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Shifting the Role of Leader and Led: Using Year Group Cohorts to Accelerate Marine Corps Force Design

Human Factors Week

By Travis Reese 

“The United States has a perfect record in modern times of predicting when and where future outbreaks of war will occur—it always gets it wrong.”–Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

During the first three years of the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 effort, there has been a lively discussion over the intended goal of the transformation coupled with intense criticism over how the debate for change has been conducted. Critics have decried a lack of openness and transparency including a debate over the degree to which individuals feel empowered to contribute to the creation of the next iteration of the force. Force Design 2030 has been unique compared to prior design efforts in another regard; not only has there been the debate among serving Marines at every stratum of rank and experience, but there has been an intergenerational challenge from retired Marines who shaped the legacy organization of the Corps upon which these changes are being measured.

This intergenerational tension in force design, even within the active-duty force, can be improved by re-arranging the relationship between senior and subordinate and creating a process that receives input from multiple generations of Marines. This can be done by passing earlier responsibility for designing the next iteration of the Marine Corps on to successive generations of the Corps from early in a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps can achieve this change in force design methodology by establishing generational cohorts organized in 10-year increments, that are tasked with forecasting force design requirements 30 years out from the present.

These cohorts can interact and transition ideas via a process of inter-generational and cross-functional dialogue captured through an electronic learning platform and knowledge exchange portal. The concepts developed on the platform can be augmented by live conferences and standing committees led by senior Marine Corps leaders actively listening to, and coordinating with cohort members to manage recommendations for force design for further development among responsible Marine Corps agencies and commands. The role of seniors will be to guide, mentor, and resource the testing of ideas generated by successor generations in continuous campaigns of learning (plural not singular) and not simply initiate or direct change through specialized efforts in ad-hoc cycles that have an uneven track record of capability adoption and meeting timely demand. This cross-generational knowledge management will also serve as a means for talent management. A Marine’s involvement in the force design process could lead to future assignments based on demonstrated interest and relevant contributions to the force design process.

Most importantly, passing some of the responsibility for force design onto younger cohorts of Marines is a way for the Marine Corps to harvest the reservoir of ideas already in the service and turn them into actionable designs for concepts and testing solutions. This will enable the service to stay ahead of adversaries and prepare generations to lead fully resourced forces for each era with a knowledge of what will come next. These cohorts would be the basis for, and creators of, force development and design solutions impacting their generation via a “crowd sourced” but “leader-managed” methodology that would inform institutional choices and force design focus.

This methodology would overcome institutional capacity limits that force the Marine Corps to plan in a sequential era-by-era fashion that potentially misses innovative opportunities that would benefit from earlier investment under a clear conception of their potential. There is ample evidence that talented futurists reside within the ranks who can contribute to force design beyond the current effort.

The Case for an Internal Forum

The Corps prides itself on the inherited legacy of those who came before, but history shows that the challenges the Marine Corps has faced are decidedly generational. Each generation of the Marine Corps needs to develop tactics, techniques, and means that fit the circumstances of their time. How soon should that start in a generation of Marines? Marines are rarely afforded an officially sanctioned opportunity during their career to formally influence the design of the force they will eventually lead. Without a well-managed forum to harvest ideas on force design, the Marine Corps is missing out on the ability to gain and maintain momentum on future concepts and develop means conceived by steady study, debate, analysis, and investment. Thus, the service is effectively decelerating its preparation for future conflict by limiting the number of Marines who can contribute to address future problems and by not having a common platform to proactively consider timely solutions.

No forum within the service exists to place those ideas where they can be received, tracked, harvested, and tested for application at the time-horizon in which they will be likely suitable or useful. Instead, Marines have relied on participation in ad-hoc dialogue through informal professional societies to contribute ideas and in professional writing. As for professional writing, there is little correlation between contributing to a public discourse and impact on the direction of the service. Marines interested in force design but kept outside of the formal combat development process are forced to play a waiting game until they are senior enough to introduce their ideas as commanders or are otherwise touched by a campaign of learning effort to support experimentation. Simply put, young Marines do not have a way to contribute their ideas into the force design process. Rather their ideas merely float in the ether of abstract conversation and vigorous, but indifferent, debate. Additionally, the Marine Corps’ force design process is not optimized to incubate ideas over multiple time frames and for extended periods.

