Making Expeditionary Force 21 Work

By Major Scott Kinner, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

But just as in 1934 and 1989, the Marine Corps cannot afford to let change lead to failure; it must let EF21 work. Warfare does change and is changing, and there is a problem set that the Marine Corps must address to continue to deliver value to the nation and the other naval services. The operational environment is more complex, the issues surrounding the employment of force more nuanced, and the transport of forces into the area of operations more difficult. The need for expeditionary forces that can serve both as crisis-response teams and as enablers for the joint force, is only increasing at the same time as resources continue to diminish.

Employing a “pre-mortem” analysis is a Red Team method that organizations can use to avoid risk to their plans. It works by assuming that the plan failed, and by using a pre-mortem, people can “ask why did that failure occur” and thereby identify potential problems in the plan. Used in this manner, a pre-mortem of EF21 offers a way for the Marine Corps to avoid failure when failure is not an option. In the same way that the Marine Corps got amphibious warfare “right,” the service must get “right” the way it will operate today and in the coming decades. By asking, “Why did EF21 fail?” the Marine Corps can maximize its chances at avoiding that failure.

Fuzzy Specifics a No-No

In simple terms, the purpose of EF21 is to ensure, as stated on page 3, that the Marine Corps continues to provide the “right force in the right place at the right time.” Specifically, the EF21 capstone operating concept seeks to ensure that the Marine Corps provides combatant commanders with forces that make possible “the recurring dividends of ‘soft power’ applied with a richer military dimension; the deterrent effect of immediate, credible and effective actions to thwart potential adversaries; and the expanded operational reach and tactical flexibility to defeat foes throughout the littorals.”

In addressing how to provide this force, EF21 examines the traditional and legal roles of the Marine Corps and what it means to be expeditionary and forward-deployed. It provides guidance on what the future operational environment will look like. More important, it outlines the service’s approach to these issues and the lines of effort needed to refine the force, aggressively posture it forward, integrate it more deeply with the Navy, and maneuver it in the littorals. What EF21 does not do is lay out a definitive problem set. It provides an intelligence brief and a course of action, but leaves out clearly defining the problem that the operating concept seeks to solve.

This is a key pre-mortem reason for potential risk of EF21 failure. In seeking to remain a “living document” that might evolve and mature, the operating concept ends up being far too vague. By leaving the reader to define and interpret what the problem set might be, or even if a problem exists, the validity of the entire document becomes interpretive. Some of it might matter, some might not. In the terms mentioned above, does not the Marine Corps already execute tasks such as theater-security cooperation to provide the “soft power” options the combatant commanders seek? Does not the Marine Corps already deploy Marine Expeditionary Units and Special Marine Air Ground Task Forces forward to provide the combatant commanders deterrence and crisis-response capabilities? Certainly, the Marine Corps, as an amphibious force employable by both air and sea, already provides the combatant commander with operational reach and tactical flexibility.

There are significant obstacles to change in any organization, and EF21 adds to the risk by not defining a specific problem set that makes change imperative. Without a problem set that demands serious analysis and validation, EF21 faces difficulties in overcoming the internal obstacles of tradition (“we have always done it this way”) and institutional inertia. Externally, the Marine Corps relies on the joint force, and the Navy in particular, to enable and support its manner of employment. EF21 must not only convince the joint force, the Congress, and the Executive Branch that there is a problem set requiring a solution, but that the problem is significant enough to warrant the changes recommended by the operating concept. If EF21 does not lay out a specific, compelling problem that it seeks to solve and an imperative to solve it, EF21 risks becoming merely an interesting academic exercise.

Problems Clearly Defined

The amphibious innovation devised by Ellis and instituted by Lejeune sought to address a specific threat and a specific operational environment—Japan and the Pacific theater. Gray’s introduction of maneuver warfare directly addressed how to efficiently and effectively project power ashore and operate there without resorting to frontal attacks against enemy strengths. Both doctrines represented specific, real problems that would defeat the employment models of the time and therefore demanded new ways of generating and using Marine forces.

EF21 needs to state specifically what it now only alludes to—that it is an operating concept that seeks to resolve three real problems: First, how can the Marine Corps continue to meet the stated demands of forward engagement and deterrence, crisis response, and joint shaping actions, amid diminishing resources and a smaller force? In short, how can it (if it can at all) really do more with less? Second, how can it win in an operational environment that increasingly demonstrates that to be static, to mass, to indeed even be visible, is to be targeted and destroyed? Third, how can it move from being a set of demands on its naval partners to a force that directly contributes to helping those partners solve their own particular problems? Put another way, there is no Department of the Marine Corps—what is the payoff to the U.S. Navy when it embarks Marines?

