Like kids with shiny new toys, Navy and Marine Corps staff officers toting courier bags and armed with dry-erase markers, power-point presentations, and video teleconference technology meet in joint planning efforts dreaming of how to meld two services into a dynamic new force structure that will shape the future of maritime conflict. Bolstered by ambitious guidance that is just vague enough for each of them to influence the end-state goal, they launch volley after volley from unparalleled arsenals of acronyms. Some are fighting for the potential of adaptation and ingenuity. Others are dug-in, protecting their knowledge of current capabilities. A third camp maneuvers based on assumptions of future capabilities.
Whether entrenched in cubicles, securing the perimeters of conference tables, or using technology to engage remotely, they are all advancing toward a common objective. All leave their boot or oxford prints on today’s developments, blazing a trail to the future while a hum of excitement charges the air when phrases such as “distributed maritime operations” and “expeditionary advance base operations” are spoken.
It is hard not to get caught up in the excitement as a generation of warfighting experience couples with the ambition of developing leaders to focus on a single theme—Navy and Marine Corps integration. But the question is: How integrated?
Personally, I have been enthusiastic about the notion since I first heard that the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps had set their sights on integration. Although both services recognize a clear need and have shown immediate interest regarding this “reintegration,” meeting the end-state of true naval integration will require a more holistic approach than anything I have seen thus far. All too often, I hear phrases such as “the Navy can provide. . .”, “the Marine Corps has the capability to . . .”, and “fight alongside” in planning discussions for integrated operations. Such language will not set the course for true integration, because it still conveys the idea of independent forces collaborating rather than a single integrated force.
The call for integration affords an opportunity to reimagine the two services. Each has a long heritage and much to be proud of. But, each needs to decide whether they will honor heritage with continuity or by optimizing their current and future positions on the world stage. Success in integration will not come from joint planning, joint operations, or joint guidance. It will only come with proper realignment and reorientation of the services’ force structures.
It seems I am in the minority when I say that the way for Marines to maintain relevance is by becoming even more “naval” than most could imagine. Similarly, when I approach the subject of combat proficiency or individual lethality with sailors, it often goes over like a cell phone ringing in a formation. The fact remains that, between shared history and recent experiments in exclusivity, the Navy and Marine Corps have a lot to offer each other. This is increasingly obvious to those who can look beyond the current growing pains, reflect on history, and swallow their pride for the sake of progress. There are a multitude of redundancies in systems and processes, wasted talent, and missed opportunities for cross-pollinating a new generation of hybrid warfighters.
There are missions and tasks at which the Navy excels, and those inherently Marine Corps. Over several decades, to fill the voids created during this separatist phase, the services have individually taken on roles for which they used to depend on each other. I cannot tell you why Marines are no longer stationed on combatant vessels to employ gun systems and provide general security. I have no idea how we ended up with two separate police forces. It is also a mystery to me why there are Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams and Marine Corps EOD teams, Navy Seabees and Marine Corps combat engineers. If we can find a way to separate ourselves from ego and sentimentality, an honest objective approach could free up personnel, equipment, and budget to fill current gaps and address many expected future shortfalls.
In many ways, aviation has been a proving ground for Navy and Marine Corps integration. By no means has it been perfect, but it has developed some fundamentals that provide vital insight into interoperability. Pilots, maintainers, and other aviation support fields from both services share the same schools, instructions, and program offices—and often the same equipment. In many cases, sailors and Marines are interchangeable from a technical perspective, and several aviation career fields may not even need Marines at all (in much the same way that Navy corpsmen serve with the Marine Corps). Certainly, there are still shortfalls. For example, there is no clear reason to maintain Naval Air Stations and Marine Corps Air Stations if the services are to move forward as an integrated force. Many of these concepts could easily be carried over into other fields.
One field that seems burdened by redundancy is administration. There are separate Navy and Marine Corps systems for personnel accountability, record-keeping, and fitness reporting. Even online general military training is split between Navy Knowledge Online and Marinenet. Pay is uniformly issued by DFAS, but it is reported at the base level “by sailors for sailors” and “by Marines for Marines.” A Marine attached to a Navy unit cannot work through that unit’s admin branch for leave, pay, or service record issues with the same efficiency as a sailor in the same unit—and that Marine might not be able to resolve issues at all. Sailors attached to Marine Corps units face similar issues. What is worse, the services pay for duplicative systems and workforces, which likely could not integrate even if ordered to do so, because their tools and processes are so different.
Logistics also has much room for realignment in pursuit of integration. Although sailors and Marines could potentially be interchangeable for many positions, reorienting the functions of certain elements of the supply chain could be tremendously beneficial. The Navy is well equipped for large scale supply-chain management, from production to delivery at the point of debarkation. The Marine Corps is better equipped for contested distribution from the point of debarkation to point of use. By working in series rather than parallel, the two services could potentially identify many ways to streamline resources and even create new capabilities.
Whether you view integration through my lens or that of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant, what is required is nothing short of the design and construction of a new version of an old-fashioned fighting force. To build anything, a blueprint is needed—and the services already have a rough one.
As critical as a blueprint is, it does not matter if it is drawn from the top down, right to left, left to right, etc. But when it comes time to build, working from the top down is not and will never be an option. The foundation comes first. It is much more expensive to correct a flawed foundation than to build a proper one, in part because flaws have a compounding effect. The more they are ignored, the more the rest of the project will cost, and the more likely the project will fail.
At this defining moment, the Navy and Marine Corps cannot afford to build on a messy foundation. The services need to focus on optimizing what they have before they plan to move forward. The blueprint is being drawn from the top down, but the assembly of the future force must start from the bottom up. Commanders and staff officers alone cannot determine the fate of the force. It is imperative that enlisted sailors and Marines find every possible place on this trail to leave their own boot prints by involving themselves in the integration process at every opportunity, practicing the humility and objectivity required for innovation, and encouraging peers and subordinates to do the same in pioneering this new era. I hope some of those boot prints will be mine.