Expeditionary Excellence: Not Passe

By Lieutenant Colonel Frank G. Hoffman, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

Operational Maneuver and Distributed Ops

Adaptation in littoral and expeditionary operations has been a continuous process in the Marine Corps for the past 25 years, despite pressures to execute a host of other contingencies across the span of conflict. The first critical manifestation was the publication of Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS) in 1996, and its supporting concept, Ship-to-Objective Maneuver (STOM). These concepts accurately anticipated a future operating environment we now take for granted. The Marines have evolved the initial concepts of OMFTS and STOM by incorporating distributed operations and distributed maneuver.

In the past decade, the most critical manifestation was the recognition by Marine Corps senior leadership that the operational impact of the antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) threat as it had evolved over the past two decades had outpaced the development of countering technologies. With the emergence of widespread access to precision weapons starting in the 1990s, the Marine Corps realized that amphibious operations would have to: (a start from greater standoff from the shore, and (b avoid operational pauses at the beachhead, which could easily be targeted. Scarcely addressed by most forecasters in the 1990s, they drove the critical development of new operational concepts and matériel solutions such as the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft and the advanced amphibious assault vehicle, which was supposed to launch from 25 miles offshore, transiting through the littorals and seamlessly passing deep into the littoral operating area without delays on the beachhead to assemble combat power and necessary logistics support. Such delays were recognized as operational weaknesses that could be exploited, and this recognition occurred years before anyone coined the A2/AD acronym.

Further adaptation appeared in the development of distributed operations, which entailed networked units physically dispersed and operating over an extended battlespace. Distributed operations are characterized by decentralization, multidimensionality, simultaneity, and continuous pressure over the adversary’s entire system to preclude his ability to reconstitute or adjust. Conducted by squad- to battalion-sized units operating as part of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), distributed operations can make a contribution across the full range of military operations from stability and support operations to joint forcible-entry missions. This concept was developed at the Commandant’s direction and then deliberately placed in the professional journals of the naval services to abet debate over the implications. 9

This concept is consistent with both current trends in conflict and the enduring aspects of the operational art. It is particularly oriented on the acute requirements for greater agility, decentralization, and multidimensionality in future conflict. Distributed operations seek to achieve the high degree of operational tempo and fluidity inherent to maneuver warfare, avoiding linear, sequential, and predictable operations and extensive reliance on attrition.

By increasing the ability to simultaneously attack along many axes with all forms of fires and maneuver, distributed operations create continuous pressure on the opponent. The resulting relative tempo advantage prevents the opponent from adapting or readjusting his force posture or from effectively reconstituting capabilities. Continuous pressure degrades the enemy’s overall combat effectiveness, produces paralysis and/or induces systemic collapse. The ultimate aim of any commander is to “implant a picture of defeat in his opponent’s mind.” Continuous pressure, over the breadth of the battlespace, from multiple lines of attack, is how the Corps seeks to inject this perception of dimming chances for success into the opponent’s mind.

The combination of these characteristics blinds and disorients the opponent, and produces a sudden psychological dislocation when the opponent realizes that his options and assets are declining at an accelerating rate.

The latest iteration of Marine service concepts, in Expeditionary Force 21 (EF21), sustains the original thrust behind distributed operations, particularly with emphasis on the amphibious set of missions. 10 This service vision supports the requirement in the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower to:

Conduct sea control and power projection in a more distributed fashion in littoral environments. This includes employing forward deployed and surge expeditionary forces that are task-organized into a cohesive amphibious force in order to provide scalable options to defeat land-based threats, deny enemy use of key terrain, or establish expeditionary advance bases and oceanic outposts as described in EF21. 11

However, while the Marines got locked into a good solution to the problem of the 1990s, the technological developments required for it did not keep pace with emerging threats. Stand-off ranges for amphibious operations, stated at 25 miles, were challenged by projected threat abilities to identify and strike at the landing force with supersonic missiles from much greater range. The requirement for self-deployment and seamless transition to maneuver ashore in a single vehicle generated the requirements for the expeditionary fighting vehicle that drove up both complexity and costs.

The resulting hybrid solution, a large vehicle that could plane on the surface at speeds of 25 miles per hour, was suboptimized for the increasingly lethal area-denial threat. The program offered an expensive solution to a critical national capability, but at $12-15 million a copy with extensive operation and maintenance costs, it was not seen as cost-effective. Even more daunting was the limited force protection the vehicle offered, a $15 million target for a $150 explosively formed penetrator (EFP). Eventually, the Marines came to realize that they had to continue to search for an operationally relevant capability that better deals with the needs of ground combat ashore.

