Missions, MAGTFs, Force Design & Change

by Col Michael R. Kennedy, USMC (Ret.)

What’s wrong with this picture?

Did anyone notice?… Did anyone notice but me that the Marine Corps, through some esoteric process involving smoke-filled, back room drug-deals (aka- Force Design), just created a new triumvirate fighting organization that has virtually NO AVIATION? NO AVIATORS? and NO ACE COMMANDER? Yes, the same USMC that for years has finagled, lobbied, and stonewalled JFACCs and JFMCCs alike that the MAGTF is inviolate, just dismantled it from the inside. By eliminating the ACE, they showed that Marine aviation really isn’t as integral as we always said it was and that our sorties are basically interchangeable with any other service sorties…

Or at least that’s how it felt…

Instead, let’s look at what really happened and what these changes portend for the future of Marine aviation and, perhaps, the Marine Corps.

This article will examine the following questions:

  • What threat or environmental changes necessitated the changes to (or, in the opinion of some pundits, the abandonment of) the MAGTF?
  • What did Force Design actually change?
  • What does the MPSR mean to the future of Marine aviation…of aviation in general?
  • What do these potential changes to aviation mean to the future of the Marine Corps as an institution with a niche within the National Defense Strategy?

This article does not presume to have all the answers, but rather seeks to pose a few questions that may spur discussion, lead to further experimentation, and result in innovations which might ensure our relevancy for the remainder of the 21st century.

Basic Tenets & Doctrine

From day one, Marines are taught that “Every Marine is a Rifleman.” It is stenciled on our foreheads even before we get our first haircut. Everything we are taught is focused on what the Marine on the ground is doing and what he needs to “close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver…”

So, it follows that for aviators and those Marines who grew up under the MAGTF banner, the corollary to this adage is– “Marines always fight as an Air-Ground Team.” For all normal circumstances, the MAGTF is virtually inviolate. No one supports our ground units like our own organic Marine aviation and logistics forces. Our training begins together and is focused on one thing- rapid response, expeditionary ops using combined arms (and logistics) to win battles. We are not a second ground Army; we are mandated to be the Nation’s 911 Force-in-Readiness and provide deterrence, buy decision space (time) and enable access for follow-on forces. We win battles because we are more tightly integrated than any other military force on this planet. Period. It is essential that our aviation assets be tightly interwoven to give us both the mobility and the firepower necessary to prevail. We are not a large force therefore we must maintain both our lethality as well as our agility. This method of operating has become so important that we even have joint doctrine that recognizes our differences from other services. Formerly known as the Omnibus Agreement and then codified into Joint doctrine (JP1), JFCs are enjoined to normally allow Marine aviation to fight as part of the MAGTF, rather than routinely be broken up into piecemeal sorties, and randomly tasked via the JFACC ATO process. While we do support the JFC (and its subordinate functional commanders), this has generally been as an integrated Task Force (MAGTF) vice a scattered collection of sorties or capability sets. Our synergy makes us more valuable as a whole than as individual pieces. Combined arms has been our bedrock…at least up until recently.

What has changed? MPSR & A2AD   

Although it seemed as if it happened overnight, the last several years has seen the exponential rise of long-range weapon systems meant to dissuade U.S. (and other allied) power projection forces from intervention in regional affairs. Driven by increases in relatively affordable technologies, the accuracy and range of these new weapons (and sensors) has increased to the point of warranting a new moniker– “Mature Precision Strike Regimes (MPSR).” And, given these new capabilities, near-peer countries have leveraged the threat of these weapons into anti-access, area denial (A2AD) strategies. This has resulted in a significant change in the risk equation for projecting power and maintaining world order (supposedly, our bread and butter). With such substantial increases in the accuracy and ranges of land-based missiles (both ballistic and cruise), MPSR has created a virtual “No Go” zone for high-value, easily targetable forces such as carriers and naval amphibs brimming with MAGTF firepower. This perceived disparity is exacerbated when examined in comparison to U.S. missile ranges (Figure [1]). In short, MPSR has limited our power projection forces from influencing (or deterring) anyone (who possesses MPSR) because our forces can’t get close enough to the littorals without incurring (potentially) unacceptable levels of risk. Enabled by multitudes of sensors mounted on low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites (both military and commercial) and long-range manned and unmanned platforms (UxS), these MPSRs have effectively neutralized the relative value of our power projection forces. With new sensors mapping the earth every few hours, it is akin to trying to hide our fleets in the middle of a desert with no trees to hide under… Even the expanse of the world’s oceans can no longer disguise the approach of forces the size of our expeditionary strike groups.

