Following the sinking of the USS Maine on 15 February 1898, Colonel Charles Heywood, Commandant of the Marine Corps, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, Commander of the Marine Barracks, New York, to organize two battalions for action in Cuba. Marines from East Coast posts, stations, and receiving ships assembled at the New York Navy Yard where they met hastily arriving officers who began filling various command and staff billets. Huntington was able to gather enough men and equipment to standup the 1st Marine Battalion (Reinforced), consisting of six companies. By the time war with Spain was declared, the battalion was already embarked and forward-deployed as part of the Cuban blockade force.1
On 14 July 2013, a backfire from a lawnmower began the almost 6,300-acre West Mullan fire in western Montana. First responders quickly arrived and organized themselves using the incident-command system. As the fire threatened the town of Superior, Montana, the incident commander determined the need for structure-protection assets. His logistics section placed an order for two Type-IV fire engines, one Type-I fire engine, a water tender, and a qualified task-force leader. Using the mutual-aid system, in less than eight hours these resources were sourced from four different fire districts, traveled 150 miles to the incident, met and organized themselves under the task force leader, and deployed into the town.
During the night of 23 July 2006, the deep-sea car transport Cougar Ace failed to manage a ballast-water exchange correctly, listed heavily to port, and threatened to capsize in the waters south of the Aleutian Islands. Within four hours, Captain Rich Habib of Titan Salvage was en route to the scene from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He quickly gathered a team of naval architects and divers from various parts of the globe and leased all the equipment and vessels needed from a nearby harbor. Captain Habib’s ad hoc crew righted the Cougar Ace, preserved approximately 99 percent of her cargo, avoided an oil spill of more than 176,000 gallons of fuel, and earned Titan a check for more than $10 million.2
These examples demonstrate how relatively small elements—infantry squads and platoons, fire engines and their crews, individual naval architects and tugboats—can quickly be aggregated into complex structures of almost infinite variety and purpose and then just as quickly be broken into their most basic pieces to create new structures. Employing simple, standardized blocks to create larger, more complicated and complex structures is found throughout nature—the proteins that make up the universal genetic code are based on various combinations of only 20 standard amino acids. Similarly, three-dimensional fabricators use a few basic blocks not just to build parts or shapes but to create fully functional assemblies.
This is not task organization, which is normally the modification of some already existing structure to accomplish an assigned task but rather assembly and disassembly. This is the creation and use of something new. There was no 1st Marine Battalion until Lieutenant Colonel Huntington built it, and it was immediately disbanded after the Spanish-American War. Until that fateful backfire of a lawnmower near Superior, Montana, there was no West Mullan firefighting team or task force. After the fire was suppressed that team disaggregated back into its basic components. And as soon as Titan Salvage received its paycheck, Captain Habib’s team and resources disappeared back into the offices, communities, and harbors from which they came. Adding a tank company to an infantry battalion is task organization. Building that battalion—where none previously existed—from a command element, an infantry company, a few rifle platoons, and a company of tanks, is assembly.
Put another way, if one is familiar with a set of Legos one can understand the concept of using a few simple, standard blocks to create purpose-driven, complex structures. More important, Legos demonstrate that those same basic blocks can be used multiple times—assembled, disassembled, and reassembled over and over. As requirements change, so too can structures. When the West Mullan incident commander disbanded the task-force structure, the fire engines and crews did not cease to exist, they again became blocks to be used elsewhere.
Build, Tear Down, Rearrange, Repeat
According to the Marine Corps’ new capstone concept, Expeditionary Force 21, the future indicates a smaller Marine Corps spread more widely across the globe, challenged by a continuing premium on lift, and responding to an even greater operational tempo. It must continue to support an ever-increasing list of security cooperation and military engagement activities. The service must retain the ability to mass combat power occasionally in support of major campaigns and operations. Most important, it must be routinely prepared to “fight tonight” with the right force, with the right capabilities, in the right place, and on demand. Expeditionary Force 21 states that to operate in this environment the Marine Corps must readdress how it organizes and deploys itself and the basic building blocks of this process.3 In other words, its Legos.
In Expeditionary Force 21 and in the Service Campaign Plan 2014–2022, General James F. Amos, outgoing Commandant of the Marine Corps, provides specific guidance on what these building blocks and Legos must do.4 He envisions an expeditionary force in readiness that positions one-third of the operating force forward at all times, is able to operate in austere environments, and capable of achieving a high level of self-sufficiency.5 This expeditionary force must be middleweight, tailorable, and scalable, operating in the gray area where small teams would be incapable and tens of thousands would be unnecessary.
To meet this vision the service must possess the ability to rapidly aggregate and disaggregate combat power. Similar to the Navy’s doctrine of composite warfare, aggregation allows a forward-deployed force of widely dispersed small units to quickly combine in various ways on demand to meet combatant commanders’ operational requirements. Just as the Navy uses a “come as you are” deployment model, aggregation allows ready, trained, and capable units already postured forward to translate their individual capabilities into purpose-designed combat power.
