Versatility in the Age of Uncertainty

By Lieutenant General George J. Flynn, U.S. Marine Corps

While the Marine Corps mission of amphibious forcible entry continues to be debated and questioned, it is important to remember that amphibious platforms and capabilities made the 15th MEU’s efforts possible. As we examine how much capacity is needed, it is important to realize that since 1990 approximately one half of these amphibious platforms and capabilities have been eliminated while mission frequency and demand from our combatant commanders has increased substantially.

Diverse Crises, Diverse Responses

Operating as part of the naval team, Marines assure access by bridging the difficult but critical seam between operations at sea and on land. Often thought of exclusively as an amphibious assault force, in point of fact we apply our amphibious capabilities in much more diverse—and subtle—ways. In the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, Marines have conducted 108 amphibious operations of all types (assaults, raids, demonstrations, withdrawals, and amphibious support to other operations). 2 Of these, only four were amphibious assaults while the vast majority, 80, involved amphibious support to other operations (e.g., humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, noncombatant evacuation operations, peace operations, and recovery operations). It is important to note that during this period amphibious forces responded to crises at an annual rate more than double that of the previous 45 years. In addition, these same forces conducted nearly 1,000 amphibious exercises and other security-cooperation activities to prevent conflict by reinforcing stability and building partnerships.

Today, as a maritime power with significant global interests, risks to global stability and access comprise fundamental national security threats. The strategic concept of the Marine Corps is encapsulated in two core missions: responding to crises and assuring littoral access. While these two core missions may appear to be separate and distinct from each other they are, in reality, closely intertwined.

The mobility and flexibility inherent in our naval character have frequently resulted in the nation’s leaders leveraging our proven responsiveness to address a wide range of crises “in every clime and place.” This includes the commitment of Marines to “small wars,” characterized as operations undertaken under executive authority wherein military force is applied—usually in combination with the other elements of power—in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory. While other terms—such as “counterinsurgency” or “irregular warfare”—may be in vogue today, they do not adequately reflect the diversity encompassed by the Marine Corps’ responses to crises and success in small wars to protect our citizens, friends, or interests.

We have a long track record of success—from the Barbary Wars in the early 19th century to last year’s Operation Khanjar in Afghanistan—in solving seemingly intractable security challenges for which purely military solutions will not suffice. In the Philippines, Marines have quietly partnered with a variety of joint and international organizations to alleviate the sources of conflict, thereby keeping a simmering Philippine insurgency from gaining momentum. Meanwhile, sea-based Marines repeatedly responded to relieve the suffering of the Philippine people following such disasters as the series of severe tropical storms in December 2004, Leyte Island mudslides in February of 2006, and Typhoon Durian in December of the same year.

The recently released National Security Strategy calls for the U.S. military to “prevail in today’s wars . . . prevent and deter threats against the United States, its interests, and our allies and partners; and prepare to defend the United States in a wide range of contingencies against state and nonstate actors.” 3 To fully understand why the Marine Corps’ ability to assure littoral access and effectively conduct crisis response are indispensible to achieving these national security objectives—prepare, prevent, and prevail—requires a closer examination of the context of our nation’s security framework.

What is the Strategic Imperative?

As the National Security Strategy points out, “We have created webs of commerce, supported an international architecture of laws and institutions, and spilled American blood in foreign lands—not to build an empire, but to shape a world in which more individuals and nations could determine their own destiny, and live with peace and dignity that they deserve.” 4 Maintaining the durability of this international system creates a number of vital, global national security interests. The United States has a compelling requirement to exert influence and power globally to reduce sources of instability and prevent or resolve conflict. Such sources include radical extremists, emerging powers, population bulge and urbanization, resource scarcity, technology and precision-weapons proliferation, climate change, and lack of effective governance combining to blur the character of conflict.

Significantly, the majority of global humanity lives within a few hundred miles of the seacoast and many of these security challenges emanate from state and non-state actors in these littoral regions. America derives considerable strategic advantages from our ability to leverage the maritime domain and respond within the littorals.

The inherent mobility and carrying capacity of ships remains the most significant component of U.S. strategic reach, providing joint-force commanders with the ability to maneuver and support a wide range of tasks.

