In summer 2022, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed Navy and Marine Corps commanders to formalize integrated U.S. naval power as a warfighting imperative. Among the benefits of integration would be control of key maritime terrain and the ability to influence the sea from that terrain.
Various commands have experimented with this integration in different ways. Task Force 51/5, operating under U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, was created with a Marine Corps brigadier general in command. Task Force 61/2 operates in the Naval Forces, Europe-Africa, area of responsibility.1 In California, Expeditionary Strike Group 3 and the 1st Marine Division integrate for large exercises, with plans to work together closely in the event of a major conflict. Brigadier General Kyle Ellison’s recent Proceedings article expanded on how the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is continuing to experiment with adaptation and integration.2
The western Pacific, however, brings unique challenges. Distances across the Pacific dwarf those of other areas of operations. Typhoons have plenty of room to run across warm, open water to build strength. The first and second island chains and key choke points such as the Strait of Malacca channelize the movement of commerce and warships. China’s rising power and excessive maritime claims demand the U.S. military’s attention, and tensions over Taiwan threaten to boil over into conflict. This environment requires its own version of naval integration.
Integration in the Pacific
Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Commanding General, III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF), directed that as full an integration as possible be effected in the western Pacific. The staffs of Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 7/Task Force 76 and the 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade (3d MEB) would merge to form Task Force (TF) 76/3. The integration with 3d MEB makes sense in the western Pacific. The MEB is a battle staff, able to receive forces from III MEF and conduct a mission in competition, crisis, or conflict. TF 76/3 is an integrated naval headquarters staff, with robust intelligence, operations, fires, logistics, and planning capabilities.
As Commander, TF 76, I became commander also of TF 76/3, with Brigadier General Fred Fridriksson, 3d MEB Commanding General, as deputy commander. This arrangement—the opposite of that in TF 51/5—was best explained by General Fridriksson: When you look at a map of the Naval Forces Central Command area, you see a lot of land with a few key bodies of water—the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Red Sea. There, it makes sense for a Marine to be in charge, with a Navy officer as the deputy. The western Pacific is nearly the opposite. It is dominated by vast stretches of open sea dotted with key maritime terrain in the form of the first and second island chains. In this geography, it makes sense for a Navy officer to command, with a Marine as deputy.
TF 76/3 is Seventh Fleet’s theater littoral warfare commander, responsible for traditional amphibious operations and newer concepts such as expeditionary advanced base operations, as well as the fleet’s littoral combat and mine countermeasures ships and aircraft. As a naval task force, it gives Seventh Fleet and III MEF a ready-made integrated flag staff that can lead in competition, crisis, and conflict.
The merger into TF 76/3 is being done as an 18-month campaign of learning and experimentation, with updates to Seventh Fleet and III MEF every six months. These updates cover the operations, activities, and investments completed, as well as those planned for the next six months. This both keeps higher headquarters briefed on the experiment and enables forethought about the future of TF 76/3.
Command and Control
When we integrated ESG 7 and 3d MEB, we needed to operate differently. Historically, ESG 7 staff embarked the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship (USS America [LHA-6] currently) and commanded and controlled amphibious forces from there. Our vision as an integrated naval task force, however, is for TF 76/3 to command and control amphibious, mine warfare, and expeditionary advanced bases from the integrated littoral warfare center (ILWC)—a deployable command center capable of moving where needed in the theater.
While we can command and control from the America, we often have other forces assigned for months at a time, including amphibious ready groups (ARGs) rotationally deployed from the U.S. West Coast. These ARGs—like the America ARG—are led by post–major command amphibious squadron commodores who, along with their partner Marine expeditionary unit commanding officers, command their task groups very capably. The ILWC provides options for command and control and a better view of the theater while following the tenets of mission command.
