Tag Archives: EABO

Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations: National Security Law at the Operational Level of War

By Peter C. Combe II

In a recent piece for the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), Brent Stricker provided an excellent overview of legal considerations associated with the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030, concepts for Stand-in-Forces (SIF) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). Stricker provides a cogent introduction to targeting, deception and distinction questions if using non-standard platforms, and access, basing, and overflight (ABO) of regional states in the Pacific and South China Seas. This essay is intended to expand on additional legal considerations that the School of Advanced Warfighting student class of Academic Year 2022 encountered during the last year of study.

The Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) is the Marine Corps’ contribution to the SIF concept. Foundational to the SIF concept is the ability to operate and persist within the enemy’s weapons employment zone (WEZ). In seeking to operate and persist within contested spaces, SIF need not always be Special Operations Forces (SOF), but in many ways they must be SOF-like. This includes not only size, and employment concepts, but enabling capabilities and the attendant authorities as well. 

Target Engagement Authority and Criteria

In addition to discussions of the ground, air, and maritime domains a discussion of the legal rules, and authorities associated with other domains and capabilities is relevant to the SIF concept. As important as what the U.S. Joint Force is legally permitted to do, is the question of the level at which those authorities lie.

Cyberspace presents a number of challenges to applying the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) because the United States and China hold different views about how it applies to cyberspace. The official U.S. position is that cyberspace operations can rise to the level of an armed attack if they have sufficient effects or impact systems of sufficient national importance, while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) takes a contrary stance, that LOAC (as a jus in bello matter) is inapplicable in cyberspace. Related is the determination of when and whether a cyberspace operation may rise to the level of an armed attack which justifies the use of force in self-defense pursuant to the U.N. Charter. While the United States and many other nations believe that a cyberspace operation may pose a sufficient jus ad bellum justification for self-defense, the PRC has remained silent on the matter. These divergent views on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello applicability in cyberspace pose the danger of miscalculation, which operational planners and national security practitioners must remain wary of.

The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is the primary PLA organization tasked with the conduct of cyberspace operations. In a crisis situation it is possible that the PLASSF may seek to impose cyberspace effects on U.S. naval vessels in the South or East China Seas as a means of demonstrating resolve and on the rationale that such actions could not violate international law, as international law is inapplicable to cyberspace actions. However, the United States may view such an offensive cyberspace operation as equivalent to a use of force against a military vessel, and conclude that the right to use military force in self-defense pursuant to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter has been triggered.

In a deeper discussion of targeting, regardless of domain, we must also address who is authorized to engage a given target. For instance, where does the authority lie to employ various capabilities or to achieve certain effects? During the past 20 years of counterterrorism operations the authority to employ lethal fires was often held at the General/Flag Officer (GO/FO) or Joint Task Force (JTF) level. There were sound reasons for this including the operational imperative to limit civilian casualties and the tactical and operational patience required when dealing with a non-state actor on the other side of the globe. However, requiring GO/FO approval to employ lethal fires may be inappropriate when dealing with Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) or Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) in a communications denied/degraded environment against a near peer competitor. 

Degraded communications may prevent distributed tactical units from being able to contact a GO/FO to approve a strike. Similarly, the decision speed required may preclude the ability to fire effectively in modern salvo combat if a tactical unit is required to work through a Joint or Combined Task Force headquarters to take offensive strike decisions. Successful fires in a salvo combat model may require that an MLR Company Commander (i.e., a Marine Captain or Major) be authorized to approve offensive strikes against a PLA-Navy surface combatant.

A similar concern is the need to rely upon allies and partners for access, basing, and overflight (ABO) in any conflict in the Western Pacific. In those instances, the question is likely to arise: which allies and partners, or what other persons or infrastructure are U.S. forces permitted to use lethal force to defend? It is not uncommon for U.S. forces to be permitted to defend a particular partner while that partner is conducting one type of mission, but not others. Similarly, it is common that U.S. forces may be permitted to defend a partner force against some third party actors, but not others.