The importance of the maritime domain is further increased by our global defense posture. The United States is now completing a major realignment as highlighted in the National Defense Strategy “from legacy base structures and forward-garrisoned forces to an expeditionary force, providing greater flexibility to contend with uncertainty in a changing strategic environment.” 5 During the Cold War, the United States based major land and air forces close to likely employment areas. This forward-garrison strategy fostered and reassured allies, created a credible conventional deterrent, and provided the combat capabilities designed to defeat aggression. Now, as an expeditionary-dependent nation, our joint forces must develop, create, or assert access, and overcome impediments—geographic, political, or military—to our freedom of action.

Promoting stability and defeating aggression in the littorals to keep vital sea lanes and strategic chokepoints open is critical to our commercial and security interests. Projecting influence and power from the sea is essential to promoting and enhancing stability, defeating threats, and securing the viability of the international system for the benefit of all. The interrelationship between these two components—sea control and power projection—embodies the essence of sea power. In the final analysis though, the value of sea power is only realized when it allows us to influence events on land where people live, social interaction occurs, opinions are formed, and collective, political decisions are made.

Maneuverability, Littorally

Therefore, the true measure of our sea power capability is its ability to project influence and power ashore across the combined sea-air-land realm. Littoral maneuver provides a means for introducing forces onto land so that the full breadth, numerous varieties, and infinite degrees of American influence and power can be brought to bear to our advantage, against our adversaries, or, more often, in support of our friends. This ability endows the nation with a number of critical strategic and operational advantages. Further, sea-based forces accomplish this without stepping heavily on sovereign foreign soil or sensitivities. The ability to operate, if necessary, on land from offshore shipping significantly reduces our demands on local resources, diminishes our force’s vulnerabilities, minimizes extremists’ propaganda, and decreases the risk of unintended entanglements.

The ability to assure access through littoral maneuver is a vital strategic need demonstrating our national resolve to support our partners and protect the international system. Without a littoral-maneuver capability, our nation’s ability to project influence and power assumes access. Our ability to effectively assure littoral access is an insurance policy that enhances the nation’s strategic “open hand” and reduces the chances that its most demanding employment, through the “closed fist” of forcible entry, will ever be needed.

In more benign environments, human-to-human engagement improves our level of understanding of the challenges our forces might face—in terms of geography, culture, politics, technology, and military threats. It enhances our ability to build trust and confidence through information sharing and mutual activities; forward engagement significantly improves our options for responding to crises. Together, engagement and our demonstrated responsiveness assist in the development and sustainment of crucial relationships, fostering partnerships, and alliances that will reduce diplomatic challenges to access.

At the higher end, the ability to create littoral access when necessary is crucial for a global maritime power with expeditionary-dependent forces like the United States. The inherent flexibility of a seaborne force to loiter offshore for extended periods enhances the effectiveness of other instruments of power. The introduction of ready-to-fight combat forces from the sea allows us to wrest the initiative from the enemy by striking at the times and places of our choosing.

This capability ensures that a joint-force commander has the necessary freedom of action to operate without ports and airfields, or maintain the capability to seize them as required. It provides our forces with an ability to capture, not just attempt to damage, an enemy’s vital interest—complementing our strike capabilities and in many ways achieving decisive results. Additionally, amphibious power-projection capability presents strategic and operational dilemmas by generating a cost-imposing strategy, extending an adversary’s resources, and diluting his overall effectiveness.

Closely intertwined with these operations along the littoral seam are crisis-response actions. Repeatedly, the influence and power the nation has found most necessary—whether near the coast or deep inland—requires forces able to respond and bring a degree of stability to situations that threaten our citizens, national interests, or the international system. In many of these responses, the identification of adversaries is often difficult, and the division line between friend and foe often lacks clarity. Historically, enemy forces in these operations tend to demonstrate a great deal of innovation in creating lethal and political effects. Activities in these demanding operations are not just enemy-focused. Rather, they are highly complex endeavors requiring integration with diplomatic, information, economic, financial, intelligence, and law-enforcement activities, plus careful synchronization of kinetic and non-kinetic actions. As a consequence, there must be significant coordination between military forces (including special operations forces), other governmental assets, and the host nation’s forces. Therefore, responding to crises requires a high degree of adaptability and agility to thrive in uncertain and chaotic environments.

