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The U.S. Navy in the War of 1812: Winning the Battle but Losing the War, Pt. 1

By William J. Prom


Many popular American histories of the War of 1812 portray the conflict as a series of stunning successes for the young nation and the United States Navy in particular. This is a war that included storied events like the U.S. frigate Constitution earning the nickname ‘Old Ironsides,’ the U.S. frigate Essex’s cruise of the Pacific, and numerous victorious frigate duels against the preeminent naval power of the era.

Some histories gloss over the U.S. Navy’s failures enough that it even appears the young nation won a war against the most powerful navy in the world. Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, however, summed up the war quite differently stating that “although relieved by many brilliant incidents, indicative of the real spirit and capacity of the nation, the record upon the whole is one of gloom, disaster, and government incompetence, resulting from lack of national preparation, due to the obstinate and blind prepossessions of the Government, and, in part, of the people.”1 The U.S. Navy’s actions before and during the War of 1812 deserve critical examination to better evaluate the service’s success and understand how the war was fought. A consideration of the U.S. Navy’s preparation and conduct of the War of 1812 as a whole and at Lake Champlain in particular provides enduring lessons regarding maritime superiority and adversary-oriented planning.

Part One will discuss the U.S. Navy’s performance in general and Part Two will focus on Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s actions on Lake Champlain.

The Path to War

After resolving the Quasi War with France in 1800 and establishing peace in the Mediterranean with the Barbary States in 1805, the U.S. Navy’s clear antagonist was the British Royal Navy. Britain and France were in a relatively uninterrupted state of war with each other since the start of the French Revolution. The conflict intensified when Napoleon took control of France in 1803. To maintain their dominance on the seas, the Royal Navy relied on impressing sailors to man their ships. As a seafaring nation of immigrants mostly from the British Isles, American sailors were prime candidates for impressment into British service. American sovereignty and citizenship meant little to a monarchy that regarded its citizens as subjects indefinitely.

The British Government issued the first of their Orders in Council on January 6, 1807 to bolster their blockade of France. These Orders justified seizing and inspecting neutral ships to prevent any aid to Napoleon. American merchantmen were regularly stopped by the British to inspect cargo and impress sailors. On June 22, 1807, the most egregious infraction occurred when the frigate HMS Leopard stopped the American frigate Chesapeake off Norfolk. When the American Captain James Barron refused to allow the British aboard to inspect for suspected deserters, HMS Leopard opened fire.  Chesapeake was unprepared to engage and had to surrender after firing a single shot. The affair ended with three dead and eighteen injured aboard Chesapeake before giving up four suspected deserters to the British. President Thomas Jefferson believed that had Congress been in session or had he requested it, war would have been declared right then.2

The incident enraged the American public, but no change occurred with naval funding, manning, or deployment.  President Jefferson levied a heavy embargo against the British, and for their part the British Admiralty recalled HMS Leopard’s commander and admitted the error. The situation deescalated and soon the American public was enthralled by the revelation of Vice President Aaron Burr’s conspiracy and trial for treason. However, despite repeated American requests the British did not rescind the Orders in Council. Instead, they issued more and the impressments continued.

President James Madison spoke before Congress on June 1, 1812 regarding relations with Great Britain. He cited the impressment of American sailors, disregard for American sovereignty, and the plundering of American commerce as evidence of a state of war existing between the two nations.3 Since 1800, Great Britain captured 917 American ships and impressed 6,257 American seamen.4 With support from the War Hawks who sought to acquire Canada, Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Ironically, the British rescinded the maligned Orders in Council two days earlier.

