 after 30 years on active duty. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

 

Notes

1. Stetson Conn, The Guarding of United States and its Outposts, US Army in World War II Series: The Western Hemisphere (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1964).

2. Brian Garfield, The Thousand Mile War (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 1969).

3. Guarding of United States.

4. The Alaska Highway was not completed until November 1942. In 1940, there was only one government rail line between Seward and Fairbanks by way of Anchorage.

5. Guarding of United States.

6. Thousand Mile War.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Galen Roger Perras, Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867-1945 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003).

10. Ibid.

11. Japanese Navy General Staff, “Aleutian Naval Operation, March 1942–February 1943,” Japanese Monograph No. 88, trans. Military Intelligence Service Group, G2, Headquarters, Far East Command (monograph, US Department of the Army, n.d.), http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/Japan/Monos/pdfs/JM-88_AleutianNavalOperations/JM-88.htm.

12. George L. MacGarrigle, Aleutian Islands, Center for Military History Pub 72-6, (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992).

13. Guarding of United States.

14. Thousand Mile War.

15. Attu is 350 miles west of Kiska and was initially out of range.

16. Thousand Mile War.

17. Although Kiska was smaller, it was the more militarily important of the two islands with a much larger Japanese force. Attu was selected first both to gain valuable experience and because the number of available amphibious ships could not accommodate a multi-division landing force as was deemed necessary for Kiska.

18. Thousand Mile War.

19. Ibid.

20. Norman V. Cooper, A Fighting General (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Association, 1987).

21. Holland M. Smith, Coral and Brass (Nashville, TN: The Battery Press, 1989).

22. Thousand Mile War.

23. Fighting General.

24. Thousand Mile War.

25. Ibid.

26. Aleutian Islands.

27. Coral and Brass.

28. Thousand Mile War.

29. Masataka Chihaya, “Mysterious Withdrawal from Kiska,” Proceedings 84, No. 2 (1958).

The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist

Observation from OIF and OEF

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I served on what was then the Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s Combat Assessment Team. There was a sense of urgency in gathering campaign lessons learned and the team members of the team were imbedded in staffs across the MEF. We contributed as part of the staff during the day and captured observations at night. When Baghdad fell and I MEF was re-deployed home, we spent a couple of months synthesizing what we had learned into something that would hopefully be helpful for future fights. 

Our observations were focused on tactical lessons learned. The Marine Corps, after all, fights at the tactical level. Although I spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the operational level of war, my perspective has shifted, and I now argue the operational level of war does not exist.  It is a construct (and not a useful one) for warfighting, justifying, in the wake of Goldwater-Nichols, general officer positions and massive supporting staff. Every staff, from combatant commanders through joint task forces, and functional component commanders, to the MEF claims to fight at the operational level of war. 

These “operational-level staffs” create a massive demand for tactical information from those doing the actual fighting while diffusing authority, responsibility, and accountability. Accountability and responsibility are vital in war, and it is critical to know who is empowered to make decisions.  He who makes decisions in war is responsible for strategy, and I am not certain our current organizational constructs make it clear who is in charge.   

As a related aside, it should be troubling to recognize the United States won World War II with fewer than a dozen four-star admirals and generals leading sixteen million men and women in uniform. The nature of war has not changed even though its character has evolved with technology. We are creatures of our technology, however, and one could argue war’s complexity has not necessarily become more difficult to manage. Today, we have forty-three four-star admirals and generals, and our win-loss record is not great. I thought the Information Age was supposed to flatten organizations. 

A tactical observation made, but perhaps not captured, by the Iraqi Freedom Combat Assessment Team was the failure in Phase IV planning. Phase IV was the phase that would follow the conclusion of combat operations. To say the Phase IV plan for I MEF was opaque would be charitable. Honestly, though I MEF planners were not negligent, they received no direction from the combined forces land Component commander or from anyone else.   

Arguably, the reason there was no direction for Phase IV is there was no strategic goal for the U.S. war in Iraq for which Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was the opening campaign. There were vague goals surrounding finding weapons of mass destruction. Also, suggestions of ties between the Iraqis and the events of 11 September and after the initial campaign the shift from finding weapons of mass destruction to regime change continued to add ambiguity to our strategic goals. What was to come after regime change? What was the overarching U.S. strategic goal in Iraq? We did not have one. 

We did not have a strategic goal or a strategy in Afghanistan either; if we did, it was a bad strategy. In hindsight, Afghanistan should have been a punitive expedition with the goal of punishing those responsible for the 11 September attacks and those who provided them refuge. The United States had a worldwide charter of approval for a punitive expedition, after which U.S. forces should have been withdrawn.   

On 18 August 2021, following the debacle that was the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Berger, wrote a letter to Marines who had served in Afghanistan. He said,  

You fought to defend your country, your family, your friends, and your neighbors. You fought to prevent terror from returning to our shores. You fought for the liberty of young Afghan girls, women, boys, and men who want the same individual freedoms we enjoy as Americans. You fought for the Marine to your left and the Marine to your right. You never let them down. 

All of this is true, all of it is noble, and all of it is truly laudable and reflects the values of Marines and the Marine Corps. But through it all, one must wonder, what was the U.S. strategic goal in Afghanistan? Were Marines fighting for the liberty of young Afghan girls, women, boys, and men? Is that the goal for which we invested more than twenty years’ worth of effort and national treasure? 

A popular saying in the wake of the U.S. loss in Vietnam was that we won all the battles and lost the war. We dominated tactically and lost strategically. After Vietnam and through the 1980s, the Marine Corps, the Army, and the Nation writ large went through a catharsis of sorts, working to understand the failure and how to avoid the same again. One of the products of this work was what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, which amounted to a list of questions and pre-conditions to be met before committing U.S. forces to conflict. The Weinberger Doctrine to many appeared quaint and inapplicable in the “changed world” of 2002. I would argue the tenants of the Weinberger Doctrine were applicable then and are just as applicable now.   

From my vantage point, there has been no effort comparable to post-Vietnam in understanding the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq. The focus has shifted to China and for the Marine Corps, Force Design 2030, kind of like a “whew, I’m glad that’s over, we need to get ready for what’s next.” I hope, at minimum, work has been done, as was done in 2003 to capture tactical lessons learned for the Marine Corps. Those lessons have immediate value and importance.   

So, why is this important to the Marine Corps and readers of the Marine Corps Gazette to think about strategy? Because many of the Marines reading the Gazette today will soon find themselves in the position of shaping national strategy. But our national strategy for Afghanistan and Iraq was the responsibility of our Nation’s civil leadership, right? A cornerstone of our constitutional republic is civil control of the military, they define our national goals. The military supports the national strategy.   

All of this is true, but at the same time, nobody in the Nation understands conflict and security better than those in uniform. The Nation invests in cultivating this knowledge and should be able, when necessary, to harvest the fruit. Senior military leadership has spent decades in uniform, in operational roles, in supporting roles, and attending schools. By the time these leaders arrive at the pinnacle of their careers, none of the civilians they support and advise can hold a candle to their training, education, and experience in matters of national security. 

Moreover, throughout their careers Army and Marine leaders at least learned the importance of well-defined goals for tactical-level operations. They recognize tactical goals are the pinnacle of a pyramid resting on the foundational layer of strategy and strategic goals. As was seen by I MEF in 2003 during phase IV planning, tactical goals are impossible to divine absent strategic guidance.    

This begs the question, why were we conducting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without defined strategic goals military forces were fighting to achieve? If we did have a strategy, why did we fail to attain our goal? Why, when former Commandant, Gen Berger penned his letter to the Marines, was he unable to point to or mention what had been achieved or not achieved in terms of worthy and defined strategic aims? Why is there an after-the-fact questioning by many Americans of why we were even in Afghanistan, countered by vague assertions, with foundations of support resting in the shifting sand of assumptions of it being better to fight potential terrorists abroad rather than at home?   

Developing strategic goals implies the need for political consensus and approval. This means Congressional approval. In both conflicts, the use of force was authorized by Congress for initial operations, but there was little to no Congressional oversight focused on validating or shifting strategic goals in subsequent years of these long wars. There are many reasons for this lack of oversight. 

Strategy is not stagnant nor is strategy limited to planning. Developing plans is merely the first step of strategy, the most important part being the identification of the strategic goal, followed by a reconciliation of that goal with means and ways. Strategy continues beyond planning, however, with an endless series of decisions, adjusting to the changing reality to attain the goal. With each decision comes another round of reconciling means and ways to ensure they remain sufficient and feasible.   

Perhaps, with so few members of Congress having prior military experience, there was a dearth of understanding of the requirement for continuous oversight. Perhaps Congress simply trusted the military and State Department with the mission. Perhaps there was Congressional consensus, spoken or unspoken, for the need to project unity in the face of conflict. Perhaps political discussions of strategic goals were intentionally avoided precisely because doing so would create unwelcome controversy. It certainly is easier to simply approve generous annual appropriations to continue tactical actions than it is to wrestle in strategic discussions.       

The various war colleges are the capstone educational experience for officers. Much time is devoted to the discussion and understanding of civil-military relations. These institutions are probably one of the best venues to at least begin discussions on what has gone wrong in recent conflicts with the goal of improvement. While these discussions would make interesting non-attributional fodder for lectures and seminars, something formal and attributional resulting in a product with recommendations would better serve the Nation’s needs. 

Two questions that should be explored are what was the relationship between senior military officers and civil leadership from 2001 to 2021 and was it sufficient? In the over twenty years of conflict, no senior military officer ever spoke publicly with real misgivings in either conflict. Was this because of misplaced confidence in the status of ongoing operations?   

If this is the case, our armed services have a training and educational shortfall that precludes leaders from accurately assessing conflict. In July and August 2021, most civilians with common sense recognized the looming disaster in Afghanistan. It is puzzling to hear assertions that military leadership saw no warnings and indicators of imminent collapse.     

There would be true value when those who participated in Iraq and Afghanistan were available to examine these questions and to determine why we keep failing to get our strategy right. It would be valuable to re-consider the roles of military leadership in determining strategy in conflict. It may be of value to re-consider our organizational constructs. Is the geographic combatant commander and associated joint task forces construct still appropriate and are they effective?   

We should ask strategic questions today about the fighting in Ukraine. While U.S. troops do not appear to be overtly committed, the United States is nonetheless supporting tactical actions, committing resources totaling more than three times the Marine Corps annual appropriation, without clearly articulated strategic goals. We hear platitudes of “defending democracy” or dubious assertions we need to stop Putin from his plans to conquer all of Europe—but no real strategic goals. 

As noted, military leadership has more experience and qualifications than anyone else in understanding how to best shape our Nation’s strategy during conflict. Understanding how our strategy became insufficient in Iraq and Afghanistan and how it remains insufficient in Ukraine is important. Understanding and either validating or modifying for better results the roles of military leadership in defining strategy should also be considered. It is time to repeat the post-Vietnam efforts to understand what has gone wrong and determine how can be precluded from happening again. 

>Col Vohr served as a Logistics Officer and MAGTF Planner.

10th Marines

Artillery modernization and support to the 2d MarDiv

The release of Force Design 2030 has precipitated significant changes in the structure of 10th Mar. The regiment maintains a two-battalion structure following the cancellation of activation plans for the 3d and 5th Battalions, resulting in adjustments to the capability and support provided to the 2d MarDiv. The divestment of cannon artillery, paralleling the larger divestment of infantry regiments and battalions, was accompanied by the establishment and consolidation of the division’s High Mobility Rocket Artillery System (HIMARS) capability within the 2d Battalion. The establishment of the Fire Support Battery consolidated the regiment’s fire support teams—long the mainstay liaison capability to its infantry counterparts—under one command while the incorporation of longer-range target acquisition systems complemented the introduction of a division organic long-range precision fires capability. Throughout this evolution, 10th Mar expanded its support to the 3d MarDiv and combatant commanders worldwide through expanded support to the Unit Deployment Program while maintaining its presence embarked aboard Camp Lejeune-based MEUs, increasing its global footprint.

These structural changes affect the regiment amid a rapidly evolving operating environment. The hard lessons of recent conflicts such as the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and the ongoing war in Ukraine loom large as 10th Mar adapts its learning to generate forces capable of thriving amidst global crisis and contingency operations. The threats posed by adversaries’ integrated sensors and fire complexes, the increased prevalence and capability of unmanned systems on the battlefield, and the increasingly contested nature of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum are but a few of the operational realities that drive an increased distribution of forces on the battlefield. The Service has followed suit, and the Marine Corps’ current Service-level Integrated Training Exercise and MAGTF Warfighting Exercise provide a demanding, distributed environment where 10th Mar operating concepts have been put to the test.

While 10th Mar of today may look different, its responsibilities as the Marine Corps’ Service-retained cannon and rocket artillery regiment endure. Regardless of ongoing change, 10th Mar remains postured and capable of supporting global force tasking while retaining a combat-credible capability to respond to crisis and contingency. As the regiment mans, trains, and equips in support of the 2d MarDiv, the challenges posed by contemporary threats, force structure changes, and a distributed battlefield drive defined changes in how it organizes for combat to support maneuver. It is a much more scalable and flexible artillery regiment than ever before, employing more diverse weapons systems, advanced targeting acquisition capabilities, and an improved ability to man and train capable fire support teams; 10th Mar continues to capture valuable lessons learned to optimize its support to the Follow Me Division in any capacity required.

The Arm of Decision
If it has done nothing else, the regiment’s structural changes under Force Design 2030 have shattered convention in the realm of legacy concepts of support to the 2d MarDiv. While the regiment retains two-for-two artillery battalion parity with the division’s infantry regiments, the battery-level organization of 10th Mar disrupts traditional ratios of support. The regiment’s present organization consists of seven cannon batteries and three HIMARS batteries tasked with providing support to eight infantry battalions and the additional fire support needs of the 2d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion while retaining a capability to support MEF-level requirements with long-range precision rocket fires or cannon artillery as needed. This problem of capacity is further strained by the reality that at any given moment upwards of 40 percent of the regiment’s firing batteries are forward deployed—or preparing to deploy—in support of global force tasking.

These structural changes and their impact on conventional methods of support exist in the context of a broader landscape of operational challenges stemming from both contemporary adversaries and the operating environment. They do not, however, change the foundational demand placed on the regiment. As 10th Mar continues to fulfill its mandate to effectively organize for combat in fulfillment of its fire support tasks, it is much more than simply an artillery regiment in support of a division.The regiment has evolved into an exceedingly flexible organization, provisioning scalable fire support from the regimental to cannon and rocket platoon levels, supported by a tailored approach to tactical mission assignment at all echelons informed by the threat, force structure, and the distributed nature of the battlefield.

