Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and annexed hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014 using unconventional forces—including special operations units, unidentified conventional forces, and criminal elements—that could not be definitively tied to the government or military. The Marine Corps’ major staff exercises in use today do not train staff or leaders to face events such as these. To prepare for the challenges of the next century, the service must improve the training provided to Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) staffs. As the nation’s expeditionary force of choice, MAGTFs must be able to understand and operate in highly ambiguous environments lacking a clearly identifiable adversary, similar to the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The fictional scenarios used along the “Treasure Coast” and elsewhere, however, reduce staff-level efforts to little more than pro forma opportunities to complete training and readiness tasks.
The Treasure Coast is a fictional region overlaid on the U.S. eastern seaboard, made up of several imaginary countries, each with a different relationship with the United States.1 A typical exercise begins when one Treasure Coast country invades another and friendly forces intervene to restore the territorial integrity of the victim. These scenarios allow the Marine Corps and international partners to train jointly against adversaries who have specific capabilities that mimic those of potential real-world opponents. The countries used are fictitious to avoid creating diplomatic difficulties for partner nations and the United States that might come with planning to invade, say, Russia. But it is not hard to guess which actual country goes with which Treasure Coast nation; not very many countries can mass thousands of T-90 main battle tanks, for example. The fiction, however, damages the quality of the training because it is superficial, shortchanging the company-grade officers and enlisted Marines who should benefit most.
In the real world, intelligence analysts have access to a vast array of classified and open-source information about states, nonstate actors, and key individuals. Think-tank studies and intelligence reports provide political, economic, cultural, and geographic context for the operating environment. Detailed summaries of threat capabilities and doctrine allow analysts to understand fully an adversary’s system.
For Treasure Coast nations, by contrast, analysts receive one or more country handbooks as the scenario dictates. These documents get paired with a road-to-war brief that often contains significant grammatical errors, which together outline the notional crisis and its origins. Aside from readability challenges, these documents sometimes offer contradictory key facts or ambiguity stemming from sloppiness rather than the fog of war. Analysts in these exercises do not have access to the additional resources
real-world analysts do to resolve these contradictions, making it impossible to apply intellectual rigor to the problem. Often the most crucial analysis during intelligence preparation is to determine what the country factbooks are intended to mean as opposed to what they say. This does not result in analysts learning to do rigorous research by reading multiple primary and secondary sources, identifying key strengths and weaknesses, then balancing them to arrive at a conclusion. Instead, they learn to copy and paste from a single source.
The factbooks likewise do not contain enough detail to inform a commander’s understanding. They lack details on any or all of enemy readiness, maintenance, staffing, supply stockage rates, unit dynamics, opposing commander biographies, morale, and small-unit leadership—in short, all the information on which to base combat effectiveness assessments. Most of this would be available during preparation for an actual conflict. During briefings, this author has seen field-grade intelligence officers fabricate answers rather than tell commanders that the requested information did not exist.
To understand an enemy’s conceptual model for the use of force, analysts should consider the following: theoretical principles of doctrine; the interpretation of that doctrine; and implementation of doctrine in a tactical scenario. Without information on each of these elements, it is impossible to understand how the enemy systems function or to anticipate the tactical solutions they will apply to problems. Exercise source documents are all too often silent regarding these doctrinal questions, in which cases it will be assumed that the enemy will follow those of the former Soviet Union (FSU). As a result, despite the lip-service paid to fighting a “thinking enemy,” these exercises usually pit Marines against Treasure Coast enemies who follow outdated and simplistically applied doctrine.
This fact alone severely degrades the value of the exercise. Unless the Marine Corps expects to fight the Red Army of the 1980s, it needs to improve the choice of enemy doctrine and how it is applied. Opposing forces could follow, for example, the “Gerasimov” doctrine, and subject matter experts on it could be invited to participate.
It could be argued that the Soviet Union sent military advisors to train countries whose militaries still use FSU doctrine, so training against it has value; however, each of those countries modified it to fit its particular circumstances. The Treasure Coast nation of Garnet, for example, would not dogmatically apply Soviet doctrine; abstract theory would be filtered through the capabilities and characteristics of its armed forces. At best, these forces would follow the Garnetian interpretation of Soviet doctrine, something that could be found in Garnetian Army publications and intelligence reports—if only they were included in the factbooks. Straight FSU doctrine has no more place in these exercises than a study of the British Army would have for an adversary preparing to fight the U.S. Marine Corps.
Without better information, all that can be expected is for analysts to “turn the map around” and say how they would behave if they were the enemy, using experiences gained at Marine combat training, the Basic School, and the Infantry Officer Course. Such thinking is known formally as “the mind projection fallacy,” an error of logic no analyst should ever be asked to commit.
