Not Yet Openly at War, but Still Mostly at Peace: The Marine Corps’ Roles and Missions in and Around Key Maritime Terrain


Editor’s Note: This article was submitted in response to our call for papers on “roles and missions.”

As other great powers rise and swaths of the world fall victim to civil war and instability, policymakers are reconsidering and debating the roles and missions of America’s military services. The U.S. Marine Corps, of course, is not immune. What should the Marine Corps of the future look like? How can it deter and wage war against advanced peer competitors? And how can it do so in a way that complements the needs and efforts of the other services, most especially the U.S. Navy?

It was in this spirit that we put forth a new concept — Marine Warbot combat units — and fleshed out how they might operate in service of U.S. strategy, specifically in the Indo-Pacific. We were thrilled to read Ewen Levick’s response. Four months from now, the Pentagon owes Congress a report tying budgeted military programs and capacity to service roles and missions based on the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy. The Senate Armed Services Committee sought to force the Defense Department to answer a series of precisely worded questions about the Marine Corps, in particular, that shook the service at its core. With these thoughts in mind, we’d like to continue our dialogue with Levick while also explaining the roles and missions that we believe the Marine Corps ought to be focused on linked directly to key maritime terrain.

Levick suggests that our concept is a “right of boom” capability that isn’t an effective solution for countering China’s “left of boom” advances. For a quick recap, our Warbot combat team concept argues that persistently deployed maneuverable teams of marines trained and equipped with artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous weapons systems and loitering munitions can enable naval maneuver to project power and facilitate sea control in support of the joint force, interagency partners, and our allies.

To ensure that we are on the same page with Levick, we consider his “left of boom” the contact layer, and his “right of boom” the blunt layer. Additionally, to fully accommodate our framework, which is taken directly from the new National Defense Strategy Global Operating Model, we need to consider his “right of boom” a gradient that also includes the surge layer. The National Defense Strategy describes forces in the contact layer as those “designed to help us compete more effectively below the level of armed conflict,” those in the blunt layer focused on missions to “delay, degrade, or deny adversary aggression,” and those in the surge layer as “war-winning forces.” A key point on the contact layer is that it involves enduring worldwide competition.

Figure 1. Levick’s “left of boom” and “right of boom” framework overlaid with the National Defense Strategy’s Global Operating Model.

If we understand Levick correctly, he argues that our concept may be a solid “right of boom” capability — in other words, useful once the war starts — but is wary that any such capability can deter what is happening “left of boom,” such as China’s island building activities and maritime militia activities. In other words, these teams are good for the blunt layer — delaying, degrading, or denying outright aggression — but not the contact layer, where competition below the level of armed conflict takes place.

While we disagree, we’re grateful for the debate. The Warbot combat team concept is optimized to persistently operate “left of boom” in the contact layer executing critical missions such as theater security cooperation, visit, board, search, and seizure, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and maritime surveillance and airborne early warning. Additionally, given the units’ proposed transformative capabilities, combined with their persistent deployment alongside key allies and partners, they would be postured to deny strategic maritime terrain and to provide other options for policymakers to credibly threaten adversaries. The concept also includes enough “right of boom” capability to blunt long enough to enable the rest of the joint surge force, as illustrated in the above framework. We don’t envision Marine Warbot combat teams operating alone in the contact layer’s key maritime terrain. Their utility derives from operating, as Patrick Cronin and Hunter Stires suggest, in support of other government agencies and in conjunction with other forward-deployed U.S. military forces, and, in particular, naval forces — all backed by America’s nuclear deterrent, economic strength, and alliance architecture.

Levick’s argument uses our Warbot combat team concept as a foil to critique recent U.S. national security strategy in Asia. In so doing, he reinforces the reasons why Ely Ratner called for a “course correction” in U.S. policy in the Western Pacific. While it’s not in our purview as active-duty marines to judge the merits of official U.S. policy, we believe it’s important to highlight that the recently published National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have set America on a new course when it comes to strategy in Asia, especially vis-à-vis China. One need only consider Vice President Mike Pence’s recent forceful words about China, the significant increase in U.S. military freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, the rise in reassurance engagements with America’s key allies and partners in the Pacific, and America’s growing “trade war” with Beijing to recognize this course change. While some challenge aspects of the strategy, there’s no disputing that interactions between leadership in Washington and Beijing have changed substantially over the past year.

For the Marine Corps, the fundamental take-away from these changes is that the service’s primary mission should shift. The thesis in our two recent articles is that the service is neither organized nor equipped to satisfy its new mandate. Yet, the Marine Corps is particularly suited to support the National Defense Strategy’s essential “left of boom” layer as a force in persistent and allied forward contact centered around key maritime terrain. If necessary, elements from within this same contact layer force are able to rapidly converge to the point(s) of adversary aggression and serve as key parts of the “right of boom” blunt layer — if the service embraces something like the Warbot combat team concept. What follows is an explanation of why this is the case, along with more details on what the Marine Corps ought to do to maximize this opportunity and ultimately return to being first to fight.

