In the Indo-Pacific, the naval services are turning strategic planning guidance into operational reality. Two commands, Expeditionary Strike Group Seven and the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, recently embarked on an eighteen-month period of experimentation and naval power revitalization, creating Task Force 76/3 (TF 76/3). The implication of the new command extends beyond the Indo-Pacific region and naval services. TF 76/3 offers a template for the joint force to address issues of force design, interoperability, littoral warfare, and maritime campaign planning.
As the joint force grapples with the dissolution of once well-defined geographic boundaries and the blurring of domains, TF 76/3 offers an example of a command campaigning against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), learning from its operational environment, and redefining littoral warfare. The new naval task force is forward deployed within the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) weapons engagement zone, executing daily operations while conducting naval experimentation.
While the need for naval integration is clear for the unified naval service and the joint force, the means of projecting all-domain naval power remain unclear. The joint force requires a persistent, forward-deployed, unified naval command that links tactical actions to achieve strategic objectives. The 2022 National Security Strategy directs the unified naval service to counter PRC incursion in the South China Sea while strengthening the United States’ regional partnerships with allies and partners. TF 76/3 maintains a persistent presence capable of assuring access to key maritime terrain. By placing Marines and sailors under one integrated naval command, a Navy flag officer now controls the full complement of naval combat power necessary to compete and win.
Foundational Ideas and Concepts
The US military fights in a joint construct, leveraging the attributes of each service to create combined effects against adversaries. As the PRC’s actions in the Indo-Pacific become more aggressive, the importance of the maritime domain comes to the forefront. As part of joint force doctrine, naval warfare plays a central role in America’s competition with the PRC. As a subset of naval warfare, littoral warfare is a form of seagoing combat that is more fluid than open ocean or land warfare due to the nature of the geographic space. In On Littoral Warfare, Dr. Milan Vego explains that “‘littorals’ means a ‘coastal region’ or ‘refers to a shore.’ In geographic terms, the term pertains to a coastline zone between extreme high and low tides.” The geographic ambiguity of the littorals offers TF 76/3 new opportunities for force structure and operational concepts.
Under the existing joint amphibious operations doctrine, the responsibility of the seaward domain, including ship-to-shore movement, belongs to the commander of the amphibious task force (CATF). The commander of the landing force (CLF) is then “responsible for the overall execution of landing force operations ashore.” Due to the PRC’s advanced antiaccess / area denial (A2/AD) systems, the traditional CATF-CLF doctrinal relationship’s bifurcation of the sea and land no longer works against the dynamic threats posed by the PLA. In addition, service-directed force design changes require further naval integration to provide the naval services additional feedback for combat development. TF 76/3 does not just collect critical feedback for future force development but also provides the naval services a model for the command and control and employment of lethal naval forces within the broader joint force construct.
The Marine Corps’s recent Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations and the experimental Noble Fusion exercises conducted by TF 76/3 provide the bases for a conceptual shift. Amphibious warfare places offensive action from sea to shore to seize and hold areas of terrain as its fundamental tenet. Littoral warfare within the first island chain seeks to control or seize key maritime terrain with limited maritime forces employing unique capabilities. TF 76/3’s creation facilitated the continued drafting of new operating concepts to account for the fluidity of combat inside the PLA’s weapons engagement zone within the littorals.
In recent years the Navy’s concept of a composite warfare commander (CWC) has received attention as a potential command-and-control structure for use within the littorals. However, CWC works best when a carrier strike group (CSG) is the centerpiece and there exists sufficient operating space for surface, subsurface, and airspace combat. CSGs require deep oceans for submarine warfare and large sea-surface areas for naval surface combatants to conduct various protection actions, enabling the carrier air wing to conduct strike operations. The PRC’s advanced A2/AD systems now force the CSG to operate outside the PLA’s weapons engagement zone to maintain its survivability. The utility of CWC diminishes because CSG operations within the PLA’s weapons engagement zone cannot be brought to bear without incurring significant risk. Littoral warfare’s geographic restrictions and fluidity between the land and sea domains negate the utility of the traditional CATF-CLF and CWC models.
Recently, the Ukrainian military has managed to hold at risk and restrict the operational employment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet using A2/AD weapons and concepts akin to what might be seen in the Indo-Pacific. The most successful example is the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet ship Moskva in April 2022 to a Ukrainian antiship missile. Subsequently, Russia moved its Black Sea Fleet outside of the Ukrainian weapons engagement zone to maintain its survivability. The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War provides potential examples of how power projection from the sea with large landing forces and operations within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone face significantly increased risks and could be no longer viable.
A New Model for Naval Campaigning
TF 76/3’s experimental organization is designed to operate in that more fluid littoral space. It seeks to answer calls by both the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps to “ensure our advantage at sea and protect national interests within the next decade.” TF 76/3 is focused on increased lethality, distributed operations, greater naval integration, and sustaining stand-in forces. As a result, TF 76/3 is changing how the joint force conducts naval campaigning.
