Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Shell Games at Sea: A Resilient Force Structure Component for Modern Maritime Competition

By Chris Bassler and Steve Benson

On October 6 2020, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper debuted Battle Force 2045. As foundational elements of U.S. naval force design, Secretary Esper emphasized the importance of very long-range precision fires in volume, while also ensuring naval forces continue to operate at the forward edge of American interests. The U.S. Navy has an opportunity to immediately use existing ship types that are currently fielded in large numbers as manned auxiliary-strike platforms, while leveraging ongoing investments and technology maturation in the commercial shipping world for future unmanned naval platforms. The Navy can become a fast-follower, leveraging these investments and technology developments to rapidly field a future autonomous auxiliary-strike platform as a key part of a future unmanned naval force structure.

Over the past several years, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been focused on developing and implementing a concept for Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). DMO, along with the associated Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concepts, all seek to address the increasing threat posed by the proliferation of sophisticated weaponry and combat systems among great powers and potential proxies. Additionally, the 2018 National Defense Strategy highlights the distinct and important roles of the contact, blunt, surge, and homeland defense layers of the Joint Force.

The subsequent implications for U.S. naval forces, joint forces, and combined forces are broad, but to date, have remained nascent in their implementation. The simple message is that ceding the littoral regions of the world to an adversary is unacceptable to the United States and likeminded allies and partners. The Littoral Combat Ship was an initial, albeit flawed, effort to address a long-debated return to littoral operations – the dominant feature of naval operations throughout history. A hybrid commercial-military approach to force projection in contested environments deserves closer examination, and is an approach that is immediately available. It offers an evolutionary and rapid path to the future.

Fundamental Principles in a 21st Century Maritime Competition: Numerous, Distributed, Persistent, and Nondescript

A critical aspect of the DMO concept that has rightly received attention is the need to resupply and rearm combatants in order to conduct protracted operations. Doing so in an environment where fixed targets, such as ports as well as large force concentrations are becoming increasingly vulnerable poses an ever-growing challenge. An alternative approach is needed, whereby unit-level maritime surface munitions batteries would be mobile and available for use when needed, rather than located in afloat resupply stockpiles. This approach, and the use of regionally-oriented vessels, would be linked to demands of littorals operations that are already prime considerations in the design and construction of commercial vessels in global trade today. In contrast, custom military-first solutions for this purpose run the risk of being unaffordable.

Although the Marine Corps and the Army are developing mobile land-based missile batteries and will be a crucial part of the missile strike capacity in the U.S. Marine Corps’ new Littoral Maneuver Regiments (LMRs), such forces will nonetheless face challenges. These include gaining and maintaining basing access from host nations, sufficient protection and maneuver to minimize attrition from preemptive strikes, and providing sufficient stockpiles for reloading land-based missile batteries.

As a result, sea-based solutions must also be considered, especially to support stand-in forces in the contact layer. However, limits will persist for surface platform rearming at sea. Approaches that employ weapons in quantity from tactical fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles face similar challenges, while being more hobbled by limits of endurance and payload. Although the deployment of the Virginia Payload Module will provide additional covert strike capacity from SSNs, this alone will not be sufficient to address the need.

U.S. Navy experiments with test-bed platforms, like DARPA’s Sea Hunter and the Strategic Capabilities Office’s (SCO) Overlord, continue to inform some of the US Navy’s thinking for the large and medium unmanned surface vessels (LUSV and MUSV). Although these efforts have yielded valuable lessons, significant additional modifications and enhancements are still required in order to become operationally deployable assets. The roadmap of potential solutions, specifically for unmanned surface capabilities and platforms, is still coming into focus, and emphasis remains on MUSV and LUSV as the key surface platforms for acquisition programs of record. Some have advocated for concepts and experimentation using missile barges or converted commercial vessels, such as container ships.

It is time for the U.S. Navy to step forward in support of the USMC’s renewed creative thinking surrounding land-based, stand-in forces and develop a “Littoral Maneuver Flotilla” for the complementary naval component to the LMR. While supporting, and supported by, land-based forces, these floating missile magazines could be used to coordinate more complex multi-axis attacks, drastically complicating adversary planning and capabilities for effective defense.

A Missing Piece for a Littoral Maneuver Flotilla: The Auxiliary-Strike Surface Platform

In order to apply the fundamental principles of numerous, distributed, persistent, and nondescript, a specific set of missions that can be appropriately and advantageously grouped together must be considered. These naval missions include logistical resupply, including both ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore; a floating munitions battery for strike, anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions; convoy escort; and mobile minelaying. A 2020 CRS report noted:

“The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads — particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles.”

Some nations (such as Russia, China, and Israel), have developed containerized deck-mounted weapons and others are contemplating them. However, their small numbers, need for supporting equipment, and conspicuous posture lessen their potential operational significance. Instead, a floating vertical launch system (VLS) battery could be employed to launch missiles for strike missions (anti-ship or land-attack), torpedoes, or mobile mines against surface or undersea targets. However, a floating VLS battery would still need to be controlled by a mothership or some other local controller (e.g. a surface combatant, aircraft, or spacecraft). In many cases, artificial intelligence is still not sufficiently mature and sufficient trust in autonomous systems has not been developed. Moreover, in addition to sophisticated net-enabled weapons, a floating VLS battery would require offboard targeting and fire control.

It is worth considering alternatives to the commercially adapted, but more militarized designs of the LUSV and MUSV, which will be neither cheap, nor non-descript. In the late 2000s, NAVSEA conducted a study that looked at using Military Sealift Command dry cargo ships as first salvo strike platforms, leaving surface combatants for follow-on engagements. However, this concept was not pursued, and the Navy instead focused on different technical approaches to enable rearming at sea. With the recent track record of naval ship design, a “clean sheet” new T-AKE class would likely result in a complex, high-cost, and conspicuous design.

Instead, handysize break bulk carriers sail in large numbers today and are IMO-compliant double-hull designs. Use of such existing ships would allow the Navy and Marine Corps to gain immediate experience with the concept and further develop and refine approaches, while only requiring small crews of operators. At the same time, during the last five years, efforts have been underway to develop and experiment with autonomous commercial shipping, including major ongoing efforts in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, among others. As these autonomous ships mature and begin to sail in significant numbers in their respective regions, the Navy can then smartly shift over to employing these vessels for the auxiliary-strike role. In the framework of the NDS, these vessels would be a persistent contact force, but with blunt force abilities and capacity.

The bulk carrier Sabrina I, photographed from atop the Astoria-Megler Bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Gray Man” at Sea: A Nondescript, Effective Platform for the Shell Game

An approach that initially leverages manned, break bulk vessels, and then progresses to unmanned autonomous shipping vessels will allow immediate fielding of increased numbers of surface strike assets, while at the same time developing, de-risking, and experimenting with key technologies as they mature. Indeed, it would follow the wisdom of Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer’s famous motto of “build a little, test a little, learn a lot” while rapidly expanding the number of distributed surface strike assets today and into the future. Deception would be enhanced by the clever use of ubiquitous common commercial hulls in this shell game.