Legacy Ratios of Support and Habitual Relationships
Traditionally, the direct support tactical mission has been the hallmark of the artillery battalion, with “minimum adequate support” considered to be one artillery battalion for every infantry regiment.This paradigm implied that one infantry battalion required one cannon artillery battery (or six howitzers). The regiment’s artillery battalions are no longer optimized to maintain direct support relationships with infantry regiments, a reality driven as much by its reduced quantity of cannon artillery as by the non-uniform structure of its battalions. (Five cannon batteries are organized under the 1st Battalion while all HIMARS batteries are retained under the 2d Battalion.)

In addition to the inability to maintain legacy ratios of support to maneuver units, the bifurcation of the traditional liaison capability retained within 1st and 2d Battalions to the regiment’s new fire support battery redefined the traditional approach to fire support coordinator (FSC) responsibilities in support of infantry regiments. The regiment’s loss of battery to infantry battalion parity did not extend to its fire support teams, and regimental fire support team officers in charge have subsumed the roles of regimental FSC from the artillery battalion commanders, taking the “habitual” relationships of yesterday with them. This has its own advantages, as this field grade officer, rather than splitting responsibilities between that of an artillery battalion commander and FSC, is completely focused on the planning and employment of fires and effects, coordination and deconfliction of fires, and the disposition of the platoon’s fire support teams. In the performance of these duties, the regimental FSC is fully integrated into the infantry regimental commander’s staff and in the best position to have an impact on fire-related decisions. This splitting of responsibilities has made the provision of fire support to maneuver units a more collaborative process, and the artillery battalion commander remains an invaluable stakeholder in providing support to maneuver units in cooperation and collaboration with the FSC. This collaborative relationship has been exercised and refined during Service-level exercises, doing much to optimize artillery tactical missions and organization for combat in support of the maneuver commander’s concept of fires.

Tailorable Employment and Tactical Missions at all Echelons
The regiment’s solution to bridging the gap posed by contemporary threats, evolving force structure, and the challenges posed by the distributed battlefield has been one of a flexible approach to tactical mission assignment at all echelons. While the distribution of firing platoons and batteries across the battlespace is a necessary step to improve survivability in the face of emerging and evolving threats, it is also driven by the regiment’s requirement to meet its fire support tasks in support of maneuver forces operating at greater distances. Platoon-level operations for cannon and rocket artillery are often necessary to ensure that zones of fire maintain their ability to support zones of action in a distributed environment, a reality that has reciprocal effects on tactical missions at the battalion level.

The distribution of a reduced quantity of cannon artillery systems increasingly makes general support the tactical mission of choice at the battalion level, wherein the battalion is required to support the force as a whole while remaining prepared to support subordinate elements therein.An artillery battalion assigned the general support tactical mission while employing distributed firing platoons is thus better able to measure its tempo of support to maneuver, ensuring that it meets essential fire support tasks for the force while retaining dedicated firing capability to respond to immediate requests by forces in contact at subordinate echelons.

An increased proficiency in distributed operations also means that tactical missions are relevant and viable at the battery and platoon levels, providing 10th Mar with a flexible means through which to tailor support to individual formations, maintaining the ability to weigh more responsive fire support to specific maneuver units if required. This is especially relevant for the regiment’s increased quantity of long-range precision fires. HIMARS batteries, organized in three platoons of two launchers each, are exceptionally flexible firing agencies that can be task-organized to provide tailored and responsive fires to multiple echelons of command through the deliberate application of tactical missions to the battery and platoon levels. Their effectiveness is bolstered as well by structural changes that have introduced dedicated billets for fires plans officers at the artillery battalion, supporting battery-assigned liaison officers with interfacing and integrating effective precision fire support with higher echelons of command.

Impacts to Effects of Fires
While the scalable and flexible employment of firing units at every echelon helps compensate for shortcomings in traditional ratios of support, the regiment’s reduced capacity of cannon artillery does force a reappraisal of the traditional effects of fires provided by the division’s organic artillery. Without the capacity to sustain traditional direct support relationships, batteries and battalions are challenged to provide ammunition-intensive suppressive effects to individual infantry formations while at the same time retaining sufficient capability to support units across the breadth of the GCE.

Fielding a reduced structure of cannon artillery against ever more capable adversaries, the regiment’s ability to provide suppressive fires is increasingly unsustainable in favor of a more optimized approach to destruction and neutralization fires, enabled by the regiment’s HIMARS capability and its ability to achieve precise effects at range. While this allows the regiment to retain its ability to degrade or render key adversary capabilities incapable of accomplishing their missions, it also increases the requirement for the supported unit’s targeting processes to employ the finite, yet lethal, resources at their disposal most efficiently. Supported units are not alone in meeting these requirements, being reinforced by the weight of the regiment’s fire support battery.

Fire Support Battery
As structural reorganization within the Regiment’s firing battalions has disrupted historical habitual relationships with 2d MarDiv’s infantry regiments, a new unity of effort has emerged with the establishment of the Fire Support Battery, 10th Mar. Active since October 2022, the 10th Mar was the first artillery regiment to establish a fire support battery by Force Design artillery modernization efforts. The transfer and consolidation of 1st and 2d Battalion’s fire support platoons, further supported by the integration of the 2d MarDiv Fire Support Coordination Center, created a singular unit that is structured to source habitually aligned fire support teams to the division’s infantry regiments, their battalions, and 2d Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. For the first time, a unified headquarters platoon and command element exists to support efforts to man, train, and equip fire support teams for combat operations in support of scalable fire support solutions for maneuver formations. The result is better-trained fire support teams for global force tasking, crisis response, and contingency operations.

The cascading effects of the fire support battery’s establishment extend well beyond the consolidation of dedicated support to maneuver. The consolidation of the division’s fires and effects integration expertise continues to support the development and refinement of high-quality, standardized fire support team training and evaluation packages—overseen and executed by the battery’s training and headquarters sections—to provide a uniform capability to the regiment’s supported units. The consolidation of the regiment’s tactical air control party program has also improved its ability to generate and train quality joint terminal attack controllers and joint fires observers for the division. This has correspondingly increased the battery’s ability to harness its manpower and equipment resources to better task organize scalable fire support teams for emergent crisis response requirements and taskings, providing a tailorable capability when required.

This new structure is not without its growing pains, and the establishment of the fire support battery did not singularly eliminate the regiment’s challenges in the areas of unit lifecycle management and equipment. Fire support teams, while better trained under the present fire support battery organization, remain affected by occupational-specialty shortages.Because of these issues, the fire support team force generation often struggles to keep pace with the pre-deployment training cycles of overlapping global force management requirements. Similarly, an enduring need exists to continue to modernize communications and optics equipment toward systems that are lighter, less power-consuming, and better optimized for the joint environment. The fire support battery is better postured than ever to address these challenges, and the resulting consolidation of expertise within the regiment has brought about a new unity of purpose in the liaison capability 10th Mar provides the division.

Target Acquisition Advances
As the establishment of the fire support battery sustains and advances 10th Mar’s habitual liaison capability to supported units, the regiment’s organic target acquisition capability has equally benefitted from new technology and employment concepts in support of the division. The 10th Mar Target Acquisition Platoon is at the leading edge of modernization efforts in cooperation with Combat Development and Integration and Marine Corps Systems Command to field and test new equipment. The Regiment’s Block 2 AN/TPS-80 Ground Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR), a ground weapons locating variant optimized to acquire and track hostile indirect fire, and Scalable Passive Acoustic Reporting and Targeting Node (SPARTN) are together more potent than their predecessors.This advanced equipment is paired with the benefits that come from structure growth, and a benefit of the 12th Mar’s transition to the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment is the subsequent inheritance of counter-battery radar teams divested from the 3d MarDiv. These structural gains will further increase the regiment’s sensor capacity by two G/ATOR and two Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar systems—welcome additions to 10th Mar as they further contribute to shortening kill-chains and enhance support to 2d MarDiv and II MEF’s counterfire needs.

As of January 2024, the regiment has completed fielding half of its allotted G/ATOR systems and is already benefitting from this exceptionally capable system which drastically outperforms legacy AN/TPQ-46 Fire-Finder radar systems in its combat capability, allowing the regiment’s counterfire capability to keep pace with its evolving organization for combat. The radar’s extended range has opened opportunities for new and creative employment concepts for the target processing center’s liaison capability between radars and firing agencies. Increased target processing center’s employment at the MEF and division fire support coordination center levels improves target acquisition and proactive counterfire capabilities at these echelons while better familiarizing them with counter-battery capabilities.This will bridge the maneuver’s counterfire acquisition and delivery capability at the extended ranges of an increasingly distributed battlefield.

This year also introduced another much-needed upgrade to the regiment’s target acquisition suite with the introduction of the SPARTN system. A passive acoustic sensor whose primary function is to report acoustic events, the SPARTN provides an improved capability to cue G/ATOR emissions on detections that meet unmasking criteria. This complementary relationship between the SPARTN and G/ATOR increases system survivability and provides a more resilient counterfire capability to the 2d MarDiv. The SPARTN’s significant reduction in size, increased communications capability, and longer battery lifespan is directly aligned with supporting effective coverage in support of any level of sustained, distributed operations. Together, these advances represent the regiment’s contribution towards ensuring that counterfire remains the shield that allows the 2d MarDiv to wield its sword of supremacy in any crisis or contingency operation.

Future Change and Opportunities for Optimization
While the 10th Mar remains postured to support the requirements of the 2d MarDiv, the regiment’s organization will not remain static in its march toward the future operating environment. The regiment’s current operating concepts and organization for combat yield continual lessons on areas for investment germane to effective fire support employment both now and into the future while future structural changes will continue to adjust its organization and support to the division.

Areas for Further Optimization
The regiment’s reduced density of cannon artillery formations and the corresponding emphasis on destruction and neutralization fires requires greater investment and prioritization in employment techniques for dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, rocket-assisted, and family of scatterable mine projectiles over traditional high explosive variable-time combinations. While these presently available munition types can assist in offsetting the prohibitive expenditure rates required to achieve firepower and mobility kills on armored equipment, long-term investment in the capabilities of cannon artillery must emphasize greater infantry access to longer-range cannon fires to support their mission-essential tasks and complement the expanding range of sensing capabilities at every echelon.

As the ongoing conflict in Ukraine illuminates, cannon mobility also requires further investment. The conflict has in many cases highlighted the disadvantage that towed artillery formations encounter in a high counter-battery threat environment, where the ability to reposition on short notice equals advantage and often survival.The Marine Corps’ current Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement is not optimized for keeping pace with increased infantry mobility, nor the requisite displacement times to avoid contemporary counterfire threats. The age and usage rates of the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement have also affected ongoing operations, as availability rates have decreased upwards of 60 percent in the past decade.In light of these realities, alternative prime mover options incorporating a lower tongue weight and smaller chassis merit increased consideration, while voices advocating for the Marine Corps to more seriously explore adopting a self-propelled cannon artillery system deserve additional attention.

While the batteries and platoons of 10th Mar continue to demonstrate an increased proficiency at distributed operations, cannon, and HIMARS batteries must continue perfecting these techniques while equipped with the requisite communications equipment to support dispersion at the cannon section and rocket launcher level to maintain uninterrupted command and control. Legacy communications equipment employed across traditional wavelengths does not adequately meet this aim. Very high-frequency systems, employed in a nearly exclusively omnidirectional pattern, increasingly make firing units vulnerable to rapid detection and targeting. Similarly, time-intensive techniques for the effective employment of high-frequency communications are regularly outpaced and outclassed by the effective usage of new wideband communications technologies; these systems are not currently available in quantities sufficient to support an increased number of independent and distributed firing formations throughout a non-contiguous battlefield. Ongoing exercise participation at the Service-level has validated the benefits of wideband satellite communications systems over legacy waveforms, and the capability merits serious consideration for future investment across the Marine Corps’ artillery formations.

Change on the Horizon
The regiment’s contemporary lessons learned and operating concepts are in many ways a foundation for its future force structure and roles within the division. Current fire support systems and liaison capabilities to supported units are only a waypoint towards the complete structure changes outlined in Force Design concepts.

Endorsed by the 2023 Artillery Operational Advisory Group and currently underway in conjunction with Combat Development and Integration, the positive changes from the establishment of the fire support battery may one day see the organization grow to a battalion-level command. This fire support battalion would provide its commander the authority required to compete for resources in the form of personnel, money, and equipment within the regiment. Presently, the fire support battery rates 342 Marines and sailors as part of the table of organization, and while on-hand numbers are smaller, they will only continue to grow based on Headquarters Marine Corps manpower projections. The command element and staff appropriate to manage this large organization would greatly enhance the future battalion’s ability to functionally manage a formation that serves a division headquarters, two regiments, eight infantry battalions, a light armored reconnaissance battalion, and myriad emergent requirements and requests that demand fire support expertise. A future fire support battalion will improve the regiment’s ability to meet 2d MarDiv’s demand for adaptable and relevant fire support teams.

The regiment’s current cannon and rocket artillery structure will further change with the fielding of the Navy-Marine Corps Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) in the coming years. 10th Mar has remained keenly invested in Service-modernization initiatives through involvement in NMESIS development and extended user evaluation to best forecast impacts to future organization and operations. 10th Mar anticipates transition of initial batteries to NMESIS as early as fiscal year 2026 and maintains the planning horizon required to ensure initial units identified to receive training are prepared to develop best practices and recommendations for system employment.

The introduction of NMESIS to the 10th Mar will see the regiment go through a subsequent reduction of cannon artillery batteries, placing a greater onus on the efficient employment of the division’s organic cannon artillery capability in support of recurring and emergent operations. The introduction of a naval interdiction capability within the 2d MarDiv will no doubt have a marked impact on the proficiencies and capabilities demanded of 10th Mar. Facing these changes, the regiment’s ongoing success in furthering the efficient and flexible employment of distributed firing agencies, integrating long-range precision fires systems and employment techniques within the division, and improving its liaison capability and target acquisition complexes are laying the foundation upon which 10th Mar’s future capability will stand. While missions and fire support systems will change, the adaptability and foresight that has long been the hallmark of Marine Corps artillery professionals will continue to ensure the regiment remains best postured to support 2d MarDiv now and into the future.