Unfortunately, future force planning in Department of Defense frequently falls into two habits that create static logic: first, fixation on the current security challenge which becomes an anchor to perceptions of the future. This results in the military using the current state of global affairs as the model for all future conditions or second, establishing a single point in the future and then using that point alone to design a future force with more or less a constant interpretation of the threat. The latter occurs due to the institutional inertia that builds up around an adversary model as agencies work to align their programs and efforts to an accepted framework. Each change in the model often generates a halting effect on force development or design as organizations take years or better to adjust to a new conception of the future or threat. Yet, knowing this pattern of thought and activity, the Marine Corps and Department of Defense have never really considered a method to make transitions between force design efforts more fluid. Rather, every new era of challenge is “jump started” by some national security directive with large institutional transitions surrounding the effort. The Marine Corps is currently caught in this trap as it has adopted the departmental focus on 2030 as a target date and has not begun to consider the next, but inevitable, planning horizon. This is despite the fact that a new Marine today may serve until the year 2055 and could possibly face the next design effort having to change a force conceived in 2019, realized in 2030, and sustained until 2045 or 2050.

Marine Corps lore is rife with stories of determined innovators or mavericks who forced their way in the system to “save the day” with the just in time solution that, by luck, gained the attention of a senior sponsor. Trying to cross the valley of ex-officio debate and gain the notice of senior leaders to influence change may involve uncertain, and possibly unnecessary, career-risking approaches. Personal favor, institutional connections and chance notice by a senior leader are not the ways to harvest ideas for the future of the Corps. The refrain of “send us your ideas” from senior leaders is insufficient if no one is sure who is listening and there is no place to “post the letter” for a willing leader to receive and consider.

What To Do About It? Setting Up Year Group Cohorts

The Marine Corps needs to improve the relationship between leadership and successor generations to proactively shape the inevitable transition from current to future. This can be done by dividing the force into 10-year cohorts that participate in a managed service-wide mass participation learning framework incremented into 10, 20, and 30-year horizons. Why 30 years? First, it often takes 30 years to conceive and design capabilities and doctrine and put them into practice. Most of that time is focused on building an institutionally agreed-upon problem frame and discovering potential solutions. Secondly, if one assumes that the career of most senior leaders (officer and enlisted) may be sustained out to 35 years it makes sense that cohorts should cover that outcome. Third, a 10-year cohort would include groups with diversity in rank and experience to prevent myopia in terms of outlook and experience but remain close enough that near-contemporary relationships facilitate ease of dialogue and frankness of critique. Lastly, taking a longer-range look provides institutional freedom of action to explore options and alternatives free from the constraints of contemporary pressures (although informed by them) and in a more risk accepting posture.

How would this work? At the beginning of his or her career an officer or SNCO (who is now on a career-focused path) is assigned to a cohort focused on a specific time frame. Each cohort will consider how their generation will be defined in terms of security challenges and solutions. A cohort will remain in its assigned year and transition to become the 20- or 10-year group as a new cohort is created behind them to deal with the next 30-year horizon. The oldest cohort becomes the “current” year and/or begins to retire and transition from service. Groupings would be developed based on recommendations from Manpower and Reserve Affairs (DC M&RA). Cohorts would be organized as a large learning entity under a supervised management collaboration with Training and Education Command (TECOM) and Capabilities Development and Integration (DC CD&I). TECOM would be responsible to furnish access to qualified educational mentors. Professionally qualified mentors will be hired to manage the inputs, encourage research, and stimulate dialogue among the respondents. Combat developers from CD&I would be able to observe and harvest the ideas produced by the cohorts. Management of cohort contributions would be enabled via a web-based platform residing on unclassified and classified networks developed by Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I). The platform will facilitate discovery, search, and visualization of the various ideas produced by the cohorts. Problems or issues for a specific year group would be sponsored by the Deputy Commandants.

Annually, a Force Design conference would be led, structured as an activity for a regular three or four-star executive offsite. Cohort managers and mentors would provide a report back to the Commandant and deputy commandant sponsors on a cohort’s responses to a design question or specific challenge. Further, cohort managers could introduce new initiatives or concepts spawned by the cohort for consideration by the senior leaders. Select cohort members could be called in to brief their recommendations or future operating environment insights to the senior leaders. From these recommendations, debate would ensue on proposed investments, experiments, research, manpower adjustments, or concept development activities to conduct in support of each time-frame’s force development or design requirements. Nothing about this effort would disrupt standing institutional processes of capability development, acquisition, or budget planning. If anything, it would generate a faster-paced, iterative, institutionally understood, and data-informed pedigree to many force design initiatives under a participant-led and leader-managed effort. 

