Discarding the Ptolemaic Model of the Marine Corps
According to the Ptolemaic model, the Earth is at the center of the universe, with the rest of the universe orbiting around it. According to the heliocentric model, the sun is at the center of the solar system, and the Earth and other planets revolve around it.
From even before we earn the title of marine, we are indoctrinated with a Ptolemaic view of Marine Corps history that emphasizes the contribution of the Corps above other services, sometimes at the limit of reality. As the Marine Corps grapples with existential questions — “Who am I? Why am I here?” — Leo Spaeder recently posed one central question in War on the Rocks: Are marines naval in character or in purpose? If marines are to be naval in purpose, there are many ideas that he and others have put forward to recover that purpose. Some proposals rely on things outside the service’s control or on fielding different technologies that may take years to develop, depending on the larger fiscal situation.
But the service need not wait for a “future force” to emerge from its cocoon, full of recouped readiness and technical solutions, to begin acting in a way that reflects its naval purpose. There is a paradigm shift that the service can begin immediately. This shift requires a better appreciation of the construct of a naval campaign, in the context of the new strategic guidance. It also requires accepting a fundamentally different role for the Marine Corps within the joint and naval force than the one we tend to believe we occupy.
The fight for sea control
As the Marine Corps looks back out to sea to determine how best to support the fleet, it is easy to gravitate to the ability to shoot shore-based missiles at ships as the clearest example of how the Marine Corps can support sea control operations. However, there is much more to sea control than the ability to sink enemy surface combatants. Sea control is the condition in which one has freedom of action to use the sea for one’s own purposes in specified areas and for specified periods of time and, where necessary, to deny or limit its use by the enemy. Sea denial is accomplished with a force that may be insufficient to ensure the use of the sea by one’s own forces. The Marine Corps of today has the potential to accomplish control of key maritime airspace and the adjacent landward littoral, both critical aspects of sea control. However, this requires challenging some firmly-held Marine Corps tenets — namely the centrality and composition of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF).
Depending on the situation, current Marine Corps Air Wing units can assist in controlling airspace above the sea and its adjacent landward littoral in support of the fleet, especially when forward-based alongside America’s allies. Marine aircraft can support the defense of the fleet, add striking power to the fleet, and Marine aviation ground support can extend the range of carrier-based aircraft. Likewise, as the ranges of threat systems continue to grow, the extent of the landward area that can influence the fleet, even while it is far out to sea, also grows. This increases the importance of large swaths of land that must be denied to adversaries, and can be exploited by marines on the ground to support the fleet and America’s allies. In addition to advance bases at the forward edge of the fleet, which provide fires and scouting, the fleet also requires other bases for its sustainment and support. Securing an anchorage, port, or airfield to reload, repair, or replenish surface combatants, aircraft, or submarines is another Navy requirement. Being able to perform those tasks forward of large rear-area infrastructure extends the fleet’s operational reach and is another critical contribution that marines can make in a naval campaign. Securing and supporting these types of advance bases are within Marine capabilities today.
If Marine Corps aviation, reconnaissance, and logistics capabilities are supporting the fleet, they are not available to support the ground combat element — but this does not imply that there is no role for ground combat forces. While much is made of a future dominated by long-range precision fires and autonomous drone swarms, the prevalence of these systems in the short term will likely not eliminate the utility of ground maneuver forces in support of fleet requirements. It is easy to look at large circles on a map (or chart) as an impenetrable wall, but long-range weapons require underlying targeting, sustainment, and prioritization support to be effective against specific targets, and how effectively an adversary will be able to muster that support consistently is an open question. The naval force requirements may not necessitate a “balanced MAGTF” organized around the ground combat element as its decisive arm. This shift may subsequently lead to force structure change, but operating in that way immediately, before changing the structure of the force, is possible, if somewhat uncomfortable. Using precious flight hours to train for naval missions instead of air-ground integration would demonstrate that the Marine Corps is serious about its naval purpose.
Operating existing systems and units for a naval purpose is an important first step. Moving forward, the Marine Corps should seek less exquisite, more resilient and risk-worthy platforms to contribute to sea control from ashore, even though it will change the composition of the MAGTF. If the Corps proves unwilling to divest of some systems to invest in new capabilities — that are not simply exquisite, exponentially more expensive, incremental improvements on legacy ones — it is likely to find itself with an imbalanced force not fit for its purpose. Applying the lens through which we currently view the MAGTF to the overall naval force reveals that we have to fight not as a whole MAGTF, but as a whole naval force, even if Marine ground forces are not the central figure in that organization.