Persistence, the Global Operating Model, and the Marine Corps’ Domain

The National Defense Strategy provides the structure within which the Marine Corps can creatively destroy and reimagine itself. The Global Operating Model, built on the idea of layers, highlights the necessity of continuous global coverage, like a blanket of competition and conflict covering the world. This model is a significant departure from the previous joint operations construct in which operations were episodically employed and phased in spatially circumscribed and predetermined areas. Phases ended along prescribed timelines. It was contingent. The assumption was that forces were able to step outside of the construct itself, to remove themselves from the portion of the world where violent political action transpired. But as Robert Kaplan observes in The Revenge of Geography, “The core drama of our own age … is the steady filling up of space, making for a truly closed geography where states and militaries have increasingly less room to hide.” This is one reason why the new model is global in contrast with yesterday’s theater operating model.

Figure 2. Maritime traffic flows throughout the world, particularly in and out of the United States, help explain the Global Operating Model logic.

But there are other reasons. The Pentagon cannot segment a battlespace when U.S. global trade with foreign countries totaled $5.2 trillion in 2017 and relies on worldwide instantaneous connectivity. Nor can it continue to cordon off the homeland, reemphasized in the Global Operating Model, as immune from the same persistent competition and potential conflict indicated by the model’s layers. We exist in a world with global interconnection, persistent surveillance, and ubiquitous signals that challenge the freedom to maneuver to which the U.S. military has become accustomed.

When the Pentagon was able to circumscribe “over there” from the homeland, the Marine Corps was afforded a temporal freedom for mobilization. Time and effort to deploy forces was uncontested until they were in the area of operations. That is no longer true. This is what we believe our commandant means when he describes “needing to fight to get to the fight.” Since the battlefield is global, and marines are currently operating with allies and partners around key maritime terrain, they are already in contact where potential conflict might move from a simmer to a boil. Marines embody the persistent capability. An expeditionary force-in-readiness that is based on a persistent, global, appropriately distributed, rapidly maneuverable, consistently sensing, and lethal force posture.

Moreover, persistence suggests that the Marine Corps has a bias towards a single operational domain: time. Time is the nexus that bridges the gap between all elements of national power — diplomatic, military, economic, and informational. Bridging time varies within domains, however so defined. The Warbot combat team concept is a packaged capability that can uniquely execute within the entire logical space of warfare, for a limited duration, with limited specific preparation. This provides a moment of temporal superiority — should we choose to act — based on the premise: Be there. The prioritization of time to control tempo seeks to control space through the interconnectivity of violence and the threat of it as a whole, linking task and purpose in time. The capability to create moments of temporal superiority is made possible through persistence and distributed maneuver within the contact layer.

The term “amphibious” no longer only describes the binary between land and sea. It encompasses the spirit of what it means to be amphibious, to be of two parts: time and space. In the 21st century, amphibious forces serve as a persistent bridge between uniquely defined operating areas, particularly the land and sea, but not exclusively so. Marines can exploit the nexus and translate combat power as needed from sea-to-shore, shore-to-air, air-to-sea, among others and remain in contact with what’s in between. Transitions take time, which is what Warbot combat teams are meant to nullify. If Warbot combat team nodes are persistent and domain-agnostic, they instantly alleviate the necessity for cross-domain transition, thereby gaining temporal advantage on the adversary. Additionally, from these nodes, marines can deny strategic terrain and provide a foothold for further forcible entry in a transition from contact-to-blunt so that Americans serving in Military Sealift Command don’t ever need to feel that “you’re on your own” when moving critical logistics capabilities through the world’s key maritime terrain. Providing an on-call breach for blunt and surge forces further reduces transition time and likely transcends domains. Together, this would enable the joint force to out-cycle the adversary both temporally and spatially — providing necessary time and space for more robust forces to arrive, integrate, and act.

Each of the Global Operating Model’s layers includes myriad instances of potential violent political interaction, but how they manifest and combine varies. This is particularly stark between the contact and blunt layers. The contact layer is violent political interaction, but the violence is not classically defined (it’s not “armed conflict”). It is still violent, however. Anyone who has played sports understands jostling and fighting for position. It just isn’t a fight, yet. It is constantly enforcing and rewriting the rules against transgressions. It is augmenting the field. It is canvassing the audience. It is setting the stage for when the fight actually starts, if it does. And, in fact, success is measured by persistent contact that remains only when in contact. We believe that here Warbot combat teams have a significant role to play.