Conversely, disaggregation allows deployed forces to break into a number of smaller, capable units able to handle a host of missions and requirements. Disaggregation also refers to the ability for a purpose-designed force, upon completing or modifying its mission, to release elements that can return to their original tasks.
Inherent to both aggregation and disaggregation is the idea that much of this activity can occur forward, with less reliance on movement of units from the United States, less time lost in bringing units to deployment readiness, and without placing constraints on commanders trying to solve tactical problems with less-than-ready units. For a smaller overall force, deployed in many different places to meet combatant-commander requirements, aggregation and disaggregation are the required methods to meet steady-state demands while still being able to “fight tonight.”
Reevaluate the Basics
Aggregation and disaggregation obviously rely on the existence of some sort of building blocks. Certainly, the Pacific experience of the naval services in World War II was one of aggregation and disaggregation of forward-deployed units. Today the naval services have relatively defined building blocks, such as carrier strike groups, infantry battalions, and amphibious ready groups/Marine expeditionary units (ARG/MEU). However, current and continuing resource constraints coupled with operational demands challenge conventional wisdom on the nature of the Corps’ building blocks—its Legos—in three fundamental ways: utility, capability, and standardization.
Utility. Is the building block useful, both on its own and when aggregated with other blocks? Just as there continues to be debate about the carrier strike group in terms of its utility in most likely employment models and against most dangerous threats, there exists reasons to question the Marine Corps’ basic building block—battalion-sized units such as infantry battalions, composite aircraft squadrons, etc. As a shrinking service disbands the number of these kinds of units in the face of increasing deployment requirements, one must ask if the battalion is the most useful building block to address the paradox of doing more with less. Specifically, is the World War II–era infantry battalion the best design for meeting the demands outlined in Expeditionary Force 21?
Capability. What can the building block do? How can it be employed? The greater the capability for independent or semi-independent action a unit possesses, the greater its utility and flexibility to a commander. However, mere aggregation does not necessarily create greater capability, and disaggregation alone does not automatically create greater flexibility. An artillery battery is capable of semi-independent employment, but aggregation of two or more artillery batteries does not create the command-and-control, operations, and logistics functions necessary for effective battalion-level employment. Conversely, disaggregating or splitting an ARG/MEU does not create a number of “mini-ARG/MEUs” but only a number of ships with embarked troops possessing a limited range of employment options. This remains true unless, of course, units and components of units are deliberately designed to enable such capability.
Standardization. Is the building block consistent and predictable enough for coherent aggregation and disaggregation with other building blocks? The 20 standard amino acids mentioned earlier are different from each other, but each is an individual element that can be relied on to align and build with other single elements to create countless proteins logically, achieving creativity through predictability. In terms of aggregating and disaggregating Marine forces, standardization does not dictate that each widget be of battalion size, company size, or consist of 17 elements equipped in a particular manner. Instead, the various parts of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) strive to create defined blocks specific to their purpose at the lowest level possible to combine, aggregate, and build capability for the commander.
To take a smaller Marine Corps, deploy it continuously, and provide combatant commanders the variation in organizational design needed to address a range of employment from security cooperation to traditional warfare requires aggregation and disaggregation of combat power. In a resource-constrained environment this must occur as effectively and efficiently as possible, meaning that the Marine Corps must reevaluate the basic building blocks of its MAGTFs for the right blend of utility, capability, and standardization.
Building the MAGTF Legos
When reevaluating MAGTF building blocks one realizes that the Marine Corps is attempting to employ a force designed for use in large units against traditional warfare threats—in every other way but traditional warfare. It is inherently inefficient to continually employ forces in ways for which they are not designed, such as throwing battalions at company-sized problems and maintaining active-duty “break in case of worst-case scenario” units while firewalling their employment options. These are not inherently wrong per se, but given the size of the force, the demands on the force, and the available resources, they are unaffordable inefficiencies.
Expeditionary Force 21 provides important guidance on what the new building blocks of the MAGTF should be: The Marine Corps may continue to deploy battalions, but it will employ companies.6 Further, it will concentrate building and employing the force on achieving excellence at the operational sweet spot of steady-state requirements and providing, on demand, the right force in the right place at the right time for crisis response and limited contingency operations. The service will rely on the inherent capabilities of its building blocks to maintain the ability to aggregate the necessary combat power to execute major operations and campaigns if required.7
This requirement to have smaller building blocks that are more capable individually and can meet steady-state requirements, but when combined and composited can meet the high-end demands of traditional warfare, has major impacts across doctrine, organization, training, material, logistics, personnel, facilities, and policy. The first order of impact is on the ground-combat element around which the MAGTF is organized and then on the aviation and logistics combat elements that support it. Since Expeditionary Force 21 uses a company landing-team construct to address company-sized units as building blocks for employment, it is instructive to use them to examine some of the practical effects of reevaluating MAGTF building blocks.
A more independently employable infantry company means that aggregation and disaggregation can neither occur merely by packing them off with their seabags and basic weapons, nor by incurring the inefficiencies inherent in trying to task-organize them by bolting on all manner of assets, personnel, and enablers. Instead, they must be manned, trained, and equipped in a standardized way across the force that provides them a greater baseline capability. Rather than providing them capability when needed, which requires them to first acquire and then learn how to use the capability, these companies must inherently possess the necessary personnel and equipment to immediately integrate enablers and assets.
