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Defining the Future Marine Corps

Rarely has a military service undergone as much change as the U.S. Marine Corps has experienced in the first decade of the 21st century. From standing up major new commands – Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command (MARFORCYBER) – in the midst of a decade-long war to beginning the replacement of its aviation fleet, the Corps has faced an ongoing series of challenges.

A major response to that is the Force Structure Review (FSR), initiated in September 2010 by newly installed Commandant Gen. James F. Amos. Until his transfer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July as their new J-7 (Operational Plans & Joint Force Development), the man tasked with heading that effort was Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who was dual-hatted as commanding general of both the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) and the new MARFORCYBER.

“The general framework of the Force Structure Review was approved by the Secretary of Defense in February, and now we’re doing a detailed analysis to make sure all the moving parts are synchronized,” Flynn said at the end of June. “That is the DOTMLPF [Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and education, Personnel and Facilities] portion, looking at all of them to make sure we understand all the implications of the review.

Enduring Freedom patrol Sangin district Afghanistan Jan. 13, 2011

U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Daniel Barbeau, a platoon commander, and Cpl. Vincent O’Brian, an assault man with 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, conduct a census patrol in Sangin district, Afghanistan, on Jan. 13, 2011. U.S. Marines conducted patrols to suppress enemy activity and gain the trust of the people. The battalion, one of the combat elements of Regimental Combat Team 2, conducted counterinsurgency operations in partnership with the International Security Assistance Force. DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Dexter S. Saulisbury, U.S. Marine Corps

“For example, does it require any changes in training or organization or doctrine, do you need to buy anything new, reduce quantities, make changes in leadership, change personnel assignments and so on. While the Corps’ top priority remains providing well-trained Marines to Afghanistan, we also must look ahead to developing a force to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Our purpose is to make sure we are properly focused and prepared for the future now.”

The Marine Corps, historically a “force from the sea” component of America’s military, has spent most of the past decade operating far from its traditional sea base. Afghanistan is a landlocked nation, which meant Marines deployed there sometimes found themselves in months of combat 1,000 miles from the ships that normally provide their combat and combat services support, among other things.

As a result, post-9/11 commandants preceding Amos often stated one of their top priorities was to stop “doing the Army’s job” – especially far-inland training of host nation police and military – and getting back to the Corps’ maritime roots. They also often lamented the lack of time and funds for training not linked to the counterinsurgency (COIN) fight in Southwest Asia.

Perhaps with that in mind, Amos asked the 100 officers and senior civilians comprising the Force Structure Review Group (FSRG) to first define the role the U.S. Marine Corps should and will play in the joint battlespace of the future – then have that definition confirmed by the Department of Defense and the White House. Just how the FSRG saw that task – and the evolving world in which it would be applied – was set out in their March 14, 2011, report:

“The geostrategic environment has changed dramatically in the last two decades, shifting from a competition between superpowers to a world of increasing instability and conflict, characterized by poverty, competition for resources, urbanization, overpopulation and extremism. Failed states or those that cannot adequately govern their territory can become safe havens for terrorist, insurgent and criminal groups that threaten the U.S. and our allies.

“Characterized by inherently unpredictable hybrid threats that combine irregular and conventional capabilities in a highly lethal manner, this environment demands a flexible, adaptable and versatile military force that is ready and capable of being forward-deployed and forward-engaged, building partnerships and immediately responding to crises or contingencies. Responding to a wide range of crises in a timely manner will require regionally focused headquarters and forces that are both forward-postured and immediately deployable with a minimum of strategic lift. Sea-based forces, in particular, will be invaluable for discreet engagement activities, rapid crisis response and sustainable power projection.”

Achieving those goals means taking the Corps as it has been structured and used, incorporating the changes of the past 10 years of war, and identifying the likely future requirements for a “strategically mobile, middleweight force.”

“It must be light enough to leverage the flexibility and capacity of amphibious shipping, yet heavy enough to accomplish the mission. Larger than special operations forces, but lighter and more expeditionary than conventional Army units, we must be able to engage and respond quickly – often from the sea – with enough forces to carry the day,” the report stated. “The imperative for the Marine Corps is to preserve capabilities developed since 9/11, expand our engagement efforts, respond to crisis and still be able to project power for the most dangerous threat scenarios.

