war on the rocks

Marine Warbot Companies: Where Naval Warfare, the U.S. National Defense Strategy, and Close Combat Lethality Task Force Intersect

The Marine Corps has a tendency toward paranoia over its institutional purpose – America doesn’t need a Marine Corps, America wants a Marine Corps. We were recently reminded that there are reasons this insecurity endures. After all, in addition to directing the Pentagon to produce a “sweeping roles and missions report,” the Senate Armed Services Committee just questioned “the survivability of Navy-Marine flotillas” and viability of amphibious forced entry operations given today’s pacing threats and precision weapons. Going one step further, the committee asked if the joint force should have “one Armed Force dedicated primarily to low-intensity missions,” with the implication that this should be the Marine Corps. In addition to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s skepticism, there’s also a growing schism developing between the Navy and Marine Corps, putting their interdependence at risk.

This schism was recently on full display in U.S. Navy Capt. Dale Rielage’s premiere prize-winning essay in Proceedings, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War.” In his fictional memo, dated June 2025, Rielage imagines Adm. W. T. Door, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, writing to the chief of naval operations explaining that the fleet failed because it was “no longer large or capable enough to offer decisive deterrence or to disrupt or delay sufficiently an adversary.” Beyond his searing indictment of naval operations, the Marine Corps is noticeably absent from this ostensible failure. Many in the Marine Corps saw this as an institutional Freudian slip. What happens when the Navy doesn’t find the Marine Corps useful? What happens when the Senate Armed Services Committee calls one of the core functions of the Marine Corps into doubt?

In the midst of just under 20 years of land campaigns, it’s not surprising that the idea of the naval team has atrophied. The Marine Corps has become comfortable in Iraq and Afghanistan functioning as the supported component, not the supporting one. Now that the “re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition” is the priority, and U.S. command of the sea is no longer assured, the Marine Corps must do its part to support its Navy brethren. In response, we – as marines – are forced to engage in a sober reflection on the value, at more than $40 billion of annual taxpayer funds, and purpose of the Marine Corps. This reflection should account for the fact that the Marine Corps’ organizational lethality – the efficacy with which it can actualize its combat potential – is waning.

Some in the Marine Corps are acutely aware of this problem. In fact, the Marine Corps Operating Concept problem statement is an honest attempt to frame the issue, but what it puts forth is too tactical, focusing on the difficulty of lethality complicated by technology, terrain, and information. Although these issues are surely important, we should first deal with a deeper, more pernicious problem: The Marine Corps is not properly organized, trained, and equipped to support the naval fleet with expeditionary forces. This is a strategic problem. And the Senate Armed Services Committee cannot be blamed for seeing it, nor can Rielage be castigated for omitting the Marines from his futuristic story. Indeed, should we continue on this path, that is exactly where the Marine Corps will end up to our nation’s ultimate detriment.

The reasons why the Marine Corps has found itself in this position are too numerous to fully explain here. We believe, however, that by embracing what we call Warbot companies and reclaiming the service’s naval raison d’être, the Marine Corps can better support the fleet. These companies would be trained to employ autonomous weapons in swarms (and the companies themselves constituting another swarm) serving as the vital link between precise tactical execution and accurate strategic effects. Each Warbot unit would be a new micro-Marine Air-Ground Task Force built on the current rifle company foundation, fueled by artificial intelligence and enabled by shared consciousness and empowered execution. These companies would be designed to leverage the best of humans and machines in concert, rather than as the typical few and exquisite model described in current operational concepts. Further, Warbot companies would enhance the Corps’ organizational lethality while preserving marines’ lives.

These new Warbot companies would also allow the Marine Corps to help the Navy develop, as per Rep. Mike Gallagher’s recent request, “a new story about what the future fleet will do and how it will differ from today’s fleet.” To do this though, the Marine Corps must first ensure that it is pursuing realistic concepts that enable the fleet by providing cost-imposing and dilemma-creating solutions to the problems set forth in the National Defense Strategy and in accordance with Secretary Mattis’ Close Combat Lethality Task Force intent.

Current Marine Concept Challenges

Recently, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the last commander of U.S. Pacific Command, described China as America’s top challenge over the long-term. “Without focused involvement and engagement by the U.S., and our allies and partners,” he remarked, “China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.”

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Navy has begun a “steady drumbeat” of freedom of navigation exercises sailing within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Paracel island chain. China recently responded by dispatching warships to warn off the U.S. Navy in a manner described by American officials as “safe but unprofessional.” This time, the action-reaction sequence ended calmly without shots fired. But what if naval leaders on either side, or their policymakers, misperceived intentions? What if the demonstrations sparked an unintended conflict? If they did, much like Rielage’s story, the Marines would not have been there to help.