The amphibious combat vehicle (ACV) program reflects this critical adaptation, as the search continued for creative solutions to support high-speed and self-deploying vehicles. Marine concepts now underscore the greater need for standoff distances (perhaps as far off as 65 nautical miles), and the need for distributed maneuver through multiple vectors while penetrating the complex littoral terrain. The initial phase of the ACV program will deliver a vehicle well suited to the projected area-denial threat.

Distributed STOVL Operations (DSO)

In parallel with this new technology, the Marines are adapting their doctrine and tactics to maximize aviation support to the MAGTF by way of a concept known as distributed short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) ops. 12 The capability inherent in a STOVL jet allows operations from very limited sites or remote locations where few if any airfields are available for conventional aircraft. The capabilities of the F-35B joint strike fighter supports doctrinal maneuver warfare and the need for close-air support in austere conditions or the remote locations where our Marines need them the most. Its ability to operate from runways of less than 3,000 feet provides a more than threefold increase in the number of airfields worldwide that STOVL aircraft can use.

The foundation of future STOVL operations is the F-35B executing DSO to exploit the agility and multi-faceted capabilities of the fifth-generation jet operating as part of a task-organized MAGTF operation in a distributed force posture, independent of fixed infrastructure, on a temporary basis. The transitory use of DSO sites mitigates the A2/AD threat by complicating the opponent’s ability to find and target operating sites, and cuts the number of assets at risk in each location. This allows the Marine force to achieve protection incrementally by dispersion, mobility, and deception, while the aircraft operate and rearm outside the immediate threat engagement zone. Though not a new competency, it is an extension under new circumstances and thus a major adaptation. For this adaptation to bear fruit, significant investments in data links to support an aviation command-and-control architecture between Marine aircraft and Navy assets will be necessary.

Adaptation to both new opportunities and evolving threats has been the order of the decade, despite the necessary application of the Marine Corps in two protracted counterinsurgencies.

The Marines need to continue their work to adapt to 21st-century challenges. Following, though not an exhaustive list, are some critical areas of concern. The following section details areas where particular payoff can be garnered.

Robotics and Unmanned Systems

The Marines actually were the last service to get into the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) but now have 30 years of experience after acquiring remotely piloted vehicles from Israel in the mid-1980s. They have not been exploited as a weapon platform yet, overlooking the Air Force and the Navy’s extensive experience as far back as the Vietnam War, with systems such as the Navy’s drone antisubmarine helicopter (DASH).

The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) has maintained an active experimental effort in small and micro-UAVs for decades, and the Marines have been at the forefront of the use both of unmanned ground vehicles for detecting mines and in the use of UAVs for logistics. That said, much more can be done in the employment of UAVs for long-loiter fire support to distributed ground units as captured in operating concepts going back for more than a decade now. The Marine aviation plan provides evidence of a desire to acquire this capability.

In addition, unmanned undersea vehicles have the potential to counter mines in shallow waters and provide an additional rich vein of unexploited combat power in unmanned combat breaching systems. For example, many existing Marine amphibious tractors could be converted to autonomous or remotely operated assault breaches. The first wave that hits the beach in a truly contested landing in the next war should be completely unmanned but capable of conducting beach reconnaissance, mine clearing, and suppressive fires.

The Marine Corps can do more with the Navy to overcome inhibitors and be better postured for the robotic revolution. There is also a lot of potential in applying Marine lessons in UAV logistics to robotic surface vehicles to deliver combat service support from shipping directly to the landing area. Experiments suggest that a swarming logistics train is a feasible concept.

Exoskeleton Capabilities

A natural transition from purely unmanned systems is the employment of human performance augmentation from exoskeleton technologies. The use of lower body exo sets could have major benefits for reconnaissance teams and in urban operations.

Using the load-bearing capacity of the emerging lower-extremity model, a reconnaissance team could be inserted much farther from its objective area to preclude detection during insertion. With the additional endurance and mobility afforded by the system the team could travel farther and farther, without tiring the team before it arrives at a hide site. A special operations unit could carry more mission equipment or more rapidly transit an austere area or complex terrain than is possible today.

Another option is the design and fielding of urban combat teams capable of bringing heavy weapons, more munitions, and self-powered breaching or surveillance systems to city fighting, or using exoskeletons to overcome the inherent exhaustion of moving vertically in multistory buildings with a combat load. Exoskeleton-clad teams could use the power of the system’s energy pack to operate weapons for creating holes in walls, clearing rooms, or employing scalable lethal and less-than-lethal fires. The capacity of such teams to penetrate into urban gaps, employ firepower, and maintain the momentum of the attack may preclude the traditional difficulties of dangerous and predictable room clearing. The Defense Science Board has underscored the importance of integrating human capabilities with technology. The Marines are just beginning to exploit man-machine teaming. DARPA’s squad of the future work should be closely monitored. The Battle for Fallujah might have been an entirely different affair with exoskeleton-supported fighters.