While national and tactical self-defense often includes the concept of collective self-defense, it is not something the Joint Force can take for granted. It may raise concerns about facilitating indiscriminate lethal targeting by an ally, or being drawn into a wider conflict, and thus limiting the circumstances under which U.S. forces may defend Saudi or Yemeni allies. It could generate concerns about the appropriate degree and level of support to non-state proxies and their compliance with international law. Congressional skepticism has also arisen based on the perception that U.S. forces use “collective self-defense” as a means to skirt Congressional authorizations to use military force. These are difficult questions – and what is operationally expedient may not be politically tenable. Operational planners must be prepared to scope self defense/collective self-defense rules of engagement to manage a number of competing tensions: what is legally permissible, what best serves operational requirements, and what is politically and diplomatically feasible. 

Aside from questions about the operational or tactical echelon at which targeting decisions are made, is the human commander’s role in those decisions. Artificial intelligence holds both enormous promise to increase the speed and quality of decision-making, while raising thorny ethical and quasi-legal questions about automation in decisions to use lethal force. Should artificial intelligence work primarily as a decision support tool, or with a “man-on-the-loop” for primarily defensive systems? This discussion is particularly pertinent when considering the possibility that the Marine Corps’ Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) may be incorporated into the Navy’s Composite Warfare Command (CWC) structure – perhaps using a virtualized version of the Navy’s Aegis Combat System, which enables autonomous defensive engagements based on preset criteria. The Aegis Combat System may also permit automated offensive engagement in certain narrow circumstances.

These capabilities raise the possibility that an MLR/EAB commander may not be the final authority making firing or target decisions. Depending upon the availability of communications, and the MLR’s position within the CWC construct, the MLR may turn into essentially a maintenance and maneuver package for a Navy fires asset. It is further foreseeable that firing decisions are made not by a human (Navy or Marine Corps) commander, but made by automated systems and monitored by naval commanders and staff. 

Signature Management:
TAC-D, DISO, Joint MILDEC, Cover, or Something Else?

Signature management and deception also pose challenges, because responsibility to distinguish one’s own forces from civilians is borne by both attackers and defenders. Thus, signature management, including various levels of deception becomes both an imperative and a potential stumbling block. In addition to the distinction issues raised by Stricker’s article, there are administrative and policy requirements that the national security law practitioner must consider. Do certain signature management practices constitute Tactical Deception (TAC-D), Deception in Support of Operational Security (DISO), or Joint Military Deception (MILDEC)?

TAC-D is generally deceptive activity executed at the tactical level of command, for the purpose of influencing enemy commanders to take or forego actions favorable to achieving tactical level outcomes (battles and engagements). DISO targets adversary intelligence services rather than commanders or decision-makers, and seeks to create false indicators or observables that disguise or manipulate the true nature of a unit. Joint MILDEC sits atop the deception pyramid, is a theater level activity to support a Joint campaign, and is normally planned, approved, and conducted at the Combatant Command level in advance of and during a campaign. These are different, and not terribly well understood concepts within the larger Joint Force, and are approvable at different levels of command. Operational planners and national security law practitioners must understand the differences and most importantly the approval levels and timelines, as approving executions in support of Joint MILDEC may take months and require Joint Staff coordination prior to execution.

Other administrative signature management practices may prove no less challenging. The concept of “21st century foraging,” is pitched as a means to help Marine units persist within the PLA weapons employment zone (WEZ) without Joint Force or Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) level logistics. As the PRC continues aggressive efforts to court (and coerce) neighboring countries, it is likely to attempt expansion of its cashless surveillance economy into those countries as well. In these instances, the use of cash may prove untenable and use of government associated credit cards may provide an easily traceable administrative signature. Attempts to use non-attributable credit accounts may implicate the need to staff and approve a cover or cover support plan, which can take significant amounts of time and resources, and will require coordination, approval, and resourcing from outside of Marine operating forces. Operational planners and national security law practitioners at the MEF, MARFOR, and Geographic Combatant Command (GCC) level must familiarize themselves with these concepts to make EABO and DMO feasible.