Working with and for the Navy
Our fleet architecture has been optimized over decades to favor efficiency above resilience. A three-ship Amphibious Ready Group is much more efficient, and simultaneously less resilient, than the conglomeration of smaller vessels that could lift a similar amount. Likewise, those forces, while embarked, are much more concentrated and vulnerable than if they were dispersed ashore and on smaller platforms in the littoral in a posture that maximized passive air defense. The current model, in theory, allows the entire amphibious force to remain afloat for extended periods, and to be repositioned across the globe in a single lift. Adjusting that model, and pursuing acquisition of smaller, cheaper, and more risk-worthy platforms, in conjunction with the Navy, would enhance the resilience and flexibility of future amphibious forces. Complaining that the Navy is cutting its plan to build large amphibious ships of the current class is a habitual response to budget pressures, rather than an attempt to ensure appropriate future platforms are procured. These complaints reflect a misunderstanding of the role the Marine Corps claims to seek, causing Navy leadership to question our seriousness in supporting the fight for sea control.
Global Force Management requirements are another frequent scapegoat for our failure to operate in support of the fleet. While the service can and should explain the risk associated with continued steady-state requirements that are not unassailably naval in purpose, the demands of the combatant commanders and the decisions of the secretary of defense are beyond Marine Corps control. Still, within those obligations levied on the Marine Corps there is room to advance naval integration. All forces allocated to fulfill combatant command requirements could be employed through a fleet marine force model, rather than a separate Marine Corps component. By subsuming the regional Marine Corps Forces headquarters into their associated naval components, or at least aligning them much more closely, assigned and allocated Marine Corps forces can immediately be employed through consolidated maritime headquarters. That in itself is a major step forward in focusing on the Marine Corps’ naval purpose. If Marine Corps forces are provided to a naval commander, that commander will be forced to think through their employment, and will naturally advocate to the combatant commander for their use in support of naval requirements. Additionally, ensuring that naval commanders consider the employment of Marine Corps forces to meet their objectives will refine the future concepts and capabilities the Marine Corps pursues.
The Marine Corps’ role within the naval and joint force
Pride in the storied history of the U.S. Marine Corps is certainly justified. Its continued existence is owed to the fact that the nation doesn’t need a Marine Corps, it wants a Marine Corps, even if this want is being questioned today. Most marines carry that perspective with them as they work alongside sailors and other servicemembers. While service pride is an asset, a dose of reality needs to accompany it. The joint force doesn’t orbit around the Marine Corps. Quite the opposite. Our accomplishments lead us to emphasize our self-reliance to a degree that ignores the joint support we require to survive. Like the Marine Corps, the rest of the joint force is also struggling to adapt to the changing operational environment. Progress on changing force posture, platforms, and employment concepts is likely to be sporadic. We should continue to study, test, and experiment, while leveraging the work other services and other nations are doing. There is a “second mover advantage” that may reduce the cost, in both money and time of realizing some of these new capabilities. Additionally, as our sister services adapt, those changes will affect the support available to the Marine Corps. A healthy degree of skepticism about what we can really do without the Army’s Theater Sustainment Commands, Air Force tankers, and Navy ships must be cultivated in addition to our unit pride and esprit de corps.
Additionally, a force that is naval in purpose recognizes how its operations ashore fit within the naval campaign. We tend to view amphibious operations as a means to achieve land-based objectives more decisively. Instead, we should view amphibious options (in the broadest sense, not just assault landings) as a supporting effort to fleet action, or even other joint force goals, much as was the case in World War II when amphibious operations set conditions for Army Air Force aircraft to eventually reach targets in Japan. Marine forces should fight across the landward and seaward littoral to enable the fleet to achieve its objectives. Better yet, the Marines should embrace a strategic approach that deters by denial our potential adversaries who might desire to execute fait accompli strategies in the world’s key maritime regions. This inversion of our expectation that the Navy has to figure out how to support us, in addition to deterring by denial instead of by reactive punishment, is an important step to truly operate with a naval purpose. While seeking to align more with the Navy, there is still a desire within the Marine Corps for “naval integration, not naval subordination.” In point of fact, for the Marine Corps to fulfill its espoused purpose in a naval campaign will, and should, require subordination of the marine commander to the overall commander of the naval force.
The Marine Corps must look to the future to evolve into a force that is reflective of its naval purpose. In the interim, applying legacy capabilities to fulfill that naval purpose demonstrates that the Marine Corps takes its commitment to the naval force seriously. Leaving things as they are while distributing glossy pamphlets of future concepts and capabilities tells the Navy “just wait, in 10 to 15 years, I’m going to be all over this sea control thing.” Further, a better understanding of naval requirements and integration within naval planning will show that our current force can perform many critical tasks today, if applied aggressively and without being anchored by the MAGTF employment paradigm that evolved during a period of presumptive sea control and sustained operations ashore. Finally, marines must accept that as a part of the naval service and larger joint force, there will be times that the Marine Corps is not the main effort, and it will have to accept compromise in a variety of acquisition, programmatic, and operational decisions because it recognizes its critical role as a part of the larger naval force.
Maj. Mark Nostro is a MAGTF planner currently assigned to Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa and a graduate of the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the U.S. Marine Corps or Department of Defense.