An expedition is a military operation conducted by an armed force to accomplish a specific objective in a foreign country. Thanks to the blessings of geography, good neighbors, and domestic tranquility, the United States armed forces are largely predisposed toward expeditionary operations. Our team always prefers away games. Each member of the team contributes complementary capabilities that allow U.S. joint forces to conduct a variety of expeditionary missions across the range of military operations.
Since 1916—the last time an overland expedition was launched from the continental United States—all of our expeditions have been "over seas." While certain elements may go by air, the preponderance of U.S. joint forces are transported and sustained by sea. All members of our joint team therefore have a vested interest in sea power as a direct or indirect means of contributing complementary capabilities to an expedition. These capabilities flow from the unique role each service plays in an expedition. The Navy's role is to control the maritime domain, including the associated airspace and littoral areas, to ensure safe arrival of, and support for, the other components of the joint team. The Army and Air Force exist to dominate their respective land and air arenas. In general, the greater the capability and capacity required to dominate these areas for a given expedition the longer it will take to deploy the associated forces. Simply stated, there is a size/speed trade-off whenever an expedition is mounted.
The Marine Corps, although it operates on the sea, land, and in the air, is not optimized to dominate any of them. Rather, the Corps is designed to be expeditionary. The role of the variously sized Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTF)—from a 2,000-man Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) to a 45,000-man Marine expeditionary force (MEF)—is to fill the gaps created by the size/speed trade-off. Intentionally lean, they operate from the sea as an integral part of the naval team. As a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness, Marines are organized, trained, and equipped to get there fast and open the door—forcibly if necessary—to accomplish a mission singly or to pave the way for more robust forces. In his 1960 book Deterrence or Defense, British military theorist Sir B. H. Liddell Hart identified the historic utility—and future potential—of a force specifically built to be expeditionary:
A self-contained and sea-based amphibious force, of which the U.S. Marine Corps is the prototype, is the best kind of fire extinguisher—because of its flexibility, reliability, logistic simplicity, and relative economy.1
Since those words were written the Navy and Marine Corps have repeatedly demonstrated the value of having a portion of the joint team constructed for expeditionary operations. In recent years, however, a significant portion of the Marine Corps has been making a different contribution to the joint team by conducting prolonged operations ashore in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines have, in the past, frequently fought ashore for extended periods alongside the Army—World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War come immediately to mind. Each of these conflicts generated changes to our organization, equipment, and methods. These changes were necessary in the near term, but in the long-term ran counter to maintaining an expeditionary Marine Corps. It is important, therefore, to remind ourselves—and our teammates—how we as Marines define expeditionary.
To Marines, expeditionary refers to an institutional capacity and cultural predisposition that influences every aspect of organization, training, and equipment. It connotes more than the mere ability to deploy overseas when needed. It is an institutional imperative that acknowledges the necessity to deploy rapidly, arrive quickly, and begin operating on arrival. These principles and competencies drive the force design of the MAGTF, with its organic air, ground, and logistic elements under a single commander.
This expeditionary ethos has both institutional and individual dimensions. It is the most critical contributor to the Corps' success at expeditionary missions and complex contingencies. This ethos has been deliberately cultivated and exploited by Marine leaders for generations. It is this mindset that drives our capability development efforts and ultimately generates both combat power and the organizational flexibility to accomplish diverse missions across the range of military operations. Among the characteristics prized within our expeditionary culture, three stand out: fast, austere, and lethal.
Forward-positioned MAGTFs, supported when necessary by immediately deployable reinforcements, enable swift power projection. Crises—regardless of their nature—typically call for swift action. The ability to move and act quickly is critical to an expeditionary force's ability to achieve its objective. We must remember that deployable means more than rapid movement to a crisis area. A force also must be able to expeditiously establish an operational posture within that area.
To carry this a step further, being in "an operational posture" implies making troops, equipment, and provisions available; establishing an effective command and control system; and creating an effective logistics network that can manage the functions of supply, maintenance, transportation, engineering, and health services. We must measure expeditionary in terms of readiness—the time required for a unit to transition from its pre-crisis state to the actual conduct of operations.
