The Marine Corps and the Naval Campaign: The Necessary Context of Debate
“Only a rare elasticity of mind could have enabled them to fight free from the influence of things once seen, and deeds once accomplished.”
The Marine Corps’ symbiotic relationship with the U.S. Navy has provided expeditionary capabilities vital to America’s defense for over 200 years. It’s an interdependence that shapes the Marine approach to the changing demands of warfare and is central to the service’s identity. Many of the most respected Marine Corps leaders of recent history are uniting in opposition to differing aspects of the Marine Corps’ ongoing force design efforts. Yet the most public criticisms directed toward the divestment of tanks and cannon artillery, as well as those that attempt to anchor the service in a narrower mission, are missing critical context: The challenges posed by a future naval campaign and what it will demand from America’s expeditionary force. Force Design 2030 represents not just a recognition of the changing character of war but a forward-looking focus on the Marine Corps’ role as a vital component of America’s naval service and joint force. This requires an evolved expeditionary force capable of a wider variety of vital missions supporting a more capable fleet. Officers like myself will see our communities change rapidly as we strive to meet the needs of the current environment. Keeping the broader context of change an active part of the discussion is instrumental to understanding not only where we came from, but where we are going.
The U.S. Navy can no longer count on assured command of the sea in the event of conflict, and the challenges associated with maintaining a forward presence in contested environments demand a renewed emphasis on sea control. Building upon its identity as an expeditionary force in readiness, the Marine Corps needs new means to deter adversaries while remaining ready to maintain optionality and access for the other services of the U.S. military. The service’s oft-cited divestments are necessary steps in ensuring it remains relevant and prepared to meet the new challenges of a future conflict. Far from turning the service into a narrowly focused and limited force, its evolution will generate complementary capabilities including both stand-in and rotational expeditionary units.
A Naval Force in Readiness
The Marine Corps is a naval expeditionary force, charged to serve with America’s fleets conducting operations essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign. The focal point of the integrated naval force is shifting from traditional power projection to persistent forward presence enabling sea control and sea denial. It is a hard pill to swallow that there are increasingly not enough ships in the U.S. Navy to overcome worldwide threats to sea control. Even the idea of ‘collective command of the sea’ in partnership with the navies of allies may be increasingly difficult to count on. Alliances and military partnerships aside, economic interconnectedness between China and countries throughout Asia — to include U.S. allies and security partners — is a restraining factor in translating peacetime cooperation to wartime commitment. Questions regarding the willingness of partners and allies to host marine forces in forward-deployed areas merit close consideration, as assured access for Marine Corps forces is crucial to their success.
Replacing the concept of command of the sea in favor of achieving localized sea control with the focused application of maritime power is a concept with more utility; It recognizes the realities of a changing balance of global naval power. Even this more focused concept is not without contest. Assessments project that adversaries such as China are increasingly capable of establishing localized air and naval superiority at the outset of conflict. Unchecked, emboldened adversaries may be able to deter American intervention and undercut the reassurances forward-deployed forces provide to allies and partners.
Enemy surface combatants, the most likely target for Marine Corps naval strike missiles, are only one of many threats. More restraining is the modern mature precision-strike regime, which embodies a broader threat to land-based and maritime forces. The increased proliferation of guided weaponry merged with terrestrial and extraterrestrial sensors forms a network capable of sensing and striking targets at extreme ranges. Adversaries operating beneath the deterrent effects of a comprehensive anti-access capability while retaining a favorable regional balance of maritime power are more capable of reducing the effectiveness of intervening forces. These threats present a prohibitive challenge to the effective employment of naval forces, long a cornerstone of America’s capacity to conduct expeditionary operations. While the Marine Corps may be the nation’s expeditionary force in readiness, the entire joint force fights wars as an away game.
The naval services are unified in recognizing that controlling the maritime domain is vital as they move to generate and maintain all-domain naval power throughout the next decade. Force design is part of a unified vision of what competition and conflict will demand from America’s naval services. The Marine Corps is not in this change process alone, nor should it be. To view the changes ongoing in the Marine Corps without a fundamental recognition of the service’s vital role in cooperation with the Navy fails to account for the necessary interdependence between the services.
