How Marine Security Cooperation Can Translate into Sea Control
January, 2024: With the likely election of an aggressively pro-independence candidate as the new president of Taiwan, American intelligence agencies identify signs of an imminent Chinese assault on the small island nation. To deter any foreign led intervention, China activates anti-access/area denial assets on land and at sea across the theater. People’s Liberation Army-Navy fleets steam to key positions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea, prepared to engage the ships of their adversaries, while conducting live-fire missile exercises around the Taiwan Strait to intimidate. Senior planners in Beijing seem confident that no foreign forces could reasonably enter the area without assuming unacceptable risk and drastically escalating the stakes: the weapons engagement zone of China simply reaches too far. Taiwan, it seemed, would finally be reunited with its homeland. China quietly offered Taiwan its terms, with a big stick looming.
But on the coast of Vietnam, a U.S. Marine security cooperation team conducting training with Vietnamese counterparts receives an order. Terminating its training mission, the marines rapidly deploy several lethal and accurate fires platforms that the team had as a part of its training load. Launching swarms of unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater reconnaissance systems, they acquire the locations of the most critical ships of the Chinese fleet, communicating this data to American maritime operations centers. Targets are acquired.
This happens again and again across the region. Whether ashore in the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand, or conducting an expeditionary advanced base exercise on one of the many strategic sites within the first and second island chains, security cooperation missions suddenly became Marine warbot companies. They prove critical to providing sea control to American fleet commanders, surprising China with a threat well inside its weapons engagement zone.
With Marine warbot companies and intermediate-range conventional missiles at its disposal, Washington informs Beijing that the Chinese Communist Party’s fleet will be sunk unless the threat of military action against Taiwan is withdrawn, and Taiwan’s democratic political processes continue unimpeded. In the diplomatic dust-up that ensues, America and its partners use the time to send their own fleets into the area of operations.
China sees the offered off-ramp and takes it. Ships return to port, Taiwan breathes a sigh of relief, and normal maritime commerce resumes.
Not quite at peace, but not openly at war, a shooting war between great powers is avoided. Marine security cooperation teams proved to be at the forefront of the naval expeditionary force envisioned by Gen. David Berger a few short years ago.
A Missed Opportunity in a Brilliant Plan
The Commandant’s Planning Guidance has the potential to radically transform the Marine Corps into a naval expeditionary force that is prepared to operate inside actively-contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations. Core to Gen. Berger’s vision is the insertion of forces inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone to provide sea denial and sea control by countering anti-access/area denial systems.
Strangely absent from this new guidance, however, is a critical aspect of the Marine Corps ― security cooperation and foreign security force advising. The Marine Corps has a legacy of security cooperation and related activities going back to the Banana Wars and culminating in today’s force, which possesses nearly two decades of such experience after advising and cooperating with Iraqi and Afghan security forces.
Though security cooperation itself is not one of its Title 10 requirements, the Marine Corps is in a unique position to exploit this expertise to fulfill the commandant’s new vision. America’s partners and allies live inside the weapons engagement zones of its adversaries every day. Marines are already assisting them and are positioned to quickly present adversaries with a deterrent. Forward deployed security cooperation teams should be capable of dynamic repurposing for sea control and denial. By nesting Marine Corps security cooperation within the emerging concepts that will support fleet commanders, it can be leveraged to transform steady-state, day-to-day missions into reinforcing layers of American sea control.
An Incidental Legacy
Per U.S. law, the Marine Corps is not required to do security cooperation. This mission may be interpreted as a requirement to execute “such other duties as the president may direct,” so long as they don’t undermine the primary responsibility to operate in support of the fleet. The Marine Corps is ― and should be ― a naval expeditionary force in readiness. But for a litany of historical reasons, marines became preeminent experts in those activities that fall on the less extreme end of the range of military operations.
Whether conducting security cooperation or foreign military advising, the Marine Corps earned a reputation as the armed force of the State Department, beginning with its generous employment to such ends in the Banana Wars from 1898-1934.
These experiences led to influential warfighting publications that supported American military operations for decades. Published in 1940, the Small Wars Manual became a reliable reference and planning aid to any U.S. force assigned to a security cooperation-like mission. The Army and Marine Corps’ counter-insurgency manual, published in 2006 to help inform what had become a complex insurgency in Iraq, was in a large part an update of the Small Wars Manual.
