Adapting in Stride: Fighting Tomorrow’s Battle Today
Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in our “Next War” series. The article is a contribution from a deployed unit, the Marines in Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, “Ripper.”
Somewhere in the Middle East, a marine from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, a unit known as the “Ripper,” stares anxiously across the six hundred meters of no man’s land towards the far berm. A friendly convoy of white Toyota pickups speeds toward his position. Suddenly, a shockwave reverberates in his head. Behind the vehicles, a fireball rises from the civilian camp on the other side of the berm. As the black smoke billows, the marine grabs the tablet he keeps in the guard tower and texts the quick reaction force. The Special Forces team in the Toyota convoy is returning to their isolated outpost guarded by marines, but they are not alone.
As the quick reaction force exits the forward operating base in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicles to block the Islamic element in pursuit, a swarm of eight quadcopters comes over the berm behind the friendly convoy. Too small and moving too fast to engage with small arms, the marine zooms in on his tablet and snaps a few pictures of the swarm. Quickly, he forwards them across SEVENet, a communications network, to the Special Forces convoy. They have seen these models before. The quadcopters are carrying 40-millimeter grenades, but are susceptible to electronic attack. Luckily, a portable jamming device carried by the marines stops the quadcopters from electronically detonating as they fly past the camp.
Readjusting their equipment in the bed of their pickup, the Special Forces team continues jamming the quadcopters. Simultaneously, the quick reaction force launches their 3D-printed Nibbler drones toward the swarm. The portable jamming device can degrade its guidance system, while the Nibblers will defeat preprogrammed drones headed for the outpost. Suddenly, the enemy swarm starts to founder and break formation. Some quadcopters prematurely drop their ordnance. Fortunately, the returning Special Forces team is traveling light: they were gone for five weeks, but with their ability to live off the land, access distributed resupply, and utilize atmospheric water condensers, their pickups easily evade the degraded swarm.
With the threat neutralized, the marine looks up to see a fighter jet patrolling overhead. It is the middle of the afternoon and the cold, clear January sky is teeming with aircraft that just witnessed the entire engagement. The fighter jet diverts and heads back to base. The fight is over for now, but Islamic State and other adversaries in the area of operations are learning. The marine on post finds the Ripper Operations Center contact in WhatsApp on his SEVENet tablet and texts a full situation report to his higher headquarters over 1,000 kilometers away.
Since 2014, the Marines of Ripper have been adapting and, in the process, illuminating the changing character of war. Their hybrid logistics, combined-arms coordination, and commercial communication initiatives make them more adaptable and resilient to enemy tactics, techniques and procedures. Whether facing Islamic State today or near peer adversaries in the future, the Marine Corps writ large should implement these low-cost, low-risk changes to sustain a comparative advantage in the 21st century battlespace.
The “Ripper” Approach
In its analysis of the current fight in the Middle East, the Ripper staff recognized numerous gaps in what the Marine Corps brought to the fight against an independent, dispersed, and technologically savvy adversary. In focusing on existing capabilities, Ripper pursued three initiatives to improve its reach, integration, and communication across the battlespace that, if successful, could represent the first strides toward winning both the current and future fight at the tactical level.
To be sure, decades of neglect, near-constant combat since 2003, and the cascading effects of the Arab Uprisings that began in 2011 have destroyed much of the civil infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. Further, the operating environment is characterized by multiple long-term, complex, and high-intensity conflicts that continue to challenge the ability of states to secure their territory and citizens while providing the services expected of a modern state. Large swaths of the Middle East are facing failing infrastructures, internally displaced persons, and degraded economic conditions where U.S. military personnel must, according to the Marine Corps Operating Concept, “be prepared to operate on battlefields crowded with civilian populations fleeing war.”
What’s more, according to the Operating Concept, “bad actors [are]… exploit[ing] technology, with an increased threat for proliferation of lethal technology.” The methods of propaganda, communications, ordnance delivery, and command and control employed by militant groups continue to adapt. Islamic State’s use of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and commercially available small unmanned aerial systems is well-documented, but readily available solutions from the Department of Defense are slow to materialize. As militant groups increase their bandwidth and capabilities, the Marine Corps must adapt in stride to combat this increasingly complicated new battlespace.
Winning with Hybrid Logistics, Combined-Arms Coordination, and Commercial Communication.