National Command Authority and Jus Ad Bellum

Other law of armed conflict considerations, more appropriate for the Joint Staff or National Command Authority, also bear consideration. A common scenario in discussions of EABO and SIF is the defense of Taiwan by U.S. forces. Operational planners and national security law practitioners need to understand that the U.S. abrogated the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan (the Republic of China / ROC) in 1979 as part of U.S. efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA, passed the same year) also does not provide a domestic legal obligation to defend Taiwan, nor an international legal basis to do so. Rather, the TRA permits the Departments of State and Defense to essentially treat Taiwan as a state for Foreign Military Sales and Security Cooperation purposes. This remains an important distinction as fewer than 20 countries recognize Taiwan diplomatically, a number which does not include the U.S. or any permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

With this context in mind, international law recognizes three traditional justifications for the use of force internationally: (1) under a U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR), (2) self-defense, including collective self-defense of a third party country, and (3) consent of the state in whose territory force is used. The first and last justifications are non-starters in a Taiwan scenario as the PRC is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council able to veto any potential UNSCR, and the U.S. “one China policy,” affords diplomatic recognition to the PRC in Beijing, not the ROC in Taipei.

Collective self-defense as a jus ad bellum justification is also typically applied to states, and unlikely for the reasons above. The U.S. has also never adopted the “responsibility to protect (R2P),” doctrine as an independent legal basis justifying the use of force in a third country to defend a non-state entity as a means to alleviate internal/domestic violations of International Human Rights Law (IHRL). Furthermore, recent events have called into question the degree to which the R2P doctrine may be falling out of favor in international law circles in the wake of Russia’s pretextual use of the doctrine to justify an aggressive war against Ukraine. However, that may not foreclose the discussion. An under-studied area of law with respect to international law justification is that of executive prerogative.

Presidential prerogative has a long history in the United States, with the country’s earliest presidents arguing over the contours of what the doctrine permitted, and whether or how those actions must be corrected or remedied after the fact in the absence of Congressional authorization. The concept of executive, or “Crown Prerogative,” also has a place in current and former English Commonwealth countries. Sir William Blackstone, the eminent 18th Century British jurist and legal commentator, described it separate and apart from the executive authority to administer the laws passed by Parliament. Because the U.N. Charter is not to the prejudice of Customary International Law (CIL) but rather acts as a sort of augment to existing CIL rules, the concept of executive prerogative may survive in some form as a distinct customary international legal basis to use force (or seize necessary territory) in a third country. These are questions that bear exploration as they relate to EABO specifically, and SIF more generally, especially in light of the President’s recent vow to use military force to defend Taiwan in the face of PLA aggression.

Furthermore, a core assumption of EABO and the Concept for Stand-in-Forces is the ability to operate from third countries in order to hold an adversary at risk. However, there is good reason to believe that many countries in the East and South China Seas will be reticent to ally with the U.S. during an armed conflict. In that case, is the U.S. then precluded from operating in those countries absent a non-consensual occupation of territory? The underlying question in this instance, obligations of an occupying power aside, is whether sovereignty is a rule of international law, or a foundational precept – but NOT a rule – underlying other international legal obligations. This question, combined with the question about presidential and executive prerogative, potentially bears great importance to the future success or failure of EAB operations in the event of armed conflict in the Western Pacific.


The EAB, DMO, and SIF concepts hold a degree of promise for peace time and conflict operations in the littorals and other contested maritime domains. Operational planners and national security law practitioners at the operational level of war must be familiar not only with the legal rules regarding targeting, deception, and signature management, but they must also understand where the authorities do (and should) lie with respect to those activities. They also need to understand how targeting practices have been adopted and adapted during 20 years of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, both from a policy and law perspective. The time may soon arrive when authorities, capabilities and effects which were the domain of a GO/FO commander at a JTF are held at the battalion or even lower level.

Furthermore, U.S. forces will require ABO in third countries in the event of conflict heavily leveraged in the maritime domain, geography demands it no matter which ocean is host to the conflict. Consent from those third countries may be forthcoming, but others may remain reticent or even hostile to accede to U.S. requirements for ABO. Further exploration and understanding of legally available options for non-consensual operations (including lethal operations) is required to assure that ABO and enable effective employment of the new-look Marine Corps.

Lieutenant Colonel Combe is currently assigned to Judge Advocate Division, Headquarters Marine Corps. He recent’y graduated as a resident student at Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting. His operational law experience includes serving in the International and Operational Law Branch, Judge Advocate Division and numerous operational deployments in support of conventional and special operations across multiple Combatant Commands. He has written several articles and blog posts on national security law.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Marine Corps, or any other military or government agency.