TF 76/3 is composed of approximately 11,500 sailors and Marines, including air, amphibious, and surface vessel squadrons and marine expeditionary units afloat. These units possess a broad range of capabilities that cut across traditional Navy and Marine Corps skill sets. TF 76/3’s integrated naval headquarters structure separates the intelligence, operations, logistics, and plans functions from the inherent service-aligned functions of administration, fiscal, legal, and communications. The inherent service-aligned functions maintained their traditional service codes (N or G) while the integrated staff directorates were changed to “L” (Littoral) codes. The L-coded directorates have the flexibility to interchange Marine and sailor subject matter experts to boost maritime awareness and understanding. Either Marines or sailors can lead L-coded directorates. TF 76/3’s unique L-code structure differs significantly from the existing TF 51/5 and TF 61/2 models.
TF 76/3’s command-and-control structure can integrate and employ emerging Marine Corps units like the Marine littoral regiment in close concert with its surface combatant assets and the Marine expeditionary unit’s fifth-generation aircraft. The creation of new power projection combinations by littoral forces at a low tactical level enables joint day-to-day competition and supports joint warfare. TF 76/3 is the only standing command in the United States Indo-Pacific Command—or the United States military, for that matter—that possesses such a unique capability. The new naval task force can now simultaneously address three traditionally different problem sets: land, air, and sea.
The TF 76/3 commander exercises command and control over assigned units from the integrated littoral warfare center (ILWC). The ILWC provides a common maritime operating picture for integrating Marine Corps and Navy capabilities, merging two traditionally separate one-star-level command posts. TF 76/3’s new construct enables it to see, understand, and respond to adversary actions that were previously only possible at the numbered fleet or joint task force level. With the integration of both the operations and plans directorates, TF 76/3 required new time separations between concepts of current operations, future operations, and plans because of how the two services separate the operations continuum.
The ILWC merges each service’s concepts and maintains an operations outlook for up to thirty days. The change in perspective accounts for the longer lead times and continuous adjustments needed to support vessel movements, logistical sustainment, and maintenance. In addition to operations, the ILWC facilitates the synchronization of fires and effects by merging the Marine Corps’s fires and effects center, the Navy’s sea combatant commander, the Navy’s information warfare commander, and communications strategy under the joint fires process. The ILWC allows joint force capabilities to seamlessly interact and creates a shared understanding for any numbered fleet or joint task force. The combined actions of the various planning and execution cells have an amplifying effect across multiple domains.
Learning to Project Power Better
A unique aspect of TF 76/3’s charter is undertaking a campaign of learning and experimentation. The campaign of learning and experimentation grants all personnel within TF 76/3, both enlisted and officers, agency in shaping the future of the command and its employment. The open forums allow for the discussion, debate, and refinement of ideas to better integrate the nascent command. TF 76/3’s campaign plan aligns operations, activities, and investments to not only strengthen partnerships with allies and partnered nations but gain feedback for combat development—linking learning to lethality. The merit of ideas, not the insignia on the briefer’s collar, serves as the deciding factor for a proposal’s implementation. Open forums provide ownership to individuals at all levels of the command. The TF 76/3 campaign of learning and experimentation should be seen as a template for the joint force as it embarks on its own force structure changes. Refinement from the lowest levels will assist with the implementation of strategic guidance.
Applications for the US Army
Force projection—the ability to project the military instrument of national power—is underpinned by a nation’s ability to bring to bear both airpower and seapower in a complementary way, with sea power serving as “the most useful means.” TF 76/3 matters to the Army because of the new naval task force’s focus on the blended tactical employment of airpower and seapower within littoral warfare at the nexus of several domains. The naval task force serves as an agent of organizational change that offers unique models beyond service-centric solutions.
Recently, the Army created its own new force structure and operating concept with the Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF). The MDTF provides the joint force “theater-level maneuver elements [to] synchronize precision effects and precision fires in all domains against adversary A2AD networks in all domains, enabling joint forces to execute their [operation plan]-directed roles.” Akin to TF 76/3, the MDTF is converting force design into force structure, relying on learning, enhanced training, and enhanced equipment to address new and growing security concerns.
TF 76/3’s daily activities generate relevant real-time feedback and create urgency for the unit’s adaption based on new information. The feedback loop TF 76/3 codified in its charter now captures refinements, driving adaptation. The successful implementation of force design into force structure is a learning process, not just adapting doctrinal updates and fielding new equipment.
While TF 76/3 is only an experimental unit, its new design for twenty-first-century naval warfare and model for how the joint force evolves has value outside the Indo-Pacific. The integrated naval command fuses Navy and Marine Corps maritime fires and sensor networks, leverages maritime sustainment capability, creates a seamless intelligence and operational picture, and, most critically, unifies long- and short-range planning across maritime and littoral capabilities. Naval integration will continue to evolve as new information and challenges emerge. TF 76/3 is neither the end of the naval integration discussion nor a panacea for twenty-first-century naval warfare’s challenges but its ideas and concepts are useful not only in the Indo-Pacific but also as a model for the joint force about innovation and adaptation.
Lt. Col. Steven Bancroft is the future operations officer for TF 76/3.
Maj. Benjamin Van Horrick is the current logistics operations officer for TF 76/3.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, Department of the Navy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Berlier