The design of enemy systems is another flaw in major staff exercises. Instead of conceptualizing conflict as a collection of independent, semiautonomous actors behaving in their own self-interest, exercise-land scenarios are characterized by a rigidly polar force distribution with a centralized enemy command structure and very few third-party actors. Enemy forces in exercises are overly simplified. Each is presented not so much as a complex, human system but as a command structure diagram with single lines connecting units. (Credit must be given for
recent, limited efforts to include ethnic divisions and criminal/terrorist elements in the scenario background. During the conduct of the exercise, however, these appear as trivial asides, such as “Dakotian male throwing rocks at convoy.”)
Staff exercises pit Marines against stronger enemies. For example, in Marine Expeditionary Force Exercise (MEFEX) 16, 2d Marine Division attacked across a river to defeat an entire corps of mechanized infantry entrenched in urban positions.2 At Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 17, two brave tank companies from 2d Marine Division were matched against 1,150 T-90s of the Dakotian 3rd Corps.3 However true it may be that the Marine Corps’ method of combined arms and maneuver warfare allows it to “punch above its weight,” it is difficult to believe this would result in the defeat of an enemy that is 95 times stronger on an equivalent-asset basis.4
Usually the scheme of maneuver for friendly forces assumes that significant shaping has occurred through air and missile strikes to degrade the enemy to 50 percent or lower strength before commencement of ground operations. In the age of the SA-20, SA-21, SA-24, and SA-29 surface-to-air missile systems, assuming that friendly forces would have complete air superiority is a dangerous assumption that prevents staffs from learning to plan for contested environments against peer enemies.
Major staff exercises should force staffs to plan to operate in environments similar to those in which we expect to fight. To that end, the Marine Corps should sink the Treasure Coast and instead fight every major staff exercise against a real prospective adversary. No scenario with a synthetic enemy, no matter how detailed, can truly replicate the depth and complexity of information available for a real opponent. Fictional opponents reduce the infinitely complex phenomena of violence to a simplified, black-and-white construct in which an accountant would be successful. Real-world opponents would force staffs to conduct detailed research to understand enemy systems. Intelligence analysts would learn how to research and summarize actual intelligence products. Gaps in information about an enemy would be identified and could be corrected before the next war. The Marine Corps already does this with III Marine Expeditionary Force, which exercises against real opponents. This should become the training standard for every major staff exercise.
Using real-world opponents would increase significantly the amount of time required to prepare for an exercise. A trained section can pump out a Treasure Coast intelligence product in a few weeks, but a regimental intelligence section would require months to prepare the same material about a real-world opponent. This would reduce the number of exercises that could be conducted per year—but it would increase the quality of each and more than compensate for the additional time invested.
The learning and production that occur during these real-world exercises would increase the organic knowledge of deployable units. A unit that had trained against a real nuclear-capable Asian state would be much better prepared to fight one. I worked with an analyst who could recite the Garnetian ground order of battle down to the battalion level but did not know that North Korea and South Korea were different countries. This analyst was invaluable at MEFEX 16; we would want to leave him behind if we went to war. Using a real-world opponent is a simple, cost-effective change that would increase dramatically the value of each exercise.
To make major staff exercises most useful, scenario designs must allow staffs to fight realistically beatable enemy forces. We must stop training to fight near-peer enemies that wildly outnumber us. Staffs at war must understand and adapt to battlefields with confusing and contradictory dynamics; training exercises should teach them how. If the MAGTF tactical warfare simulation is incapable of handling these more complex scenarios, then the Marine Corps must develop another solution. It is an embarrassment that we rely on a modeling system that requires users to stagger their log-on times to keep from crashing.
Marines live in a dangerous and unpredictable world and must prepare to fight in one. The staffs that pour thousands of hours into preparing for major exercises deserve, and the Marines who will fight under their direction require, training that will prepare them for war.
1. MAGTF Staff Training Program Division, “II MEF Mefex-16 Planning Book.”
2. 2d Marine Division G2, “MEFEX Division IPB 20160211-2,” PowerPoint briefing slide 57.
3. 2d Marine Division G2, “(U) IIMEFFWD_G2_IPB_20170328,” PowerPoint briefing slides 74-78; 2d Marine Division G3, “(IIMEF(FWD)_LSE18_Confirmation_Brief_to_CFLCC_20170812,” PowerPoint briefing.
4. This likely results from simulation software systematically exaggerating friendly capabilities and underestimating those of the enemy. This is not well known, and it hardly inspires the confidence of those who are not privy to the flaws of the simulation software. The only takeaway for a junior Marine who has not encountered MAGTF tactical warfare simulation before is that his chain of command believes it feasible to fight an enemy 95 times stronger.
Editor’s Note: This essay won third prize in the 2017 Marine Corps Essay Contest, sponsored with Marine Corps Generals Peter Pace, John Allen, and Wallace Gregson.
Captain McGee served as the assistant intelligence officer of 2d Marine Regiment. He is a 2013 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and was the Nolan Scholar to Cambridge University. He has participated at the Marine expeditionary force, division, and regimental levels at MEFEX 16, Bold Alligator 16, LSE 17, and in Operational Planning Teams for Bold Alligator 17.
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