In 1952, discussing the roles and missions of the Marine Corps, the 82nd U.S. Congress declared that the Corps must “remain the most ready when the nation is the least ready.” These words have been used since by senior Marine Corps leaders and Commandants as frequent and enduring guidance, including in the current Commandant General Robert Neller’s FRAGO 001—Advance to Contact. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson included a similar sentiment in his opening message, on 18 September 2015, saying, “The bottom line is that in any situation, in any competition, and certainly in any fight, America expects that their Navy will find a way to win—and we will.” In recent years, however, the warfighting readiness of the Marine Corps and Navy—and of all the military services—has been in steady decline and continues to foment serious doubt. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said in May 2014:
If we continue down this path of one-year-at-a-time, death-by-a-thousand cuts budgets, without certainty, flexibility or adequate time, then I worry that we could break this force. Lacking those things, and driven to sequestration spending levels, we will end up with a U.S. military that is both too small and not ready. That is a dangerous mix for this country.1
As we know, the United States continued down that path. This led current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and former Marine Commandant General Joseph Dunford to express his unease in mid-2015, saying, “I am concerned with the readiness of the force today, and I believe we need to review the capabilities and capacities that will be needed to meet future security challenges.”2
Today, the Army is the smallest it has been since World War II; the Air Force is the smallest since its creation; and the Navy is the smallest since World War I—a situation reflected in Senator John McCain’s remarks a few months ago: “Each of our military services remains underfunded, undersized, and unready to meet current and future threats.”3 A plethora of headlines addressing readiness worries throughout 2016 and into 2017 makes it clear that these remain tough times. Despite the new administration’s optimism—it plans to invest more funding in all the services—what can be done, beyond the measures the Navy and Marine Corps already are taking?
Some of the challenges are well beyond the control of the average Marine or Sailor, and often of naval leaders. There are, however, several improvements that should be implemented to help bridge the gaps in readiness as the Navy/Marine Corps team continues to ride that ragged edge for the foreseeable future. This is especially important in this year of political and leadership transitions, which brings with it inevitable change, the relearning of some old lessons, and murkier national security risks.
Training and Warfighting Culture
One basic improvement is a recalibration of military training and education, with a corresponding renewed focus on our warfighting culture. There have been many revisions to General Military Training (GMT) and Professional Military Education (PME) programs over the past several years—including efforts to eliminate redundant, ineffective, or plain distracting “rocks in the ruck” of mandatory annual training that do little to increase our force’s lethality. Nevertheless, these initiatives have been largely ineffective, and GMT continues to be widely parodied. (A 6 May 2016 Duffelblog mock headline summarized the sentiment of many Marines and Sailors, declaring “Kyle Carpenter stripped of Medal of Honor for failure to complete online training.”)
One aspect of recurring all-hands training that somehow remains absent despite multiple high-level reviews, including recurring sessions of the Navy’s flag-level Planning Board for Training, is warfighting-focused information on known and most likely adversaries. This is particularly ironic given the importance the Sea Services place on warfighting readiness and on winning in combat—the Marine Corps professes to be “America’s Force in Readiness” and the Navy’s enduring priority is “Warfighting First.” This self-inflicted knowledge gap stems in part from claims to be ready to fight “in any clime and place” and thus a hesitancy to over-prepare for just a few potential enemies or regions at the expense of others. In addition, there are diplomatic and political concerns about sensitivities making fragile relationships worse by overtly preparing for conflicts with nations not yet officially identified as hostile.
Marines and their Navy shipmates historically have trained to fight anywhere and everywhere, by using time-tested generic principles and through the study of broad lessons learned from previous conflicts. Although this tends to be sufficient when staffing billets are filled, resources are plenty, and the threat situation is vague, today’s dire readiness situation requires a different approach. It is time to break with/from this conventional school of thought and narrow the preparedness lens on what scores of leaders have identified as the five most likely potential adversaries for the foreseeable future: Iran, China, North Korea, Russia, and Islamists (doctrinally termed violent extremist organizations [VEOs] to include ISIS/Da’esh, al Qaeda, and all similar or associated Islamist groups and individuals)—sometimes referred to “4+1.” Developing concise, unclassified, and readily accessible training products and tools on the 4+1 would help to close the readiness gap. Instead, nearly all the current readiness solutions being explored today focus on systems, equipment, techniques and processes, physical fitness, or broad warfighting education—not on force- or fleet-wide mental preparations to defeat our most likely adversaries by improving our collective knowledge of known enemies and competitors.
