The newest US maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, fails to include the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) as a viable operational component for competition in the gray zone. Though Advantage at Sea recognizes the ever-growing Chinese maritime threat, it does not provide a practical way for the United States to address that threat. As the Marine Corps reshapes itself through the guidance in Force Design 2030,it must take the opportunity to create a forward-deployed, commando-like force to fill the gaps present in Advantage at Sea. Doing so offers a way to counter China by using disruptive and asymmetric means to both coexist with and deter competitors and, if necessary, fight at sea.
Strategically, the United States currently lacks an appropriately sized, robust force to conduct gray zone operations. The Marine Corps is the most naturally suited to become that service-level asymmetric component. To be a competitive force against asymmetric actors such as the China Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, the Marine Corps must pivot toward an operating concept and organizational design that is smaller, is self-sustainable, and can adapt as needed. The operational answer is the “wasp MAGTF,” which emulates a swarm of its namesake. The wasp MAGTF would be a maritime force that is consistently deployed, distributed in small units, and conceptually in line with Distributed Maritime Operations. Furthermore, the wasp MAGTF’s missions would be different from what the MAGTF does today.
In nature, an individual wasp exists as part of a group. Highly organized, wasps cooperate to build nests, hunt insect pests, gather nectar, and form colonies. Individual wasps also have the ability to attack when disturbed, but often do so in a swarm. The wasp forms part of a swarm to protect the nest, releasing pheromones to warn other wasps of danger. In essence, a wasp is individually small but collectively mighty.
Similarly, as an operating concept, the wasp MAGTF would exist as one part of the larger operational environment. To be effective and support Advantage at Sea’s objectives, the wasp operating concept requires a MAGTF that can scale the required components to conduct direct action, foreign internal defense in the maritime domain, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, and civil affairs to address contingencies and threats. While these mission sets are traditionally the purview of special operations forces (SOF), the size of SOF limits their ability to be a theater-wide deterrent. By contrast, the Marine Corps is large enough to provide adequate manpower to address the problem at scale.
In business, disruptive innovation is a competitive process through which a well-established competitor is upended when a relative upstart introduces less expensive and more accessible products that are surgical and agile enough to address market needs. Often, the upstart targets market segments that have been overlooked, delivering an alternative product to fill the gaps. These innovative products are burdensome for the established market leader to adapt for and respond to. Disruption forces established businesses to alter their processes, adapt, or lose—how Blockbuster fell to Netflix. For an emerging competitor, success is not predicated on mirroring well-established capabilities; instead, success is achieved by understanding the incumbent’s gaps and countering them with more agile capabilities.
Over the past decades, competitors have leveraged disruptive innovations and techniques to challenge US tactical and operational practices. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States invested billions of dollars in sustaining technologies to compete with insurgents making improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using locally available munitions. Looking to the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese recently transformed a cargo ship into an aircraft carrier and have consistently employed asymmetric forces in contested areas. In order to project power, the United States, on the other hand, remains tied to Ford-class aircraft carriers with price tags of over $11 billion per ship. As with the insurgent-built IEDs and Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs), the price differential between a cargo ship and an aircraft carrier is staggering.
Chinese efforts at disruptive innovation alone do not foretell American defeat. Enter the wasp operating concept and the Marine Corps. By becoming a commando-like maritime force that is smaller, is self-sustained, and can swarm in response to aggression or hostility, the Marine Corps can be the counter–disruptive force within the competition continuum. Overall, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, is actively reshaping the force and eliminating capabilities that do not support vigorous expeditionary operations conducted in support of fleet operations. To become the wasp, the Marine Corps needs to double down on this effort and continue to reduce its size and divest in irrelevant assets to resemble a more modular force, in line with the direction the British Corps of Royal Marines is taking. The Royal Marines have already cut tanks, MRAPs, and amphibious assault vehicles, and are in the process of streamlining and restructuring their artillery assets. The US Marine Corps should look to its British peer as a model.
Becoming the Wasp
The Marine Corps will need to make structural, equipment, doctrinal, and personnel changes in order to become the wasp and meet the requirements of Advantage at Sea. Most, if not all, will be significant changes and a break from the past. Nevertheless, adopting the wasp operating concept is essential to counter the Chinese threat.