The overall benefits of an institutionally integrated knowledge and professional exchange framework would be vast. Rather than random discoverability of talent or ideas spread across informal learning societies, intra- and intergenerational dialogue would exist across the Marine Corps with the express purpose of developing actionable ideas on future concepts directly. Participants, without disruption to necessary career progression, can engage in early strategic thinking about the future. This would have an impact on the quality of professional military education since instruction on strategy and strategic thinking would be amplifying to an embedded institutional activity. The knowledge portal would enable the service to discovery solutions to current and future challenges on a persistent basis rather than by exception through the ad-hoc use of events like challenge days or military “shark tanks” whose outcomes on capability development are uncertain and still require interest for adoption. Iterative doctrine development and deliberation would begin sooner rather than constrained to small writing venues or billet-specific offices. Force design as a process would shift to participant-driven and leader-managed generating large-scale buy-in and removing the variable of personality-focused initiatives. Lastly, every participant would have common appreciation of each 10-year framework guiding force development and design activities which they can articulate to external stakeholders in positions to support USMC discovery or resource solutions.

The Role of Mentors

Effective mentorship is essential to this proposal and would necessarily vary from cohort to cohort. Younger Marines focused on the 30-year horizon likely need very little encouragement to conceive of the next innovations that can be applied in the future. At this phase in their careers, they would likely need more guidance on how to research appropriately, create a sound argument, understand the implications of history and where to harvest those lessons. They need mentorship in the tools that make it possible to form a testable hypothesis for their intuitive vision. The 20-year horizon group is a mid-tier professional who needs insights regarding the institutional processes that will govern force design and development. They need mentors who will advise on institutional memory and help them navigate the gates of the system that will make it possible to shift from ideation to action.

The 10-year horizon group is in the nexus of decision between realizing their concepts that have been matured and challenged over 15-20 years and managing the acquisition risk of replacing the current force. They need executive-level mentorship in decision making and risk management at this stage of force design. The same mentors should not remain with a cohort as they are specialists in certain skills with biases and conceptions that should be minimized by exposure to other schools of thought.

Overall, it is important for the Marine Corps to not select mentors based on perceived authority bias or reputational history alone. Rather, cohorts may consist of iconoclasts and relative unknowns whose talents and skills are familiar to a small group but whose history of institutional challenge and change far exceeds their reputation.

Preventing Silos and Creating Institution-wide Cross-functional Dialogue

A risk of cohorts is that they can become silos of competition and become protective or adversarial against their counterpart cohorts. This can be prevented by incentivizing cross-functional exchange among the cohorts. A simple example: the 20-year cohort is depending on a particular technology to realize their proposed capabilities. It is discovered that the technology is viable, yet unachievable in that timeframe. Rather than abandon the investment, a decision is made for the 30-year cohort to inherit consideration of this option. Likewise, the 30-year group was considering a particular advancement and it is realized that the technology will be available in 10 years.

A decision could be made to transfer development to the 10-year cohort accelerating outcomes for them, potentially generating an unexpected overmatch for a range of adversaries, but also forcing a change to manpower requirements and doctrine development. To sustain this exchange, it would be necessary to conduct an annual conference, likely geared around the budget cycle, led by the Commandant. Cross-functional discussion of cohort discoveries sponsored by the Deputy Commandant for CD&I or a cohort manager can be led and investments in various force design options can be considered under unique scenarios for each year group. This process would help shape the transition of force design efforts to a participant-led and senior-leader managed process and enable the capacity to manage investments over a longer horizon with a better transition between current and future forces.


Members of the military live and work in two timeframes: present and future. The present is all about competency with current tools and techniques to be ready for today’s challenges. It is achieved through training, practiced in exercises, and measured in inspections and evaluations. The future is about preparedness for tomorrow’s challenges and requires the planning, preparation and imagination necessary to avoid strategic surprise. It is achieved through considering future scenarios, practiced in wargames, realized through investment in doctrine and technology, and measured in live and virtual experimentation.

If anything, the efforts of FD2030 should make the Marine Corps realize that current and future live in a symbiotic relationship and although everyone is required to master the threats of today, it is equally important to think about and prepare for tomorrow. Adversaries are always preparing to develop countermeasures to our well-developed structures and means.

