Marine light armored vehicles sit aboard a Navy landing craft preparing to launch from the assault ship Essex during an amphibious exercise. Freed from years of garrison duty in Iraq, the Corps is refocusing on ampibious warfare. (Pfc. Brandon Rodriguez / U.S. Marine Corps)
Conducting an amphibious assault on an enemy-controlled beach has always been one of the most complex forms of warfare. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps together have successfully stormed more beaches than any team in history.
Yet, by its own admission, the team is rusty.
Not only that, the game is changing. More effective weapons fielded by potential adversaries, including long-range surface-to-surface missiles in the hands of nongovernment actors such as Hezbollah, and new developments in cyber and information war fighting are creating a more complex environment. The Navy/Marine Corps team, therefore, needs to be more flexible to successfully counter increasingly sophisticated enemies.
Many of the gaps were exposed when sea service officials held a synthetic war game dubbed Expeditionary Warrior this year. The war game was geared to threats and situations that might be expected in 2024. Set among several fictional nations in West Africa, the game highlighted a number of problems, particularly in the command-and-control area, that need to be addressed.
Gamers used several advanced concepts still under development, including Air-Sea Battle and the Joint Operational Access Concept from the Pentagon, and analysis from the Corps’ Amphibious Capabilities Working Group. The application of at least a dozen other concepts also was studied, all under the umbrella of the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy — the effort to penetrate a defended area and deny its use to an enemy.
However, an unclassified assessment of the war game by Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) noted that “Expeditionary Warrior exposed numerous gaps and opportunities in doctrine, concepts, capabilities and capacity for joint force operations in an A2/AD environment.”
But while “potential solutions are as complex as the problems themselves,” according to the assessment, game results also reflect “a golden opportunity” for the Corps and its Navy partner to shape themselves into a “responsive, agile and lethal force.”
Better Command Setup
The war game was part of a larger series of exercises and events meant to reintroduce the Navy and Marine Corps after more than a decade of wars.
Exercise Bold Alligator, a large-scale series of maneuvers held last winter off the mid-Atlantic coast, was the first major effort by the services to simulate a major amphibious assault since the post-9/11 wars began. The effort focused on rebuilding expertise in today’s forces, which include thousands of Marines who have never been on board a ship.
Expeditionary Warrior followed. With 200 participants, the game’s “main event” took place in a Washington hotel in March and was preceded by 10 months of conferences, workshops and planning events, as well as a “classified excursion.” Gamers included members of all five U.S. armed service branches, the Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and 14 partner nations.
The game exposed a need to reconcile Marine Corps and Navy operational doctrines, and the assessment noted “interoperability challenges” among Navy, Marine and special operations forces, including the need to clarify command relationships.
“The level where this really is working out is at Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB)-level operations,” Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, MCCDC commander, said in a Sept. 6 interview.
An MEB generally consists of more than 10,000 Marines and includes aircraft and vehicles.
“We are very comfortable with our command relationships and how you do Marine expeditionary unit (MEU)-size operations,” Mills said, referring to the standard 2,500-Marine unit that regularly deploys aboard amphibious ships.
“Now ... as you begin to make the distances much [farther] than they have been because of distributed operations — because of increasing threats — command-and-control relationships become very clear. Those are issues we have to work on with the Navy,” Mills said.
He noted that future operations could be much larger than the humanitarian relief or evacuation operations of recent years. “They’re going to be larger-scale operations in which we have to be sure that we integrate carrier strike groups and larger amphibious formations into one single naval fight.”
More large-scale exercises are planned to continue the evolution of war-fighting concepts, Mills said. A synthetic Bold Alligator will be held in 2013 — the exercise alternates every year between full-scale, live operations and simulated maneuvers — and Exercise Dawn Blitz in June along the southern California coast will execute many of the concepts outlined in Expeditionary Warrior.
And the large Rim of the Pacific exercise in summer 2014 will include a deployable MEB command unit.
“What we need to do now,” Mills said, “is use large exercises like that and work with the Navy to test out the changes and experiments and keep pushing forward.”