Figure [1]. US & Chinese Long-Range Missile Comparisons

While technologies to “hide” or successfully “defend” against MPSRs are evolving as well, this “Hider-Finder” competition currently (and heavily) favors the “Finders” and the “Shooters” (over the “Hiders” and “Defenders”) (See Figure [2]). In the meantime, HVAs such as amphibs and carriers cannot risk being targeted when so few of these ships actually exist. The drastic improvements in range (especially for anti-ship missiles), have even outstripped the ranges of embarked aviation platforms meant to protect the very ships that carry them. Adding insult to injury, once you calculate the cost of a single long-range anti-ship missile versus the cost of the potential loss of a carrier or amphib (and their embarked crews and aircraft), the deterrence effect is magnified even more significantly.

Figure [2]. Hider-Finder/Shooter-Defender Considerations

This virtual “no go” zone has necessitated that the U.S. integrate and employ two types of forces- 1) Outside forces- those high value targets that can only enter these MPSR weapons engagement zones (WEZs) under specific conditions and for limited time frames, and, 2) Inside forces. Inside forces (also called Stand-in Forces or SIF) are those smaller, dispersed, more agile forces that aren’t easily targeted by large long-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles, but can serve as sensors and weapons operators deep inside these protected zones (WEZs) (Figure [3]). To adequately support operational constructs of this type, Force Design was unleashed to properly man, train and equip Marine “inside forces” to partially negate the effectiveness of MPSR and its resultant anti-intervention effects.

Figure [3]. A2AD and MPSR vs. Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO)

Sanity Check: The MPSR threat (long-range missiles and their “Finder” assets, such as satellites and long-range radars) described herein, are currently limited to near-peer competitors. Additionally, these are not 100% Pk (probability of kill, or in this case, also detection) zones. Rather, they reflect the significantly increased risk for traditional power projection forces. Nevertheless, the future is clear: these technologies will continue to proliferate until lesser powers and non-state actors (such as terrorist organizations) have the ability to see and shoot at ranges that push U.S. power projection forces outside ranges from which they can adequately respond without incurring undue risk. Until “Hider” and “Defender” technologies improve, the “Finders” and (especially shore-based) “Shooters” have the advantage. Thus, we are presented with the conundrum of creating new warfighting organizations and concepts that will excel in this vision of the future (in addition to spending even more money buying requisite equipment that is somewhat unique to these environments). At the same time, we must continue to perform our primary missions in today’s operating environment. Therefore, what investments in new equipment and technology are essential for us to remain viable (LAW, Medium Altitude, Long Endurance UxS)? What sacrifices to fund them will prohibit us from performing our current mission sets (divestiture of tanks, fixed and rotary wing aircraft, infantry manning)? 

How have we changed? Force Design

Instead of utilizing existing MAGTF structure, Force Design created the Marine Littoral Regiment, a slightly different, four-pronged organization with a Command Element, a Littoral Combat Team (LCT- with an infantry/rocket core), a Littoral Logistics Battalion (LLB- a logistics unit akin to a MEUs Combat Logistics Battalion), and a LAAB (a Littoral Anti-air Battalion) (See Figure [4]). The LAAB has elements of both Aviation Ground Support (airfield and aviation ground support such as fuel, ordnance, etc.) as well as aviation C2 support (modular MACCS agencies, ATC, Comms squadron support and a ground-based air defense capability [GBAD]). Notice that there are no aircraft or winged aviators in this list.

