The draft of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prepared by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) tasked the Department of Defense with conducting an extensive review of its roles and missions.1 Section 1041 of the draft legislation instructed the department to report on several specific, critical questions relating to the Marine Corps. Among them, four stand out:
- What are the roles of the Armed Forces in performing low-intensity missions?
- Would the joint force benefit from having a single armed force dedicated primarily to conducting low-intensity missions? What would the end strength and force composition be for the Marine Corps if it assumed the mission?
- What is the feasibility for the Navy and Marine Corps to operate and defend bases in contested environments?
- Should amphibious forcible-entry operations remain a mission for the joint force?
Despite their storied history, the Marines are used to such challenges to their key amphibious mission. In the late 1940s, when Army generals schemed to do away with the Marine Corps, officers at Headquarters, Marine Corps, including then–Lieutenant Colonel Victor “Brute” Krulak, created an informal network, calling themselves the “Chowder Society” after a fraternal organization in the comic strip “Barnaby.”2 The name was inspired by a short, intense character in the strip who resembled Krulak. The Chowder Society’s successful effort to fend off the absorption of the Corps by the Army is the stuff of Marine Corps legend. Though Section 1041 did not survive in the final law, modern-day Marines nonetheless should consider breaking out the oyster crackers and digging for clams to prepare to respond, before this Senate challenge gains any more traction.
Strategic Value of Amphibious Capabilities
Let’s take SASC’s questions in reverse order. Many Marines will recognize this litany, but it needs to be repeated every decade or so to a new generation of policy officials.
The SASC draft of the NDAA suggests that technological progress by future adversaries has made amphibious assaults too hazardous.3 Dr. Andrew Krepinevich Jr., former president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has identified key challenges to maritime competition in the face of peer-level precision-strike capabilities, suggesting a basis for that concern.4 The Marine Corps itself has noted these challenges and explored their impacts on future amphibious operations.5
The challenges of modern amphibious warfare are real, and whether the benefits ascribed to historical, amphibiously adept great powers remain relevant is a salient question; the past may not be prologue. Many hold as a matter of faith the enduring utility of a mission that technology may have made obsolete. Traditional assaults certainly are outmoded—or rather, current concepts surrounding amphibious operations are. Conceptual developments and modernization of the Marine Corps have not kept pace with the threat.
For that reason, the Senate posed appropriate questions, reflecting proper oversight and ensuring that the Department of Defense is not resting on dated assumptions or irrelevant capabilities. And if the questions were intended to spur greater innovation, we are in full agreement.
But before abandoning the Marine Corps’ post–World War II mission, policymakers should consider the numerous advantages amphibious capabilities bring to the fight and avoid being led astray by what strategist Colin Gray has called “undue presentism”—the idea that “you have not seen the future just because you do see the present.”6
Whatever may have changed tactically, the strategic advantages of amphibious assets have long been recognized. Within the larger context of being able to move land forces from the sea to the shore in a wide range of locations, a robust forcible-entry capability affords the United States numerous benefits.7
The ability to conduct powerful, joint-entry operations at a time and place of the United States’ choosing produces a credible deterrent against would-be aggressors. This deterrent is more lasting than the impact of long-range fires, because it presents variable and complex threats that not only can seize the initiative, but it also imposes a high price for aggression.
Amphibious capabilities expand the competitive space to impose costs on prospective opponents. A potent power-projection capability challenges antiaccess strategies and forces on adversaries a disproportionate defensive investment that robs them of resources that might be applied elsewhere. Since antiaccess strategies and capabilities appear to be on the rise, this advantage tends to increase in value in today’s calculus.
Potential adversaries must invest in a host of surveillance and defensive systems against the full range of military operations coming from the sea. Absent a U.S. forcible-entry capability, future aggressors could invest more in other key areas—surface-to-air missile systems, for example—to impose heavy costs on U.S. precision-strike assets.
A robust amphibious capability helps assure U.S. decision makers of military access. The United States can hope—but not guarantee—that governments of allies and partners will provide overflight rights or port and airfield access. It might be able to negotiate and purchase intermediate or theater basing, but as with Turkey in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, political leaders and diplomats do not always gain desired access rights.8
Appropriately resourced amphibious operations generate dilemmas for the opposing commander and his forces. Adversaries must respond to deep maneuver around or over their defenses by concentrating and moving against the joint force, which exposes the red team to precision strikes. If red forces remain fixed in place, they can be eliminated in detail. Whatever the enemy does, he faces a more complex situation in which he must react instead of take the initiative.