Today, security cooperation is institutionalized in the Marine Corps through such organizations as the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group, which has the lead on programs, training, and planning for these activities. Expertise, whether gained through training or operational experience, is documented through the awarding of additional foreign security force advisor military occupational specialties. This niche skillset, placed upon the Marine Corps through historical incident, is as much a part of its legacy as amphibious warfare. Yet, unfortunately, the commandant’s new planning guidance missed an opportunity to highlight its critical importance for the Corps’ future force.
A Corps Reformed: The Commandant’s Planning Guidance
As was discussed in a recent episode of the War on the Rocks podcast, the Marine Corps will radically and rapidly transform itself within the next four years. The main thrust of this change will be to answer an important question: “What can the Marine Corps do for the Navy?” Ultimately, the guidance seeks to create a naval expeditionary force, in the manner of the historical Fleet Marine Force, that will operate as an extension of the operational Navy. Critically, it will be expeditionary advanced base operations capable, placing Marine Corps forces inside the weapons engagement zone of America’s adversaries. This gambit is a bid for success, one that will offer fleet commanders the ability to achieve sea control and sea denial well within an adversary’s active defense layers. In this way, the anti-access/area denial capabilities that would otherwise thwart American power projection at sea can be mitigated.
But everything costs something. To achieve this vision, the commandant is making force design his first priority and is willing to slay such sacred cows as the traditional structure of the Marine air-ground task force, the role of the Marine expeditionary force, and the maritime prepositioning force. Building this naval expeditionary force may even require divestment of heavier elements of the ground combat element. Will this upheaval include the security cooperation and foreign advising missions?
Security Cooperation and Sea Control
It’s unlikely that security cooperation will be sent to the chopping block, given that this has historically remained a competency of the Corps through previous organizational transformations. But its priority in the future vision for the Marine Corps is largely unknown, because it is not discussed at all in the commandant’s planning guidance.
The lack of consideration of this skillset ― which, as a consequence of the generous employment of marines in a plethora of advising missions through nearly two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is at an all–time high ― is a missed opportunity. The allies and partners that security cooperation teams engage with live and work within the weapons engagement zones of America’s adversaries every single day. Though the requirement will remain for inserting expeditionary advanced base forces inside of contested maritime areas, it is a simpler, sustainable, and more feasible solution in such a scenario to dynamically re-task Marines engaged in security cooperation missions to provide sea denial and sea control for fleet commanders. Though it may seem that such a small footprint of marines would be hard-pressed to generate the combination of surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, and fires capabilities to present an adversary with a meaningful dilemma, the marine warbot company concept previously described by Jeff Cummings, Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro is an ideal way to achieve this goal. Each security cooperation team-turned warbot combat team would inherently provide relevantly-postured, credible, and maneuverable strike capabilities inside an adversary’s active defense layer. Moreover, the partners and allies these marines are training are more than capable of providing sea control and sea denial organically, especially when provided with the equipment and training by these same marine teams. The presence of allied and partner-nation warbot companies, trained by their U.S. counterparts, would exponentially increase the dilemma presented to an adversary. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the accelerating development of intermediate-range conventional missiles will make both U.S. Marine warbot companies and marine-trained coalition warbot companies that much more of an effective deterrent.
This concept of employment will present a complex dilemma for America’s adversaries. Every such security cooperation or foreign advising mission will have to be considered a potential expeditionary advanced base in the making. Adversaries will be compelled to commit resources to surveil these deployments, and, in the event of hostilities, it will present adversaries with a targeting problem, further reinforcing American efforts to distribute forces and maximize survivability inside the weapons engagement zone.
Essentially, security cooperation is an untapped wellspring in the Marine Corps that could ― and should ― be leveraged to support America’s ability to compete and win in the contested maritime domain.
From Vision to Reality
Critically, this concept should be war-gamed and built into the planning lexicon of fleet commanders and combatant commanders. Many wargames start just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, and spend the bulk of their time testing participants in the conduct of a fully kinetic conflict. Such approaches completely ignore the criticality of what are problematically known in traditional Pentagon speak as “steady-state, day-to-day phase zero operations” that characterize security cooperation. Planners and commanders are not trained in the art of employing the threat of force in a way that avoids conflict in the first place. If emerging American maritime strategies are principally aimed at putting the adversary in a position where he is deterred from fighting at all, commanders and staffs must be trained accordingly. Security cooperation, like all contact layer, or “steady-state” activity, is the commander’s opportunity to groom the maneuver space. Any day-to-day operation can be used to shape a potential fight in the commander’s favor, or better yet, to gain such an advantage that potential enemies refuse to fight at all. Cooperation and advising, joined to the warbot company concept, are premier means to achieve this end. Planners need to refine this concept, and ensure that the ability to ‘flip’ any number of security cooperation teams into a forward naval expeditionary force can either provide or enable sea control to fleet commanders, and does in fact change adversary decision-making in a way that favors American interests.
