Small Wars Journal

U.S. Amphibious Forces: Indispensible Elements of American Seapower

Mon, 08/27/2012 - 3:57am



Marine Corps Ellis Group

August 2012

America’s maritime and amphibious capabilities are pivotal to the nation’s future ability to deter and defeat adversaries, strengthen alliances, deny enemies sanctuary and project global influence. The Pentagon’s new strategic guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, articulates key missions for the U.S. military to include rebalancing  U.S. military posture to the  Asia-Pacific region,  establishing power projection, providing a stabilizing presence in key regions and undertaking humanitarian assistance.

Evolving international security and domestic fiscal environments require the Nation’s maritime forward-deployed, crisis response forces to innovate fearlessly. Meanwhile, the growing threat posed by conventional, irregular and asymmetric threats to our national interests requires relentless adaptation in naval warfighting, littoral maneuver, and amphibious operations.

While today’s force is highly capable, new challenges are proliferating from nations employing increasingly capable anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies.. New concepts and approaches  –– such as the Single Naval Battle, an integrated naval expeditionary system, and broadened combined-arms special-operations integration ––are potent counters to these emerging A2/AD threats. Future fights will likely be short-warning, “come as you are” challenges posed by irregular adversaries. The Marine Corps/Navy Team will be prepared to maneuver swiftly from the sea to apply influence and power at a time and place of its choosing. The future joint force will consist of a “middleweight” expeditionary Marine Corps employing reinvigorated amphibious capabilities together with a Navy capable of maintaining forward presence and penetrating enemy anti-access defenses.


The nation’s amphibious forces play central roles in safeguarding America’s global interests in peace, stability and security.  The increasing importance of the littorals and the growing complexity of maritime operations demand ceaseless innovation and new capabilities to ensure success. Forward engagement and partnership building, unparalleled power projection, assured littoral access, rapid response to crisis and an ability to sustain expeditionary operations from the sea are essential capabilities for the emerging national security environment.

If naval relevance is measured by its impact on human affairs, the Nation’s naval forces stand at the threshold of a “maritime moment” of opportunity. In a compelling historical parallel to the outburst of naval innovation that occurred between 1922-1940, the Marine Corps and Navy now have the opportunity to take the lead in the dawn of a new “Naval Century” and another “Golden Age” for U.S. seapower.

The Marine Corps and Navy amphibious forces are ready to strengthen their partnership with all of the Nation’s joint forces, more closely align its capabilities with U.S. Special Operations Forces, and ensure the dominance of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) in the littorals.

The Department of Defense’s (DoD) Strategic Guidance for the 21st Century calls for innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint means for crisis response, forward engagement, and direct and indirect approaches to combat. The utility of naval amphibious capabilities to a wide range of missions and tasks make them essential tools for national decision makers and joint commanders at all levels. Maritime-response capabilities provide a range of rapid intervention options that can be tailored to the demands of each contingency. When crises erupt, the persistent offshore presence of naval forces in critical world regions enables them to respond quickly while “buying” valuable time for leaders to evaluate options. While built for war, these same naval forces respond to humanitarian disasters, conduct noncombatant evacuations and set the conditions for enduring peace in the maritime commons.

Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region “places a renewed emphasis on air and naval forces,” according to the Department’s January 2012 Defense Budget Priorities and Choices document that detailed changes in Pentagon spending over the next decade. The Marine Corps and the Nation’s naval amphibious force stand on the threshold of an era that will place high demands on America’s maritime capabilities, particularly as the military rebalances to the Asia Pacific region.


Today’s maritime forces must be more efficient while re-tooling the essence of naval warfighting and maritime power projection. This takes on added importance as the Marine Corps reduces personnel by 20,000 in order to reach the new force structure total of 182,100 Marines.

