Open Your Eyes and See the 21st Century MAGTF


For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye.

 -Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception

Let’s take the Clausewitzian imagery of two wrestlers further. Imagine that one has been fighting blind. Fighting without sight is possible, when thorough training negates the expectation to rely on sight. The other senses compensate: Kinesthetic awareness is heightened, a premium is placed on sound, smell matters, and the taste of fear pervades. Now imagine the blind fighter is provided sight in the midst of the skirmish. The sensory overload would be disorienting. But once the senses recalibrate, the fighter could find untapped potential. The Marine Corps is currently the scrappy, blind fighter eager to open its eyes. The forthcoming integration of organic medium altitude long endurance  (MALE) unmanned aircraft systems, or, what, for the purposes of this article, we shall call “Guardian Angeldrones, will soon enable the service to transform into a substantively more capable 21st century Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). What will this future look like?

The Vision

In addition to its emphasis on embracing “Guardian Angeldrones, the Marine Corps Operating Concept  underscores that the service needs to continuously strive to be at once naval, expeditionary, agile, and lethal. All four characteristics are essential, particularly in the context of the 21st century. With unprecedented advances in drone capabilities, the Corps is at a defining moment for MAGTF and naval force integration. This transformation is essential to achieving the Marine Corps Operating Concept’s envisioned 21st century MAGTF:

The 21st century MAGTF conducts maneuver warfare in the physical and cognitive dimensions of conflict to generate and exploit psychological, technological, temporal, and spatial advantages over the adversary. The 21st century MAGTF executes maneuver warfare through a combined arms approach that embraces information warfare as indispensable for achieving complementary effects across five domains – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace…The 21st century MAGTF operates and fights at sea, from the sea, and ashore as an integrated part of the Naval force and the larger Combined/Joint force.

To achieve the vision though, the current MAGTF design must be reoriented with eyes open to a better and different future. A recent congressional hearing on “Amphibious Warfare in a Contested Environment” highlighted the military potential of unmanned systems for the Marine Corps: Rep. Colleen Hanabusa succinctly noted, “policy is set by acquisition.” And the opportunity to create the desired 21st century MAGTF comes with this policy change. Simply put, the 21st century MAGTF will be realized when “Guardian Angeldrones are structurally integrated into it and the naval force is able to leverage the remote sensing, communications, and fires that payload capacity with persistent presence brings.

Learning from Machine Gun Innovation

With the Industrial Revolution and, in particular, the introduction of the machine gun, warfare changed. John Ellis’ seminal The Social History of the Machine Gun pinpoints “massive changes in the organization of society inevitably had major implications for the conduct of war,” and confronting the adolescent Information Age, Ellis’ evaluation continues to hold. But this should not come as a surprise. What is surprising is how much the progression of drone employment mirrors that of initial machine gun employment. Today, as in 1919, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby’s statement remains prescient: “The weapon is not properly understood, and I think that, whether in fire tactics or in the tactical use of the weapon, we have hardly yet made a beginning.” Neither the Marine Corps nor the nation can wait for the kiln of battle to develop and integrate the required drones into the MAGTF. Unlike the machine gun, which drove an increase in lethality and dispersion, the MAGTF’s “Guardian Angel” will serve as the nexus of correlated multi-sensor enabled effects (see and effect by multiple means) and communication technology (share), facilitating distributed operations with lethality while serving to exploit dispersion.

Figure 1 — Courtesy of Brad Carson, War on the Rocks’ The War Hall

If the Marine Corps has a service-defining capability, it is the expeditionary nature of the MAGTF — focused, first and foremost, on supporting marines fighting on the ground. “Guardian Angeldrones’ unique persistence through its available power and payload capacity provides modularity, agility, and lethality bolstering the Marine Corps as the nation’s “expeditionary force-in-readiness.” But our force employment is still mired in the 20th century. To achieve the aims set by the Marine Corps Operating Concept, the Corps must put a premium on persistent connectivity.

This is not to be confused with interoperability, which only implies a transfer and exchange of information between devices, components, and units. The structural integration of “Guardian Angeldrones upgrades the MAGTF from merely a task organized force into a robust network that facilitates all warfighting capabilities — to an extent previously only imagined. Hence, what changes for the MAGTF is not the fighting — that is still consistently bloody political interaction — but the joining of the underlying intangible architecture central to how the organization operates.