Using commercial vessel ship classes that could accommodate weapons modules and launch cells (e.g. either Mk41 or Mk57 VLS) with minimal modifications would, at reasonable cost, substantially increase the numbers of launchers available that could be employed in the earlier stages of a conflict and support stand-in forces in the contact layer. The Mk57 VLS developed and employed on the DDG-1000 includes options for additional munitions and extra hardening for payload protection. The standardization of both Mk41 and Mk57 VLS permit numerous and varied weapons loadout options, and the VLS modules can be distributed in configurations within the ship to minimize risk of damage, while also confusing adversary targeting through both inter-ship and intra-ship deception. Instead of cumbersome and time-consuming weapons reloads in individual cells, replacing fully loaded modules with a quick swap-out in available ports or at safe-anchorages could be used for logistical sustainment.

Notional estimates would suggest these vessels could carry payloads ranging from 16 to 100 or more VLS cells, sufficient to have diverse payloads and enable effective strikes, while not allowing the vessels to become large and lucrative targets, whose potential loss would be unacceptable. The objective is to have numerous, dispersed, persistent and nondescript mini arsenal ships, not a small number of massive capital ship assets.

At sea aboard USS San Jacinto (CG 56) Mar. 3, 2003 – A topside view of the forward MK-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) aboard the guided missile cruiser. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass)

The break bulk vessels would enable minimally manned operations today. And as technologies mature, increased experience can be gained with optionally manned operations. By leveraging ongoing and evolving autonomous commercial shipping designs, a future auxiliary-strike platform should have zero manning. Commercial autonomous ships are being specifically designed to achieve long-duration voyages, where no human intervention is needed for maintenance. Leveraging these commercial efforts would mitigate the challenges associated with attempting to apply traditional Navy design approaches and tools to vessels outside of the intended design conditions, while addressing risks that key stakeholders have identified. For commercial airlines, A-level check maintenance (the lightest) intervals can be up to 1000 flight hours between maintenance, equivalent to about 40+ days of continuous sailing. For other military vehicle applications, platforms like the X-37B robotic spaceplane, which recently achieved a record-setting 780 days in orbit, spacecraft design, or DARPA’s NOMARS (No Maintenance Required Ship) project can provide important lessons and insights for application to longer durations. The movement of commercial shipping toward autonomous surface vessels will help to accelerate this longer-interval without maintenance for many maritime systems and subsystems. As these approaches mature, the Navy should begin by establishing a goal of operating continuously for up to one month at sea without human intervention required, and then smartly work up to six-month intervals or longer.

For autonomous surface vessels, successful navigation in the highly trafficked and cluttered sea lanes is an operational imperative and is being pursued with urgency in the commercial world. One of the main successes from DARPA’s Sea Hunter program, in cooperation with the Navy, was the development and incorporation of COLREG compliant algorithms into the vessel’s operations. The vessel has been able to navigate unmanned round-trip journeys from California to Hawaii. In September 2020, a new commercial design began an unmanned navigation across the North Atlantic (a re-creation of the Mayflower journey, going from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, Massachusetts). Data collected from recurring transits can be used to develop additional proxies and enhancements for autopilots. Several automotive companies use massive amounts of aggregated actual driver data to develop autopilot surrogates, and similar approaches could be applied.

Sea Hunter, a class of unmanned surface vessel developed in partnership between the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (U.S. Navy photo)

Especially in peacetime, the commercial shipping approach of having remote control for a flotilla can be employed. Already today, we see how “remote tower” airport control technology has physically removed the need for air controllers to be located at each airfield. There is no reason that multiple flotillas could not be controlled from a single Maritime Operations Center (MOC), whether from a fixed location during peacetime, or from a nearby mothership or offboard platform during conflict. Especially for a crisis or conflict, understanding how these vessels would be employed when global or theater-wide regional network connectivity is not available, unreliable, or compromised is essential. Technologies to enable “network optional” command and control are already used today, such as optical recognition using “QR” codes, high capacity line-of-sight laser communications and data – to and from other maritime, airborne, or low earth orbit satellites, to enable “return to rendezvous point” commands, as well as unique deception techniques. Additionally, standardized launchers like the Mk41 or Mk57 VLS, coupled with rapidly advancing technologies for small satellites, will enable concepts for these vessels to self-launch and deploy their own unmanned aerial systems or tactical satellite constellations to provide temporary overwatch or secure communications relays.

A concept illustration of an autonomous Rolls-Royce vessel (Rolls-Royce image)

The application of common vertical launch cell modules in nondescript and numerous commercial vessels provides an effective means to deliver this capability immediately, while also planning a path to leverage broader commercial technology advances in autonomous shipping. VLS cells maximize payload options through a standardized interface. Additional cargo space should be used for opportunistic resupply, port loading and offloading, to help reinforce consistent, nondescript behaviors. As a result, the platform could be considered as a mini-T-AKE (without underway replenishment), although indistinguishable from the numerous break bulk vessels, and in the near-future, from numerous autonomous shipping vessels. The same hull forms can be used for trade and military logistics in peacetime, organically growing a maritime Ready Reserve Force (RRF) (e.g. the British version of Ships Taken Up From Trade, or STUFT), for the U.S. and key allies and partners.

Expanding this approach beyond assets intended primarily for use in crisis or conflict will allow the ships to become more numerous and inexpensive, while also helping them be nondescript, as they exhibit common behaviors to numerous ships worldwide. With these vessels, the Navy should use common shipping trade routes as opportunities to hide in plain sight. Using routes, such as following the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines archipelago, or from Australia-Singapore-Vietnam, will provide ample opportunities for experience and experimentation, while also re-supplying U.S. bases, accessing key ports, and transiting with common traffic.

No specific paint schemes would be required, but due to the weapons payload, the ships would be flagged under U.S., ally, or partner, as required. This still presents a sufficient challenge to an adversary to confidently obtain positive combat identification, a considerably difficult part of the kill chain. These vessels would comply with legal requirements in peacetime, low intensity conflict, and up to war, while enhancing uncertainty as to their actual payloads and capabilities. Leveraging autonomous surface vessel designs, repurposed from seaborne trade for military purposes, and vice versa, can enhance continuous deterrence through the associated uncertainty of a “shell game” at sea, with autonomous surface auxiliary-strike ships as the cornerstone.

Additional Advantages: A Global Flotilla for Both Peacetime and Conflict

A key element of a successful strategy for great power competition involves leveraging the strengths of key allies and partners. Having common allied platforms in large numbers for both logistics and mobile weapons would provide distributed, persistent, and nondescript forces. These would enhance combined surface force and amphibious and ground maneuver operations in the littorals. Break bulk vessels can easily be built in many shipyards, due to their simple design, and can have shallow enough draft to operate in inland waterways. This offers the possibility for a modern but more operationally useful and plentiful “Liberty Ship” blended with characteristics of Q-ships. These vessels are useful in peacetime for sea-based commerce, as well as providing critical supporting forces in wartime, whether for attack, rearm, and resupply, while also hiding in plain sight, both physically and in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Development of autonomous commercial ships is technically feasible, and key allies and partners are leading the way with commercial investments. Leveraging the momentum and investments that key nations and major shipping companies are already undertaking, a consortium could be established between the U.S. Navy and several key allies to procure, adapt, field, and operate this class of platform. This would leverage common systems and approaches from commercial efforts, while enabling navies to focus on unique military systems development and maturation in parallel. For future autonomous surface platforms, by cooperating with select regional maritime partners, several primary (commercial shipping-based) variants could be procured and fielded, with customized attention to key regions (e.g. the Indo-Pacific, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Arctic).