To address these challenges, the Ripper staff prioritized three adaptation vectors. First, we needed a new concept of support to sustain distributed teams of conventional and unconventional forces working with various coalition partners. Second, we needed a better way to integrate information for a rapidly shifting and fluid fight spread out over thousands of miles. Last, we needed to communicate with coalition partners who had varying levels of encryption and equipment.
In an environment where water and food is a prized commodity, the Marine Corps should find creative solutions to satisfy its sustainment requirements for marines dispersed across the battlespace. In the Middle East, the U.S. military supply network can be unwieldy and slow to adapt. But instant adaptability is essential to resupply isolated outposts at a moment’s notice. To sustain the fight, the Marine Corps should flatten distribution and adopt the Napoleonic principle of la guerre doit nourrir la guerre (the war must feed the war). The time to embrace hybrid logistics and disperse the “iron mountain” is now. In today’s environment, the Marine Corps needs to increase agility and responsiveness by transitioning from conventional operations to fully realize Distributed Operations. This problem will likely extend beyond CENTCOM in the future.
The Ripper commander’s vision for distribution is to establish production at consumption nodes. This largely eliminates the need for a hub-and-spoke model, the points of failure these nodes represent, and the transportation they require. Presently, drones do not have sufficient capacity to meet all delivery needs. Even unmanned powerlift helicopters designed for resupply have a limited range. In the CENTCOM area of responsibility, this falls well below the requirements necessary to support a unit over 1,000 kilometers away. Undoubtedly, drones will fill gaps, but — along with its organic MV-22s and KC-130Js — Ripper is trying to find ways to draw upon sister service distribution networks, joint supply, and overflow maintenance support to source distributed operations.
Our unit intends to augment and reinforce supply lines by 3D printing Nibbler drones, tools, repair parts, and select medical devices. Moreover, Ripper plans to lighten its current fuel requirement and has already identified next-generation solar systems that far surpass the capabilities of the existing Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Network System or Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System currently in use by the Marine Corps. Saving fuel saves life and extends reach, a point captured by other War on the Rocks authors.
To further enhance its ability to survive off the land, our unit is working on atmospheric water production, which not only frees the unit from co-location with a water source, but also relieves pressure for transporting water and required purification chemicals. Ripper has been pursuing this effort steadily and is in the contracting and soliciting phase for atmospheric water generators. As the employment plan develops, unforeseeable challenges will emerge, but Ripper will produce the proof of concept and analysis for other tactical units to improve upon.
To adapt to a versatile enemy leveraging commercial off-the-shelf technology to gain a competitive edge in the operating environment, current Fire Support Coordination Centers need to advance. Without incorporating traditional artillery and air support with electronic warfare, cyber operations, and military information support operations at the tactical level, commanders will be unable to defeat enemy drones, assess environmental atmospherics, exploit enemy gaps, or adequately tie tactics to the overall operational plans and strategy. Further, the current operating environment requires holistic integration of all available tools at all levels of the Marine Air Ground Task Force. Units need to broaden the scope of the Ripper’s Combined Arms Coordination Cell has successfully done this. As a result, we regained the initiative in areas ranging from the counter-drone fight to leveraging social media as part of the targeting process, thereby improving coordination throughout the Marine Air Ground Task Force and across the theater.
In advancing the current fires and effects coordination models, Ripper eliminated compartmentalization and placed equal emphasis across the spectrum of effects. To do so, all lethal and non-lethal tools and enablers were physically co-located and integrated into the same schedule. Moreover, planning and execution were driven by three principles: environmental amplification (obtained through the fusion of the Combined Arms Coordination Cell with the intelligence, and communication section); intent driven tasks or essential combined arms tasks, which align capabilities, enablers, and force posture along lines of effort; and objective isolation achieved through synchronizing the full spectrum of enablers.
Looking to capitalize further on our integration, external coordination was established with Marine Corps Cyberspace Operations Group and Marine Corps Information Operations Center prior to deployment to enable reach-back support. Upon arrival in theater, relationships were established with special technical operation providers and asset managers, like the Combined Air Operations Center, to synchronize allocation and execution timelines. Leveraging our integration in the battlespace, the Combined Arms Coordination Center supported Ripper operations with enablers ranging from Combat Camera in support of Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel and Information Operations in support of social media monitoring, to Joint Terminal Attack Controller support to advisor missions and counter unmanned aircraft system classes to the tactical Marine. The Ripper Combined Arms Coordination Center offers one example of how detailed integration can lead to direct success in the battlespace.
