Information at the Water’s Edge: Amphibious Command and Control from Aspiration to Reality
“Technological improvements in mobility, range, lethality, and information-gathering continue to compress time and space, forcing higher operating tempos and creating a greater demand for information.”
–Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6 Command and Control, 1996
“The objective of command integration is to ensure the Naval force can rapidly and flexibly engage threats whether they are based on land, air, surface, subsurface, or originate in the cyberspace domains. This will require our amphibious, ground, and aviation platforms have the requisite C2 capacity and interoperability within the Naval force and Combined/Joint force.”
–The Marine Corps Operating Concept, 2016
Time is a precious resource. Predictions of great power conflict forecast that “time will become an increasingly scarce commodity.” The time available to make decisions has shrunk given the speed of modern weapons, of technological change, and of the transmission of information. Hypersonic missiles fly at 20 times the speed of sound, while information can travel at the speed of light. The fleeting time available to commanders, highlighted in Ryan Hilger’s recent article, has crystallized the tension between decisive action and accurate information. America’s naval services struggle to overcome this problem because of disparate doctrine, tactics, and information systems.
While the armed services have begun to invest resources to meet emerging threats, the naval services and wider joint force are overdue for closer integration – specifically, more cohesive doctrine, command relationships, and information systems. The Navy and Marine Corps should work together more frequently and more closely at the tactical and operational levels. To maximize the flow of information for effective command and control, blue (Navy/Air Force) and green (Army/Marine corps) integration needs to go from aspiration to reality. This requires a reassessment of Navy-Marine Corps command and control structures, information systems, and supporting organizations to achieve greater synergy.
The question of command and control does not arise in a vacuum. Concepts such as “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment” and “Distributed Maritime Operations” have spurred renewed emphasis on dispersed operations across a vast maritime area. These concepts call for smaller formations to contest, support, or control naval chokepoints, while enabling operations to establish sea control. The challenge is adopting a command and control system to manage disparate units to aggregate information and direct operations. The larger joint force has recognized a similar dilemma. Yet taken together with the Army’s “Multi-Domain Operations” and the Air Force’s “Multi-Domain Command and Control,” a “common joint view” to enable each system to work together remains elusive. The military services need to overcome bureaucratic and institutional obstacles to interoperability through streamlined command and control organizations and systems, in order to meet the time demands of modern amphibious warfare and maintain access to information on the battlefield.
Organize for Command and Control
“Decisionmaking in execution thus becomes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo.”
–Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, 1997
“While the maritime operations centers (MOC) within each fleet provide the venue for operational level planning and execution, the existing fleet/JFMCC staffs that man those facilities require resident expertise regarding landward operations in general and Marine Corps capabilities, limitations, and support requirements in particular.”
–Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, 2017
Famed psychologist Edgar Schein asserted that leaders influence organizational thinking and behavior by allocating resources. Yet despite the resources applied to concepts and talking points touting naval integration, it remains an unrealized objective. Meaningful naval integration will come about through deliberate change to naval doctrine, organization, and materiel. As Mark Nostro recently suggested, a consolidated maritime headquarters instead of separate Navy and Marine Corps service components would improve integration at the operational level. In fact, the Marine Corps Operating Concept advocated exploration of a single naval component for the combatant commands. But consolidation of Navy and Marine Corps service components alone will not resolve the problems with coordinating real-time decision-making and information flow at the tactical level.
Doctrine is an essential precursor to the exercise of command and control. Marine Corps doctrine is based on maneuver warfare, while U.S. Navy task forces operate under “command by negation.” Trust and cohesion are a prerequisite for effective decentralized command. Yet emerging operational concepts are challenged by competing Navy and Marine Corps command and control structures, and by the limited available opportunities for sailors and marines to work closely together.
For decades, the Navy and Marine Corps have used the amphibious ready group to deliver Marine expeditionary units for amphibious operations through two co-equal amphibious task force and landing force commanders. However, the rest of the Navy operates within the composite warfare concept. Under this concept, a single officer in tactical command oversees several subordinate warfare and functional commanders, such as surface warfare and mine warfare. This presents divergent command and control, particularly when an expeditionary strike group and a Marine expeditionary brigade operate together, as Kevin J. Stepp has pointed out. As Bryan McGrath has written, the traditional Navy and Marine Corps approach to amphibious operations is a 20th-century concept. Accordingly, he recommends the command and control structure adapt to the joint forces maritime component commander construct.