The cornerstone military capability of these ships revolves around the integration of Mk 41 or Mk 57 VLS cells. Allowing key nations to develop subsystems (hardware and software), especially autonomy enhancements to satisfy minimum mission requirements, and experiment would help to share the burden. The U.S. could take the lead on integration, to ensure maximum interoperability, as well as assess priority opportunities for enhanced capabilities. The recently established NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems (MUS) Initiative provides one such path where a virtuous cycle of missions, technologies, experimentation, and refinement can be realized.


The first Gulf War in 1991 provided valuable insight into the huge difficulties of “SCUD hunting” in the desert. The U.S. and key allies and partners can apply this approach to the maritime dimension of 21st century great power competition, for an advantageous cost-imposition strategy using cheap and mobile hiders to employ effective salvos at sea. This would shift the balance for cost-imposition in a way that is favorable in peacetime, while supporting continued economic development and positioning, and if needed, during crisis or conflict. In a hider-finder competition, the sheer volume of maritime traffic and persistence offer a key opportunity to advantage a hider, if it can remain nondescript. Application of common Vertical Launch System (VLS) modules into existing commercial vessels can provide numerous, distributed, persistent, and nondescript capability today, while also pursuing an accelerated path to leverage ongoing and significant commercial developments for autonomous shipping. The Navy should further pursue this concept in wargames and alternative future fleet architecture designs, with continuous feedback from at-sea experimentation. The U.S., with key partners and allies, should explore the use of these types of vessels, and effectively implement shell games at sea.

Chris Bassler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Steve Benson is President of Littoral Solutions Inc. and CDR, USN (ret’d).

Featured Image: A concept illustration of an autonomous Rolls-Royce vessel (Rolls-Royce image)

Why Military Sealift Command Needs Merchant Mariners at the Helm

By Dr. Salvatore R. Mercogliano

COVID and the Straining Merchant Marine

On July 29, 2020, the heads of three maritime unions – Marshall Ainley of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, Don Marcus from the International Organization of Masters, Mate & Pilots, and Michael Sacco, the long-time President of Seafarers International Union – jointly penned a letter to Rear Admiral Michael A. Wettlaufer, the Commander of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. In their one-page letter, they were blunt and to the point: “We are writing to you today to communicate our ongoing and increasingly grave concerns regarding the mental health and well-being of MSC’s CIVMARS [civilian mariners].”

The letter sent to the commander of Military Sealift Command by the three union heads (Click to expand)

They highlighted three specific issue. First, the March 21, 2020 “Gangway Up” order that restricted merchant mariners to their ships due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the act was prudent and ensured the readiness of the vessels to respond to missions, it was done with no warning and more importantly, did not apply to naval personnel assigned to the vessels or contractors. Therefore, the quarantine intended to be in place on board ship was broken daily, while crewmembers who reported on board for work that morning found themselves trapped and threatened with termination if they left the vessel, while others moved freely on and off the ship. This became apparent with a breakout on board USNS Leroy Grumman undergoing a yard availability in Boston.

The second issue involved the recent tragedy on board USNS Amelia Earhart. On July 22, third officer Jonathon J. Morris of San Mateo, CA fatally shot himself on board. The letter from the three union heads noted, “the ongoing and selective ‘Gangways Up’ restriction may have, in some part, contributed to the unnecessary and senseless act.”’ While there is no evidence to indicate this, my personal communications with crewmembers on board Amelia Earhart indicate that the event has not triggered any change in the operation of the vessel. While counselors were sent to the ship, its operations continue with no safety stand down, and not even a chaplain accompanied the vessel as it sailed to perform services for the fleet with some of the mariners not setting foot on ground for almost a half a year, except to remove the body of their shipmate. Mariners remained restricted to the ship in port, while active duty Navy personnel left the vessel.

The final issue is the delay in reliefs for crews, up to 90 days late in some cases. Many mariners have not been home since the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States or were permitted ashore in that time period. MSC’s leave policy for its mariners is well outside the norms of common maritime industry practice because mariners hired directly by MSC must conform to government employment rules, even though they operate in an environment completely different than the normal federal employee. Mariners earn a set number of hours of leave every two weeks.  The only addition is 14 days of annual shore leave. For new employees to MSC, this means 10 months onboard ship (tours are usually limited to four months, but delays are typical) and only two on land in a year.

While shore-side government workers enjoy flex work schedules, weekends at home, get holidays off, enjoy the occasional snow day, and can schedule vacations well in advance, MSC mariners are toiling at least eight hours a day, seven days a week for a minimum of four months at a time when wages are comparable to those ashore. They miss weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, events with children, and now they face prolonged wait for relief. Unlike Navy sailors, MSC mariners do not rotate to shore billets or have many of the opportunities for education and training afforded to naval personnel. Even worse, those waiting to get out to ships have used all their leave and are now ashore, considered absent without leave, and not being paid as they await a call to report back to work for a potential assignment out to the fleet.

This is the situation facing 5,383 MSC mariners who crew 20 percent of the 301 ships in the U.S. Navy.  Let that number sink in for a moment: one out of every five ships in the battle force of the U.S. Navy is crewed by merchant mariners and not U.S. Navy sailors. All 29 of the auxiliary supply ships, the dozen fast transport ships, and the fleet tugs and salvage ships are all operated and commanded by merchant mariners. Some ships, such as the submarine tenders, command ships, and expeditionary support bases, while commanded by a naval officer, have merchant mariners who operate the deck, engine, and steward departments on board. This does not include the fleet of contract operated vessels in the afloat prepositioning force, sonar surveillance, ocean survey or sealift vessels with another 1,400 contract merchant mariners.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Sept. 17, 2015) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82), right, receives fuel from the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE 6) during an underway replenishment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Corey T. Jones/Released)

Yet these recent issues facing the Merchant Marine are not simply the product of COVID or other recent events. They are simply yet another expression of the longstanding problems of status the Merchant Marine has faced within the U.S. Navy.

Inequality in the Merchant Marine

Throughout the U.S. Navy, specialized communities are commanded by one of their own – submariners command submarines, aviators command squadrons and carriers, SEALs command special operations, and so forth. Yet, when it comes to merchant mariners, they fall under the command of serving U.S. naval officers with little to no experience with merchant mariners.