Rather than simply leveraging industry or academia as sources of alternatives and solutions, the same level of alternative thinking (coupled with a greater sense of the implications) can occur inside of the Marine Corps. Modern technology and information exchange has made it possible to overcome the limits of happenstance discovery and the need for patronage of reformers and thinkers that formally infused the system.

Every Marine can become a force designer. The Marine Corps can harvest those ideas into action vice merely be observers/encouragers of the dialogue. Marines can level their interest in the future training, design, and development of the force into career-making choices supported by an institution that not only cares about what they think but acts on it.

The institutional conflict around FD2030 shows that the Marine Corps must improve how it leverages each generation of the Corps in preparing for future challenges. Those decisions must be informed by relevant institutional experience, but not be mired in the preferences and predilections of prior generations. The role of responsible generations to solve the problems they will face in the future must be given a commensurate opportunity and appropriate authority earlier if force design is to become a fluid, timely, inclusive, and less disruptive in the future.

Travis Reese retired from the Marine Corps as Lieutenant Colonel after nearly 21 years of service While on active duty he served as an artillery office and in a variety of billets inclusive of tours in capabilities development, future scenario design, and institutional strategy. Since his retirement in 2016 he was one of the co-developers of the Joint Force Operating Scenario process. Mr. Reese is now the Director of Wargaming and Net Assessment for Troika Solutions in Reston, VA.

Featured Image:

All You Need is a Landing Craft

By Przemyslaw Ziemacki

Amphibious and transport operations can play a vital role at all levels of war, but landing craft can do much more than just move things – they can also shoot. The global growth of anti-access/area denial capabilities favors smaller, harder to find, more numerous, and attritable vessels. At the same time, the potent evolution of missiles can be combined with the open cargo area on small and medium landing craft to shoot back against both sea and land targets. Civilian offshore support vessels suggest what tomorrow’s landing craft might look like, while the missions they could fulfill are only limited by the imagination.

A Question of What and How Many

Western navies with expensive and highly-trained crews typically focus on high-quality vessels as a deciding factor in contemporary naval operations. On the other side, Russian military thought and even Josef Stalin himself espoused that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Both considerations are important: quality plays a key role but there is a minimum quantity needed to perform particular task, particularly when considering combat attrition. A navy can have a single high-end warship, like a French aircraft carrier, that simply cannot be operationally available 365 days a year. The insufficient quantity of modern vessels is a widely known problem for many navies.  Each vessel can only be in one place at a time, which periodically includes the dry dock for planned and unplanned maintenance.

Constructing and maintaining more high-quality and single-mission vessels is rarely the best option due to fiscal constraints. Instead, multi-mission vessels can help fill these gaps. One of the ways to fulfill this concept is to build a hull with possibility of changing its payload, such as the Littoral Combat Ship and Absalon-class support vessels – both frigate-like ships with replaceable modules. A more natural word association with “payload,” however, is “landing craft” rather than “frigate.”

Many naval discussions fixate on large, high-profile navies that mainly need expeditionary vessels to perform operations all over the world and to transit rapidly between theaters. So, even if a vessel class is dedicated for green water or littoral operations, it is usually designed with the range and seakeeping of a typical blue water warship to simply arrive in theater.

Maritime geography is vitally important for both warship and fleet design, but this applies to all navies, both large and small. Many small navies have a more focused area of operations – along their national coasts or within a particular inland sea, many of which are also strategic hotspots (e.g., the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Arabian/Persian Gulf and the South China Sea). Naval presence and potential conflicts in these regions require relatively smaller but more numerous vessels. Naturally, this does not mean that frigates, destroyers and cruisers are useless, but to fulfill missions close to coasts, larger numbers of smaller vessels are more optimal in many scenarios. Moreover, many of these smaller countries have land borders with their main potential enemies instead of extensive land or ocean buffers, and so with a more compelling national requirement for a standing army and tactical air force, small vessels may be the only affordable option for small navies.

Even then, truly numerous flotillas with several types of bespoke and single-purpose small vessels is not feasible. Budget cuts often target more complex and expensive warships programs over simpler, less expensive ones. For example, Poland has only 3 vessels of the project 660M (NATO code: Sassnitz-class) fast attack craft. Sweden, which is far wealthier, has a longer coastline, and more focused on naval matters than Poland, has only 5 Visby-class corvettes. They are far from sufficient in wartime. The Baltic States only have mine and patrol vessels.

