Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week
By Captain Ross W. Gilchriest, USMC
The following contingency updates and expands upon “The Battle of the Aegean” scenario described in Chapter 15 of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3d Ed.i The original scenario sought to highlight the operational level of naval warfare in the “modern tactical environment—dominated by sensors, missiles, and information operations, with undercurrents of torpedoes, mines, and amphibious operations.”ii Additionally, the use of naval power in the scenario demonstrated how lethal naval power could be used as a tool for achieving limited strategic objectives amid the growing complexity of competition in the modern strategic context. For those familiar with the United States Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 (FD2030) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concepts, the “Battle of the Aegean” resembles the strategic, operational, and tactical environment described by the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, A Concept for Stand In Forces, and the Tentative Manual for EABO.iii Those documents, among numerous other statements, articles, and programs seek to define how the future Marine Corps will compete across the spectrum of competition.
EABO employs the capabilities of a stand-in force designed to seize and defend key maritime terrain in support of fleet maneuver inside the adversary’s Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ). Most analyses of EABO focus on its potential applicability to a fight against the pacing threat of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) inside the first and second Pacific island chains. While the EABO concept maintains the PRC as a key focus, it can also be applied in other contexts. Notably, General Berger has identified uses for EABO in the European theater to deter Chinese and Russian naval operations in the seas of the “High North,” including making Marines an integral part of the anti-submarine warfare fight.iv The following analysis seeks to illustrate how U.S. Marine Corps stand-in forces and EABO could be leveraged to support a naval campaign in littoral environments beyond the Indo-Pacific region. With enhanced reconnaissance, precision fires, and anti-air capabilities, as well as a focus on conducting Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), the Marine Corps provides policymakers and the fleet with a flexible response force capable of deterring and defeating adversaries across the spectrum of competition.v
The reimagined scenario updates the strategic and political context as a projection of current events, making some educated assumptions in order to establish the appropriate context for the introduction of EABO, while leaving the core crisis scenario and ADM Grant’s tactical plan largely intact. Some of the capabilities, while projected at the time, have come into existence or are currently under development. The discussion of individual concepts and capabilities will be limited to what is necessary in the context of the scenario. Readers are encouraged to visit the references in the endnotes to gain a deeper doctrinal and technical knowledge.
Background: The Battle of the Aegean
In the original scenario, ethnic tensions and violence on the island of Cyprus brought the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) allies Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. The decades-old dispute over control of Cyprus and islands in the Aegean Sea escalated into a full-blown international crisis after the Greek government announced a plan to emplace theater ballistic missiles on the island. Turkey, enraged by this threat to its security, sought to not only blockade the Greek ships in the vicinity of Cyprus, but also to defeat the poorly resourced Greek navy and assert control over the Aegean Sea. Turkey’s planned aggression alarmed the international community, but none of the international organizations could agree on a response, leaving the United States to use its military power to settle the dispute.vi
Charged by the President and the European Command Combatant Commander to “prevent Turkish forces from seizing the Greek islands—without touching Turkish soil,” (317), Admiral Ulysses S. (Sam) Grant, the Commander of Naval Forces Europe, assumed command of a naval task force composed almost entirely of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Facing a force of nine Turkish destroyers steaming south from the Dardanelles, and the main Turkish fleet of more than 25 destroyers and fast-attack craft off the southwestern coast of Anatolia, ADM Grant developed a plan to strike the Turkish amphibious ships before they ever left port. His attack consisted of a feint attack by Commander Charles V. Gridley’s eight Cushing-class corvettes to engage the main element of the Turkish fleet in order to allow two separate formations of eight Phantom-class unmanned killer-scout vessels to get into position to fire tactical ballistic missiles at the Turkish amphibious and transport ships in the embarkation ports of Ayvalik, Cesme, Ismir, Kusadasi, and Bodrum.vii
Though an Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) and its embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were available in theater, Grant opted to remove them from the battlespace, viewing them as too vulnerable a target. He did, however, send three patrol craft to rendezvous with the ARG and embark the detachment of Navy Special Warfare (SEAL) operators to conduct covert disruption operations in the Turkish ports.viii ADM Grant knew that the ability of the Phantoms to get into their firing positions without detection or interference would largely depend on the actions of the outmanned and outgunned Cushings. Though the scenario concludes before the opening of hostilities, the actions of the Cushings will need to be heroic to survive the dangerous exchange ahead of them, and the task force’s success hinges upon the Phantoms’ strike capability. At the conclusion of the vignette, the reader is left with the impression that ADM Grant, despite the glaring risks, remains confident in his plan and the skill of his subordinate commanders to win the day.ix
New Strategic Context: Living in Putin’s Shadow
In the eight years since the start of the Ukraine War, the strategic posture of the Eastern Mediterranean has shifted dramatically. After initially failing to achieve its goals of a takeover in Ukraine in 2022 and 2023, Russia gained control of the Donbas region and Black Sea coast, establishing secure lines of communication to support its forces in the occupied territories. The Ukrainian government, supported by the United States and its allies, maintains a conventional military presence holding key cities and infrastructure, but lacks the capability to resume offensive operations against a robust Russian defense. As a result, they have resorted to insurgency tactics.