Recently, MSC had two commanders – Mark Buzby and T. K. Shannon who graduated from merchant marine academies and were at least familiar with the U.S. merchant marine. The last two MSC commanders – Dee Mewbourne and Michael Wettlaufer – are both aviators. In the past, non-surface warfare commanders have done exceedingly well, particularly two submariners – Glynn Donaho and Lawson Ramage. They oversaw MSC’s forerunner – Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) – during the Vietnam era, when the service handled mainly passengers, cargo, and fuel and they were experts in disrupting those services due to their experience with sinking the Japanese merchant marine in the Second World War.

Today, MSC is integrated into the fleet structure and many of its previous sealift missions are shared with the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and the United States Transportation Command. With the end of naval manning of auxiliaries in 2010, all of them are operated by MSC mariners, with some hybrid crews. No longer do MSC tankers and supply ships shuttle up to U.S. Navy auxiliaries attached to battle groups, but mariner-crewed oilers and combat supply ships are both shuttle and station ships for the U.S. Navy. Yet these ships lack two critical assets from their grey hull counterparts.

First, they have no means of defense at all. MSC ships, except for small arms, are completely unarmed. Ships that are intended to provide the fuel, ammunition, and vital supplies to keep an entire carrier strike group or Marine amphibious assault task force at sea lack even point-defense weapons. In the world wars, the U.S. Navy assigned armed guard detachments to merchant vessels to defend the ships. While Kaiser-class oilers have the mounts for close-in weapons systems (CIWS), they lack the weapons. If an enemy nation wanted to eliminate the threat of the U.S. Navy, why would it go head-to-head with a Nimitz-class carrier when all it could to do is wait, shadow, and sink unarmed supply ships and then wait for the task force to run out of gas?

Additionally, those mariners who now find themselves not dead or killed in the initial attack, but afloat in a life raft, face another challenge – what is their status? Not whether they are dead or alive, but are they considered veterans? They face on a common day the same challenges and threats as that of U.S. Navy sailors, but they are not considered veterans. Even those mariners that experienced the Second World War had to wait over 40 years, until 1988, to get their service acknowledged as veteran through a lawsuit.

Some argue that merchant mariners are contractors and therefore do not deserve this. But how many contractors command assets in the Unified Command Structure of the military? No contractor commands a squadron in the Air Force, or a battalion in the Army or Marines, yet one-fifth of the Navy’s ships have a merchant mariner in command. The Navy gets all the benefits of a sailor without giving the mariner those same benefits. That is a deal, but for the Navy.

PHILIIPPINE SEA (May 8, 2020) – Civilian mariners assigned to the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE 7) attach supplies to Carl Brashear’s AS-332 Super Puma helicopter during a replenishment-at-sea with the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (U.S. Navy photo by Ordinary Seaman DJ Hinahon)

Some say the easiest solution is to replace mariners on the 60-plus ships with U.S. Navy sailors, but it has been tried before. This unique arrangement came into being at the founding of the Navy. The first ships brought into the Navy were merchant ships along the dock in Philadelphia. The two founding fathers of the Navy – John Paul Jones and John Barry – learned their trade as master mariners. In the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, private men of war (privateers) vastly outnumbered public men of war. In the Civil War, mariners kept the Union army supplied along the coasts and rivers. At the end of the Spanish-American War, with a global empire, the Navy needed to prioritize its personnel and decided to hire a civilian crew to man USS Alexander, a collier. By 1917, almost all the Navy fuel ships were civilian manned by elements of the Naval Auxiliary Service. With the outbreak of war, and concerns of foreign elements in some of the crews, and a massive increase in the size of the Navy personnel, the crews of the NAS were militarized, and later the commercial passenger ships in the Transport Force. The Navy resisted civilian crewing, and in 1942 President Roosevelt placed the building, crewing, and operating of the commercial merchant marine in the hands of one person – Emory S. Land.

After the successes of the Second World War, the use of civilian-crewed merchant ships was cemented with the creation of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). It was expanded in 1972 when the first underway replenishment oiler, Taluga, was transferred to civilian control. While some in the Navy may advocate for removing the civilian crews from the MSC ships today, the Navy already lacks the necessary personnel for its current assets, let alone an additional 60 ships, or the expertise in handling such assets.

Creating Paths to Command

This comes to the final point – how to address the issues raised by the heads of the unions based on the current situation facing the Military Sealift Command. The solution comes from the history of MSC’s forerunner, MSTS, and its counterpart across the seas, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) of Great Britain. Within MSC’s command structure are five Senior Executives – Legal Counsel, Director of Total Force Management, Director of Ship Management, Director of Maritime Operations, and Executive Director. They are all stellar and outstanding qualified people, and MSC is fortunate to have them. I know many of them and have worked with some of them in the past. They have impressive biographies and two of them graduated from merchant marine academies.

Yet nowhere in the chain of command for MSC is a Master or Chief Engineer from the fleet. They serve as Port Captains and Engineers and advise area commands, but there is no career path from the deckplate to the headquarters. That is a fundamental flaw in the organization and leads to the disconnect currently besetting the fleet.

In comparison, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is commanded by Commodore Duncan Lamb. He has been in the RFA for 38 years and commanded many vessels in the fleet. His announced successor, Capt. David Eagles, has served with the RFA for more than 30 years. Unlike MSC, the RFA integrates their personnel into the command structure of the Royal Navy and therefore they have the opportunity for billets ashore and work within the shore base Navy.

What works for the Royal Navy may not work for the U.S. Navy, such as how Prince Edward* is the Commodore-in-Chief of the RFA, and they are much more regimented than MSC. However, they do have Royal Navy detachments on board for self-defense. The Royal Navy has a better understanding of how RFA ships work as demonstrated by their integration into the fleet during the Falklands Conflict of 1982.

A model where MSC mariners, starting at the junior level – 2nd Mate or Engineer – have the option for a career path that would involve assignment ashore to MSC area commands and fleets may better inform naval personnel of the particular needs of merchant mariners. Additionally, the appointment of senior master or chief engineer as vice commander at both the area command and headquarters level could ease the transition of new commanders who have little to no experience with MSC and provide a conduit and perspective from the fleet to the headquarters.

PHILIPPINE SEA (June 12, 2020) – The Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Alan Shepard (T-AKE 3), right, and the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) steam together during a replenishment-at-sea as an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the “Flying Carabao” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 25 Det. 3 flies overhead. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Gabe Pogliano)

It is very doubtful that the Navy would allow any of its commands to be structured in a similar way. A small group of naval officers – 323 active Navy sailors – oversees MSC from its headquarters in Norfolk, to the five area commands and in dozens of offices around the world. This disconnect, with officers and civilians who have never served or commanded vessels with merchant marine crews or any of the types operated by MSC, explains why the issues raised by the union heads pervade the fleet. It appears that the role of merchant mariners in the role of national defense is reaching an inflection point.


Merchant mariners crew the fleet auxiliaries providing fuel, ammunition, and supplies to the U.S. Navy at sea. They operate the afloat prepositioning ships that would deploy the initial elements of Marine and Army brigades, along with materiel to a potential battlefield. They crew the 61 ships maintained by the Maritime Administration in the Ready Reserve Force and MSC’s sealift force, and they crew the 60 commercial ships of the Maritime Security Program. They are foundational to the nation’s ability to maintain, deploy, and sustain its armed forces abroad, and they cannot be easily replaced by naval personnel.