Another area where the Marines have excelled in adaptation is in exploring expeditionary power sources. This line of operational experimentation has delivered results, especially in Afghanistan. Technological developments in this field will produce more power, greater flexibility in operations, and lessen the load on tactical units in maneuver. One can envision better power sources improving command-and-control, intelligence, and logistical burdens, but we should not overlook potential advances in firepower as well. We can expect further advances in this area that hopefully will increase combat effectiveness and efficiency, while minimizing the exposure of human and material resources in support tasks and sustainment.


Finally, future MAGTFs may no longer have complete air superiority against cheap, low flying drones and other Guided-Rocket, Artillery, Missiles and Mortars (G-RAMM). This is not news to Marine doctrine writers.Tomorrow’s improvised explosive devices may not be strewn along the ground. Instead they could be IEMs or Intelligent Explosive Munitions (IEMs) delivered by small drones with target-recognition technologies. Such forces may need to control their signatures, generate decoys, and have layered defenses against such systems. Work done by RAND for the U.S. Army suggests that the Marines need to consider the following as key priorities:

• Mobile, protected firepower with active protection against antitank guided missiles and rocket-propelled grenades

• Counter-fire systems that can respond quickly to lethal, massed long-range rockets

• Short-range air defenses to deal with enemy fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft

• Systems to counter rockets and unmanned aircraft systems in flight

• Mobile and survivable headquarters with signature reduction capability. 13

Connector Challenges

Power projection cannot be limited to just strike, and it requires more than prayer. The adaptations implied by EF21 and the emerging security environment complicate the ship-to-shore movement of combat-ready forces and their sustainment. The current amphibious combat vehicle provides tangible operational benefits ashore, but it is not an advanced ship-to-shore system. Critical programs, including the evolution of the landing craft air cushion are needed. The Navy is tapping into the power of robotic ships for key missions such as antisubmarine warfare, and that could be the tip of the iceberg for such littoral operations as well.

Tomorrow’s threats will be larger, more adaptive, and have greater access to technology than in the past.Instead of buying larger and more expensive solutions, the Marines should heed Dr. T. X. Hammes—a retired Marine officer and a specialist in counterinsurgency warfare—and explore responses that are cheaper and easier to produce than the extremely expensive and exquisite platforms we are building now.

If one needed to summarize the stream of adaptation over the past generation within the Marine Corps, it could be called “the end of the Tarawa Syndrome.” The Marines realize that “hitting the beach” as in the glory days of World War II is passé but that expeditionary excellence is not. Creating a large beachhead may be old fashioned, but creating and defending a functional lodgment as part of a larger joint campaign may not be. 14 The strategic advantages of exploiting sea-based maneuver must be preserved and extended to generate the capabilities needed for this projected security environment in order to master the chaos of the contested zones in the littorals. 15

1. Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, China’s Navy in the Twenty-first Century, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010).

2. Sam J. Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 231–252.

3. Barry R. Posen, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security, vol. 28, no. 1, (Summer 2003), 5–46.

4. Philip A. Crowl, “Alfred T. Mahan, The Naval Historian,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy; from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 461.

5. Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988). See also Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century, 3rd ed. (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 61–68. As stressed 12 years ago in Robert Schmidle and F. G. Hoffman, “Commanding the Contested Zones,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2004.

6. Lt.Col. David Kilcullen, RAA, Out of the Mountains (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

7. CAPT Peter M. Swartz, USN, “American Naval Policy, Strategy Plans, and Operations in the Second Decade of the Twenty-first Century,” in Joachim Krause and Sebastian Bruns, eds., Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2016).

8. Lt.Col. F. G. Hoffman, USMCR, “21st Century Power Projection,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 2011.

9. MGEN Robert H. Scales Jr., USA, (Ret.), Yellow Smoke: The Future of Land Warfare for America’s Military (Baltimore, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).

10. Expeditionary Force 21, Forward and Ready: Now and in the Future, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Marine Corps, 4 March 2014).

11. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (Washington DC, March 2015), 32.

12. This section relies heavily on the description provided in LGEN Jon Davis, USMC, “Forward to the Fight,” Marine Corps Gazette, May 2015, 20-42.

13. David Johnson, “The Challenges of the “Now” and Their Implications for the U.S. Army” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016); LGEN David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “The U.S. Military’s Protection Deficit Disorder,” War on the Rocks, 5 July 2016.

14. Hon. Robert O. Work and Lt.Col. F. G. Hoffman, USMC “Hitting the Beach: Future Amphibious Capabilities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2010.

15. GEN Robert B. Neller, USMC, Service Strategy 2016 (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Marine Corps, 2016).

Lieutenant Colonel Hoffman is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University. He is a frequent and longtime contributor to Proceedings.




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