Why not?

The Marine Corps’ origin is decidedly naval. Serving as sharpshooters aboard naval vessels dating back to 1775, the Continental Marines provided precision fire for the Navy, along with capabilities such as conducting amphibious landings. This naval integration grew stronger over the years, with the high point in the Pacific theater during World War II. Unfortunately, today, there’s a stark disconnect between what the Marine Corps’ purported and actual abilities are to support power projection and enable sea control on behalf of the naval force.

The Navy-Marine Corps relationship is meant to be complementary but, at the moment, the Marine Corps asks far too much of the Navy and her limited resources without providing enough support in return. This asymmetry stems directly from the Marine Corps’ alphabet soup of future concepts anchoring on what some believe to be “war-winning” capabilities, including, most recently, “Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations.” These concepts require too many dedicated naval assets to conduct, including a steady flow of logistics, while not adequately appreciating that the Navy’s maritime superiority is rapidly diminishing. Despite an ever more challenging maritime environment, with fewer ships available, the Marine Corps’ new concepts continually demand more of this fleet, including its support ships. If the Navy is already admitting to severe limitations when it comes to protecting itself against traditional threats, as well as new ones such as autonomous underwater boat swarms, why would the Marines demand more?

But this, one could argue, is exactly the purpose of the new Navy-Marine Corps concept – “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment”– supporting the naval force’s quest for command of the sea. Problematically, however, the Marine Corps’ role within this concept places an insatiable logistical toll on the Navy just to execute, without factoring in what an enemy could do to disrupt it.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Robert C. Owen explains the challenges in a recent Naval War College Review article. Besides the imprudence of designing concepts around “few, exquisite” technologies, Owen identifies how “logistics emerges as a critical challenge to the concept’s viability.” He describes that 36 F-35Bs, operating from three mobile forward arming and refueling points, supported by a Marine Expeditionary Brigade and naval ships, require 666 tons of cargo per day just to maintain relevant sortie generation rates, without factoring in the sustainment for everything and everyone else. Moreover, most cargo is fuel for the aircraft and the ground equipment to support the aircraft. Owen also explains the Marines’ lack of “organic” capabilities to execute the mission.

Other possible resourcing solutions include Owen’s suggestion to outsource the logistical burden onto the U.S. Air Force. While seeming to relax the constraints on the Navy, Owen’s proposal requires procuring new theater lift assets, such as the A400M. Here, the logistical conundrum is still manifest, but now there is the addition of another acquisition requiring more time and money. What’s more, Gen. Darren W. McDew, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, in “Losing Our Sea Legs,” describes how the Gulf War included the largest movement of combat power in history, 95 percent of which was moved via sea. McDew contends, “moving an army of decisive size and power can only be accomplished by sea.” Similar to Owen’s analysis, McDew explains the key challenge today: Unlike decades past, where U.S. mariners operated 1,288 ships for commanders to leverage, only 81 exist now. Accordingly, the current Marine concepts are logistically impossible whether via sea or air.

Logistics is far from the only problem with the current concepts. In a 1923 Naval War College speech, Commandant Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune explained:

The use of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines for defending bases (held or seized by expeditionary forces) prevents their better employment in their legitimate role of finding and destroying the enemy.

Herein lies another challenge with the Marines’ concepts: force protection. F-35Bs or even weapons such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems become vulnerable and relatively easy to find due to their large and unique electromagnetic signatures. Thus, not only must the systems be sustained, but they must also be protected, which places even greater demand on U.S. Navy ships at a time when the service’s leaders are already seeking to reduce “tiny little box” missile defense missions.

Eric Sayers and T.X. Hammes recently highlighted this problem set in these pages. Specifically, they highlight how any U.S. military action in the western Pacific is well within range of more than 2,000 Chinese conventionally-armed, land-based cruise and ballistic missiles. China maintains this asymmetric missile advantage due to continued U.S. unilateral commitment to comply with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which technically restricts the United States and the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) from having any nuclear or conventional missile possessing a range anywhere between 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The U.S. State Department declared Russia in violation of the INF Treaty starting in 2014. China was not a signatory to the treaty in 1987 and has, understandably, refused all offers to join. On top of this, China already has lethal autonomous weapons systems. These weapons are designed to destroy radars such as those traditionally incorporated into cruise and ballistic missile protection systems.

Seeing all this, why should we be surprised that naval officers and Senate committees don’t think the Marine Corps has enough to contribute on its current trajectory?