In 1812 the British Navy included 130 ships of the line with 60-120 guns and 600 frigates and smaller vessels. And the U.S. Navy at that time? Seven frigates fit for sea, three needing repairs, eight brigs, schooners, or sloops, and 165 gunboats (of which 103 were in ordinary or under repair). Never large to begin with, the U.S. Navy almost evaporated after hostilities ended with Tripoli in 1805. Cuts continued even after the ChesapeakeLeopard incident in 1807, and accelerated in the spring of 1810.5 Naval historian Charles O. Paullin described succinctly that when Congress declared war, “the Navy Department was unprepared in every essential means, instrument, and material of naval warfare. It had no dry docks. It had few ships. With the exception of the naval establishment at Washington, the navy-yards were in a state of neglect and decay.”6 Thankfully for the U.S. Navy, Napoleon thoroughly occupied the British Navy and the American declaration of war was entirely unexpected by the British government. Of their hundreds of warships, the British had only one ship of the line, seven frigates, and a dozen smaller vessels operating out of Halifax in the summer of 1812.7

In the year before declaring war, Congress and the Navy Department did little to prepare for the conflict. In a country where many questioned the need for or even dreaded the existence of a standing military, the small staff of the Navy Department focused more on relevancy and survival than war preparations. Only months before the war, Congress slowly began a meager build-up but spent nothing on ship construction. Perhaps out of hubris, only weeks after declaring war Congress approved $829,000 for purchasing, repairing, and equipping captured enemy vessels. So much opposition to or disinterest in the war existed that Congress couldn’t pass a bill to build more ships until January 1813. They approved $2,500,000 for four ships of the line and six frigates—25 percent more than the Navy Department’s entire 1811 budget. These warships would never see combat against the British.8

The Maritime Frontier and the War at Sea

The U.S. Navy began the war with three objectives: defend the maritime frontier, capture enemy warships and merchantmen, and maintain naval superiority on the lakes. Defending the maritime frontier consisted of guarding the American ports with gunboats, barges, or other small craft. This consumed almost half the U.S. Navy’s personnel without even adequately manning every vessel. Early in the war, Congress spent almost $2 million to reinforce the maritime frontier, but unless supported by land-based defenses, they were entirely ineffectual.9 They occasionally discouraged small enemy vessels from entering harbors or landing, but could not stop attacks from entire British squadrons.10 In August 1814, Rear Admiral Cockburn’s squadron overwhelmed the flotilla defending Washington and landed Major General Ross’s army, which burned down the capital city. The money spent on gunboats could have built eight frigates, but most unfortunately, they were made from materials originally allocated for six ships of the line.11

The war at sea to capture enemy warships and merchantmen was the most desirable objective for naval officers and the most popular in historical accounts. The numerous ship duel victories in this theater are some of the most famous victories of the early U.S. Navy. They include Captain Isaac Hull and the frigate Constitution’s capture of the frigate HMS Guerriere, Captain Stephen Decatur and the frigate United States’ capture of the frigate HMS Macedonian, and Captain William Bainbridge and Constitution’s victory over the frigate HMS Java. These and most other victories at sea, however, occurred in the opening months of the war. By early 1813, the British had eleven ships of the line, thirty-four frigates, and fifty-two other vessels operating off North America, while the U.S. had only two frigates at sea.12 By November 1813, the British established a commercial blockade that stopped all traffic regardless of nationality across the entire east coast south of New England.13

The resources of the British Navy quickly overwhelmed the U.S. Navy’s famous heavy frigates. After evading the blockade out of New York in May 1813, Decatur’s squadron of the frigates United States and Macedonian and sloop Wasp had to escape to New London, CT.  They remained there for the rest of the war. After sinking HMS Java, Constitution saw little action. Even though the British did not yet have Boston under a full blockade, they kept “Old Ironsides” in Boston Harbor for most of the war. The frigate Congress managed to slip out of Boston, only to return by the end of the year too damaged to repair. Her guns were stripped and she spent the rest of the war in ordinary. The frigate Constellation never escaped Norfolk throughout the war.14 Again with a voice of reason, Mahan evaluated the U.S. Navy’s conduct of the war at sea accurately:

“Tradition, professional pride, and the combative spirit inherent in both peoples, compelled fighting when armed vessels of nearly equal strength met; but such contests, though wholly laudable from the naval standpoint, which under ordinary circumstances cannot afford to encourage retreat from an equal foe, were indecisive of general results, however meritorious in particular execution.”15

Ultimately, no amount of successful frigate duels could win a war against the most powerful navy in the world.

