war on the rocks

The “Dumbest Concept Ever” Just Might Win Wars

July 29, 2019

Until a few days ago, I was convinced that the expeditionary advanced base operations concept was one of the dumbest ideas to come down the pike in a long time. This developing concept envisions the Marine Corps seizing and establishing a persistent presence on key maritime terrain (islands and chokepoints). By emplacing long range weapons systems within these bases, marines would create an anti-access envelope, within which enemy ships and aircraft would find it difficult and hopefully impossible to operate.  As far as I was concerned, this concept, known in military circles by its acronym, “EABO,” was another of those ideas that “briefed well” but whose folly would only be exposed in war. Then I read Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger’s new planning guidance. I was only half-way finished when I felt the first pangs of doubt intruding into my certitude. I spent much of the next day pondering how I could have gotten the operational and strategic utility of EABO so wrong.

Before explaining what changed my mind, allow me to offer the two main reasons I initially hated the concept. Ever since the 1980s, the Marine Corps has rightfully espoused maneuver warfare as the core of all of its warfighting concepts. Well, scattering battalions across thousands of miles of ocean appeared, on its face, to be the antithesis of maneuver. Once placed, it would take a herculean effort to reconsolidate all the separated pieces of a Marine expeditionary force into a formation with sufficient fire and maneuver capacity to win a stand-up fight with a peer-state military. In my original understanding of the concept, EABO seemed to make a hash of Marine Corps claims to be a maneuver-based force. In short, by adopting EABO as its foundational warfighting, the Marine Corps was apparently turning its units into sitting ducks.

Second, as a military historian, EABO sounded awfully familiar. Didn’t Japan try this in the Pacific Theater during World War II? Japan too scattered small forces throughout its so-called co-prosperity sphere, hoping that stubborn defenses by each of the isolated units would wear down an American offensive and force the United States to sue for peace. It did not work out that way. Instead, the Marine Corps  tore through the Japanese bastions in a remarkably short period of time during the Central Pacific Campaign. I could not begin to fathom why the Marine Corps was espousing a concept that they themselves had demonstrated was faulty and massively vulnerable.

What I Got Wrong

Let me share a passage from the commandant’s latest planning guidance:

While the answer to the question – “What does the Navy provide the Marine Corps?” is readily identifiable – operational and strategic mobility, and assured access; the same cannot be said for the follow-on question, “What does the Marine Corps provide the Navy and the Joint Force?” Traditionally, the answer has been power projection forces from the sea, and/or forces for sustained operations ashore in support of a traditional naval campaign. We should ask ourselves – what do the Fleet Commanders want from the Marine Corps, and what does the Navy need from the Marine Corps?

This was an epiphany.

The Pacific is over 60 million square miles, a third larger than the Atlantic Ocean, and 16 times the size of the United States. It should have been obvious to me that operational and strategic mobility throughout this vast expanse can only be accomplished by naval forces. Land mobility is of little value in a theater where all maneuver is held hostage to the Navy’s ability to control the sea lanes, and where land maneuver space is always at a premium. To grasp the vital core of EABO I had to expand my conception of maneuver to encompass the entire joint force over the enormous expanses of the Indo-Pacific theater.

Sadly, decades of reductions in fleet size are imperiling the U. S. Navy’s capacity to control vast tracts of the Pacific, making a dangerous breakout of China’s growing blue water fleet increasingly possible. But the Navy’s sea-control task is hugely eased if, like the island of Malta during World War II, the Marine Corps is able to establish and defend key maritime terrain on which are emplaced fires-complexes capable of engaging ships and aircraft 500 or more miles away. Just one such location relieves the Navy of the responsibility of controlling a circle of the ocean with a diameter of 1,000 miles. Even as few as a half-dozen such locations could make large swathes of the Pacific Ocean off limits to China’s navy. As Thomas Mahnken has recently pointed out, such a specter would have a huge deterrent effect on Chinese strategic calculations. Moreover, the potential impact of EABO is not limited to the Pacific. For instance, strongly defended fires-complexes placed in Northern Europe could bottle up both Russia’s Northern and Baltic Fleets, keeping them from breaking into Atlantic shipping lanes.

