Call the Maritime Cavalry: Marine Corps Modernization and the Stand-In Force
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Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bonaparte used cavalry units and combined arms to wreak havoc in Europe and Eurasia long before debates about the future of the Marines Corps and maneuver warfare. Today, the Marine Corps can also apply these time-tested tactics to develop a “maritime cavalry” and provide an essential maneuver element that complements the latest joint force capabilities and fighting concepts. Perhaps more importantly, creating a maritime cavalry would add a dynamic combined-arms element to the Marine Corps’ latest Force Design 2030 formations and concepts while channeling its “first to fight” ethos.
Cavalry units operate across wide areas and great distances and serve as the eyes and ears of a field commander. Their central feature is the ability to provide friendly forces with exceptional mobility and firepower against enemy weaknesses at the right place and the right time. For doctrinal reference, the U.S. War Department’s 1941 Cavalry Field Manual describes their historic and enduring missions as offensive combat, defensive combat, reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance, and security.
Like traditional ground cavalry, a maritime cavalry should be able to attack, pursue, harass, raid, and break through enemy formations in littoral spaces. Their flexibility would allow them to sow chaos and confusion as needed and exploit friendly successes in other areas of the battlespace. For defense, they could help protect friendly forces on islands or at sea with modified screening, guarding, covering, and delaying actions. They could occupy key maritime chokepoints until a larger fleet arrives. For reconnaissance, they could probe enemy defenses on remote islands or waterways and act as live sensors. Such a maritime cavalry must be organically mobile and capable of offensive action to serve as a commander’s arm of shock and firepower and real-time information gathering.
As part of Force Design 2030’s “Campaign of Learning,” the service should experiment with cavalry principles and maritime cavalry units during exercises and war games. The goal should be to enhance the service’s concept of stand-in forces and any future combat formation. The development of this capability would improve the operational value of the Marine Corps in the Indo-Pacific and other key maritime terrain throughout the globe. It would also offer a tangible capability to help support vulnerable allies and partners against China and Russia.
The Spirit of the Cavalry in the Marine Corps
The Marine Corps should find comfort in knowing that the notion of the cavalry closely resonates with the essence of combined arms maneuver captured in its famed treatise on maneuver warfare, Warfighting. The manual states that “maneuver relies on speed and surprise, for without either we cannot concentrate strength against enemy weakness.” The modern cavalry can take various forms and has largely followed the evolution of mobility: ranging from horses to wagons and from motorized vehicles to armored trucks and tanks (armored cavalry). In his article for the U.S. Naval Institute, James Winfield made a similar argument, calling for the Navy to provide a lightweight maritime platform to support a new Navy-Marine Corps formation, dubbed the “Blue-Green Cavalry,” which would support simultaneous, small operations around the world.
These ideas are worth expanding upon, using historical examples to guide future decisions. The Army and Navy’s Mobile Riverine Force in Vietnam provides an illustrative example of how a maritime cavalry-like formation can be used to pursue enemies in narrow channels, wide rivers, and deep jungles. From an aerial perspective, the Marine Corps looked to the helicopter after the Korean War and developed the concept of vertical envelopment to prepare for amphibious operations in the atomic age. Similarly, innovative Army leaders in the 1950s observed the tactical potential of the helicopter as it whisked troops and materials across the rugged terrain of the Korean peninsula. They experimented with air-mobility concepts in support of its infantry units, which subsequently led to the service creating “air cavalry” units in Vietnam.
Where does the cavalry exist in the Marine Corps today? Marines typically avoid this terminology, but the operational descendants of the horse cavalry reside in multiple forms throughout the service. For example, in 2004, Marine units successfully conducted maritime cavalry-like missions on Iraq’s inland waterways in places like Ramadi, Haditha, and Fallujah. These marines utilized riverine assault craft to navigate into assault and blocking positions in and around those cities in support of other services.
One can envision marine units operating from a combination of riverine, coastal, or littoral ships, or from light and medium aircraft. As part of this concept, marines would also operate remotely piloted aerial, surface, and subsurface systems across littoral spaces. With the right systems and concepts, these units could fulfill the cavalry’s enduring missions.
Imagining the Maritime Cavalry
The Marine Corps has described a maritime cavalry-like capability in all of its current documents, albeit without ever using the word. For example, Gen. David Berger revealed recently that the service is learning that “small, distributed, lethal teams that can employ organic [surveillance], loitering munitions and weapons like a javelin … are much more lethal than larger formations that are using traditional force structures and concepts.” He has also stressed the need for “hider/finder, reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance” capabilities to sense targets and “close kill webs.”
Force Design 2030 calls for mobile forces that can “support joint maritime campaigning, inherently capable of facilitating other joint operations.” The document also recognizes that the Marine Corps is not currently manned, trained, or equipped to operate in a contested environment — to include the Western Pacific. Similarly, the tentative manual on expeditionary advanced basing operations provides a conceptual foundation on how marines should operate “in contested maritime spaces” to support “sea denial and sea control.” It states the service will develop mobile forces that can operate “shore or inshore within a … contested maritime area in order to conduct sea denial, support sea control, or enable fleet sustainment.” To round out the service’s trifecta of conceptual thought, the stand-in forces concept explains that marines will operate in “small but lethal, low signature, mobile” units to shuttle between islands to support “fleet operations, especially near maritime chokepoints.” Overall, the future Marine Corps appears to invoke the historic concept of a cavalry, but it never places its finger on that image.