Current Marine Corps structure is built around the MAGTF, which relies on antiquated strategies that do not match needed capabilities. The MAGTF is a scalable construct consisting of four distinct components: a ground combat element, an aviation combat element, a logistics support element, and a command element. It is scalable in size, ranging from a special purpose MAGTF of roughly two thousand Marines and sailors to a Marine expeditionary force of over sixty thousand. Traditional MAGTFs are amphibious, employing naval assets for transportation and logistical support. The MAGTF’s most commonly deployed unit is the Marine expeditionary unit, which is built around a reinforced infantry battalion and composite aviation squadron.
Marine Corps structure is slowly changing with incremental shifts to the Marine littoral regiment (MLR) as the force’s main effort. The MLR is a smaller, more autonomous unit than its predecessors but continues to rely on sustained technologies and organizational paradigms to pit conventional means against asymmetric ones. The MLR remains housed in the Marine division, which has traditionally been the Marine Corps’s main effort. The long-term solution is to divest from the Marine division as the main effort and focus on Corps-wide interoperability with its maritime sister services by producing scalable direct action, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, and civil affairs forces to minimize costs and maximize output.
Instead of continuing to rely on and invest in ships made vulnerable by Chinese sensors and weapons within a weapon engagement zone, the Marine Corps will need light, reliable, and replaceable maritime assets. As part of the transition to the wasp operating concept, the Marine Corps will no longer need large deck amphibious ships but instead should acquire platforms such as the Light Amphibious Warships, autonomous vessels, and patrol boats. These ships need to be capable of operating organic loitering munitions, long-range fires, and electronic warfare technology.
Overall, the wasp MAGTF would have a vastly different table of equipment than a current Marine expeditionary unit. Internally, the first place to start would be looking at the commandant’s overinvestment list and identify short-term acquisition efforts toward maritime and distributed capabilities. It should both own and employ the Mark VI patrol boats or Combat Boat 90s. These vessels are small, cost-effective, and agile craft capable of swarming over the long distances in US Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Using proven maritime technology, the wasp MAGTF would provide a skillset and platform on which to test and refine small-unit maritime capabilities until long-term acquisitions can be made. Fires and reconnaissance capabilities can be enhanced by including autonomous vessels at the small-unit level. Once ashore, lightweight vehicles should provide mobility instead of legacy wheeled vehicles.
Operationally, a wasp MAGTF would operate semiautonomously in the Indo-Pacific, combining the “Warbot” concept proposed by four Marine officers in 2018 with naval expeditionary warfare in actively contested spaces. As such, these small units should be a mix of military operational specialties and skills, similar to the current MAGTF concept. Wasp MAGTFs should incorporate not only traditional combat power and amphibious raiding skillsets but also cryptologic linguist operators; signals intelligence/electronic warfare/cyberspace operations technicians; and intelligence, surveillance, and radio reconnaissance teams. The Marine Corps wasp must also incorporate existing capabilities from sister services to better fulfill its diverse mission set.
As part of the shift to a wasp-like maritime force, the Marine Corps should absorb the US Navy’s riverine capabilities and missions. These squadrons already practice asymmetric warfare, support SOF units, and have the assets to support distributed operations. Existing riverine platforms are also capable of providing expeditionary advanced basing options and use ramp and rails to launch sleds for autonomous vehicles.
Ultimately, the Marine Corps needs to be the wasp that operates in the gray zone, below the threshold of war. To do so, it needs to decouple itself from incrementally building on antiquated platforms, policies, and capabilities. It needs to be offensive and small, and it must operate as the disruptive maritime service. These requirements are significant and will demand institutional realignment, doctrinal shifts, and procurement changes. Becoming the wasp cultivates the very Marine Corps the commandant envisions.
David Laszcz is a Pat Tillman and Harry S. Truman Scholar. He currently serves as the executive officer for MEU Support Company, 2d Radio Battalion. He holds a master’s in public policy from Harvard and previously served at the White House and as an infantry squad leader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, US Marine Corps, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Cpl. Matthew Teutsch, US Marine Corps
Let me begin by taking issue with the depiction of the security environment noted in "Advantage at Sea."