Earlier in April 1814, the British extended their blockade to include New England. American imports shrank more than 25 percent from 1811 and exports dropped from $108 million in 1807 to less than $7 million.16 In August, the British marched on Washington, D.C. and burned down the capital city. To deny the British any resources, the U.S. Navy burned down the Washington Navy Yard themselves, including the U.S. Navy’s first 74-gun ship of the line, Columbia.  Of the seventeen sea-going U.S. Navy vessels at the start of the war, only seven remained by its end.17 By the end of 1814, the British held almost as many U.S. Navy sailors as prisoners as the U.S. Navy had sailors out to sea.18 Signed on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent restored pre-war territorial borders but did not address the U.S.’s greatest concern, impressment. The British already ceased the practice. They had far less need for sailors after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig earlier in October 1814.

Part Two will provide a counterexample to the U.S Navy’s performance with Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s preparations at Lake Champlain.

William graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and served for five years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan and afloat. He now writes with a focus on early American naval history.


1. A.T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company, 1905), 1: 290.

2. Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 24.

3. “June 1, 1812: Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis — War Message,” Miller Center, February 23, 2017, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-1-1812-special-message-congress-foreign-policy-crisis-war.

4. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:299-300.

5. Charles Oscar Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 1775-1911 (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2012), 142, 148-150, 154; Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York: Putnam, 1902), 1:109-110.

6. Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147.

7. Ships at Sea extract from the Admiralty Office, July 1, 1812, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1985), 1:180-182; Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:109-110.

8. Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147-149.

9. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:244-246; Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147-154.

10. Paullin 147-148, 151-154; TR 98-100

11. J. Russell Soley, “The Naval Campaign of 1812,” Proceedings 7, no. 3 (October 1881) https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1881-07/naval-campaign-1812.

12. First Secretary of the Admiralty John W. Crocker to Admiral Sir John B. Warren, February 10, 1813, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 2:16-19; Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 2:13.

13. Borneman, 1812, 174.

14. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:204-208; Borneman, 1812, 175.

15. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:289.

16. Borneman, 1812, 216; Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:406-407; Allan Reed Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1994), 112.

17. Soley, “The Naval Campaign of 1812,” Proceedings 7, no. 3 (October 1881).

18. Jones to Madison, October 26, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:631-636.

Featured Image: “Action between U.S. Frigate Constitution and HMS Java, 29 December 1812″Painting in oils by Charles Robert Patterson. It depicts Constitution (at left), commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, exchanging broadsides with the British Frigate Java off Brazil early in the action. (Wikimedia Commons)

Integrated Force Structure Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Last week CIMSEC featured articles submitted in response to our Call for Articles on integrated force structure assessment. Authors shared their thoughts on how to adjust force structure assessment to become more flexible, where to make cuts and divest in order to resource new priorities, and how to craft new force employment concepts to complement recent warfighting concepts. We thank these authors for their contributions. 

Incorporating Uncertainty into the Integrated Force Structure Assessment” by Jack McKechnie

“While force structure assessments (FSA) can mitigate uncertainty through a variety of techniques, significant risk remains. A candid discussion of uncertainty and how we can adjust as unexpected conditions evolve would boost the value of the FSA, and set the stage for how measures could be instituted to ensure the FSA remains resilient and adaptive.”

Sacred Cows For What? Considering Force Structure Cuts to Marine Infantry” by Walker D. Mills

“EABO is the right path forward for the Marine Corps, and senior leaders need to continue to push the concept forward by investing and divesting in the right places, including the infantry. Because of its size and relative lack of contribution to EABO, the Ground Combat Element and Marine infantry are the right places to start divesting to make room for the future.”

The Next Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: Building a Stand-In Naval Force” by Lt. Col. Roy Draa, USMC

“The Naval Services must develop and train a naval expeditionary force that is tailored to support stand-in forces within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone. A near-term approach doesn’t necessarily entail a departure from the three-ship Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and associated Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). But new force packages that are better aligned with future missions and force structure will make for a more preferable interim solution.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 12, 2019) An MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck)

The Next Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: Building a Stand-In Naval Force