Regarding the Islamist threat, the services must caution against the belief that it is an issue from the “last war”—i.e., Da’esh and al Qaeda are in their last throes—and the future is all about the high-end fight of maritime and amphibious operations far from the Middle East. As is often said, the one thing we are consistently good at is being wrong at predicting the future. For example, in the 1950s, the Marine Corps Gazette and Proceedings routinely published articles about how to win on the atomic battlefield with the inevitable spread of tactical-level nuclear weapons. Today, Da’esh, al Qaeda, and similar Islamist organizations have proliferated; Africa’s importance continues to grow; and the homegrown or imported lone-wolf and small-group threats are real. No matter how much strategists and planners want to focus on overcoming large-scale antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) scenarios or refining the Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy, the blood-and-mud Islamist threat remains a real and long-term struggle. Remember the prescient words in July 2007 of then-Commandant of the Marine Corps General James T. Conway, who told multiple crowds in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., of the Islamist enemy’s nature and goals:
It is . . . critical that our countrymen, certainly our elected officials, understand the enemy’s strategy. We have both intercepted it and he has arrogantly placed it on his websites. The strategy has five phases. The first calls for jihad—for all the brothers to rise up and slaughter the infidel. . . . The second phase calls for the removal of all Western influence out of the old Caliphate—read “the Middle East.” . . . During the third phase, once we are gone, the jihad plans to turn on and destroy what they would call the apostate governments of the Middle East, those that have partnered with the infidels . . . and he’s looking to seize control of the Middle East oil supply. . . . The next phase includes the destruction of Israel and increasingly devastating terrorist attacks in the West. Finally, he says—and this may take 100 years—he extends the Caliphate to encompass the globe, and every nation adopts his laws and his religion.4
Despite this, the United States is spending nearly $12 million per day on Operation Inherent Resolve, and we have only a tiny fraction of our naval force engaged in the fight against Da’esh, with the result that a majority of Marines and Sailors are at risk of thinking the fight will not affect them, their families, or our nation. Force-wide, we have lost much collective experience and forgotten hard-earned lessons, as after the “surge” of 2007 in Iraq came the “purge” of operational expertise during the downsizing and budget cuts in the years since. It is a telling nuance that National Defense University’s September 2015 Long War After Action summary (edited by Richard D. Hooker Jr. and Joseph J. Collins) is titled “Lessons Encountered” not “Lessons Learned.”5
Training and educational resources with tailored information on the 4+1 should be made widely available through unclassified .mil means and pushed from the top down. A quote from General Neller’s professional reading list website makes his desire clear: “I want Marines to read beyond the list, too, especially paying attention to current events, science and technology, and what our potential adversaries are up to around the world.” This clearly is good guidance, but why stop there? With so much at stake, mandated training should not be limited to numbing topics such as “sexual health,” tobacco cessation, or transgender policy implementation. On Marines.mil and Navy.mil are long lists of linked topics: Recreation Centers, Single Marine Program, Substance Abuse, Sexual Assault Prevention, Voluntary Education, etc. You will not find anything on warfighting or knowing our enemies. If warfighting is truly the primary function of Marines and Sailors, why leave the most important preparedness topics at the discretion of those at the deckplate level and with small-unit commanders?
One way to remedy this situation is to develop a common access card (CAC)-enabled online portal for red-threat awareness, with 4+1 information selected by subject-matter experts from the Marine Corps and Navy intelligence communities, culture experts, headquarters representatives, recent deployers, and those currently engaged in the fight or in security cooperation activities in the related regions. Marines and Sailors are wise to build regional expertise based on their current duty assignments. Still, all members of the blue-green team should increase familiarity and preparedness for facing the 4+1 well in advance, because if/when the operational tempo increases and more Marines and Sailors find themselves kinetically engaged, last-minute cramming increases risk to both mission and force.
