All posts by Nic di Leonardo

Enter the SCAGTF: Combined Distributed Maritime Ops

By Nicolas di Leonardo


 “…The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

Six Phases of Warfare
Source: JP 3-0

In modern parlance, winning without fighting is accomplished in Phases 0 and 1 of a campaign.  China is seeking to achieve a Phase 0-1 victory in the Pacific through its acquisition / deployment of Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) weaponry and economic / military coercion of its peripheral neighbors. When the two are coupled, US operational and diplomatic freedom of maneuver becomes severely constrained, and decisive counter-strategy is required.

Historically, the US has attempted to counter each of China’s weapon systems / diplomatic moves individually without attacking its overall strategy.  When new Chinese weapons systems are deployed, new American countermeasures are fielded.  When China builds new islands where disputed sandbars and reefs once existed, the US flies freedom of navigation sorties overhead.  When individual South East Asian countries are coerced by China to abandon multilateral UNCLOS negotiations and sign bilateral agreements, the US reaffirms support of multilateralism.  The American strategy demonstrates


resolve and intent, but does little to shape the environment, and deter the near peer competitorIt plays like a precipitated withdraw and ceding of the South China Sea to China—a stunning admission that there is seemingly little that the US can do when faced with the Chinese dominated political-economic landscape on one hand and a potential naval – air war of attrition on the other. 

The potential Chinese A2AD environment is particularly daunting for the US Pacific Fleet.  Chinese forces could elect to deploy their anti-surface / land attack ballistic and cruise missiles to keep American carriers outside of the 9-Dash Line; disable reconnaissance satellites; jam communications necessary for secure / centralized command & control; threaten to overwhelm remaining forces with vast numbers of aircraft while using the majority of their ships and submarines to counter the US asymmetric advantage in undersea warfare. By asymmetrically threatening American Navy “kill chains”, and especially by holding its naval center of gravity—the CVNs—at risk, the Chinese can effectively turn the American critical strength into a critical vulnerability.  The US cannot afford to lose even one CVN and thus when confronted with the threat of a paralyzing strike against its Pacific CVNs followed by an attrition war, it is prudent to assume that the US would not risk the losses and would exit the battlespace. A potential de-facto Chinese victory in Phases 0-2 could thus be achieved without a decisive Mahanian sea battle–just a credible threat.

Solution sets to countering Chinese A2AD Phase O-2 victory are under development from multiple sources—US  Naval Surface Forces (Distributed Lethality); Marine Corps Combat Development Command (Distributed STOVL [F-35B] Operations); US Marine Corps Advanced Studies Program (Engagement Pull).  All have one thing in common: strategic distribution of mobile offensive power to hold China’s freedom of maneuver in the South China Sea at risk, and inhibit their sea control over key sea lines of communication (SLOC). These solution sets represent a significant evolution in the strategic thought surrounding the US pivot to the Pacific:  attacking China’s strategy vs countering its individual asymmetric capabilities.

In Distributed Maritime Operations: Back to the Future, Dr. Benjamin Jensen states that

“…integrating land and naval forces as a ‘fleet in being’ denying adversary sea control is at the core of the emerging distributed maritime operations paradigm.” 

The defining of the pieces parts and the organizational construct of this paradigm is at the heart of the matter.  General Al Gray, USMC (ret) and Lt. General George Flynn, USMC (ret) recently presented at the Potomac Institute their thoughts on Sea Control and Power Projection within the context of The Single Naval Battle.  In their vision, the forces would include:

To this list I would add tactical level cyber capabilities.

Forces engaged in these missions will likely operate in near proximity to each other and in joint / combined operations, as the American, Australian, New Zealand and British sea, air and land forces of Guadalcanal did.  They will be required to pose sufficient threat to Chinese forces without significant reinforcement due to anticipated Chinese A2AD.  The inter-complexity of their likely combined Sea, Cyber, Air, Ground operations dictates that their task force command and control should not be ad-hoc, but must be defined well in advance to allow for the emergence, experimentation and exercising of command knowledge, skills, abilities and tactics / doctrine. US and allied lack of exercising joint/ combined, multi-domain operations prior to Guadalcanal led to tactics and command and control (C2) doctrine being written in blood.  This lack of foresight should not be repeated.