Integrated Force Structure Week

By Lt. Col. Roy Draa, USMC

For almost two decades the United States Marine Corps has focused on a counterinsurgency fight through almost exclusively ground-based combat. While the Marine Corps has always met the demands of the nation, recent history has presented a challenge to its character as a naval service that requires a reinvigorated relationship with the U.S. Navy. The Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) and the Chief of Naval Operations have signaled to the Naval Service that force design will be conducted along complementary, parallel, and coordinated paths toward transforming into future naval expeditionary and fleet forces.1

The Marine Corps, as a service, must be prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime and littoral spaces in support of fleet operations or wherever its role as the nation’s naval expeditionary force-in-readiness takes it. In similar fashion, given its understandable reticence to risk capital ships, the Navy must be comfortable with and capable of operating with regional partners and projecting power within a given adversary’s weapons engagement zone (WEZ) in a command and control degraded/denied environment. As stated in the Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), these “Stand-in” forces must be, “designed to generate technically disruptive, tactical stand-in engagements that confront aggressor naval forces with an array of low signature, affordable and risk-worthy platforms and payloads.”2 In his planning guidance, the CMC further states, “I will continue to advocate for the continued forward deployment of our forces globally to compete against the malign activities of China, Russia, Iran, and their proxies – with a prioritized focus on China’s One Belt One Road initiative and Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas. This is not intended to be a defense of the status quo as our forces currently forward deployed lack the requisite capabilities to deter our adversaries and persist in a contested space to facilitate sea denial.”3

Additionally, the CMC has identified investment in large unmanned surface vessels, extra-large sub-surface vessels, and Expeditionary Advanced Bases (EABs) as critical in countering the local numerical superiority of adversaries in great power competition. While significant exercises and experimentation has been conducted by the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) to address peer threats in the high arctic and western Pacific, it must be understood that the Naval Service does not at present have the capabilities required to execute Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) as envisioned. The Naval Service must take immediate steps to strengthen its forward posture in the littorals through stand-in forces.

The Naval Services must develop and train a naval expeditionary force that is tailored to support stand-in forces within the adversary’s weapons engagement zone. A near-term approach doesn’t necessarily entail a departure from the three-ship Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and associated Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). But new force packages that are better aligned with future missions and force structure will make for a more preferable interim solution. One solution is a set of stand-in force constructs that are complementary to current formations and fleet tactics – the Littoral Combat Team (LCT), the Littoral Combat Group (LCG), and Littoral Strike Squadron (LSS).

The Littoral Combat Team

A naval expeditionary unit for stand-in forces would be comprised of multiple maneuver elements: embarked troops and their associated support, combatant vessels, and small craft. This is not intended as fully meeting the CMC and CNO’s desired end state with respect to LOCE or EABO. Rather, it is a bridging solution as the Naval Service endeavors to move toward a modern fleet.

It must be understood that the Littoral Combat Team (LCT) is an integral part of this concept as a bridge to future EABO. The LCT consists of Marine and naval forces deployed to key maritime terrain throughout partnered nations’ Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ). These LCTs are essentially inshore weapons platforms and Forward Arming and Refueling Points (FARP). The LCTs perform the missions of Theater Security Cooperation (TSC), deterrence, and ultimately, disruption of adversary freedom of access to key maritime terrain. They are comprised of task-organized Marine forces, including electronic warfare, unmanned aviation systems, engineers and construction battalions, and missile batteries, to name a few.

Supported by host nation forces, the LCT would also lower the fleet’s signature, distribute its networked combat power, and reduce the requirement for L-class shipping. They must be virtually self-sufficient, leveraging a small, but diversified logistics element capable of contracting and advanced manufacturing, drawing upon pre-positioned stockpiles of all classes of supply and operating autonomous logistics resupply platforms. In their dual role as FARPs, LCTs extend the range and sortie generation of fleet rotary wing and unmanned aviation assets and their ability to penetrate an adversary’s weapons engagement zone.

The Littoral Combat Group

Given the fiscal constraints of building the additional amphibious ships required to support the creation of multiple ARGs in the Pacific, a Littoral Combat Group (LCG) may provide a similar capability. A heavy variant of an LCG could be comprised of an L-Class ship and an Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) Montford Point-class ship, supported by a composite Littoral Strike Squadron comprised of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). These ships would embark the aforementioned littoral combat teams and their associated equipment sets. Augmenting these ships as UAS launch/recovery platforms could be Cyclone Class patrol craft and Small Water Plane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) vessels (-i.e. FSF-1), and support vessels/small craft, such as Navajo-class salvage ships, Mark VI patrol boats and Landing Craft, Utility (LCU) to aid in mobility/counter-mobility.

