Marines May See Future Fights in Mega-Cities, Planners Say

Computer generated 3D illustration with two fantasy airships over a megacity. Getty Images
Computer generated 3D illustration with two fantasy airships over a megacity. Getty Images

QUANTICO, Virginia --The Marines' fresh-off-the-presses operating concept deposits readers in the center of a military debrief, set at the base here in the year 2026.

Company- and field-grade officers are rehashing a major effort: Operation Littoral Resolve, the largest integrated naval force operation since the 1950 Battle of Inchon during the Korean War.

It's never made clear where this fictional offensive takes place, but the officers in the scenario describe operations in a dense coastal city, during which Marines must monitor social media patterns to get a sense of who's friendly and how to interact with the population.

In this world, drones are everywhere providing real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, various Marine Corps elements from dispersed small infantry elements to special operations teams to coastal riverine elements integrate seamlessly, and the emerging technology of today features prominently in the fight.

"Working from our F-35 feeds, we sent up our [unmanned aircraft system] killers to take out their crew-served positions and command posts," a Marine expeditionary unit company commander reports in the debrief, referring to the new Joint Strike Fighter. "The mortar section got fire capped and was able to drop precision rounds right where the squad leaders told us to put 'em. They tapped the app and had rounds on target."

Futuristic, yes, but also an educated projection of what fights 10 years from now will look like, according to the 32-page Marine Corps Operating Concept released Wednesday.

The document, intended to reboot the Expeditionary Force 2021 strategy of 2014, echoes the original document's interest in small-unit operations in a dispersed environment and naval operations, but devotes more attention to the role emerging technology, electromagnetic signature monitoring and increasingly pervasive surveillance where information is used as a weapon will play in the fight.

It also anticipates the challenge of operating in densely populated littoral mega-cities, where Marines must operate in close proximity to large numbers of civilians and loyalties are often unclear. The document also anticipates the possibility of conflict with a peer or near-peer enemy force, in which Marines have to monitor their own signature to ensure it's not giving them away.

Behind all these projections is the Ellis Group, a Quantico think tank composed of active-duty officers who provide guidance to the commandant. At weekly tabletop war games, members of the group said, they play out future combat scenarios. And, they said, they often lose.

"We start out with a future enemy threat and pit it against current capabilities and play it out and allow it to fail," said Maj. Edmund Clayton, a plans officer for the Ellis Group, "to look for the shortfalls and capability deficits, and incrementally add capabilities as we identify gaps in the war game."

Doug King, the group's director, said retired officers from the Corps' Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities were responsible for researching and crafting these conflict scenarios.

"When we get kicked in the teeth, we stop, we figure out why, and we add a capability or we change a tactic, and we come at it again," he said.

Out of these risk assessments come five critical tasks designed to evolve the Marine Corps for the future fight.

Under the task of integrating the naval force for fights at and from the sea, planners propose finding new ways to integrate Marine air-ground task forces aboard naval platforms, including finding places for them to deploy aboard guided missile destroyers and littoral combat ships in addition to traditional amphibious ships.

The service is also tasked with evolving the multi-capable Marine air-ground task force for large-scale fights, configuring in order to be able to allow a Marine expeditionary force and two Marine expeditionary brigades to deploy simultaneously for a major contingency. The document also advocates better teamwork with special operations forces and with unmanned technologies, such as drones and robots, in order to cover the battlefield better.

The third task requires Marines to find better ways to operate in an environment in which networks are contested, tasking commands to leverage networks and effective ISR to deliver rapid and precise fires and training troops how to operate in an environment in which the network is compromised or unavailable.

Commandant Gen. Robert Neller has frequently spoken about his concern that cell phones and GPS-enabled devices may prove a vulnerability for Marines, and said he wants to retrain on low-technology methods of land navigation and operation in anticipation of such a threat.

The document also tasks units with improving their ability to maneuver in a range of environments, from complex terrain in the mountains, arctic and jungle to densely populated urban areas. While much of Marine Corps training still happens at places like Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert -- well suited to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ellis Group plans officers said major exercise scenarios are already being adapted to simulate these mega-cities.

During the Marine Corps Integrated Exercise 2016, which took place at Twentynine Palms in August, Marines mapped out a discrete city block and flooded it with people: 100 roleplayers to simulate a neutral population, a significant Marine element to play an opposing force, and more roleplayers to stand in for police forces.

There were between 750 and 800 people in all, said Ellis Group plans officer Maj. Brian Davis, and Marines were forced to get supplies delivered from a ship 150 miles away or scavenge them locally, he said.

"It was a significant urban operation in a very confined area," he said.

The fifth and final task calls for Marine Corps brass to exploit the competence of the individual Marine, refining recruiting practices to ensure high-quality people enter the Corps and developing more complex and comprehensive training for all Marines, including more education on littoral operations, regional cultural learning and leadership development that pushes more key decisions down to skilled enlisted leaders.

It's a strategy that requires all Marines to buy into the overall operating concept and take ownership of what the Corps is trying to accomplish, even at the lowest operating levels. And efforts to engage those rank-and-file Marines in the conversation is evident from the outset, in the choice to begin a planning document with a dramatic command-debrief vignette, reminiscent of science fiction.

"We had this Tom Clancy-esque novel in the very beginning," Davis said. "But everything in there is talked about in the document."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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