The capability suite associated with amphibious and expeditionary prowess is significant. But amphibious forces can do much more than storm beaches. The Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy stresses the reemergence of great power competition.9 This is not a reversion to a “big war” paradigm—the strategy argues for competence across the spectrum of warfare. Expeditionary excellence contributes to a balanced force and can fulfill a wide range of tasks, from humanitarian relief to terrain denial to the more difficult assault operations. Versatile forces contribute more capability when budgets are tight.
The application of amphibious capabilities routinely reassures allies, demonstrates U.S. influence, aids in disaster relief, and offers U.S. policymakers timely crisis response capability around the globe. The United States should not easily dismiss that flexibility in this turbulent age.
Amphibious Power Projection Remains Viable
The Marine Corps has never sidestepped or shirked tough or dangerous tasks, as Commander B. J. Armstrong explained in “The Answer to the Amphibious Prayer.”10 The tactical value of the Marine Corps’ forcible-entry capability has not expired. Just as the advent of the machine gun did not make the infantry obsolete, so antiaccess systems have not nullified the utility of amphibious power projection. New thinking and new technologies offer promise in reviving forcible-entry amphibious assault.
There is no lack of interest in this question. Because of the institutional paranoia imbued in every Marine, the state of amphibious capability is continually assessed in light of every new strategic context and technological development. The Marine Corps developed operating concepts such as “ship-to-objective maneuver” and capabilities such as the MV-22 Osprey that allow it to strike directly at operational objectives deep inland instead of conducting costly, manpower-intensive, attrition-based operations at the shoreline.
While some analysts favor a naval focus on blue water and command of the global commons, Marines have stressed the need to do more—to command the “contested zones” to secure U.S. political objectives.11 That remains a tall order. Naval leaders, including then–Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work, stressed the need to innovate in 2010.12 Wartime demands in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and tight funding levels, however, have precluded rapid change.
Lately, there are signs of adaptation. Marine Commandant General Robert Neller has shifted some conventional capability to create “Marine information groups” to give Marine expeditionary forces appropriate electromagnetic and information warfare tools. General Neller also has directed bold changes to the Marine infantry’s building blocks, introducing new tactics and new technologies at the lowest tactical levels possible.
The Navy and Marine Corps have begun experiments, under the “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment” (LOCE) concept, that offer a basis for modernization. LOCE argues for the creation of:
. . . a modular, scalable, and integrated naval network of sea-based and land-based sensors, shooters, and sustainers that provides the capabilities, capacities, and persistent yet mobile forward presence necessary to effectively respond to crises, address larger contingencies, and deter aggression in contested littorals.13
The LOCE concept is a good start, but there are risks and logistical challenges in the initiative. Being continuously mobile on small islands may be difficult and drives up both the logistic demands and signature of units. Marine Corps plans to acquire longer range missiles almost certainly will come at the expense of conventional combat power. The conceptual work for LOCE appears relevant to critical challenges, but insufficient program changes are being made to implement it. The pace of change has not matched the required speed of relevance.
Instead, the Marines are spending a significant amount of money for the highly advanced—yet short-legged —F-35B strike aircraft. Its penetrating potential is appreciated, as well as its advanced avionics, and its capabilities are needed in some numbers if the Corps is to continue to deploy as a crisis response force. But it, too, is insufficient.
To achieve greater combat effectiveness, the Marines should be moving quickly toward greater reliance on unmanned assets and greater investment in the lethality of the ground combat element. The Navy stood up an unmanned undersea squadron in 2017, but the Marines have not yet established an unmanned amphibious assault company.14 Perhaps legacy amphibious tractor hulls could be adapted for such a company. The first waves of future amphibious forces, both on the water and in the air, should be unmanned and remotely operated from the sea base.
Responsive overhead fires from loitering unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and robot logistics also should be implemented sooner than later. Despite its extensive aviation portfolio, the Marine Corps remains the only U.S. service not to field a long-range, long-endurance unmanned aircraft like the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton or the Air Force’s MQ-1/9 series. (The service has been pursuing a long-endurance unmanned expeditionary tilt-rotor known as MUX, but it is in the earliest stage of development, with uncertain funding.15) The MQ-9 Reaper might be a near-term solution to the Marine Corps’ urgent need for UAS support, delivering a “good enough” asset now instead of a better one a decade in the future.16
Costs clearly play a role in system acquisition and across the Marine air-ground task force. The nation’s interests will not be well served if the Marine Corps becomes a fifth-generation air force protected by second-generation infantry. The service, with its flinty organizational culture, should not design its force around fewer exquisite, expensive platforms. A better balance of high- and low-cost systems would enhance readiness and agility and retain the Marines’ reputation as penny pinchers instead of owners of the most expensive suite of aircraft.