Heavy variant of a littoral task group

The purpose of these ships would be to distribute warfighting capabilities throughout the stand-in force’s area of operations, with their lighter drafts permitting in-shore mobility. Lighter options for LCGs would drop the L-Class vessels, relying on an ESB, four LCS (performing various composite warfare functions) and multiple smaller support/ inshore vessels (FSF/SWATH, T-ATS, LCU x2, Mark VI x4). The LCGs would, in turn, be supported by the ARG and carrier groups operating from outside the adversary’s WEZ. Survivability of these vessels within the WEZ is dependent upon coordinated efforts between the stand-in forces warfare commanders.

The Littoral Strike Squadron

Current organizational tables for the Navy are heavily reliant upon the capital ships of the Expeditionary Strike Groups and Carrier Strike Groups to provide for the defense of the Amphibious Task Force and fleet, as well as strike missions in support of fleet action. The much-maligned LCS may be an answer to the rational hesitancy to risk cruisers within an adversary’s WEZ. While all naval vessels and small craft must be armed for close-in defense, (not to mention some limited offensive capability) they will still require surface and subsurface combatants to act in the role of picket ships. This Littoral Strike Squadron could be optimized with an embarked Marine Air Defense Integration System (MADIS), MAGTF Unmanned Expeditionary (MUX) UAS, and Extended Range Active Missile (ERAM) or Mine Warfare (MW) modules.

The LCS fits the role of power projection and LCG defense without the cost and risk that comes with building and employment of guided missile cruisers and destroyers. Common Unmanned Surface Vessels (CUSV), the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), and Orca Unmanned Undersea Vessels (UUV), coupled with the MQ-8B Fire Scout would support LCS MW and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) missions, respectively. By operating with a diversity of unmanned platforms and electronic warfare systems, this force “erodes an adversary’s advantage by complicating their surveillance and targeting.”4

Light variant of a littoral task group

A cursory glance at the U.S. Navy’s list of ships and small craft reveals a shortfall in capacity and capability to support the formation of stand-in naval forces. Investment in a Heavy LCG is not insignificant, requiring multiple ship types. Given the Navy’s shipbuilding program focus on carriers, DDGs, and SSNs, building toward these new force packages is not a likely course of action. Light LCGs, relying on ESBs, LCSs, and smaller support vessels and craft would undoubtedly be a more economical bridging option. Additionally, employment of the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) Long Range Interceptor (LRI) 11 and Legend-class Cutter WMSL-758 in RIMPAC and PACIFIC BLITZ exercises demonstrated those platforms’ and crews’ relevance in littoral operations. The LRI-11 and WMSL-758 should be considered for future acquisition by the U.S. Navy and (more importantly) as a USCG detachment within the LCG, given the utility of the vessel’s hull form and the capability the USCG brings with respect to TSC, maritime policing, and low-intensity conflict.

A final question that confronts the Naval Service is who should invest and man small craft and connectors in support of stand-in naval forces. Traditionally, with the exception of the now-deactivated Marine Small Craft Companies and 31st MEU’s boat company, the Marine Corps has deferred to the Navy in the programming for and operation of small craft. Given the reliance of the LCTs on small craft for logistics and maneuver, the Naval Service would do well to revisit this situation to determine where efficiencies are to be gained (i.e. Royal Dutch Marine crews’ manning of surface connectors).


The Navy has been in this existential fight before in these very same seas.  “Tin Can Sailors” have disrupted a more powerful fleet due to the training and leadership of its crews, as well as the enemy’s uncertainty as to what sort of naval force they were facing. The LCG, with that in mind, is a purpose-built Tin Can Navy; an interim solution until such time as a more operationally effective fleet is fiscally possible. It gives the Fleet a forward presence in times of peace and leading up to conflict; the ability to be present and to compete within a contested maritime environment

As with any well-intentioned concept, additional discussion must be fostered to address the potentially costly training and sustainment of new force packages and force structure. Furthermore, significant analysis remains to wargame potential PRC operational and strategic reactions to coalition efforts, lest we overlook requirements to address likely adversary responses to this force design and employment concept.