Figure [4]. Light Anti-Air Battalion (LAAB) as an element of the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) (Notional)

This was partially done because the MLR (and thus, the LAAB) must be able to operate under the threat of these long-range A2AD WEZs. This “inside” organization must be small enough so as to be difficult to acquire, agile enough to confuse adversary targeting solutions, and yet have sufficient capabilities to serve as the forward-most sensors for their originating strike groups. By employing sensors (active and passive) and select weapons, the MLR can influence the battlespace, deter adversary fait accompli actions, and shorten US response times for hostile activity that is observed. In essence, the MLR will serve to provide extended Sea Control (and potentially Sea Denial) for the JFMCC/Naval Task Force. Acting as an extension of the CWC construct, the LAAB will not actually command organic aircraft (other than possibly UxS), but will likely be under the tasking of warfare commanders such as the ADC (Air Defense Commander) and the SUWC (the Surface Warfare Commander) under the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC); all primarily naval officers. While they may support operations at expeditionary air bases and FARPs, participating aircraft will be commanded by Outside force warfare commanders. The MLR may be assigned battlespace, but so far, it does not appear there are plans to routinely assign Marine aircraft to the MLR.

The MLR in Context

To examine the MLR in a bit more context, it is envisioned that these Littoral Teams will deploy to islands, coastlines and observations posts along chokepoints where their networked sensors (G/ATOR) and weapons (NSM) can surveil the air and surface (and, potentially subsurface) waterways. The timing of their insertion is implied to be in the “competition” phase before hostilities start. The duration of their stay is less clear, and potentially challenging as resupply over long distances under existing WEZs will be challenging (Light Amphibious Warships [LAWs] or not). Host nation support (if it exists) will be critical as will prepositioned supplies and even “foraging.” The MLR purpose will be to observe and prevent any “grey zone” activities that lead to fait accompli actions. In some cases, it is presumed that they may be the “trigger” that shifts the status from competition to conflict if any premature hostile acts are directed towards their positions. While there are significant questions about their ability to influence any significant amount of battlespace (due to the limited range of their organic sensors and weapons), their true purpose is “deterrence by detection.” Once hostilities commence, some have postulated that these hard to target positions will help complicate the adversary’s targeting plans as well as potentially deplete their magazines of long range missiles that could be used against HVAs (Outside forces) on missions inside the WEZ. The multi-variate calculus problem is this: Are the sacrifices in structure, aviation and personnel worth the return on investment for new units that can be used in very specific locations for very specific timeframes across very focused battlespaces? Will our ability to perform Force in Readiness missions across the globe (where MSPR doesn’t yet exist and may not for many years) compromise our ability to conduct power projection, and the myriad of missions and tasks that we have performed through the last two centuries? There is no doubt that MPSR will one day require small, yet highly-networked teams of infiltrators to enable long-range IRST in support of power projection enabling missions, supported by mostly by long-range unmanned platforms (UAS) and missiles. But it seems those days are far off…  Again, this is an optimization calculus problem with many variables, and no one has seen the homework. Perhaps this was by design, but I think we need a vision and a timeline of our modernization efforts to show how the Marine Corps will fill its niche in the NDS.

Given the digital interoperability challenges of operating disparate networks across enormous distances under DDIL (Degraded, Denied, Intermittent, and/or Limited) conditions, the Marine Air Command and Control System (MACCS- represented within the LAAB) is the perfect organization to manage the assets traversing its battlespace during distributed operations. They are the only organization with the C2 systems and training to orchestrate 3-D battlespace management as well the integration of joint and combined long-range sensors and fires and, with augmentation, information and cyber capabilities. However, given the probability that follow-on forces might build into a power projection leading element, it might make sense to have a more robust ACE presence, especially if Marine aviation units will be performing both CWC and MAGTF-enabling mission sets. 

Seemingly always the last to be mentioned are those Marines upon whom we all depend- Logisticians. And, in this discussion, aviation ground support provided by MWSS assets (also within the LAAB) may have the most challenging mission- Supporting distributed aviation operations from extreme distances under existing WEZs and still remaining mobile and agile. Do we have the organic assets to move this amount of material and supplies (think- fuel, ordnance, spare parts, etc.) without being targeted by adversary MPSR assets? Will the LAW or any other naval surface asset be able to support this mission given the long distances and the MPSR threat (as well as the current “Hider” and “Defender” limitations)?

If MPSR continues, what happens to USMC aviation and the MAGTF?

As discussed earlier, MPSR is currently limited to near-peer competitors. However, given the exponential rate of technological advancement (removing cost as an inhibitor to their inevitable proliferation), it won’t be long before many third world countries will acquire these weapons, as will non-state actors and terrorist organizations. And, unless Hider and Defender technologies (such as stealth, on-board jamming systems, AI-enabled missile defenses, etc.) make a strong comeback (at a more affordable price), what becomes of Marine aviation? Even with stealth, range alone becomes a non-starter given the disparate abilities of land-based ballistic missiles compared to manned aircraft, even those based aboard carriers. Only long-range unmanned aircraft systems become a viable option. Finally, as AI-enabled air defense systems become activated, then manned aircraft may truly become obsolete.

What do these changes do to the MAGTF?

First, how will the MAGTF get to the fight? How will the Navy ever justify or mitigate the potential risks of littoral operations to disembark Marines as part of a power projection mission? Will this eliminate concentrated power projection platforms? Can power projection be done in a more “distributed” fashion? Can we rely on “Hider” or “Defender” technologies to save the day?

Additionally, the “Air”- Ground Team will by necessity, have a new look. While there will always be an air component, it will eventually be (mostly, if not completely) unmanned. OAS, air refueling, reconnaissance, and EW can all be done using unmanned platforms. Assault support (troop transport) will likely be the final hurdle for unmanned aviation. How long before small, highly-networked infantry teams man “Tesla-like” automated air transports for covert insertions supported by swarms of unmanned OAS and anti-air drones?  The MAGTF of the future will be different but must maintain the same focus on mission accomplishment for our “boots on the ground.” The question is- who will re-architect the integration of unmanned aviation platforms into the “new” MAGTF construct ensuring that it is fully integrated with other long-range fires (rockets and missiles) as well as non-kinetic fires such as OIE, cyber and EW? While the MACCS is rapidly preparing to provide multi-domain C2 and fires integration of this new environment, does the Marine Corps have the maneuver, logistics, and fires/sensor assets to affect battlespace of this magnitude? Can we afford these capabilities and NOT affect our ability to conduct operations in today’s environment? How long before this new environment becomes the norm?

Lest we fear that our service is the only one subject to the fickle threats of change- Other than submarines, missiles, and satellites, what vessels or aircraft will the Navy and Air Force be able to operate? How long before even the carriers are obsolete due to their inherent signatures?

Change, it seems, will affect everyone.

Without organic aviation, what differentiates the Marine Corps?

Ironically, with the transformation of Marine Air, so also goes a part of our Marine Corps’ “identity.” Instead of the Air-Ground Team, what configurations and mission sets will differentiate the Marine Corps as a separate service? How does the USMC distinguish itself in terms of roles and missions? Previously, our hallmarks had been teamwork, esprit de corps, combined arms, deep integration of ground, logistics and aviation to project power more rapidly than any other force on the planet… Now what?  What will our role be in a world of unmanned systems, hyper-sonic missiles and AI-enabled integrated air defenses (IADs)? What does the future of combined arms look like? Is there an AI-enabled, multi-domain C2 model that can successfully merge distributed kill webs of aviation, fires, and information and, still not be held hostage to the connectivity challenges of a DDIL environment? Can the Marine Corps rapidly deploy with such a C2 capability? Will we be able to count on space-based systems to survive long enough to deliver support to small, highly-networked combined-arms infantry teams that infiltrate and operate below the level of surveillance sensor granularity? If not, what then, will separate us from the Army? or Special Forces?

Summary

Much like the change that caused it, Force Design was necessary and inevitable. While you may not agree with how it has unfolded so far (especially given the impacts of its priorities, timing, and effects on current mission preparedness), advancements in technology have fundamentally changed our operating environment.

MPSR has increased the threat to traditional power projection forces and conveyances,

The range (and accuracy) of MPSR ballistic missiles has outstripped even embarked aviation,

Unmanned systems (both air and sea) will eventually outnumber and replace manned platforms,

The MAGTF Air-Ground Team will change but the relationship between “boots on the ground” and supporting arms (rockets, missiles, kinetic, cyber, OIE and multi-spectral) must be even more integrated, and allow for faster decisionmaking than our adversaries,

The roles and missions of the Marine Corps must always include rapid response, expeditionary operations that deter adversaries, buy decision space (time to decide and act), and enable follow-on forces.

The nature of combined arms and the close integration of aviation, fires, information and maneuver are evolving as rapidly as the increasing number of floating-point operations being performed on computer chips each year. It is exponential. As such, the slow-moving tectonic plates of funding sources, advocacy turf wars and traditional stovepipes must give way to innovation that mirrors the boldness of our amphibious doctrine of the pre-WWII years.

What hasn’t changed is the mission of the Marine Corps. Although we may not arrive to the fight in the same amphibs as we are familiar with, and although we probably won’t be organized like we have been for the last 50 years, our mandate is the same:  Be the Nation’s 911 Force-in-Readiness, able to perform expeditionary mission sets to win battles, deter aggression, buy time and gain access. How that is done, is up to us. As the threat shifts, aviation evolves, and the nature of power projection changes, we too must change. Let’s agree on the fact that change is inevitable. Instead of criticizing, let’s work together to figure out what our Nation requires of us, then– FIND SOLUTIONS that enable us to accomplish our assigned missions- both in the reality of NOW as well as the rapidly approaching FUTURE. As Marines, we must continue to innovate and overcome or risk becoming irrelevant.


Pertinent Questions for Force Design Considerations

  • Are the divestitures in force structure sufficient to acquire the necessary ships, sensors, weapons, and C2 gear to enable EABO? Is the NSM/NMESIS the right weapon for MLR Sea Control? Range?
  • What if the Navy doesn’t build a LAW-like capability in time to deter China? How do we get to the fight? Will we be able to deter near-peer competitors? Was all of this for naught?
  • What demonstrated capabilities will DETER near-peer adversaries? Will the MLR have the resources to deter adversaries outside of the South China Sea? Other locations?
  • What risk does the Marine Corps take in anticipated conventional operations by not having the force structure already divested? Can we still be the 911 Force-in-Readiness or have the cuts been too deep? How long before this “new MPSR operating environment” becomes the norm?
  • How do we mitigate shortfalls in traditional firepower and structure, while waiting for MPSR to proliferate? More loitering munitions, more anti-armor capability? More UAS/UCAV?
  • Do events in Ukraine validate either perspective or are there mitigating circumstances?
  • How quickly will MPSR capabilities be acquired by less-than-peer states and organizations?
  • Will current USN ship defenses be able to defeat MPSR weapons such as- hypersonic weapons, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, etc.? …in what numbers?
  • If not, how will Power Projection forces be able to get close enough to deliver enough forces (mass) to project power (troops, equipment, sustainment)?
  • If not, what is the smallest ship/unit footprint (size, signature) that could enter an MPSR WEZ and be reasonably expected to survive/succeed?
  • Can power projection be done by infiltration with highly networked infantry with access to long range weapons and sensors?
  • Will LEO satellites be vulnerable to ASAT? Other Satellites? Laser dazzling? Space debris?
  • Will forward deployed bases/units/equipment be vulnerable? Even if hardened?
  • How deep must an adversary’s long-range weapon magazines be to overwhelm strike group defenses?
  • How long before MPSR weapons are accessible to non-state actors (terrorists) and less-than-peer state actors? What about UCAV and loitering munitions (already happened)?
  • At what point will USN ships judge the risk as acceptable to penetrate MPSR WEZs to off-load Power Projection forces?
  • Will manned (or even MUM-T) aviation have the range to penetrate land-based long range air defenses? If not, will UAS? Will sea-based ballistic missiles or loitering munitions (forms of UAS) overtake aviation as platform of choice in initial stages of Power Projection missions?
  • Are current UAS capabilities (range, sensors, comms, endurance) sufficient to screen, scout, and conduct Sea Control, Sea Denial missions apart from the CSG/ESG/MOC (range, connectivity, sensor packages, etc.)? How will EMS (EW/EA) operations affect UAS/UxS? C2? 
  • How will we counter a significant integrated offensive air, missile, rocket, artillery and UAS threat?
  • Which technology will progress more rapidly (or dominate) for the near future? FINDER and SHOOTER? Will HIDER and DEFENDER catch up and return us to familiar scenarios or will technological advances (DEW, Hypersonic, UxS) keep SHOOTERS with the advantage?
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