war on the rocks

When the Unblinking Eye Closes: Digital Feast and Famine in the Marine Corps

October 23, 2017

Hu began inserting code that would randomize signals from the Americans’ Global Positioning System satellite constellation. Some GPS signals would be off by just two meters. Others would be off by two hundred kilometers…  

…The F-35’s GPS-coupled inertial navigation system was wrong, showing Worm as flying over Maui when he knew damn well this was Oahu. Electronically generated false targets flickered on the horizontal situation display and then disappeared…

Ghost Fleet, P. W. Singer and August Cole

Peled had warned his senior commanders…that they might have to “go into the fire” if the SAMs could not be destroyed. They had gone into the fire and were rapidly being consumed. In the first two days of war, thirty-five planes had been lost and there was little to show for it. 

…the beleaguered Israeli ground troops …kept looking skyward and asking, “Where’s the air force?”

The Yom Kippur War, Abraham Rabinovich

In a driving rain…marines straggled to the CP…most of them watched the beach and the parade of small boats landing survivors whose semi-naked bodies black from burns and oil of the sunken ships claimed the ministrations of our doctors and corpsmen… 

…As the day faded, Admiral Turner gathered his depleted task force, and near sunset he sailed for Noumea. The marines were now alone.

Guadalcanal, Richard B. Frank

Only one of the vignettes above is fiction. Yet that fiction is grounded in the possible, and all three stories portray the reality that war often takes turns more unpleasant than rosy peacetime predictions. That’s the central problem with the recent War on the Rocks article by three of my fellow marines and its picture of the Marine Corps’ next conflict. That article, “Open Your Eyes and See the 21st Century MAGTF,” posits a future scenario that is far too optimistic. The authors seek to flesh out the current Marine Corps Operating Concept, and conclude: “to achieve the aims set by the [concept], the Corps must put a premium on persistent connectivity” so that the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) can fight with “unparalleled battle space awareness.” This proposal presumes the asymmetric information advantage — digital networks, air- and space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as use of the electromagnetic spectrum — that our forces have freely enjoyed on every battlefield since 2001.

Yet virtually every trend today argues against the presumption that this advantage will continue. Near-peer adversaries are becoming better equipped to attack this information advantage and deny American forces the air and space supremacy. The Marine Corps should assume that the moment the balloon goes up against a sophisticated enemy, they will attack American networks at home and abroad, clutter the electromagnetic spectrum, and violently contest the placid skies U.S. forces take for granted. The closer a MAGTF gets to hostile shores, the harder it will be to maintain that networked bubble which Gen. (ret.) Robert Scales and the authors call an “unblinking eye” of awareness. The Marine Corps should plan for a battlefield that combines the digital blindness and sabotage of Ghost Fleet with the high-tech violence of the Yom Kippur War and the isolation of Guadalcanal. The operating concept itself notes “‘information ubiquity’ is likely to be the first casualty.” The Marine Corps needs to think about how to build the marine who can win on that battlefield.

Let’s consider what would happen to the Marine Corps’ global connectivity in the event of near-peer conflict. The authors’ account starts in the middle of such conflict, with the MAGTF’s air superiority and digital networking apparently unimpeded following the conflict’s initial exchanges. Ground combat units move effortlessly across the battlefield, freely using digital networks to communicate with each other and fire support agencies, and even generating a 3-D map of everything around them, all thanks to the omnipresent drones overhead. But we must rewind to the beginning, before the MAGTF embarks. There is little doubt that at the outset, a capable adversary will undertake cyber warfare against every network American forces find useful. Military networks will likely be among the first targets. China, Russia, and North Korea have all either hinted as much or even launched such attacks on recent battlefields. The networks of other U.S. government agencies have already proven vulnerable.

Let’s carry out a thought experiment: Contemplate an attack on the F-35’s Automatic Logistics Information System (ALIS). The Corps proffers the F-35 as the tool that will let the MAGTF fight its way through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) defenses. ALIS is many things: It is a system that performs maintenance diagnostics, pre-flight planning, and post-flight mission analysis. If it becomes unreliable, the MAGTF loses two key capabilities. First is the ability to penetrate denied areas. The second is, as my fellow marines describe it, a platform whose role in persistent connectivity is second only to the still notional Guardian Angel armed drone as a facilitator of information flow. We’ve even had a premonition of this scenario: When ALIS got glitchy on its own, the problem grounded a whole squadron. Successfully degrading ALIS alone would ground Marine aviation before a mission even starts.

As Marine forces are attacked, a near-peer adversary will also degrade space-based networks: GPS, satellite communication, and nodes allowing drone control from air-conditioned rooms in Nevada. Anti-satellite systems are already within the capabilities of several countries, and even the low-orbit launch of unsophisticated missiles by countries like North Korea could cause a cascading Kessler Effect, wiping holes in military and civilian satellite constellations alike.

These capabilities exist and — as seen in the attacks on the U.S. State Department, National Security Agency, and Office of Personnel Management linked to above — adversaries have already used them against the United States. Foes would use them more viciously in war, unbound by the peacetime necessity of stopping short of an overt offensive. In sum, the Marine Corps should not assume that the MAGTF will even make it to the shores of a hostile near-peer with persistent connectivity intact. Near-peer warfare will include a furious battle across space and cyberspace, with the adversary doing its best to negate the advantages that we have long presumed.

But the Marine Corps must go in and it will still have to do so with the MAGTF. Let’s go back to our notional war. U.S. military networks, including GPS, are degraded such that an amphibious task force must navigate to the objective using sextants rather than satellites. Already blinded by cyber and electronic attacks, the task force must guess at the location of A2/AD weapons. F-35s and F-22s will have to find them by loitering longer than their engagement envelopes. Stealth may be no protection. While frightening technology like the Chinese quantum radar won’t be operational for many years, other systems can see the invisible. U.S. forces will lose precious stealth assets simply protecting the task force. And in losing those nodes of knowledge about the threat, the task force will lose ships because it won’t be possible to find every enemy system.