In these conditions, designing a small naval vessel several roles is an attractive proposition. The basic question is what roles are essential and which of them could be put together in a single small hull that can satisfy the various required operational capabilities. Although major NATO navies have largely abandoned small surface combatants, often called fast attack craft, these vessels remain popular on a global scale because they are simple to construct, inexpensive to build and operate, and have a relatively good size-to-weapon power ratio. Of course, they have many disadvantages, including poor seakeeping and limited sensor suites, but these are not crucial for operations in coastal waters while protected by a land-based air force and receiving off-board targeting data.

However, such combatants have one particular feature that is problematic for countries that share land borders with their main potential enemies. The lack of land attack capability means that these vessels could be entirely useless, or useful only as a “fleet in being” during the most critical phases of a potential war. Although most of the modern ship-launched surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) have a land attack mode, this use is generally sub-optimal because it wastes the expensive and complex anti-ship targeting capabilities and specialized anti-ship warhead to hit a fixed land target. A better solution would be to use containerized versions of missiles, and more carefully pair the missile type with the target. Rather than a dedicated launcher fixed onboard the vessel with one kind of anti-ship missile, containerized missiles launchers in the form of standard 20- or 40-foot containers would allow them to be deployed and launched from nearly any surface platform. There are many simulations and concepts showing how such system could work on the deck of a cargo ship or an ocean-going patrol vessel, but deploying one or more of such containers on a ship-to-shore connector with an open cargo hold would be even simpler. 

Moreover, some of these vessels could also deploy with self-propelled coastal defense missile or rocket artillery systems, rather than craned-aboard containerized missile launchers, allowing this class of vessels to distribute and support mobile long-range fires in addition to launching its own missiles. Although the U.S. Marine Corp’s Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) concept for stand-in forces is mainly envisioned for the Pacific theater, it also could also have application in the Baltic and other confined seas.

The Multi-Role Landing Craft

The concept of using a ship-to-shore connector as a missile launching platform suggests an evolution into a multirole vessel based on the hull of a medium landing craft – a vessel with obvious utility for small coastal states outside of combat operations. Such a multirole vessel should have enough space and displacement for a single main battle tank or 3 – 4 lighter vehicles, or at least two 40 foot containers, along with permanently installed weapon systems, passive decoys, and sensors adequate for basic self defense. Conceptually, this means a single light naval gun, short-range self-defense missiles, and a light rotary 3D radar system. With that in mind, the hull should be on the larger side of ship-to-shore connectors, around 130 – 170 feet, or 40 – 50 meters long, have shoal draft, high speed, moderate range (as compared to a fast attack craft) and moderate seakeeping. The proposed multirole vessel could fulfill three main missions:

  • Tactical landing and transport operations
  • Surface attacks with standard container versions of both anti-ship and land attack missiles, including rocket artillery
  • Mine laying

A landing craft-based vessel would be capable of refueling and reloading from unprepared beaches and navigating rivers.

Traditional displacement-type landing craft are not known for their speed. However, recent shipbuilding trends suggests a suitable approach for the proposed vessel, called a surface effect ship (SES), or less often, a sidewall hovercraft. Such a vessel is a mix of a hovercraft and a catamaran, forming an air cushion between twin hulls to minimize resistance. The most famous naval design is the Skjold-class corvette, but with the full displacement of 274 tons and remarkable speed, this design is better classified as a fast attack craft. With its speed of 60+ knots, draft of 1 m, a range of 800 Nautical miles at 40 knots, and relatively wide beam, the Skjold-class corvette is an attractive basis to design the proposed multirole vessel. Moreover, it has an option of transporting 50 combat-equipped soldiers instead of missiles. Norway also has two older SES naval designs, the Alta-class and Oksoy-class minesweepers. Any of these vessels would lend a promising basis upon which to design the proposed vessel, but the civilian Aircat 35 Combi, designed for offshore service sector, would be even better. Although it is a civilian design and it is slightly shorter than the envisioned design, it shares the most valuable features – speed, range and draft – with the Skjold-class corvette and also has a large cargo space on a near-waterline level deck. A militarized variant could be easily adapted from it.