The capacity to control thousands of miles of sea and airspace from a chain of island locations could also be employed to cut China off from its overseas markets and, more crucially, the energy resources it needs to sustain its economy and maintain societal peace. It is time for the United States to stop worrying about how to penetrate Chinese anti-access/area-denial systems, and force them to worry about how they will get past American systems. By placing A2D2 systems within the first and second island chains, EABO gives the United States options well-short of violating Field Marshall Montgomery’s first rule of warfare: Don’t go fighting with your land army on the mainland of Asia. Moreover, by adopting EABO as its foundational strategic concept in the Pacific, the U.S. Marine Corps could ensure that time would be on its side in any future conflict. We know how much oil China needs to import daily, and we know approximately how much is in their strategic reserve – 40 to 50 days at normal demand. Even with the strictest of conservation measures China will be at risk of state collapse in nine to 12 months. Some analysts claim China is working to overcome this threat by expanding the number of overland pipelines. There are two reasons this is unlikely to work. First, it will take decades to build the amount of infrastructure necessary to meet even China’s minimal energy needs. Second, such pipelines are of little utility once a shooting war breaks out, as there is no greater love than that between a cruise missile and a stationary linear target.

 

 

Other strategists claim that we could forgo the uncertainties of an EABO concept, which would have to be implemented in China’s backyard, by implementing a strategy of horizontal escalation, which aims to geographically expand a conflict by attacking valuable targets that lie outside of the central theater. While such a strategic concept might have some deterrence value, it betrays a huge strategic naiveté if one supposes it will work once a conflict erupts. If China goes to war with the United States, it is certain to do so with a short list of vital strategic objectives in mind. As such, it is unlikely to be distracted by peripheral concerns until after there is a decisive outcome in the central theater of operations. No great power – particularly one where the political elite are likely to be overthrown and killed if they suffer a military defeat – is ever going to give up the fight over something tangential to its core strategic concerns.

But what of the 1944 scenario? Japan tried its version of EABO and failed miserably. Why would such a seemingly similar concept do better this time? Answering that question requires an understanding of why the Japanese version of EABO failed. First, and most crucially, the Japanese had a very limited capacity to reach out from their island bases and strike fleets at sea. And even this limited capacity dropped to nil when their air forces were decimated in the South Pacific in 1942 and 1943. As a consequence, in the years after the battle of Midway, the Japanese navy, unsupported by any land-based aircraft or strike capability, could not stand up to the ever-increasing firepower of the U.S. Navy. By the start of the of the Central Pacific Campaign, particularly after the battles around the Marianas, the Japanese islands were mostly abandoned to their fates. Instead of a mutually supporting joint force, Japanese land and naval forces were fighting two separate wars.

Why It Will Work

The EABO concept, upon deeper examination, bears little resemblance to what Japan tried during World War II. EABO is not a stand-alone concept that would leave Marine units stranded and fighting for their lives on isolated islands. Rather, the Marine Corps and Navy are working to integrate their various weapons systems – existing and projected – into a  mutually supporting fires complex, employing missiles and long-range artillery fires to dominate the maritime domain. Under such a construct, a naval force would be able to conduct operations while sheltering under a land-based anti-access umbrella. That same naval force would also be able to add its defensive weaponry to help protect the Marine fires-complexes. This mutually supporting firepower would hugely increase the survivability of both land and naval forces.  To accomplish all of this, the Marine Corps is resetting its mindset to better integrate itself with naval forces with the aim of truly becoming an extension of the Fleet. In doing so, the Marines will help ensure that the U. S. Navy retains its freedom of maneuver throughout the Pacific, while curtailing China’s ability to get much beyond its littorals.

EABO is still only a concept, and much work needs to be done. For one, the Marine Corps still needs to develop and acquire the long-range missiles and other fire systems required to implement the concept. Also, as with any emerging operational concept, extensive experimentation is still required to refine the organizational structures, weapons systems, and logistics that will make EABO execution possible in contested spaces. As the Marine Corps continues to examine this concept, it should not ignore the fact that for EABO to be effective, most of the Corps forward fires-complexes will have to be established within or adjacent to regions in an enemy’s own backyard. As such, marines will have to endure a vicious military reaction that could last days, weeks, or months. Surviving and operating in such an environment will challenge the Corps in ways it has not experienced in at least two generations.

Still, this not an insurmountable problem, and the Marine Corps is looking to accelerate EABO solutions for fighting on the doorstep of a peer competitor. No one expects any of this to be easy, and the commandant’s guidance recognizes that there are many challenges to overcome before this concept become doctrine: “Together, the Navy-Marine Corps Team must enable the joint force to partner, persist, and operate forward wherever and whenever we are called to do so. To meet these requirements, we must redesign our force. This is my top priority as Commandant.”

In the final analysis, EABO is a concept designed to exploit geography and contribute to winning a hard war against a nation with military capabilities approaching those of the United States. It gives the American military its best chance to win such a conflict. But, vastly more important, if the United States is prepared to implement this concept, it presents the nation with the best possible chance of deterring a future conflict and preserving the peace. Not a bad outcome for a concept I originally considered dumb.

 

 

Dr. James Lacey is the author of the recently released The Washington War. The above article represents the ideas of the author and are not a reflection of the position of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the government of the United States.