Yet despite this vital role, they lack representation within the command structure of the U.S. Navy. They are taken for granted by the Department of Defense and the public in general. They are overlooked in most strategic studies of American military policy and posture. And yet it is not clear whether in a future war the nation will be able to count on the U.S. merchant marine as it has in past conflicts.

This issue is not one caused by Admiral Wettlaufer, or any of the previous MSC commanders. It is a problem that has manifested itself as the command evolved from a primarily transport force of cargo, troops, and fuel, to one that is firmly integrated into the fleet structure in terms of ships. But the same cannot be said of its personnel.

MSC has undergone periodic transformations, alterations, and inflection points, and COVID-19 may be one of those moments. A group of former commanders, retired masters and chief engineers, and experts in the field should be formed to examine how to restructure MSC and present recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary and past civilian shipping entities can serve as models for how Military Sealift Command can proceed into its 72nd year of existence, and ease the issues facing the fleet and mariners today.

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is a former merchant mariner, having sailed and worked ashore for the Military Sealift Command. He is an associate professor of history at Campbell University and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He has written on U.S. Merchant Marine history and policy, including his book, Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War, and won 2nd Place in the 2019 Chief of Naval Operations History Essay Contest with his submission, “Suppose There Was a War and the Merchant Marine Did Not Come?”

*Editor’s Note: Prince Andrew was originally listed as being the Commodore-in-Chief of the RFA when it is Prince Edward.

Featured Image: SEA OF JAPAN (Nov. 16, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts an underway-replenishment with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) Dry Cargo and Ammunition Ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)

Marines and Mercenaries: Beware the Irregular Threat in the Littoral

By Walker D. Mills

The world is increasingly urban and littoral. This convergence between urbanization and the littoral, or littoralization, can lead to “the worst of both worlds” and may remake the littorals into hotspots of instability and conflict. At the same time, the U.S. Marine Corps is shifting its focus away from decades of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare in the Middle East. In 2017, the Marine Corps published a new operating concept focused on the littorals called Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE). LOCE emphasized “fighting for and gaining sea control, to include employing sea-based and land-based Marine Corps capabilities to support the sea control fight,” but at the same time cautioned that “major combat operations (MCO) and campaigns versus peer competitors are beyond the scope of this concept.” A more recent and still not publicly released operating concept, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), expanded on LOCE to cover major combat operations and campaigns against a peer competitor – most likely China.

EABO and a growing focus on great power competition promises to be the future of the Marine Corps and is the basis for the new Commandant’s Force Design 2030 effort. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has asserted that the Corps is “the preeminent littoral warfare and expeditionary warfare service.” And littorals are unquestioningly where the Marine Corps is most needed and can be the most effective. But this pivot to the littoral does not necessarily mean the Marine Corps can leave irregular warfare and lower-intensity conflicts behind. History and current trends make clear the global littorals are a haven of irregular warfare, and always have been for millennia.

In a recent interview the Marine Commandant expressed his view that a force optimized for major combat operations against a highly capable adversary can easily adapt to operate effectively across the range of military operations:

“We’re building a force that, in terms of capability, is matched up against a high-end capability. The premise is that if you do that, if you build that kind of a force, then you can use that force anywhere in the world, in any scenario; you can adapt it.”

He cautioned, “But the inverse is not true.” The Commandant is correct, a well-trained and highly capable force can adapt to new threats. But the question is how long does that take? The U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that adapting to a low-end fight can take years, including changes to strategy, acquiring the right equipment, and writing and training to the relevant doctrine. Clearly the Marine Corps needs to prioritize and adapt to meet the challenges posed by China, a highly capable competitor and potential adversary. However, as the Marine Corps looks beyond the irregular threats of the Middle East, it cannot afford to abandon those hard-won lessons. Irregular warfare and asymmetric threats can and likely will follow the Marine Corps to the littorals. In many cases, they are already there.

Irregular Warfare in the Littorals

The threat of non-state actors and irregular warfare in the littorals is not new. Even the rebellious 13 American colonies leveraged maritime irregular warfare to support their bid for independence, employing a mix of littoral raiding forces and state-sponsored privateers to target British shipping at sea and in their home waters. Criminal and entrepreneurial activity has deep roots at sea with a long history of pirates taking vessels and raiding lucrative targets ashore. This type of amphibious raiding has taken place in nearly every global littoral region at some time or other. Some of the earliest recorded history is accounts of “the Sea Peoples” attacking the Egyptian kingdom of Ramesses II in the Bronze Age. In 793 AD, Vikings from Scandinavia raided the monastery at Lindisfarne, kicking off the Viking Age. Piracy was rampant in the colonial Caribbean, both by pirates operating independently and by privateers, which were pirates operating as proxies with the official sanction of European kingdoms to raid vessels and settlements.

Today pirates continue to operate. They concentrate their operations in the littorals and near international chokepoints such as the Gulf of Guinea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, often taking advantage of the seams between different law enforcement regimes ashore and offshore. Pirates operating from bases in Somalia became famous after they hijacked the Maersk Alabama, and where the subsequent rescue operation by the U.S. Navy SEALs was made into the blockbuster Captain Phillips.

But pirates are now more prevalent elsewhere, especially in the Asian littoral. A plurality of total piracy now occurs in the Straits of Malacca and near Singapore. The Bay of Bengal is another piracy hotspot. The threat of piracy has also fueled the rise of a dark economy of mercenaries for hire that live and work in the littorals on commercial ships and floating armories, a potential spark for even more instability.

Effective counterpiracy efforts require a naval force supplemented with the capability to conduct visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations as well as operations against pirate bases ashore. It requires a force comfortable operating on land, at sea, and in the spaces in between. It is exactly the type of operations that Marines need to be prepared for as they shift their focus to the littorals.


Mines have long been a critical weapon in irregular warfare, whether military-grade or improvised. Sea mines especially when deployed in maritime straits or chokepoints – are highly effective weapons and are inexpensive. During the Korean War, mines were deployed to block the approach to Wonsan Harbor by rolling them off the back of local fishing boats. Despite this crude method of employment, they were effective in sinking multiple U.S. warships. Sea mines have also notably accounted for 14 of the 18 U.S. warships damaged or sunk by hostile action since the end of the Second World War and “over the last 125 years mines have damaged or sunk more ships than all other weapon systems combined.” They were responsible for damaging three U.S. warships during the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf despite American awareness of the mine threat.

Last year, a spate of limpet mine attacks proved that mines are not just weapons of the past. Video footage indicates these attacks were perpetrated by Iran, which has not admitted responsibility. In South America, authorities have found hidden packages of drugs attached to cargo ships or hidden in secret underwater compartments, indicating that the expertise needed to place a limpet mine is not limited to the Persian Gulf.