A SCAGTF construct allows for the US to shape the environment with its allies, deter the [Chinese], and if necessary to seize the initiative, buying time for the massing of forces to dominate the battlespace.  The SCAGTF is one way to integrate the great ideas of our best strategists on distributed maritime operations into a single, flexible organizational structure that is capable of mobile, simultaneous combined / joint multi-domain operations in all phases of warfare.  Such a force could aid the US in reversing its Pacific fortunes, in reinforcing multilateral peace and security for the region, and ultimately in realizing Sun Tzu’s bloodless victory.

Nicolas di Leonardo is a graduate student of the US Naval War College.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the War College or the United States Navy.

Semper Fidelis: Brief Thoughts on America’s Enduring Need for Marines

The fundamental justification for the Marine Corps is not tied to any Operations Plan—it is much more basic than that. While the combat effectiveness of the Marines is without parallel in modern expeditionary warfare, the Corps’ lethality is not in my opinion its greatest contribution. As the Marines mark the 239th anniversary of their founding and carry out the guidance of legendary Commandant General John A. LeJeune to “commemorate the birthday of the Corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history,” it is beholden on the American citizenry writ large to reflect on why we need the Marine Corps. Simply stated, we will always need the Marine Corps because it produces Marines.

The metamorphosis from Marine Recruit or Officer Candidate to Marine is the single greatest transformational experience a person can ever undertake in the US Military. The inculcation of basic Marine Corps training yields a bounty of new Marines at the conclusion of every Officers Candidate School and Recruit District class who represent the timeless American ideal—the most physically fit, polished, tough young men and women in uniform, guided by core values—“Courage, Honor, Commitment”—and possessing an uncommon tenacity to “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.” Marines carry this American Ideal to the four corners of the Earth while engaged in combat operations, humanitarian assistance / disaster relief operations, theater security cooperation missions and as Marine Security Guards at our embassies.

You’ve probably heard it said before that “once a Marine, Always a Marine.” Former Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos codified this in 2011:

“A Marine is a Marine. I set that policy two weeks ago – there’s no such thing as a former Marine. You’re a Marine, just in a different uniform and you’re in a different phase of your life. But you’ll always be a Marine because you went to Parris Island, San Diego or the hills of Quantico. There’s no such thing as a former Marine.”

And thank God. The ethos that Marines carry with them—Semper Fidelis–has not only served them on active duty and in their follow-on civilian lives, but has also served as a pillar to many of our great civilian institutions that they have brought this ethos to such as the New York City Fire Department and the National Aeronautical Space Administration. Marines are Always Faithful—to the nation, to the Corps, to each other.

Today the Marine Corps is shrinking as part of a post Operation Iraqi Freedom / Operation Enduring Freedom peace dividend. The Corps is shifting from its previous land based war footing to a more expeditionary / responsive, sea based force. While the doctrine is being adjudicated, the ultimate asset in the continued existence of the Corps is not a mission set, but the production of such fine men and women who are capable of accomplishing any task handed to them. So long as Quantico, San Diego and Parris Island produce Marines, America shall always require a Marine Corps.

Happy Birthday, Marines. Thanks for being Always Faithful.

Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and a student at the US Naval War College. The views represented here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Expeditionary Warfare Division or the Naval War Colleg

Corps Existentialism: Ensuring a Future for the Marines

After more than a decade of overwhelming success in combat operations ashore, the United States Marine Corps is mounting a very public return to its sea faring roots—and the timing could not be worse.  The defense budget is shrinking by billions of dollars each fiscal year, impacting everything from amphibious ship maintenance / readiness / modernization and interoperability to Marine acquisitions and end strength.  In the midst of all this fiscal turmoil, the Department of the Navy (DoN) is further handicapped by an absence of Department level strategic communications coordination evidenced by the distant narratives being communicated from the Blue and Green sides on amphibious operations. With America’s largest Global War on Terror land campaigns wrapping up and with it a shrinking appetite to maintain two land armies, the lack of a coherent, unified justification for the future employment of Marines aboard Navy shipping existentially threatens the Marine Corps. Below are eight major items that the DoN must internally reconcile in this budget cycle to further guarantee future relevancy of the US Marine Corps:

1.       DOCTRINE: Reconsider the Marines new Capstone Document, Expeditionary Force 21 (EF-21).

“EF-21 will not change what Marines do, but how they do it[1].”  To this I would add “and when they will do it, and why they will do it.”  EF-21 represents a unilateral, fundamental paradigm shift in Joint Forcible Entry Operations (JFEO) doctrine that disconnects with existing concepts such as the Joint Operational Access Concept and the Army – Marine Corps Access Concept.  EF-21 asserts the Marine Corps’ preeminence in conceiving Amphibious Doctrine and announces dramatic changes in USN shipping standoff ranges during landing operations (an almost unfathomable 65 nautical miles) as well as a novel sequencing of operations—landing Marines prior to cyber, naval, or air preparation of the battle space in order to conduct USMC counter anti-access and counter area-denial operations.  The Marines have blazed a new doctrinal path, replete with unique assumptions on surface ship missile defense capabilities (underestimated) and surface connector capabilities (overestimated). With EF-21 they have created a schism that—left unreconciled —will call into question Naval / Joint doctrine and acquisitions to support amphibious entry operations.

2.       ORGANIZATION: Re-evaluate the ARG MEU and MAGTF

For well over a decade, the Amphibious Ready Group / Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG MEU) have been operating outside of their normal 3 ship formations. “Split Force Operations” and “Distributed Operations”[2] have been directed by Geographic Combatant Commanders, thereby breaking up the traditional ARG MEU formations in order to distribute the ships and personnel where operationally required.  While the ARG MEU has been historically conceived as an amphibious, expeditionary rapid reaction combined arms force capable of self-sustainment, the proliferation of lesser contingency operations has resulted in the placing of greater preeminence on the pieces parts vs. the whole.  This trend of separating not only ARG-MEUs but also and their Marine Corps combined arms Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) will likely only increase in the future (especially with game changing acquisitions like the 5th Generation F-35B Lightning II coming to the Fleet in FY-17).  The cross domain synergy envisioned in the JOAC—“…the complementary vs additive employment of capabilities which enhances the capabilities and compensates for the vulnerabilities of others”—will drive independent elements of the MAGTF further into the Joint arena, and may precede a paradigm shift fundamentally altering the current ARG MEU and MAGTFconstructs.  Getting in front of that bow wave will be essential to maintaining both the MAGTF’s integrity, its capability set and its Joint Force relevency in both fully integrated and split/disaggregated instantiations throughout the range of military operations.

3.       TRAINING: Refine the agility instead of preparing for Tarawa II

Exercise BOLD ALLIGATOR is as much about domestic and international strategic communications as it is a Marine Expeditionary Brigade level exercise.  The Navy – Marine Corps team has used the exercise to host many distinguished visitors (DVs) to demonstrate the capability of amphibious forces to conduct forcible entry operations even after a decade spent waging two land wars and a significant curtailment of practiced amphibious landings on both coasts.  MEB level landings haven’t been employed operationally since the Gulf War—and in that case it was a pump fake at Ash Shuaybah.  What the Navy-Marine Corps Team has done plenty of is split/disaggregated operations, and despite their prevalence over the last decade, there has not been enough concept refinement and exercises to perfect the planning, combat cargo loading, disaggregating and (most importantly) re-aggregating of the force in order to conduct larger scale operations.  Real emphasis on these modern deployment dynamics have to become a priority so that Navy-Marine Corps amphibious forces can maintain their relevance as a scalable, agile force capable of deploying to conduct both distributed, lesser contingency operations and focused, combined arms major combat operations.