From Theory to Practice

To see how persistent 21st century amphibious capability ought to fit into the Global Operating Model, let’s imagine a world in which the Marine Corps heeds the changes recommended in our previous articles and see how the service could then operate in five strategic locations: the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Bab-el Mandeb Strait, the Barents Sea, and the Bering Strait.

The South China Sea is rapidly becoming the top great power flashpoint in the world. Recently, a Chinese warship sailed within 45 yards of a U.S. Navy destroyer as it was executing a freedom of navigation exercise in these disputed waters. A few days prior, U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers conducted a show of force in this same region. These actions were in response to growing Chinese militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea and subsequent threats to U.S. and allied military and civilian vessels operating in the area. These exchanges are clear examples of “left of boom,” contact layer activities. Despite all the attention these actions have gained, Cronin and Stires identify a critical problem: without persistence, reinforcing freedom of navigation or objecting to territorial claims are ineffective because they are “inherently transitory.” Consequently, these actions “do not have an appreciable impact on the behavior of local civilian mariners and aviators, who will once again be subject to Chinese harassment as soon as the Americans sail away.”

The foundational problem with the U.S. approach is a lack of persistence and a transitory mindset not dedicated to enduring competition and continuous integration with allies and partners. Implementing the concept would help fix this “left of boom” problem. Rapidly maneuverable units, embarked with naval forces on fast-attack missile boats and serving under a joint force maritime component commander, would enable executing a littoral “counterinsurgency campaign” similar to the one described by Cronin and Stires. This would be “coupled with vigorous diplomacy” focused on achieving “an essential victory for U.S. and allied arms and the rules-based international order they defend.” It’s important to emphasize that what we’re proposing only works if the Warbot combat teams are persistently located and thoroughly integrated with the rest of the elements of national power.

Let’s now shift 1,250 nautical miles to the southwest to the Malacca Strait. This strait has been described as the 21st Century “Fulda Gap.” More than 15 million barrels of oil pass through the strait each day, including around 82 percent of China’s 9 million-barrel daily import requirement. Beyond oil, around 25 percent of total global trade by volume moves daily through the strait, along with more than 30 terabits per second of transoceanic data. Needless to say, the Strait of Malacca is strategic maritime terrain. Thus, Beijing’s efforts to economically sway into its orbit countries located adjacent to the strait, such as Malaysia, shouldn’t be a surprise. Nor should China’s efforts to develop closer relationships with the Royal Malaysian Navy, which currently includes providing littoral missions ships, a variety of weapons, and increased bi-lateral training exercises. Beijing’s aggressive push to establish a foothold adjacent to the Strait of Malacca isn’t isolated to Malaysia though. It’s increasingly expanding across the countries of Southeast Asia, many of whom are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Figure 3. Key maritime terrain and how the Chinese economy is fueled by way of the sea.

Unfortunately, the Marine Corps currently lacks the capabilities required to reassure allies and partners under pressure from China. As mentioned in our previous article, the reason for this capability deficiency is not a lack of funding. Instead, it’s driven by what the service is choosing to do with its more than $40 billion provided annually by American taxpayers. An all “exquisitely capable but extremely expensive” single engine, single platform approach to key parts of the service’s modernization efforts deliberately puts the Corps back into the “use what you have” conundrum but at a dumbfounding cost for a service that touts its cost efficiency. This is before defying logic in how the assets are used. The F-35B’s recent “combat debut” in Afghanistan is a perfect example of such a confusing message. Regardless of the Taliban’s lack of an air force and air defense capabilities, the Marine Corps just employed multiple $122 million aircraft, at a cost of more than $40,000 per hour to operate, to bomb a fixed Taliban target, a task routinely performed by manned-unmanned teams at a fraction of the cost. This self-contained near 1000-mile round trip mission cost the taxpayer around $500,000 in direct flight hour costs alone. This amount does not include maintenance, tankers, resupply ships, and many other supporting elements needed to enable this single sortie.

Thankfully, the National Defense Strategy guidance emphasizing the importance of maximum capacity in the contact and blunt layers provides the Marine Corps a golden opportunity (or “out”) to fundamentally change course from illogical and fiscally imprudent decisions like these. Similar to our suggestion for the South China Sea, a better course for the future in the Strait of Malacca would provide U.S. policymakers a persistently located and sensing Warbot combat team force. This force’s mission would include providing “left of boom” reassurance to allies and partners while serving as an added layer of the overall U.S. deterrent capability. Nor is this capability limited to the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

If we shift 4,000 nautical miles west, we find the Bab-el Mandeb Strait and more opportunities to leverage the concept in the contact layer. Nearly 10 percent of the global oil supply — 4.3 million barrels per day — passes between the 18 miles separating Ras Menheli, Yemen and Ras Siyyan, Djibouti. Referred to as a “deadly geopolitical cocktail,” the strait is subject to everything from Somali pirates to Houthi anti-ship missile attacks spilling over from Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Additionally, China’s first overseas military base, for “international obligations,” is located in Djibouti. Unsurprisingly, China’s belt and road initiative has significant infrastructure investment in Djibouti funded by predatory loans that indebt the country. China also recently secured a 99-year lease for a port in Sri Lanka, providing its growing maritime force access to a key location along the main shipping route between the Bab-el Mandeb Strait (as well as the Strait of Hormuz) and the Malacca Strait.