Going even further, one group of authors has called for the accelerated development of unmanned systems, organized as Marine warbot companies.17 Experimentation and prototyping should begin to flesh out the “what” and “how” of this concept. Embracing this approach would preserve the Corps’ versatility—but rigorous experimentation and gaming now are needed.
High-Intensity Marines vs Low-Intensity Conflict
A changing world always mandates fresh thinking and constant adaptation to threats both new and old. But the capability to project ground combat power ashore from the sea and forward-deployed locations is both necessary and consistent with the joint force called for in the National Defense Strategy. Divesting this capability would mean, in effect, abdicating assurances made to allies, ceding the initiative to competitors, and requiring “permission slips” from regional powers to provide ports and airspace access in every region.
Today’s Department of Defense missions and capabilities are not sacrosanct, so it is appropriate for the SASC to question them. Despite a preamble praising the National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on great power competition, the SASC version of the NDAA suggests a perception of a security environment requiring a dedicated force for failed states. The authors do not agree with such a threat assessment, which would severely undercut U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region. If anything, the United States should be doing more Marine deployments in Asia. The questions also suggest a belief in service specialization rather than joint-force integration. Given that amphibious flexibility and Marine versatility have strategic utility across the continuum of conflict, the SASC’s implicit assessment represents a poor tradeoff. The Marines should remain structured for broader expeditionary tasks, stay at the forefront of the demanding mission of projecting power from and at sea, and maximize their forward-deployed posture, tied to our allies.
Anticipate and Adapt
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis assessed the world as “awash with change.” In war and peace, the side that anticipates and adapts best is postured to win. The side that is complacent rather than curious is poorly positioned. Change in the character of warfare is inherent to the profession of arms. To the late RAND analyst Carl Builder, the “masks of war” of the U.S. armed forces were entrenched “engines of glacial stability,” impervious to outside change.18
The Marine Corps may be the exception, as it excelled between the world wars by anticipating and adapting, well ahead of the Pacific campaigns. It did the same immediately after World War II with the introduction of helicopters. The Marines’ mask is less beholden to past practice and more adaptive to future relevance.
In the face of high-end antiaccess challenges and questions about the utility of amphibious forces from politicians and policymakers, Marines must continue to anticipate and adapt, even as they break out their soup spoons and oyster crackers once again.
1. Sydney Freedberg, “SASC Seeks Sweeping Roles and Missions Report, Whither the Marines?” Breaking Defense, 6 June 2018.
2. Alan Rems, “Semper Fidelis: Defending the Marine Corps,” Naval History 31, no. 3 (June 2017): 36–41.
3. Senate Armed Services Committee, “S.2987 The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act,” draft legislation, 5 June 2018.
4. Andrew Krepinevich, “War Like No Other, Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, April 2015.
5. Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, Noah Spataro, and Jeff Cummings, “How the Marines Will Help the U.S. Navy and America’s Allies Win the Great Indo-Pacific War of 2025,” War on the Rocks, 26 September 2018.
6. Colin S. Gray, “The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War,” Parameters, 2008/2009: 23.
7. F. G. Hoffman, “21st Century Amphibious Capability,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 2011.
8. Richard Boudreaux and Amberin Zaman “Turkey Rejects Troop Deployment,” Los Angeles Times, 2 March 2003, A1.
9. James N. Mattis, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” Department of Defense, January 2018.
10. CDR B. J. Armstrong, USN, “The Answer to the Amphibious Prayer, Helicopters, the Marine Corps, and Defense Innovation,” War on the Rocks, 17 December 2014.
11. Robert E. Schmidle and Frank Hoffman, “Commanding the Contested Zones,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 130 no. 9 (September 2004): 49–54.
12. Robert O. Work and F. G. Hoffman, “Hitting the Beach in the 21st Century,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 136 no. 11 (November 2010): 54.
13. Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, Quantico, VA, 2016.
14. “Navy Establishes First UUV Squadron,” AUVSI News, September 29, 2017.
15. Shawn Snow, “MUX Program Moves forward Despite Steep Cuts,” Marine Corps Times, 23 August 2018.
16. CAPT Mike Marron, USMC, “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 2017, 11–26.
17. Jeff Cummings, Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro, “Marine Warbot Companies: Where Naval Warfare, the U.S. National Defense Strategy, and Close Combat Lethality Task Force Intersect,” War on the Rocks, 28 June 2018.
18. Carl Builder, The Masks of War, American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).