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Interview: Lt. Gen. George Flynn

Director for Joint Force Development, the Joint Staff

After a decade of continuous combat in Southwest Asia, the U.S. Marine Corps is in the midst of the most extensive changes to its structure and operations in more than two centuries of service to the nation.

Those include replacing every Corps aircraft – and moving significantly closer to the goal of an all-STOVL (short takeoff/vertical landing) aviation fleet – standing up major new commands as the Marine components of increasingly important joint commands, restoring and updating the Corps’ historic quick reaction force-from-the-sea capabilities through Ship To Objective Maneuver (STOM), and conducting – and now preparing to implement – an expansive Force Structure Review (FSR).

The man initially put in charge of validating the FSR recommendations, moving forward with STOM, and standing up the Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command (MARFORCYBER) as one of four service components of the equally new joint U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) was Lt. Gen. George Flynn, then-deputy commandant commanding the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC).

Shortly before leaving in July to become J-7 (Operational Plans and Joint Force Development) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flynn spoke with Marine Corps Outlook senior writer J.R. Wilson about those changes, with a special emphasis on the Force Structure Review.

J.R. Wilson: What is the status of the Marine Corps Force Structure Review?

Lt. Gen. George Flynn: The general framework 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. 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. 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.

What are the main features and goals of the FSR?

31st Marine Expeditionary Unit

Amphibious Assault Vehicles assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit conduct an amphibious landing rehearsal in Pohang, Korea, from the amphibious transport dock USS Denver. U.S. Marine Corps photo

The first purpose was to get affirmation of the role of the Marine Corps. When the commandant briefed the Secretary of the Navy [Ray Mabus] and Secretary of Defense [then Robert M. Gates], 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.”

Leading with the role was consistent with Secretary Gates’ speech in San Francisco [in August 2010] and the written guidance we got from Secretary Mabus that the purpose of the review was to define the 21st century “expeditionary force in readiness.” Unlike the other services, the Marine Corps does not have a domain it dominates. We have a role. Getting affirmation of that role means we can get some efficiencies and effectiveness in the joint force.

Our role is to be the crisis response force, maintaining a high state of readiness to respond to today’s crisis today. 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 day-to-day needs and the ability to respond to crises wherever they occur around the world.

How heavily did the review rely on lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare in Southwest Asia – and to what extent was that balanced by a desire to return to traditional Marine “force from the sea” operations?

It capitalized on a number of things – what is going on on the battlefield today and what do we expect to see on the battlefield tomorrow.

Among lessons learned today is 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 capability to support those types of operations, and a need to have more maintainers to be able to support a spread-out force.

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 learned lessons about the type of structure needed to support interagency or combined task forces on the battlefield in the future.

We also reaffirmed our belief that a crisis-response force has to be versatile, flexible, and adaptable, based on our ability to task-organize our force and operate from the sea.

Not all the lessons of the last 10 years relate to Iraq and Afghanistan. While doing those missions, we were still operating from the sea and doing many traditional crisis-response and engagement operations from the sea common to Marines. At the peak of the year, not only did we have 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan, we also had 10,000 Marines operating from sea bases around the world, doing a wide range of crisis response.

We also found we didn’t necessarily need the headquarters structure we had developed, so we eliminated some 21 headquarters. We then used some of that manpower to create what we felt was really needed out there – the ability to have a MEB [Marine Expeditionary Brigade] headquarters to support the combatant commander [COCOM] and enable the employment of the Marine Corps as the nation’s expeditionary force in readiness.

To what extent does the FSR reset the Corps to a more traditional Marine maritime mode?

That’s a hard question to answer because I believe, even though we were heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, we never left our ability to operate from the sea. I think the concern was our ability to do larger-scale sea-based ops – we didn’t have the forces, ships, or time available to do that. And that is a skill set that is important to have within the force.

We can’t forget our maritime soul. What we bring to the joint force that is unique is not just our expeditionary force in readiness or crisis-response capability, but our ability to operate from the sea.

How does the Force Structure Review address the changes – in technology, in types of combat, in potential adversaries and even in allies – in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 world?


A sea-based MTVR rolls off the USNS 2nd Lt. John P. Bobo in Souda Bay, Greece, as part of Maritime Pre-positioning Force Offload 2009. The exercise was conducted by Marines and sailors of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and other participating units in order to test and refine the logistics of providing a robust forward presence in its area of operations. U.S. Navy photo

The review recognized that, whether dealing with a state or non-state actor, they will bring both sophisticated, symmetrical capabilities to the battlefield as well as asymmetrical capabilities. So you have to have a force that is well trained, well led, and has modern equipment to deal with both threats.

