The Marine Corps is in the midst of wholesale change, driven primarily by the current and projected geopolitical landscape. It is a change of a size and scope that few, if any, of today’s Marines have experienced. In his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), General David Berger lays out steps and tasks toward reform across numerous areas. Certain “truths” the service has held for decades are now uncertain, and divestment procedures are under way for equipment long held sacred.1
A key question that has arisen during the planned force restructuring concerns a concept held dear by the Marine Corps and its leaders: the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF). The Commandant has noted, “We are not defined by any particular organizing construct—the [MAGTF] cannot be our only solution for all crises.”2
Indeed, if the Marine Corps is to find new ways to “tackle the diverse and difficult security challenges of the 21st century,” it must seek alternative employment methods. The MAGTF should not be the default model in the new force design. Exploring alternate methods could provide a flexibility and adaptability that surely will be required in the fights of the future.
This does not mean the Marine Corps should never deploy a MAGTF. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s seizure of Camp Rhino in Afghanistan, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s march on Baghdad in the Iraq War, and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit’s response efforts in Haiti in 2010 are all admirable examples of MAGTF employment.3 However, all three examples predate the CPG and its renewed emphasis on support to the naval force, and none involved peer-level adversaries with territorial advantages or sustained parity throughout all domains.
The current global operating environment is characterized by great power competition and adversary actions that reside below the threshold for kinetic response. This new state necessitates a revamped approach.
One Solution Does Not Fit All
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “characterized by long-term stability and counterinsurgency operations against insurgent forces and terrorist organizations, necessitated a focus on the demands of land operations” across expansive spatial and temporal gaps.4 These distributed operations lent themselves well to traditional service employment models. Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) command nodes based out of Camps Leatherneck and Bastion established largely contiguous areas of operations, while subordinate units covered key terrain throughout Helmand and Nimroz provinces. The method worked, and the service executed admirably at the tactical level.
It appears some Marine Corps leaders and planners are seeking to apply this model to the next fight. There is reason for this: It is hard to argue with positive results, especially when similarities exist between past and future operations. A future expeditionary advanced base operation (EABO), for example, will require numerous smaller units to operate independently off a well-defined and communicated task and purpose.5
With this said, there is a risk of misusing historical analogies.6 The assignment and development of battlespace in Iraq and Afghanistan was feasible because commanders possessed organically all the assets and resources required to account for the spaces between key terrain. This enabled them to accomplish all tasks associated with their decisive actions throughout their area of operations. This ability to dominate the space between and within key terrain is not a luxury that future commanders who find themselves on, say, an islet in the Senkaku Islands will enjoy.
Some may argue that if the ground combat element is executing a decisive action on a given island chain, the MAGTF’s logistics and/or aviation combat elements could provide the sustaining actions that allow the ground combat commander to project his forces ashore and even between shores. But what does the joint force maritime component commander (JFMCC) require from the other elements of the MAGTF, assuming the ground combat element already is tasked throughout a network of expeditionary advanced bases? Is Seventh Fleet’s requirement of III MEF and its subordinate units sufficiently limited to allow a MAGTF to sustain itself across all warfighting functions, particularly in a future battlespace that will be anything but contiguous?
While the answers to these questions may not be set in stone as of this writing, it is plausible that the current ideal MAGTF employment model will not fit the requirements of the joint force commander, particularly in an EABO campaign. Regardless, it would be foolhardy to double down on one employment model simply because it worked in a different time, in a different location, against a different enemy, and with different environmental and operational constraints.
Supporting the Fleet
Under Title X of the U.S. Code, combatant commanders retain ultimate authority to “give authoritative direction over all aspects of military operations, joint training, and logistics.” This power is enforceable to subordinate commands and all forces assigned within the combatant command in support of operations taken to accomplish the mission of the combatant commander. Therefore, though the Marine Corps may champion its desired employment method, the MAGTF is fundamentally a tactical unit employed by an operational commander, who has the power to omit, modify, or use it piecemeal. So, perhaps the problem is not the viability of the MAGTF construct to future force employment but that current MAGTF dogma is not malleable enough to support the Commandant’s real focus: a return of the service to supporting naval expeditionary force operations, as an extension of the fleet.