Conclusion
As its structure and concepts of employment continue to evolve, 10th Mar stands as one of the most flexible formations within 2d MarDiv. The regiment continues to meet the challenges of contemporary threats, the implications of ongoing force structure changes, and the challenges of an increasingly distributed battlefield with an approach to innovation that has redefined its organization for combat and allowed it to keep pace with its enduring responsibility to provide timely and accurate fires in support of the Follow Me Division. 10th Mar remains postured to sustain its support to global force tasking while maintaining scalable cannon and rocket artillery formations ready to respond to crisis or contingency requirements.

The regiment’s current successes do not overshadow areas where it can benefit from continued investment and optimization. Increased investment in the mobility of the Marine Corps’ cannon artillery will go far in enabling the survivability requisite for the modern battlefield, a demand reinforced by the 10th Mar’s reduced capacity of cannon systems and reevaluation of the effects they provide. Similarly, Service-level solutions to manpower constraints will help ensure that firing batteries and fire support teams can continue to man, train, and equip at a level of parity with maneuver formations now and into the future.

While structural changes have, in many ways, shattered convention in the areas of legacy ratios of support to maneuver units and traditional approaches to tactical missions, the result is a more dynamic artillery regiment that is better postured to maintain effective support to the division. This is no small accomplishment, and great credit is due to the Marines and sailors whose daily efforts ensure that the 10th Mar remains 2d MarDiv’s Arm of Decision.

Cpl Erick Leon, right, a Queens, NY, native and a field artillery cannoneer with 1/10 Mar, fires an M777 towed 155 mm howitzer during field training on Camp Lejeune, NC. (Photo by LCpl Jonathan Rodriguez Pastrana.)
Cpl Erick Leon, right, a Queens, NY, native and a field artillery cannoneer with 1/10 Mar, fires an M777 towed 155 mm howitzer during field training on Camp Lejeune, NC. (Photo by LCpl Jonathan Rodriguez Pastrana.)
Marines with Headquarters Battery, 10th Mar, 2d MarDiv conducting G/ATOR operations in support of 1/10 Mar aboard Camp Lejeune, NC, on 24 January 2024. (Photo by Cpl Jose Rovirosahidalgo.)

Notes

1. The four fire support tasks are supporting forces in contact, supporting the commander’s concept of operations, integrating fire support with the scheme of maneuver, and sustaining fire support. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCTP 3-10F, Fire Support Coordination in the Ground Combat Element, (Washington, DC: 2018).

2. Current doctrine acknowledges the battalion as the echelon “normally” assigned a tactical mission. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCTP 3-10E, Artillery Operations, (Washington, DC: 2018).

3. Ibid.

4. Field artillery officer, fires and effects integrator, and joint terminal attack controller respectively.

5. The regiment fields the Block 2 G/ATOR system. The Block 1 G/ATOR system provides the Marine Corps with an air-defense and surveillance radar capability.

6. “Proactive counterfire” is a vital component of mid- to high-intensity conflicts to limit or damage hostile fire support systems and is incumbent on allocating proportionate target acquisition assets, normally at the MEF and division levels. For more information, see MCTP 3-10F, Fire Support Coordination in the Ground Combat Element.

7. Sam Cranny-Evans, “The Role of Artillery in a War Between Russia and Ukraine,” Royal United Services Institute, February 14, 2022, https://rusoi.org.

8. Availability rates based on data maintained through Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps R12, analyzed by 1/10 Mar from 2012 through 2024.

A Culture of Innovation Drives Acceleration!

Rapid response to Corps’ modernization efforts

Innovation—the discovery of new ideas, methods, or technologies—is a necessary but insufficient condition to achieve the dominant warfighting capability edge needed to address both near-peer adversaries and other threats. Military history is replete with accounts of battles won not because of an advantage in the number of soldiers or platforms but rather by the side that employed a new technology—or a new combination of existing technologies—against an unwitting opponent.

At its heart, the Marine Corps’ Force Design initiative an innovation strategy that directs the entire Marine Corps, in a phased and organized way, to conduct innovation activities (experiments, tests) across technology and concepts of operations against current and anticipated threats.The acquisition community, fully engaged in responding to the Corps’ modernization efforts, often misses opportunities to adopt innovation. As this round of Force Design is funded, technology and capability acquisition must innovate at scale to ensure our Marines dominate across their multi-domain mission sets.

Today, we are engulfed—and at times overwhelmed—by the dizzying pace of technological change, spanning across known areas and extending into soon-to-be-known domains. The list is long. But mere discovery is useless unless those technologies or concepts are adopted, integrated, tested, fielded, and improved at the right speed, scale, and cost to support our warfighters. And nowhere is innovation more important than in the acquisition domain where new technologies are delivered at scale as new programs or capability improvements to existing programs. We know what side we want to be on in any conflict: the side that maintains a dominant advantage that will deter—and if necessary defeat—an adversary. To achieve this dominance, the Marine Corps’ acquisition community must develop a stronger innovation culture that can increase the pace of innovation adoption.

Most of the proposed solutions to improving the DOD’s innovation adoption are focused on broad organizational or authorities changes to the Defense Acquisition System and the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution System. The recently issued report from the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption outlines many of these recommendations that the DOD is considering implementing.2 However, there is little attention on how we can improve innovation adoption at all echelons and formations within the Defense Acquisition System.

Oftentimes, the way we are organized, both the acquisition commands and military formations are byproducts of the way we won the last war and can frustrate the pace of implementing innovations. After all, traditional military organizational structures, and how they fight wars, are optimized for operational execution and not for innovation. Orders must be given and followed, and experimenting in combat is high risk. In fact, it is hard to find a requirement to innovate in any military doctrine, process, or procedure. One common approach to spurring innovation in organizations is to create a centralized innovation group or cell that interested organizations can leverage. While this approach has its advantages, a notable drawback is that it can lead the rest of the organization to rely exclusively on that one group for innovation, assuming that it is someone else’s mission.

The acquisition community has the mission focus and tools to be a full-fledged innovation partner in re-equipping the force for its 2030 (or sooner) posture. Acquisition professionals partnered closely with the requirements setters at the Deputy Commandant for Capability Development and Integration and funding managers at the Deputy Commandant for Programs and Resources are empowered to tailor acquisition strategies, plans, and schedules to deliver capabilities promptly. They are adept at finding new and creative ways to improve capability delivery within the resources they have. The attributes of an innovation culture are present to varying degrees across our acquisition community, but they often compete with a well-entrenched regulatory and compliance culture and a set of beliefs and behaviors wedded to traditions, habits, risk aversion, and a predisposition to assume that only marginal change is possible. In short, our latent innovation culture is often overshadowed by our compliance culture.

While the formal innovation ecosystem (e.g., Marine Innovation Unit, Office of Naval Research, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, NavalX, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Strategic Capabilities Office, Defense Innovation Unit, etc.) is an important source of ideas (and of increasing resources), the acquisition community has huge opportunities to demonstrate the innovation it can contribute through the prototypes, programs, and capability that it is fielding to the fleet. We need to become full members of the innovation ecosystem.

Former Under Secretary of the Navy James “Hondo” Guerts said as much, noting, “When organizations don’t build in the ability to pivot quickly, they become very brittle.” A recent Gallup report identified eight factors as the building blocks of agile workplace culture, summarized by Guerts in his “4 D’s” to increase the Navy’s organizational pivot speed and agility.In short, decentralize, differentiate the work, maximize the power of the digit, and most importantly, develop talent. He believed that to truly empower innovation, one must first address infrastructure. Building a culture that values how we address failure and create spaces for psychological safety—knowing that the team is there to support their ideas and challenges in a non-confrontational way.A truly innovative organization needs to understand that changing a culture is not only driven by factors within our systems and processes but also by the mindset we foster in our workforce.

However, it is important to recognize the tensions between a culture of innovation and one oriented toward compliance. What are some indicators of an “innovation culture?” Of a “compliance culture?” How can we reconcile the two, keeping the best of both cultures? How do we resolve these contradictions that frustrate innovation adoption? How do we unleash our innate innovation energy to ensure we are key enablers and implementers of innovation adoption? How often is the acquisition community crowdsourced to help solve capability gaps, rather than for the fleet or Headquarters Marine Corps to assume that we are only focused on the program of record baselines?

One way to gauge readiness to innovate is to assess whether your team or formation exhibits yes-if versus no-because behaviors.A yes-if organization rises above process and procedural allegiance to find new ways to solve complex procurement and operational challenges. Yes-if teams anticipate, adapt, and thrive in dynamic environments. They take new approaches and test boundaries without fear of failure. Are we taking measured and deliberate risks, not only in executing our cost, schedule, and performance responsibilities but, in responding to fleet feedback and the need to keep the capability at an unfair advantage level? There are of course many occasions when programs need to say no, but that message is often best delivered to the fleet or others as a conversation about how to achieve the yes outcome. Other organizations that must anticipate, adapt, and thrive in rapidly changing environments have achieved great success in adopting a yes-if culture.6

There are five other areas that acquisition organizations should explore to gauge and improve their innovation culture.7

First, they should be tolerant of failure but not of poor workmanship or incompetence. Failures rooted in incompetence cost too much time or money to tolerate. We need to focus on achieving success while learning and avoid unnecessary repeated failures. Treat a failure as a “first attempt at learning” with the expectation that a professional, well-trained, and certified team will achieve success in its next attempt.

Second, be willing to experiment and take measured risks but be ruthless in establishing objective criteria to evaluate the results and take the next step or move on to the next effort. Continuous experimentation without a shared understanding of when to stop must be avoided.

Third, create an environment that fosters everyone’s engagement and participation so that candid and data-centered views can be shared without fear of professional embarrassment or ridicule. Focusing on objective measures and data-centered discussions keeps the team focused on getting all ideas and solutions out in the open and avoids negative emotions.

Fourth, foster collaboration while continuing to acknowledge individual contributions. For better or worse, our performance management systems are focused on individuals, not teams, and government civilians are evaluated for their individual performance and achievements. Team performance is usually only evaluated by boards screening award nominations. Find ways to reward team achievement and collaboration by holding individuals accountable for promoting that behavior.

Fifth, keep organizational structures and decision making as flat as possible by using commander’s intent and mission orders to encourage team-focused initiatives across the acquisition formation.

These are not necessarily easy contradictions to resolve or manage. Balancing a rising innovation culture with a compliance culture requires ambidextrous leadership at all levels to achieve seemingly incompatible objectives.This is the acquisition innovator’s dilemma: to ensure timely operational execution to deliver capability and capacity with enterprise processes, practices, and procedures while continually seeking novel technologies to improve what is in development or already fielded. In many ways, it is a smaller example of the competition between modernization and readiness that the Marine Corps is working its way through today via Force Design. And we know the seeds of success are present. Some program-specific examples below show what an innovation culture can achieve to increase capability delivery velocity through innovation adoption:

  • Medium Range Intercept Capability: An innovative acquisition strategy to stitch together three existing Marine Corps programs of record together (Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar, Common Aviation Command and Control System, Composite Tracking Network), adapt a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launcher, and leverage an international partner (Israel) to provide the missile and other elements (Iron Dome). Open architecture, risk reduction, avoiding long development cycles and new production lines, and looking to leverage the Israeli’s tactical experience for test and evaluation purposes are all hallmarks of an innovative culture.
  • Amphibious Combat Vehicle mission role variants procurement strategy: Use an engineering change proposal approach vice individual full rate production contracts for each lot to avert delays during months-long continuing resolution “no new start” limitations.
  • Marine Air Defense Integrated System: Using existing commercial or military off-the-shelf systems (radars, effectors, vehicles) and a Navy warfare center to integrate greatly reduces risk by avoiding the development of new systems and all the work associated with a new procurement. Took risk in leveraging the warfare center as the lead system integrator and managing the technical baseline to ensure an open systems architecture approach for rapid tech insertions.
  • Integrated Air and Missile Defense Roadmap Synchronization: Innovation in partnering closely with the Missile Defense Agency and PEO-Integrated Weapons System to ensure integration of Marine Corps groundbased air defense assets and Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar with Navy and joint mission threads and kill chains. This effort has no dedicated program manager or large staff and is a great example of cross-enterprise collaboration, embracing experiments and an environment well aligned to specific, integration and interoperability objectives.

Improving the Marine Corps’ pace of innovation adoption will only be as successful as our innovation culture is strong. A weak culture will lapse into compliance and not creativity. Striving for a yes-if attitude towards our stakeholders sets the foundation for resolving the cultural contradictions we face in our day-to-day balance of leading execution with purposeful innovation to improve capability. Let us add some more stories to the few examples outlined here and become indispensable members of the innovation ecosystem.


Notes

1. Staff, “Force Design,” Marines.mil, n.d., https://www.marines.mil/Force-Design.

2. Whitney M. McNamara, Peter Modigliani, Matthew MacGregor, and Eric Lofgren, “Final Report of the Commission of Defense Innovation Adoption,” Atlantic Council, January 16, 2024, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/atlantic-council-commission-on-defense-innovation-adoption.

3. Marco Nink, “How to Weave Agility Throughout Your Corporate Culture,” Gallup, January 17, 2019, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/245999/weave-agility-throughout-corporate-culture.aspx.

4. Alison Escalante, “How the Navy Created a Culture of Innovation in Big Bureaucracy,” Forbes, May 4, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisonescalante/2021/05/04/how-the-navy-created-a-culture-of-innovation-in-big-bureaucracy/?sh=158e48f8766f.

5. Pankaj Srivastava, “The Power Of Yes: Why The Yes Mindset Leads To Innovation And Creates Great Leaders,” Forbes, May 17, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/05/17/the-power-of-yes-why-the-yes-mindset-leads-to-innovation-and-creates-great-leaders.

6. Information available at https://sma.nasaq.gov/sma-disciplines/safety-culture.

7. John Kamensky, “Five Paradoxes of an Innovation Culture,” Government Executive, January 30, 2019, https://www.govexec.com/management/2019/01/five-paradoxes-innovation-culture/154531.

8. Charles A. O’Reilly and Michael L. Tushman, Lead and Disrupt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

Project EAGLE

Reorienting Marine Aviation’s Lift Vector toward 2040

Societal divisions, state tensions, and contested international norms are setting conditions for a volatile and potentially dangerous future. Although these conditions are not new to history, the addition of rapidly evolving demographic, environmental, economic, and technological developments present both tremendous opportunity and significant challenges to the Marine Corps.Given these conditions and developments, the Marine Corps seeks to continually refine its understanding of the future operating environment and refine relevant operating concepts to compete beyond 2030.