Exploiting opportunity in adversity is a hallmark of Marines. In the lean decades after World War I, the Corps, led by a small coterie of visionary leaders, most notably amphibious warfare pioneer Pete Ellis, rigorously experimented with the then-novel concept of amphibious operations. These experiments became the dominant form of operations throughout the Pacific theater during World War II. In the interwar years, the Marines developed the roots of modern counterinsurgency doctrine, epitomized by the still-referenced Small Wars Manual. This embrace of new technologies and new concepts continued during the Cold War, with Marines in the forefront of efforts to develop helicopters and air assault, tiltrotor aircraft and long-range operations, and advanced amphibious vehicles. Seizing opportunity in times of adversity has historically resulted in vastly improved amphibious effectiveness and efficiency.

Recent combat operations have yielded tremendous innovation in the conduct of irregular warfare (IW), counter-piracy, theater security shaping and interagency processes. These lessons must now be reshaped for a security environment characterized by the resurgence of regional power-politics, the expansion of modern military capabilities, challenges to U.S. battlefield dominance in space and information capabilities, social movements that drive global instability and the potential for continued WMD proliferation. This moment of maritime opportunity is created by a “perfect storm” of near-simultaneous changes that present a great opportunity for innovation and evolution of 21st century warfighting. This “perfect storm” is characterized by:

  • Renewed emphasis on protecting the global commons and ensuring littoral access.
  • Increasing importance on forward-deployed, small footprint methods.
  • Strategic rebalancing to the Asia and Pacific regions.
  • Significant reductions in defense investments.
  • State adversaries armed with integrated A2/AD capabilities.
  • Proliferation of modern precision weaponry and Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems (C2ISR) to non-state adversaries.
  • Expanded cyber and informational threat environments.
  • Relief from a decade of combat commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • A generation of Marines who are culturally attuned to operational environments and have experience integrating their operations with the joint force, the interagency community and partner military forces.
  • A reinvigorated partnership between the Marine Corps and the Navy.
  • New aviation platforms that dramatically enhance MAGTF maneuverability.
  • Increased capabilities of the joint force prompting change to MAGTF operating concepts.


Expanded A2/AD strategies will greatly complicate the calculus of how to gain and sustain access in joint campaigns. But the most likely use of American forces will continue to be in small-scale contingencies, requiring the Nation’s maritime crisis-response forces to be forward deployed in a state of high readiness.

As global power shifts horizontally to new states and regions, there are concurrent vertical shifts in power to non-state (social, economic, religious, criminal, ethnic) entities that challenge the very ideas of sovereignty, threats and security. While planning for conventional warfare remains a prudent responsibility of the naval force, planning for the unexpected and unconventional is a necessity.

Instability and crisis will be a persistent feature. Increasing global interconnectedness, shared awareness, information technology and ubiquitous social media are predominant factors driving global change. Emerging democratic movements are welcome evidence of the global appeal of the power of liberty, but remove long-standing restraints on diverse national and sub-national forces. Failing governments will continue to struggle to control sovereign spaces, giving sanctuary to those who threaten neighboring states or the global commons.

Impact: A core function of the naval force is the ability to respond to crisis through forward-deployed and rapidly concentrated forces. Protecting citizens and interests during local and regional instability will continue to place heavy demands on the naval force. Force capacity planning should include this significant aspect of steady state employment. Understanding threat and local conditions are important to determining “relevant” combat power in crisis response. Forward-deployed maritime forces shape this operational environment through security assistance, combined training, and other low-cost, small-footprint activities. Removing potential sanctuaries for potential destabilizing entities is essential.

Regional challengers may necessitate larger-scale interventions. Economic competition will drive rising powers to compete for influence, resources and operational advantage. Some regimes will continue to undertake external provocations to achieve domestic political advantage. Potentially, these provocations include seeking to limit U.S. freedom of action in international waters or the global commons. Proxy conflicts through non-state actors are also likely to aggravate regional power struggles. Regional contingencies that impact the stability of the global system could occur near any of the major littoral chokepoints worldwide.