A Resource-Informed Approach

Policymakers and scholars have woken up to the fact that China poses a major strategic challenge to the power and security of America and its allies. Beijing’s aggressive posture in the western Pacific is only intensifying. Over the past two months, China has positioned YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missiles (estimated 295-mile range) and HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (estimated 160-mile range) in the disputed Spratly Islands. China has also landed bomber aircraft in the Paracel Islands, while enhancing its land-based cruise and ballistic missile advantage, which is assessed as capable of striking in the western Pacific “almost every major [U.S.] fixed headquarters and logistical facility … [and] key headquarters … within the first few minutes” of a conflict.

To date, the aforementioned logistics- and force protection-intensive (not to mention fiscally unsustainable) concepts have dominated discussions on how to counter the growing Chinese threat. Surprisingly, however, even within the Marine Corps, next to no attention has been given to how the service’s traditional asymmetric advantage – its expeditionary infantry “sharpshooter” units – can be used to deter and, if necessary, to help defeat Chinese military forces should they attack the U.S. Navy in international waters, or while violating international law when attempting to invade an American mutual defense treaty ally’s sovereign territory.

Enter, Secretary Mattis’ Close Combat Lethality Task Force. In addition to transforming archaic Pentagon manpower policies, this task force is focused on fixing key capability areas within U.S. infantry units. For instance, providing them with sufficient situational awareness to sense beyond-line-of-sight. These units also “require enhancements in organic lethality to prevail over the pacing threats” (i.e., China and Russia). Additionally, they lack secure and reliable command and control equipment to leverage supporting arms and to communicate with their higher headquarters and adjacent units. Not only are these capabilities available now, but fielding, employing, and integrating them has the potential to both improve the organizational lethality of the Marine Corps, and ensure the marines better support the fleet. Moreover, implementing these changes provides the opportunity to make Marine close combat units Warbot-capable, thereby increasing their deterrent potential.

Warbot Companies and Deterrence

Imagine future Marine close combat units that meet Australian Army Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan’s propositions to harness human, machine, and centaur potential. What might these units be capable of doing in a conflict in the western Pacific? For starters, what might they be able to do when distributed at the platoon and even squad level located on and operating from U.S. Navy ships such as those described conducting the recent freedom of navigation exercises? Or, how might they execute the commandant’s 2025 vision described in the Marine Corps Operating Concept vignette? Simultaneously, how might these units – when dispersed inside thick vegetation that makes adversary detection extremely difficult – increase the surface area against which any potential Chinese invasion would have to counter? These questions all hinge on the fact that distributed smaller, yet still lethal Warbot units in more locations would be impossible for China to constantly monitor and would quickly overwhelm China’s detection capabilities. These units would function under mission command and be supported by node-less communication. They would be armed with swarming weapons and be the ultimate offensive defense-in-depth. Swarms transcend linear maneuver. Where is the flank? Does it even still exist?

Perhaps the reason why the Marine Corps and its close combat units have been increasingly dismissed from having a critical role to play in a potential western Pacific conflict though is due to their traditional weapons’ range limitations. For example, the maximum effective range of the standard rifle against an area target is around 800 meters, the grenade launcher often mounted below the rifle, about half that. Given these limitations, one might wonder, how are these units going to make any real difference deterring and, if required, stopping an adversary invasion across the South or East China Sea?

A few weeks ago, the Marine Corps ordered “Switchblade” lethal miniature aerial munition systems (LMAMs) for its close combat units. The Switchblade extends these units’ range from around 800 meters to 6 miles, with an ability for the munition to loiter for 10 minutes as the Marine controlling it hunts for targets. While the Switchblade is a significant capability enhancement, it’s only the beginning of what is possible for close combat unit lethality.

Warbot-enabling autonomous aircraft have already demonstrated the ability to fly 500 miles, which is 50 miles further than the F-35B’s combat radius. Such autonomous systems can also carry payloads holding explosive charges that could destroy the assault support platforms that an adversary would need to conduct an invasion. It’s not hard to imagine a Warbot company equipped with more than 100 such autonomous weapon systems providing a transformative capability in-line with Secretary Mattis’ intent. J. Noel Williams made precisely this point in “Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive Lethality” when describing how a “marine squad will be able to choose whether to maneuver and engage in a ground assault or use LMAMs to observe and attack indirectly from the air.” Williams also noted that such capabilities allow close combat units to employ “a flotilla of small craft … [to] engage a carrier task force and disappear before its attack is recognized.”