Most importantly, Marine Aviation must be able to deliver the lethality coefficient to the MAGTF, Joint Force maritime component command, and the broader Joint Force when called upon. To deliver the necessary lethality, Marine Aviation endeavors to lead-turn the acquisition of capabilities and advanced technologies through a Three-Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) plan, starting in fiscal year 2026. We will use Force Design 2030 and force modernization guidance as the strategic waypoint to address current challenges while setting conditions to compete in the next decade. In collaboration and coordination with the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Office of Net Assessment and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s Futures branch, Marine Aviation will continue to contribute to the strategic design effort by forecasting challenges out to 2040 and establishing a plan that allows Marine Aviation to outpace our adversaries.

Marine Aviation’s Project EAGLE is that plan. Project EAGLE’s embedded three-FYDP plan is the strategic lift vector of Marine Aviation to 2040. The objective is to achieve a framework that enables the Marine Corps to adjust the current Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution Assessments process to meet the correct future operational requirements. The approach seeks capabilities and technological innovations that exceed a single FYDP to provide informed predictability and flexibility. The unconstrained planning of future FYDPs provides opportunities to invest in the current FYDP in the procurement of future technology to match the changing environment and ensure Marine Aviation remains an integral member of the Joint Force.

Fundamentally, war is both timeless and ever-changing. As Marine Aviation adapts and evolves to the changing character of conflict, we shall remain true to our identity and honor all the hard aviation lessons learned over the years. Therefore, Project EAGLE is guided by the following priorities:

  • Support the MAGTF in force modernization efforts via the functions of Marine Aviation.
  • Ensure detailed collaboration and interoperability with the Joint Force maritime component command.
  • Support broader joint and coalition force efforts of interoperability and interchangeability.

Project EAGLE has three phases. These phases are specifically designed to support CMC 38’s initial force design guidance and CMC 39’s force modernization vision. In addition, Project EAGLE phases are intended to provide more analytical rigor to the Marine Corps’ budget planning and programming. These phases also provide an opportunity to communicate a clear and steadfast vision of Marine Aviation to the Department of Navy, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Congress, and industry.

Phase I: Framework Development
This phase began in the summer of 2022 and will continue to be refined throughout all phases. The following were areas of focus during Phase I:

  • Initial research and orientation of historical demographic, environmental, economic, and technological developments, and the impacts of these variables on the current environment.
  • Understanding the future operating environment and emerging trends.
  • Development and research of potential concepts and functions.
  • Initial development of lines of effort (LOEs), roadmaps, and key milestones out to 2040.
Project EAGLE placemat. (Image provided by author.)
Project EAGLE placemat. (Image provided by author.)

Phase II: New CMC 39 Guidance
This phase began in the fall of 2023 and will continue to be refined throughout Phase III. The objective of this phase is to refine the vision and LOEs developed during Phase I and implement appropriate CMC 39 guidance at the beginning of fiscal year 2024. This phase will also include the publishing of the Aviation Plan (AVPLAN) in December of 2024. The AVPLAN has been a vital tool to communicate the Deputy Commandant for Aviation’s vision and direction to multiple audiences. This annual message will again transmit DC Aviation’s rudder steers and altitude changes to maintain alignment and focus on Marine Aviation’s core responsibility of supporting the MAGTF.

Phase III: Execution
This phase will begin in the summer of 2025 and will continue through 2040. Phase III will incorporate actions from Phase I and II and will introduce FYDP 41–45’s vision for planning.

Project EAGLE Has Five Lines of Effort (LOE)
LOE 1: Concepts
Marine Aviation is looking at the viability of two new concepts: distributed aviation operations (DAO) and decision-centric aviation operations (DCAO) 2040. These concepts are nested with and support expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), Stand-in Forces, and broader Joint Force operating concepts. These aviation concepts, which will be tested and developed via the Marine Corps’ Concept Generation and Development Process, will drive aviation strategy, doctrine, and acquisition planning.

  • DAO. As part of Force Design 2030 and force modernization, Marine Aviation must further its capabilities for operating in austere and distributed littoral environments as an essential element of the Stand-in Force, and in support of EABO. Included in this functional concept is the need to review the traditional functions of Marine Aviation.
  • DCAO 2040. The central idea of DCAO is to accelerate the decision cycle of the ACE to machine-level speeds using cutting-edge and emerging technologies. The intent is to enable the rapid composition and decomposition of a more distributed force achieving the benefits of mass while minimizing the risks associated with concentration. Current studies are underway to assess the full requirements and efficacy of DCAO 2040. However, DAO is the first step towards DCAO 2040.

LOE 2: Functions of Marine Aviation
Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-20, Aviation Operations, directs planners to consider aviation functions when conducting aviation planning and not the means available (i.e., weapons systems or platforms). The role of the Marine Aviation functions is to provide a framework for planners in planning aviation operations, but this requires having relevant aviation functions.

The existing six functions of Marine Aviation (offensive air support, anti-air warfare, assault support, aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and control of aircraft and missiles) were critical to the Marine Corps’ success in conducting expeditionary land and amphibious operations. However, based on the changing global environment and technological developments, a modernized Marine Aviation functional framework is necessary for planners to approach today and tomorrow’s maritime campaigns. Current studies are underway to assess the efficacy of expanding the functions of Marine Aviation to better support joint and coalition forces in a maritime campaign.

LOE 3: Digital Data-Centric Culture
To maintain a competitive advantage in future conflicts and meet the current mission requirements, Marine Aviation will embrace a digital data-centric culture, equip the ACE with cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) tools and knowledge, and enhance the Marine Corps’ asymmetric warfighting capability leveraging AI and other emerging technologies. Marine Aviation is dedicated to creating a digital data-centric culture where AI agents serve as a force multiplier and a teammate in the ready room, on the flight line, in the field with our enablers, and in the cockpit. When fully integrated into aviation operations, AI agents will enable the seamless and rapid move from in, on, and out of the loop against our adversaries.

Becoming a data-centric and data-enabled organization will enhance Marine Aviation’s culture, risk management, efficiency, effectiveness, and decision making. Such a change requires leadership at all levels, trust in data, and investment in infrastructure, personnel, and training. Developing a digital data-centric culture within Marine Aviation will be challenging at first, but it is a key component to supporting force modernization efforts, DAO, and DCAO 2040 concepts.

LOE 4: Three-Future Years Defense Program
LOE 4 will address the specific priorities and allocation of resources and funding across the next three FYDPs to support the future vision of Marine Aviation encapsulated in Project EAGLE.

LOE 5: Roadmaps
The following proposed roadmaps for Project EAGLE involve multiple key stakeholders within HQMC and will require detailed collaboration and coordination across the enterprise for implementation.

  • Vertical Takeoff and Landing Development Portfolio.
  • MAGTF Unmanned Expeditionary Development Portfolio.
  • Aviation Command and Control and Ground Support.
  • Aviation Sustainment 2040.
  • Infrastructure Roadmap 2040.
  • Ranges Roadmap 2040.
  • Live/Virtual/Constructive Roadmap 2040.
  • Aircrew Recruitment and Retention Roadmap.
Image
Structural forces, emerging dynamics, and advanced threats require a new and evolving Marine Corps operating concepts out to 2040. (Photo provided by author.)

Bottom Line
Structural force changes, emerging technologies, and advanced threats require new and evolving Marine Aviation operating concepts to deliver the lethality coefficient when required. First, DAO, DCAO 2040, and decision-centric concepts provide pathways into fighting in future operating environments. Second, the review of the six functions of Marine Aviation is essential to supporting EABO, joint operating concepts, and Force Design 2030. Third, transformational capabilities such as AI, ML, and the cultivation of a digital data-centric culture will equip Marines with digital tools and knowledge to enhance their warfighting capabilities within the ready room, on the flight line, in the field with our enablers, and in the cockpit. Project EAGLE reorients Marine Aviation’s lift vector and is the next waypoint in the Commandant’s vision for force modernization to ensure the Nation’s 911 force remains agile, dynamic, and ready.

>LtCol Robillard is currently assigned as the Lead Aviation Strategy and Plans Officer for Headquarters, Marine Corps Department of Aviation.

Notes

1. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Global Trends 2040–A More Contested World, (Washington, DC: 2021).

Warfighting Through Data-Centricity

Outmaneuvering through Information

Information is a critical element of all military operations. This should not surprise us as our observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loops are fed by, make sense of, and inevitably generate information. Data is the fundamental building block of information, and one can increase the value of that data by adding additional context or fusing it with other data to convey a greater meaning to the viewer. For example, to an aviator, individual pieces of data such as airspeed, altitude, heading, and navigational data are all important for any given mission, and they can be fused to convey more information via a heads-up display. With this rudimentary data analysis and display, a heads-up display can accelerate an aviator’s OODA loop by conveying the needed data in one location, integrated with mission-specific alerts, which provides them with an information advantage. As described in MCDP 8, Information, using the right information can create decision, temporal, spatial, and other information advantages that can allow friendly forces to outmaneuver an adversary, which is vital based on the threats posed by peer adversaries.1

One of the greatest challenges on the modern battlefield is the time compression introduced by long-range, high-speed weapons and their ability to hold U.S. assets at risk.2 This sentiment of Wayne Hughes echoes throughout recent Marine Corps publications, including Force Design and A Concept for Stand-in Forces. The anticipated character of this future conflict necessitates the ability to rapidly observe, orient, and decide so the necessary actions can be taken within the time constraints introduced by enemy weapons. The longer any one of these processes takes, the longer it will take to complete an OODA cycle, which increases the difficulty of gaining a decision advantage.

The interrelationship between observation and orientation is critical in managing the time required to complete OODA cycles. If the data observed by a Marine is not managed in some way, the sheer amount of available data in a given situation, whether relevant or not, will slow the orientation phase because the Marine must discern what is and is not relevant and then attempt to make sense of what is deemed relevant. If instead the observed information was curated and formatted based on the needs of the Marine, the time taken by observation and orientation could shrink dramatically.

Friction, uncertainty, and complexity also tend to slow this process, and while this fog of war will never abate, it may be possible to lift some of the fog. If Marines can maintain access to relevant and trustworthy data, formatted on mission-specific displays it can provide the opportunity for continued situational awareness and lift some of the fog.

To succeed within this anticipated character of war requires technical change in our systems as well as operational changes in how we generate, share, and utilize that data to achieve the desired benefits in competition and conflict. The innovation required to achieve a faster relative tempo than our adversaries reside in the idea of data-centricity. This article first describes data-centricity and what it means to the Marine Corps from a doctrinal perspective. After making the linkage to doctrine, the article concludes with ways to implement data-centricity and some examples of what operational benefits could be gained. Please note that many of the examples provided are aspirational to show what is in the realm of the possible. Additionally, I intentionally use vague terms at times so Marines of every MOS can connect these thoughts to the systems they use to complete their mission.

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Figure 1. Boyd’s OODA Loop with a time component.3 (Figure provided by author.)

What Is Data-Centricity?
The definition of data-centricity utilized by the DOD is “an architectural approach that results in a secure environment separating data from applications and making data available to a broad range of tools and analytics within and across security domains for enrichment and discovery.”In simple terms, this means that individual networks or information systems are enablers instead of the main effort. For example, GCSS-MC, M-SHARP, and NALCOMIS OOMA still play a critical role in data generation and storage; however, perhaps a greater value is when that data is fused and analyzed between systems and used to formulate decisions. Perhaps the data in each of those systems could contribute to a model that would reduce the time required to fulfill aircraft parts orders.

This approach enables Marines to utilize all useful data, regardless of system, to facilitate every warfighting function and solve operational problems. A Marine would need access to myriad systems if they wanted specific information pertaining to command and control, fires, force protection, information, intelligence, logistics, and maneuver for a given mission. In a data-centric framework, where the concern is providing access to data in these areas, Marines at all levels can have access to key information that is typically reserved for the combat operations center. It provides an avenue for fulfilling John Boyd’s belief that “technology and concepts should empower the person, not the other way around.”In this case, implementing data-centricity enables Marines to make decisions in a distributed environment when friction and uncertainty abound.

Collectively known as VAULTIS, a data-centric approach makes data visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure. Data needs to be exposed to a secure environment, so it is visible to authorized users. Those users must be able to access the data to leverage it. Users must be able to understand what the data means in terms of its content, context, and applicability to a given problem set. Data must be linked using data formats and metadata tagging to uncover relationships. The data must be trustworthy by coming from an authoritative data source so that one can be confident in the data and insights derived from it. Data must be interoperable to maintain the semantic and syntactic meaning of the data; otherwise, one risks spurious conclusions. Finally, the data must be secure and free from unauthorized use or manipulation.6

This is an evolution from the current framework, where data is tied to applications, and the application’s capabilities limit the secure utilization of the data. This limits the ability of Marines to utilize the data because exposing the data to advanced analytics and merging it with other relevant data becomes a tedious process of exporting, rationalizing, and importing data. From an operational perspective, it limits the ability of commanders to see inputs from multiple systems in a single integrated common operational picture. In both cases, the architectural framework limits the utility of data and hinders the development of advanced algorithms to include artificial intelligence and machine learning because of the limited amount of data and computing power available.

A data-centric approach can provide an information advantage by reducing the time required to arrive at well-informed decisions, thus increasing the tempo of one’s OODA loop. According to MCDP 1, “Time is a critical factor in effective decisionmaking–often the most important factor. A key part of effective decisionmaking is realizing how much decision time is available and making the most of that time. Whoever can make and implement decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage.”Our systems can help make decisions faster by leveraging the right data and applying the right context to it to accelerate the decision-making process. In terms of OODA loops, these systems work within the observation process so that when a commander observes information, it is presented and formatted to speed the orientation process and convey a more accurate mental model for a decision.

Facilitating decision making at the lowest level is imperative given the emerging character of warfare that necessitates decentralized operations. Customized common operational pictures should not only be available at the command post but to the Marines executing the mission as well. The decentralized nature of Marine Corps operations necessitates that Marines have access to as much information as is helpful and formatted in a manner that aids in mission execution.

Implementing Data-Centricity
For the Marine Corps to realize the benefits related to data-centricity, it must innovate within existing paradigms. One of Williamson Murray’s conclusions in Military Innovation During the Interwar Period was that the most important innovations impacted the context or character of the conflict. Within that volume, Alan Beyerchen proposed three key changes typically occurring for successful innovation. First, new equipment, systems, or devices initiate a technical change. Second is an operational change that refers to how the technical change can be utilized and integrated into other standard operating procedures. Finally, technological change is the resultant “context emerging from the interaction of technical and operational change with each other and the environment.”8 As this relates to data-centricity, the capabilities must harmonize with Marine Corps operations to out-maneuver an adversary.

