“We are not a second land army, nor do we aspire to be anything other than the world’s premier naval expeditionary force.“

General David Berger’s “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” (CPG) may be one of the most ambitious such documents in Marine Corps history.  It envisions sweeping changes in Marine Corps structure and doctrine, carrying it both into the future, and harking back towards traditions that have long since fallen by the wayside.

The above statement goes right into the heart of the document.  Although the Marines have a well-established tradition as counter-insurgency specialists, going back to the Banana Wars of the 20s and 30s, Berger clearly feels that the last two decades of deployments in the Middle East and Central Asia have caused the service to drift too far in that direction and forget their naval heritage — their identity as Marines.  He seems to be saying, “the U.S. does not need two armies.  We need to focus on what makes us unique if we are going to stay relevant.”

This is exactly what the 26-page document strives to outline: how the Fleet Marine Force can make itself most relevant to the naval warfare of the 21st century.  In doing so, it takes some surprising turns, some of them novel and some startlingly traditional.  Hand in hand with this, Berger seeks to address how the Marine Corps will survive and successfully operate in peer conflicts, in light of the transformation of the Chinese and Russian forces, specifically the proliferation of precision fires, electronic warfare, and unmanned platforms.  All four services are struggling to play catch-up after years of focusing on opponents who possessed little capability in these areas.  Berger is looking to put the Marines at the cutting edge of this reform by suggesting that nothing in the Marine Corps structure of today will be held sacred.  Legacy systems and organizations that do not show immediate relevance to current threat environments are to be discarded without remorse.

To achieve these intertwined goals, he underlines three nested doctrinal concepts: Distributed Operations, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EAB).


Distributed Operations

This is the base concept, the foundation upon which the other two rest.  Distributed Operations is the concept that essentially says that in the face of precision firepower Marines must disperse to survive.  Specifically, it suggests that the old standard of the company as the basic maneuver element must give way to autonomously operating platoons and even squads.  This entails pushing more of the decision-making burden further down the chain-of-command, and giving subordinates more direct access to data and direction of support.  The new 15-man rifle squad represents the most basic level of this transformation.

The 15-man squad, which 2/8 Marines will be deploying within the year, is a reversal of Neller’s earlier 12-man squad proposal, a concept that came up short in testing.  The new squad is much like a traditional 13-Marine squad. It features a squad leader and three 4-Marine teams. In it the new M27 automatic rifle, M38 designate marksman rifle and M320 grenade launcher will be taking the places of the old M4, M249, and M203 — to that will be added the new Squad Common Optic that allows for simpler operation and enhanced clarity.  What the new squad adds is an assistant squad leader and a squad systems operator, the latter bringing a quadcopter Instant Eye UAV.

Significantly greater use of unmanned systems is a major component of Berger’s vision. This will increase the odds of winning the crucial battle of sensing and engaging first by deploying higher-resolution sensors in a low-signature high mobility aerial platform.  Initial testing of Instant Eye in wargames has shown promise, with armor-heavy opposing forces often oblivious to its ubiquitous presence, thereby allowing the infantry to observe its enemies in safety. Additionally, unmanned systems give the enemy more targets to track and destroy, thus placing a greater burden on their sensing capability and firepower, and making living Marines less likely to be the recipients of that fire.  This also gives the squad greater autonomy and maneuver.

The assistant squad leader becomes the squad’s headquarters element.  While the squad leader concentrates on maneuvering the teams and the first team leader focuses solely on the team leader’s role, the assistant squad leader will coordinate comms, and direct supporting fire, thus being a sort of junior forward observer.  Individual squads operating autonomously will now be able to direct their own support from manned and unmanned aircraft, artillery, and ships, giving them the ability to operate as more than a mere speed-bump to larger and heavier enemy forces.

The numbers of unmanned aircraft will be increased at higher echelons as well, and the CPG hints that the Marine Corps may decrease its personnel size in favor of increasing high-technology components like UAVs and of adding recruits with the aptitude for operating them.  The document stresses that quality, not quantity, is desired in Marine personnel, and that entry standards, training and education, discipline and professionalism must all be improved to create a force that is adapted to the 21st century battlefield.


Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations

This concept builds off of Distributed Operations, by deploying small units of Marines in numerous forward operating bases in strategic areas.  These forward operations bases will provide a variety of functions, in support of successful area naval operations, including serving as observation posts, airfields for manned and unmanned aircraft, refueling stations, and — in the revival of an idea long discarded in the U.S. — as coastal artillery. Coastal artillery — the premise of land-based fire support designed to engage hostile naval elements and landing forces alike — never fell out of favor with Russia and China, with the former deploying some particularly formidable examples in places like Sevastopol.  The U.S., however, has largely eschewed the concept since the end of WWII.  Berger, as part of making the Marine Corps relevant to naval operations, wants to bring it back through the use of High Mobility Rocket System (HIMARS) vehicles that will be equipped with SSMs capable of engaging enemy warships.  As part of this concept, EABs are expected to achieve more than 350 nautical mile multispectrum observation radii, thus creating maritime control zones that will operate in support of friendly naval elements.  Unmanned platforms, supported by small numbers of personnel, are expected to be the primary component of EABs.