“To that end, we will accept a degree of risk by reducing our active component capacity for conducting multiple, major sustained operations ashore, relying on an ‘operationalized’ Reserve component to mitigate that risk. Of necessity, our force structure represents many judiciously considered factors and makes pragmatic trade-offs in capabilities and capacities to achieve a posture that creates opportunity and provides an operational stance that enables flexibility and rapid response.”

Before anything else, however, was the directive to not only lay out the future role of the Marine Corps, but to get affirmation of that role from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.

“When the commandant briefed the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense, he said, ‘This is the role on which I based the Review and from that role I then determined the capabilities needed to support that role and the capacities necessary,’” Flynn said. “Leading with the role first was consistent with the written guidance we got from Secretary Mabus that the purpose of the review was to define the 21st century expeditionary force in readiness.”

multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan

U.S. Marines embark aboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan in Morehead City, N.C., on March 28, 2011. The Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, with Marines of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, was deploying to the Mediterranean Sea. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Julio Rivera, U.S. Navy

Mabus had told the FSRG he wanted a capabilities-based review “that balances requirements and capacities throughout the conflict spectrum, across multiple domains [sea, air, ground and cyber].” The resulting force must be “able to project ready-to-fight forces from the sea into potentially hostile territory … operating persistently forward in multiple geographic theaters [while] responding rapidly to any crisis.” In the end, “the primary goal should be to maximize total force capability and minimize risk, rapidly disaggregate and aggregate to increase forward engagement, rapidly respond to crisis and rapidly project power in austere locations.”

Gates had set the tone in an August 2010 speech that was part of the George P. Shultz Lecture Series at the Marine Memorial Club in San Francisco. The Marine Corps, he said, should be “at the tip of the spear in the future, when the U.S. military is likely to confront a range of irregular and hybrid conflicts … a diverse range of threats that will require a more flexible portfolio of military capabilities … including counterinsurgency and stability operations.”

In accomplishing that, he added, “the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved. [The] challenge is finding the right balance between preserving what is unique and valuable while making changes needed to win the wars we are in and likely to face, [tapping] the Marines’ greatest strengths: a broad portfolio of capabilities and penchant for adapting that are needed to be successful in any campaign.”

Among other conclusions, the FSR determined a “right-sized” post-OEF Marine Corps needed only 186,600 active and 39,600 Reserve members – about a 15,000-person reduction in the active force – and 21 fewer headquarters groups. Other reductions included a 13 percent drop in ground combat forces – including an 11 percent reduction in infantry – a 20 percent cut in both cannon artillery and armor, 16 percent in fixed-wing tactical aviation squadrons, 9 percent in logistics, 7 percent in non-operational billets, and 12 percent in the civilian work force.

Despite the overall downsizing, those reductions in current assignments would enable a 67 percent increase in cyber personnel, 44 percent increase in critical combat and combat services support for MARSOC, and creation of a fifth unmanned aerial system (UAS) squadron.

In addition, the smaller Corps’ operational forces will be about 95 percent enlisted, 5 percent officers, which Flynn said “gives you a much differently aligned force than before.” The resulting flattened command structure, combined with other changes, is intended to create a new “operational construct” and enable an enhanced emphasis on Ship-To-Objective-Maneuver (STOM).

“Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps does not have a domain it dominates. We have a role – to be the crisis response force, maintaining a high state of readiness to respond to today’s crisis today,” Flynn explained. “From that flows what capabilities and capacities do you need, what are the forces, what do you need to engage forward to prevent crises, to do the crisis response mission we traditionally have performed and, at the high end of the conflict, what is needed to project power to prevail. But the sweet spot was on the day-to-day needs and the ability to respond to crises wherever they occur around the world.