That requires you to build in both simple and sophisticated capabilities in both your offensive and defensive modes. You have to be able to counter homemade explosives, but also the very sophisticated high-tech precision missile that may be coming your way.

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. And pose challenges to potential adversaries by expanding our maneuver space and complicating their ability to network and to target us.

What will a post-Force Structure Review implementation Marine Corps look like – in terms of equipment, training, composition, missions – compared to the current 2011 Corps or the Corps as it stood in 1999?

Obviously, the force that existed in 1999 is what we built today’s force on. Today’s force values protection in its mobility assets due to threats from IEDs. In the future, you will see a more networked, spread out force and our ability to lighten the footprint of the MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force].

One thing that came out of the review was looking at our tables of equipment [TOE], baselining our deploying battalions with a crisis-response TOE, but also having the ability to heavy up those units by prepositioning equipment on land or a newly operationalized MPF [maritime prepositioning force] capability, where we can put the heavy items – MRAPs [mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles], armored vehicles – at sea, for example, where a unit with a crisis TOE could quickly heavy up to go into a larger threat environment.

That happened to an extent when we took 26th MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit], 3rd Battalion, off the ship and sent them into Afghanistan, where they took advantage of the MEU augmentation package we had prepositioned in the Gulf and were able to move into combat in less than 30 days.

The fact we’re adding the T-AKE [dry cargo and ammunition ship] to the existing MPF squadrons will allow us to do selective offload of the MPF ships. And adding the MLP [Mobile Landing Platform amphibious logistics ship] to each of those squadrons will enable us to do this kit-up without pulling into port. That takes advantage of a good operational capability already available and takes it to a new level of efficiency and effectiveness.

Broadly speaking, what is Ship To Objective Maneuver (STOM), as employed by 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. The new equipment we’ve been fielding, whether our V/STOL [vertical/short takeoff and landing] aircraft 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, for example, as part of a four-year MCWFL [Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory] program, we experimented with company-level landing teams. And we just recently published an update that laid out our way ahead with STOM.

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 the blending of 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.

Does STOM represent any significant change from the way the MEUs and MAGTF have operated in the past?

Landing Craft Air Cushion

A Landing Craft Air Cushion assigned to Beach Master Unit 1, based at Naval Air Base Coronado, breaks the surf off Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., as a formation of CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163 fly overhead during Dawn Blitz 10. The exercise was a series of amphibious operations involving sailors and Marines to reinvigorate the core competency of amphibious operations and enhance interaction between the Navy and the Marine Corps. U.S. Navy photo

I think the Marine Corps tends to evolve rather than have revolutions, which is the nature of a crisis-response force that fights today while looking not to be surprised tomorrow. We’re out-of-the-box thinkers, but we’re applying that thinking to both today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields. In that way, we provide a hedge against being strategically or operationally surprised.

I see STOM 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 offloaded tanks from a large ship to an MLP-type vessel in sea state 3.5 a hundred miles off the coast. That’s a dramatic change because it means we don’t need a port any more.

What, if any, new equipment – including ships – or training will STOM require, for both Marines and sailors?

The MLPs are being built now. We’ve done great work with ONR [Office of Naval Research] on developing the ramp to connect the larger ships to the MLP and doing selective offloads without having to do a typical dense pack on a cargo ship.

How is the STOM concept affected by the increased range, payload, and maneuverability of the new MV-22 Osprey, the UH-1Y Venom, AH-1Z Viper, and CH-53K helicopters, the KC-130J Super Hercules, and, of course, the F-35B/C Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)?

Not only does the STOM concept let you use the sea more, with the increased range and speed of those platforms to get to land, you definitely complicate any adversary’s ability because you’re not limited to operating on the horizon and can go deep. The whole idea of STOM is to seek advantage in maneuver, to go where the enemy is not. We’re not always looking for a head-to-head engagement; our preference is to outmaneuver the enemy and get into a position of strategic or situational advantage. That’s what STOM is trying to do – help us outmaneuver the enemy.

Speaking of the JSF, how will STOM be affected by the presence of 11 large-deck amphibious ships carrying fifth-generation F-35B STOVL fighters, alongside 11 Navy carriers with Navy and Marine Corps F-35Cs?

