The NEF concept was supposed to describe the way our Navy and Marine forces would work together in the future. In its articulation, it became part tactics, part command-and-control, part operational art, and—at the risk of seeming cynical—part propaganda. In this era of bulletized PowerPoint strategies (Operational Maneuver from the Sea [OMFTS], Extended Littoral Battlefield [ELB], etc.), it had a lot of territory to cover in defining just how our naval forces would operate. Here, broad-arrow theory clashed with practical application, and the really hard questions—who's in charge and under what circumstances—were never resolved.
My sources tend to blame the Marines for the final meltdown. But regardless of which service blinked first, it's clear that each had concerns regarding the NEF concept that are both justified and at the same time exaggerated. For its part, the Marine Corps has been trying to squirm out from under the Navy's operational control, claiming that traditional amphibious command relationships are dated. Once the Marines realized that the commander of the NEF—CNEF—most likely would be a Navy officer, perhaps their interest in the idea waned.
If so, the reaction is regrettable and misguided. Sea-based operations should still be under the direct control of a Navy officer for the same reasons they have always been: the need for sea control, the difficulty of integrating ongoing task group operations, stable and continuous communications throughout the operation. The new capabilities the Corps has crafted into its afloat forces are impressive and sorely needed, but they need to be seen as part of the fleet.
Navy tactical leadership has recognized this, and battle group commanders have for the most part dedicated themselves to employing and supporting attached Marine air-ground task forces as integral parts of the naval force.
The NEF concept came unglued in its inability to codify something we actually do quite well on a daily basis: integrate Navy and Marine Corps tactical forces. We usually don't notice it because the folks standing around the flag bridge who are staring the problem in the face are professional enough to work out the details necessary to accomplish the mission.
In the end, the NEF concept was substance without form, an attempt to add a pedigree to something which we do routinely. Carrier battle groups and amphibious ready groups seem to be functioning just fine without a command structure makeover, although the failure of both our naval services to come to a common doctrinal policy after two years of deliberation is mildly disconcerting.
Commander McKearney is an analyst for Kapos Associates in San Diego working on joint and naval command-and-control issues. He wrote “CNEF Arriving!” ( Proceedings January 1996, pages 36-40).