Given that data-centricity is an architectural approach and not a solution in and of itself, the technical changes required span a wide array of efforts. Make no mistake, while some of these efforts sound simple, budgetary constraints, dependencies, technical complexity, and myriad other challenges abound. The following list is just an example of some of the high-level tasks that can improve data-centricity. Ensuring the visibility of data means hosting data sources (cloud, on-premises, tactical edge) so they can be exposed to platforms such as Jupiter, Advana, and Bolt or integrated into applications like Tactical Assault Kit. Perhaps the greatest issue of assuring data access is ensuring resilient, high-bandwidth network transport whether that be provided by satellite communications, fiber optic cables, or other terrestrial means. While this can be challenging for the Marine Corps to execute, this is further complicated when one attempts to extend visibility and access at the joint and coalition levels. This is the heart of Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control.

Establishing data catalogs, data formatting, and tagging standards are critical for understanding and linking data while ensuring interoperability. This sounds simple, but at the technical level, this can become complicated. Application programming interfaces can enable data to be shared between disparate systems; however, certain systems may need to be modernized to meet certain constraints of that system. To realize the benefits at the tactical edge, programs of record need to modernize not only to share data within an established framework but also so they can evolve as needed based on interoperability with the joint and combined force. Additionally, the data from those systems should be accessible and customizable on handheld devices powered by software such as ATAK.

One element of the operational change refers to how the capabilities can be utilized. At a high level, this means improving how we operate based on the ability to leverage data. For example, could predictive logistics algorithms create a heavier logistics push construct to make the most efficient use of surface and air transport? Could advances in the Manpower Information Technology Systems Modernization drive changes in manpower policy and the way in which boards, assignments, and retention are conducted? Any of these can prove true, but as a Service, we must be willing to evolve the way we operate based on the technical capabilities available.

Another element of operational change relates to how Marines interact with systems to generate data. Marines need to understand that the inputs they make into a given system can have downstream impacts on decision making. For example, if an aviation maintenance department wanted to discover ways to improve readiness by gaining maintenance efficiencies, they could compare data in NALCOMIS OOMA with other relevant data from M-SHARP and other databases. However, if Marines do not log their maintenance time appropriately on a maintenance action form (MAF), it will lead to false conclusions regarding the time to complete MAF. If pilots do not accurately log their flight time or generate MAFs, the resulting data may not reflect reality. In other words, if data is of poor quality, it will either be discarded from analysis which reduces the data points, or it will lead to spurious conclusions. Simply put, if one inputs garbage, the result will be garbage.

The synergy between the technical changes and operational changes can create technological changes that sometimes asymmetrically change the context of our operations. Access to relevant information, formatted in a mission-specific manner when provided to distributed forces, could introduce a new level of maneuver and agility to outpace a more rigid adversary.

Conclusion
History demonstrates that institutions that had an appropriate grasp on the concept of future warfare and were able to balance a better fit between technologies, concepts, doctrine, and organizational change ultimately succeeded over adversaries who failed to do so.The benefits of data-centricity align with the roots of maneuver warfare by enabling Marines to generate speed and tempo by decreasing the time to execute OODA loops. Achieving this benefit requires significant investment in an array of technical and operational changes. Some of these changes can be made at the Service level, but many more require Marines at each echelon to innovate within their command to utilize these capabilities. Implementing data-centricity should not be seen as a buzzword but rather a means to implement elements of Warfighting and prepare ourselves as a Service for the next conflict—wherever that may find us engaged in competition, crisis, or conflict.


Notes

1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 8, Information, (Washington, DC: 2022).

2. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

3. Adapted from John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, ed. Grant T. Hammond (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2018).

4. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “The Intelligence Community Data Management Lexicon,” DNI.gov, January 5, 2022, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/IC_Data_Management_Lexicon.pdf. It should be noted that the use of this definition was directed by the DOD Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer in a memorandum dated 1 September 2023.

5. Ian Brown, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2018).

6. Department of Defense, DOD Data Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2020).

7. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997).

8. Williamson Murray and Alan Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Information in Marine Corps Operations

Information and the changing character of warfare
>Mr. Uchytil is currently a defense contractor for Troika Solutions and provides support to the Information Plans and Strategy Division, Deputy Commandant for Information, Headquarters Marine Corps. He served a combined 26 years as both a Marine Corps Communications Officer and enlisted Marine Infantryman.

“While dependent on the laws of science and the intuition and creativity of art, war takes its fundamental character from the dynamic of human interaction.”

“War is both timeless and ever changing. While the basic nature of war is constant, the means and methods we use evolve continuously. … One major catalyst of change is the advancement of technology. As the hardware of war improves through technological development, so must the tactical, operational, and strategic usage adapt to its improved capabilities both to maximize our own capabilities and to counteract our enemy’s.”
—MCDP 1, Warfighting

Critical Imperative or Call to Action
The Marine Corps needs a pragmatic reference for operating in and through the information environment. A 2021 RAND study identified that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army views information as a key enabler for success in a future conflict and the single most critical domain for success in contemporary and especially next-generation warfare.Leveraging this observation, the 2022 National Defense Strategy calls for a future force that is resilient—in that it maintains information and decision advantages, preserves command, control, and communications systems, and ensures critical detection and targeting operations. Additionally, the National Defense Strategy calls for a department that will improve the Nation’s ability to integrate, defend, and reconstitute surveillance and decision systems to achieve warfighting objectives, particularly in the space domain, and despite the adversary’s means of interference or deception.These are no small tasks in this age of advancing technology where competitors capitalize on technology and information activities to achieve objectives. While accomplishing these endeavors will require the DOD to examine the challenges across the entirety of the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy framework to realize success, this discussion is focused on the influence of Marine Corps doctrine to realize these imperatives.

The Marine Corps is moving forward with generating doctrine that presents a path to achieving information advantages through the MCWP 8-10, Information in Marine Corps Operations. The June 2023 Force Design 2030 Annual Update identified that as the pace of change in the information domain accelerates, the Marine Corps cannot afford to allow doctrinal efforts to languish. It must keep pace with the emerging and evolving operational environment, as well as with the agencies and organizations that will be essential to its success.In support of this analysis, the Deputy Commandant for Information published its second “8” series doctrinal publication. This article will discuss the imperative for the MCWP 8-10 and review some key topics presented by the publication.

“Every action a Marine Corps unit or individual Marine takes or does not take has the potential to communicate a message.”
—MCDP 8-10, Information in Marine Corps Operations

Changing Landscape
Leveraging information power is nothing new to the Marine Corps. However, today’s hyper-connected digital environment has created new and constantly evolving opportunities and challenges that impact Service and Joint Force operations from competition to conflict. This current environment poses challenges at all levels of command while simultaneously driving change across the Marine Corps and the greater Joint Force. Commanders across the Service are integrating information considerations into planning efforts and operations to generate multi-domain effects and achieve mission objectives. The speed and reach of today’s technology portend that tactical actions can have far-reaching, strategic information and influence implications. Both the accessibility and use of information can be a vulnerability as Marines can quickly upload digital imagery, videos, or other material that has not been appropriately vetted for release and share it on information technology platforms (social media, email, etc.) at the speed of the internet and at the cost of negating command narratives or blunting operational security actions. Recently, MajGen Ryan Heritage, the Commanding General of Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command and Marine Corps Forces Space Command, was asked about information and Marine Corps culture. He was quoted as saying, “I would tie that to the Marine ethos, Marine culture, and understanding how information is a key to warfighting and therefore every Marine a rifleman, every Marine needs to understand the power of information and where that’s applied and how they apply it.”With this in mind, MCWP 8-10 seizes the opportunity to address how all Marines can apply informational power by presenting innovative solutions to operational problems and strategic challenges within the information environment.

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 8, Information
In June of 2022, the Marine Corps published MCDP 8, Information. With MCDP 8, the Marine Corps established its first Service-level information doctrine. This publication provided a foundational theory for leveraging the power of information, described the Marine Corps information warfighting function, and discussed the function’s mutually supporting relationship with other Marine Corps warfighting functions. MCDP 8’s framework supports the high-level understanding of the Marine Corps information warfighting function and introduces the three information advantages generated through its application: systems overmatch, prevailing narrative, and force resiliency. This foundational doctrine provides the context and theoretical framework that is expanded upon through the MCWP 8-10. MCDP 8 was written with an understanding of the continuously evolving global security environment and it allows for future subordinate doctrine to keep pace.

Operationalizing MCDP 8
MCWP 8-10 is a subordinate publication to MCDP 8. MCWP 8-10 supports the understanding and employment of the means for conducting information and how those activities generate an information advantage. It operationalizes the information warfighting function and tenets of MCDP 8 while serving as an intermediary doctrinal publication bridging the gap between the MCDP and the more detailed tactics, techniques, and procedures found in reference or tactical publications. It addresses a methodology for incorporating the four functions of information (generate, preserve, deny, project) and by extension, the information warfighting function into plans, operations, and day-to-day activities. Lastly, it presents principles for assessing successful outcomes and tools to support planners and operators alike in assessing if those activities generated the desired effects. As doctrine is authoritative and not directive, the MCWP 8-10 requires prudent judgment in its application. It is intended to provide a practical reference for all Marines to leverage the power of information to gain and maintain advantages across the spectrum of operations and activities. Additionally, it seeks to facilitate formal school programs of instruction and unit standard operating procedures to maximize the effectiveness of information activities.

General Information Activities … Presence, Posture, and Profile
A key tenet of the MCWP 8-10 is the idea that creating and maintaining information advantages are not solely the responsibility of commanders and staff but rather the total force. MCWP 8-10 identifies that all operations and activities include inherent informational aspects that must be understood, synchronized, and leveraged as an integral part of planning and operations and that all observed Marine activities can be considered consistent, inconsistent, irrelevant, or contradictory to a prevailing narrative.With this in mind, all Marines would benefit from recognizing the important role that their everyday activities, whether deployed or at their home station, play in the greater context of creating or degrading a friendly information advantage. Every action, from the mundane to the worldly, is an observable activity that communicates a message. Though not specifically stated, MCWP 8-10 conveys the idea that while it is incumbent upon leaders to ensure Marines understand the prevailing narrative, command messaging, and desired outcomes, the responsibility to ensure actions are consistent with these outcomes resides with the individual Marine.

Both individual and unit actions leverage presence, posture, and profile to convey tactical, operational, and strategic messages. These messages may influence adversary actions or strengthen relationships with friendly forces to achieve an information advantage. Presence, posture, and profile can be visualized in the following ways. Presence may be the physical act of being in a location or a virtual space (such as social media and Internet platforms). Posture may be how one presents oneself through attitude, stance, comportment, etc. Finally, profile is the representative combination of presence and profile to communicate a message to adversaries and friendly forces alike. Conveying consistent, sound, and well-planned presence, posture, and profile helps to shape an operational environment that is advantageous to friendly forces and provides commanders with operational flexibility.

Image
Figure 1. Six ITCC Phases.6 (Figure provided by author.)
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Figure 2.7 (Figure provided by author.)Planning for Information: Information Tasking and Coordination Cycle and the Information Tasking Order
A hallmark of the MCWP 8-10 is the introduction of the Information Tasking and Coordinating Cycle (ITCC) and its output, the Information Tasking and Coordinating Order (ITCO). This is the first instance of a doctrinal Marine Corps process for integrating the employment and coordination of specialized information activities and capabilities that predominantly reside in units such as the MEF Information Groups. It establishes a predictable framework for planning, executing, and assessing information activities. Through a six-phase cycle, the ITCC supports the identification of objectives and outcomes; identifies the targets and relevant actors for action; evaluates information activities or capabilities available to achieve the objectives; generates an order for the execution of information activities and tasks; allows for detailed tactical-level planning, coordination, and execution; and identifies the necessity for assessing the effectiveness of the cycle to achieve the objectives. This cycle’s products, specifically the ITCO, become the commander’s mechanism to synchronize information activities with other communities’ cycles, such as aviation, logistics, fires, and maneuver.

The ITCO is the primary product of the ITCC. It conveys all aspects of the ITCC in a product that is approved by the MEF commander. The ITCC is generally understood to be an MEF-level process. However, it can be scaled to apply at any echelon of the organization to facilitate coordination, planning, and execution of specialized information activities to achieve overall operational objectives. While the ITCO identifies those activities of an operations order (situation, mission, execution, admin and logistics and command, and control), the focal point is conveyed through the identification of information tasks. It is through these tasks that the phases of the ITCC are captured and applied to organizations and units. The execution of these tasks along with the effects and outcomes then leads to the ability to assess results and validate if desired effects were achieved.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Information Activities
MCWP 8-10 addresses one of the more difficult activities when discussing information advantage—how to assess whether actions in and through the information environment are achieving the desired outcomes or effects. Rather than an assessment methodology, MCWP 8-10 presents guiding principles that should be addressed in phase six of the ITCC, emphasizing the necessity to integrate information activities and outcomes into the planning process. Evaluating effects against relevant actor perceptions, behavior, and capabilities is seemingly more challenging than conducting a battle damage assessment of the effects of conventional fires. As such, it is imperative to identify specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) objectives while executing the first two phases of the ITCC. Objectives generated in phase one or phase two of the ITCC that inadequately address SMART criteria will lead to difficulty during phase three when planners identify capabilities to match against relevant actors and desired effects. The MCWP 8-10 suggests that when objectives follow SMART criteria for assessing effectiveness they directly lead to more valuable measures of effectiveness and measures of performance.

Conclusion
The ever-changing character of warfare requires new approaches to leverage the power of information. Gaining and maintaining an information advantage supports the other warfighting functions and Marine Corps and Joint Force operations as a whole. It accelerates the friendly command and control process to out-cycle the adversary. This translates into making quicker, more informed decisions thus increasing friendly tempo while degrading the adversary’s. MCWP 8-10 expands upon the tenets of MCDP 8 and provides Marines at all echelons of command the reference material to gain and maintain an information advantage through a practical, repeatable, and predictable framework. It delivers a functional publication for commanders, individual Marines, planners, and staff alike to leverage during planning and operations. It seeks to lay a foundation for the preparation, execution, and evaluation of all information activities thus increasing the options available to commanders in both competition and conflict. The publication of the MCWP 8-10, coupled with the MCDP 8, delivers a deliberate methodology for integrating information into all facets of warfighting to arm Marines for the challenges of current and future battlefields.