These cannot be companies that receive a “pickup team” staff of individuals; they must possess the necessary personnel to independently execute their core competencies across the warfighting functions. These cannot be companies that can only execute basic fires and rudimentary information operations; they must be able to organically clear and deny fires, integrate information operations, and tap directly into information-related capabilities. Just these two examples demonstrate that using companies as MAGTF building blocks requires fundamental changes in organizational design, manning, training, and equipping to create standardized companies that provide utility, capability, and standardization in aggregation and disaggregation.
Such companies generate immediate impacts on their battalions. Continuing to use the ground-combat element as an example, the infantry battalion must be restructured to address the issues of employment capability. It must be designed to disaggregate independent companies that possess actual capabilities without, in the process, hollowing out itself. At the same time, it must be able to aggregate all manners of units on the fly in a crisis and immediately employ them. A battalion, then, must grow from a maneuver unit, to force provider, force employer, and battlespace manager.
This all impacts the other elements of the MAGTF. The aviation and logistics communities must change the focus of their support from battalions to fundamentally different companies employed in ways that challenge conventional thought. Command structures must become intellectually and culturally capable of smoothly handling the inherent upfront inefficiencies of rapidly aggregating disparate forces (versus employing big cohesive units) and leveraging the long-term flexibility and efficiency that such employment provides.
A Nimble Force
In many ways the future is already here. Experimentation with the company landing-team construct is fairly mature, with its impacts on warfighting functions already being appreciated. The construct is being executed in the employment of special MAGTFs for both crisis response and security cooperation, which rely on infantry battalions exercising command and control over widely dispersed, independent companies. While it is tempting to state that the combatant commanders did not ask for this capability, just like the ARG/MEU, as they realize the capabilities and flexibility of these smaller MAGTF building blocks, they are demanding more and more.
For Lieutenant Colonel Huntington in 1898 the building blocks for his battalion of Marines were detachments received from across the Eastern seaboard and the individuals necessary to build a headquarters. For the incident commander at the West Mullan fire the building blocks of his staff, functional task forces, and geographical divisions were individuals, fire engines, helicopters, and hand crews. For Captain Habib, the building blocks of his salvage force were specific individual experts, leased equipment, and charted vessels. The kind of nimble, expeditionary Marine Corps envisioned by Expeditionary Force 21 and required by the paradoxical demands of less available forces for more operations bears far more resemblance to these examples than to the huge arrays of personnel and materiel that served in World War II and the Cold War.
It is a Marine force designed to focus on small building blocks to create and deliver capabilities rather than pre-determined, monolithic units. The leadership in our examples asked for and received the building blocks needed to create specific capabilities to address specific problems, as well as the ability to assemble and reassemble those resources as requirements changed. They did not have forces or structures thrust upon them. No one forced the West Mullan incident commander to accept an entire fire department when what was needed was a mixed task force of wildland and structure fire engines. When Captain Habib needed a naval architect to help with delicate and critical center-of-gravity calculations, no one forced him to accept a section or office suite of architects. When Colonel Heywood asked for two battalions and Lieutenant Colonel Huntington delivered six companies, Huntington was not forced to find two more so that a regimental command billet could be created.
If a company suffices, why force the commander to take and support a battalion? If a special MAGTF built around a general engineering component augmented by an infantry platoon for security is the best answer to a disaster-relief mission, why force an infantry company on it? In a time of increased austerity, these are inefficient solutions and result in using a hammer for every problem simply because the Marine Corps bought a hammer, not because it is the best or the right tool for the job. For Expeditionary Force 21 to work, for the MAGTF to become more flexible with a new set of Legos, each building block must possess real capability so that when it is stacked with other blocks the commander receives the tools needed to accomplish the mission. When Captain Habib leased a tugboat and crew to provide a towing capability for the Cougar Ace that boat and crew came manned, ready, and trained to the internationally recognized standard for that particular type of towing. This reminds us that whatever the building blocks of the MAGTF come to look like, they must possess utility, capability, and standardization.
In response to the Commandant’s guidance, the future Marine Corps building blocks cannot remain a set of costly assemblies designed for high-end operations in which they are unlikely to ever be employed. Such assemblies are designed for specific functions and do not easily or efficiently break into subparts. Future Marine Corps building blocks must mirror Legos, allowing commanders to design custom-built structures that fulfill their purpose with speed, efficiency, and clarity.
2. Joshua Davis, “High Tech Cowboys of the Deep Seas: The Race to Save the Cougar Ace,” Wired, vol. 16, no. 3, 20 February 2008, http://archive.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/16-03/ff_seacowboys?currentPage=all.
3. Headquarters of the United States Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21, (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2014).
4. U.S. Marine Corps, United States Marine Corps Service Campaign Plan 2014–2022, (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2014).
5. Expeditionary Force 21, 8.
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Ibid., 11.