4.       MATERIEL: Preserve the Assault Echelon by ensuring that the ACV does not become a “Ship to Objective Commuter[3]”

With the current Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) fleet nearing 50 years of age, the Marines are in desperate need of a replacement.  The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle—previously the heir apparent to the AAV—was cancelled in 2011 after $3 Billion was spent and $15 Billion more required.  The successor to the EFV, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), is reported to lack an amphibious capability (it will not swim unlike its predecessors) and will instead rely on US Navy surface connectors (Landing Craft Air Cushion [hoovercraft] and Landing Craft Utility [regular displacement craft]) to get ashore. As stated by LtCol Howard F. Hall in the Marine Corps Gazette, “… regardless of its land capabilities, the [non amphibious ACV] lack of personnel carrying capacity, reliance on connectors, and delayed transition from those connectors once ashore exacerbate operational risks.” Those risks include surrendering the assault echelon writ large: without amphibious capability, the connectors—which are very vulnerable to small arms, coastal artillery / mortars—would be stuck depositing ACVs instead of follow on logistics and supplies.  Once ashore, the ocean becomes a brick wall to Marines embarked in ACVs instead of maneuver space.  EF-21 envisions a 65 nautical mile standoff between Marines on the beach and Sailors on the amphibs.  If that distance is to be honored, an “amphibious combat vehicle” that lives up to its name must be fielded.

5.       LEADERSHIP: Challenge convention, support the Joint Force and the Corps will continue to thrive

The Marines are famous for their institutional paranoia on both Navy support and Army efforts to subsume them.  This paranoia, however, is detrimental to effecting needed change, and often causes a reflexive opposition to anything which threatens existing Marine Corps doctrine—seen as the Corps’ existential guarantor.  The Corps is not without their own innovators, however.  Earl “Pete” Hancock Ellis, as a Major in the Marines, conceived and developed the innovative Operations Plan 712—the basic strategy for the United States in the Pacific that led to the Corps’ modern day monopoly on Amphibious Assault (and in no small part its survival through the twentieth century). If not for Ellis’ own benefactor, General LeJeune, OPLAN 712 may never have received the vetting that drove it to become foundational to the Pacific Campaign.  This same kind of innovation and support, and not just doubling-down of core competencies in more difficult settings, must take place with Marine leadership going forward to ensure that the Corps is positioned strategically to act when the Joint Force requires.

6.       PERSONNEL: Bring back Marines assigned to Navy ships at the platoon level to augment Navy VBSS, security, small arms, ATFP capabilities

The Marines had an illustrious 223 year run on Navy capital ships, which ended in January 1998 as the defense department drew down its end strength as part of the Clinton era peace dividend.  Today, as the Corps is set to shrink once again post Afghanistan and Iraq, there is ironically a pressing need for Marines to return to Navy ships.  Anti-terrorism / Force Protection (ATFP) requirements—sentries, crew served weapons and quick reaction forces—have been on a steady rise since the 2000 USS Cole suicide bombing in Yemen.  These watch stations strain Navy crews and are manned by personnel whose primary responsibility is not the handling of small arms.  Likewise, Navy Visit Board, Search and Seizure teams—while more proficiently trained than their ATFP counterparts—are principally manned and trained for inspection and self-defense; they do not have an assault / counter-assault capability and therefore usually rely on heavily tasked special operations forces (SOF) to conduct opposed boardings.  Returning Marines to Navy ships will bring additional ATFP and VBSS capabilities to the Fleet while insulating the Marine Corps from additional manpower cuts.

7.       FACILITIES: Prepare special units to embark non-traditional shipping (and keep them light)

Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos testified in front of Congress on 01 October on his initiative to form a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (SP MAGTF) in Kuwait to provide regional Quick Reaction Force (QRF) capability.  Retired Captain Jerry Hendrix of the Center for a New American Security endorsed the innovation in the Wall Street Journal.

“Looking at the Marines as a crisis response force is good in the sense the Corps knows it must develop an alternative mission and a new future.” [4]

However, Amos believes that his efforts are being hamstrung by the lack of amphibious shipping.

“In a perfect world we would rather have these teams sea-based, but we don’t have enough ships.”[5]

Not every contingency warrants a warship.  For lesser contingency operations—everything from embassy reinforcement, snatch-and-grabs to theater security cooperation—the Navy is looking towards employing ships from its “Moneyball Fleet”.  Joint High Speed Vessels, Afloat Forward Staging Bases, Dry Cargo Logistics Ships and Littoral Combat Ships are considerably cheaper to build and operate than their USS cousins, boast considerable cargo space, have sufficient flight deck / boat deck facilities while operating with a considerably smaller “signature.”  In order to ensure that these vessels do not become the exclusive domain of lighter / sexier Special Operations Forces (SOF), Marines must build tailored, scalable packages that can rapidly deploy, integrate, conduct operations and debark as cheaply and as expeditiously as possible.  Throwing down similar communications integration, berthing, and command and control requirements on non-traditional shipping as amphibious shipping is a surefire way to get priced out and left on the pier.

8.       POLICY: A greater role for the Secretary of the Navy in ensuring unity of effort / purpose within DoN DOTMLPF

At the end of the day, Title 10 authority to man, equip and train the members of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps is invested in the Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Ray Mabus.  The department’s strategic vision must be clearly defined and communicated at the Secretariat level.  There is no room for competing narratives, especially in an era of ever shrinking fiscal resources and ever expanding operational requirements.  It must become the policy of the Department of the Navy that all Navy / Marine Corps Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities conform to the department’s strategic vision and serve in promoting its unity of purpose.  Anything less introduces risk and presents an existential threat to the Marine Corps.


Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and a student at the US Naval War College.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Expeditionary Warfare Division or the Naval War College.

[1] Amos, General James E. et al.  “EF-21,” Headquarters Marine Corps, 04 March 2015, p.5
[2] Disaggregated Operations are defined in EF-21 as “…requiring elements of the ARG/MEU to function separately and independently, regardless of time and distance, with elements under a command relationship that changes/limits the ARG/MEU commanders’ control of their forces.  Distributed Operations / Split Force Operations are defined as “…requiring elements of the ARG/MEU  to function separately for various durations and various distances with the ARG and MEU commanders retaining control of their forces under the Geographic Combatant Commander.”

[3] Hall, LtCol Howard F.  “Ship to Objective Commuters: The Continuing Search for Amphibious Vehicle Capability.”  The Marine Corps Gazette, August 2014
[4] Barnes, Julian E.  “Marines Deploy New Quick Reaction Force in Kuwait.”  The Wall Street Journal, 02 October 2014.
[5] Barnes, Julian E.  “Marines Deploy New Quick Reaction Force in Kuwait.”  The Wall Street Journal, 02 October 2014.

The Greenert Gambit Revisited: Is CNO’s Moneyball Fleet Still the Solution?

The key assumptions behind the “Moneyball” 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan in support of the “Pivot to the Pacific” are unraveling.  The USN force structure is proving itself to be fundamentally disconnected from the foreign policy that it is supposed to be supporting and is therefore standing into a strategic paradox.  The following article is a sequel to a posting in May 2013

The highest On Base Percentage in Baseball won’t get you to the playoffs during a Zombie Apocalypse
The highest On Base Percentage in Baseball won’t get you to the playoffs during a Zombie Apocalypse

Moneyball is no different from any other strategic planning framework: the goal is to set your team up to win a campaign. To effectively play Moneyball, you have to have confidence that your sabermetrics are accurate—have you properly distilled down the key elements to win your campaign? Can you acquire them at an affordable cost?  Can you maintain them for as long as needed?