A Networked MAGTF

Guardian Angeldrones should bind the MAGTF together as an agile and lethal network of national power integrating the disparate elements, forces, and weapons systems into a cohesive whole. But drones serve as more than an essential connective tissue. They are also an eye-in-the-sky — Maj. Gen. Scales’ (ret.) unblinking eye. Vision is an apt metaphor and suggestive of sensors that feed information into the warfighting body. But eyes are responsible for much more than sight. They are essential to most human activities — not just collecting information, but navigating our physical environments, and coordinating with other people.

The MAGTF, possessing fully integrated “Guardian Angeldrones, becomes a resilient and robust organization far more capable than what the Marine Corps can currently provide the nation. The drone enables the MAGTF’s underlying architecture — facilitating communications, fires, and maneuver between all elements — at once connecting friendlies and disrupting enemies. The MAGTF was initially developed to serve as a “single weapons system,” whereby “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” While the MAGTF is task-organized and tailorable to the mission, the building block approach becomes self-limiting because of the blocks. As Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Chessboard & the Web explains “networks themselves are ‘emergent structures,’ meaning that they evolve…from the interactions.” She continues, “The trick is to find the optimum balance between distributed and modular, between more connections and fewer” also known as the critical elements of command and control.

But even these fundamental notions of command and control evolve. As the Marine Corps moves to increasingly common distributed operations, including playing key roles in the naval service’s distributed lethality concept, drones enable moving centralized command and decentralized execution into the future. This future is characterized by “a speedy, accurate, and effective information network,” which Slaughter explains “requires a combination of scouts, aggregators, and curators.” For the MAGTF, this can be facilitated by “Guardian Angeldrones, whereby centralized command and decentralized execution develops into “shared consciousness” coordinated by commander’s intent, distributed throughout the network, and catalyzed by “empowered execution.”

Training Trust

Michael Horowitz, in a recent episode of the Dead Prussian Podcast, explains how successful organizations are “weighed down by the legacy of history.” He notes that it is difficult to radically and fundamentally alter the organizational structure that led to its very success. It is not the technology itself that matters, Horowitz continues, but who first figures out how to use it effectively that leads to successful military innovation. And like machine guns initially in World War I, during the rare occasions when other joint or coalition drones are allocated to support marines today, they are inefficiently employed, a quaint accessory to the MAGTF, and not an integral component of it. “Managing any change means having to unlearn,” but this reorientation is central to maximizing the opportunity awaiting future MAGTFs possessing organic “Guardian Angeldrones.

To achieve the desired shared consciousness and empowered execution, the Marine Corps should not accept training components individually when these components must leverage each other’s capabilities in order to maximize effectiveness. In practice, the Marine Corps is far too compartmentalized, hampering the ability to coalesce into the necessary networked whole. One need only consider that a Marine MV-22 squadron can achieve a “fully certified to deploy” rating without ever having trained with marines in the back of the aircraft, bringing them into and out of “hot” landing zones. However, as Stephen Biddle explains in Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, “force employment is a powerful – and explicable – determinant of capability” and this is just as true in combat as it is training. B. A. Friedman reinforces this point in On Tactics:

The solution is to develop a training, doctrine, intelligence, and education system that functions in and of itself as a feedback loop. Like the cycling of a firearm, tactical concepts must be generated in such a way that one cycle facilitates the next…Any military organization must collect, analyze, codify, train, and execute new tactics; the military organization that does so faster than its opponents will succeed. Organized along the lines of collection, analysis, codification, training, and executions, such an organization can inherently drive innovation forward, its form following its function.

This is Horowitz’s adoption capacity distilled down to the service level. But there’s another variable, drones affordability pared to achieving repetition. When it costs less to use downrange and at home, then we can train more. This is not just more sorties, but the power of persistence. This is necessary to not just successfully integrate the required drones into the MAGTF, but also to improve the service’s capability as a whole. If the Marine Corps is to fight together in the future, as a “team of teams,” then its operational effectiveness must be judged holistically.

