The Drift

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Good Evening, Drifters

Author's Note: This piece was originally published June 18 as an e-newsletter.

The Marine Corps has been making waves with their roll-out of its Naval Integration effort, which seeks to strip down the Corps of all its legacy equipment better suited for fighting land wars in Asia. You can read a bit about that, and some of the debates it has spurred, here:

In his fight to change the Corps, America’s top Marine takes friendly fire

Well this past week I got a hold of a draft version of the latest document in Commandant Berger’s quest to alter the Corps into an arm of naval combat and away from its current status as a small Army with a weird affinity for the Navy. It’s what he’s calling his “capstone operating concept,” and I want to take you through it tonight with some notes.

So away we go on a journey to Marineland to see what our friends with the funny haircuts are up to.

Let’s Drift!


Berger’s CONOPs: A Guided Tour

Gen. David Berger didn’t come into the job to make small statements. He came to make fundamental changes. And by and large, his reforms have been well received, especially since he’s proposing to fund much of the change in-house instead of by asking for more money.

So, true to form, his CONOPs has quite a few bold statements in it. Here’s perhaps the crux:

Excerpt:As explained in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, “War is both timeless and ever changing. While the basic nature of war is constant, the means and methods we use evolve continuously…One major catalyst of change is technology. As the hardware of war improves through technology, so must the tactical, operational, and strategic usage adapt to its improved capabilities both to maximize our own capabilities and to counteract our enemy’s.” While the United States was focused on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, emerging peer competitors were busy fielding the technologies—in plentiful capacity—that give them the ability to challenge us in all domains. The result is that our post-Cold War force design paradigm has been rendered obsolete.[Emphasis mine]

For the Navy and Marine Corps the most obvious manifestation of this obsolete paradigm is a fleet—including the FMF—optimized for maritime power projection without the need to fight for sea control. This paradigm is also exemplified by our current amphibious warships and maritime prepositioning ships, which are large and built for deployment efficiency rather than warfighting effectiveness.

These superb, multipurpose ships are extremely expensive—meaning we’ve never had the desired number. Furthermore, in an increasingly contested environment, “Large ships offer superior endurance and flexibility for forward presence but are lucrative targets.” Replacing ships lost in combat will be problematic, inasmuch as our industrial base has shrunk while peer adversaries have expanded their shipbuilding capacity. In an extended conflict, the United States will be on the losing end of a production race—reversing the advantage we had in World War II when we last fought a peer competitor. These issues should not be construed as a criticism of our Navy partners who built the fleet—to include the types of amphibious warfare and maritime prepositioning ships the Marine Corps asked for—that was appropriate to the security era within the constraints of finite resources.


Kind of nuts to just out and call billions of dollars of hardware “obsolete,” especially when we’re still buying it? He later says he's looking to augment the big multimission amphibs, not replace them. (His point about the US industrial base not being able to keep up with China’s in a war is an interesting, if not precisely novel, one.)

In order to make the force more relevant, Berger argues, the Marines must be forward deployed in the region and bring their toys with them. He believes the Marines are uniquely suited for so-called “gray zone” warfare and can compete in all kinds of games, but they need the proper tools to be credible.

Excerpt: Fleet Marine Forces will contribute to a modular, scalable, and integrated naval network of seaward and landward sensors, weapons, information-related capabilities, and sustainment capabilities that will allow us to flexibly task-organize naval formations to cooperate with allies and partners, compete below the level of armed conflict to deter aggression and, if necessary, defeat a peer competitor as part of the maritime component within a joint or combined force.

Achieving this goal requires us to revisit our conception of what comprises a combat-credible force. Combat-credibility has long been perceived inside the Marine Corps as the ability to project power anywhere in the world combined with the willingness to endure any hardship or absorb any punishment in order to aggressively seek out, close with, and destroy the enemy—up close and personal, if necessary.