Should a campaign or contingency operation be conducted within U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, III MEF would be the basic tactical-level Marine formation operating under Seventh Fleet. Does the MAGTF (III MEF in this case) have interoperability with the command-and-control (C2) and warfighting capability of the Seventh Fleet commander, specifically the composite warfare construct?
Navy composite warfare doctrine is a decentralized method of control wherein one officer in tactical command (OTC) assigns some or all command functions to specific subordinate commanders, who function as air and missile defense commander, information warfare commander, strike warfare commander (STWC), surface warfare commander, etc.7 This allows the OTC to conduct the complex and diverse functions of the 21st century multidomain battlespace through empowered commanders for the benefit and utility of the overall naval task force formation. When more than one naval task force is operating in an area of operations, the common superior of the OTCs is the JFMCC. This warfighting concept may operate at the tactical and operational levels, even simultaneously in some instances.8
If the Marine Corps wants to keep the MAGTF as the choice tactical-level formation for operational commanders to employ, its commanders and planners must become fluent in the employment concepts naval expeditionary forces will use in the future.
Clearly, there are functions within the current CWC that the Marine Corps can enable, empower, or even subsume in the 21st-century multidomain fight at this very moment. Every command staff section (G-1, Admin; G-2, Intel; G-3, Operations, etc.) at III MEF has an inherent interoperability requirement in the CWC model. If the MAGTF wants to maximize its relevance in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command naval expeditionary force fight, each G-section primary staff officer should have a liaison officer function to the CWC within their staff. Each G-section must, at a minimum, function as a coordinating element for the fleet CWC commanders. Ideally, the MEF Information Group commanding officer should serve as a standing chair and advisor to the information warfare commander. MEF G-2 targeting officers should serve as a sensor and targeting node for the STWC. III MEF aviation combat element leaders also should serve as an extension of the STWC.
It would befit the Marine Corps to better adapt the MAGTF to fulfill and enable functions of the naval CWC commanders. Conversely, CWC commanders must be cognizant of the capabilities a MAGTF can provide and enable in accomplishing each CWC functional mission. Marine officers owe this level of liaison and coordination to naval commanders and planners. Navy commanders and planners, in turn, owe inclusion in this effort. The MAGTF’s ground combat element may not be the main effort. The aviation combat element may not be either. Perhaps all elements of the MAGTF will be supporting efforts for the OTC or JFMCC in the future naval expeditionary force fight. But, fundamentally, interoperability between the MAGTF tactical formation and the tactical- or operational-level CWC is the most efficient way to ensure integration and support to the future naval expeditionary fight.
The Commandant has made it clear that the purpose of the Marine Corps is to support the naval expeditionary force commander. The MAGTF of the future must fulfill critical elements of naval warfare doctrine to extend the all-domain supremacy of the U.S. naval expeditionary force. Falling short is the largest threat to the security of the Marine Corps in the 21st Century.
1. Megan Eckstein, “New Marine Corps Cuts Will Sash All Tanks, Many Heavy Weapons as Focus Shifts to Lighter, Littoral Force,” USNI News, 23 March 2020.
2. GEN David H. Berger, USMC, “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps,” www.marines.mil/Portals/1/Publications/Commandant’s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-17-090732-937.
3. See LTCOL Damien Spooner, USMC, “Decision Points: A Case Study of Naval Expeditionary Task Force 58,” research paper, Naval War College, 5 May 2016, www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/Education/jpme_papers/spooner_d.pdf?ver=2017-12-29-142157-783; Bing West and MGEN Ray L. Smith, USMC (Ret.), The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, (New York: Bantam Books, 2003); and CAPT Clark Carpenter, USMC “Marines Continue Relief Operations in Haiti,” DVIDS, 20 January 2010, www.dvidshub.net/news/44191/marines-continue-relief-operations-haiti.
4. Staff, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, “The 21st Century MAGTF,” Marine Corps Gazette, 30 July 2019.
5. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) Handbook: Considerations for Force Development and Employment, version 1.1, 1 June 2018, https://mca-marines.org/wp-content/uploads/Expeditionary-Advanced-Base-Operations-EABO-handbook-1.1.pdf.
6. Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
7. Joint Publication 3-32, “Joint Maritime Operations,” 8 June 2018, www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/jp3_32.pdf?ver=2019-03-14-144800-240.
8. Joint Publication 3-32, “Joint Maritime Operations.”