Impact: The interconnected global system creates vulnerabilities and unintended effects from even the smallest regional disruptions. Efforts to ensure access to contested global commons will require the ability to gain local superiority in air, maritime and land domains and electromagnetic and missile environments. Active security cooperation with regional allies will be an effective offset to emerging competitors. The ability to engage new allies through forces that do not require a large footprint ashore will maximize this opportunity.

Non-state and hybrid actors increase the complexity. The proliferation of A2/AD technology (weapons, cyber or informational) to non-state/hybrid opponents will prove a disruptive challenge to U.S. strategic objectives. A web of social networks, religious sympathies, refugees and ethnic diasporas enable non-state actors to move assets across international borders, enabling them to operate – often unhindered and undetected – worldwide. Irregular warfare will be practiced not only in remote deserts or jungles but also in urban areas, with ready access to modern technology. Threat actors will use new information technology for communications, surveillance, intelligence gathering, remote control weapons, information operations and command and control. The cumulative effect of these trends is that hybrid enemies will be less predictable, more difficult to deter and less susceptible to traditional forms of warfare.

Impact: Irregular warfare is here to stay. Despite a national inclination to avoid entanglement in crises, ground forces have historically been required to control situations in the human environment, even if their presence is transitory. Hybrid forces may be able to avoid many of the lethal effects of joint shaping by blending in with civilian populations, especially in urban environments. Although hybrid enemies have the ability to disrupt U.S. operations, their own human and information networks are vulnerable to exploitation. U.S. forces will not be able to control the information environment, so they must be able to operate within it, at a pace that out-cycles the enemy.

Anti-access and area denial capabilities will expand. The relatively few states with modern, integrated systems will pose the most lethal long-range anti-access threat. A larger number of threats will employ shorter-range, area-denial capabilities to impede access,  cause U.S. casualties, intimidate allies or gain a better bargaining position. States and non-states alike have demonstrated a willingness to accept casualties in an area denial campaign that establishes them as a credible counter to U.S. power. While military technology is the most obvious form of A2/AD, unconventional methodologies will likely emerge including civilian “flash mobs,” human shields, blocked infrastructure, diplomatic restraints, economic penalties or the threat of lost commerce or increased oil prices. Presenting a thicket of A2/AD obstacles -- cyber attacks, proxy organizations, attacks on re-arming sites, diplomatic maneuvering or ally intimidation -- forces the U.S. to think of power projection in new ways. “Mutually assured economic disruption” will be a powerful anti-access tool in the new and connected global society.

Impact: The joint force will conduct counter-A2/AD to enable the objectives of a campaign, not as an endstate in and of itself. The naval force must consider multiple A2/AD threat constructs in order to be ready to react, especially as forward basing is diminished and U.S. conventional dominance is no longer a guarantee. A multi-domain force operating from the sea has the ability to advance sea control through raids ashore against hidden targets, can disrupt integrated air defenses through naval surface fires, and can use fleet aviation to create conditions for placing forces ashore if required by the objectives of the campaign. Littoral maneuver, as a methodology to bypass fixed defenses and exploit enemy seams, must overcome the potentially widening gap between ship and shore. The naval force must outmaneuver the enemy in the intellectual environment, not present an overmatch in firepower alone.

Terrorism and the proliferation of WMD. The vertical diffusion of power to non-state entities potentially creates some with capabilities formerly reserved by states. The most coveted of these is the possession and capability to employ WMD. The presence of this threat in non-state portfolios risks circumvention of many of the careful restraints practiced by states, making retaliatory response difficult. The proliferation of WMD among terrorists hands has steep consequences.

Impact: The utility of forces that can operate without a large footprint ashore and can sustain themselves from the sea puts them at lower force-protection risk. Thus the naval force must better align complementary capabilities to those of special operations forces. Forward deployed amphibious forces may be first-responders to terrorist attacks or play a role in intercepting or containing the spread of WMD.