When you have V/STOL aircraft on large-deck amphibs, you create 22 platforms carrying fifth-generation fighters, which gives you not only capability at the high end of the conflict, but puts you in position to effectively respond to those likely contingencies you need to respond to day to day. I think you saw that with the Harriers [AV-8B jump jets] being among the first on the scene in Libya. And you saw STOM on a small scale with the recovery of the downed Air Force pilot.

You put together a recovery package of transport and strike aircraft and ground maneuver forces, then go in deep, go in quick, and come back out, basically executing STOM on a very small scale. But it illustrates the art of the possible.

What role do you expect unmanned platforms to play in the evolution of STOM?

I think unmanned platforms will look at all the functions of air platforms. There will be great ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] platforms, from imagery to SIGINT [signals intelligence], along with the potential to be communications and strike platforms. So I see a wide range of potential missions of UAS [unmanned aerial systems] of various sizes. The question is, can you afford all that?

With all of the ongoing modernization and transformation of the Corps – from new ships and aircraft to MARSOC and Cyber Command, the Force Structure Review, STOM, etc. – what roles and missions do you see for the Marine Corps in the decades to come?

AV-8B Harrier Operation Odyssey Dawn

A Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s AV-8B Harrier jump jet returns to USS Kearsarge for fuel and ammunition resupply while conducting air strikes in support of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, March 20, 2011. Odyssey Dawn is the U.S. Africa Command task force established to provide operational and tactical command and control of U.S. military forces supporting the international response to the unrest in Libya and enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973. UNSCR 1973 authorizes all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya under threat of attack by Gaddafi regime forces. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Michael S. Lockett

When we started the FSR, the first question we answered was what will be the role of the Marine Corps within the joint force. And the answer was to be the crisis-response force, the expeditionary force in readiness. We then went about determining what capabilities were needed, then created the structure for that.

And we looked at what the future battlefield will demand, so we increased capacity in certain occupation specialties and organizations we felt would be needed. That’s why high-density, low-demand MOS [military occupational speciality], after the FSR, will become high-demand, right-density MOS, primarily in intel, communications, and logistical support units. We also changed the logistics structure of the Marine Corps, with dedicated logistics organizations that will have habitual relationships with the units they support.

We added an additional UAS capability to the aviation side, because we see the growing role of UAS – more evolutionary than transformational or revolutionary; not the end of manned flight, because I believe we’re decades away from that.

In the cyber environment, we said network ops are key to battlefield operations in the future, so we made prudent investments in that.

When MARSOC was stood up, they initially were designed to operate with the MEU, which is where they would get their combat support and combat service support, but that’s not the way they have been deployed. Now recognizing they will operate independently, we resourced about 1,000 combat service support personnel to handle their needs.

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.

Do you expect the next quarter century to be a continuation of the past decade, fighting an amorphous enemy as opposed to a traditional state military, as we planned for during the Cold War – or is there still potential out there for a head-on clash with another nation?

If you see what is going on today, with the complexity and uncertainty of the environment, I don’t expect that to change in the next 10 to 15 years. We see things happening today that were unexpected six months ago. I don’t think anyone would have been anticipating Egypt without [Hosni] Mubarak as president or what is happening in Libya or Syria; it just wasn’t on our radar.

Is there a potential for conflict with a near-peer or peer competitor?

It’s always possible, although who that might be would be pure speculation. A couple of years ago, [Maj. Gen. Robert Scales (Ret.), former commandant of the Army War College] said we will never get the future 100 percent right, but we cannot afford to be 100 percent wrong. And that’s what we have to guard against, an uncertain and unpredictable future. So you have to make sure you have the flexibility and adaptability to deal with whatever comes over the horizon.

What do you consider the most significant efforts the Marine Corps has put out in the past year or so?

Clearly the major focus has been on the FSR, standing up Cyber Command and continual responses to the urgent requirements of operational forces engaged in Afghanistan. In addition, their families back home remain our No. 1 priority. Our response to urgent needs on the battlefield has been a team effort, from MCCDC, SYSCOM [Systems Command], industry, and others in meeting some of the emerging and emergency needs on the battlefield. And I would say that is working pretty darned well.

How does the FSR deal with the coming downsizing of the Corps?

The commandant’s guidance to the FSR was to develop the capabilities and capacity, then determine the force structure requirements, which came out to 186,800 Marines. Part of our current process is to make sure, as we do draw down, we don’t break faith with the Marines who have volunteered to serve or their families – and from everything I’ve seen so far, that is doable.

Any final thoughts?

How to equip the future force is a key issue for the Force Structure Review, as are STOM and cyber, 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 first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.



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