After 20 years fighting insurgency ashore, the survival and success of the Marine Corps relies on a return to the maritime mind-set with their Navy and Coast Guard kin. Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger has prioritized Marine Corps–Navy integration as an “imperative,” telling Marines that “The Marine Corps will undergo an aggressive naval education program—ranging from the conceptual understanding of naval theory and history down to tactical-level schools and courses.”
Naval integration in education is not a question of “if,” but rather “when” and “how.” Naval integration should begin in the classrooms of The Basic School (TBS) in Quantico, Virginia, in which Marine Corps lieutenants are first trained and educated. New operational concepts, such as expeditionary advanced base operations and littoral operations in a contested environment, require junior officers to grasp and excel at naval thinking. Marines and sailors must share a common language. This demands that small-unit leaders receive an educational foundation in naval theory and tactics—something the Marine Corps does not currently offer junior officers.
TBS is where the Marine Corps trains all second lieutenants. TBS does a phenomenal job preparing them to be Marine Corps officers and equipping them with the skills to be provisional rifle platoon commanders, but the curriculum lacks modules on naval history and thinking. Major Ryan Tice, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, rightly argued that Marine Corps education provides the easiest and most effective method to integrate naval theory and history. Marines and sailors must share a mind-set and common language to work as a team at the small-unit level and beyond.
Improving the Schoolhouse Education
Falklands War case studies are excellent at introducing Marine Corps officers to naval operations and strategy. The Royal Marines’ 3 Commando Brigade amphibious landing and follow-on operations culminated a rapidly assembled amphibious task force’s long-range expeditionary campaign. The task force needed to establish and project power from an advanced base at Ascension Island amid naval combat and while supported by forward reconnaissance and thin logistics tails. Marines can benefit from understanding the maritime context beyond the small part that naval infantry might play in a campaign.
In the past, TBS has used the Falklands case in its lectures. The exercise was simple. Students chose where to land 3 Commando ashore in the Falklands. Sea control was taken for granted. Air supremacy was assured. Students only had to choose the beach. It was a quick but simple thought exercise before the instructor moved on to general points about amphibious operations. But it was a missed opportunity to talk more about the broader maritime campaign that culminated with the amphibious operation.
TBS also often integrates an amphibious ship at Norfolk into its capstone field exercise. Students can spend a day or two on board the ship before inserting into their training exercise. But this integration did not happen last year because of COVID-19 restrictions. Before that, the inclusion of an amphibious ship depended on availability and was not a key part of the exercise. This also can change. TBS should create more opportunities for lieutenants to visit ships in Norfolk or other relevant Navy installations in the region as part of the curriculum.
If the Marine Corps expects junior officers to operate in the littorals, independent and distributed, it will need to expose them to naval concepts and thinking. As the Marine Corps continues to work on concept development in coordination with the Navy, it is insufficient for any officer to receive this exposure on the fly, bringing only ground-combat perspectives to the table. Today, classes on amphibious operations and the possible inclusion of an amphibious ship into the capstone exercise are the only instances of naval integration in the curriculum. The Marine Corps cannot rely on junior officers receiving this exposure once in the fleet. Many junior officers do not have the opportunity to serve on board a ship or work with Navy personnel early in their careers, other than with corpsmen and chaplains. Naval integration is needed in the classroom partly because the Marine Corps cannot guarantee it will happen in the fleet. The Marine Corps does not have complete control over deployment schedules and amphibious ship construction and availability, but it can control schoolhouse curriculum.
Naval thought and perspectives in Marine Corps professional military education (PME) add value. Looking at a tactical or operational problem from the landward or seaward vantages are fundamentally different perspectives. The basics of tactics are different at sea; the geometries are different; the culture is different.1 Even Clausewitz’s tenets do not always apply at sea. Perhaps most important, the fundamental tension between maritime and terrestrial thinking can force junior officers to think outside the box and lead to more creative solutions.