Featured Image: OKINAWA, Japan (July 8, 2022) – Reconnaissance scouts assigned to the Maritime Raid Force, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit wait for a UH-1Y Venom to land during a tactical air control party training on Irisuna Island, Okinawa, Japan, July 8, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Andrew King)

Marine Corps Metamorphosis: Legal Considerations

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Brent Stricker

The ongoing transformation of the U.S. Marine Corps has raised some controversy and prompted wide-ranging discussions on the future of the Corps. Opponents of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, or EABO, are concerned that proven combat power like tanks and tube artillery, are being sacrificed to create a new force that is less flexible, and would provide a single tool fit for only one operational problem. EABO and the Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) are supposed to be an answer to the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). EABO is best understood as a virtual network of scout snipers extending the eyes and fires of the fleet. Marines, operating as Stand-in Forces, will hide in the littoral spaces inside an enemy’s Weapons Engagement Zone or “WEZ,” where they can support a friendly fleet that has to remain outside the WEZ. These forces will also rely on use deception and signature management, displacing every 48 to 72 hours using high-speed, low signature craft and use decoys that an enemy will struggle to target. Critics have also argued that TMEABO abandons the Marines Corps’ fundamental doctrine as described in MCDP-1 Warfighting. But this ignores the warnings of General Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, in the preface to MCDP-1: “Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.” EABO is firmly based in the tenants of maneuver warfare where speed, surprise, deception, and ambiguity are essential. Preliminary doctrine for this force has been laid out in the Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, or TMEABO, a publication that pays homage to the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations—and a previous effort to remake the Marine Corps for amphibious warfare during the interwar years.

Despite the breadth of conversation surrounding EABO, operational law has been largely ignored in the discussions, by both critics and proponents of the new concept. As the U.S. Marine Corps develops and transforms its doctrine for EABO, it must consider what impacts international law will have on future operations. Key factors to consider include targeting, degraded logistics, deception plans, and territorial access.


 EABO will see the Marine Corps embrace a new form of targeting, particularly when integrated with the Navy. In the past, Marines were concerned with targeting military objectives on land, while limiting collateral and incidental damage to civilians and civilian objects. EABO will see Marines engaging naval platforms, like enemy submarines and warships, where the make-up of the vessel’s crew is irrelevant in the targeting process.

The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations provides a concise reference for the law concerning targeting such platforms. During conflict, enemy warships, naval auxiliaries, and military aircraft may be attacked or captured anywhere outside neutral territory without warning. Attacks on surface ships must cease when they have indicated an intention to surrender such as striking their colors, stopping, or surfacing if a submarine. A submerged submarine or disabled aircraft are subject to attack until destruction due to the uncertainty of surrender.

Enemy merchant vessels and civil aircraft are subject to capture outside neutral territory. They may be attacked if they are engaged in belligerent acts or conduct war-sustaining/war-supporting activity. If they actively resist visit and search or capture, persistently refuse to heave to after being ordered to do so, convoy with enemy warships, or are armed with weapons greater than needed for self-defense from pirates or terrorists, they may be attacked. In such case, enemy merchant vessels and civil aircraft are not innocently employed and they risk destruction.

Some enemy vessels may not be attacked or captured. Enemy hospital ships and medical aircraft may not be attacked, but they must be appropriately marked and registered. Other vessels are also immune based on their use. This status could include ships involved in prisoner exchange, or religious, scientific, or philanthropic use. Finally, small coastal vessels engaged in local fishing are immune from attack.

Contested Logistics

Marine Stand-In Forces will not be able to rely on a global supply chain and may be forced to subsist off the civilian infrastructure of a host nation or what may be seized from the enemy. As the Marine Corps develops new doctrine for EABO, it will need to consider how to requisition property in a host nation or in occupied enemy territory.

The initial question is where the property to be acquired is located, in host nation or enemy territory? In host nations, the Marine Corps will use local contractors and venders through contracting officers and purchase agents. If local property is seized or damaged, a Foreign Claims Agent will step in to pay compensation.