After World War I, the Marine Corps as an institution wrestled with its future role in the defense establishment and debated whether we should focus on "small wars" or amphibious operations. General John A. Lejeune, in his wisdom, recognized that the Marine Corps not only had to be capable of both, but that they were not mutually exclusive. As detailed by Colonel Robert D. Heinl:
To the new Major General Commandant it seemed clear that, despite the fighting triumphs of World War I, the Marine Corps, popular and admired though it was, needed a mission all its own. . . . In the advance base and expeditionary studies that had preceded the war, Lejeune and his brilliant juniors found an answer. The real, the perennial mission of the Marine Corps, they reasoned, was readiness. Readiness was the single common denominator which ran through every Marine Corps expedition of the 20th century and most Marine operations in the 19th. . . . readiness in 1920 particularly meant amphibious readiness.2
The expeditionary ethos includes attitudes and beliefs built into the planning assumptions made about the operating environment and external support. Expeditionary operations typically are conducted in austere environments—from sea, land, or forward bases—and will likely require U.S. forces to operate without reliance on third-party or host-nation support. This does not mean that an expeditionary force is necessarily small or lightly equipped, but that it is no larger or heavier than necessary to accomplish the mission. Supplies and equipment must be limited to operational necessities; "nice-to-haves" must be ruthlessly carved out. Marines must arrive only with what is essential to fighting and winning outright, or sustaining the fight until additional joint forces arrive.
This tendency toward austerity derives from operational considerations and the imperative to minimize lift and support requirements to ensure rapid movement by sea or air. Furthermore, Marines should expect to operate without benefit of established infrastructure ashore. Being prepared to operate without host-nation support is especially relevant today, because most expeditionary missions are conducted within states that have failed or at least are substantially weak in basic services and functions.
Our training must continue to condition Marines to a rugged lifestyle. Part of our expeditionary ethos is that Marines hold immunity to hardship as a point of pride—some would say a perverse point of pride! The result is that forward-deployed Marine units must be able to operate with low logistical overhead. In recent years Marines serving in Iraq have received a benevolent level of logistic support, which has undermined this notion. In our strategic plan, Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025, Commandant General James Conway has emphasized that we must be prepared to "live hard" in uncertain and austere environments. Consequently, he has directed a self-disciplined, belt-tightening approach to guide our capability development efforts to ensure we remain a lean and agile force.
Organization and structure play significant roles in providing a force with expeditionary characteristics. Whether sea-based or shore-based, the MAGTF construct allows us to conduct combined-arms warfare, using the speed and precision of our command-and-control capabilities to coordinate vertical and surface maneuver with direct or indirect fires, including aviation-delivered fires, to produce the desired tactical results. A re-dedication to combined-arms expertise and the integrated employment of our air, ground, and logistics elements at all echelons will ensure combat effectiveness. We must further enhance our ability for company-sized maneuver units to operate independently against a dispersed enemy. These enhancements will require advanced command and control, logistics, intelligence, and fire-support capabilities within the MAGTF as a whole. The synergy of these integrated enhancements will be a potent and lethal force multiplier. The inclusion of combined-arms employment and integrated air power as part of every Marine's training and experience will ensure superior effectiveness in uncertain circumstances.
The diverse capabilities that make the MAGTF a highly lethal combat formation also provide great flexibility in conducting the range of military operations. Expeditionary flexibility is the product of strategic utility and operational reach. This provides global responsiveness to the combatant commanders. A flexible expeditionary force must, by virtue of its organization, training, and equipment, be ready for operations in any terrain or climatic condition. It must be able to deploy immediately, without delays for special preparations to adapt it to the peculiarities of a specific area of operations.
Flexibility is based on leadership, rigorous mental preparation, and conditioning. It involves the ability to move fast, hit hard, and change direction or mode of operation on short notice. This ability is characterized by the phrase "Three Block War" created to describe the tactical complexity of having to conduct offensive, peacekeeping, and humanitarian tasks simultaneously.
