Commander William Earl Fannin, Class of 1945, Capstone Essay Conteststage the obsolescence of American military strategy. It was the product of a Cold War-inspired acquisitions cycle, coupled with the power void created with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the United States found itself ready to fight an enemy that did not exist. So the United States did what it does when faced with a challenge—it adapted the strategy to fit the new reality. Thus began the era of “anti-access, area-denial asymmetrical strategies” in which the focus of strategic planning was to overwhelm the enemy with the combined might of our sea, air, and land systems, in terms of technological prowess, sheer numbers, and warfighting competency.2 By all accounts, this was a success. During Operation Desert Storm—a case study in asymmetrical warfare on a grand scale—U.S. forces sustained 135 times fewer fatalities than our enemy, which at the time was a veteran force of impressive size.3 It stood to reason that the United States could repeat this success against essentially the same force 12 years later. The fact is that the enemy adapted and changed faster than the United States did. It is our duty to make sure that such a misstep does not occur in the future, using the center of gravity of American military might—in other words, technological supremacy.
The Marine Corps in Iraq was used as an occupational force for much of its service there. While the Marines have demonstrated the ability to maintain isolated positions in non-U.S. territory (whether at foreign embassies or remote fire bases in Vietnam), the expeditionary, light-infantry force the Marine Corps is designed to be is not best used in this role. The Marine Corps shone when Marines in Iraq were unleashed during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Marines were employed there in an effective, efficient, expeditious manner. When U.S. troops surged in 2007 and lived among the populace, learning and integrating with the locals, and moved away from forward-operating bases and Baghdad, stagnation changed to success. The Marines were allowed to do what they do best—engage in expeditionary warfare. At the same time, changes were made in the troops’ equipment. Feedback from Marines on the ground about the vulnerability of the HMMWV (high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle) led to the development and deployment of approximately 12,000 MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles), reducing casualties from roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) 88 percent in less than one year, a development that altered the battlefield drastically, allowing unit commanders more freedom of movement in potentially hostile areas.4
As history demonstrates, the Marine Corps must be allowed to be an expeditionary force to remain effective. In the information-age battlefield, this means something different than it meant it the past. As General James T. Conway, then Commandant of the Corps said in the introductory letter of his “2025 Vision and Strategy” for the Marine Corps, the Marines have “been prepared in the past because we understood that a force in readiness must be well-trained, broadly educated, and properly equipped for employment across all forms of warfare.”5
• What does this mean for the next 40 years?
• What education will be necessary to understand and meet emergent challenges?
• What training must Marines receive to remain technically and tactically proficient?
• What equipment must the Corps acquire to allow Marines to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy?
The answers to these questions are simple: The Marine Corps must embrace the youngest generation of officers and enlisted Marines—the “digital natives”—to keep pace with an enemy who increasingly operates outside traditional military structure and international law.
Lieutenant General Robert S. Walsh, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration and Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, has promoted the Marine of the future as a “sensor-shooter-sharer,” a warrior who not only engages the enemy with his weapon, but with information—by gathering information subsequent to an action and distributing it to the rest of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF).6 This is to include every weapon and platform, from the Marine and his rifle to the $98 million F-35B supporting him. While the individual sensors and transmitters required to accomplish this mission are too numerous and specific for the scope of this analysis, the Marines must acquire and distribute this information to the MAGTF. Systems such as Synexxus’ Electronic Keel, also known as OBERON to the U.S. Army, will be central to the Marine Corps of the future, by providing a single system that “incorporates, integrates, and networks vehicle or other platform equipment including cameras, radars, radios, remote weapon systems, vehicle monitoring systems, sniper detection systems, blue-force tracking software, carry-on notebook computers, navigational systems, command & control systems, and other sensors and sub-systems” into a “convenient package.”7 This package is important for what it does for the small-unit leaders, streamlining and informing their tactical analysis so Marines may engage the enemy in the most effective ways possible.