Notes

1. Scott W. Harold, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Jeffrey W. Hornung, Chinese Disinformation Efforts on Social Media (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2021).

2. Department of Defense, 2022 National Defense Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2022).

3. Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Force Design 2030: Annual Update, (Washington, DC: 2023).

4. Mark Pomerleau, “Marine Corps’ New Information Command Needs a Common Operational Picture for Digital Landscape,” Defensescoop, January 5, 2024, https://defensescoop.com/2024/01/05/marine-corps-information-command-needs-common-operational-picture-digital-landscape.

5. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCWP 8-10, Information in Marine Corps Operations, (Washington, DC: 2024).

6. MCWP 8-10, Information in Marine Corps Operations.

7. Ibid.

Fighting Smart

Information in 21st-century competition, deterrence, and warfare
>LtGen Glavy is the Deputy Commandant, Information.
>>Mr. Schaner is a retired Intelligence Officer currently serving as the Deputy Director for the Plans and Strategy Division within the Deputy Commandant for Information.

The character of warfare is changing faster than most could have imagined a decade ago. In just the last four years, Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan resumed conflict with Armenia, Hamas attacked Israel, Houthis impeded the Red Sea, and China rammed Philippine vessels in the South China Sea. These events and China’s now frequent crossing of the Taiwan Strait median line highlight just how much the world has changed in recent years. We observe from these events that the character of warfare is now faster and more connected than ever before.War remains the ultimate contest of human wills and may be long-lasting, but battlefield engagements from sensor to shooter occur faster than ever and are decided quickly by converging multi-domain effects.Kill chains are evolving into complex but resilient kill webs. State and non-state actors are building kill webs by combining readily available capabilities to improve their maturing precision-strike regimes. For state actors, this includes using widely available low-cost sensors, publicly available information, commercially available sensor data, social media, and state-owned sensor data to employ a widening array of precision stand-off weapons, ranging from low-cost unmanned aerial systems and loitering munitions to long range hypersonic and ballistic missiles.

Highly connected technologies such as social media are also fundamentally transforming the battle over narratives. From the conflicts already mentioned to numerous other potential flashpoints in East Asia, opponents in competition and conflict and their supporting public are continually bombarded with messaging through an unending stream of videos, images, and other forms of communication. This messaging is aimed at influencing the enemy to quit, or rival public to acquiesce, or both. What is at the center of all this change?

Information—and the battle to dominate with it—is fundamentally transforming the character of warfare. The side that wins both the technical and cognitive fights for information will most likely succeed in battle and win in war. Peer adversaries understand this well. They are leveraging the global proliferation of sensors, abundant data, virtually unlimited computing power, artificial intelligence, social media, and hyperconnectivity to adapt, evolve, and in some cases transform their capabilities to offset historical U.S. military advantages.3

The Marine Corps must continue to adapt to meet today’s technology-driven challenges in our highly connected world. Marines who harness information to achieve decision advantage, combine multi-domain effects, close kill webs faster than the adversary, and influence the narrative will achieve advantage in current and future warfare. The Marine Corps’ adaptation will continue by learning from current events and taking advantage of the opportunities that access to data and information provides. FMFs are doing this today through formations like the MEF Information Group and the Marine littoral regiment, among others. We must do more.

The Commandant’s Task to DC I.
In anticipation of these challenges, the Marine Corps created the Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I) position and supporting organization in 2017. The DC I organization brings together the intelligence and information warfighting functions, plus the data and communications functions, into one organization, among other changes.4 From the beginning through today, the DC I team has worked hard to:

  • Develop new doctrine including MCDP 8, Information, and MCWP 8-10, Information in Marine Corps Operations, to help institutionalize the information warfighting function.
  • Establish the Marine Corps Information Command to help Stand-in Forces (SIF) connect with the authorities and permissions they need to operate, as well as leverage intelligence community (IC) capabilities.
  • Foster the MEF Information Group’s growth from a fledgling operational unit to a fully functional command that can command and control forces across the globe.
  • Establish the Network Battalions to secure, operate, and defend the Marine Corps Enterprise Network, providing global support to our MEFs and Marine Forces.
  • Create the new 17XX information maneuver occupational field by combining cyberspace, space, and numerous legacy information operations fields into a single coherent professionalized series.
  • Implement hybrid cloud through network modernization to prepare us for artificial intelligence (AI) enabled data-centric operations.
  • Establish the Information Development Institute to provide quality training, education, and experiences for information technology, cyberspace, and the data and AI civilian workforce.

All the above are necessary footings for what is coming next.

In August 2023, Gen Smith provided guidance affirming that information plays a major role in supporting his vision for the Marine Corps’ continued evolution. Additionally, Commandant Smith’s guidance recognizes the fundamental shift in the character of warfare, and that Marines, above all else, remain at the center. Echoing Col John Boyd’s simple but time-tested wisdom of “People, Ideas, Things—in that order,” Marines remain our ultimate source of strength and advantage. So long as warfare remains a contest of human wills, Boyd’s influence on the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy discussed in MCDP 1, Warfighting, still drives us to embrace, empower, and trust the creativity and ingenuity of our Marines. Our Commandant and the DC I recognize this and will always put Marines first. We will focus on Marines and enable their creativity by giving them the data, information, and cutting-edge technologies that are available today. Empowering and trusting Marines differentiates us from all our adversaries. It is what gives us a competitive edge. Our duty is to empower and trust Marines with 21st-century capabilities—so that we can fight and win 21st-century battles.

To move us faster in this direction, the Commandant tasked the DC I team to develop a top-level vision for information in the Marine Corps. This task requires us to deliver a unified vision for how data, information, communications, intelligence, cyberspace, space, electromagnetic spectrum, and all other information-based capabilities and functions across the DC I portfolio empower Marines and contribute as an integrated whole to joint warfighting. This is no small task. To build this vision we must apply what we learned over the past several years of Force Design to help drive the next phase—force development.

What Have We Learned So Far?
The Marine Corps is transitioning from a simpler view of the battlespace organized around physical maneuver combined with supporting arms to a more sophisticated view of all-domain combined arms. While we have made great progress in this transition in recent years, trend reporting from our MAGTF Warfighting Exercises shows we have more to do.The core challenge we face is how to create and sustain the ability to close complex kill webs while preventing our adversaries from closing them on us. To meet that challenge, we must help Marines understand the role of information and how to use data to enable and support that effort. Another primary challenge is helping Marines understand they are always in a narrative battle and giving them the tools they need to successfully fight that battle. These are information problems that we can and will solve.

To achieve the above, the Marine Corps must solve several human capital issues. Putting Boyd’s philosophy of “People, Ideas, and Things—in that order” into practice, we must first address an all-Marine education and training issue. Every Marine, especially commanders, must better understand their role in data-centric operations and how to integrate and exploit information across warfighting functions. Next, the Marine Corps must fix problems related to the development and retention of Marines and civilians serving in the information-related fields. These problems range from lack of specialization in essential high-demand, low-density skills to career stagnation and inefficient utilization. Additionally, the Marine Corps must overcome similar problems in producing and retaining sufficient personnel in the intelligence occupational fields.

The Marine Corps is not maximizing the use of data to empower people and help them make decisions. While data is at the root of all Marine Corps functions, missions, and activities, the Marine Corps’ data is not currently organized, structured, governed, processed, and presented in a way that allows for effective use or decision making. This suboptimal use of data puts Marines in a situation of seeking information-based advantages through constant trade-offs among data, intelligence, and communications needs. Until such time as we finally synchronize “information” into a single unifying concept that integrates these areas along with cyber and space, the Marine Corps will continue to fall short.

With respect to intelligence, the findings of force design-related analysis, wargames, and exercises match observations of the contemporary operating environment: winning the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance (RXR) fight is critical. The Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISR-E) must continue to modernize to anticipate and stay ahead of changes in the environment to enable Marines to win the RXR fight as part of joint competing and warfighting. The MCISR-E must incorporate the use of data and information technologies that enable rapid sense-making of large, multi-disciplinary data sets and intelligence feeds, as well as software-defined two-way connectivity across the Marine Corps and to the Joint Force and IC.

In a highly connected two-way data-centric environment the exquisite capabilities of the IC are instantly available, globally. The findings show a need to leverage this connectivity to enable SIF to not only be the eyes and ears of the Joint Force but also the IC. In response to this need, the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Information Command to tie the SIF closer to the IC and global combatant commanders like CYBERCOM and SPACECOM. This connection crucially enables mutually supporting relationships between the SIF and combatant commanders—allowing for the exchange of data, authorities, and permissions, as well as using placement and access to generate effects.

We have learned a great deal from current events and the Marine Corps’ collective campaign of learning. We must now capitalize on what we have learned to continue improving.

Toward a Unified Vision for Information.
The diverse functions and capabilities within the DC I portfolio exist to help Marines and the Marine Corps gain or exploit some kind of information-based advantage or effect. The Commandant’s task to create a unified vision for information is a task to help him organize, train, and equip the Marine Corps to harness the power of information and technology for the purpose of gaining and exploiting information-based advantages and effects. This is the basis for “fighting smart” as a unified vision—a vision that draws directly from the last sentences of MCDP 1, Warfighting, which state: “Maneuver warfare is a way of thinking in and about war that should shape our every action … [it] is a philosophy for generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves—a philosophy for ‘fighting smart.’”6

How do Marines fight smart in the 21st century? How do Marines develop insight, leverage their imagination, and innovate to adapt to disruptive environments? How does the institution deliver cutting-edge technologies to turn data and information into tactical advantages and combat power? How do Marines use these advantages to out-think, out-compete, and out-fight the adversary? These are some of the fundamental questions Fighting Smart will answer.

To build toward this vision and answer these fundamental questions, the Marine Corps must close gaps associated with the Commandant’s priorities of peoplereadiness, and modernization. Concerning people and readiness, we must educate and train individual Marines to know what to do with information and their role in using it effectively, and then match people to billets to take maximum advantage of their skills and available technologies. This includes integrating individual talent into realistic and challenging unit training. This combination enables a data-centric approach to operations. Commanders and Marines at all levels benefit from their ability to make better and faster decisions than the adversary, and their ability to manipulate or deny information to the adversary in ways that maintain or increase warfighting advantages.

With respect to modernization, we must improve our ability to combine all available data using advanced technologies to move relevant and trusted information in a timely manner—this makes distributed operations possible, as well as all domain RXR through a modernized MCISR-E. Additionally, combining all available data enables ally, partner, and Joint Force integration into all-domain combined arms to close joint and combined kill webs, which greatly increases the potential dilemmas Marines can create for their adversaries. To accomplish this, the Marine Corps must develop an organizing concept and formations that integrate signals intelligence, electromagnetic spectrum operations, and cyberspace operations.

To leverage data for battlefield advantages, the Marine Corps must learn from current events where adaptability through rapidly engineering software applications and data solutions at the point of need has proved advantageous. The 18th Airborne Corps provides a prime example, demonstrating the effectiveness of deploying a skilled team of software coders and engineers to dynamically create data solutions that support evolving missions and the commander’s need for information. Our MEF commanders should possess similar capabilities.

Toward a Fighting Smart Institution
Service leaders and staff can also fight smart by modernizing to support institutional operations. Leaders and staff at all levels benefit from their ability to organize, structure, govern, and process data in ways that allow for effective use and decision making. Modernizing data-centric operations at the institutional level would greatly improve institutional planning; force design and development; acquisition; budgeting; recruiting and retention; assignments; training and education; force generation and employment; posture decisions; strategic communication, and installations and logistics planning.

Fighting Smart applies to all Marines, emphasizing the instant and interconnected global nature of the information environment. It underscores the visibility and potential consequences of actions and words by all, including civilian Marines and support contractors. Achieving a unified information vision necessitates practicing information discipline—maintaining professionalism and awareness that every word and action is visible globally. This recognition can either enhance or hinder the Marine Corps’ reputational narrative, affecting public perceptions both domestically and internationally.7

To continue the Marine Corps’ evolution, we must also implement changes to how we conduct defense acquisitions. Marines recognize the need to go faster, with operational commanders using O&M dollars to acquire capabilities. External leaders and Congress have long called for changes. Marine Corps Systems Command recently reorganized to enhance acquisitions, but more work remains. The Commission on Defense Innovation and Adoption, in its January 2024 publication, underscores the urgent need to swiftly adopt cutting-edge technologies from commercial and defense sectors. Doing so will enable the timelier delivery of high-impact solutions to the warfighter.8

This necessitates a fundamental shift in focus within our programs of record to emphasize software requirements over hardware. This shift also requires our programs to allow for rapid software modifications and updates to ensure our warfighters can maintain a competitive advantage by fusing and correlating data to drive decisions, actions, and outcomes. Organizations like the Marine Corps Software Factory are designed to support and enable rapid software development. Fighting Smart will identify necessary actions to steer the Marine Corps toward crucial reforms in requirements development and acquisitions, as well as in providing software development support to FMF.

Where Are We Headed?
Fighting Smart is a way of operating that turns data and information into combat power by enabling Marines to make better decisions at a faster pace than their adversary while using data as an asset that makes all-domain command and control and combined arms more effective. To take full advantage of this operating method, the Marine Corps needs to educate and train its people in how to create and sustain it. Every operating approach relies on skilled people to make it work—Fighting Smart is no different. Marines must know how to get the most from data to make it effective.

Fighting Smart will look familiar to most Marines. It will read like other major Service-level initiatives (e.g., talent management) that were developed over the last several years. However, a key difference is that Fighting Smart will relate to and enable these other initiatives, especially the Commandant’s three major priorities mentioned above. Additionally, Fighting Smart will establish directed actions and areas requiring further study within specific focus areas. In the current draft, these areas include mobilizing talent, achieving data-centricity, modernizing the MCISR-E, and enabling 21st-century combined arms. Fighting Smart is expected to be published in June 2024.

Conclusion
Fighting Smart represents an expanding opportunity for 21st-century combined arms, extending beyond traditional domains to include space, cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the information environment. It embodies converging effects from multiple domains to drive advantages and outcomes. Taking Boyd’s philosophy to heart, people and their ideas, empowered by data and technology, are at the center of Fighting Smart. It is Marines, not technology, who will ultimately maintain the Marine Corps’ competitive edge. Future success demands data-literate training, including AI/ML training within applicable areas of the Marine Corps. Fleet Marine Forces and the supporting establishment require a workforce with specialized skillsets for improved decision making.