Lt. Col. Roy Draa is a career infantry officer with 19 years of active duty service in the United States Marine Corps. He is currently stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Base with Training and Education Command (TECOM). He is a charter member of the TECOM Warfighting Society, the Commanding General’s working group that explores and evaluates future warfare concepts, applications in maneuver warfare and mission command in improving professional military education. These are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.


[1]  Joint Memorandum: Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment, 6 Sep 19

[2]  38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 17 Jul 19

[3] ibid.

[4] Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control, 2018.

Featured Image: Marines aboard an amphibious assault vehicle exit the well deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class RJ Stratchko/Released)

Sacred Cows For What? Considering Force Structure Cuts to Marine Infantry

Integrated Force Structure Week

By Walker D. Mills

The Marine Corps must change in order to survive. Thankfully, senior leaders in the Marine Corps and the Navy through the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Naval Operation recognize this imperative and are charting a new course with the Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG), the new Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept, and the Integrated Force Structure Assessment.

To their credit, these leaders have recognized that optimizing the Marine Corps for great power competition and operationalizing EABO will necessitate changes to not just doctrine and acquisitions but to the underlying force structure of the Marine Corps. The Commandant has declared that force design is “my number one priority.”1 To date we have seen calls for augmenting cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, continuing to expand the unmanned systems portfolio, adding small boats and riverine units or even absorbing capabilities currently residing in Naval Expeditionary Combat Command. In the CPG, Commandant Berger wrote:

“We must engage in a more robust discussion regarding naval expeditionary forces and capabilities not currently resident within the Marine Corps… We must ask ourselves whether it is prudent to absorb some of those functions, forces, and capabilities…”2

All are valid proposals, but they crash into a generally accepted assumption that the overall military budget will either be maintained at the current level or shrink in the years to come, what a Center for Strategic and International Studies report called the risk of “the lack of real growth in future budgets.”3

So how will the Marine Corps reconcile its wish list with projected budgets? With cuts. In his CPG, the Commandant made clear that he envisions a “leaner force structure, potentially fewer Marines, and a possible reduction in total resources” and that if “provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so.” But there was no specificity as to where the cuts could come from.4

Cuts should come from what the Marine Corps calls the Ground Combat Element (GCE), specifically the infantry community. This will be an unpopular argument that may be dismissed out of hand. The infantry has a large community of patrons at the senior echelons of the service and is considered the core of the Corps. Marines are taught early on that the total force supports Marine squads and rifle platoons at the tip of the spear. However, cutting force structure from infantry must be considered a viable route to fueling growth and investment in other capabilities that are more relevant to the future fight.

EABO is an often discussed, yet still classified future concept for the Marine Corps that was created in coordination with the Navy. According to the Corps’ official website:

“The EABO concept espouses employing mobile, relatively low-cost capabilities in austere, temporary locations… Expeditionary advanced base operations may be employed to position naval ISR assets, future coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCM), anti-air missiles… forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) and other expedient expeditionary operating sites for aircraft such as the F-35, critical munitions reloading teams for ships and submarines, or to provide expeditionary basing for surface screening/scouting platforms…”5

Of the specific capabilities mentioned – ISR, coastal defense cruise missiles, anti-air missiles, FARPs, and logistics support to the fleet – none inherently require support from the infantry. And only one, coastal defense cruise missiles – would likely involve the GCE. This is not an exhaustive list of potential EABO capabilities, but it is telling – there is not a clear role for the infantry in EABO. In his guidance the Commandant was clear that capabilities that do not adequately support our future concepts do not have a bright future: “We must divest of legacy capabilities that do not meet our future requirements.”6

Some might argue that the infantry and GCE can provide security for important radars, FARPs or other expeditionary advanced base sites. However, per Marine doctrine, FARPs and air operation sites provide their own organic security.7 Additionally, planners envision expeditionary advanced bases to be located in allied or partner nation territory like Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines. All of these countries are more than capable of providing local security to U.S. forces if required, which is an ideal way to tie them into the EABO concept.