Layered and redundant command structures expend valuable time and resources. Widely dispersed air, land, and sea forces require significant coordination and information sharing to conduct sea control and sea denial missions. Small land-based units, perhaps “Warbot” companies, will need direct and responsive communications with nearby supporting or supported joint naval vessels, such as cruisers, destroyers, or swift and capable Mark VI patrol boats. Maritime operations demand integrated command and control.
The Role of Information
“There are two basic uses for information. The first is to help create situational awareness as the basis for a decision. The second is to direct and coordinate actions in the execution of the decision.”
–Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6, Command and Control, 1996
The re-emergence of great power competition has generated two schools of thought on information. The first advocates flooding a zone with communications in the belief that multiple pathways will ensure uninterrupted information flow. The other school expects the worst – that forces will be unable to communicate in combat. In fact, both an effective command and control system and flexible, reliable information are essential.
To succeed, emerging naval concepts need force protection to control physical and electronic signatures. Today, due to the growth of cheap micro-satellites, many believe the ability to operate undetected on land and sea is over. Bad habits are well-documented, as fieldcraft has yet to adapt. A Marine Corps Gazette article from 2016 described units hobbled by over-reliance on electronic information, particularly an addiction to GPS and precision timing. In a joint or coalition maritime environment, “going dark” only heightens the requirement for sound command and control structure, information flow, and unit cohesion. During the Cold War, when the U.S. Navy operated alone, it learned the difficulties of command and control under strict emissions control conditions.
There is historical precedent for multiple information paths. Following the battle of Savo Island during the Guadalcanal campaign, the San Francisco lost nearly all communications, including radio, searchlights, and signal flags. The ship only avoided friendly fire by communicating over blinker light code. Meanwhile, from an organizational perspective, coordination and information sharing between commanders on Guadalcanal and naval forces afloat was virtually nonexistent. As James Hornfischer pointed out, “neither Captain Greenman, Commander of Naval Activities, nor General Vandegrift, was regularly apprised of the movements of friendly ships.” Despite being several decades into the post-Goldwater-Nichols era, the military services are at risk of forgetting these important lessons from history.
Information sharing at the tactical level is challenging in the best of times. Inadequate command and control built atop faulty information systems is doomed to fail in a contested environment. History has demonstrated the drawbacks of competing, stovepiped service-specific systems. Victory in modern amphibious operations will rely on joint air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace convergence across common doctrine and systems.
Organizationally, command and control among the sea services can be streamlined by simplifying the chain of command for better integration and synergy. While a fleet marine force model, as Nostro proposes, will provide efficiencies, it does not resolve command and control at the tactical level. The creation of an amphibious warfare commander within the composite warfare commander construct, as advocated recently by Stepp, McGrath, Nick Oltman, and Andrew Roberts, is one organizational solution to improve interoperability. Direct communication with the surface warfare commander or strike warfare commander will reduce the amount of time needed to act or react. Still, this is only a tactical solution.
The problem must be addressed at its root. Fully interoperable information systems require top-down reform of Navy, Marine Corps, and joint program offices. The inability to seamlessly share information in real time hinders command and control. Aboard amphibious ships, Navy and Marine Corps information systems are segregated — purchased, operated, and managed separately — down to the program office. Worse, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps use different non-compatible radio waveforms to share data at the tactical level. The F-22 and F-35 operate using separate data links.
Tribes within the services can also become the enemy of interoperability. Within the Marine Corps, debates continue between the ground and aviation community about which targeting app to use and how to network it, or whether to use Windows, Apple, or Android as an operating system. Despite decades of critical articles and reports, program offices continue to struggle to enforce common standards across services — or even within the Marine Corps.