While terrorist groups capitalize on commercial, low-cost, and relatively secure communication solutions, the Marine Corps remains limited by a rigid, bureaucratic communication infrastructure with aversion to both risk and grass-roots innovation. These deficiencies adversely affect operational units, and nowhere are the effects more evident than in United States Central Command. Here, Islamic State and near-peer forces have integrated commercial communication solutions into their command and control infrastructures with lethal effectiveness. In contrast, the Marine Corps’ shore-based Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command remains largely reliant on military communication systems. Although secure, these systems are custom built to meet strict compliance standards and are incredibly inflexible. Consequently, Marine forces struggle to match the operational tempo and information flow of adversaries who can rapidly adopt innovative commercial technologies to facilitate command and control in the battlespace.
America’s adversaries are outpacing the Marine Corps in terms of the effective integration of commercial communications solutions. Since Islamic State’s rapid rise to power in Syria in 2013, the group has, out of necessity, consistently relied on commercial communications solutions to effectively command and control its forces. Unlike the U.S. government, which has the luxury of drawing from a half-trillion dollar defense budget to outfit its military with the most advanced, customized systems to securely command and control military forces, Islamic State is forced to leverage solutions available on the commercial market. Thus, the group’s communications solutions range from the use of social media to conduct highly effective recruiting and information operations campaigns, to the use of encrypted chat programs to pass operationally sensitive information from planners to operatives. Although media sources have reported widely on Islamic State’s command and control methods, the group continues to hone its use of these solutions with lethal effectiveness.
Securely configured commercial communications solutions offer the Marine Corps flexible and secure capabilities that complement the service’s existing “Green Gear” command and control solutions. As seen across U.S. Central Command, the Marine Corps’ current adversaries have a head start in the incorporation of commercial communications solutions to control forces securely and effectively. In contrast, the Marine Corps has failed to equip its operating forces with communications solutions readily available on the commercial market. However, the Marine Corps has an opportunity to mitigate the current command and control infrastructure shortfalls through implementation of innovative solutions from the “tactical edge,” like Ripper’s Encrypted Virtual Private Network Evaluation Network, or SEVENet.
SEVENet enables the Ripper team’s ability to keep pace with his adversaries through internet-accessible secure network architecture, securely configured end-user devices, and a diverse variety of command and control applications, like WhatsApp. Ultimately, it is in the Marine Corps’ vital interest to ensure that SEVENet is not an isolated instance of tactical innovation, but rather that it serves as a valid framework for the service’s evolution of secure operational communications required to keep pace with, and defeat, its adversaries.
The Future Fight
Ripper has embraced the imperative to adapt quickly and innovate constantly. Although still in nascent stages, Ripper’s hybrid logistics, combined-arms coordination, and SEVENet initiatives are already improving its reach, integration, and command and control across the battlespace. To be sure, transforming the Marine Corps to better fight against a tactically independent, operationally dispersed, and technologically advanced enemy will take time. However, the Ripper leadership has recognized the need to iterate and innovate at a pace at least matching the adversary’s, and it has laid the foundation to rapidly implement solutions derived and employed by marines at the lowest ranks. Nevertheless, to be truly successful, the Marine Corps must become more resilient. Said another way: Commanders must become more comfortable with the risks associated with innovation to truly fight tomorrow’s battles today.
Maor. Eric “Judge” Winkofsky (U.S. Marine Corps) is a staff judge advocate from Ohio. Major Josh “Cyborg” Nunn (U.S. Marine Corps) is a communications officer from Virginia. Major Pete “Baghdad” Marks (U.S. Marine Corps) is an intelligence officer from Florida. Major Richard “Hardy” Robinson (U.S. Marine Corps) is an assistant operations officer from Virginia. Major Miguel “Breadman” Cruz (U.S. Marine Corps) is a logistics officer from Alaska.
Next War is a special series curated by Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. who holds a dual appointment at Marine Corps University and American University, School of International Service. He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army, 1975-2010. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect U.S. government policy.
Image: Cpl. Seth Starr