EF21 does not have to be wrong or right, but it does have to firmly state the problem set—problems that the joint force must solve and to which the Marine Corps contributes. If the joint force faces significant anti-access and area-denial problems, then the EF21 operating concept should provide methods that the joint force will seek to employ, such as the ability to use long-range ground units from the sea and from advanced expeditionary bases to both deceive and force the threats to reveal themselves and become targetable. Similarly, if building beach support areas or airheads ashore is to invite targeting and destruction, then the EF21 operating concept should provide methods by which Marines conduct advanced-force and shaping actions using the sea and advanced expeditionary-bases sanctuary. Finally, from supporting visit, board, search, and seizure tasks to assisting in ship defense to providing naval commanders a landward strike asset, EF21 should support the ability of Marines to help the Navy solve some of its service problems.

To really work, EF21 must definitively state the problems it seeks to solve.

‘Opportunity to Ignore or Oppose’

Failure to define a clear problem set means that EF21 ’s mandate for radical change is at risk of becoming mere rumination that leads back to the status quo. The context within which EF21 places the problem set is just as critical. If one problem that the operating concept seeks to solve is “how to do more with less,” one is immediately compelled to ask, “Against what threat, and to what level of effort?” To address these underlying questions, EF21 must first state what are the most likely and most dangerous threat courses of action. Second, EF21 must state to which of these courses of action should the force be optimized. By not proposing specific answers to these issues but leaving them open to interpretation, EF21 offers those who might stand in opposition to change another opportunity to ignore or oppose the operating concept.

Conventional wisdom holds that the most dangerous threat course of action is a near-peer competitor both desirous and capable of fighting symmetrically against Marine forces. Against such a threat course of action, some feel that the Marine Corps must still be able to create an amphibious penetration against an enemy strength in a manner similar to traditional amphibious assaults—and not only maintain the capability, but the capacity and ability to exercise it on demand, rather than build if needed.

Similarly, it is generally assumed that when the words “most likely threat course of action” are used, one is speaking of crisis response and limited contingency operations against non-state and transnational actors employing irregular and hybrid warfare. This is the operational environment to which General Charles Krulak referred when he coined the Three Block War moniker and in many ways is the situation in which the Marine Corps has historically conducted most of its operations. (The Three Block War refers to the idea that a force might simultaneously be conducting humanitarian assistance on one city block, conducting security operations on a second city block, and be engaged in direct combat on a third city block.)

EF21 loosely states that the Marine Corps may accept some risk at the higher end of conflict. This is an ambiguous statement that does not provide specific context for the operating concept—what risk and how much? If resources are really a constraint to manning, training, equipping, and employing the force, then against which threat will the Marine Corps operate? Both? If so, how?

If Lejeune had Japan and the Pacific to innovate and optimize against, and Gray had to find ways to get the force ashore and fight in the midst of Cold War realities, then EF21 must posit the threat it seeks to defeat and build a force around those requirements. What is the context for the problem set? Do more with less against whom?

Wargame and Experiment

To avoid risking failure EF21 must recognize that the most dangerous threat course of action is the most likely one.

The world has had more than two decades to observe what happens to forces that seek symmetrical overmatch against U.S. forces, or remain visible and targetable: They lose decisively. Not surprisingly, enemies have responded with hybrid warfare. From criminal organizations to non-state actors to near-peer competitors, existing and potential adversaries fully recognize that they must use cover, concealment, ambiguity, deception, and excellent operational security to avoid being targeted by the United States. They have also thought through what they need to do to win. Consequently, they will use anti-access and area denial, indirect fires, decentralized execution, tight kill chains, and information operations to achieve standoff and deliver effects against one of the few forces that still mass on the battlefield: U.S. forces.

This then, is the threat against which EF21 must seek to optimize. In doing so, it provides the Marine Corps important opportunities. First, it allows the Corps to aggressively and ruthlessly wargame and experiment. If the problem set is valid, then as an operating concept that seeks to solve the identified problems, EF21 provides the Marine Corps and its naval partners the opportunity to start with blank whiteboards and leave no assumption unchallenged (to include EF21 itself). In this environment, even creating failures helps lead toward solutions by identifying what did not work.

Second, by defining the parameters of optimization, EF21 helps couch how to approach and solve the “zero sum” math problem of diminishing resources—that to add some capabilities means to deduct others. If the Marine Corps must disperse to avoid being targeted, and this requires better trained small unit leaders, then the funding for that training must come from somewhere. For example, should the Marine Corps still spend almost $1 billion dollars on an unmanned aerial asset designed for employment in the deserts of Iraq that cannot provide the coverage needed to support operations conducted from the seabase? EF21 should be the source that delivers guidance on how to answer that question by providing definitive statements regarding the threat and force optimization.