Without the prospect of large-scale amphibious assaults, ground operations, or coastal defense at the water’s edge – none of which feature in EABO – the Marine Corps’ resourcing of infantry and GCE units at current levels makes little sense. It must be noted that today’s Marine Corps is organized to support Joint Forcible Entry Operations with two Marine Expeditionary Brigades. But in the CPG the Commandant said this requirement was no longer a justification for current or future force structure, opening a path toward cutting the infantry.8

Others might argue that EABO is only part of the Marine Corps’ future and investments in the GCE are valuable across the total spectrum of operations the Marine Corps may be tasked with in coming years. They are correct – and Marine infantry have proved versatile over time in meeting the needs of the Corps. The Marine Corps may continue to be tasked with missions and “…other duties as the President may direct.”9 But it is in our interest as an institution to optimize for the specific future that we envision. The Marine Corps cannot prepare for every contingency, as the Commandant wrote in his guidance:

“We cannot continue to accept the preservation of legacy capabilities with little to no demand signal, or those that are only being retained in support of surge requirements associated with the least-likely, worst-case scenario.”10

If littoral operations and EABO are going to become the main effort for the Marine Corps, as appears to be the case, the Marine Corps will have to accept risk in parts of the organization in order to resource growth areas. There needs to be a frank discussion about where those cuts will come from. Alternatively, if the Corps is going to prioritize traditional, GCE intensive operations then the Corps need to anoint that vision in published plans and concepts.

An Example

Currently the Marine Corps deploys infantry battalions to Okinawa, Japan on a rotational basis as part of the Unit Deployment Program. While in Japan, the battalions fall under 4th Marine Regiment, which has a permanent headquarters in Okinawa. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, while not part of the Unit Deployment Program, contributes another infantry battalion to Okinawa for several months per year. While deployed to Okinawa these battalions train much like they would back at their home stations in the United States, albeit with fewer resources and less support. They do have expanded opportunities for training with local Japanese Defense Force units and other regional partners.

These forces do not provide a significant deterrent to regional adversaries because the infantry battalions do not have relevant capabilities to most conflict scenarios. The infantry battalions do not have dedicated aviation assets for mobility or amphibious shipping like a Marine Expeditionary Unit would. They do not have the doctrine or the training to defend against an amphibious landing, and because of training restrictions in Okinawa they are unable to train and practice with their heaviest weapons. They are certainly a demonstration of U.S. commitment to the region, but cannot offer relevant capabilities that would be useful in a conflict scenario.

If the Marine Corps were to stand down the 4th Marine Regiment or shift it to the reserve component, while simultaneously ending the Unit Deployment Program in Okinawa it would give senior leaders significant room in the existing force structure to create whole new units – several thousand Marines, without increasing operational demands on remaining infantry units. It would also free up infrastructure in Japan and the United States to support these new units and capabilities.

Other Options

Other options for cutting force structure in the Marine Corps could involve making cuts elsewhere in the GCE. The Marine Corps currently maintains two active-duty and one reserve tank battalion with M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks. Tanks can be extremely valuable in combat but have large sustainment footprints and are more difficult to deploy from landing craft and aircraft because of their extreme weight. They could be transferred to the reserves or divested. Historically, armored vehicles have played minor roles in the Pacific Theater of operations.

The Marine Corps currently has only one active duty HIMARS or rocket artillery unit (though another is planned).11 All of the other artillery units are cannon-based and employ the M777 155mm howitzer. These howitzers are advantageous because they are light enough to be transported by helicopter but would be relatively ineffective against ships and have only a fraction of the range of anti-ship missiles. If the Marine Corps is serious about investing in anti-ship missiles, divesting from units of cannon-based artillery would be one method to adjust force structure toward sea control.  

The Corps could also target only one of the three Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEFs) for the divestment of legacy capabilities in line with regional threats and geography. The three MEFs do not need to be organized along the same lines for the same fight. If the Corps envisions III MEF as the most likely to execute EABO, then is should be targeted for divestments of the GCE and I and II MEF can perhaps maintain a more traditional structure.