An image taken from video released by United States Central Command  in June 2019 shows a smaller boat near what appears to be the vessel Kokuka Courageous, in the Gulf of Oman. The military said the video shows the crew of an Iranian Gashti Class patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the tanker’s hull. (Photo Via U.S. Central Command)

Sea mines are yet another threat to the security of U.S. and allied vessels in the littorals that the Marine Corps may find itself dealing with. In his 2019 Planning Guidance, the Commandant of the Marine Corps mused whether or not it would be “prudent to absorb” some traditionally naval functions like mine countermeasures. It is even easier to imagine Marines being charged with raiding networks engaged in the manufacture and employment of sea mines, much like how they operated against insurgent bombmakers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Improvised Explosive Attacks

Improvised anti-ship weapons are also a threat to U.S. and allied naval vessels and merchant shipping. In the 1990s, the Tamil Sea Tigers, the naval arm of an insurgent group in Sri Lanka, made a staple out of vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks at sea. They attacked dozens of international vessels in the waters around Sri Lanka with a range of tactics. Not even warships are immune to this type of attack. In 2000, Al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in a suicide attack with a speedboat packed with explosives, killing 17 sailors. Captain Wayne Hughes (ret.) had also argued that ships in port are increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Ships and maritime infrastructure itself can even be repurposed as a weapon. While there is no evidence that the recent explosion in Beirut was intentional, it revealed a critical vulnerability in port security. In his 2006 novel, The Afghan, Frederick Forsyth imagined a crew of terrorists seizing a liquid natural gas (LNG) tanker to use as a massive suicide bomb. Used in such a way, a hijacked LNG tanker would have explosive power similar to a small nuclear warhead. But an oil tanker or even a stationary drilling platform could still unleash an environmental and economic catastrophe if it was damaged or sunk. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill released nearly 11 million barrels of oil and ultimately affected over a thousand miles of coastline. The disaster cost Exxon nearly $7 billion. Recent reports of dozens of full and stationary oil tankers anchored off the U.S. coast present a significant economic and environmental vulnerability to any group willing to take advantage of it. Today, a crippled tanker full of crude rides at anchor off the coast of rebel-controlled Yemen where it is a potential target and ecological disaster waiting to happen.

Marines have already helped to protect U.S. warships from VBIEDs by strapping light-armored vehicles with 25 millimeter cannons to the deck of the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship. This innovative yet extremely inefficient point defense solution may foreshadow how Marines may be forced to apply high-end capabilities like light armored reconnaissance assets to address irregular maritime threats. Marines may soon find themselves required to habitually defend fixed installations and ships at sea against attack with makeshift solutions.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Sept. 27, 2018) – Marines, assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), fire a Light Armored Vehicle’s M242 Bushmaster 25 mm chain gun at a target during a Defense of the Amphibious Task Force (DATF) drill aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Galbreath)

Maritime Infiltration

The perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed or injured several hundred people arrived by sea. The attackers traveled from Pakistan to Mumbai via container ship and a hijacked fishing trawler before infiltrating Mumbai on inflatable boats. The attackers demonstrated that the littoral zone could be used as a maneuver space to reach vulnerable targets

Semi-submersible vessels, often dubbed “narco submarines,”  have become a key means of transporting cocaine out of South America for drug cartels and pose a persistent problem for drug enforcement agencies. Most of the narcosubs leave from the Pacific coast of Colombia or Ecuador and are bound for Mexico, where their cargoes will often be transshipped to the U.S. overland. These vessels are often built deep in the jungle and once at sea can be incredibly difficult to locate. Analysts estimate that as much as 80 percent of Colombia’s cocaine leaves the country by sea. Fully submersible vessels have been found with dimensions up to 100-feet long and capable of carrying nine tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico in a single trip. Started in Colombia, the trend has now globalized and narco-submarines are now being used to infiltrate Europe. It should not be a surprise in the future if these improvised, but increasingly sophisticated and capable vessels are eventually used to smuggle terrorists, weapons, or explosives, or are employed as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.  


It is clear the littorals will continue to provide opportunities for terrorists and non-state actors to threaten the United States and its allies. Yet the post-9/11 fight against terrorism and other security initiatives have largely ignored the maritime space. A recent report by Stable Seas found that while “Global powers have spent billions over the last few decades in the fight against [violent non-state actors]…[they] have mostly overlooked their activities in the maritime domain” and argues that an effective approach to maritime security has to integrate onshore and offshore operations – an ideal role for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Simple yet effective weapons and tactics will continue to be a threat, and these groups may also acquire more advanced weaponry like the anti-ship missiles that have been employed by the Houthis and Hezbollah. Technological innovation and proliferation will allow land-based groups to continue threatening high-value targets at sea like cruise ships, tankers, offshore platforms, and naval vessels and especially in key straits, maritime chokepoints, and ports. At the same time, low-tech and improvised threats will remain, like narco-submarines and explosive-laden speedboats. Capt. Hughes argued in Fleet Tactics: “Often the second best weapon performs better because the enemy, at great cost in offensive effectiveness, takes extraordinary measures to survive the best weapon.”

As the Navy and Marine Corps increasingly focus on the threat from high-end weapons like Chinese supersonic anti-ship missiles and the DF-26 “Carrier Killer” ballistic missile they cannot forget about the low-end threats and “second best weapons.” The Marine Corps’ own concept for using small units, distributed among key maritime terrain to hold ocean-going targets at risk, is proof that non-state actors and rogue states may be able to do the same and achieve outsized effects because of the unique vulnerabilities and tactical geography presented by the littorals.

The Marine Corps needs to be fully cognizant of not just the potential for high-end, major combat operations in the littorals, but also of the irregular threats it may be called to address at any time. The Marine Corps needs to make sure that as it shifts its focus to major combat operations against a peer or near-peer adversary it maintains the capability to counter irregular and asymmetric threats against U.S. interests and allied in the littorals.

Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy in Cartagena.

Featured Image: STRAIT OF HORMUZ (Aug. 12, 2019) An AH-1Z Viper attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) prepares for take-off during a strait transit aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck/Released)

The Commandant Needs Our Help: Accelerating Marine Corps Force Development

By Chris “Junior” Cannon

The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), General David H. Berger has recently updated his guidance with “Force Design 2030.” The plan calls for major changes, including a reduction of 12,000 active-duty Marines, significant reductions in manned aviation, and a suggested reallocation of $12 billion (presumably over 10 years) to implement force design changes. The impetus behind Force Design 2030 is the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which states “new concepts of warfare and competition that span the entire spectrum of conflict require a Joint Force structure to match this reality.” Figure 1 below shows the CMC’s planned reduction in force levels.

Figure 1: Suggested personnel change from Force Design 2030 update, figures from MCRP 5-12. VMFA personnel reductions are the author’s estimate, based on a reduction of 16 to 10 aircraft per squadron. (Author’s graphic)

Col. T. X. Hammes (USMC, ret.) and LtCol. Frank Hoffman (USMC, ret.) offer different versions of this chart, but their analysis is incomplete without arriving at the reduction of 12,000 Marines that CMC suggests. The proposed changes remove about 30 percent of infantry billets, but there appears to have been an absence of analysis to this divestment because the number was not well-known or understood. Hoffman states: “Ultimately, this is not a radical shift of force capabilities or capacity.” Limiting some F-35 squadrons to 10 aircraft (in transitioning from F/A-18 squadrons with 16 aircraft) was baked in already, but the numbers also suggest divesting roughly 22 percent of all Marine manned aviation. Dropping a quarter of Marine infantry and manned aviation capability is a radical shift. As CMC states in his planning guidance, “Significant change is required to ensure we are aligned with the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).” A reduction of 12,000 Marines may underestimate the total force structure changes since we do not yet know what changes come with new Marine Littoral Regiments other additions such as coastal/riverine forces, naval construction forces, and mine countermeasure forces.”