The war in Ukraine has caused humanitarian and security crises in the region, especially for those countries sharing a land border with Ukraine and abutting the Black Sea, leading to a realignment of priorities in Europe. Defense spending by all North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries meets or exceeds the two percent of gross domestic product requirement. Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece have been especially affected by waves of migrants leaving Ukraine, as well as the threat of the Russian Navy, precipitating a transformation in their armed forces and a substantial increase in their Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) with NATO. They regularly conduct exercises in the Mediterranean and Black Sea for the purpose of limiting Russia’s options for escalating “Putin’s Pet Project” by hosting U.S. naval strike forces near key sea lines of communication and maintaining prepositioned supplies to support them. These efforts have not been perceived well by Turkey, which is especially suspicious of Greece’s intentions to possibly contest the Aegean region and militarize the island of Cyprus off its coast.
Turkey, on the other hand, began to establish a more autonomous foreign policy. The hard-line government, facing domestic inflation, currency, and unemployment crises, sought to shore up its economic and political alignment with Russia. While it does not directly support the Ukraine War, the Turkish government adheres to a strict non-interference principle. The Turkish and Russian militaries do not cooperate, but the two nations’ armed forces are able to coexist in the region. Turkey does not interfere with Russian maritime operations in the Black Sea or deny their transit through the Dardanelles. They have reduced cooperation with NATO allies, setting the stage for a rising antagonism that would foment the ethnic and political tensions leading to the aforementioned crisis between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and the Aegean Sea.
An Expeditionary Stand-In Force in Readiness
In the decade since General Berger introduced FD2030, the Marine Corps has largely accomplished its goals of developing stand-in forces that are fully integrated with the Navy for the purpose of supporting sea control and sea denial operations around the globe. Driven largely by improvements in long-range precision fires, unmanned assets, networked communications, and improved training for the individual Marine, the Marine Corps is viewed as vital by national policymakers for projecting power in littoral regions around the world. As the Ukraine crisis continued and the security posture in Europe and the Mediterranean changed, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) Combatant Commander and the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed the creation of the 2d Marine Littoral Regiment (2d MLR). Headquartered at Naval Station Rota Spain, the 2d MLR regularly conducts operations in the Mediterranean region, with a heavy emphasis on “Phase 0” operations, such as theater security cooperation, reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, and operations in the information environment (OIE) to establish an intelligence baseline and posture forces forward in support of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.x
Comprised of the 2d Littoral Combat Team (LCT) (Naval Support Activity Naples), the 2d Littoral Logistics Battalion (LLB) (Naval Support Activity Souda Bay), and the 2d Littoral Anti-Air Battalion (LAAB) (Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy), the 2d MLR has refined EABO based on lessons learned in the Indo-Pacific and is proficient in conducting distributed operations. The continued fielding of assets such as the M142 HIMARS and ROGUE NMESIS anti-ship ballistic missile systems, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), tactical mesh network communications, loitering munitions, Long Range Undersea Vehicles (LRUSV), and the integration of information maneuver and electronic warfare specialists at the tactical level enables the littoral combat team to not only seize and hold key maritime terrain, but also to conduct reconnaissance across all domains and prepare to conduct strike and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) operations in support of sea denial.xi
Thanks to the development of semi-submersible vessels, sea planes, and the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), the 2d logistics battalion can support mobility and sustainment for 2d Marine Littoral Regiment forces in the region.xii Marine aviation has also adapted, electing to deploy the anti-air battalion as distributed detachments with a robust anti-air defense capability provided by by the Marine Air Defense Integrated System and Medium Range Interceptor Capability.xiii
Connecting all of these capabilities with the fleet is the recently fielded Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system.xiv The JADC2 has enabled the integration of sensors across the battlespace to create a common intelligence picture, known as Multi-Domain Awareness (MDA) that leverages Activity Based Intelligence (ABI) to identify anomalies in the baseline and facilitates rapid target engagement by linking distributed Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting (ISR-T) and fire control systems on a single network.xv All-in-all, the 2d Marine Littoral Regiment presence in EUCOM provides commanders with options far beyond that of the typical Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which saw similar developments in capabilities but retained its legacy core mission set of conducting amphibious operations across the range of military operations.
First to Fight and First to Strike
In the six months leading up to the Aegean crisis, the EUCOM Commander ordered 6th Fleet and 2d MLR to form a joint task force (TF 67) in order to maintain control of the Eastern Mediterranean. He assigned TF 67 an area of operations encompassing all littoral territory from the north of the Dardanelles, Israel to the east, the Suez Canal and Egypt in the south, and Sicily to the west. ADM Grant assumed command of TF67, and understanding the strategic context, assigned 2d MLR three Littoral Operations Areas (LOA), with the intent to utilize EABO to support fleet actions in the event of a contingency.xvi
Delta Company and Echo Battery, 2d Littoral Combat Team mission, disguised as theater security cooperation, was to defend the anti-air battalion’s Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) operations on Crete, while being prepared to conduct strike and anti-surface warfare operations. Their critical position at the maritime chokepoint of Crete would enable them to control access to the Western Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.xvii Additionally, while no aircraft were currently staged at the Expeditionary Airfield, the FARP’s position would extend the operational range of the aircraft carrier in the region without endangering the multi-billion dollar warship.xviii
In the Aegean Sea, Echo Company and the long-range undersea vehicles platoon were participating in the annual EXERCISE SALAMIS, where platoons occupied various Aegean islands to conduct training with Greek soldiers and marines. While the activities consisted mostly of small-unit infantry training, the exercise stimulated the local information environment, providing the electronic warfare and information maneuver specialists the opportunity to collect, analyze, and infiltrate Turkish command and control networks, including a “back door” into their largest cellular carrier.xix As the crises escalated, ADM Grant ordered Echo Company to transition to an afloat posture aboard their attached light amphibious warships, with plans to occupy predetermined expeditionary advanced bases on several of the Greek islands to conduct strike and anti-surface warfare operations—an agreement that required deft application of diplomacy from the State Department and a high degree of discipline from Marines and Sailors to maintain operations security.xx The infantry units could secure expeditionary bases to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of the Turkish coast and provide fire control for strikes.xxi
In the far Eastern Mediterranean, Fox Company and an MQ-9 Reaper detachment from VMU-2 were supporting Israel’s Gaza operations, which had escalated over the 2020s. Due to Arab countries’—particularly Egypt’s—growing relationship with Israel, a popular uprising in Gaza spread across the Sinai Peninsula. While Fox Company and VMU-2 remained the most isolated of the 2d MLR’s forces, their presence in the Eastern Mediterranean enabled ADM Grant to extend his senor network to the rear of the Turkish fleet at Askaz. They may not play a direct kinetic role in any lethal exchange with Turkey, but their ISR-T capabilities might prove a key advantage in gaining the ability to fire effectively first.
Further west on the North African Coast, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was tasked with providing humanitarian aid, intelligence support, and air reconnaissance to Egypt, while preparing to conduct noncombatant evacuation operations, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, and, if necessary, amphibious raids or assaults. While he hoped offensive actions against the Turkish mainland would not be necessary, ADM Grant retained the option to re-task the MEU to fulfil this role in the event of escalation with Turkey.
Thanks to the Marines’ persistence with FD2030 and EABO, ADM Grant now had assurance that his fleet could maneuver in the area with eyes, punching power, and sustainment positioned forward in the event of a crisis. When it became clear that he would need to fight the Turkish fleet and scuttle their transports, ADM Grant gave the order to transition 2d MLR from Phase 0 shaping operations to kinetic operations in support of the fleet. While he was still concerned about the numerical disadvantage of Commander Gridley’s eight Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to defeat the main Turkish fleet, ADM Grant knew that Fox Company and the MQ-9 Reaper detachment from VMU-2 could provide unmanned aerial surveillance of the main Turkish fleet’s movements, pass that targeting information to the long-range undersea vehicle platoon of Echo Company’s or the NMESIS platoon on Crete, and enable a first strike. He knew this kill chain could determine the overall battle. This first strike would have to come before the Turkish ships’ radar could detect the low-profile littoral combat ships and fire upon them.xxii
All that money and headache for multi-domain awareness had paid off after all. The remainder of Echo Company would establish air and missile defense zones at their advance bases to enable the logistics battalion to refuel and rearm Gidley’s force at sea and extend his culminating point.xxiii Meanwhile, the F-35B and C variants could take off safely from the carrier far in the western Mediterranean and utilize Delta Company’s forwarding arming and refueling base on Crete to increase their sortie rate against the Turkish ships. This would enable him to disrupt Turkish communications with electronic warfare and conduct strikes against their ships while they were busy fighting CDR Gridley on the surface.
By integrating 2d MLR’s EABO capability, ADM Grant knew he now possessed a decisive advantage across all domains and warfighting functions that would give his subordinate commanders much more than just a fighting chance. Ultimately, however, CDR Gridley’s action would be the feint that enabled his decisive attack by the unmanned undersea vehicles currently gliding through the Aegean to their firing positions after being released from their expeditionary sea base mothership.xxiv With so many Turkish assets concentrated on the fight with Gridley, the chance of them detecting the undersea vehicles would be slim to none. Even if they failed, he could always have the strike warfare commander assume control of the undersea vehicles and conduct strikes with the Marines’ platforms.
Prior to giving the order for CDR Gridley to go “weapons free,” ADM Grant reflected on the naysayers who believed FD2030 and EABO would make the Marine Corps irrelevant to American military power.xxv In an earlier era, the whole operation could hinge on whether or not a Turkish or U.S. Navy sailor in the combat information center spotted the other first; the loss of life would be significant. In the present moment, he was grateful that the “soldiers of the sea” had made the hard choice to return to their naval roots.
[i] Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd Edition, Blue and Gold Professional Series (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018).
[ii] Hughes and Girrier, 306.
[iii] Gen David H. Berger, “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” (Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps, July 15, 2019), https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700; Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations” (Department of the Navy, February 2021); Gen David H. Berger, “Force Design 2030” (Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps, March 2020), https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/CMC38%20Force%20Design%202030%20Report%20Phase%20I%20and%20II.pdf?ver=2020-03-26-121328-460.
[iv] General David H. Berger, “Marines Will Help Fight Submarines,” November 2020.
[v] LtCol Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “Still First to Fight?,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 2020.
[vi] Hughes and Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 308–13.
[vii] Hughes and Girrier, 313–25.
[viii] Hughes and Girrier, 313–14.
[ix] Hughes and Girrier, 325–27.
[x] General David H. Berger, “A Concept for Stand-In Forces” (Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps, December 2021), 4–5; Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” chap. 2.
[xi] Ryan White, “The First Weapon System for the USMC’s New LRUSV: Hero-120,” Naval Post, June 22, 2021, sec. Naval News, https://navalpost.com/usmc-metal-shark-boats-hero-120/; “Metal Shark Developing LRUSV for the U.S. Marine Corps,” The Maritime Executive, accessed May 9, 2022, https://maritime-executive.com/corporate/metal-shark-developing-lrusv-for-the-u-s-marine-corps; Xavier Vavasseur, “Here Is Our First Look at the USMC’s NMESIS: NSM Being Launched from an Unmanned JLTV,” Naval News (blog), April 28, 2021, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2021/04/here-is-our-first-look-at-the-usmcs-nmesis-nsm-being-launched-from-an-unmanned-jltv/; “Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), US,” Naval Technology (blog), accessed April 7, 2022, https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/navy-marine-expeditionary-ship-interdiction-system-nmesis-us/; Corporal Levi Voss, “3rd MAW Procures Marine Corps’ First MQ-9A ‘Reaper,’” Marines.Mil (blog), September 7, 2021, https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2766284/3rd-maw-procures-marine-corps-first-mq-9a-reaper/; Terrence K. Kelly et al., “Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013).
[xii] Walker D Mills and Collin Fox, “‘Cocaine Logistics’ for the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks (blog), July 22, 2020; Christopher D. Booth, “Overcome the Tyranny of Distance,” Proceedings, December 2020; Alec Blivas, “6 Platforms for Marine Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations Logistics,” The Diplomat, November 11, 2020, Asia Defense edition, sec. Security; Captain Walker D. Mills and Erik Limpaecher, “Sustainment Will Be Contested,” Proceedings, November 2020; Megan Eckstein, “Navy, Marines Will Need Recapitalized Sealift, Logistics Capabilities to Succeed in Pacific,” USNI News, December 2, 2020; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” CRS Report (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, April 1, 2021).
[xiii] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” A-4.
[xiv] John R. Hoehn, “Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2),” CRS Report, In Focus (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, January 21, 2022); JADC2 Cross Functional Team, “Summary of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) Strategy” (Department of Defense, March 2022).
[xv] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” chap. 4; Chandler P Atwood, “Activity-Based Intelligence: Revolutionizing Military Intelligence Analysis,” Joint Forces Quarterly 77, no. 2 (2015): 10; Ben Conklin, “Activity Based Intelligence: A Perilous Journey to Intelligence Integration.”
[xvi] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 3.7.5.
[xvii] Brian Kerg, Anthony King, and Michael Murray, “How Marine Security Cooperation Can Translate into Sea Control,” War on the Rocks (blog), September 13, 2019.
[xviii] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 8.5.6.
[xix] For an example of how exercises could be used to “stimulate the environment,” see the vignette “EXERCISE SHOULDER-TO-SHOULDER-203X” in Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, 4–12.
[xx] Colonel George J. David, “Making It Work: Force Design 2030 and Access,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 2020.
[xxi] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 8.5.2.
[xxii] In the original scenario, Gridley commanded Cushing-class corvettes. For this updated scenario, these have been replaced by the LCS. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, sec. 8.5.1; Mallory Shelbourne and Megan Eckstein, “Navy Integrating Littoral Combat Ships, Expeditionary Sea Base into New Operating Concepts,” USNI News, January 18, 2021; “U.S. Navy’s Gabrielle Giffords LCS Launches Naval Strike Missile,” Naval Technology (blog), October 3, 2019.
[xxiii] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 8.5.3.
[xxiv] In the original scenario, CAPT Hughes referred to this capability as the Phantom-class. Xavier Vavasseur, “Here Is Our First Look at the US Navy’s Orca XLUUV,” Naval News (blog), May 7, 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/05/here-is-our-first-look-at-the-us-navys-orca-xluuv/.
[xxv] Paul K. Van Riper, “Jeopardizing National Security,” Marine Corps Times, March 21, 2022, sec. Commentary; Paul K. Van Riper, “The Marine Corps’ Plan to Redesign the Force Will Only End up Breaking It,” Task & Purpose (blog), April 20, 2022, https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/marine-corps-force-design-infantry/; Anthony Zinni, “What Is the Role of the Marine Corps in Today’s Global Security Environment?,” Task & Purpose (blog), April 19, 2022, https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/zinni-marine-corps-role/; Terry Dake, “The Marine Corps’ Reorganization Plan Will Cripple Its Aviation Capabilities,” Task & Purpose (blog), April 22, 2022, https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/force-design-2030-cripple-marine-aviation/; Dan Gouré, “Will Commandant Berger’s New Marine Corps Be a High-Tech Forlorn Hope?,” RealClear Defense (blog), April 1, 2020.
Featured Image: Marines assigned to Task Force Ellis, I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force, utilize a Polaris MRZR D4 during a field exercise on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, April 23, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Manuel A. Serrano)