A traditional surface warfare officer (as I consider myself to be) might ask how TF 76/3 uses the composite warfare commander (CWC) concept. Who is the CWC? The CWC allows the carrier strike group (CSG) or ARG commander to respond to threats, divide responsibilities, and exercise span of control through command by negation. TF 76/3, as theater littoral warfare commander, does not need to be the CWC of an individual ARG. The task force’s theaterwide responsibilities require a construct novel to sailors with CSG and ARG experience but familiar to other services’ leaders and other Seventh Fleet task forces (for example, CTF 74 is the theater antisubmarine warfare commander).
In August 2022, when ESG 7 and 3d MEB merged, we combined most of the staffs and integrated several of the existing N and G codes into L codes (“L” for “littoral”). Instead of N2 and G2, N3 and G3, N4 and G4, N5 and G5, and N7 and G7, we have L2, L3, L4, L5, and L7. Accordingly, some sailors previously stationed at White Beach Naval Facility are now working at Camp Courtney, Okinawa, and some Marines from Camp Courtney Marine Corps Base now work at White Beach.
The staff merger has had challenges. The two services’ personnel and information systems are different enough that we could not immediately merge N1 and G1 or N6 and G6. We are working toward integration into an L6, and were TF 76/3 to become permanent, we would build an L1.
These staff code mergers allow us to use the strengths each service brings to naval operations, including the planning and fires experience of the Marines and the shipboard operations and speed of action of the sailors. To the Marine, the TF 76/3 structure supports Force Design 2030 and the 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, which outline the Marine Corps’ return to a fleet emphasis after 20 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.3 To the sailor, the structure emphasizes operations as a joint force. Even though Navy plus Marine Corps does not doctrinally equal “joint,” TF 76/3 builds toward the goal of controlling key maritime terrain and controlling the sea from that terrain.
The Value Proposition
TF 76/3 gives U.S. forces a significant head start for any contingency operation. We have a ready command center for planning, intelligence, and fire control—functions previously cobbled together after a crisis occurred. By integrating and having a standing headquarters, we skip the “norming” phase of group dynamics, because we already are one staff. This enables speed of action for littoral functions across the theater.
An additional benefit of the integrated task force is the ability to integrate the stand-in forces referenced in Force Design 2030.4 Expeditionary advanced bases require deployment, relocation, resupply, and redeployment. An integrated naval task force is well suited to meet those requirements. TF 76/3 can operate under the tactical control of either Seventh Fleet or III MEF. This gives those commands and higher headquarters in the Indo-Pacific flexibility.
A challenge we did not realize would be as prevalent is the slightly different dialects with which the two services speak the language of naval warfare. I had not heard, for instance, of a training, exercise, and employment plan (simply called TEEP) before the merger. This gives us another opportunity to learn from each other, with continual reminders that it is acceptable and expected to speak up when we do not understand certain terminology.
The greatest value of TF 76/3, however, is the ILWC, which fulfills the theater littoral warfare commander function. As a fully portable command center, the ILWC has common tactical picture displays, including Link-16, and the ability to command and control using voice and chat. We can establish our ILWC anywhere—on shore in Okinawa, underway on board the America, or in another geographic location entirely—to conduct and support operations. This is a force multiplier for Indo-Pacific Command leaders and is a prime example of Force Design 2030 employment in the fleet.
The ILWC staff also can be scaled to operational demand, with the ability to include liaison officers from allies and partners and other U.S. Navy staffs. For example, we recently conducted a joint fires exercise in which Destroyer Squadron 7 used the ILWC and demonstrated an expeditionary sea combat and fires capability. In coming years, we expect to demonstrate our ability to command and control from the ILWC during certification events such as fleet synthetic training and joint and multinational exercises such as Talisman Sabre.
A career surface warfare officer may have to let go of the notion that it is always best to command and control from a ship. During a recent underway period, we displaced the Amphibious Squadron 11 staff. As professional as the staffs involved are, displacement brings disruption. That disruption, combined with the theater role of TF 76/3, cemented the belief that the flexibility and deployability of the ILWC brings the best range of command-and-control options for the task force.