As we are seeing in today's global war against terrorism, the advantages of being fast, austere, and lethal produce significant advantages in terms of operational flexibility, provided decision-makers—at every level—possess the requisite mental agility. We must therefore consider a significant fourth characteristic: the individual dimension.
The Individual Dimension
In addition to the institutional parameters that drive the deliberate design of our expeditionary capability, we must continue to focus considerable attention on the individual Marine. From the day recruits join the Corps they must understand that they are going to deploy. They must be physically and mentally ready. They must also be instilled with an eagerness to deploy—to be where the action is regardless of the nature of the mission. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 3, Expeditionary Operations, describes this well:
Just as every Marine is a rifleman regardless of duties and military specialty, all Marines must also think of themselves as part of a fundamentally expeditionary organization designed and intended to project military force overseas. . . . The expeditionary mindset implies a Spartan attitude: an expectation and a willingness to endure-in fact, a certain pride in enduring-hardship and austere conditions . . . [and the] versatility and adaptability to respond effectively without a great deal of preparation time to a broad variety of circumstances.
This mindset is a powerful component of the Marine Corps culture. Marines must continue to be imbued with the notion of doing more with less, of fighting and prevailing in an austere operational environment, of living a lean existence. They must be groomed to use their own creative initiative to solve problems with minimum guidance. These things cannot be instilled through platitudes. They must be practiced daily as necessary parts of creating and maintaining a high degree of mental preparedness for complex contingencies. Marines must be taught to expect the unexpected so they will be mentally agile enough to create innovative solutions when unanticipated circumstances arise. Expeditionary contingencies generate more than their share of such circumstances. Thus, all Marines must be prepared to operate beyond the bounds of explicit guidance, formal doctrine, and tactical templates or checklists. Our expeditionary ethos prizes creativity and adaptation.
Given the foregoing, we have an individual and institutional requirement for hard, realistic, and innovative training, to include understanding of the invaluable lessons of history. Professional study must complement doctrine and experiential learning to furnish the intellectual tools to diagnose unexpected requirements, and a menu of combat-proven options from which Marines can create their own solutions quickly and effectively.
From Understanding to Tangible Capabilities
In 1952 the 82nd Congress codified General Lejeune's assessment of the Marine Corps expeditionary role into public law:
American history, recent as well as remote, has fully demonstrated the vital need for the existence of a strong force-in-readiness. Such a force, versatile, fast moving, and hard-hitting . . . can prevent the growth of potentially large conflagrations by prompt and vigorous action during their incipient stages. The nation's shock troops must be the most ready when the nation is least ready . . . to provide a balanced force-in-readiness for a naval campaign and, at the same time, a ground and air striking force ready to suppress or contain international disturbances.
During the Cold War (1946-89), sea-based Marines were committed to an average of 2.27 crises per year, validating the force-in-readiness role codified by Congress. Furthermore, in the era of uncertainty that has followed the Cold War, this employment rate has more than doubled. From 1990 to 2006 the Navy-Marine Corps team has been committed to an average of just over five crises per year. In a world in which we need to prepare for scenarios that we have not yet anticipated and emerging enemies that we cannot yet identify, the need for such an expeditionary force-in-readiness only grows in value.
This article has broadly described what the term expeditionary means to the Marine Corps to reinforce understanding among Marines as well as to expand understanding among our joint teammates. To ensure that our naval expeditionary force-in-readiness remains relevant in the future, we must translate that understanding into tangible capabilities. Two new concepts soon to be published provide the framework for doing so. An Enhanced MAGTF for the 21st Century explores ideas for refining the MAGTF in light of likely operating environments, adversaries, tactics, and technologies. Amphibious Operations in the 21st Century examines the purposes, methods, and means of bridging the division between sea and land, providing a way to think about the application of current amphibious abilities and considerations for developing future capacity. These documents are designed to stimulate dialogue and innovation among Marine Corps forces, educators, trainers, and force developers, as well as our joint partners. They will be published on our Web site—www.mccdc.usmc.mil—once they are available.
1. B. H. Liddell Hart, Deterrence or Defense, (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1960), pp. 127-8.
2. Robert D. Heinl Jr., Soldiers of the Sea, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1961), p. 253.