Those attributes still matter, but in an era of peer competition, long-range, precision weaponry and pervasive sensors they no longer constitute an adequate standard of combat credibility. Our capabilities must be suitable to the operating environment, the threat, and our potential missions in order to be combat-credible.

We will expand our tool-kit to include the cutting edge sensors, weapons, information-related capabilities, and sustainment capabilities that will allow us to act as an integral element of the fleet to deny an enemy freedom of maneuver at sea, in the air, on key maritime terrain, and within the information environment. This must include the development of stand-in engagement capabilities—low signature, affordable, risk-worthy platforms and payloads—that will allow us to persist inside a competitor’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ)[1] to cooperate with partners, support partner-nation sovereignty, confront malign behavior and, in the event of conflict, conduct sea denial operations or provide support to sea control operations. 


Circling back to this idea of being forward deployed:

Excerpt:Rather than building a force designed to fight its way across the ocean in the event of war—as we started doing nearly a hundred years ago after Pete Ellis wrote Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia in support of War Plan Orange[2]—we will build a force capable of persisting forward despite the threat in order to influence events in our nation’s favor. The idea is to remain in proximity to our overseas partners and stand with them against intimidation rather than coming to their aid after they’ve been attacked. That approach will better allow us to “hold the access door open” instead of having to “beat it down” when needed.


Persisting inside the weapon engagement zone is going to require rethinking the logistics system, Berger argues.

Excerpt: Like the combat forces they support, logistics assets will need to operate effectively within an arc of pervasive adversary sensors and long-range precision fires. This will result in wider distribution of forces, which will eliminate the economies of scale we are conditioned to and will necessitate more innovative approaches, both in terms of reducing logistics demand from the combat forces as well as the means of providing support to them by the logisticians. The latter requires re-examination of the number, organization, and employment methods of key enablers. The need to diversify the type and number of platforms providing seaborne movement applies to logistics as well as maneuver forces.


Berger concludes the CONOPs by saying that this needs to be a team effort because its not done yet. This gets to a point that I have been frustrated with the Navy over. So much of what the Navy’s response to China has been falls under the category of “Oh, believe us, we have a plan. It’s just classified, and we can’t talk about it publicly because we don’t want the enemy to know.”

That’s hugely problematic for reasons that we’ll get into in a future email but one major reason is because if you can’t communicate it with the public, I have zero faith you are communicating it effectively internally. This is a pitfall Berger seems aware of in his conclusion:

Excerpt:Since many of the ideas have yet to be fully explored and articulated, it is incumbent upon senior leaders and their staffs within Headquarters Marine Corps, the FMF, and the supporting establishment to not only stay abreast of emerging concepts but to actively contribute toward their generation via working groups, war games, studies, experiments, draft reviews, and identification of additional topics that are essential to bringing the force envisioned in this capstone operating concept to fruition.


The very newness of these concepts creates the imperative that leaders across the corps need to stay abreast.

So, major takeaways are:

  • The current force structure is obsolete and needs significant rethinking and augmentation to give the Marines the ability to maneuver inside the Chinese A2/AD bubble.
  • The Marines needs precision long-range weapons and the sensors to target them to be combat credible.
  • The Marines, as much as possible, need to be present forward.
  • The logistics force must be overhauled to support forward Marines, because the current logistics system is too big and bulky, presents a fat target to Chinese missiles and can’t support a widely distributed force.

All told, this restates a lot of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, but it’s more substantial than anything the Navy has put out recently.

On to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

Straight to the links today.

More Reading

Good read from Sam at USNI: Lack of Future Fleet Plans, Public Strategy Hurting Navy’s Bottom Line in Upcoming Defense Bills

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Absolutely not good: French submarine burns in ‘unbelievably fierce fire’ for 14 hours

With the future of the US Navy’s carrier air wing murky, Congress demands a plan

German Navy takes delivery of first NH90 Sea Lion naval helicopter

NATO chief sees no ‘imminent threat’ against allies in face of China, Russia tensions

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