The proposed SES concept – essentially a landing craft upgraded with self-defense capabilities and offensive options, so call it a fast multirole craft – would be an attractive solution for most Baltic and Black Sea navies. Sweden and Finland have many islands that require fast deployment of high mobility troops between them as well as capable and flexible anti-ship capabilities to counter enemy landing operations. The concept would also incorporate minelaying capabilities, which is strong emphasized in Finnish naval strategy. For the Baltic States, the proposal for small naval vessels with survivable and long-range land attack capabilities could provide strong fiscal justification for acquiring vessels beyond inshore patrol and mine warfare vessels – vessels which would provide Baltic navies with significant combat capabilities.

Unfortunately, the geopolitical situation of certain Baltic Sea states may also require a reverse landing operation, or evacuation, which is yet another factor in favor of a fast landing craft. In Poland there is an opinion that mobile land batteries of anti-ship cruise missiles are more optimal than shipborne ones because of the exposed seacoast where a fast attack craft does not have many places to hide. However, the proposed fast multirole craft moves faster than a truck, but is always ready to launch a missile. Landing capabilities may be required by the Polish Navy to support its Baltic Allies if Russia captured the Suwalki Gap or otherwise interdicted land lines of communication with the Baltic States. In such case, moving troops across the south east part of the Baltic Sea would be much more risky in the large, slow Lublin-class (project 767) landing ships, which the Polish Navy operates today, than in a numerous flotilla of small and very fast vessels. Poland, Romania, and Ukraine could use such flexible vessels on their big rivers – Vistula, Odra, Dnieper, and Danube. Finally, these vessels would be well-suited for inland seas.

Bigger Applications for Small Craft

Bigger navies could also deploy these vessels in green and brown waters as well – either by transporting them in amphibious warfare ships or permanently forward-deploying them in-theater. Although the U.S. Navy, needs more true blue water warships, it should be remembered that during WWII the U.S. Navy had large numbers of motor torpedo boats and all sizes of landing craft – including those equipped for shore bombardment with rocket artillery. A future war would likely require a similarly large, dispersed, and hard-hitting force. As previously proposed on CIMSEC, missile-equipped SES landing craft would bring the perfect mix of speed and flexibility.

Of course, not all of these small, fast, and heavily armed vessels would necessarily be manned. The proposed vessels could be easily designed as optionally manned and become incorporated into the U.S. Navy’s fleet architecture plan. The US Navy’s need of fast attack craft was discussed in the June 2019 USNI Proceedings article, which proposed a very interesting concept of using LHDs and LPDs as corvette-carrier mother-ships for Skjold-class-like vessels.

Both China and Russia, the main potential enemies of the United States and its Allies, invest in fast attack craft and small landing craft, for example the Houbei-class and the Dyugon-class. Now especially the PLAN has great numbers of true blue waters vessels as well as the fast attack craft. To counter these threats, the United States and its Allies may need both kinds of vessels as well. The SES design seem to meet the needs of numerous green and brown waters flotillas nearly perfectly.

In 1982 none other than Tom Clancy himself proposed firing strategic nuclear missiles from hovercraft – repurposed ship-to-shore connectors that could scatter on alert. The vessel concept described above is not revolutionary or even wholly novel, but an evolutionary case of form following function. 

Przemysław Ziemacki is a freelancer journalist and photographer from Poland. He currently writes for Polityka, one of the largest Polish weeklies. He previously worked for the local press and has also published in National Geographic Poland. He has a long-standing avocational interest in naval matters as reflected in his first CIMSEC piece, “Is the Moskva-class Helicopter Cruiser the Best Naval Design for the Drone Era?”

Featured Image: Skjold-class fast attack craft KNM Storm of the Royal Norwegian Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

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)

Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach

By Walker Mills

Nathan Lauterbach joins CIMSEC’s Jonathon Frerichs to talk about his recent article in USNI Proceedings “Marine Aviation is Naval Aviation.”

Download Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach



1. “Marine Aviation Is Naval Aviation,” by Nathan Lauterbach, USNI Proceedings, April 2021.

2. Commandant’s Planning Guidance, by David Berger, United States Marine Corps, July 2019.

3. Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, by United States Marine Corps, 2021. 

4. “Marines Update Force Design After a Year of Experimentation in the Field,” Megan Eckstein, USNI News, April 26, 2021. 


  • Jonathon Frerichs
  • Keagan Ingersoll
  • Walker Mills
  • Nate Lauterbach

Walker Mills is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the Sea Control team at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.