This depiction, I believe, may incorrectly portray such nations as China and Russia as being involved (both at home and abroad?) in what we might call "revolutionary warfare," and likewise may incorrectly portray the U.S./the West as being involved (both at home and abroad?) in what we might call "resistance warfare."
For the sake of my argument here, let me propose the reverse of these such depictions; that is, a security environment in which the U.S./the West is seen (both at home and abroad) as the entity undertaking "revolutionary warfare" and. accordingly, a security environment in which nations such as China, Russia, etc., (both at home and abroad) — and even our own people here in the U.S./the West — are seen as the entities engaged in "resistance warfare."
In support of this such latter thesis, consider the following four items:
a. From Foreign Affairs (Mar/Apr 2020 issue) the article therein by Jennifer Lind and Daryl G. Press entitled “Reality Check: American Power in an Age of Constraints:”
“For the past three decades, as the United States stood at the pinnacle of global power, U.S. leaders framed their foreign policy around a single question: What should the United States seek to achieve in the world? Buoyed by their victory in the Cold War and freed of powerful adversaries abroad, successive U.S. administrations forged an ambitious agenda: spreading liberalism and Western influence around the world, integrating China into the global economy, and transforming the politics of the Middle East. …
This approach to foreign policy was misguided even at the peak of American power. As the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Russian interventionism in eastern Europe have shown, adversaries with a fraction of the United States’ resources could find ways to resist U.S. efforts and impose high costs in the process.”
b. From the 2013 Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" by Octavian Manea, an interview with Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell:
"Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about 'indirect approaches' or 'limited interventions', but the question is 'approaches to what?' What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?"
c. From the 2006 article "Counterinsurgency Redux" by David Kilcullen:
"Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation."
d. As to my fourth "evidence" item, let me simply draw your attention to the possibility that — much as Sep 11, 2001 may have represented an example of "resistance to unwanted change warfare" emanating from overseas — when the conservative elements in various states and societies were pushed to their limits — likewise Jan 6, 2021 may represent an example of a similar conservative "resistance to unwanted change warfare" moment, in this instance, emanating from within our own borders.
As this juncture, you might ask: What motivates our "revolutionary warfare" efforts/our requirement to achieve, both at home and abroad, some level of political, economic, social and/or value "change?"
The answer to this question might be: So as to — for national security reasons — better provide for and better benefit from such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy, for example, as described by Robert Gilpin in his book "The Challenge of Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century" (therein, see the "Introduction" chapter):
“Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.” (From the book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin, see the Introduction.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
If we are, in truth, engaged in "revolutionary warfare" today — and, thus, if the "security environment" must be understood in those such terms — then the following ideas from Robert Egnell (see my item "b") above may serve us well?
"Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
If nations such as China and Russia (rightfully? See my initial comment above) have come to see the U.S./the West as being in an "offensive" and "revolutionary" mode" — and if they have, accordingly, come to strategize and act in a "defensive" and "resistance" manner:"
" … Differing from the previous Tsarist regional empire and the Soviet globalist one, the new Russian foreign policy has a more pragmatic goal. It aims to build different types of buffer zones against NATO encroachment to the West and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia. … "
(See the Small Wars Journal article "The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain, by MG [ret.] James B. Linder, Spencer B. Meredith III and Jason D. Johnson; therein, see the section entitled "How We Fight: Shape, Deter, and Defeat.")
Then, might we agree that:
a. In order for the U.S./the West to properly evaluate such ideas and proposals as "Force Design 2030" and the "Wasps" concept introduced in our article above
b. The U.S./the West must actually do this from the perspective of the "offensive" and 'revolutionary" "security environment" framework that I offer in my initial comment above?
(And, thus, NOT from the "defensive" and "resistance" "security environment" perspective offered by such publications as "Advantage at Sea — which, it would seem, would not be able, as well, to explain such things as Russia's "buffer zones" noted by MG [ret.] Linder and his co-authors above?)