Secondly, security cooperation and advising missions can be deployed in anticipation of fleet operations, putting the capability for sea denial and sea control ashore ahead of the ships they are supporting. Though there may still be a place for putting marine detachments aboard ships, having marines ashore before the ship enters an area where sea control may be required puts another bit of flexibility in the commander’s pocket. Additionally, these teams don’t need to be attached to any given ship, squadron, or group, but can instead be tethered to the area in a general support model and be placed in support of any formation that enters their area. All the while, such teams can focus on training their partners in the same skills of employing fires systems ashore to support forces afloat, so the capability remains in the coalition environment after those marines depart. Further, if the Corps changes the Basic School curriculum in accordance with the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, this training could also build on that which is provided to hundreds of allied officers alongside Marine lieutenants in Quantico annually.
Systems that might support sea denial and sea control could also be pre-staged with allies and partners, in a similar spirit to the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway. This program pre-stages stores of military equipment to support Marine air ground task forces entering Norway for up to 30 days, providing meaningful logistical support in the event of a military contingency, demonstrating U.S. commitment to its alliance with Norway, and deterring potential regional adversaries. But rather than being an iron-mountain of equipment that forces flowing into theater can use, prepositioning programs to support sea denial and sea control would be smaller, lighter caches stored in multiple areas in each country, inclusive of the lighter, plentiful, and expendable unmanned swarms that would transform these teams into an asymmetrically credible force. Any Marine team deployed in those countries would in turn have greater flexibility in how they might provide sea control from the shore. Further, partners and allies would have greater access to the systems required to provide sea control and sea denial in a coalition environment, especially if the Marine Corps modified the training provided for international officers in Quantico.
Finally, this effort should be deliberately messaged to potential adversaries, putting security cooperation front and center in any information campaign, ensuring that potential adversaries are aware that this new maritime capability is wide and deep. In this way every deployment, even during peacetime operations, must be viewed as a possible spoiler to adversary sea control. Resources will have to be committed to assess even those security cooperation teams that might have nothing to do with sea control. As partner capacity increases, American partners and allies will also have to have their day-to-day operations viewed in this light, draining yet more adversary resources, forcing them to make hard choices on where to commit surveillance. Ultimately, this will pose a significant targeting dilemma for adversary planners, further reinforcing the intent of distributed maritime operations, increasing the survivability of coalition forces, and convincing adversaries that conflict should be avoided.
Cooperating for Sea Control
The highly visionary Commandant’s Planning Guidance glaringly overlooks the Corps’ enduring legacy of and capacity for security cooperation and foreign security force advising. Instead, it notes only that the Marine Corps will cooperate with allies on the ground: “We must work with them in peace to be ready to partner with them in war.”
However, these cooperative efforts should leverage the abundance of security cooperation experience and organizations that exist within the Marine Corps, and put them in direct support of enabling expeditionary advance base operations or perhaps even new Standing Combined Joint Maritime Task Forces, as recently recommended by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson. Specifically by providing a persistent, yet unpredictable means of employing the warbot company concept, and training allies to do the same, fleet commanders will be provided with the highly lethal and credible sea control they need to prevent unnecessary conflicts and, if necessary, to win them.
The Small Wars Manual praises the commander, “…who gains his objective in a small war without firing a shot…”. The Commandant’s Planning Guidance provides a means for such an outcome through expeditionary advanced base operations, while the small wars legacy of the Corps provides an asymmetrical route to achieving an enduring security advantage in the maritime domain. So, what can the Marine Corps do for the Navy? In answering this question, the Marine Corps’ small wars legacy can, and should, be directed toward supporting the fleet.
Brian Kerg is a Marine command and control officer, foreign security forces advisor, prior enlisted mortarman, and a member of Ender’s Galley. He is currently the fleet amphibious communications officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
Anthony King is a retired Marine manpower management officer and a prior enlisted artilleryman. He has worked as a research strategist for the Army Research Laboratory and as an administrator for Marine Forces Cyber Command. He currently supports the Naval Facilities Engineering Command’s contingency engineering group.
Michael Murray is a retired Marine infantry and Light Armored Reconnaissance officer. He has served as an advisor in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. He is currently working as the training integrator for the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the positions or opinions of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Hancock)