TF 76/3 headquarters also includes a fires and effects coordination center (FECC). As we continue to build on our partnerships and alliances in the western Pacific, we must be ready to contribute to sea control. The FECC allows us to integrate the TF 76/3 staff with our ships, including littoral combat ships armed with the Naval Strike Missile, other task forces, the joint force, and allied and partner forces to conduct fires using the entire kill web. We demonstrated this during Exercise Katana Strike last year, which involved TF 76/3, TF 70, TF 72, and Army, Air Force, and Japan Self-Defense Force units.
Allies and Partners
The United States is the partner of choice in the western Pacific, as it is in other theaters. Countering aggression, excessive claims, and attempts to remake the world order require concerted effort by nation-states dedicated to freedom and openness. Through operations, activities, and investments with our friends, U.S. naval forces build capability and capacity, demonstrate resolve, and deter aggression. Our allies see the value of naval integration, with one admiral commenting, “You are our future.”
It is easy for U.S. sailors and Marines to take our integration for granted, but we are an example for the military forces of the other democracies across the Indo-Pacific.
The emphasis on naval integration has shifted the focus of the task force. There was discussion of moving the ESG 7 commander and staff to Sasebo, Japan, where ESG 7 has a detachment and where most of its ships are deployed. While there would be a benefit from proximity to the ships, the primary benefit would be from an organize, train, and equip perspective. Task force commanders cannot ignore the organize, train, and equip functions, but several factors mitigate the effect of physical distance from the ships. Task Force 76 has a post–major command deputy commander, two commodores, and several major command captains in Sasebo. The Sasebo waterfront does not lack for leadership.
Further, the surface force recently announced a move toward surface groups that will be responsible for the readiness of ships. These units will be the primary leaders in manning, training, and equipping surface force ships, with emphasis on the maintenance and basic phases of the deployment cycle. Naval Surface Group Western Pacific, based in Yokosuka, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, has taken a leading role in the maintenance and training of Seventh Fleet’s forward-deployed ships. This allows the task force commanders to focus on employment and operation of fully ready and capable ships.
Integration Is Not Easy
The TF 76/3 experiment required significant creativity and drive by our staff. Having built the prototype, we began educating those outside the command, in the western Pacific, and around the Navy and Marine Corps. We also recognized the dearth of experience in the larger Navy and Marine Corps with our purpose. Amphibious and mine countermeasures forces and sailors with that experience are a minority in the surface force. The Marine Corps was involved in conventional ground combat for two decades, only recently declaring Fleet Marine Force operations the priority. TF 76/3 can be the template as sailors and Marines work toward naval integration.
It is natural to be comfortable with established ways and processes. However, the status quo does not always produce the best results, and we must think differently and creatively to overcome the challenges we face in the western Pacific. As a previous boss said often, our answer should not be no, but rather, yes if. . . . Yes, we can formally integrate naval forces if we build the right structures, organize correctly, include the right capabilities in headquarters staffs, and commit to bringing our talents together.
TF 76/3 is the right model for the Pacific theater and is in line with the Chief of Naval Operations’ and Commandant’s vision. I was honored to command TF 76/3 and am excited for the future of the command and of naval integration.
1. TF 51/5 merged Naval Amphibious Force, Task Force 51 and 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade. TF 61/2 merged Naval Amphibious Forces Europe and 2d Marine Division. For details on TF 61.2, see MajGen Francis L. Donovan, USMC, “Task Force 61/2: A Model for Naval Warfighting,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 6 (June 2022).2. BGen. Kyle B. Ellison, USMC, “Marine Corps Adaptation: The Future Is Now,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 149, no. 4 (April 2023).
3. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Force Design 2030 Annual Update (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, April 2021); and Gen David H. Berger, USMC, 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 17 July 2019).
4. Berger, Force Design 2030 Annual Update (April 2021).