An Issue of Culture

No matter how well EF21 defines a problem set, the threat, the operational environment, and the conditions for success, if the Marine Corps’ organizational culture lacks a bias for innovation and action, then EF21 is functionally stillborn. Most military organizations are associated with tradition and stasis. When they do innovate, especially most rapidly and fiercely, it is when they are at war. In conflict, the competition of the battlefield and the drive for victory are powerful motivators. The old saw of “fighting the last war” indicates the inertia that tends to happen to most military cultures when the competition generated on the battlefield dissipates. The Marine Corps’ basic philosophy of warfighting recognizes that while war is immutable, warfare is not—it is ever changing. Even if the Marine Corps is not at war, it cannot assume that warfare has not changed around it. To assume that what was right on 2 September 1945, the day Japan surrendered in World War II, or that what was right on 10 September 2001, the day before 9/11, remains valid today without continually testing that assumption is a recipe for failure.

Foundationally, an innovation organization can only exist if its senior leadership desires it to exist. A room full of brilliant minds will produce nothing of value if their ideas must funnel through supervisors who do not believe that change might be necessary, and that preconceived assumptions and biases must be continually validated or discarded. In light of much of the preceding discussion, one must ask if EF21 will be viewed as an opportunity and a potential operating concept that will help solve 21st-century tactical problems or as a burden to be borne, delayed, and eventually shelved.

This point is critical, because of all the issues that might lead to the failure of EF21 , the leading threat is the institution itself. Bureaucracies normally lack not only the desire to change, but tend to see change as a threat to stability and power. Sections, divisions, working groups, communities of interest, uniformed personnel, and civilian employees come to rely on the continued existence of a program or piece of equipment. As long as Item X or Initiative H is necessary, an entire chain of support and funding continues to exist. To challenge the usefulness of either Item X or Initiative H is to challenge the very livelihood and existence upon which a part of the larger bureaucracy survives. It is almost an exercise in impossibility to find organizations that, having accomplished their primary mission, voluntarily cease to exist.

Entire processes and procedures arise that end up creating self-justifying feedback loops. The same actors who develop requirements are the same ones who implement them and wargame them, thus validating their continued existence. It is ordinary to see civilians spend an entire career devoted to one specific aspect of development and procurement, or find officers who initially wrote a requirement and return to oversee its budget programming, its acquisition and testing, and its eventual fielding.

Such an environment is not just inherently hostile to EF21 , it is actively hostile to change at all—that is, any change that cannot be molded and guided back into well-worn institutional paths and made to produce outcomes that parallel the solutions already favored by the bureaucracy. Only through actively engaged senior leadership, who are seeking to be agents of change themselves, can the rusty levers of the institution be forced to move.

Rx: Declarative—and Innovative

What EF21 must do is challenge the Marine Corps to move beyond “Lejeune moments” when the fates align in a perfect manner that the right person is in the right place at the right time with the right authorities and influence. Instead, it must insist that the Marine Corps live within its foundational doctrine and create an organization that lives and breathes innovation and versatility. Given the pace of change in the world, and therefore the speed of action and reaction between armed opponents, EF21 correctly identifies the dangers to a Marine Corps that does not innovate, and most dangerously, does not grow innovative thinkers. In the 21st century, the Marine Corps cannot rely on Lejeune moments if it expects to fight and win.

A review of the ways in which EF21 risks failure provides key insights into how it can be shepherded to success. This must begin with a definitive statement as to the nature of the tactical and operational problems the 21st-century threat poses. Without such a statement, various actors from individuals to the institutional bureaucracy are left to define EF21 in ways most advantageous to themselves.

EF21 must declaratively state the nature of the threat and the operational environment that it must act against. While not impossible, it is unlikely that that Marine Corps can optimize itself for everything all the time—especially when doing so it is likely to create unacceptable demands on its naval partners.

Finally, the success of EF21 requires the existence and maintenance of a truly innovative culture, the kind of culture described in detail in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting . EF21 offers the first direct challenge in decades to the way the Marine Corps organizes and deploys. It challenges existing models of command, and it directly confronts existing equipment and material programs. It requires bold senior leadership willing to inspire, and to let people and teams ask not, “Is EF21 the right thing?” but rather, “How do we determine if EF21 is the right thing—and if it isn’t, what is?”

Major Kinner is doctrine developer and writer for the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group, Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command at Twentynine Palms, California.


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