Capable of … Not Purpose Built
Narrowly categorizing the Marine Corps of the future as a specialized anti-ship force fails to acknowledge the balanced nature of the future force. Both A Concept for Stand-In Forces and the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations describe a Marine Corps with a developed capability to persist within contested maritime spaces as a direct extension of the fleet. These littoral forces are as much a deterrent as they are a lethal leading edge of the naval force. They gain and maintain custody of critical adversary targets while building awareness of adversary patterns and decision-making cycles. Their efforts in the information environment and counter reconnaissance fights disrupt adversary understanding and intentions while remaining prepared to rapidly escalate to conflict.
This is a decidedly asymmetric approach to the increasingly denial-focused strategies applied by adversaries attempting to counter American naval strength. Critiques that the Marine Corps may no longer be a forcible entry force omit the reality that modern forcible entry is a joint problem, especially against a peer adversary. Penetrating a denied area from the outside is a scenario that is decidedly symmetrical and to be avoided. Properly executed, stand-in forces persisting within contested spaces can gain and maintain a capability to rapidly strike targets while denying a coherent picture of the fleet to adversaries. Marine forces extend the fleet’s ability to sense and make sense of the environment while becoming an unavoidable obstacle to enemy actions. It does this as an inside force, disintegrating an adversary’s system from the inside out and providing opportunities for the fleet to exploit.
It is important to acknowledge that these newly introduced concepts are but one form of expeditionary operations. Most importantly, that which the Fleet Marine Force “is capable of…rather than designed exclusively for” The Marine air-ground task force will not be the service’s only solution to crisis but will increasingly be supported by the new Marine littoral regiments, purpose-built for emerging concepts. The Corps may even find the common understanding of the hallowed air-ground task force itself up for re-interpretation. The Marine Corps recently stood down the last of its long-standing crisis response deployments, with their associated special-purpose task forces. Organized, trained, and equipped as relatively small forces fulfilling a narrow set of requirements, they provide a point of departure for the future of Marine task-organized and formations. Beyond traditional expeditionary forces and brigades, and complementing the next generation of forward-deployed expeditionary units, there will likely emerge even more tailored and capable task-organized air-ground teams supporting maritime requirements.
A valuable complement to the air-ground task force, littoral regiments add much-needed depth to the force’s expeditionary persistence. Far from diminishing the Marine Corps’ forward presence, complementary formations provide the advantage of a wider variety of forces contributing uniquely to a broader campaign. One can envision a future maritime battlefield where littoral regiments within contested spaces set conditions for the introduction of Navy and Marine amphibious forces to seize lodgments in support of the joint force.
This future is one in which the idea of the amphibious assault is not dead, as some interpretations may suggest. They will continue to be a core aspect of Marine Corps expeditionary operations, though will likely look much different. Distributed forces will remain prepared to seize lodgments in support of the joint force, generating both time and options for combatant commanders. These future forces will be further supported by emerging intra-theater transport capabilities such as the Light Amphibious Warship, though a longer term issue will remain addressing the alignment of Navy and Marine Corps priorities regarding long-term composition of the fleet. All this as part of the continued evolutionary process of how the Marine Corps conducts amphibious operations.
For the Marine Corps to fulfill its core purpose, it needs to anticipate and respond to the future battlefield’s challenges and ensure that it can be a critical and decisive component of a modern naval campaign. It may be true that the Marine Corps is still here precisely because of its ability to radically reshape itself to meet the emerging demands of warfare. Change, however, is never an easy process, and criticisms surrounding the Marine Corps’ current initiatives are not a radical departure from historical resistance to change within the service.
While discussion and dissent should be a welcome occurrence in professional discourse, one element of the discussion is clear: The Marine Corps cannot afford to fail at its present efforts. The Marine Corps cannot succeed in its efforts alone. Its success or failure will hinge on it evolving to be a part of an equally capable and ready naval force committed to addressing the demands of a modern naval campaign. The future of the Marine Corps deserves debate, though such debate ought to be founded on a firm recognition of what the United States expects from its naval services. If the Marine Corps is to continue to be an expeditionary force for service with the fleet during naval campaigns, it must be prepared to meet the current and future maritime environment’s challenges throughout all phases of competition and conflict.
Joseph Mozzi is a Marine Corps artillery officer. He is currently a student at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff Officers Course. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.
Image: U.S. Navy Press Office