Experts, such as the members of the Middle East Studies group at Marine Corps University, should employ more “push” methods rather than relying on Marines’ “pull” demand signals. In fact, many Marines do not know this group exists. Counter-Islamist information should be front and center for all Marines and Sailors. How many Marines or Sailors know that al Qaeda’s recent online Inspire magazine included an article calling for a lone-wolf “knife jihad” in the United States, encouraging individuals to stab civilians in attacks such as those prevalent in Israel prevalent over the past two years and as seen recently in a Minnesota shopping mall? These are the same things Da’esh is pushing in its magazine, Rumiyah.
What is the official guidance for Marines and Sailors in responding to such knife attacks in the United States? Current mandatory active shooter training tells us to run or hide and to fight only as a last resort. Is this practical for an active stabber? Of course not—especially for Marines with their “one mind, any weapon” martial arts training and a “run to the sound of chaos” philosophy. Slight adjustments to training resources would counter any festering garrison mentality, with huge impact.
The Navy Riverine crews who were captured by Iranians near Farsi Island revealed in the unclassified post-incident investigation that they and their leadership viewed the transit as an “admin move.” This mentality is a product of insufficient warfighting training and the resultant culture—more prevalent across the naval enterprise than is healthy for an effective fighting force.
Part of the program will require enterprise-level solutions to NMCI’s website-limiting barriers, to ensure appropriate open-source material is not blocked. Warfighters should be able to readily view the strategies and propaganda of the 4+1, and similar material, available to the public. Not all Marines have ready access to real intelligence on the SIPRNET, so making this open-source material available would help bridge the growing knowledge gap. In addition, smartphone applications should be developed that include 4+1 information.
Many unit commanders have large numbers of Marines and Sailors who do not have routine computer access, so there is a need for creative ways to ensure this information is widely disseminated and understood (e.g., PME Fridays). All Marines and Sailors are well-versed in “bystander intervention,” but is there any force-wide discussion on Russia or China “escalating to deescalate” during evolving conflict and what the corresponding tactical-level implications might be? How can the services introduce junior personnel to products such as the Marine Corps Intelligence Agency’s unclassified and excellent “Russia Tactics Update” available at https://intelshare.intelink.gov/sites/mciakm/Ext/index.htm? How can the services increase distribution of the National Defense University’s short summaries like “Iran-China Relations After the Nuclear Deal” advertised in Joint Force Quarterly—a magazine too few junior personnel see, much less read? Products such as these should be made widely available and simplified for rapid sharing and digestion. Nearly every college campus has a CliffsNotes-type study guides business, with note-takers who sell students executive summaries of class lessons. Why not build similar concise products summarizing 4+1 strategies, objectives, and tactics, techniques, and procedures for rapid dissemination to Marines and Sailors at the deckplate/squad levels?
With so much emphasis being placed on Special Operations units to counter adversaries, train partner forces, and carry the nation’s mantle in forward operations, the conventional Navy/Marine Corps team must be able to respond rapidly to integrate with the Special Operations community. Improved basic education is part of this, and should include naval involvement in the Joint Staff J39’s frequent Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) analyses of adversaries from across multiple combatant command areas of operation.
SMA efforts include Special Operations Command-requested deep dives into “gray zone” operations—those between traditional war and peace—essentially the perpetual state of conflict we find ourselves in now, with little green men, little blue men, and the long war against Islamists. These gray zone analyses are mostly Army-centric and rarely have naval representatives in their discussions or planning sessions. This should change.
These recommended changes to our current GMT education and training to increase warfighting readiness and culture, with a focus on the 4+1, will meet the CNO’s guidance to “achieve high-velocity learning at every level.” These suggestions also are in keeping with the Commandant’s most current guidance, in his introduction to the September 2016 “Marine Corps Operating Concept,” which reminds us: “The profession of arms is unforgiving; mistakes are paid for in blood and incompetence can lead to catastrophic defeat. When we fight, we must win.”
2. Lolita C. Baldor, “Joint Chiefs Nominee Says He Will Assess Strategy Against IS,” 9 July 2015, abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/joint-chiefs-nominee-assess-strategy-32320451.
3. SASC Chairman Senator John McCain’s opening remarks for FY17 NDAA debate, 6 June 2016, www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=DBD52EC4-40FD-476A-816C-72E1E55AE051.
4. Marine Corps Commandant speech on the Long War, Marines’ Memorial Association and World Affairs Council, San Francisco, CA, 10 July 2007, www.blackfive.net/main/2007/07/usmc-commandant.html.