The 21st century MAGTF’s training and readiness requirements must be interwoven and layered. The MAGTF cannot be expected to be a networked and coordinated task force when critical elements fail to interact. Training requirements for the MAGTF’s organic unmanned aircraft squadrons’ aircrew flying “Guardian Angeldrones must be built with repetitions to achieve fires integration, simultaneous communication extension, and multi-sensor intelligence/battlespace awareness sharing (air reconnaissance) in support of maneuver forces. Training and readiness codes requiring interaction with external units cannot be waived to certify a unit ready to deploy and fight. This should be particularly true when supporting entities — integral to a deploying unit’s success — are not also certified ready. The training readiness failure of one must be the operational readiness failure for all. Put another way, “Guardian Angeldrones‘ integration in our Corps requires a “single weapon system” approach where repetitions under pressure forge the team our forefathers envisioned when creating the MAGTF.

The Daily Persistence of the 21st Century MAGTF

How does the MAGTF become a “team of teams” though?  Following the approach taken by legendary Marine, Lt. Col. Pete Ellis, during the interwar period provides a great point of departure. For example, Ellis asked of the first MAGTF envisioned to support anticipated naval campaigning in the Pacific in World War II, “What personnel and armament are necessary for the proper execution of these functions and how should the force be organized and distributed?” Similarly, we can ask, what should a 21st century MAGTF look like to support future naval campaigns in hostile urban littoral regions? Let’s look at multiple realistic vignettes to see the currently untapped potential in the MAGTF.

We turn first to a newly equipped unmanned aircrew conducting mission skills training in support of a multi-day persistence mission for a MAGTF training exercise in Twentynine Palms, California. The “Guardian Angeldrone provides digital communication bridging and direct voice through the aircraft (not relay) for marines on the ground eliminating the need for “exercise-isms,” such as unrealistically inserting small teams of marines, without the required security, on hilltops to enable a communications architecture critical to allowing service-level training events to occur. The aircrew then engages automation to share cueing between sensors, locating enemy positions, and observing fires. Utilizing the robust digital network, the aircrew shares target locations and provides a battalion with a secure communication network, enabling information, cyber, and electronic warfare. All the training is mutually supporting because the artillery battery is not successful unless the ranging fires are observed, and vice versa.

Additionally, the battery’s network must be protected. But now with 2,500 to 3,000 new information warfare marines, the service has the marines required to fight for the information, utilizing and honing cyber and electronic warfare skills. They will be responsible for ensuring that MAGTFs can leverage these networked capabilities. Thus, while the network can be vulnerable, the “Guardian Angeldrone’s payload and power capabilities, combined with the skills of the new information warfare marines, enable the creation of multiple simultaneous frequency agile networks that significantly enhance MAGTF resiliency and redundancy.

Meanwhile, another unmanned aircrew, more advanced in training, flies their aircraft to San Clemente Island, while mutually supported by a forward screen of F-35s and swarms of drones, to include those released by the jets and the “Guardian Angel.” They are tasked with providing information about and persistent offset force protection with shared battlespace awareness for expeditionary advanced base sites. This dedicated picket, with a mixed loadout, can hit surface and airborne targets through complementary “tip and cue” collaboration with the aircraft dedicated to airborne early warning and control while providing remote missile launch control or intercept via a datalink or even secure internet protocol to net-enabled weapons. This capability is essential to enabling what will ultimately be a multi-stage naval battle focused on establishing sea control. B. A. Friedman comments, “there exists a symbiotic relationship between the sea and the land. Control of one requires and facilitates control of the other,” but now we have the “Guardian Angel” as the connector.

The assault force must find and destroy mobile “Club-K” missile systems hidden in shipping containers located inside of an urban littoral area in proximity to the projected expeditionary advanced bases. This just reinforces the observation by RAND amphibious warfare scholar Brad Martin in the previously mentioned Congressional hearing. These systems pose too great a threat to allow amphibious ships and their ship-to-shore connectors to close to the beach to resupply the bases. Robert Rubel, dean of naval warfare studies at the U.S. Naval War College, explains that since “naval warfare is characterized by the dominance of the tactical offense, sanctuary is needed to prevent the enemy from getting off a first shot or engaging in the first place.”

