There was a time when the U.S. Marine Corps was inseparable from the U.S. Navy, with a lethal naval expeditionary force designed for the naval campaigning through a single battle concept. However, as an indirect consequence of extended land-based combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has developed an institutional habit of working ashore for land commanders, while at the same time tacitly sanctioning the atrophy of the skills required for naval expeditionary operations. With the exception of Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) and Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), the Navy has developed the practice of working without Marines, which, over time, has drawn it away from the littorals and into the deep waters of the oceans.
The National Defense Strategy, however, aims to reorient the Navy and Marine Corps to their naval roots as a combined team. Future operating concepts such as A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the Marine Corps Operating Concept, Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations, and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environments attempt to realign joint operations in future environments. For the Navy to employ its five essential functions of sea power (operational access, deterrence, sea-control operations, power projection, and maritime security), it must untether amphibious capabilities from naval platforms and deliberately cross-pollinate Navy and Marine commanders and staffs in tactical-level units.
The littorals are and will continue to be vital to achieving diplomatic and military strategic objectives. In the third edition of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Captain Wayne Hughes argues that “[f]or littoral operations, it is no longer possible to define a fleet merely as a set of warships, because land-based systems play a prominent part.” The concept of expeditionary advanced-base operations aims to address naval expeditionary operations in environments where adversary missile, mine, and naval forces diminish the Navy’s ability to maneuver in littoral sea space. The tailorable Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) could be the “inside force” that operates forward and within the range of adversary fires to shape the battlespace for the fleet.
There are a number of examples in which the Marine Corps, with its current capabilities and assets, can contribute to the Navy’s mission effectiveness, readiness, and flexibility for expeditionary advanced-based operations. The Navy could embark Marine reconnaissance platoons—trained in visit, board, search, and seizure operations—on board surface vessels, use them in ship-to-ship maritime interdiction operations, or temporarily land-base them along maritime routes to ensure freedom of access and to maintain presence. Moreover, these reconnaissance platoons, with their organic manned and unmanned assets, could provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) on maritime activities in assigned areas, becoming littoral reconnaissance units for the Navy. This would not only unchain surface force assets currently assigned to this mission, but add increased situational awareness, flexibility, and options for surface force commanders in their assignments.
In kinetic operations, Marines embarked on cruisers, destroyers, or littoral combat ships could secure helicopter landing zones in semipermissive environments. Once ashore, CH-53s could transport high-mobility artillery rocket systems to project firepower against both sea-based and land-based threats. Such raids would present a flexible and lethal option for naval commanders operating in the extended littoral environment. Moreover, Marines trained with amphibious raiding skills, supported by naval assets, could provide additional kinetic capabilities to naval communities previously limited to strictly naval options. If used in such untraditional means, the Marine Corps could increase the sensors, shooters, and sustainers available to naval commanders and increase the lethality, adaptability, and responsiveness of the Navy in expeditionary advanced-base operations and dynamic crises.
To optimize expeditionary advanced-base operations and other operations, the Navy must untether amphibious capabilities from amphibious platforms and reimagine the Marine Corps’ employment as part of an integrated naval force. Currently, the amphibious ready group (ARG)/ Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) and expeditionary strike group (ESG)/Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) are the primary models for Navy-Marine Corps integration, but should not be the only options available to naval commanders. With modern technology, small Marine contingents on board Navy ships could provide expeditionary shore-based sea power projection through sensor and shooter capabilities. This would provide naval commanders with increased operational maneuver space, increased area denial for adversaries, and increased redundancy in critical capabilities.
As part of the “distributed lethality” concept, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, and Rear Admiral Peter Fanta suggest the Navy should use the current amphibious platforms to a greater effect by adding an offensive punch to amphibious platforms. A step further would be to add limited amphibious capabilities of the sensor/shooter variant to the hunter-killer surface action groups. If Royal Navy Admiral Horatio Nelson was right in saying “a ship’s a fool that fights a fort,” then the Navy should employ amphibious forces as temporary “forts” of firepower and collection assets, which in turn generate a combined-arms threat with air, sea, and land forces.
The Navy and Marine Corps must develop new relationship models to employ expeditionary advance-base operations. The nature of amphibious warfare in the future may prevent direct offensive campaigns. In its place may be steady-state or phase 0 operations, which capitalize on persistence, redundancy, and flexibility. Moreover, if it is impractical to conduct a traditional, large offensive amphibious assault against peer or near-peer adversaries, area denial may be an alternative, or complementary, military strategy. In a naval campaign with goals of sea denial, persistence is more important than offensive objectives. The most effective relationship would be a fluid supported-supporting occurrence between expeditionary forces and naval forces in the form of the composite warfare commander construct that ebbs and flows with the situation or mission.
Persistent Presence and Diverse Thought
The Navy by itself is at a disadvantage against peer competitors who apply hybrid-operational models of conventional and unconventional forces. Adversary maritime fishing vessels, coast guard vessels, and naval platforms provide persistence over an area, which quickly turns to sea control, if unchallenged. The counter for rival persistence is friendly persistence in the form of ships, unmanned assets, and amphibious units that can easily operate from both sea- and shore-based platforms. The Marine Corps could bridge that capability gap and provide increased forward presence and flexibility. Moreover, it can aid in naval deception. The most effective, feasible, and realistic means to achieve deception in today’s signal rich environment is ambiguity through persistent presence. The Navy can extend its persistence in areas beyond ships with the employment of organic amphibious Marine forces and the capabilities and systems they provide.
To further enhance its character as a 21st-century force, the Navy and Marine Corps should cross pollinate commanders and staffs at the tactical level to create mature joint staffs, diverse in thought but well-versed in each other’s capabilities. Diversity is essential to critical thinking, ingenuity, and adaptability. In addition, diverse staffs with wider experience will produce a higher degree of adaptability in units, another characteristic that will be of paramount importance for successful operations in the future operating environment.
A second benefit of deliberate cross pollination of personnel is relationship building. Because any future operation will involve the joint force, the ability to rely on developed relationships between sailors and Marines will increase interoperability and enhance the tempo the joint force brings against its adversaries. Cross pollination, beginning at the junior officer level, would serve as an investment in both the individual officer and the collective joint force as a whole, and can prove to be the breeding ground for enhanced Navy-Marine teaming.
With operations in the littorals increasing in complexity, depth, and importance, the Navy cannot achieve the five essential functions of sea power without the joint force. The Navy and Marine Corps must transform Navy–Marine Corps teaming to match 21st-century environments, and exploit their combined capabilities to project the naval expeditionary power necessary to meet the intent of the National Security Strategy.