Seemingly, there appears to be two emerging ideas that should inform how the service thinks about operationalizing the stand-in concept. A maritime cavalry may be one type of stand-in force that is intentionally designed to openly operate in the face of an opponent’s precision-strike regime for missions across the conflict continuum. This force would directly complement an emerging stand-in formation that may be more island-centric, difficult to locate due to their lower signatures, and whose central mission is to attack enemy ships with missiles, rockets, and unmanned aerial systems. In theory, both of these stand-in forces can work independently or in tandem, but they always reinforce each other with information and targeting data.
For comparison, island-centric stand-in forces possess more offensive capabilities than the maritime cavalry, but they are less mobile. Arguably, they will be more dependent on the Light Amphibious Warships for inter-island mobility and logistical transport given their planned missile and radar systems. These forces are more likely to remain on key islands or chokepoints once they debark from the ships to threaten adversary vessels in key littoral spaces and choke points or pass data to other services to strike maritime targets.
Alternatively, the maritime cavalry trades offensive firepower for mobility. These forces would be designed to operate in organically mobile small formations and with transportable sensors and strike capabilities. The purpose would be to fight openly or hide in plain sight and, if necessary, act as an asymmetric force that can assure allies in peace and push back against low-end “gray zone” type threats like Chinese maritime militias. The maritime cavalry’s small size would also mean that they would be less dependent — ideally independent — on the Navy for mobility, which is over extended and has other priorities in the Indo-Pacific. In times of greater conflict, a maritime cavalry could also threaten an opponent’s high-value platforms and systems with relatively cheaper shoulder-fired missiles, intermediate force capabilities, and loitering munitions already in U.S. inventories. Together, the combined activities of the maritime cavalry and other stand-in formations would complicate adversary actions and induce a multitude of dilemmas given their wide mission sets, littoral dispersion, and natural ability to integrate their actions.
The Marine Corps has already made great strides in controlling distributed infantry battalions hundreds of miles apart and supporting fleet commanders with improving maritime domain awareness in a recent exercise with Task Force 61/2 and NATO allies in the Baltic Sea. During these exercises, these units demonstrated that the service has the ability to conduct cavalry-type missions.
To expand and blend these experiences, the Marine Corps should employ cavalry principles and experiment with such combat formations within its campaign of learning in the coming years. For example, imagine a modernized infantry platoon operating on multiple long-range patrol crafts with appropriate sensors and weapons that could be used to lure or pressure enemy vessels into ambushes. Additionally, these forces could help direct long-range weapons such as Tomahawk missiles from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The highly mobile stand-in forces would “shoot and scoot” in the littorals to avoid adversary targeting, concentrate capabilities in decisive areas, and then withdraw and reset for future missions. Within this transformed infantry platoon, imagine a fireteam operating a group of unmanned air and surface systems to support a naval littoral combat ship squadron with information and fires support. They could also use such capabilities in a tactical deception or for screening actions by drawing adversary sensors away from friendly fleets transiting the area.
With ongoing Marine Corps modernization initiatives, it can be challenging for insiders and outsiders to keep track of the ongoing cycle of experiments, war games, tests, challenges, and breakthroughs in these areas. However, the Marine Corps may be able to consolidate many of these overlapping tactical ends and efforts by adopting a maritime cavalry concept. It could also help reinforce service efforts to address its continued littoral mobility and maneuver gaps, which service officials have been discussing for several years now. At an organizational level, a maritime cavalry battalion could reside within a Marine expeditionary force or within a Marine division. There could also be a maritime cavalry company directly assigned to the developing Marine littoral regiment.
Maritime cavalry units would fulfill recon and counter-recon missions in the littoral environment. Cavalry, as the arm of mobility, is designed to take the fight directly to the enemy and operate at their tactical edges — missile or bayonet range — to create opportunities for friendly forces and deny the same to the enemy. For the rest of the armed services, the Marine Corps would further solidify its position as a littoral combat force that can provide mobile forces as well as long-range strike and reconnaissance capabilities for the armed forces as a whole. Within the Navy itself, the presence of a maritime cavalry capability would help spark new opportunities for Navy-Marine Corps integration in various theaters for domain awareness, fleet maneuvers, and sea control. One can also imagine maritime cavalry units patrolling littoral regions with partner navies and coast guards, to include America’s own Coast Guard.
There are also many opportunities related to external partnering. A maritime cavalry could even serve as military ambassadors as they engage or participate in maritime operation centers and other governing bodies throughout the Indo-Pacific. Given the various challenges China and Russia pose to American interests, the U.S. military would greatly benefit from having highly visible marine units that can operate in gray zones, maintain a presence in littoral regions, and use its presence to create operational openings for friendly forces in high-end conflict.
Marine Corps concepts have already highlighted some of these cavalry-like missions within several of its modernization initiatives. However, they appear to lack a parsimonious operating concept that consolidates several entangled tactical ideas under a clear conceptual umbrella. The concept of a maritime cavalry could serve that functional purpose and — more importantly — help activate the Marine Corps’ creative and offensive spirit in its ongoing march toward modernization.
Adam Yang is a Marine officer assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps and a fellow in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Ph.D. Strategist Program. As a doctoral candidate in the School of International Service at American University, he studies military innovation and is writing about the development of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and the Navy’s Mobile Riverine Forces for his dissertation. All views are his own and do not represent those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
U.S. photo by Lance Cpl. Damon A. Mclean