General Berger had a good head start thinking about NDS requirements before becoming Commandant. CMC’s ascension is reminiscent of another service chief who entered the job with a head start for effecting significant change, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. Admiral Zumwalt anticipated severe criticism from Congress, from other services, and even from within the Navy for the changes he planned to make. The new CNO’s Navy redesign, Project Sixty, started with rapid, yet deliberate analysis. Zumwalt briefed that analysis to the Secretary of Defense only 72 days after taking over as CNO, and to all Navy flag officers and Marine generals a week later.

When Zumwalt stepped into the job as the youngest CNO ever, major decisions were made in the shadow of Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy. Rickover had been on active duty since before Zumwalt was born, had personal influence in the Navy, the Senate, and the Atomic Energy Commission, and would serve for eight more years after Zumwalt retired. While General Berger has no modern equivalent of Admiral Rickover to scrutinize his every move, unfortunately, the mechanisms for change within the Department of Defense churn more slowly than they did for Admiral Zumwalt and Force Design 2030.

There are three ways that Marines can help the Commandant reduce the inevitable friction associated with changing the Marine Corps to match emerging operational realities: creativity, concepts, and communications.


The Commandant needs our help in developing creative solutions to the shortfalls in the analysis and existing capability gaps. From the outset he has asked for input, stating in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG): “I expect Marines to be prepared to provide their leaders – me included – with critical feedback, ideas, and perspective.” There are multiple online forums where Marines have developed serious feedback for the Commandant. Additionally, the Marine Corps Gazette established a Call to Action section dedicated to Force Design 2030. However, these articles and the discussion forums tend to focus on strategy, concepts, and other commentary instead of the more specific actionable recommendations the Commandant needs. Still, some actionable items already exist within these forums. Some focus on the exact gaps that the Commandant has listed, such as how to absorb new expeditionary capabilities, how to fight in a degraded command and control environment, and field affordable and plentiful capabilities for the future amphibious portion of the fleet.

But to properly harness this creative feedback, the Marine Corps needs an official forum to capture, review, board, and take action on this input. The Commandant needs a forum where – after rigorous analysis and appropriate staffing – short, single-issue position papers can reach him and his staff directly. Force Design 2030 lists 12 Integrated Planning Teams (IPTs) established to assess changes in the future force. But General Berger is still unconvinced that these IPTs are meeting the need for output. Single issue position papers from the force can help the IPTs focus on the most relevant issues in these gaps: logistics, infantry battalion reorganization, ARG/MEU redesign, and light armored reconnaissance analysis. These papers should include recommended solutions in terms of the design levers suggested in Force Design 2030. Standing and future IPTs should be able to consolidate the best submissions, conduct a meta-study of the reviews, and determine which ideas deserve a formal approval board or the Commandant’s attention.

This idea is based on recent history. General Robert B. Neller, the previous Commandant, actively solicited such ideas through quarterly innovation challenges in FY18 and FY19. An open forum would support a broad review process, which Marines and civilians would provide. Once a forum was established, General Berger could ensure rapid engagement by requiring Marines to submit papers as part of professional military education (PME) or training requirements. Past Commandants have taken somewhat similar actions, such as General James T. Conway when he required all Marines (twice) to read Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak’s First to Fight. A more extreme precedent comes from the 1930s when Brigadier General James C. Breckinridge suspended some courses at what is now known as Marine Corps War College, “… so that staff and students could devote their full attention to developing …” new amphibious doctrine. Another recent example of soliciting such input comes from the founding of the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center in 2018. It took a year, but DoD also established an independent commission (four working groups and three special projects) to help the government determine requirements for AI. To help move the conversation forward, the commission’s co-chairs, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and former Google and Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt, immediately put out a call for articles.

These types of position papers could come from observations during exercises, from experiments, from wargames, and from detailed budgetary planning. Some of this input will need to be resubmitted or rediscovered. Input should come from analysts and operators, civilians and Marines, operations officers and chief warrant officers, and from students at all six schools under Marine Corps University. It should be objective, evidence-based, and brief; analysis  not advocacy.


The Force Design 2030 update goes into some depth explaining how wargames have impacted strategic thinking. The consensus is that many if not most Indo-Pacific wargame results do not bode well for U.S. forces in the current environment, e.g. “Some end in a rapid Chinese fait accompli, such as the seizure of a disputed island with minimal cost, while U.S. and allied leaders dither.” The Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept describes the Marine Corps’ contributions to prevent such fait accompli victories by peer adversaries. As one recent study suggests: “Without a strategy designed to prevent a fait accompli, the United States might lose a war before alternative approaches have time to be effective.” The hallmark of EABO has been F-35Bs operating from expeditionary bases, primarily as a broad area sensor, not a shooter. But according to former Deputy Defense Secretary Work, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”  Concept development remains the responsibility of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL). But as the Commandant’s order on concept development states, Training and Education Command should “encourage the generation of unofficial concepts.”

The Commandant needs our help in completing the new concepts called for in Force Design 2030. With the EABO concept as of yet unsigned and further specifics behind  “Stand-in Forces” as of yet unwritten, a lot of analysis remains to validate future Marine Corps employment.

As CMC continuously emphasizes, this concept requires an understanding of how Marine forces fit within the Joint Force. The Army has its Multi-Domain Operations concept designed to succeed in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. However, MDO is at odds with EABO: “MDO primarily seeks to defeat A2/AD networks to enable joint freedom of maneuver and roll back an adversary’s gains after the fact,” whereas EABO aims to deny an adversary access to areas in the first place. The Air Force already has the budget approval to field an Advanced Battle Management System, the Joint All-Domain Command & Control system (JADC2). For a variety of reasons, most notably shipbuilding, the Navy is behind the other services in pivoting doctrine and strategy. But the commander of INDOPACOM is still a Navy admiral, like all of his predecessors. Fighting under competing doctrines (MDO versus EABO), with an Air Force command and control system, under a Navy-dominated combatant command, and well within an adversary’s weapon engagement zone, will be a daunting task.

The concepts supporting Force Design 2030 must be complete before they can be explained to Congress in order to get budgeting approved. These concepts must be complete before we can explain USMC force integration to other services and component commanders. Most critically, the functional concepts must be complete before we can develop concepts of operation and employment for Marines to execute and train for. When Zumwalt redesigned the Navy, he had “the assistance of a number of commanders to do some of the spadework and research involved” to complete the concepts. The bar has been raised for modern concept development. To complete the concepts, first, we need a successful strategy built on an “independently verifiable analytic foundation.” Based on CMC’s recent comments about the results of recent wargames, and recent intervention by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment, we are not there yet.