Implicit in this is the admission that China’s heavy investment into land-based sea defense in the form of missiles and aircraft does indeed pose a serious threat to U.S. fleets attempting to operate inside their range; and that for U.S. forces to be successful in the Pacific, they will need to be equally well-supported.

Also implied is that the U.S. intends to try to contain Chinese expansion in the Pacific by the deployment of such bases as trip-wire forces on contested islands belonging to U.S. allies. This will seek to “confront adversaries below the threshold of conflict” — a considerably more direct and confrontational approach than what the Freedom of Navigation Operations have undertaken so far.

A third insight to be gleaned is that the last administration’s “Pivot to the Pacific” dogma is alive and well in Marine Corps strategic calculations.  Indeed, the paper specifically designates the Indo-Pacific and III MEF as the new focal point of Marine Corps operations. While emphasizing that the Corps will continue to make significant contributions to other theatres, it is in this theatre and in the implied confrontation with China that Berger envisions the Marine Corps’ abilities to be most relevant. As the paper is supposed to outline the Marine Corps of the next 25 years, it also reveals what will be the expected area of major strategic focus in the coming generation.


Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment

This last one seems like a traditional Marine specialty, but it contains some surprises too.  For one, the Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG), built around large LHA/LHDs, LPDs and LSDs, are now seen as too vulnerable to brave by themselves the proliferation of precision fire. Where applicable, the paper envisions screens of drones and other support from nearby EABs protecting these ARGs; but it also recognizes that in the most contested spaces this will not be enough.  Instead, Berger wants to disperse Marine landing forces amongst smaller ships, accepting that in a contested landing, some will be hit by enemy fire, and that enough must make it through to get Marines ashore. In addition, a larger collection of lower-signature platforms will be harder to target in the first place. Manned ships will be augmented by long-range unmanned surface vessels (LRUSVs), some of them submersible and acting as scouts, escorts, and sustainment support vessels to the group. The paper even hints that civilian vessels may be used if sufficient purpose-built naval vessels are not available.

Again, the clear implication is that the missile saturation doctrine favored by Russia and China represent serious threats to U.S. Naval forces, and that the Marine Corps is pursuing drastic changes to survive in the face of that.

However, this is not the only way Berger seeks to make the Marines more relevant to naval operations.  In a startling return to their heritage as shipboard warriors, the CPG warns that Marines cannot remain mere passengers aboard a ship, but must become active and useful members of the crew from port to destination.  Greater familiarity with naval operations is to be encouraged from all officers, and those who have obtained or are candidates for the rank of Brigadier General will now attend the Navy Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander Course to better allow them to integrate their operations.  Other roles the Marines are looking at expanding to include riverine forces, naval construction, and mine countermeasure forces — all areas the Navy has traditionally handled by itself.

“Critical to warfighting success in environments characterized by distributed operations across wide expanses of the battlespace is an effective and resilient command and control system. Our communications nodes will be hunted and targeted. Careless and unmanaged signatures will invite destruction. We require interoperable, low signature, secure communications.”

Targeting and disruption of command and control was taken as a given in the Cold War, but this sensibility fell by the wayside in the following decades.  The CPG recognizes that the U.S. C3I network is no longer suitable for or sustainable in the face of these kinds of threats, and seeks to add lower signature comms and sensor systems that will be protected by more robust air defense.  In support of this, a more streamlined and organized approach to wargaming is being undertaken, with an emphasis on teaching officers to be making decisions, not applying rote formulas, and to be taking and seizing the initiative at all costs.  While the U.S. has paid lip-service to such Augtragstaktik-derived concepts for decades, the CPG demands that Marine education and wargaming make a greater effort in actually inculcating these principles in Marine leaders, all the more so as they may be operating far from support and out of touch with higher echelons.

The paper does not stop at taking the Marine Corps to task for tactical-operational shortcomings. The CPG also notes that hazing, drug use, and sexual assault not only remain serious problems but are actually on the rise and that these are major obstacles to recruiting and retaining the kind of smart, tech-savvy Marines that the new doctrine demands, admitting the well-known fact that the smartest Marines leave in droves after their first term.  Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the paper, which presents innovative conceptual answers to current operational challenges, the CPG offers no solution to these issues, other than the usual demand for more and better leadership, and no tolerance for offenders.  Just how serious these problems have become, and how they will affect the Marine Corps’ envisioned transformation remains to be seen.

Taken as a whole, the paper represents a revolutionary change in Marine doctrine and a refreshingly realistic appraisal of the threat offered by great power rivals.  Change is hard for any military organization; and whether the Marine Corps is up to the challenges that Berger is outlining will have to be revealed in the future.

But this is surely one of the most imaginative and forward-thinking documents to come out of the U.S. military in recent years.


Editor’s note: This article was written by Rune Scott.