“You can’t surge trust.”
—General James F. Amos, U.S. Marine Corps, 35th Commandant.
In this era of great power competition, a habitual relationship with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will enable the U.S. Marine Corps to be a more effective contact and blunt layer. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) pose a threat to U.S. interests abroad through exploitation of the maritime domain. Russian behavior within eastern Europe has been marked by a series of provocative actions in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea regions.1 China continues its island-building campaign in the South China Sea, expanding its control of critical sea lines of communications and creating a buffer between mainland China and western powers.2 China’s maritime patrols frequently put mariners at risk and threaten the sovereignty of neighboring nations and impinge on the freedom of the seas.
To deal with these threats the 2018 National Defense Strategy describes a new global operating model to replace the old joint phasing model; the new model describes the range of operations as occurring in layers: contact, blunt, surge, and homeland; with an emphasis on the persistence of all layers throughout all phases of conflict.3 The Marine Corps, as the nation’s maritime expeditionary force, focuses its efforts on the contact and blunt layers to provide access for follow-on forces. The contact layer is “designed to help us [the United States] compete more effectively below the level of armed conflict.”4 The blunt layer is designed to “delay, degrade, or deny adversary aggression.”5
The current environment forces the United States to re-evaluate methods for exerting power abroad. Part of the solution lies with the Marine Corps developing a habitual working relationship with USAID to be a more effective contact and blunt layer.
To achieve sea control the Marine Corps seeks to maintain access to strategic land positions to present a land-based “fleet in being” while operating in a pre-conflict environment dictated by the perceptions of the Theory of Common Communications.6 As competition in the 21st century continues, naval principles are not losing importance, instead with the increasing antiaccess/area denial (A2AD) capabilities of our adversaries, the importance of Mahan’s principles of strategic positions—situation, military strength, and sustainability—will only increase in importance.7 The reliance on traditional amphibious assaults, composed of large fleets, will no longer be a viable option by itself. To seize terrain U.S. forces will need to create local sea control through land-based systems to degrade A2AD capabilities. To maintain a credible “fleet in being” U.S. forces will require a stable environment and trust with local populations to maintain land-based systems to deny the enemy the ability to strike our sea-based assets.
Marine Corps interactions with partner nations through forward deployments and exercises is a critical part of acting as the contact layer. Deployed units foster good will with local populations through civil-affairs programs organized locally; however, these programs are organized with a short-sighted focus on the effects locally. Rosa Brooks, in her book How Everything Became War, and the Military Became Everything, shares a compelling anecdote on the U.S. military’s ability to conduct development projects with little understanding of the long-term effects and the interrelated nature of developing economies. She quotes a USAID worker discussing the effects of the military’s aid programs in Afghanistan, “You’ve got these kids, these thirty-year-old captains who’ve spent their lives learning to drive tanks and shoot people. . . They don’t understand that there are people who actually know something about this, and it’s not them.”8 While the negative effects of military civil-affairs programs may have been magnified in an active combat theater, there is truth in this statement when applied to actions taken in other parts of the globe that are below the level of active combat.
The South China Sea, the Black Sea, and the Baltic are surrounded by nations in which the United States has ongoing aid programs to develop host-nation capability and capacity.9 USAID also has development programs in the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Indonesia—all member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that are concerned with China’s hegemony in the South China Sea.10
To improve the interoperability of USAID and the military, USAID offers a joint humanitarian operations course (JHOC), which focuses on command and control of disaster operations but not planning and coordinating long-term projects.11 The military already trains and equips to coordinate the movement of large numbers of people and equipment, while the JHOC only provides an understanding of the interagency coordination for humanitarian relief in response to a disaster. The problem that remains is how the military plans and conducts appropriate civil-affairs programs in environments that are not disasters.
USAID provides guidance to the joint force through liaison officers placed in the headquarters of the geographic combatant commands; unfortunately, this provides little help to tactical units separated from the combatant commands by layers of bureaucratic chains of command and great geographic distances. While the combatant commander’s staff may be well informed, the action arms at the O-5 command level are uninformed.
While the JHOC provides a brief period for service members to interact with USAID personnel it does so at a senior level with a focus on immediate disaster relief. True interagency interoperability would come from more habitual relationships at a junior level, those who conduct the planning for the O-5 commanders. Senior leaders emphasize the importance of informal relationships to develop implicit understanding to improve effectiveness in execution. The military does this through professional military education (PME) programs with inter-service partners in attendance. USAID and intergovernmental students are only incorporated into PME programs at the O-4 or senior levels, reducing the exposure of the principal planners at the lowest level.
The Marine Corps can take advantage of the Response Management System (RMS) Essentials course offered by USAID for junior professionals.12 Habitual integration with USAID and coordination in planning civil-affairs events would enable a deeper cultural understanding for Marines and a more amiable interaction with the local population, easing the transition period by reducing the time it takes to learn the baseline of the surrounding environment and helping a local population be willing to assist U.S. troops.
This is not an argument that the Marine Corps should get into the business of nation building or take the role of USAID, this is an argument to leverage expertise in long term development to support DoD civil-affairs programs. In an interview, Robert Thayer, the Acting Director of Global Division for Food for Peace with USAID, offered “humanitarian assistance is a profession, not a hobby.”13 Currently the military is treating civil-affairs programs as a hobby; it’s something nice to do, but not the focus. Creating working relationships at a tactical level with USAID would further the Marine Corps’ ability to access experts and properly apply efforts to achieve U.S. government objectives within a given region.
This solution is one of interagency efficiency. The maritime expeditionary force must achieve sea control and project power. Habitual relationships with USAID can help Marines properly plan and conduct civil-affairs projects. Successful development leads to long-term stable environments and trusting relationships with countries in areas of the world where Marines may have to operate. This is not about the Marine Corps taking over USAID’s role in aid and development; but rather leveraging an interagency partner, with a long-term focus, to provide access to key areas of the globe.
1. The BBC, “Russia-Ukraine Sea Clash in 300 Words,” The BBC, November 2018.
2. The BBC, “South China Sea Dispute: China Lands Bombers on Contested Islands,” The BBC, May 2018.
4. Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
5. Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
6. Julian Corbett, Principles of Maritime Strategy (New York, Dover Publications, 2004), 87.
7. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Mahan on Naval Warfare, (New York, Dover Publications, 1991), 68-70.
8. Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything, (New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016), 95.
9.USAID Map-Interactive Map, December 2018.
10. Mie Oba, “ASEAN and the New South China Sea Reality 2018,” The Diplomat, 15 June 2018.
11. Robert Thayer, interview by Captain Dylan Warnick, USMC, November 2018.
12. Christopher E. Larsen, interview by Captain Dylan Warnick, USMC, January 2019.
13. Robert Thayer.