No More Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones: Marines Need to Train Against Realistic Adversaries


“Over the last 15 years, we primarily focused on counter-insurgency operations while peer and near-peer competitors watched us, learned, and improved significantly. The gap between us has narrowed — and in some cases, completely closed. From now on, we will have to fight not only in the domains of land, sea, and air, but also in space and cyberspace. We will have to fight for and with information on the battleground of perceptions and ideas. And we will have to win the battle of electromagnetic signatures in which to be detected is to be killed. We can never take our enemies for granted. We will be tested.”

-Commandant of the Marine Corps, “Seize the Initiative”

At its foundation, Marine Corps service-level training today hasn’t changed much from what marines executed at the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California in the 1980s. In their final exercise before deploying, marines go up against a notional, stagnant, non-thinking adversary that lines up with stationary armored and mechanized vehicles, simulated artillery pieces, and anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems. These same pieces of equipment, usually made out of tire stacks, metal, or plywood, haven’t moved in decades from their positions in the desert. Even the brief, across-MAGTF, force-on-force, free-play stability operations scenario and adversary twist, which was added to the training environment between roughly 2005 to 2014, is now gone. Thus, the 1985 marine would feel mostly right at home if asked to strap on his kit and fight the training scenario of 2017. Nowhere in the scenario would he encounter a free-thinking foe with today’s, much less tomorrow’s, forecasted capabilities. He would not encounter armed drone swarms programmed to destroy his hundred million dollar-aircraft like what recently took place in Syria, sophisticated cyber-attacks, advanced integrated air-defense systems, or determined adversary infantry forces hidden underground in tunnels and entrenched within highly complex urban terrains. Put another way, the 1985 Marine training scenario would not incorporate the “free-thinking” foe intent described in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1 or the Marine Corps Operating Concept, and what Senator John McCain recently emphasized at War on the Rocks. Marine training reflects a Cold War mindset with only minor adjustments over the past two decades. A substantial shift is required for service level training to ensure Marine units are prepared for the current and forecasted future operating environment.

If marines have to fight and win on the battlespace of tomorrow (think Ghost Fleet, not the Yom Kippur War or the Fulda Gap) against a peer competitor it will require challenging their previous training methodology and rapidly advancing their future warfighting capability. This is not to say the Marine Corps can’t currently win; rather, it’s to say there’s always room for improvement, particularly if the service wants to meet General Dunford’s intent to “never send our men and women into a fair fight.”

Perhaps it’d be helpful to think about the training problem through a different lens. NFL teams don’t practice against an open backfield and Floyd Mayweather doesn’t shadow box in an empty gym; they all practice against a team or individuals that mimic a living, breathing, and thinking opponent. The nation’s “force in readiness” should start doing the same.

In his recent birthday ball message, the Commandant of the Marine Corps stated that the Corps can’t “lose to learn — we gotta win.” To ensure the Marines continue to win, they have to develop their training to meet the threats of the future. Right now, the Marine Corps is practicing against an open backfield and shadow boxing in the mirror — marines are often a self-licking ice cream cone patting themselves on the back when complete. It’s time to move past sustaining this model and develop the ability to conduct realistic force-on-force training.

The Marine Corps prepare for the unknown. I have always taken great pride in that marines are able to fight and win in modal domains within the spectrum of human conflict. If they are warfighters, they must train against the “anti-warfighters.” They must train against a force that is scalable, experienced, and the subject matter experts of enemy tactics, techniques and procedures. Marines have to stop training only in what they are good at and instead train for exposure to an enemy that is intimately familiar with Marine tactics, in order to expose their weaknesses and create a greater force at the outcome. To do this, the Corps should create and resource an Adversary Air Ground Task Force, or the A-AGTF.

The A-AGTF would provide a unit made up of free-thinking, breathing, adaptable individuals well-versed in enemy tactics as an adversary force for service-level training. Due to the existing “canned” tire stack, plywood, and static metal enemy force, the current training construct does not allow for rapid changes on the practice field or improvised decisions played out in execution, nor does it account for decisions made by the enemy and how they affect the decisions marines make in training. Marines operate by a well-defined and scripted playbook that does not allow free thinking at the lowest levels of leadership. This problem is hard to crack — in fact it would require a complete paradigm shift in Marine Corps training philosophy — but a requisite one if the service is to truly prepare to face the threats of tomorrow.

The structure for this new force would resemble the Marine Corps’ organizational laydown, which ranges in scope from 30,000 marines and sailors in a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) at its largest down to the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) made up of approximately 4,000 marines and sailors at its smallest. Each MAGTF is scalable but the composition remains the same throughout with a headquarters element, ground combat element, logistics element, and aviation element. The A-AGTF would mimic this organization and comprise marines and sailors who are intimately familiar not only with friendly tactics but also with how the enemy operates, including advanced cyber, robotics, long-range counter-air, and entrenched and tunneled infantry capabilities. These marines and sailors would operate as the opposing force in training exercises, providing a level of depth and complexity to training which, in its current form, largely involves targeting inanimate objects.

Where Will Marines Get the Manpower for the A-AGTF?

I’ll answer the manpower question with a question: Why do reservists exist? The mission statement for the Marine Corps Forces Reserve is:

The mission of Marine Forces Reserve (MARFORRES) is to augment and reinforce active Marine forces in time of war, national emergency or contingency operations, provide personnel and operational tempo relief for the active forces in peacetime, and provide service to the community.