In 2013, CNO Greenert took a big risk with his 30 year shipbuilding plan.  Tasked with supporting the Pivot to the Pacific in a fiscally constrained environment, Greenert boldly chose to complement legacy combatant aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers with new focus on “Moneyball” assets such as Littoral Combat Ships, Joint High Speed Vessels, Afloat Forward Staging Bases and Maritime Pre-Positioning Ships in order to increase his sabermetric elements of presence, C2, and lift.  When tasked to act in ensuring regional stability, the US Navy historically deploys armadas of capital warships to stare down any potential rogues.  This Pacific stability campaign, however, was to be different, and as such success could be predicated with a different kind of naval force—a cheaper, lighter, more flexible force that would empower the administration’s foreign policy mission of 

“…strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.”  (NSA Tom Donilon, 2013)

One year and an LCS forward deployment to Singapore / HA/DR mission to the Philippines later, the report card is troubling. Our alliances in the Pacific are no stronger with successive Air Defense Identification Zones popping up all over the Pacific; our partnerships with emerging powers such as India (Exercise MALABAR cancellation), Indonesia (Australia naval crisis), and Malaysia (opening its waters to Chinese in shore patrols) are threatened by their fear of incurring Chinese wrath.  Meanwhile, the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are being picked off one at a time by China in a series of coercive bi-lateral negotiations aimed at expanding both the Chinese economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and territorial waters outside of the less pliable ASEAN multilateral framework.  In all of these existential threats to the stated purpose of the Pivot to the Pacific, the US State Department has been conspicuously missing in action.

At the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Secretary of State John Kerry refuted assertions that US foreign policy appeared to be hibernating by stating,

“This misperception appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don’t have a huge troop presence somewhere or we aren’t brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena.”

The results of recent high profile diplomatic efforts absent aggressive US military action have not been promising.  As of 3/12/2014, Syria has delivered only 5% of its chemical weapons to international inspectors for destruction in clear violation of the multilateral framework; the Director of National Intelligence has announced a North Korean expansion of its nuclear weapons program; and Iran is flip-flopping on their commitment to permanently disavow their nuclear weapons program; Russia has invaded Ukraine and is controlling all of Crimea.

The State Department’s apparent lack of coordination with the Department of Defense in the implementation of the Pivot to the Pacific and coercion of rogue states is threatening the US Navy force structure with a strategic paradox: the sabermetric underpinnings of the Moneyball fleet did not forecast a diplomatic retreat in the pacific and a military retreat against rogue states.  As a result, the AFSBs, MLPs, JHSVs, LCS’s of the Moneyball fleet are in no position to provide a credible counter to Chinese attempts at forcibly expanding their regional hegemony over US partners / allies, and are in danger of being stretched to the breaking point by having to maintain in extremis and contingency forces across multiple AORs (that could otherwise be stabilized through a concerted, coordinated (total government) application of military force and foreign policy).

New Sabermetric: measuring change in PRC behavior when a sufficiently sized saber is rattled
New Sabermetric: measuring change in PRC behavior when a sufficiently sized saber is rattled

In 2013, I argued that,  “…key to achieving [the Pivot’s] strategic aims is regional stability—a stability that can only be maintained with the confidence of regional power brokers that the status quo is acceptable and not threatened.”  That dream is crushed—the status quo is under assault.  The CNO’s options are to rally for State Department to get back into the game before it is too late, or to abandon Moneyball altogether and start laying the groundwork for a Navy that can achieve the goals of the Pivot to the Pacific all on its own.

Nicolas di Leonardo is a member of the Expeditionary Warfare Division on the staff of the US Chief of Naval Operations, as well as a graduate student of the US Naval War College. The views presented here are his own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the United States Navy or the US Naval War College.