A “battle of signatures.”  Avoiding detection is key to winning. Units and platforms generate electronic, visual, audible, thermal,and informational signatures that must be managed. The increasing technical sophistication of enemies is a threat to our buildup of forces in or near a theater of operations. The proliferation of precision battlefield weapons makes the consequences of being discovered hazardous, whether at the tactical or operational level. Many states have significant over-the-horizon, precision-strike systems, and the proliferation of shorter-range precision weapons on the tactical battlefield is even more widespread. In this environment, a detected signature creates a target.

Impact: In the “battle of signatures,”deception, camouflage, mobility, dispersion, emission control, and other signature-management capabilities will increase in importance. Where detection is likely, survivability from the effects of first-strike weapons is a primary consideration.

Low-Cost Area-Denial capabilities remain a significant obstacle. Land and naval mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) provide proven first-strike capabilities that have exponential impacts on the operations of even the most-modern maneuver forces. By disrupting tempo and creating casualties, mines and IEDs counter the advantages of a maneuver force, afloat or ashore. Similar impedance can be introduced through destruction of infrastructure, mob action or deception. These low-cost threats will remain a significant battlefield presence as their asymmetric value has been clearly demonstrated, and their use will not be constrained to stabilization operations.

Impact: While maneuver tenets call for detection and avoidance of mined areas, clearing will eventually be necessary. Countermine capabilities remain a priority for the maneuver force, whether on land or at sea. Force protection against first-strike becomes a significant consideration in vehicle design, but must be balanced with the advantages of lightweight mobility and maneuver when operating on poor infrastructure, in urban environments, or in complex terrain. The Nation's strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific will have significant effect on the efficacy and application of mines and IED warfare.


The Single Naval Battle concept maximizes the power of naval forces to meet the evolving warfighting needs of U.S. Combatant Commanders across multiple warfare domains.

Single Naval Battle is an approach to the integration of all elements of sea control and naval power projection into a cohesive whole. Its sole purpose is to strengthen naval forces and boost their strategic value in joint campaigns by eliminating seams in the application of naval capabilities. This new approach to planning and execution allows functional warfare communities and individual naval services to better understand their relationship to the broader naval and joint forces, identify critical dependencies, optimize forces, ensure compatibility, and increase partnerships. It spans the entirety of the naval mission.

Using the Single Naval Battle concept, the naval component within the larger joint force can apply force with greater flexibility and precision, using its inherent multi-domain (air, sea land) capabilities. It does not displace the multi-domain advantages of the joint force, but offers a joint commander an integrated littoral capability to enable his campaign. Future operational environments, with threats spanning multi-warfare domains, will demand forces capable of operating in the littorals. Complex domain-spanning threats create a necessity for a littoral force that can employ more discerning, scalable and practiced application of power.

Implementing the Single Naval Battle concept will correct the trend that has resulted in  “stove-piped” naval capabilities. Organizations and warfare areas have been driving operational concepts, doctrine and plans that function in isolation of one another. This “stove-piped” paradigm favors capability “silos”: Marine Corps or Navy? Power projection or sea control? Amphibious warfare or strike warfare?  The Single Naval Battle integrates naval combined arms from earliest campaign inception, linking all naval capabilities together through purpose, timing and location. It increases the sophistication of naval combined arms against 21stCentury opponents through the integration of intelligence collection, fires, cyber effects, information operations, presence activities, humanitarian interventions or clandestine missions.

Single Naval Battle does not overlap the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept. In fact, ASB is an excellent example of the power of a unified campaign approach. Countering A2/AD threats generally take place at the start of a joint campaign. A Single Naval Battle approach thus places ASB in context for the rest of the naval force. A 21st-Century naval force will not conduct shaping and condition-setting missions in isolation. Rather, it will integrate supporting elements across the force with overall campaign objectives in mind, addressing comprehensively critical questions:  How does countering A2/AD capabilities impact force aggregation and crisis response timelines? How can the multi-domain capabilities of the naval force be leveraged to asymmetrically dismantle A2/AD capabilities? How can the naval force use the amphibious component to enable sea control?