Another option would be to divest wholesale from one or more support functions. Currently the Marine Corps relies entirely on the Navy for medical support – from doctors to the front-line corpsman, and also for religious support in the form the Chaplain Corps. Using these examples as a model the Marine Corps could shift to using exclusively Navy explosive ordnance disposal, intelligence, or engineers. Doing so would also further the goal of increasing naval integration between the Navy and Marine Corps.

The Commandant has already declared that the Marine Corps is no longer wedded to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) construct. Ending the centrality of the GCE in Marine task forces and reducing its presence will clear the way for more organizational experimentation. In a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) the largest contingent is infantrymen from the GCE, where the formation is built around an infantry battalion. If that battalion is reduced in sized or removed from the structure it would open up hundreds of billet spaces in the traditional three-ship MEU/ARG for other capabilities. If Navy and Marine planners are worried about the size and expense of current L-Class amphibious ships posing a vulnerability, one way to shrink the ships is to start removing or distributing Marines. A prescient analysis of distributed, short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) operations found that support requirements for these operations would quickly outpace the organic ability of an ARG/MEU to support them. One way forward would be to move the grunts off to make room for more aviation support personnel:

“Tailoring the MAGTF to support such an unusually large complement of F-35s likely would require leaving some of its normal complements of air- and ground combat and support assets and personnel ashore…”12


EABO will force planners to critically examine the contribution of personnel to their missions. Much like how in an air assault operation “Every butt must earn a seat,” is the Marine infantry going to earn a seat in EABO?

Ultimately, the Marine Corps needs to make hard choices about cuts in the near future and hopefully these choices will start to become apparent in the 2019 Integrated Force Structure Assessment. Current force structure and funding levels do not have room for the addition of new capabilities that will be essential in operationalizing EABO and preparing the Marine Corps for the future fight. The hardest part of implementing and operationalizing EABO will come only after it has become clear who the winners and losers of the new concept are. In an environment of limited resources and plateauing budgets new investments will have to come at the cost of cuts elsewhere. Officers and Marines who have developed their careers along specific tracks may be faced with the reality that their skills are no longer as relevant or valuable as those of their peers, but they may fight to maintain the status quo instead of to evolve. EABO is the right path forward for the Marine Corps, and senior leaders need to continue to push the concept forward by investing and divesting in the right places, including the infantry. Because of its size and relative lack of contribution to EABO, the Ground Combat Element and Marine infantry are the right places to start divesting to make room for the future.

Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. He has previously published commentary for the Center for International Maritime Security, West Point’s Modern War Institute, the Marine Corps Gazette and U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.


[1] United States Marine Corps, “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” Headquarters Marine Corps (July, 2019), 2.

[2]  “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” 4. https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700.

[3] Mark Cancian, “U.S. Military Forces in FY 2020: The Strategic and Budget Context,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (September, 2019) 10. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/190930_Cancian_FY2020_v3.pdf.

[4] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” 2, 6.

[5] United States Marine Corps, “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations,” Concepts and Plans, https://www.candp.marines.mil/Concepts/Subordinate-Operating-Concepts/Expeditionary-Advanced-Base-Operations/.

[6] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” 2. 

[7] Aviation Ground Support MCWP 3-21.1, United States Marine Corps (2016) https://www.marines.mil/Portals/1/Publications/MCTP%203-20B.pdf?ver=2018-10-30-131227-370.

[8] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” 4.

[9] U.S. Code § 8063.United States Marine Corps: composition; functions.

[10] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance,” 15.

[11] Shawn Snow, “Marines Double Investment in HIMARS Artillery System,” Marine Corps Times, (Feburary 26, 2018). https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2018/02/26/marines-double-investment-in-himars-artillery-systems/.

[12] Robert C. Owen, “Distributed STOVL Operations and Air Mobility Support: Addressing the Mismatch between Requirements and Capabilities,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Autumn, 2016) 35. http://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1141&context=nwc-review

Featured Image: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Steven Rowe with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, posts security during a Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure training as part of exercise HYDRACRAB, Santa Rita, Guam, Aug. 27, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Kelly Rodriguez)