Thus, to help establish this sanctuary, the unmanned aircrew relays detailed imagery and other sensor information to combined naval service command elements, as well as to the assault force, before lifting from the ship and while en route to their landing zone. This mission-critical information is processed by the drone’s on-board sensors with artificial intelligence preprocessing streams of data before sharing bursts of critical situational awareness. Enemy assets and locations are quickly identified, allowing intelligence marines to offer real-time assessments through a fused picture provided by Minotaur. Further, the near real-time information gathered by the aircrew is relayed back to the assault force’s amphibious assault ships, where a 3-D battlefield is generated and a physical terrain map is printed. This 3-D data also supplies what is needed for marines to conduct an immersive rehearsal using tactical decision kits.  Additionally, the 3-D map and rehearsals are used by the follow-on waves of marines to obtain an unparalleled level of objective understanding of the area before they are sent in.

Simultaneously, another unmanned aircrew, earlier in their training progression and conducting core skill missions, flies another “Guardian Angeldrone through a certificate of waiver or authorization corridor to Camp Pendleton (similar to longstanding U.S. Customs and Border Patrol operations) to support joint terminal attack controllers controlling airspace and fires for multiple distributed infantry companies’ training requirements. Communication is clear; target location and identification are transmitted digitally and quickly utilizing software like KILSWITCH within the Corps’ new Target Handoff System. Once this mission finishes, on the way back to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, the aircrew flies their “Guardian Angel” into another objective area to help meet an F-35 squadron’s training requirements, where the drone serves as an aerial gateway, or connective tissue, for sharing sensor information from multiple F-35 sections. Since part of the F-35 squadron’s training requirements is to remain low observable, including limiting communication signatures in higher threat zones, the drone remains an airborne receiver to “catch” burst messages, cross-domain, and relay them to others. Here, the F-35’s strengths are teamed with those of the persistent unmanned ecosystem to enable better decision-making within the MAGTF network.

Opportunity Knocks

These brief vignettes are only the beginning. The key takeaway is that “Guardian Angeldrones sufficiently integrated into the MAGTF make the Marine Corps and the Navy more capable in the Information Age. Fortunately, this future is not too far away. The 21st century MAGTF can come to fruition in as short as a single enlistment period — and thus well within the no-later-than-2025 timeline called for to achieve the Marine Corps Operating Concept vision. By embracing “Guardian Angel” drones, the Marine Corps also stands to benefit from complementary new capabilities in development by the joint force for low-cost attritable strike platforms, “loyal wingman,” and collaborative air-launched and recovered multi-mission “Gremlins.” These types of capabilities leverage automation and scalable autonomy needed to win the next fight where the threat will already be well-equipped with armed drones. Russian president Vladimir Putin gets it: He recently said that the leader in artificial intelligence will become the ruler of the world.

As the battlespace shifts to become “distributed, dispersed, nonlinear, and essentially formless in space and unbounded in time,” so too must our approach to thriving and maximizing tempo in this environment. Expeditionary operations are evolving as the world is shrinking. Maj. Gen. Scales correctly observes, “the initiative will be owned by the side that controls time.” While the Marine Corps is not the master of any single domain, it isn’t meant to be either. Our readiness and capability to control time — to facilitate follow-on forces, linking various domains and services is where we must excel in the future — as tacticians, time is our weapon.

What better way to facilitate shared consciousness and empowered execution than having continuous and persistent “Guardian Angeldrones mapping out, analyzing, and cataloguing the entire area of operations, with the capability for fires, linking disaggregated networks, and serving to unite the MAGTF and Navy? However, constraining these drones to only armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions misses the point of the pairing of a MAGTF “team of teams” with persistent remote services from unmanned systems. The flexibility that comes with multiple reconfigurable payloads unites the warfighting functions and information warfare with unparalleled battle space awareness. Eyes wide open, welcome to what should quickly become the 21st century MAGTF.


Jeff Cummings is a Marine Infantry Officer and currently serves as a Military Faculty Advisor at The Expeditionary Warfare School, Marine Corps University.

Scott Cuomo is a Marine Infantry Officer and MAGTF Planner currently participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Georgetown University.

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. She is an Unmanned Aircraft Commander and Aviation Safety Officer for VMU-1. Additionally, she is an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge and a member of the Military Writers Guild. She tweets at @teaandtactics.

Noah Spataro is a Marine Officer with significant time in service dedicated to unmanned aircraft supporting combined arms effects. He most recently served as the Marine Corps’ Unmanned Aircraft Systems Capabilities Integration Officer.

The opinions expressed are these Marines’ alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Richard Lisum