In some cases, limited-objective power projection (e.g., strikes, raids, lodgments) might enable the fight for area access. Placing elements of U.S. naval forces on allied soil or in allied ports could complicate an enemy‘s escalation calculus. The naval counter-A2/AD campaign might include placing a small force ashore to deny key terrain to the enemy, influence populations, close chokepoints, seize and defend forward missile-defense sites or establish expeditionary airfields. Amphibious forces might facilitate sea control by operating on the landward side of a littoral shoreline, seeking out hidden A2/AD capabilities and denying enemy sanctuary. Applying a strategic perspective to challenges to access includes sophisticated military technology and an expanding set of unconventional approaches to denying access:  Is the Single Naval Battle force prepared for anti-access attacks on forces while still in port, or ready for the blocking of key chokepoints? Does the counter-A2/AD campaign adequately consider the human shield or informational components of the enemy‘s A2/AD strategy? The full range of multi-domain power-projection capability allows a joint commander to employ an asymmetric application of force to enemies who prove resistant to a single approach. A 21st-Century naval force must be as nimble and sophisticated in the application of combined arms as any adversary.

The effects of sea control are often measured by their impact on the civilian environment ashore. The integration of sea control and power projection is fundamental to understanding single naval battle, as is the ability to sustain the force. Sea control sets conditions for power projection, while power projection  enables or shapes the objectives of sea control. Single Naval Battle appreciates the complexity of the relationship, that integrated naval task forces relate actions to one another in time, space and purpose. Single Naval Battle requires that the Marine Corps operate aat sea and ashore to  support the Navy at sea, while the Navy must embrace its role in supporting and conducting operations ashore. While the Single Naval Battle approach is not an organizing principle, it requires an integrated approach to how the Marine Corps and Navy deploy, posture, aggregate, plan, command, control, employ and sustain naval forces.

Single Naval Battle has direct implications for shared naval doctrinal development. Likewise, it will likely have a significant impact on the way the Navy and Marine Corps train and educate the force, influencing course content for (Joint Force Maritime Component Commanders (FMCCs, Top Level Schools, Intermediate Level Schools, and other venues.  At senior levels, the approach creates a demand for the development of operationally-focused littoral warfighters from both Services. In time, a shared Single Naval Battle approach to expeditionary warfare may spur the creation of a center of excellence or combined Marine Corps/Navy combat development entity.



The increasing complexity of littoral warfare and the diversity of maritime missions preclude “just add water” approaches to amphibious operations. The future naval force must apply a spectrum of  complex principles in force development, training, exercises and application.

A Single Naval Battle approach to the integration of all elements of sea control and naval power projection into a cohesive whole must be explored. A Single Naval Battle approach links seamlessly the elements of naval power projection through campaign design and allows the naval component to apply force with flexibility and precision, using its inherent multi-domain and cyber capabilities. The same approach can be applied for missions across the range of military operations, beginning with the operational preparation of the environment, building relationships and training of credible security partners through forward-deployed engagement.  Maximizing naval effectiveness within the joint force, Single Naval Battle offers an integrated domain-spanning littoral capability to enable the joint campaign.

Exercising the art of combined arms will take on added significance as tech-savvy enemies and battlefield complexity increases. Naval forces must stimulate enemy systems, observe responses and strike with precision -- baiting an enemy with false targets, littoral maneuver deception and disorienting enemy formations through multi-domain combined arms effects. The inherent advantages of the naval force in air, maritime and land domains are complemented by cyber capabilities, information operations, electronic warfare, littoral maneuver, rapid mobility, deception and stealth. Precision firepower and massed capabilities remain essential. Complex future operational environments call for the greater integration of a range of interagency capabilities into an expanded concept of combined arms.