“Another key part of what we’re doing in the future is moving forward with mission command, rather than just traditional command and control. Mission command is blending the art of command and the science of command. The art is the commander’s intuitive ability to operate on the battlefield and for a leader to operate on commander’s intent. The science of command allows you to exploit all the information available, but also to effectively create knowledge at the point of action. So the commander’s intuitive sense is informed by all the information that will be available to him on the battlefield.”

In a complex, fiscally constrained post-Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-Afghanistan) world filled with uncertainty, he added, “there are few final answers.”

“We have optimized our force to be forward for both engagement and rapid crisis response. We have proposed operationalizing the Reserve component to help the Marine Corps meet the most important missions,” Flynn said. “‘Send in the Marines’ is a phrase that has for decades raised the confidence of the nation. We are the middleweight force, yet heavy enough to fight the mission and make a difference.

“In terms of capacity, cost, and readiness relative to the operational requirements of our geographic COCOMs [Combatant Commanders], there is no doubt the Corps will continue to meet the challenge. Even as we increasingly find ourselves operating in a global environment filled with ambiguity, the requirement for sea-based forces will only increase. Engagement and crisis response are best and most efficiently and effectively done by a sea-based force that is forward positioned,” he said.

The reductions in force structure will not be implemented until after the Marine Corps commitment to Afghanistan declines, Flynn emphasized.

15th MEU AH-1W Super Cobra USS Peleliu

U.S. Marine Corps pilots assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit fly an AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter during flight operations aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA 5) while under way in the Pacific Ocean on June 17, 2010. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Russell, U.S. Navy

“We grew the force to do the sustained combat operations then being executed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose of the Force Structure Review is not so much to reduce the force but to anticipate the future, taking a very deliberative look at the post-OEF force requirement,” he said.

“We really want to focus on what the force will need to do in the future and how do we begin shaping forces now to get there. We need 202,000 now to maintain the level of operations in Afghanistan. After Afghanistan, we need to be prepared to reduce that force, but do it right and match needed capability with needed capacity.”

Documenting “lessons learned” in current deployments, analyzing how those might apply to future conflicts and humanitarian missions, incorporating them into training and doctrine, adjusting logistics and equipment acquisitions accordingly – all are part of the FSR and critical to ensuring the Marine Corps in 2020 can move quickly, with the proper equipment, training and personnel mix, to meet whatever crises that may arise.

In terms of acquisitions, for example, the FSR addressed the need for an improved acquisitions chain, from initial requests for information (RFI) from industry to full operational capability, that would combine shorter time lines and lower costs with fewer “surprises” and delays. In the wake of the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, for example, that effort is focusing heavily on the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), on which an RFI was issued in February 2011.

“We have formed a new effort, will do extensive modeling and systems integration at the front end, and work closely with industry and our acquisition folks to make sure we have the requirements at about 90 to 95 percent so we can get out into the field quicker,” Flynn explained. “So the key element is to change our approach to requirements and make sure we make the trades up front early.”

While the FSR addresses multiple areas of Marine Corps structure, capabilities, numbers, and equipment, all are built on the foundation of defining what the 21st century Marine Corps is expected to be and to do.

“We looked at what the future battlefield will demand and increased capacity in certain occupational specialties and organizations we felt would be needed. That’s why high density, low demand MOSs [Marine Occupational Specialties], after the FSR, will become high demand, right density MOSs, primarily in intelligence, communications, and logistical support units,” he said. “So the FSR is based not only on the role of the Marine Corps, but on an understanding of the current environment and also the environment we expect in the next 15 to 20 years.”

A major component of change was the logistics structure across all parts of the Marine Corps. The FSR created dedicated logistics organizations that will develop close, informed relationships with the units they support. A key indicator for changes in combat and combat service support was the Corps’ special operations command, created in 2006.

Combat Reconnaissance Patrol Bala Baluk district March 2010

A U.S. Marine eases down the side of a mountain during a three-day combat reconnaissance patrol in the Bala Baluk district in Afghanistan’s Farah province, March 31, 2010. The Marines were assigned to Marine Special Operation Command. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pilch

“When MARSOC was stood up, they initially were designed to operate with the MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit], which is where they would get their combat support and combat service support, but that’s not the way they have been deployed,” Flynn noted. “Recognizing they will operate independently, we resourced about 1,000 combat service support personnel to handle their needs.”