Now let’s talk about the Guardian Angels. This is the armed drone that loiters over the MAGTF, providing that unblinking eye of situational awareness and acting as network bridge for the instant sharing of information to disparate units around the battlefield. Under the right conditions, it fills huge gaps long suffered by the Marines in persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as fire support. But it requires a permissive air and cyber environment. And the fight I’ve described — the one American forces are likely to face in going up against a country like Iran, North Korea, Russia, or China — will be anything but permissive. Losing space-based networks means the MAGTF won’t be able to control its drones over the horizon. This reduces control to line-of-sight, with a concurrent loss in situational awareness beyond the immediate area.

And Marine drones are unlikely to fly for long. Since 2009, even low-tech adversaries like al-Qaeda have figured out how to disrupt American unmanned aircraft. Middleweight powers like Iran may be able to spoof theater-level drones, or help their surrogates bring them down. The control stations of U.S. unmanned aircraft have already proven susceptible to malware that logged — and potentially transmitted to third parties — every keystroke the operators made. And that’s just the relatively hardened systems of military drones. Many have suggested that the U.S. military should use more commercial drones to improve tactical-level situational awareness, but these systems are even more vulnerable.

Now our story is catching up to where Scott Cuomo, Jeff Cummings, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro began theirs. The Navy, under constant attack, does its best to land the MAGTF. But it may not be able to linger. Blinded, its limited ability to look for threats will force its ships either to move constantly or stay over the horizon. The Navy’s priority becomes self-preservation. That means Marine ground forces cannot count on persistent fire support or supply. And now our vignettes culminate: The space and cyber domains are a vicious no-man’s-land. Digital blindness and advanced enemy weapons have savaged our air superiority assets. And simple survival governs the Navy’s ability to provide support. Our marines will be truly alone.

Yet the MAGTF must still fight and win. How will it do this?

The Marine Corps recently recognized the importance of the digital battlefield. Yet the language describing Marine cyber operations is couched in defensive terms. The cyber force operates at higher command echelons — in the realm of generals, not sergeants. A modern cyber force needs to be tactical, pushed down to the smallest combat units like the fire team or squad. It must be offensive in nature, not simply protecting one’s own networks but wreaking havoc on the adversary’s. And, as I wrote previously in the Marine Corps Gazette, it needs to be expeditionary: a deployable, standalone capability, with the MAGTF commander delegated authority for its use. It does not assume persistent global connectivity or air superiority, but creates a localized bastion providing some electromagnetic freedom of action in the immediate area. Furthermore, federal cyber organizations like the National Security Agency have potent tools that they don’t share, but they must. A MAGTF deploying with those tools could still spread digital chaos and confusion when the invisible war cuts the networks in the skies above.

The real solution is more fundamental: To paraphrase Gen. Scales, building superior capabilities into our marines as opposed to their machines. Individual marines cannot be hacked, spoofed, or jammed. They can be hardened. This hardening will not be physical but mental. And here, I think, the authors have missed the most crucial point from Gen. Scales’ book. He described a “virtual gym,” an immersive training environment where warfighters can train against a thinking enemy before stepping on the future battlefield. This idea is the hub around which the other possibilities in Gen. Scales’ book, the authors’ future MAGTF, and the Marine Corps Operating Concept truly revolve. It is where the Marine Corps could build a maneuver warfare force capable of dominating “in an environment of chaos, uncertainty, constant change, and friction,” as our own doctrine demands.

Here, marines would acquire the creativity required to win a modern-day Guadalcanal. They could rehearse communicating without electrons, and put away their cell phones to learn digital camouflage. Marines would develop the mental agility and moral toughness to take broad commander’s intent and pursue it with very limited situational awareness. Or, conversely, train to shift rapidly from high awareness to low when persistent connectivity suddenly fails. When the violent intensity of near-peer weapons degrades the Navy’s and air component’s ability to build up supplies, marines would have already practiced scrounging a battlefield for useful items and weapons, adapting them to the ground component. As in the joint force exercise Millennium Challenge 2002, marines can uncover the flaws in their assumptions of persistent connectivity before lives are lost, and see that an electronically dark force enjoys advantages of its own.

Yes, the Marines should train for digital abundance. They should train more for when all that’s left is a rifle, yellow stickies, and what a famous marine once called the most important six inches on the battlefield. The virtual gym can create a true maneuver warfare force, equipped with mental agility and adaptability, a massive repertoire of experience, and what Col. John Boyd called fingerspitzengefuhl or “finger-tip feeling,” honed through a thousand virtual iterations of blindness, violence, and isolation.

I applaud the authors’ effort to develop the new Marine Corps Operating Concept, and the Guardian Angel concept should be pursued in its own right. But past evidence and future trends don’t support a scenario of digital omniscience. We should expect that in future war, capable adversaries will viciously and continuously attack our unblinking eyes. America needs warfighters capable of operating not with unparalleled battle space awareness, but in an unprecedented fog of war. Let’s build a marine who can fight while the digital equivalent of being deaf, dumb, and blind. When the unblinking eyeball fails, the mind and spirit are what’s left. Perhaps we should build the MAGTF’s capability into those.


Ian Brown is a Marine CH-53E pilot. He has written previously on the ideas of Col. John Boyd and maneuver warfare. His forthcoming book from the Marine Corps University Press, A New Conception of War, is a reexamination of the development of maneuver warfare doctrine in the Marine Corps. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Marines