Battlespace shaping through littoral maneuver will provide our sea-based force with the ability to control the timing and tempo of an engagement as well as the geometry of the battlespace. It creates options for the force to apply strength against weakness, and to present a threat through the depth of the enemy‘s battlespace. Naval forces will choose when to give battle and will exploit an advantage in one domain to create opportunity in another. Littoral maneuver can be employed to defeat A2/AD threats, create conditions for sea control and enable subsequent naval operations. Littoral maneuver is fundamental to modern amphibious operating concepts and relies heavily on multi-mission air and surface platforms.

Against a wide variety of opponents, naval forces have the inherent ability to pose threats over wide areas at a tempo that confuses most enemies. Using deception and surprise in multiple domains is a force-multiplying capability that strains the situational awareness of an enemy and creates capability gaps in integrated systems. Naval forces can use these effects to minimize collateral damage, counter information campaigns or reduce operational risk.

Relevant combat power metrics based on expected threats and conditions are more useful than generalized combat power metrics when assessing the efficacy of combat systems and their associated schemes of maneuver. Often, smaller units or a transitory presence ashore can create effects on an enemy once thought possible only through larger formations. For instance, firepower and mass will be less critical in selected scenarios than mobility or precision. ISR and command and control will enable small teams to achieve the effects of larger formations. The composition of an assault echelon and the ratios of various modes of littoral maneuver must be dynamically determined through analysis of the threat and conditions.

With increased global connectivity, anticipating, deterring and preventing conflict through operational preparation of the environment (OPE) becomes more possible and also imperative. The U.S. joint force must focus on denying enemies sanctuary, enabling partner nation capabilities, strengthening regional alliances, and creating solid relationships that will endure through crisis. A practiced interagency campaign of OPE activities leverages all elements of engagement toward a unified and satisfactory end-state.

In addition, the scalability and efficiency of the Naval Expeditionary System (NES) combines the diverse components of the expeditionary force into predictable, practiced, packages that can be rapidly applied. A mature NES synchronizes the training, readiness and deployment of naval expeditionary forces. Its components would be determined by warfighting demand, steady-state missions and training requirements. The NES is mature for the frequently deployed mid-scale expeditionary forces such as amphibious ready groups (ARGs) and Marine expeditionary units (MEUs). Expanding this concept to the components of the expeditionary strike group (ESG) and Marine expeditionary brigade would be a natural progression. Where rapid aggregation of larger forces is required, the NES would provide building blocks that have trained to the same standards, understand C2 relationships, have interoperable equipment and operate with common battlefield understanding. NES provides the common tactics, techniques, and procedures for intelligence, C2, fires, maneuver, logistics, and force protection. While this approach appears prescriptive, it is, in fact, the enabling element of task-organized arrangements in combat. Forces must be trained and exercised at each level to allow for orderly aggregation into a capable contingency or crisis-response force.

The Navy and Marine Corps have long recognized that the most effective way to build a force is through the flexible task organization of combined-arms teams. Modern missions and response times suggest the utility of standing combined arms forces that require only tailoring on-the-margins when a specific mission is assigned. Standing MAGTFs, strike groups or larger naval formations, complemented by a range of specialized mission modules, would allow mission tailoring around a well-trained and highly cohesive base. This principle of adaptive force packaging ensures necessary proficiency and unit cohesion and serves to enable rapid force generation and deployment.


The Marines cannot succeed without the Navy. The Navy cannot succeed without the Marines. The Nation cannot do without either.  The moment of maritime opportunity in 2012 includes game-changing potential for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the naval force. Those impacts readily extend to the joint force and the interagency.  Innovation will focus on better naval partnering, matured warfighting concepts, relevant training, seamless integration of effects and intelligent organizational design.

Approaching the maritime domain as a single battlespace offers opportunities for naval warfighting effectiveness through a Single Naval Battle approach that integrates all elements of sea control and naval power projection into a cohesive whole. Within this approach, consideration must be made for force aggregation and C2 relationships. A joint force maritime component commander would likely manage battlespace at sea and ashore for periods of time during the early stages of a joint operation.