The Corps’ Unique Suitability

Highlighting the strategic value of the ability to maneuver forces from the sea across the sea-land-air domains, the eminent military historian B. H. Liddell Hart noted that “Amphibious flexibility is the greatest strategic asset that a sea-based power possesses.” 6

The historical difficulty of conducting these operations, however, is well recognized. Strategist Colin Gray identified the fundamental cause of this challenge when he stated, “There are huge and persisting differences between land warfare and sea warfare, yet of necessity amphibious operations comprise warfare where the land and the sea meet.” Further, he went on to note that “To launch a military operation from the sea requires an expertise that is more than simply the sum of military and naval skills.” 7 To effectively bridge the strategic seam, spanning operations at sea and on land, requires a force with both an intimate understanding of different service cultures and vast experience and skill in warfighting across these domains.

As mentioned earlier, the Army, Navy, and Air Force enjoy the clarity of focusing primarily on their respective land, maritime, or air domains. Where domain-optimized forces have experienced friction is at the seams between the domains as well as in adjusting to sudden changes in the expected character of conflict. Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps has not relied on a domain to define our place in the defense establishment. This distinction has at times been an institutional vulnerability, resulting in attempts to reduce or eliminate the Corps based on a perceived redundancy. Fueled by a perspective not tied to a domain or operational viewpoint, the Marine Corps has relied on competitive innovation, strategic and operational foresight, and the ability to operate in the battlespace “where four map sheets intersect.” A trans-domain perspective has demanded institutional adaptability to bridge the domains and operate across the seams.

Our unique vantage characterizes the Marines in terms of temperament and institutional focus, and it explains our ideal suitability for conducting littoral maneuver and effectively responding to crises. Operating in the uncertainty of the littoral environment, Marines have repeatedly demonstrated the adaptable skills necessary to maneuver forces across this strategically critical trans-domain region. Our suitability to engage with partners, respond to crises, and project combat power across the interface between the sea, land, air, space, and cyber domains is complemented by the Marine Corps’ naval character, our responsiveness to missions across the range of military missions, and our military professionalism. A result of our trans-domain perspective is our ability to operate across cultural and operational seams and adapt to changing operational conditions. When responding to crises, including those characterized as small wars, the institutional forte of recognizing, understanding, and adjusting to changing patterns of war wrought by diverse social, geographical, political, and technological threats, and the unconstrained creativity of an opportunistic enemy, is fundamental.

Adapt and Excel

The ability to adjust our mindset and adapt to a blurred and rapidly shifting operational environment is well illustrated by the operations of the15th MEU immediately following 11 September 2001. Having previously deployed aboard the USS Peleliu (LHA-5) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), the MEU was training in Australia when directed to make best speed to the North Arabian Sea. En route, they managed to accomplish their previously planned engagement activities in East Timor, which included the vertical lift of heavy construction equipment and provision of health services to remote areas inland. Nearing the North Arabian Sea, the MEU/ARG was put on standby to conduct a noncombatant evacuation of more than 13,000 foreign nationals from Pakistan, should civil unrest follow the pending announcement of an alliance with the United States.

That crisis response contingency was the first of numerous missions in the weeks to come. In rapid succession the MEU/ARG cooperated with Pakistani forces to establish a forward operating site at Jacobabad for a joint special-operations task force, provided a quick-reaction force for a special operations raid, flew Harrier strikes against targets in Afghanistan, carried out maritime security operations in coordination with the Pakistan Navy, and tactically recovered a crashed U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter. At the request of the U.S. ambassador in Qatar, the MEU/ARG provided a discrete, over-the-horizon reaction force during a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Other elements of the MEU/ARG performed a humanitarian assistance mission in Djibouti. The net result was that a single MEU/ARG operated across an area 1,753 nautical miles wide—akin to going from Boston to Denver—and conducted multiple, simultaneous, and disparate missions with a variety of joint, multinational, and inter-agency partners.

The unit followed that up in mid-November 2001 by merging with the 26th MEU and the USS Bataan (LHD-5) ARG to form Task Force 58. On 25 November Task Force 58 opened a second front in Afghanistan by projecting a landing force 400 miles inland to seize the desert airstrip south of Kandahar. This lodgment supported the introduction of additional joint forces as well as the isolation and the eventual seizure of Kandahar, allowing the introduction of joint forces to support further operations to remove the Taliban.