The main purpose of the reserve structure is to augment the active duty forces in a wartime scenario should they be required. So let’s kill two birds with one stone: Using reserve forces for the A-AGTF will allow the Marines to keep the A-AGTF in the same geographic locations as active duty forces while utilizing more experienced individuals that have completed at least one tour on active duty prior to joining the A-AGTF. The A-AGTF would be created as a unit specifically trained in enemy tactics, providing the MAGTF commander with a useful asset to augment active duty forces during the next conflict.

Using the Marine Expeditionary Force as an example, if conflict kicks off, the commanding general is told they will receive additional marines from the reserve component. These same marines also comprise the unit known as the A-AGTF. The same people who study how the enemy eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives are now consulting and training marines in their pre-deployment work-ups and will join them throughout the deployment to supplement the staff with their intimate knowledge. For example, during a pre-deployment certification, members of the A-AGTF would facilitate planning for training missions advising on what friendly forces can expect to encounter from the enemy during a real-world conflict. After the planning is complete A-AGTF members would switch hats and be on the opposing side during execution of the training mission, posing as an enemy force introducing friction points and exposing the friendly forces to a physical opponent with the ability to rapidly adapt to their actions.

The augmentation of the staff during a time of war is part of the equation, but the greatest benefit would be yielded during training. The A-AGTF would mirror all domains of warfare to include kinetic and non-kinectic fires, cyber, and space — and fight from underground. The A-AGTF could provide pop-up enemy artillery positions that would require marines to calculate enemy positions they may not have planned for due to faulty intelligence. Marines would see sporadic cyber threats trying to penetrate the network that have to be dealt with in real-time, and friendly positions would be compromised by enemy patrols unforeseen by surveillance assets and requiring new plans moving forward, forcing marines to think on their feet to a much larger degree than is currently required. They are no longer targeting a stagnant metal silhouette or tire stack in the desert — instead, marines must adjust to a moving, thinking, and adapting threat throughout the battlespace. With the creation of the A-AGTF, the Corps is forced to deal with a fact often overlooked in training: The enemy gets a vote.

VMFT-401, “The Snipers,” have provided such a service in training for years at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. They provide fixed-wing adversary aircraft for both aviation and ground units, typically those assigned to the aviation combat element. The “Snipers” help marines understand what they should expect to see from traditional, manned enemy aircraft, thus enabling a more realistic training environment.

Where Are the A-AGTFs Located?

In order for the A-AGTF to be effective, it should be co-located with each MEF (North Carolina, California, and Japan — see map below). If the A-AGTF were only stationed in Camp Pendleton, California, how effective would it be at providing force-on-force training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina? Most likely, not very. Financially, it would not be feasible for the task force to travel across the country. Another benefit of co-location with the MEFs is that it would bolster the ability to focus on theater-specific threats while being ready to deploy to different exercises and deployments with minimal delay, since the task force would be next door to the units it supports.

Too often, the Marine Corps wants to make everything look the same. In fact, each A-AGTF should have a different composition. Units on the west coast are not facing the same threats on the east coast and training should be tailored to meet the unique challenges that arise in every combatant command. For example, in the PACOM theater A-AGTF could replicate peer adversary forces to mirror a large-scale conflict while the CENTCOM theater could focus primarily on stability operations, while still providing limited near-peer threat capabilities.

The A-AGTF has other tangible benefits, including operation plan development and the acquisition cycle for new equipment. The lessons learned from exercises completed with Marine units against the A-AGTF could reveal friction points in current operation plans and improve the effectiveness of future plans by using operational planners (0505 MOS). There is a stark difference between having a playbook with X’s and O’s on a whiteboard and seeing the actual execution on the practice field, identifying weak points and remedying them prior to going to the Super Bowl. The second benefit would be acquisitions, which tends to suffer from a “cart before the horse” problem: A new piece of gear is designed and then the operating forces are left to figure out how to use it. The Marine Corps could reverse this process by allowing the A-AGTF to reveal holes or weak points in its current tactics and provide useful information to develop new technology and equipment combatting the shortfalls identified.

Who Owns the A-AGTFs?

The idea is similar to the way reservists currently augment active duty forces residing within Marine Corps Forces Reserve. The A-AGTF would prevent any additional requirements from being placed on active-duty, allowing them to focus on training and warfighting. Sister services have already proven that reservists in support of active duty forces provide a significant and positive impact to readiness and training. No matter what their job description is, all marines are responsible for memorizing countless operating procedures, manuals, and tactics. The A-AGTF would lighten the load, allowing each individual to fully focus on their primary billet while supplementing their knowledge of the enemy forces.

The gap is closing between the United States and its peer competitors. The Marines must continue to adapt and change while maintaining their historical ability to provide the right force at any time, in any place. The proposed A-AGTF concept allows growth not only in training but also in acquisitions, plans, and capability development. This idea certainly has shortfalls and doesn’t address all possible problems, but it’s a start. In future wars, the human component on the battlefield will remain no matter what technology graces the battlespace, and the most developed, educated, and practiced force will walk away the victor. If it’s time to prepare for the next generation of warfare, then it’s time to create the training tool to get America’s fighters there.


Major Ryan Pallas is currently a staff officer at U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific. He has completed tours at Miramar, California and Yuma, Arizona before his current assignment at Camp Smith, Hawaii. The thoughts provided are those of the author’s and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, United States Marine Corps, or any other governmental agency.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps/Aaron S. Patterson