The change in logistics structure also reflected another lesson from the current conflict that the FSRG expects will become a permanent part of future conflicts – a wider dispersion of forces in the battlespace, in large part due to continuing improvements in technology. Those already have greatly improved communications, situational awareness, precision fire capability, and the speed and distance of troop transport in theater.

“The battlefield will be spread out, meaning a high demand for combat support and combat service support. We also saw a need for increased intelligence and communications to support those types of operations. And a need to have more maintainers to be able to support a spread-out force,” he said.

“Another learned lesson from today’s fight is the importance of small unit leadership and unit cohesion, the structure you need to have the right Marines in positions of leadership, from the squad to the company. We also have learned lessons about the type of structure needed to support interagency or combined task forces on the battlefield in the future.”

Having top grade leaders in place throughout the force not only enhances the effectiveness of small, widely separated units, it also increases the challenge to opposing forces to find and engage those Marines. In that and other areas, the FSR reflects some key elements of The Art of War, written by 6th century BC Chinese military strategist Sun Tsu. Chief among them: “Attack [the enemy] where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

“Changes on the battlefield in the future mean we will have to spread out to complicate enemy targeting and also deal with increasing enemy precision fire capabilities,” Flynn said. “And pose challenges to potential adversaries by expanding our maneuver space and complicating their ability to network and to target us.”

A major component of future Marine force structure is STOM, which incorporates capacity, capability, technology, and requirements changes that have accelerated since 9/11, but seen as even more important to the future utility of the Marine Corps.

“STOM is basically using the sea as maneuver space, exploiting the sea, and complicating an adversary’s abilities. You also want to limit your footprint ashore by keeping as many traditional battlefield functions as possible operating from a sea base,” Flynn explained. “The new equipment we’ve been fielding, whether the V-22 [Osprey tilt-rotor transport], our VSTOL [vertical/short takeoff and landing], or new helicopters, allow us to go farther inland and operate effectively and be supported by fires and get the necessary maneuvers to complicate the enemy process.

“We’re experimenting with what the next level of STOM would be. Last summer, as part of a four-year Marine Corps Warfighting Lab experimentation program, we experimented with company-level landing teams. We also just recently published an update that laid out our way ahead with STOM, which I see as a natural evolution of what we’ve been doing, but not without dramatic changes based on leaps in technology. A couple of years ago, for example, we off-loaded tanks from a large ship to an MLP [Mobile Landing Platform class of amphibious logistic ships] type vessel in a sea state 3.5 [5-foot waves] a hundred miles off the coast. That’s a dramatic change because it means we don’t need a port any more.”

Both the current state of the U.S. Marine Corps and the impact of the Force Structure Review were summarized in the FSRG’s conclusion to the March 14, 2011, report, “Reshaping America’s Expeditionary Force in Readiness”:

“Our number one priority remains operations in Afghanistan. Some force structure changes do not impact those operations and are already underway, especially with respect to the command, aviation and logistics combat elements and the Reserve component. Many of these adjustments will actually enhance our capabilities in Afghanistan.

“We will conduct more detailed planning with respect to implementing further changes, many of which will be conditions-based. This will include wargaming, experimentation [and] allied, inter-service and inter-agency collaboration designed to test the force structure, improve interoperability and increase responsiveness to the GCCs (geographic COCOMs).”

Flynn added his own perspective as he prepared to leave for his new post with the Joint Chiefs:

“Part of our current process is to make sure, as we do draw down, that we don’t break faith with the Marines who have volunteered to serve, or their families. We have a well thought-out plan in which that is doable and how to equip the future force is a key issue, as are STOM and cyber concepts, both how we approach those in experimentation as well as in concept.

“We tend right now to write concepts and do experiments before we get to the doctrinal piece. So these concepts are designed not to be a complete solution, but to inspire debate and inform the processes so, when we do get down to writing doctrine, it will be well thought-out and we will have some experimentation behind it to back it up.”

This article was first published in Defense: Summer 2011 Edition.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...