Above all, Marines writing official (and unofficial) concepts need to help the Commandant explain the numbers. The CPG makes note of only one weapon range: “We must possess the ability to turn maritime spaces into barriers…This goal requires ground-based [long range precision fires] LRPF with no less than 350NM ranges – with greater ranges desired.”  When the CPG was published in July 2019, this would have been illegal, as the U.S. still adhered to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Two weeks later, the U.S. formally withdrew from the INF, and now for the first time in over 30 years, American long-range land-based cruise missiles are permitted. This one development alone has opening up a significant array of tactical and operational possibilities.

In order to aid the Commandant in maintaining momentum, we need to better understand, generate, and communicate emerging concepts, capabilities, and conditions.


The Commandant needs our help in communicating Force Design 2030. He is already an able communicator – since the day he took the job, the Commandant has made frequent, public statements that Force Design 2030 is his top priority. On day one he published his planning guidance. In October 2019, he spoke at length with the Heritage Foundation at their signature annual lecture. In December, he shared his notes in War on the Rocks and chatted with the publication’s founder in the following April. In March 2020, the Commandant published his update to Phase I and Phase II of Force Design 2030. In mid-May, he published the aforementioned update in the Marine Corps Gazette. CMC also appears to be taking pages out of Zumwalt’s playbook, laying out a list of items for immediate action.

But the Commandant can’t communicate every critical aspect of EABO and   Stand-in Forces until the concepts are finished, and some of his latest communications still have room for improvement. His June Gazette article cites only one source, a regrettable quote from Alfred Thayer Mahan: “Much is written of courage in the fleet or in the field; but there is a courage of the closet that is no less praiseworthy and fully as rare, and this is the courage to do battle for a new or unpopular idea.” In yet another similarity to Zumwalt, CMC’s closet courage is indeed praiseworthy. In regard to contemporary strategy, however, invoking Mahan is problematic. Mahan advocated for large surface fleets, focusing on capital ships that would win decisive surface battles and establish persistent “control of the seas.” The construction of large fleets of capital ships is diametrically opposed to the principle of Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE), and EABO. Mahan and his adherents focused on War fleets, bases, concentration of force, and decisive battle.” Our modern concepts suggest that these old focal points are our new liabilities. Mahan’s strategies have been attributed by some historians as contributing directly to World War I and the rise of Europe and America as imperial powers during the period characterized by the Chinese as a century of humiliation (1839-1949). 

In order to deter current Chinese military ambition, if there is one name that we should avoid repeating, it is Mahan. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who Zumwalt directed to “write a strategy for the Navy” for Project Sixty, would later deliberately contradict Mahan when he invoked the new term, “sea control” to “connote more realistic control in limited areas and for limited periods of time.” 50 years later, the concept of sea control continues to be “the essence of seapower and is a necessary ingredient in the successful accomplishment of all naval missions.” Our ability to deny adversaries access to the sea from expeditionary advance bases will also be of limited scope in time and space, rather than the more longstanding and unassailable command of the seas Mahan envisioned.

When CMC states that we require “an independently verifiable analytic foundation to our program” he means being able to explain and justify the foundation of our concepts to other services, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and Congress. When CMC explains the analytic foundations for his reasoning, such as when he lays out the results of 18-months of recent wargames, it is easier to build consensus and provide feedback. But when he does not discuss the experimentation and simulation taking place, it makes it much harder to understand the force design process, much less communicate the changes to external audiences.

The Commandant could have easily quoted Haddick, Hammes, or Hoffman (who worked on the 2018 NDS), who have laid the intellectual foundation for Force Design 2030’s reasoning. Perhaps CMC was opting for simpler, more direct message appealing to all Marine audiences. But we need to offer a more in-depth explanation, if not the concept of employment, for asking Marines to live and operate within a peer adversary’s weapon engagement zone.

Early criticism, most of which has been highly constructive, is already incorporated into Force Design 2030. Col. Mark Cancian (USMCR, ret.) whose critique of the product already states that the Commandant’s insistence on building a “single purpose-built future force will be applied against other challenges across the globe,”  is misplaced. Active-duty Marines have pointed out that the omission of “maneuver warfare” from Force Design 2030 invites criticism of the process or the Marine Corps’ understanding of its own warfighting principles. The most critical response to date has come from former Secretary of the Navy (and Senator) James Webb. Secretary Webb has a negative impression so far but especially took great exception to the choice of the introductory quote to Force Design 2030. “The giants of the past…were passed over, in favor of a quote from a professor at the Harvard Business School who never served. Many Marines, past and present, view this gesture as a symbolic putdown…” Given the rancor reflected in some remarks like Secretary Webb’s, we should not always expect the Commandant to dignify criticism with comment. However, we should be prepared to publicly address fair criticism that has a negative perspective on the current process.

CMC must be clearer in his communication going forward. The Force Design 2030 update states that the Marine Corps will conduct a Divestment of Marine Wing Support Groups. This single sentence could imply a reduction of 8,000 MWSG Marines – a divestment likely designed to create space for these undetermined additions. Or it could mean only the headquarters of these groups, a significantly smaller manpower offset. Right now, it is unclear.

CMC should communicate more about modern threat environments by updating the professional reading list. The list should have many more article-length entries, readings that Marines can read in minutes, not days or weeks. Quarterly updates to the list may be more appropriate than annual changes to keep current and relevant subjects in Marines’ thoughts. The reading list should also be partiality populated by the very best of the previously suggested position papers, after IPT review and CMC approval. And some of these readings should be recommended with an eye toward the average Marine’s role in future fights. It is much more critical and accessible for most Marines to understand China’s and Russia’s operational capabilities and tactics than it is for them to internalize (or defend) broader organizational reforms.


Creativity is required to provide CMC with the input he has requested to complete the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030. This creativity needs to be crowd-sourced throughout the Marine Corps, such as with a call for focused, single-issue position papers. The papers need to be published in a dedicated forum, where CMC’s IPTs can easily digest and analyze the merits of each. This will capitalize on current experiments, ongoing exercises, and the past 20 years of hard-earned Marine Corps operational experience. The concepts must be integrated with the Navy and built on an independently verifiable analytic foundation. While MCCDC and MCWL have the lead on concepts, their foundational work should be expanded by Marines and activities able to contribute to wargaming and analysis, or else the concepts are likely to resemble the “advocacy” that CMC has warned against and not be independently verifiable.”

The message needs to be clearer. This includes setting the agenda to address expected political and budgetary opposition. This includes properly preparing Marines by educating them on ever more threatening operating environments and adversary capabilities. We should be thankful for the Commandant’s leadership on this and other issues. But it will take more than just a top-down approach to implement the change we need to become ready for the new operational environment. The Commandant needs our help.

LtCol Cannon is a reservist with the MAGTF Staff Training Program and as a contractor supports AI/Machine Learning (ML) projects sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. government and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines with Kilo Company, Marine Combat Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire M240 medium machine guns during live-fire training at Range 218A on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Aug. 18, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels)