By Joseph Mozzi
The threat of anti-access capabilities is here to stay, and the Marine Corps’ stand-in force concept lends much-needed variety to the toolbox of approaches that will allow the joint force to “break the wall” if needed.1 Anti-access strategies are not new concepts, nor are they the oft-depicted ‘deus ex machina’ that will turn vast swaths of the globe into prohibited regions for American power projection.2 They do, however, present a threat that is only increasing in capability, bolstered by the increasing evolution of the mature precision-strike regime.3 By winning the maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight, the stand-in force is uniquely capable of contributing to the systemic disruption of anti-access capabilities, generating advantages and opportunities for the naval services and joint force to exploit. It lends much-needed asymmetry to breaking the walls that many of America’s current adversaries will erect in their efforts to hold American power-projection capabilities at bay.4
There is broad congruence between the stand-in force’s role and the Marine Corps’ capstone doctrine of maneuver warfare. Penetrating an adversary’s system to eliminate its ability to function as a coordinated whole is central to the service’s warfighting philosophy,5 and systemic disruption is its defeat mechanism of choice.6 In viewing anti-access capabilities for what they are: complex systems reliant on technology, information, and human decision making; the stand-in force generates effects that both deter and provide advantages during conflict. It reinvents the traditional understanding of penetrating a denied space from the outside-in by persisting within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone beginning in periods of competition. It cooperates with allies and partners, assuming a deterrent posture as a form of temporal penetration. If competition escalates to conflict, the stand-in force already occupies a position of advantage. The stand-in force concept challenges the Marine Corps to create an adaptable system that can persist and sustain itself in a contested space, adapting its theory of warfighting to present challenges.
It is not the sources of power within anti-access systems that threaten external actors but the force of power that the system exerts. Anti-access approaches exhibit the emergent characteristics of complex systems: a whole greater than its parts. The sources of anti-access power: anti-ship missiles, surface combatants, and both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial reconnaissance systems, among others, are reliant on critical linkages to project force that can deny an area to an adversary.7 They are, in effect, an entirely interdependent network that must work together successfully.8
Anti-access warfare is fundamentally a struggle to gain and maintain awareness that can be synthesized within a system to result in targetable information.9 Actions cannot occur absent awareness of the environment. For example, China’s DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles rely on information to detect prospective targets throughout their range. They are dependent on other target acquisition systems within the larger system to achieve their intended effects. Information about the environment and the means to process it emerge as critical linkages within anti-access systems. A force that can affect those linkages – denying information and understanding to the adversary – has a high potential to contribute to the systemic disruption of the anti-access capability. In this lies the potential of the stand-in force, eschewing the direct approach of penetrating an anti-access system from the outside in favor of asymmetrically disrupting it from within.
Systemic Disruption and the Stand-In Force
Systemic disruption is the result of affecting a system’s coherence. It recognizes that an adversary is a system of interacting parts and attacks the relationships between critical components.10 By targeting the connections which bring coherence to an adversary’s system, systemic disruption achieves second-order effects on individual sources of strength by negating their collective functionality. Applying lethal or non-lethal means to disrupt an adversary’s ability to acquire targets within a contested space can have effects commensurate with destroying the systems themselves that would deliver effects. In this sense, it generates results disproportionately greater than the effort expended.11 The asymmetry inherent in stand-in force maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance lends weight to its systemic disruption capabilities.
Narrowly dependent systems are less able to account for the full range of environmental pressures that may be brought to bear upon them.12 In the case of anti-access systems, this narrow dependency is the system’s reliance on information to the end of preventing the joint force from entering a contested area. By existing inside of a “denied” space during periods of competition, the stand-in force becomes part of multiple dilemmas facing an adversary. The anti-access system must detect forces both within its denied space and attempting to penetrate from the outside. The interdependence between the inside and outside forces strengthens the asymmetry. Unmanned target acquisition systems employed in-depth by the stand-in force are the forward edge of an integrated system encompassing not only stand-in force lethal capabilities but those residing in the fleet and joint force. The stand-in force can give and take, augmenting its actions by integrating external capabilities while generating opportunities for the fleet and joint force to exploit in its wake.
Successful reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance in periods of competition keep the stand-in force and fleet in a position of information advantage over the anti-access system through the transition to conflict. Stand-in forces create an area within which the anti-access system cannot aggregate the targetable information required to function. While the stand-in force denies the anti-access system information vital to its efforts to target the fleet, it remains a lethal and elusive obstacle that must be addressed. The anti-access system must expend increasing resources to “detect” and continuously “track” a force benefitting from high intra-theater mobility, low signature levels, decoys and deception, and lethal precision capabilities. Robust reconnaissance efforts support the counter-reconnaissance fight by identifying adversary collection patterns over time, ensuring both the fleet and stand-in force remain ahead of adversary decision cycles.
Stand-in force actions force the anti-access system to adapt to an unexpected threat. Air Force Colonel John Boyd characterized a theory of systemic collapse where actions present as “simultaneously menacing…ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading.” These actions induce confusion and disorder into the system.13 To remain viable, the system must adapt by seeking new and perhaps riskier means to gain the information it requires to function. Without a complete understanding of its threat environment, it decompensates as challenges cascade faster than the system can adapt to them.14 Refocusing and repositioning target acquisition systems to locate the stand-in force will rob the anti-access system of vital capacity that could be dedicated to detecting the fleet while increasing its exposure to the lethal capabilities of the stand-in force.
The Stand-In Force and Maneuver Warfare
The realization of the stand-in force must be accompanied by a continued embrace of maneuver outside of the spatial domain. While spatial maneuver is fundamental to the success of the stand-in force in both competition and conflict, the Marine Corps’ capstone doctrine is careful to underscore that the service must “consider maneuver in other dimensions as well.”15 As a philosophy that aims to shatter an adversary’s cohesion through actions that generate a rapidly deteriorating situation, any action that generates and exploits advantage – executing maneuver in “all dimensions”16 – is well nested in the service’s capstone doctrine.
As information is a critical linkage within anti-access systems, the broader maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight becomes a centerpiece to the stand-in force’s actions to achieve an advantage. These actions are fundamentally maneuverist in their effects, generating interconnected temporal, cognitive, and spatial advantages over an adversary. Temporal advantage begins in competition. The stand-in force in partnership with allies generates a persistent and baseline awareness of adversary systems and decision processes, a product of intelligence-led operations.17 This contributes to cognitive and temporal advantages in conflict, allowing the stand-in force in cooperation with the fleet to anticipate and remain ahead of adversary actions,18 dictating the terms of escalation or return to competition. Successful counter-reconnaissance also supports spatial advantage, as rapidly mobile and low signature forces use their understanding to achieve positions to hold adversary forces at credible risk. Spatial maneuver converges with temporal, cognitive, and informational maneuver to generate these advantages for the force.
For the Marine Corps, this forward-looking embrace of an expanded understanding of maneuver warfare must occur at all levels of leadership. The Marine Corps prides itself on teaching its leaders how to think, not what to think. Limiting one’s conception of maneuver warfare to the bounds of the land domain and spatial maneuver ignores the true potential of a timeless theory of achieving advantage and winning in both competition and conflict. The Marine Corps is currently training the non-commissioned and company-grade officers that will form the core of tactical-level leadership in the stand-in force of the future. They must retain a conception of maneuver warfare’s continued and timeless relevance.
Implications for the Stand-In Force
Depriving an anti-access system of information that forms the critical linkages between its sources of power is not the job of any single entity within the stand-in force. It is a task levied on the force as a whole. While the Marine Corps understands this fact,19 it presents potentially the greatest challenge to translating the concept of a stand-in force into a persistent and forward-deployed system that can provide these functions to the fleet and joint force. A holistic stand-in force that can win the maritime reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight will contribute to the systemic disruption of an anti-access system. If the stand-in force cannot, it will in turn be isolated and vulnerable.
There are elements of both art and science that will contribute to realizing the stand-in force. Sustainment and logistics methods that can support a stand-in force at scale and in conflict,20 advancing unmanned capabilities as a service in partnership with the Navy,21 and the rapid maturation of the information maneuver occupational field are a few examples of capabilities that will enable success.22 The stand-in force must be able to persist over time and throughout the depth of the environment.
To say that the concept of stand-in forces is high-risk and high-reward is perhaps an understatement. While current events in Ukraine can shed some light on the realities of future conflict as they apply to the Marine Corps,23 experimentation within the concept of stand-in forces is still largely anticipatory. Force Design 2030 is subject to an ongoing series of wargames to assess future force design and its associated concepts.24 Even the best-designed wargames are not completely predictive, at least not in the sense that they reduce the realities of conflict to a formulaic problem of right or wrong answers that can guarantee success.25 They can, however, provide a valuable means through which to reduce the complexity of problems to illuminate constraints, test theories, and challenge hypotheses.26 The end product of these efforts is a best assessment of what a future maritime fight may demand.
The uncertainty that will always surround the future battlefield is perhaps the Marine Corps’ greatest advantage in preparing for the future. Recovering from battlefield surprise is the best test of a military’s adaptability. Even the best efforts to anticipate the character of future conflict will in some ways come up short, and how a service develops itself to respond contributes greatly to its success or failure. In his book On Flexibility, Meir Finkel might as well have been speaking of the Marine Corps when he outlined requirements for successful battlefield adaptation. Warfighting doctrine must be “open” and flexible enough to adapt to emerging battlefield realities, being of immediate utility while at the same time supporting change at the tactical level. Diverse force structures must provide complementary capabilities and solutions to meet emergent problems. Doctrine and force structure must be supported by a decentralized command and control model supported by cognitive flexibility. These attributes must be fostered through formal education and training, which arms leadership with the ability to meet new challenges effectively. Perhaps most importantly, improvement must be a central pillar within the organization.27
Stand-in forces will provide a valuable capability to the joint force to deter adversaries and, if necessary, disrupt anti-access systems in times of conflict. The success of stand-in forces is incumbent on the Marine Corps’ ability to realize an adaptable system that can persist and sustain itself in contested spaces. Its success will not be the result of any singular capability but of the competencies of the force as a whole. Warfighting remains a timely and relevant capstone doctrine to understand and realize this emerging concept, providing Marine leaders with the cognitive foundations to adapt to emerging demands. As the current and vibrant debate over the merits of Force Design 2030 indicates, the Marine Corps’ longstanding commitment to improvement lends confidence to the idea that the service will get it right.
Joseph Mozzi is a Marine Corps artillery officer. He is currently a student at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff Officers Course.
1. “Break the wall” from Sam Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013).
2. Luis Simon, “Demystifying the A2/AD Buzz,” War on the Rocks, (January 4, 2017).
3. Andrew Krepinevich, Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2014).
4. A more in-depth discussion on how America’s various adversaries could employ anti-access strategies can be found in Anti-Access Warfare.
5. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 2018).
6. For further discussion on systemic disruption, maneuver warfare, and the Marine Corps, see: Marinus, “Defeat Mechanisms,” Marine Corps Gazette, (July, 2021): 101-106.
7. The idea of sources, forces, and linkages of power is drawn from Pat Pentland, Center of Gravity Analysis and Chaos Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air War College, 1993).
10. Marinus, “On Defeat Mechanisms”.
12. Murray Gell-Mann, “Complex Adaptive Systems,” in Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality, ed. Cowan Pines et al (Addison-Wesley, 1994).
13. John Boyd, ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ in A Discourse on Winning and Losing, ed. Grant T. Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018).
14. The idea of decompensation in complex systems can be explored further in David D. Woods and Matthieu Branlat, “Basic Patterns in How Adaptive Systems Fail” in Resilience Engineering in Practice: A Guidebook, ed. Erik Hollnagel, and John Wreathall (Taylor & Francis Group, 2010).
17. Headquarters Marine Corps, The Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: 2021).
19. Headquarters Marine Corps, “Recon – Counter Recon,” Official Website of the United States Marine Corps, (August 2, 2021).
20. Daniel Katzman, “Sustaining Stand-in Forces,” Marine Corps Gazette, (March, 2022): 14-19.
21. Navy Press Office, “Navy and Marines Release Unmanned Campaign Plan,” Official Website of the United States Navy, (March 16, 2021).
22. Gregory Carroll, “Marine Corps Establishes 17XX Information Maneuver Occupational Field,” Official Website of the United States Marine Corps, (March 9, 2022).
23. Noel Williams, “Insights for Marine (and Beyond) Force Design from the Russo-Ukrainian War,” War on the Rocks, (March 31, 2022).
24. Tim Barrick, “On Future Wars and the Marine Corps: Asking the Right Questions,” War on the Rocks, (April 12, 2022).
25. For a further discussion on wargaming see Robert Rubel, “The Epistemology of War Gaming,” Naval War College Review, 59 (2): 1-21.
26. Bob Work and Gen. Paul Selva, “Revitalizing Wargaming is Necessary to Be Prepared for Future Wars,” War on the Rocks, (December 8, 2015).
27. Meir Finkel, On Flexibility: Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2011).
Featured Image: U.S. Marines with 3d Battalion, 12 Marines, 3d Marine Division, deploy High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems during Balikatan 22 in northern Luzon, Philippines, April 4, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Melanye Martinez)