In the past, invading armies have foraged for their supplies. This allowed for the seizure of food and livestock to support an invading army. During the American Civil War, for example, the Lieber Code made a distinction between private and public property. Public property could be seized and used by the invading army. Private property was protected and could be seized only when military necessity required it. Even in such case, the property owner was entitled to fair compensation.

The 1907 Hague IV Convention for Land Warfare expanded the protection of both private and public property. In addition to a prohibition on destruction, unless required by military necessity, compensation was expected for damage or destruction. Hague IV also addressed the use of property during an occupation by a foreign power. An occupying army was only permitted to requisition property for its needs and the items taken had to be proportionate to the ability of the locality to provide them. Civilians were expected to be compensated in cash or issued a receipt.

The Hague Regulations were supplemented or superseded with four Geneva Conventions in 1949: 1. GC I (Wounded and Sick in the Field) ; 2. GC II (Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked at Sea) ; 3. GC III (Prisoners of War); and GC IV (Civilians). Article 34 of GC I notes that aid societies’ property be treated as private and subject to requisition only in “case of urgent necessity” and after the wounded and sick have been cared for.

GC III also makes a distinction between requisition of private and public property. Article 18 of GC III notes that POWs have the right to retain personal property including clothing, feeding utensils, and protective equipment. This was felt necessary because during the Second World War, many POWs were stripped of personal property and their issued equipment. This was an incorrect interpretation of a belligerent’s right to seize an enemy’s public property.

Since the right of requisition is tied to occupation of enemy territory, a discussion of what constitutes occupation is necessary. The 2016 Commentary to Article 34 of GC I notes occupation does not begin at the front lines. Article 42 of Hague IV defines occupation as control of territory. The DOD Law of War Manual requires that the occupation be actual, effective, and the territory must be under the authority of the hostile army.

GC IV (Civilians) placed certain obligations on an occupying power toward the civilian population. Article 55 discusses the obligation to provide food and medical supplies to civilians. Requisition may only be used to support the occupying force, not the war effort. If requisition does occur, compensation must be paid, and requisitions must consider the needs of the civilian population. The 1958 Commentary to Article 55 and Article 147 label excessive requisitioning a grave breach of the convention subject to prosecution as a war crime.

The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare provides a summary of the U.S. policy on protecting public and private property. It prohibits pillaging and the destruction of property “unless imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.” It notes that requisition may occur, but only in occupied areas and with the use of receipts and compensation.

Deception and Distinction to Protect Civilians

EABO relies on deception to ensure the survivability of Marines. The Stand-in Forces guidance suggests the use of civilian infrastructure to achieve this by using civilian vessels, vehicles, and civilian communication infrastructure. This deception plan must be balanced against the requirement to protect civilians and civilian objects. This principle is known as distinction where the law recognizes the protected status of civilians and civilian property from that of combatants and military objectives.

GC IV and Additional Protocol I represent what many countries accept as customary international law. The United States’ position on protected persons and places is contained in the DOD Law of War Manual and the Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare. These publications note that commanders must take feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to protected persons and objects and to separate civilians from military operations where possible. Similar principles appear in Article 57 and Article 58 of AP I.

Any deception plan must be balanced with these requirements. Marines operating in and among the civilian population must ensure that they are distinct from noncombatants and do not place noncombatants at risk. Article 58(b) of AP I requires the parties to the conflict to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas. Moreover, the use of human shields is expressly prohibited by U.S. Policy and Article 51(7) of AP I.

The plan must also avoid perfidy. Marines may not employ a deception plan that leads the enemy to believe the Marines have a protected status. Perfidy is defined in Article 37 of AP I, the DOD Law of War Manual, and Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare. Examples include the use of symbols of protected organizations, such as the International Red Cross; pretending to be a non-combatants, feigning surrender the use of flags of a neutral country. At sea, however, false flag operations are permitted until such time as naval combat is undertaken. For example, if Marines employ the Light Amphibious Warship, the law of naval warfare would allow the use of a false flag until hostilities commence.

Territorial Access

The Stand-in Forces guidance envisions the Marines defending the territory of an allied nation. EABO does not exclude seizing hostile territory, but it is more likely that the EABO A2/AD strategy will be used on a host nation’s territory in collective self-defense. The issue of access to this territory is key, and the stakes in international law are quite high. States exercise and enjoy sovereignty over their national territory and the territorial sea and the airspace above the land and the territorial sea.