The Marine Corps needs a broad campaign to heal the naval deficiencies in its educational processes by forcing naval theory and perspectives into junior officers’ education models. The service cannot wait until officers are captains and majors to expose them to naval operations and tactics at the Naval Postgraduate School or a Joint Professional Military Education venue, such as the Naval War College.
To solve this gap in naval exposure, we propose three solutions:
Improve the TBS curriculum by adding classes on naval strategy, operations, and tactics. Junior officers need to understand key parts of naval and maritime thinking. In his 2019 War on the Rocks article, Commandant Berger mentioned Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett—many junior Marines do not yet know who they are.
Integrate Navy line officers into the TBS staff and other education programs for junior officers. Put Navy line officers in positions to support the integration of naval concepts at TBS. A Navy officer with service on a large-deck amphibious ship can co-teach modules on amphibious operations, such as a surface warfare officer teaching naval gunfire support or distributed maritime operations, or a Navy operational planner teaching the sea-control concepts championed by Mahan and Corbett. These Navy officers also could act as liaisons for Marine Corps lieutenants to Norfolk during an amphibious exercise.
Integrate Marine Corps officers into Navy junior officer education programs as instructors or advisors. If the Marine Corps values naval integration, it will make some of its officers available to Navy education programs. Integration is a two-way street, and Navy leaders should also be looking to broaden junior officer education. A similar screening process for selecting TBS staff platoon commanders could be used for these billets. There also could be hybrid billets with a year and a half at TBS and a year and a half at a Navy training command.
To augment the naval content in the TBS curriculum or at military occupational specialty schools, courses may have to be extended or other content trimmed from the curriculum. Certainly, some naval content can be creatively integrated into the curriculum, but that is probably not enough for a significant change. As the United States has now withdrawn from Afghanistan and is deemphasizing the Middle East to focus on the Indo-Pacific region, it should start culling some but not all the counterinsurgency content from Marine Corps schools. The service cannot afford to lose hard-won lessons and skills from Iraq and Afghanistan, but it must align with U.S. foreign policy priorities by adding more naval and maritime content into curriculums.
Classrooms are not the only place in need of change. Marines must also act at the individual and small-unit level. Commanders and unit leaders should explore naval perspectives so they can help direct and lead local and organic naval and maritime PME programs and integrate them into training events.
Education can start with battles and campaigns already familiar to Marines, such as Guadalcanal and the Falklands, but from a larger, maritime perspective. The history of Marine Corps battles does not start in a well deck or landing craft, but in an integrated naval campaign. Or it can build from blue-water naval history, such as the Battle of Jutland and Midway. Begining with theory is also pedagogically sound—with thinkers such as Mahan, Corbett, Wayne Hughes, Milan Vego, or Raoul Castex. Mahan and Corbett are widely available in the public domain. Vego and the late Hughes taught at the Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School, respectively. These are thinkers accessible to Marines. Even more approachable are periodicals—there is the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, the Naval War College Review, and Center for International Maritime Security’s website. Or perhaps the Marine Corps needs to try something more hands-on, such as a staff ride or battle study over water. TBS is not far from the Hampton Roads, where the first ironclads clashed, or from Yorktown, where the French Admiral Comte de Grasse’s fleet ensured victory for the Continental Army. No doubt, a day on the water would be a welcomed change from the classroom.
There is no shortage of material to incorporate into Marine Corps PME at the junior level or ways to do it. But it needs to come at the institutional, small-unit, and individual level. Marines cannot wait for naval education to seep in at Command and Staff College or JPME, and they cannot wait to learn it on the job. They need it early and often and, most important, at the foundational level. If the Marine Corps continues to push decentralized decision-making and distributed operations, junior officers need naval and maritime indoctrination. If Marines are tasked to execute expeditionary advanced base operations, contribute to sea denial, or help fight for sea control they will need to understand these concepts. It is critical they can learn them in the classroom, so they do not have to learn them for the first time on the battlefield.
1. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert P. Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd Ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 166.