People empowered by data are also central to modernizing the MCISR-E. Modernization and Joint Force relevancy require the Marine Corps to function as an RXR force in both competition and conflict, engaging in a daily fight for information and influence. Modernizing the MCISR-E is essential to help close kill webs, which makes 21st-century combined arms possible. A modernized MCISRE also helps create decision advantage and Joint Force resiliency as well as supports understanding and competing in the battle for narratives.

Achieving the above hinges on empowering people with data, providing necessary education and training, and enhancing the institution’s speed in delivering data-centric capabilities. Fighting Smart serves as a blueprint for the Marine Corps’ evolution in the technology-driven, highly connected world, addressing the need for organizational adaptability to meet modern challenges and reduce the warfighter’s operational risks.


Notes

1. John Antal, “The First War Won Primarily with Unmanned Systems, Ten Lessons from the Ngorno-Krabakh War,” Madscriblog, April 1, 2021, https://madsciblog.tradoc.army.mil/317-top-attack-lessons-learned-from-the-second-nagorno-karabakh-war.

2. Ibid.

3. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Final Report: National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, (Washington, DC: 2021).

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Bulletin 5400, Establishment of the Deputy Commandant for Information, (Washington, DC: 2017).

5. Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Marine Air Ground Combat Center, Final Exercise Report for MAGTF Warfighting Exercise 2-23, (Twentynine Palms: 2023).

6. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997).

7. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 8, Information, (Washington, DC: 2022).

8. Atlantic Council, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Commission on Defense Innovation and Adoption, Final Report, (Washington, DC: 2024).

The Role of Logistics in Deterrence

Facing a peer competitor
>LtCol Gillett is Combat Engineer Officer who is currently assigned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a CMC Fellow. He was previously assigned to 3d MLG, III MEF as the Commanding Officer of 9th Engineer Support Battalion.

 

The most pronounced strategic military impact of the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union on the United States was the shift from maritime, air, and space superiority to one of supremacy. Multi-domain supremacy ushered in a period where the United States sat at the apex of a unipolar global system defined by an absence of existential security threats and a lack of comparable nation-state competitors, which led to a focus on crisis response and irregular warfare. In the last decade, the rise of regional challengers in Europe and the Pacific ended America’s “unipolar moment” of unilateral military supremacy.Strategically, this shift caused a reassessment of military strategy, organization, and doctrine and reoriented strategic policy from an exclusive focus on expeditionary deterrence to a more traditional balance between expeditionary response and nation-state deterrence. In the case of the Pacific, the United States faces an adversary with the capability to disrupt, deter, and limit the United States’ military effectiveness while offsetting other elements of national power that have been foundational to America’s grand strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union.2

The United States military is in an inter-war period that, like the 1930s pre-World War II era and 1945 to 1949 pre-Cold War era, is focused on developing capabilities necessary to meet global and regional challenges. Modernization has rightly focused on command and control, intelligence, fires, and maneuver in developing a force capable of deterring challenges to the status quo, providing flexible options for crisis response, and, if necessary, defeating an adversary in conflict.Though there has been substantive progress in the development of these capabilities, recent calls from Marine Corps and Joint Force senior leadership for modernizing the joint logistics enterprise reflects an acknowledgment that a relative combat power gap exists between strategic ways and means due to an inability to deliver and sustain capability in uncertain or hostile environments.4

Logistics modernization through investments in contested logistics and a global positioning network offers a measurable means to influence and deter peer adversary activities in the region by reinforcing strategic perceptions of credible military capability while demonstrating commitment to the defense of regional allies and partners.Logistics forces have the organic means to be a decisive capability in maintaining operational access and generating flexible response options in a competitive campaign against a capable nation-state actor. The artful application of the functions of logistics, fused with other joint capabilities, offers opportunities to conduct operations that can persist, shape, and deter without the escalatory signaling associated with the deployment of kinetic capabilities. The non-escalatory, dual purpose, and soft power nature of logistics in competition offers latent deterrence options that have been undervalued in the era of expeditionary deterrence but are critical to future strategic and operational success because the presumption of uncontested operational access to a crisis area has been directly challenged creating substantive strategic risk.

This article advocates that logistics forces bring credibility to general and immediate deterrence by ensuring that military forces deployed in response to a crisis have the speed, endurance, and capability to influence an adversary’s risk calculations, reinforcing strategic signaling. Additionally, logistics forces provide unique dual-purpose capabilities that reinforce the application of other strategic tools and build relationships with allies and partners in a manner that makes the United States the partner of choice with domestic audiences.

Logistics in Immediate Deterrence
United States’ strategic deterrence failed in March 1950 with Joseph Stalin’s communication to North Korean Kim II Sung, “The Soviet Union has decided also to satisfy fully this request (invasion of South Korea) of yours.”6 This approval ultimately resulted in the North Korean invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950 and was based on the perception that in the unlikely event that the United States responded to the invasion, there would be insufficient time, based on United States military capability, to stop the North Korean offensive and was thus the invasion was a perceived fait accompli.7

Conversely, the United States achieved strategic success during Operation Vigilant Warrior in 1994 because of a three-year investment in regional forward operating sites and cooperative security locations facilitated by low visibility and persistent deployments of support forces. These investments resulted in the development of mature infrastructure and robust regional stocks that were supported by the appropriate experts to operationalize those capabilities in crisis.These factors directly enabled the deployment and in-theater equipping of 4,000 combat troops in two days, with a further 36,000 moving to the region within three days, in response to the movement of two Iraqi Republican Guard Divisions to the Kuwaiti border. The speed of the response, compared to the 30 days for deployment required during the Gulf War, surprised Saddam Hussein and was the “primary source of U.S. deterrent power” in coercing, through signals, Iraqi withdrawal and de-escalation.9

Since 1945, the United States has been strategically involved in 368 international crisis events that met three criteria in the International Crisis Behavior database:

  1. A threat to one or more basic values;
  2. An awareness of finite time for response to a value threat, and
  3. A heightened probability of involvement in military hostilities.10

In 52 cases, the United States overtly deployed conventional military forces with the result of de-escalation or termination of the crisis in 73 percent of cases, escalation of the crisis in 15 percent of cases, and no definitive impact on the crisis in 11 percent of cases.

While speed is relative to the perceived threat and the rate at which a crisis unfolds, time is a finite and decisive resource in crisis response. On average, the speed at which forces were deployed from the initiation of the crisis to the first arrival of forces into the crisis area, using the International Crisis Behavior database, was 35.15 days for crises that resulted in de-escalation. In contrast, the speed of the crisis deployment was 57 days for cases that resulted in escalation.11 These findings, combined with historical case studies, indicate that speed is an unambiguous tool to signal capability and credibility. Furthermore, a critical enabler to facilitate speed is investment in strategic transportation, regional infrastructure, and regional pre-positioning as was demonstrated in the dataset by a mean speed of 48.71 days for deployments to immature theaters as compared with a mean of 14.88 days to a mature theater where personnel, infrastructure, and pre-positioned stocks were available in the crisis region.12 Thus, in all 52 cases, previous investments in transportation, pre-positioning, and forward positioning provided the foundation that enabled or inhibited the composition, speed, and influenced the credibility of crisis deployments.13

A robust sustainment network signals credible capability to an adversary and credible commitment to allies and partners. A crisis scenario in the Western Pacific would likely require forward forces to disperse regionally to act as the stand-in force until reinforced through global deployments.14 Based on current forces in the area, forward-positioned ground forces will require initial transportation of between 27,000 and 36,000 tons of personnel, equipment, and supplies regionally.15 Following dispersal, these forces would require between 300 and 600 tons of fuel, water, food, and ammunition daily for ground forces, with an additional 2,500 to 3,500 tons, mainly fuel and ammunition, required daily for aviation formations.16 The additional strain placed on strategic and operational transportation assets, moving forces, equipment, and supplies to reinforce the region magnifies the significance of logistical requirements. A significant crisis deployment from the continental United States, using five divisions and ten air wings as a baseline, would require the movement of roughly one million tons and would require, given optimal conditions, one month or more to complete.17

Logistics investments in general deterrence proportionally reduce, but do not eliminate, the strain on strategic and operational transportation systems in crisis through pre-positioning and forward positioning. Infrastructure, supply, equipment, and sustainment investments in volatile regions allow for the rapid deployment of credible forces that arrive with the necessary support to endure and deter immediately, increasing strategic credibility in crisis. Additionally, the proportional reduction of strategic transportation requirements transitions deployments in mature regions from expeditionary response to conventional strategic response where the threat and an adversary’s access to maritime, air, and space domains is at risk, improving the deterrence credibility and capability and reducing the probability of escalation.

Perceptions of Military Credibility and Capability
A lack of investment in sustainment creates a strategic and operational capability and credibility gap in the Western Pacific, undermining deterrence. A 2023 study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies reveals a series of salient tensions in response to a Taiwan scenario that presents significant risks in escalation and conflict. The two most significant findings related to logistics were the United States must respond rapidly and with its full capabilities to prevent Taiwan from falling, and movement of the intra-theater lift of forces, equipment, and supplies became untenable based on China’s anti-access capabilities early in the conflict, resulting in an abrupt reduction in the capability of combat forces.18 Thus, speed and endurance are two significant factors in the credibility of deterrence and effectiveness in combat against a peer adversary and are qualities that are directly shaped by logistics posture.

Investment in logistics modernization and capabilities in strategically contested regions offers a means to provide latent deterrence through the placement of multipurpose capabilities, which can be overt or concealed, and enhance capability across the spectrum of conflict without the impediment of being explicitly threatening or escalatory.19 The Joint Force has already begun this process through investments such as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative allotment of three and a half billion dollars into the development of main operating bases and the one-hundred-million-dollar investment in Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites in the Philippines.20 However, these investments provide a linear capability that does not align with the envisioned network and require operational and tactical investments to create a multi-tiered strategic and operational mosaic.21

Forward positioning of logistics forces and investments in a distributed network offers a means to reduce the initial burden on transportation networks during crisis deployments, increasing the speed of the deployment and thus bringing credibility to strategic signals. While agreements with partners and allies will not afford unfettered access, investments reduce transportation requirements, generate flexibility, and provide endurance that is not solely dependent on strategic and operational transportation capabilities.

Support to Allies and Partners
The Marine Corps stand-in-force concept emphasizes the necessity for a persistent presence in a contested area to disrupt an adversary in competition and form the “leading edge of a maritime defense in depth” in crisis and conflict.22 Access to contested areas is the core of the concept, with the most significant assumption being that political elites and populations of allied and partner nations will permit access to sovereign territories. Historically, the success or failure of basing agreements with allies depends on available resources, shared threat perceptions, and the cost to political leaders by the domestic audiences.23 Tactical formations offer a means to provide access by leveraging capabilities that do not present a similar threat perception, compared to traditional combat formations, to domestic and international audiences, enabling persistent access to locations inaccessible to other conventional formations.

Domestic audiences will fundamentally view infrastructure construction and repair, medical and dental services, water production and distribution, transportation, and other capabilities differently than combat formations and thus offer alternative and multi-functional solutions in developing agreements. For example, the April 2023 United States-Philippine bilateral announcement of four additional Enhanced Cooperation Agreement sites drew domestic condemnation, leading to statements by senior Philippine officials that the bases would be used primarily for logistics support.24 While a review of 1,430 media reports from February 2023 to August 2023 related to United States-Philippine agreements and regional geopolitical conditions reveals a balanced domestic debate, statements and reporting by leaders indicate that capabilities that are directly applicable to such military operations as humanitarian assistance and natural disaster response stimulates an alternative narrative and represent an opportunity to align operational and strategic ways, means, and ends.

Implications to the Logistics Enterprise
Campaigning. Nested with stand-in force and Joint Force requirements, logistics forces link campaign phases by providing a persistent presence that builds, maintains, and supports strategic and operational investments. Construction of infrastructure by engineers, embedding medical personnel in host nation hospitals, and maintaining stocks and equipment intended to provide responsiveness to natural and man-made disasters all represent activities that facilitate speed and capability in crisis response, bring credibly to strategic signals, and reinforce relationships with allies and partners across a range of time horizons.

General Support in Competition. Establishing a global and regional network to support operations in competition, crisis, and conflict is beyond the organic capabilities of combat formations. In order to build a regional capability that is adaptive, nested, and credible, logistics must evolve from a traditional focus of providing direct support for operations, investments, and activities to one of general support focused on persistent forward presence and increasing regional capacity. The logistics enterprise has a responsibility for the maintenance, development, and operation of main operating bases as key nodes; however, the development and operation of forward operating sites and cooperative security locations will play a critical role in evolving the logistics network from a linear and inflexible network to one that is multi-dimensional, resilient, and diverse. This requires an evolution in logistics formation’s doctrinal employment in competition.

Prioritization of Effectiveness over Efficiency. Effective deterrence requires a degree of risk in the allocation of finite resources. Developing a logistics network requires investment in nodes that may never be employed, where partner policies and strategic priorities change, resulting in expansion or reduction in access, or where elements of the network are out of position in the transition from general to immediate deterrence. However, the most significant risk to the credibility and capability of the joint force is a lack of investment, leading to strategic insolvency. Tactical and operational logistics formations are crucial in limiting risk by shaping through sustained investment while providing strategic flexibility in a crisis.

Conclusion
The employment of logistics forces directly imparts credibility and capability to strategic deterrence through both latent and active capabilities. Logistics and sustainment are essential to deterrence, crisis response, and the effectiveness of operational command and control, fires, intelligence, and maneuver capabilities. Fundamentally, logistics formations bring credibility to strategic signaling in general deterrence and enable tactical and operational effectiveness in crisis and conflict only through investment in competition.

Joint logistics formations’ primary task in the Pacific must be establishing, developing, and sustaining a multi-nodal, distributed network that is ruthlessly opportunistic in the application of engineering, maintenance, supply, transportation, medical, and other logistics functions. Even in competition, opportunities will be fleeting, and a force with the dexterity, creativity, and resources to exploit opportunities will be the force with the initiative and credibility in competition.

Logistics forces offer an optimal and uniquely postured capacity to facilitate access through organic capabilities, enhance perceptions of America’s commitment to allies and partners, challenge the adversary’s core deterrence calculus, and build credible capability into contingencies by enabling crisis deployment speed and endurance. Strategic transportation is finite, and every cubic foot of food, water, building materials, maintenance parts, and other supplies, forward-positioned or pre-positioned, reduces competition in the movement and sustainment of decisive capabilities in crisis and combat.