East China Sea

The 1960 Japan-U.S. Security Agreement establishes a U.S. defense obligation to protect Japan and U.S. in Japan. Cooperation with Japan’s Self Defense Force must consider its limited authority. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution was written to renounce war and the threat or use of force to resolve international disputes. A 2014 Japanese Cabinet Decision and the passing of the Armed Attack and Existential Crisis Situations Act potentially allows for Japan to act in what might be considered collective self-defense with the United States or another country when the situation poses a threat to Japan. The government has described three potential scenarios for the use of force: an anticipatory armed-attack, an actual armed attack, and an existential threat to Japan by an attack on a closely allied nation. This third scenario would likely include an attack upon the United States that threatens the U.S. ability to defend Japan. A crisis concerning Taiwan also might give rise to such a situation.

Security ambiguity is at the heart of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is authorized to provide Taiwan with weapons sufficient for Taiwan’s self-defense. The Act makes no commitment to defend Taiwan only stating an expectation that the One China policy must be peacefully resolved. Nonetheless, the United States would consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.

If the People’s Republic of China invaded or were preparing to invade Taiwan, both Japan and the United States may be drawn into the conflict. Japan exercises sovereignty and control of the Senkaku Islands adjacent to Taiwan. This claim is disputed by both the PRC and Taiwan. The United States acknowledges that its defense commitment extends to the Senkaku Islands under the administration of Japan. If an invasion crisis emerges in the region, the Marines may establish EABs on the Senkaku Islands to defend or deter aggression against the Ryukyu Islands or Japan proper. The inherent threat to U.S. forces in Japan would likely draw the Japanese Self Defense Forces into taking measures in concert with U.S. forces for collective self-defense.

South China Sea

The most likely country to allow the Marines ashore in the South China Sea is the Philippines. U.S.-Philippines relations have been turbulent dating back to the Philippine-American War when the United States invaded, and colonized the Philippines. Cold War pressures led to the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines which provided for mutual support if there was an attack on the territory of either of the parties, island territories under their jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, or their armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific. The end of the Cold War and growing anti-American sentiment led the Philippine government to reject renewing a basing agreement and all U.S. forces were removed from the Philippines in the early 1990s. The subsequent Global War on Terror and continued bi-lateral training missions have seen U.S. forces return. U.S. service members are governed by the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which has been a football in Philippine national politics. It was renounced by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on February 11, 2020 only to be reinstated July 30, 2021. Nonetheless, under the VFA, U.S. personnel may only be temporarily in the Philippines in connection with activities approved by the Philippine government. 

The ability of Marine forces to access key maritime terrain in the Pacific will ultimately be determined by diplomacy and legal agreements. Every country will weigh its own diplomatic, economic, and defense requirements before granting access to US forces. As events unfold in the struggle of competition, to crisis, to conflict, new partners may emerge and old ones may fall away.


The future codification and operationalization of EABO will be constrained by international law. Marines will have to adapt their targeting to a new missions which target platforms and not individuals. Degraded and contested logistics will increase the demands on purchasing and contract agents. Deception plans will be forced to consider the obligation to protect civilians. EABO will be conducted in cooperation with host nation forces granting access in collective self-defense. Ultimately, EABO is a transformational warfighting concept that requires careful input by legal advisers and USMC judge advocates to ensure it unfolds consistent with international law and U.S. policy.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as the Director for Expeditionary Operations and as a military professor of international law at the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Stephen Mathews, a Liberty, Indiana native, and rifleman with 3d Battalion, 3d Marines conducts a combat patrol during Bougainville III at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patrick King)

Stand-In Forces: Disrupting Anti-Access Systems

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

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.

Anti-Access Systems

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).

8. Anti-Access Warfare.

9. Ibid.

10. Marinus, “On Defeat Mechanisms”.

11. Ibid.

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 Failin Resilience Engineering in Practice: A Guidebook, ed. Erik Hollnagel, and John Wreathall (Taylor & Francis Group, 2010).


16. Ibid.

17. Headquarters Marine Corps, The Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, (Washington, DC: 2021).

18.A Concept for Stand-In Forces.

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)