Military combat development agencies often cite the complexities of new technology and the difficulties of setting common standards for these disconnects. Yet many of these arguments are designed to protect established programs of record or to avoid compromising with another service to build more compatible information systems. Any mid-level manager or company-grade officer exposed to the sausage-making process of program offices, military acquisition, and development has heard this refrain in its various forms. Yet as an institution of combat-tested veterans, we collectively shrug our shoulders and throw up our hands in the face of the black hole of bureaucratic red tape. Any military professional — particularly naval officers — need look no further than the Mark 14 torpedo scandal for a sobering reminder of the consequences of a bureaucracy unresponsive and lethargic to the needs of warfighters.
We are our own worst enemy. Perhaps the worst affront to interoperability is the overclassification of information. In the tactical environment, most information is labeled secret almost by default. In modern combat against a peer competitor, radio communication in plain text with partner forces will not be survivable. Yet even today, U.S. and NATO radios often cannot talk to each other. Considering the U.S. Air Force is now also training to establish expeditionary bases for F-15s, the need for joint and combined information sharing is clear.
Units afloat and ashore must have access to multiple pathways to share information. The modern battlefield requires large amounts of data and metadata for position location, intelligence, and targeting. There are many technologies available today to maximize the exchange of information, including light/passive and lower-emitting electro-optical, infrared, and directed energy. Commercial software is available to translate waveforms and protocols across disparate systems. Encoders can compress video and data into low bit rate signals. Local telecommunications can harvest bandwidth, using commercial wireless and fiber optic cable.
This picture of the future is challenging given historical and institutional reluctance to change. Chance is a perennial factor in military success. Some services bet on the right technology, and carefully integrate man and machine. As recently as the first Gulf War, the U.S. military was described as only “near the beginning of the revolution” in its integration of command and control systems to master the ability to move information on the battlefield. With the growth of options to exchange information, it seems the number of systems available to send and receive information has expanded faster than the ability to integrate information within the command and control system.
“Our approach to interdependence and interoperability starts with the navy. We share common operational concepts, but have work to do in command, control, communication, computer, intelligence systems and other areas.”
–Lt. Gen.l David Berger, Senate Armed Service Committee Testimony, 2019
An Army three-star general recently remarked that all the services agree multi-domain command and control “is the most important joint problem that we have to solve.” If the services acknowledge this problem, leadership is required to dedicate time and resources to fix it. This will require compromise among the services, and may also require the joint staff to codify doctrine to operate across domains.
Technological integration cannot be taken for granted. Following a detailed study of 20th-century military history, a report by Andrew Krepinevich noted that “military leaders who ignored technological changes and failed to adapt risked their men and their cause.” Today, theater maritime forces do not have common doctrines or organizations, or seamless interoperable systems to share information. According to recent testimony by Lt. Gen. David Berger, remaining amphibious ships will not all have a common shared data link through Cooperative Engagement Capability and Link-16 for another five years.
There are other benefits of integrated command and control. There is a clear nexus between proficiency, trust, and cohesion, yet this is neglected in personnel policies, which forget that “shared experience and reputation are two of the key elements to fostering trust.” This extends beyond solely the sailors on a cruiser, or soldiers and marines ashore. Reforms mandated by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, if implemented, will enhance the flexibility of the services to mold the force into organizations conducive to trust and cohesion. However, greater naval integration will require some difficult decisions, which may lead to uncomfortable command relationships and organizational changes.
A combined force that is committed to unity of effort and practices it in all domains with compatible systems will be greater than the sum of its parts. The ideal of the single naval battle necessitates a common construct for command and control, as well as information sharing across domains and services. Diversity of information sources and interoperability are essential enablers. Benjamin Armstrong has pointed out that “the ability to achieve command of the sea is the central and vital starting point, but it provides a beginning rather than an end to itself.” Seapower alone is insufficient to achieve a decision on land, or to simply guard against Slavic blue belts of maritime defense and Sinic strings of pearls. Integrated command and control among blue and green forces is essential to ensure lethality. Achieving better integration among the organizations and information systems of the military services will foster a decisive temporal advantage in the maritime domain, a critical requirement for speed and agility in combat against near-peer rivals.
Maj. Nick Brunetti-Lihach is a Marine Corps Communications Officer currently serving as a Curriculum Developer at the Marine Corps Expeditionary Warfare School. He has completed deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Marine Corps or the Department of the Navy.