Against modern irregular and hybrid opponents, “relevant” combat power must be calculated carefully for its effect. For instance, firepower and mass might be less critical in selected scenarios than mobility or precision. ISR and command and control might enable small teams to achieve the effects of larger formations. Against irregular opponents, a careful integration of lethal and non-lethal effects enables the joint force to gain influence with minimal collateral damage or unintended consequences. Cyber or information capabilities can also change the nature of an operation. Tradeoffs among domain capabilities, either as part of the deployed force and as a reach back capability, must be carefully considered in campaign planning.

Domain dominance cannot be assumed by the U.S. joint force. Fighting for localized dominance in time and space lies at the heart of countering the A2/AD threat, This can be achieved through deception, tempo, littoral maneuver, mass, multi-domain effects and the planned presentation of asymmetric capabilities against less nimble opponents.

Hybrid and irregular enemies will avoid presenting a conventional surface for U.S. forces to strike, challenging access through unconventional tactics. Key to addressing these opponents is gaining understanding. When they can gain access to advanced weapons, these threats will use them in ambush against targets afloat or ashore. Information availability, ubiquitous global media, and accelerating global interconnections will transform the security environment, increasing the complexity of threats. Complex threats will seek advantage through unconventional environments and effects.

Crisis response is a “come as you are” endeavor. Threats present themselves on unexpected timelines, necessitating rapid crisis response using resources already forward deployed. This will require careful consideration of all elements of the force posture. Amphibious ship loading, for example, will dictate the composition and sustainability of the response force. Crisis response will require the rapid aggregation of Marine Corps and Navy  units under a relevant and effective command and control structure, one that must be conceptualized and rehearsed together. Forward-deployed forces embarked on amphibious ships serve as mobile bases afloat rather than fixed bases ashore. This force presence can move rapidly among crisis flashpoints and can respond to situations without destabilizing intrusion ashore. But getting there quickly is not enough. Sustainment is the true measure of an “expeditionary” force!

Meanwhile, operational preparation through information operations, cyber capabilities, social networks, and standing relationships becomes a significant enabler. Sustained engagement by forward-deployed forces builds shared values, enhances partnership, denies sanctuaries to threats, and prevents crisis and conflict.

The U.S. joint force must be prepared to integrate a range of interagency effects as part of a combined-arms approach to warfighting and campaigning. The complementary capabilities between special-operations and amphibious forces provide a mechanism for environment shaping, and a sliding scalability in crisis prevention. Together, this joint capability provides immediate responsiveness to global challenges in counterterrorism, counter proliferation, or larger contingencies. The proliferation of precision battlefield weapons creates a “battle of signatures” that  must be reduced, obscured or disguised as an essential element of force protection and maneuver advantage. Naval forces prevail in the battle of signatures through disciplined use of the electromagnetic spectrum, emissions control, light discipline, camouflage, deception, and obscurants. At the same time, irregular warfare against urban opponents will be practiced on a new technological level. Without the ability to control the information environment, Marines will have to operate within it at a tempo that outstrips the enemy.

Access ashore for the ground element of a multi-domain force may be required to execute missions in the human domain. Lasting effects in this environment often match desired joint campaign objectives, necessitating a littoral access component of the multi-domain joint force.

Future operations require a new way of thinking about achieving landing site superiority, akin to air or sea superiority. With an estimated 85 percent of an amphibious Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s (MEB) vehicles and equipment coming ashore via ship-to-shore connector, the key issue for getting the MEB ashore is achieving landing site superiority. Landing site superiority can be gained by multiple means, including vertical envelopment, boat-insertion, and swimming amphibian vehicles. While domain dominance is not assured, conditions can be set to gain localized superiority in time and space. Modern operating concepts already provide innovative alternatives for avoiding linear frontal assaults across defended beaches and are the established norm for amphibious operations. Conditions can be set for closing non-assault craft through littoral maneuver, bypassing enemy strengths, vertical envelopment, offset and deception.

