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The Future of the Marines and Forcible Entry in a Battle Network Regime

Last week, Navy Undersecretary Bob Work laid out the sea services’ vision for the Marine Corps post-Afghanistan at CSIS, in Washington, D.C. (audio here). Work echoed the theme outgoing Commandant James Conway, and others, have been repeatedly hammering away for a good year or so: that the Marines must return to their maritime roots to differentiate themselves enough so as not to be mistaken for the Army, as we already have one of those.

Work has some intriguing ideas, most still being refined, on how the Marines intend to operate in anti-access environments where enemies possesses large magazines filled with precision weaponry known as G-RAMM - guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles. Military planners have always said ground operations can only be conducted once the Air Force has achieved air superiority over the battlefield. Now, as Work points out, the precondition for conducting future ground operations at the -mid to high-end will be the imperative to achieve “battle network superiority.”

Achieving battle network superiority promises to be more challenging than achieving and maintaining air superiority. The proliferation of reconnaissance strike battle networks, either at the low-end by enemies tapping the potential of Google Earth, GPS, cell phones and guided weapons, or at the high-end with China putting into space GPS and maritime surveillance satellite constellations and building anti-ship ballistic missiles, raises the challenge of not only penetrating those networks but also operating within them, as redundancy and commercial options may allow continuous repair of a degraded recon and strike network.

Work said his is a very different vision of network warfare than the “network centric” ideas propagated by Adm. Bill Owens and Art Cebrowski in the heady “revolution in military affairs” days. Their failure was thinking the U.S. would always monopolize the guided weapons regime.

As it turned out, because of the relatively low cost of guided weapons and often commercially available command and control networks, we’re seeing the rapid and widespread proliferation of battle networks; Hezbollah employed a simple yet effective battle network in the 2006 war in Lebanon. “Any student of history would have anticipated this, in the 90s we drank our own Kool-Aid and we assumed we’d have this monopoly forever.”

Defeating an enemy’s reconnaissance strike battle network will demand a methodical, sustained fight in all dimensions, sea, air and land. The old mantra that “speed kills” doesn’t work in the battle network regime; rushing headlong into an enemy’s battle network, when that enemy has vast magazines of guided weapons, will result in one’s rapid demise.

Achieving battle network superiority will take time, Work said, requiring a phased campaign. The Navy and Air Force, employing operational concepts develop under the AirSea Battle initiative, will counter the higher-end or longer ranged GRAMM threat, while the Marine air ground task force, once ashore, will battle the shorter ranged rockets, artillery and mortars.

Once Marines have been built up ashore, they must be able to survive a counterattack. Yet, the expected counterattack will no longer come in the form of a motorized rifle regiment (for which the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was originally designed to repel back in the 1980s), Work said, instead it will be a GRAMM threat. So, the Marines must think about how far out they must push that inner counter-GRAMM perimeter so that rockets and mortars aren’t impacting on the assembly area so men and equipment can be offloaded.

Work’s explication of the Marine’s role in theater entry sounded to me like it blew some big holes in the rationale for the EFV armored amphibian. When the EFV’s initial requirements were written, some 25 years ago, the need was to launch from over the horizon and get inland quickly before the Soviet motorized rifle battalion counterattack could pin you to the beach. Perhaps an extremely costly armored personnel carrier with a 30mm stabilized gun isn’t the best solution to the GRAAM problem set.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, guided weapons in the hands of potential enemies will force Navy ships farther offshore. Work said he’s not so sure. After a period of time in which the joint force can achieve battle network superiority, or at least attrit the enemy’s reconnaissance strike network down to manageable levels, the amphibs might be able to move closer to shore before they launch.

Yet, as ships move closer to shore, they enter into a much dirtier and more cluttered electronic spectrum, they become more vulnerable to enemies in fast-attack craft, mines and they close within the envelope of a host of guided missiles (Hellfire, TOW, etc.) that can be pressed into service as anti-ship missiles fired from mobile or very low signature platforms.

Work made clear that has vision of amphibious landing isn’t the Tarawa or Iwo Jima island fortress assault model. Better, is to land troops where the enemy isn’t doing “littoral maneuver.” The mission the Marines should truly embrace, and one at which they would excel, is providing the amphibious component of joint “theater entry” operations. Work said the Army’s airborne brigades would provide a valuable force for theater entry. Theater entry would also allow setting up bases ashore to conduct land based air operations, always appealing to the Air Force and its short legged tactical fighters.

Yet, as another whip smart former Marine, CSBA’s Dakota Wood, told me, penetrating an enemy anti-access network is one thing. Operating inside it is something else. The real contest will come in close contact with enemy forces where short range GRAMM systems may take us back to attrition warfare, he said. That’s exactly what the Israelis, long the undisputed masters of maneuver warfare, ran into against Hezbollah in 2006.

A discussion I have yet to hear is how the Navy-Marines plan to conduct amphibious operations in heavily urbanized littorals; pretty much every analysis of the future operating environment points to the hyper-urbanization of the littorals. Offloading Marines and their equipment directly into somebody’s neighborhood introduces a host of complications such as restricting freedom of maneuver, canalization, etc. Not to mention that it’s really hard to do anything resembling a covert landing of a large force into an urban area.

Work said he and his staff are working on answers to the many questions surrounding amphibious operations and power projection in a reconnaissance strike battle network regime. We eagerly await the results.

-- Greg Grant

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