A Responsive Force for the 21st Century

While many uncertainties cloud the future, it is clear that the United States must possess a flexible force—one that can engage, respond, and project—to operate across the domains that challenge our ability to execute our global responsibilities. The proven suitability of the Marine Corps for the core missions of responding to crises and assuring littoral access demands that we continue to hone our capabilities—the product of our organization, training, and equipment policies—to fulfill our role in implementing the nation’s evolving strategic needs. To fully leverage our national seapower capacity, a credible percentage of our forces must be able to conduct littoral maneuver, create sustainable access, and operate under austere conditions on the landward side of the littorals.

In order to create access when necessary, we will continue to evolve our ability to successfully transition between the maritime and land domains in order to gain entry and enable the remaining portion of the expeditionary-dependent joint forces to deploy effectively in complex missions. These capabilities include developing—as we did before World War II—the ability to overcome the threats posed from modern anti-access technologies and precision weapons. Because responding to crises and assuring access is critical, we are carefully examining new operational concepts. While technology investments will be required, we must avoid a techno-centric approach in overcoming the anti-access problem. One-dimensional applications like long-range strike tend to confuse strategic and operational judgment and create false optimism or pessimism. Critical to this environment, however, is the ability to self-deploy from ships at sea via surface and vertical means.

Specifically, our versatile Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) provide a flexible construct to effectively bridge trans-domain seams with forces tailored for the unique demands of a given mission. In concert with our joint partners—particularly our seagoing partner, the U.S. Navy—we will ensure that our MAGTFs continue to be optimized to rapidly address the full range of potential security challenges, to contain future disruptions to global stability, and to counter extremist ideology. We also will ensure that the engagement capability of our seaborne forces—inherent to their forward posture—reinforces U.S. credibility and solidifies relationships with partners that facilitate a collective approach to maintaining security and stability. Together, the ability of Marine forces to engage and respond will promote access and reassure allies and friends of our commitment. We fully understand that Marine Corps forces will continue be called upon—and must remain always at the ready—to rapidly respond to crises, whether natural or man-made, and project power from the sea. We will strive to improve our ability to interact effectively with local populations, international partners, special operations forces, and other agencies and organizations. Our forces also will continue to improve their ability to perform multiple, diverse, and simultaneous tasks and to operate in complex expeditionary operations.

We must never lose sight of the numerous benefits that the United States and its joint forces derive from our ability to operate from the sea within the littorals in order to assure friends and protect national interests. The ability to assert access deters many forms of aggression, assures allies of U.S. capability to intervene decisively, allows our forces greater independence by leveraging the sea, provides the ability to gain and exploit operational access into theaters at a time and place of our choosing, and serves as a cost-imposing strategy to impact adversary defensive investments. Ultimately, as a nation we cannot cede areas to those who would destabilize the international economic lifelines that the global economy depends on.

We are working to ensure that littoral maneuver and crisis response succeed against the complex challenges of the 21st century. We are not wedded to concepts that simply “storm beaches under fire” or niche investments with little application in protecting our national interests. Our heritage as the nation’s “most ready,” our tradition and reputation for solving intractable problems, and our institutional adaptability demands that the Marine Corps remains poised to overcome complex challenges in the most austere environments. In this dynamic and unpredictable expeditionary, an age of uncertainty, it appears that the need and demand for these skills will appreciate in value and in utilization. The demand for the Marine Corps’ unique capabilities will remain essential to ensuring American leadership and influence on the global stage in order to prevent conflict, protect our national interests, and prevail in war.


1. Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. xv.

2. Per joint doctrine, there are five types of amphibious operations: assault, raid, demonstration, withdrawal, and amphibious support to other operations (such as security cooperation, foreign humanitarian assistance, civil support, noncombatant evacuation operations, peace operations, recovery operations, disaster relief, etc.).

3. Barack Obama, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, May 2010), p. 14.

4. Ibid., cover letter.

5. National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC: June 2008), p. 20.

6. B. H. Liddell Hart, Deterrent or Defense: A Fresh Look at the West’s Military Position (New York: Praeger, 1960), p. 128.

7. Colin S. Gray, “Amphibious Operations,” The Oxford Companion to Military History , Richard Holmes, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 49.


Lieutenant General Flynn, a 1975 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

Lieutenant General Flynn is the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration, and Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Virginia.

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