Notes

1. Barry R. Posen, “From Unipolarity to Multipolarity: Transition in Sight?” in International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

2. The White House, National Security Strategy, (Washington, DC: 2022).

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: 2022).

4. Staff, “A Conversation with General David Berger, Washington, DC,” Brookings Institute, May 23, 2023, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/fp_20230523_usmc_berger_transcript.pdf; Richard R. Burgess, “USMC Calls for GPN,” Seapower, February 23, 2023, https://seapowermagazine.org/usmc-calls-for-gpn; and Jen Judson, “U.S. Army Has a ‘Gigantic Problem’ with Logistics in the Indo-Pacific,” Defense News, March 29, 2023, https://www.defensenews.com/land/2023/03/29/us-army-has-a-gigantic-problem-with-logistics-in-the-indo-pacific.

5. Kristen Gunness, Bryan Frederick, Timothy R. Heath, Emily Ellinger, Christian Curriden, Nathan Chandler, Bonny Lin, James Benkowski, Bryan Rooney, Cortez A. Cooper III, Cristina L. Garafola, Paul Orner, Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey W. Hornung, and Erik E. Mueller, Anticipating Chinese Reactions to U.S. Posture Enhancements, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2022), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1581-1.html.

6. Allan Reed Millet, The War for Korea, 1950–1951: They Came from the North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010).

7. Jonathan Mercer, “Emotion and Strategy in the Korean War,” International Organization 67, No. 2 (2013).

8. Seth G. Jones and Seamus P. Daniels, “U.S. Defense Posture in the Middle East,” CSIS, 2022, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/220519_Jones_USDefensePosture_MiddleEast_0.pdf?VersionId=60gG7N1_4FxFA6CNgJKAbr24zmsKXhwx.

9. W. Eric Herr, “Operational Vigilant Warrior: Conventional Deterrence Theory, Doctrine, and Practice,” (thesis, School of Advanced Air Studies, 1996).

10. Michael Brecher, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Kyle Beardsley, Patrick James, and David Quinn, “International Crisis Behavior Data Codebook, Version 15,” ICB Project, 2023, http://sites.duke.edu/icbdata/data-collections.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, “The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan,” CSIS International Security Program, 2023, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/230109_Cancian_FirstBattle_NextWar.pdf?VersionId=WdEUwJYWIySMPIr3ivhFolxC_gZQuSOQ.

15. Gordon I. Button, J. Riposo, I. Blickstein, and P.A. Wilson, Warfighting and Logistic Support of Joint Forces from the Joint Sea Base (Santa Monica: RAND, 2007).

16. Ibid.

17. Michael O’Hanlon, The Science of War: Defense Budgeting, Military Technology, Logistics, and Combat Outcomes (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009).

18. “The First Battle of the Next War.”

19. Kristen Gunness, Bryan Frederick, Timothy R. Heath, Emily Ellinger, Christian Curriden, Nathan Chandler, Bonny Lin, James Benkowski, Bryan Rooney, Cortez A. Cooper III, Cristina L. Garafola, Paul Orner, Karl P. Mueller, Jeffrey W. Hornung, and Erik E. Mueller, Anticipating Chinese Reactions to U.S. Posture Enhancements (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2022), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1581-1.html. Also available in print form.

20. Department of Defense, “Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” OUSD, March 3, 2023, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/FY2024/FY2024_Pacific_Deterrence_Initiative.pdf; and Staff, “Fact Sheet: U.S.- Philippines 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue,” Department of Defense, April 11, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3359459/fact-sheet-us-philippines-22-ministerial-dialogue.

21. Headquarters Marine Corps, Installations and Logistics 2030, (Washington, DC: 2023).

22. Headquarters Marine Corps, A Concept for Stand-in Forces, (Washington, DC: 2021).

23. Bryan Frederick, Stephen Watts, Matthew Lane, Abby Doll, Ashley L. Rhoades, and Meagan L. Smith, Understanding the Deterrent Impact of U.S. Overseas Forces, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2020).

24. Staff, “Marcos: PH Won’t Allow Use of EDCA Sites for Offensive Operations,” CNN, April 10, 2023, https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2023/4/10/marcos-edca-sites-not-for-offensive-operations.html.

Leveraging Logistics above the MAGTF

The Joint Logistics Enterprise
>Col Angell is a Logistics Officer currently assigned as the Director, Logistics Combat Element Division within Headquarters Marine Corps, Combat Development and Integration.
>>Mr. Schouten is a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel who has helped update and refine doctrine, publications, and strategic guidance for logistics within the Marine Corps, to include the update to MCDP 4.

 

Marines traditionally focus on the tactical level of warfare. The FMF is a tactical fighting force—always ready to fight and win. Yet, the reach of our FMF depends on the naval and joint logistics enterprise (JLEnt) to get us to the fight and enable the force to persist in a contested environment. The rise of precision and long-range strike capabilities within the arsenals of our Nation’s adversaries changes the logistics calculus at all levels of warfare. The ability to effectively strike U.S. installations, ships, and aircraft almost anywhere in the world using all-domain capabilities means enemies can actively attack the military logistics system in depth. The Marine Corps must account for these attacks in ways not truly considered since World War II.

The JLEnt, and particularly the Navy in the maritime environment, provides the mission-critical operational and strategic-enabling capabilities for the Marine Corps to operate in any clime and place. In an increasingly contested environment, Marines must closely manage logistics posture and maximize resources to gain an operational advantage. Understanding how logistics above the tactical-level impacts operations is key to ensuring forces have feasible plans with resilient forces to ensure tactical success. Marines must be deliberate in taking steps to understand and leverage operational and strategic logistics capabilities to ensure the force can persist in the contested environments that we are already operating in today.

Operational Logistics for Marines
Operational logistics (OpLog) enables campaigns by linking the strategic means of war to its tactical employment in a specified geographic area. OpLog is inherently a Joint Force effort because of the direct relationship to theater posture and campaign plans managed by the respective theater geographic combatant commander. Logistics at this level includes setting the theater with forces, footprints, and agreements to ensure the supplies and associated distribution systems are appropriately postured to support campaigning as well as the rapid transition to crisis or conflict. Among many organizations conducting OpLog, some of the most significant are the Army Theater Sustainment Command, the Navy Fleet Logistics Centers, and the forward footprint of the Defense Logistics Agency. Logistics professionals are those who can effectively plan, collaborate, and orchestrate these OpLog capabilities across the competition continuum.1

Today, forces will have to fight to get to the fight through a contested environment. Historically, the Marine Corps has had the task of seizing and defending advanced naval bases. These advanced naval bases and expeditionary advanced bases are necessary to sustain the force in the fight. Just as in World War II, Marines will not be given the luxury of permissive port offloads, unfettered aviation operations, and iron mountains of supplies. These realities drastically impact the sustainment options available to commanders. Feasible battle plans in contested environments require intimate knowledge of how forces can be positioned, resourced, and sustained over time. Understanding the challenges and opportunities of OpLog helps commanders make viable plans and maximizes options for the force. This applies to the logistics capabilities within the FMF as well as the theater and local resources that can be made available.

Marine forces may also be assigned a role in executing limited OpLog tasks, particularly in contested environments. Forces and other resources must be dedicated to managing and preserving advanced bases and transportation assets that create theater distribution systems. Of note, advanced bases are key nodes in theater distribution systems, which may include permanent main operating bases or temporary advanced naval bases and expeditionary advanced bases. These locations are each critical nodes in the theater sustainment web that must be staffed and resourced to both meet the needs of the forward force and create resiliency of the base to take a hit and keep on operating. Marine forces will be expected to contribute to operating and defending advanced bases across vast operating areas, at remote locations, or in immature theaters that other forces cannot access. For example, the size and maritime nature of the Pacific Ocean may exceed the capabilities of the Theater Sustainment Command and require Marine Corps investment and reinforcement in specified locations to support joint forces. Conversely, a naval expeditionary force (Navy and Marine team) may be the first available force capable of reaching objective areas where there are no joint capabilities and sparse infrastructure to provide OpLog support to special forces or joint aviation platforms.

Strategic Logistics for Marines
Strategic logistics (StratLog) provides the Joint Force with the means of war by providing the resources needed to conduct campaigns. This includes getting to the fight and feeding the theater network from global sources. Logistics at this level focuses on installations, acquisition and procurement, enterprise inventory management, global health services management, strategic lift, and large-scale mobilization. Many StratLog functions are conducted by designated agencies and organizations to support the entire Defense Department, such as U.S. Transportation Command’s role as in providing strategic lift or inter-theater transportation. Additionally, each Service headquarters manages StratLog functions associated with manning, training, and equipping the force to fight. Marines that participate in StratLog efforts harness global resources, increase JLEnt interoperability, and facilitate naval expeditionary operations over broad time horizons.2

Most StratLog is performed by organizations outside of the Marine Corps, yet Marines influence these global resources. Marines develop requirements and inform solutions to ensure Marine Corps warfighting equities are accounted for in operational planning as well as long-term institutional planning. This coordination involves identifying capability and capacity requirements that drive investment in strategic lift capabilities (ships and aircraft) as well as the necessary infrastructure to sustain the force globally. It also involves providing input to policies that impact Marines globally, such as force health protection policies established by the Defense Health Agency. StratLog capabilities from outside of the Marine Corps are critical for ensuring Marine Corps forces have global reach and sustaining power.

The Marine Corps has StratLog capabilities and uses staffs balanced with FMF-experienced Marines and business-experienced civilians to drive programs across the Service every day. While most of these capabilities are not directly tied to the Marine Corps Task List, these are all mission-critical pillars required to build and sustain Marine Corps expeditionary lethality. These capabilities include installations management across 25 bases and stations, the acquisition and lifecycle sustainment of all weapons systems, and the global inventory positioning to maintain a balance between enterprise force readiness and prepositioning programs for global responsiveness and integrated deterrence. Each of these Marine Corps StratLog capabilities aligns with discreet regulations, and they are all mutually supporting to provide Marine forces ready to fight.

How to Improve Marine Corps OpLog and StratLog Awareness and Execution
OpLog and StratLog are critically important to tactical success and the long-term health of Marine Corps forces. Marines must learn to effectively leverage the Marine Corps StratLog capabilities and the JLEnt to ensure the FMF is maintained at a high state of readiness and globally responsive. Changes in organization, doctrine, and talent management will provide necessary enhancements to transform enterprise resources to FMF lethality and adaptability. The following are four specific recommendations.

First, include OpLog and StratLog issues in Service-level exercises and wargames. Marines have been reluctant to explore force closure and protracted sustainment issues because these operational challenges often come at the cost of tactical readiness objectives. This tendency is out of balance because tactical prowess is irrelevant for a force that cannot get to the fight or lacks the material to endure over time. OpLog and StratLog issues are also often disregarded because they are the responsibilities of agencies outside of the Marine Corps. However, not incorporating realistic theater and global logistics challenges to sustaining Marine Corps employment concepts dismisses fundamental problems that should be addressed prior to conflict. These types of rehearsals can form the foundation for Service requirements and capability gaps.

Second, analyze, assess, and inform the organization and resourcing of Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine component commands, and the supporting establishment that relate to the execution of OpLog and StratLog. Understanding how these organizations relate to force generation, force deployment, force closure, and force sustainment is crucial to informing the level of investment and risk the Marine Corps should take. Current and emergent discussions regarding integrated deterrence, operating across the competition continuum, and contested logistics are relevant for the FMF today and tomorrow. These discussions inform Service-level decision making regarding roles, relationships, and resources across the Marine Corps and the JLEnt. Changes in how other agencies and Services intend to overcome the challenges of great-power competition require coordination for adjusted relationships between organizations.3 Reviewing how the Marine Corps Installations and Logistics Enterprise conducts OpLog and StratLog functions may result in better equipment, resource efficiencies, and improved alignment and interoperability throughout the Joint Force.

Third, capture OpLog and StratLog definitions, relationships, and activities in Marine Corps doctrine to ensure this understanding endures. A consolidated reference for OpLog and StratLog can make issues more accessible to Marines much like MCWP 3-40.8, Componency, describes Marine Corps integration into Joint Force operations. Currently, logistics at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels are addressed differently across various publications and require updates to capture what has been observed through the Force Design Campaign of Learning. Taking inventory of applicable publications and then prioritizing sequenced efforts to update these publications is necessary. These are the publications that tie to Marine Corps training and education programs, and these publications are what Marines leverage as guides to effectively sustain forces in the most challenging operating environments. While updating publications does not seem like an impactful activity, these changes are necessary to ensure lessons from the past and present are carried into the future.

Lastly, invest in long-term talent management efforts to develop and assign the right individuals for critical enterprise logistics positions. In comparison to the vast manpower requirements across the FMF, billets within Marine Corps and JLEnt organizations that conduct OpLog and StratLog activities are limited. Further, few Marines directly engage with OpLog and StratLog activities, and those that do, typically gain this experience near the end of their respective careers. Notably, these few Marines have a disproportionate impact on setting the force and setting the theater for warfighting readiness and battlefield success. Many of these billets also require highly specialized training and education in acquisitions, contracting, environmental management, or land management, all of which may pull Marines away from the traditional career paths related to their primary military occupational specialties. Navigating career paths that balance FMF experience and these OpLog and StratLog skills requires attention at the individual level to align education, fellowships, and assignments. To ensure the Marine Corps remains competent and current, identifying and investing in manpower to take on these OpLog and StratLog billets is critical.

Summary
The Marine Corps is a tactical fighting force that thrusts forward from a foundation of operational and strategic logistics capabilities. Marines must master their understanding of these capabilities to ensure the Marine Corps has the operational reach to be a global expeditionary force. The more that Marines learn early how the entire JLEnt gets them to the fight and sustains them in the fight, the more they will understand what is possible in combat. Additionally, some Marines will be assigned the responsibility to conduct and provide oversight of OpLog and StratLog. This is particularly relevant for Marines involved in force generation and force deployment from homestation and then force closure and force reconstitution in the theater of operations. It is necessary to enrich our best Marines today with this understanding before they are assigned to positions where they will influence and be in charge of setting the theater to achieve campaign success. Every Marine must remain tactically competent, yet the more Marines understand the operational and strategic-level sinews of war, the more ready Marines will be to fight and win.


Notes

1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 4, Logistics, (Washington, DC: 2023).

2. Ibid.

3. Examples include the transition of responsibilities between Defense Logistics Agency and Transportation Command, Army cross-functional teams, the Navy’s Transforming Logistics for Great Power Competition, and Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21 “Agile Combat Employment.”