These types of weapons should be developed for specific missions. For the potential conflict scenario described in this article, the weapons should have four operational settings: (1) safe, meaning won’t operate; (2) close combat unit line-of-sight control; (3) close combat unit beyond-line-of-sight control; and, if an adversary interferes with these control links, (4) fully autonomous, much like the Chinese reverse-engineered Harpy that has a reported 179-mile range – after a human “starts the loop.” In the latter case, close combat Warbot leaders, who have been carefully screened, trained, and educated to understand the details of how the weapons’ algorithms function and to operate on commander’s intent alone, would designate specific sectors for the systems to hunt inside. If any adversary violated a U.S. treaty ally’s sovereign territory, as recognized by the United States in a manner that obligates Washington to respond under a collective defense agreement, Warbot leaders would then be able to help counter this violation based on their pre-determined rules of engagement.

It is important to understand how deterrence is central to this concept. These close combat unit autonomous weapons, fielded to future Warbot companies full of true “strategic sergeants,” would deter adversaries by posing a threat they are not equipped to counter, thereby reassuring U.S. allies. Should that deterrence fail, these Warbot units, spread throughout the western Pacific via platforms such as V-22s, H-60 helicopters, and fast-moving small boats, would then employ their weapons reigning chaos on the enemy in support of the naval and joint campaign to defend U.S. and allied security interests.

Increasing the operational ranges from which a marine employs lethal effects is only a first step. To access these technologies’ full potential requires changing current organizational structures and force employment paradigms. Let the Marine ‘sharpshooters’ of the 18th century reassert themselves with 21st century aptitude. Building up from these close combat units, near-term opportunities exist for a kind of unit where the Marine Corps provides more than just long-range precision fires. Each Warbot company would be capable of providing distributed sensing and precision fires leveraging and exploiting tactical swarming behaviors, in addition to its bedrock of maneuver, fire-power, and tempo. These companies would function as micro-MAGTFs coming from the sea or land with their own aviation combat element of artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous weapons, LMAMs and small unmanned aircraft systems. The possibilities for these companies are countless – once they’re freed from dated industrial-era formulations.

Moreover, such an employment approach is directly in-line with the National Defense Strategy. Secretary Mattis directed the Defense Department to “set the military relationship between our two countries [China and the United States] on a path of transparency and non-aggression.” Accordingly, these Warbot capabilities would be explained in sufficient detail to Chinese leaders, with the goal being that they clearly understand the consequences if they choose to violate a U.S. collective defense agreement. This transparency model is similar to the one that exists for nuclear deterrence, which has helped prevent a direct great power war for almost 70 years. In fact, such employment of these forces adds a highly flexible, cost-effective, and cost-imposing rung to U.S. deterrence capabilities. Whereas the threat of nuclear war suggests total destruction as an area weapon, Warbot units, properly conveyed by senior leaders, provide precision swarming to a similarly large swath of territory. Destruction is still the aim, Warbots just modulates the violence rendering only those targets deemed as threats vulnerable.

Closing Thoughts: “War Does Not Consist of a Single Short Blow

The Senate Armed Services Committee National Defense Authorization Act wording, along with Rielage’s thoughtful dismissal of the Marine Corps’ role in the “Great Pacific War,” should serve as a wake-up call for all marines. No longer can the service afford to pursue fiscally unsustainable, logistically-intensive, and large, unique electromagnetic signature-producing concepts that ask far more from the Navy than they can reciprocate to the fleet. A better way exists for the Marine Corps to support the Navy in the future, whether in a “Great Pacific War,” “Great Baltic War,” or “Great ‘Hezbollah on Steroids’ War.” This way centers on the intersection of the National Defense Strategy and Close Combat Lethality Task Force, prioritizing those selected to serve as close combat leaders and then enabling their units to leverage artificial intelligence-enabled, autonomous weapons systems and LMAMs. This Warbot construct provides the Marine Corps with the lethal force required to both deter and confront emerging threats anywhere in the world. And in the western Pacific specifically, should a potential competitor opt to go to war, this construct provides the Marine Corps the ability to maximize (1) the use of terrain in conjunction with the U.S.’s “first island chain” allies and partners, (2) the element of surprise, (3) combined arms attacks from several quarters against enemy lines of communication, (4) interior lines to consistently strengthen an offensive defense-in-depth across the theater of operations, (5) local and international public support, and (6) unquantifiable moral factors that would come as the naval service joined in the campaign to defend the rules-based international order. In other words, this construct enables the Marine Corps to maximize Clausewitz’s six “factors for bringing about… strategic effectiveness.” Unleash the Warbots.

 

Jeff Cummings is a Marine Infantry Officer and currently serves on the faculty of 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 a Marine Unmanned Aircraft Systems Officer. 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 Unmanned Aircraft Systems Officer currently serving as the commanding officer of VMU-1.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors 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/Cpl. Brianna Gaudi