China’s base in Djibouti is only eight miles away from U.S. forces at Camp Lemonnier and already interfering with American forces by conducting laser interference against pilots operating in the region, in another moment of blatant disregard for safety and professionalism. The same counterinsurgency model recommended by Cronin and Stires applies here. Moreover, marines can apply knowledge from executing almost 20 years of counterinsurgency towards persistent operations working with special operations forces, the U.S. Navy, allies, and local partners to help pressure China, to disrupt piracy operations, and to increase security operations in the Bab-el Mandeb Strait.

Figure 4. Arctic sea routes.

Spinning the globe again, we travel north 4,000 nautical miles to Svalbard, Norway. This was the site of a number of military operations during World War II, most importantly as key maritime terrain for Germany to maintain war weather stations. Svalbard is 550 nautical miles north of Murmansk and adjacent to the Barents Sea, where Russia is constructing artificial islands. Svalbard is also home to the Doomsday Vault for the world’s seeds. It has the northern-most set of undersea cables that are likely to be networked as the arctic continues to melt in an effort to reduce latency. This is not a region unfamiliar to the Marine Corps. Recently, the service has increased its persistent presence in Norway conducting exercises and maintains an established Marine Corps Pre-Positioning Program-Norway.

With Warbot combat teams, however, we suggest a modification to deter Russia and continue cooperation with our allies. Currently, the Norwegian Coast Guard only has one vessel, yet it requires more to conduct all the operations required for Svalbard, something that could be augmented by persistent presence. Moreover, last year Russia conducted an exercise simulating an invasion into Svalbard, which if carried out could invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Russian possession of Svalbard would enable their anti-access/area-denial capabilities, protect their nuclear submarines, and enable sea control into the Barents Sea complicating NATO efforts. Warbot combat teams can complicate that effort, as that would be “right of boom,” but more importantly they can provide the persistent contact layer capability to help make sure any such conflict in vicinity of the Barents Sea stays “left of boom.”

Turning towards the other entrance to the Arctic, 2,100 nautical miles over the North Pole, we find the Bering Strait. Unlike during the Cold War, when sea ice concentrations in the region prevented dependable transit routes for trade, cargo shipping along the Northern Sea Route in 2017 achieved a record high of 9.7 million tons. This was a 35 percent increase from 2016, with experts forecasting much greater growth in the years ahead. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Rachael Gosnell described predictions indicating the “Bering Strait will open for an extended period starting around 2020, the Northern Sea Route around 2025, and the Transpolar Route around 2030.” She also described how plentiful natural resources have sparked great interest in the region. Russia is already acting on these interests by conducting major infrastructure building efforts and large naval exercises. China has also employed its navy in the region. Unfortunately, despite this key maritime terrain being adjacent to Alaska, neither the U.S. Navy nor the Marine Corps have a visible, persistent presence in the region. This is yet one more opportunity for the naval force to leverage the Warbot combat team concept. In this case, these teams would help an already over-tasked U.S. Coast Guard element defend 10,000 kilometers of U.S. coastline, which is 50 percent of America’s coast. These forces could also partner with our Canadian allies who have similar challenges in the region.

Opportunity Knocks

What we’ve described in this response is a way forward for the Marine Corps to help the Navy and the rest of the joint force achieve the goals set forth in the National Defense Strategy. We understand that our proposed affordable, persistently located and sensing, distributed, rapidly maneuverable, and lethal Warbot combat team concept is fundamentally different from what the Marine Corps provides policymakers today. We also understand that change is hard, especially when in this case the service’s current organizing paradigm and major acquisition programs are in question. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Marine Corps has received new strategic guidance and is not, as our commandant has repeatedly stated, “currently organized, trained, and equipped” to execute it. Regardless of how hard change might be, it’s required. Fortunately, the types of changes required to make the Warbot combat team concept real provide a perfect opportunity for the service to help the Navy and the rest of the joint force accomplish the National Defense Strategy’s intent.


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 currently serving in the Ellis Group at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. Additionally, she is an associate editor for The Strategy Bridge and a member of the Military Writers Guild. She tweets at @teaandtactics.

Jeff Cummings is a Marine infantry officer and currently serves on the faculty of the Expeditionary Warfare School, Marine Corps University.

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: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom