On one day in 1965, a large sortie of U.S. Air Force F-105s dropped more than 600, 750-pound bombs on the Thanh Hoa Bridge, just 70 kilometers south of Hanoi. The result was the loss of five U.S. aircraft and a complete failure to destroy the bridge. Amazingly, the bridge would withstand more than 800 more sorties from U.S. aircraft in the next seven years and receive the moniker "The Dragon’s Jaw" because of its seeming indestructability and the nearby air defences that stymied U.S. forces. Finally, in 1972, a sortie of F-4Ds carrying the new Paveway laser-guided bomb destroyed the Thanh Hoa Bridge.
Although not obvious at the time, the advent of the Paveway marked the beginning of a dramatic transformation in U.S. military technology that would change warfare forever. The revolution in precision munitions that began then has so accelerated in recent years that enemy forces can no longer operate in formations and in mass. They simply present too big a target. That, in turn, means that the days of U.S. corps, divisions, and brigades maneuvering on a battlefield with tanks, artillery, and motorized/mechanized infantry are numbered. Our surveillance capabilities allow us to sense everything on the battlefield. Any sizable vehicle formation, or single vehicle for that matter, can be destroyed with the click of a button half a world away. On today’s battlefield, movement means death.
A lively debate is taking place within the Pentagon these days over how to adapt to this new reality. The Air Force and the Navy have come up with a new concept called Air-Sea Battle, which focuses on integrating naval and air forces to defeat adversaries with precision weapons backed by robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. Simply put, the Air Force and the Navy are embracing new technology and have come to understand that with an integrated approach they should be able to defeat an enemy that is hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away.
By contrast, the Marines — and the Army — are still trained in infantry tactics that would be recognizable to a Second World War vet, organized to fight big land battles with heavy tanks and armoured personnel carriers. There’s an elephant walking around the Pentagon these days and everyone is trying to ignore it. No one wants to talk about the fact that land forces, as currently organized, are becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is not to say that there is no use for ground troops. They are needed, but in future conflicts they will only play a secondary role. Land forces will no longer win wars. Computers, missiles, planes, and drones will. If the Marines want to survive, we’re going to have to adapt — and fast.
The Marines are a door-kicking service, designed to breach enemy territory and establish an entry point for the Army’s strategic land capability. But the U.S. military’s development of unmanned aircraft, combined with stealth technology and unmatched ISR capability, makes it almost impossible for an enemy today to significantly impede the landing of U.S. forces on a beach or at a port. Forcible entry no longer requires landing forces — it takes precision strikes, coordinated by special operations forces as needed. But if the door is going to be kicked in by a cruise missile, an unmanned aircraft, or other platform delivering precision munitions, why does the Marine Corps insist on maintaining such a large amphibious forcible entry capability based around the same Marine who stormed ashore at Tarawa? Because to argue that the United States does not need a forcible-entry force would be to question the very necessity of having a Marine Corps. Unfortunately, that is the question the Corps must now answer.
The Marines could have pushed for change 10 years ago. Following the 9/11 attacks, then-secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld approached the Marine commandant and asked if the Marines could take on a special operations role within the Department of Defence. For the secretary, it seemed logical. The Marine Corps is designed to operate independently when necessary; it can sustain itself with a well-oiled logistics organization, and it even has its own air wings. At the time, most special operations forces resided in the Army and in Navy Special Warfare and there was an emerging shortage of operators. The Corps could have filled the gap in special forces that existed right after 9/11.
The Marine Corps leadership balked at this proposition. A compromise with Rumsfeld did lead to the creation of Marine Special Operations Command, which now operates under U.S. Special Operations Command, but it was slow to get off the ground and has had trouble establishing credibility within the special operations community. The Marine Corps then focused on fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the next 10 years. With Iraq over and Afghanistan drawing to a close, planners can now focus again on what the United States will need in a possible unlimited war. But the Marine Corps — and the Army — have been caught flat-footed, unable to truly grasp the superiority of U.S. technology and how ground forces must adapt to harness its potential.
So what should the Marine Corps do?
First, it needs to recognize that future wars will be very different. Firepower will be brought to bear by unmanned surveillance aircraft and by small, highly trained teams. These teams will be fast, exceptionally physically fit, able to operate independently, but also able to operate with larger forces when necessary. Teams will be inserted by parachute, landing zone, or over the horizon from the sea. They will be backed up by a robust logistics tail and continuous, round-the-clock air support that provides security to compensate for their small size. Air support will consist of fixed-wing assets at sea, national assets based around the world, and fleets of unmanned aircraft that constantly surveil each team and the area in which they operate. That means teams are unlikely to be surprised or ambushed, and when threats are identified, they can be quickly neutralized by precision munitions launched from drones, manned aircraft and ships. The teams will be able to conduct precision operations and a variety of raids, or hundreds of operators can be employed in coordination with each other during high-intensity conflicts.
In short, the future of warfare is in special operations, and the Pentagon will need a lot more operators. The future of the Marine Corps is as a special operations force that functions in a sustained combat mode.
Second, the Marine Corps needs to start thinking in terms of what the military calls "jointness" — the ability to operate with other services. The Department of Defence is now joint through and through, and yet the Marine Corps still prides itself as an expeditionary force, able to deploy with limited external support. That has been a strength of the Marine Corps, but today it may be a liability.
One problem is that the Marine Corps does not own most of the precision weapons platforms that are needed to operate on future battlefields. It needs to accept that it will have to rely on its sister services (particularly the Air Force) for ISR and close-air support to ensure the viability of small teams. Yes, there is probably some benefit to having a Marine pilot supporting Marine ground forces, as we were always told at basic school. But is a Navy or Air Force pilot really unable to adequately support Marines on the ground? Just maintaining the command, control, communications, computers, combat systems and intelligence structure that will eventually connect every Marine on the battlefield will require Air Force platforms. The Marine Corps will not be able to maintain the data connectivity needed to manage the future battlefield. Instead of fighting jointness, the Corps should articulate how it can be leveraged to make Marines even more lethal.
Third, the Corps will have to completely change its approaches to doctrine, training, and equipment. Organizing for land battles or amphibious forcible entry is outdated, because U.S. firepower can obliterate any enemy force that dares to occupy the battle-space. Quite simply, there will be nothing for tanks and large troop formations to fight. The future belongs to small teams who will not be supported by air power and precision munitions, but who will actually support air power and precision munitions. The doctrine of close-air support will be reversed, turning into "close-ground support" whereby Marines will be a supporting component in a much larger campaign of missiles and guided munitions.
To operate in small teams that can coordinate a massive precision-engagement campaign, Marines will have to change the way they fight and train. The ethos of "every Marine a rifleman" will shift to "every Marine a JTAC," or joint terminal air controller. A Marine or team that cannot communicate on the battlefield will die. Marines will manage and become experts on dozens of different communications platforms ensuring double and triple redundancy. The battlefield of the future will be wired with data pipes bigger than the Alaskan Pipeline. If commanders today worry about information overload, they haven’t seen anything yet. Every warrior on the battlefield will have access to the common operating picture, able to call in dozens of precision strikes from multiple platforms at once. Graduation exercises at infantry school will be based around scenarios that test the ability of the individual and team to operate in austere environments under physically grueling conditions — while maintaining continuous communications over several waveforms. The Crucible will look like a day at the fair.
Organizationally, the Marine rifle squad as we know it today will no longer exist. Each squad will have a signals intelligence specialist, data and communications specialists, demolitions experts, one or two corpsmen, a sniper, and two or three machine gun teams — only one or two team members may be certified "JTACs" but all must know how to coordinate the use of precision munitions and air assets via multiple radio and data waveforms. From the lowest-ranking member of the team to the general officer leading the joint task force headquarters, live video feeds will stream continuously, giving every war-fighter a clear, concise picture of the battlefield. Rarely will the Marine of the future use his personal weapon; "rifleman" will become an antiquated term.
Leadership organization and manpower management will all have to be addressed if the Marine Corps is to conduct a significant re-organization. Marines operating in small teams will probably require more than a year of training, probably more. A normal four-year enlistment might not be cost effective. Force structure may have to be reduced in order to ensure there are enough recruits with the qualifications and physical abilities to make the cut as operatives in the new elite Marine teams. Suffice it to say, the changes will hit every area of the Corps from recruiting to training to organization to equipping. The Marine Corps has been historically infantry-centric; to remain so could mean its eventual irrelevancy.
We will never fight another war in the mud. Special forces, however, can currently operate only for short periods of time; they cannot operate in a sustained mode in the face of significant opposition. The Marine Corps is in a position to fill the gap that currently exists within the special forces community. The Marine Corps must recognize the change that is sweeping the U.S. military and be the trailblazers we have always been when it comes to innovating and providing the most bang for the nation’s buck. Failure to act could mean increasing irrelevance for a force that has been one of the United States’s most storied and effective fighting organizations.
Lt. Col Lloyd Freeman is a Marine infantry officer and has served three combat tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He currently serves as the deputy executive assistant in the Expeditionary Warfare Division of the U.S. Navy.