The US suffers from a specific and debilitating form of socio/political schizophrenia. Our democratic processes shift our emphasis with each new administration and combined with our penchant for polarized domestic conflict, seeps into our foreign policy making. Mix in entrenched government civil servants with personal agendas…and voila, we have all the reasons why anyone who tells you they know what we should do is deluded or a liar. If ever there was a "proof" for chaos theory, it's the modern American political process. The US Armed Forces is a product of American society and given that we are "divided, torn, conflicted and essentially bi-polar" it comes as no surprise that our military is in a disheveled state. Think of it like a dependable, steady, faithful work horse tied to a gigantic rickety overloaded wagon with crooked wheels moving down a bumpy rutted road…it's little wonder that the horse has difficulty making any headway. Kant famously said "…from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made", if he only knew how right he was.
Throwing out the baby with the bath water. Those big deck amphibs are your logistical hub, quick reaction force/transport, and air cover. Once you let them go, the Navy will make them go away forever and spend the money on something that is probably much less useful (one hopes that will change soon). It is an organic asset that can facilitate all of those wiz bang USVs, short hop craft, slow Light amphib ships, etc.
So be careful what you wish for. Nothing like shooting all your LRASMs from your HIMARS on a little island, then finding yourself isolated and subject to capture because of no support, logistics, or extraction capabilities. There were a few Japanese that were still stuck on islands into the 50s, 60s and even the 70s, you know.
The US Marines' organizational response to combat can be akin to a fire department's structure. If One Alarm, send two (pumper) engines and one (ladder) truck. If Two Alarms, send another two engines and one truck. If Three Alarms, send in three engines and two trucks, one Rescue truck, one HAZMAT truck, one Battalion Chief, and one SCBA air bottle refill truck. If Four Alarms, send everything that is available, including all specialized units. For the rare Five Alarm fires, call up and send in the reserves and call for Mutual Aid from the neighboring counties.
How then can the US Marines respond in combat by "ratcheting up the pressure and firepower" with wasps and no tanks? The MAGTF reserves the USMC M1A1 tanks for just that…the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). Would the USMC send more "wasps" when what is needed is heavier firepower and armor and more capabilities like a fire department?
I'm not saying that Force Design 2030 is the wrong idea, but I am saying that would more HIMARS with Naval Strike Missiles be needed if the call went to Three or Four Alarms? For that, one will need the US Army, and then one can see the fallacy in this strategy if the US Army's armor is engaged in WW3 in Europe or Africa or the Middle East.
As such, more and heavier firepower will be needed at the MEB and MEF, and ironically, the Russians and Chinese have been following this methodology with their heavy mechanized forces, even to the point of Drone Swarms and heavier, fancier, stealthier, and newer weapons systems.
The US Marines aren't a second land army; they're in charge of Embassy and ship security, but one has to wonder if the Marines are tasked with doing too much with too little. Range, speed, and firepower is important, and yes, drones, missiles, and UAVs will expand the range beyond a tank's guns, but is that the proper approach to doing things when drones are often one-shot deals whereas a single USMC M1A1 tank has 40 shells and over 14,000 bullets? Weight and costs are factors, obviously, and I'm not saying return the M1A1, but I am saying that the tank and 105-120mm gun has and will always be a vital component of any major war and military organizational structure.
So the Marines have to figure out and decide how best to "Ratchet up the heat" if the call goes to two to even five alarms for major wars. Just sending in more Boot Marines with the same weapons and equipment won't win major conflicts and wars if there is the lack and lag of added capabilities and functions in resolving battlefield issues. Example, sending in more workers with hammers isn't going to make the construction problems necessarily better if what's needed are power saws, power drills, jackhammers, power screwdrivers, jig saws, etc. because not every battlefield problem is a nail.
All of these responses and the original articles are thought provoking. The Marine Corps has moved out and must do so in order to mitigate threats that will Most likely manifest not from a single adversary, but all of them at once. My concern is that through divesture do we still have the ability to punch above our weight. The future force design looks to coerce our adversaries not compel. As a retired Marine, I believe that the day will continued to be carried by the individual Marine. SF JCD