The Marine Corps must embrace the “millennial” generation if it hopes successfully to wage a war of information. The battlefield is a kinetic environment where information of a visually and audibly collected nature must be analyzed by leaders to determine the best course of action. Adding another layer to this hurricane of data would be disastrous for those not adequately educated to embrace it. Digital natives are conditioned to analyze and synthesize fragments of information from the digital sphere—first eliminating the chaff and then determining what information is pertinent to the task at hand. Thus, education for Marine officers and NCOs should attempt to combine this ability with the troop-leading traditions of the Marine Corps, adding to the best practices of the past the brightest ideas for the future. A second lieutenant should be able to employ his fire teams and attached weapons to make the best use of their capabilities and direct his information assets—such as small unmanned combat aerial vehicles—to develop his understanding of the tactical situation and support his scheme of maneuver.
It follows then that the operators of these information assets must know what information to pass and how to acquire it—techniques only intentional education at the military occupational specialty (MOS)-school level can achieve. While this will mean significant changes to the way courses of instruction are conducted, it likely will mean less of challenge to those tasked with completing the courses than to those who must first design them. A teenager who grew up playing first-person shooter video games while video-chatting and listening to a podcast simultaneously will have a much easier time parsing and using simultaneous data streams than the veteran Marine who grew up using a Walkman.
Once Marines have been educated on how best to incorporate millennial strengths with the established art-of-war and careful techniques of air, land, and sea warfare, they must then rehearse these skills in realistic scenarios. To put it simply, they must train. This is not a revelation—training to use new techniques is a method of preparation as old as war itself. However, this training must evolve in parallel to the battlefield and the enemy. As the enemy becomes more urbanized and technological, so should training. As we come become more focused on war in the information sphere, so will the enemy, and thus our training must follow suit.
ISIS is an excellent example of the type of enemy the Marine Corps will face on future battlefields. Though their motivations may differ, the techniques of future non-state actors likely will be similar to methods employed by ISIS today. There are accounts of ISIS using home-built, off-the-shelf drones as artillery spotters or explosive delivery vehicles against Kurdish forces in Iraq.8
Unlike the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Marine Corps may not own the “high ground,” or even the air to the extent they have in the past. MAGTF members and leaders must be exposed to these challenges in a situation in which failures may be analyzed and remediated, rather than paid for in the blood of Marines. The “electronic keel” discussed earlier must feed information not only to operational commanders but to those developing training so lessons learned one day in austere environments in any climate or place may be taught.
The Marine Corps of the future will communicate about the enemy’s weaknesses and strengths more expeditiously than the enemy will be able to do, and will deploy its forces more rapidly with this knowledge than the enemy can. The Marine Corps can defeat a fleet of $100 drones deployed by radicals without high-school educations if it can first efficiently communicate that they exist and how they are employed.
The Marine Corps of 2040 will only be able to embrace the sensor-shooter-sharer warrior fully if it educates and trains Marines in a manner as fluid as combat itself and provides them the equipment necessary to do so. The Marine tradition of “responding rapidly to crisis and strategic surprise” will lead the Marines to victory for decades to come.9
2. Thomas Barnett, “Let’s Rethink America’s Military Strategy,” TED Talk.
3. MSN Encarta, “Persian Gulf War.” Microsoft Corporation, 2009. Web article.
4. USA Today, “Roadside Bombs Decline in Iraq,” www.USAToday.com, N.p., n.d.
5. U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Vision & Strategy 2025: Executive Summary. Washington, DC, 2008. www.onr.navy.mil/~/media/Files/About-ONR/usmc_vision_strategy_2025_0809.ashx.
6. Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The Future of Marine Corps Capabilities,” October 2015, http://csis.org/event/future-marine-corps-capabilities.
7. SYNEXXUS, “Electronic Keel®,” N.p., n.d.
8. David Hambling, “ISIS Is Reportedly Packing Drones with Explosives Now,” Popular Mechanics, 16 December 2015, www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a18577/isis-packing-drones-with-explosives/.
9. Marine Corps Vision & Strategy 2025: Executive Summary, ibid.