Operating terrain in the Asia-Pacific theater will differ from our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, presenting increased opportunities for tactical maneuver inshore and on littoral waterways. A balanced set of maneuver options for gaining entry and operating ashore is necessary to accomplish the full range of crisis-response and contingency employments. Aircraft, small-craft, tracked-amphibians, wheeled vehicles, tanks, and internally transportable vehicles will support the naval force’s maneuver options.

The modern amphibious force can employ a variety of mobility options to conduct littoral maneuver at distances to hundreds of miles. The stand-off range for amphibious operations is the result of a careful calculus that includes battlespace geometry, risk, threat, and conditions. Innovation in power projection creates new opportunities for operating at increased standoff or in setting localized superiority to allow for closer approaches. Future littoral maneuver and low footprint operating concepts trade mass for precision effects. They depend fundamentally on persistent situational awareness of enemy disposition, noncombatant activities, and potential threat actions. The capability for continuous knowledge of the battlespace must leverage an ISR Enterprise that serves forces both afloat and ashore.

Enemy employment of guided rockets, artillery, missiles and mortars (G-RAMM), whether at sea or ashore, relies on a battle network of observation, tracking and targeting. This network contains vulnerabilities potentially exploited in the fight for localized dominance.

The modern aviation combat element (ACE) provides significant capability gains that have not yet been fully incorporated into operating concepts. The MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopter and UH-1Y Huey   helicopters, and the coming F-35B Joint Strike Fighter all provide significant MAGTF enhancements. These provide unprecedented capability for littoral maneuver and fire support through the depth of the operating area.

An operationalized seabase integrated into steady-state operating concepts can leverage  the seabase as a joint and interagency resource. The seabase provides a ready platform to link the naturally complementary capabilities of the MAGTF and special operations forces. The idea of afloat prepositioned resources as relevant only to major theater war masks its greater potential.        The naval force must develop innovative new concepts for employing intra-theater sea lift/seabase platforms in littoral operations to enable unprecedented operational distances.

Operating concepts including Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS), Ship-to-Objective Maneuver (STOM), and Distributed Operations (DO) are well aligned to the 21st-Century security environment, but require continued innovation in organization, equipment and execution.

As America’s maritime and amphibious capabilities are enhanced through inter-cooperation and innovation they become more important than ever to the nation’s future. With the inherent flexibility and scaleability of this synchronied Navy-Marine Corps team, its ability to deter and defeat adversaries, strengthen alliances, deny enemies sanctuary and project global influence is heightened to new levels.  

The nation is returning to its historical maritime roots, yet it is faced with challenges that are historical in their own right. One thing is for sure, the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard forces will play critical roles in safeguarding our Nation’s future as the global commons becomes more unwieldy and more dangerous.

About the Author(s)

The Ellis Group was created by Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos in December 2011 to conduct a detailed examination of emerging warfighting challenges, identify opportunities for increasing naval warfighting effectiveness, and coordinate with naval partners. Composed of 10 officers and civilians hand-picked by the Commandant, Ellis Group has five specific areas of emphasis. These are: strengthen naval warfighting partnerships; inform the combat development and integration processes; enhance naval partnership with US Special Operations Command; focus innovation in naval warfighting; and develop littoral warfare expertise.


Scott Kinner

Thu, 09/06/2012 - 7:35pm

An even cursury review of Marine Corps history would indicate that expeditionary operations, crisis response, and limited contingencies have formed the vast, vast bulk of its operations and deployments.

While much is said, and certainly warranted, about the role of the Marine Corps in major conventional conflicts such as WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and OIF/OEF, these are outliers to the general Marine Corps experience and purpose - which has been, and remains, a variation on assisting the Navy in forward deployed, power projection. So one should be cautious about looking at the use of the Marine Corps in these specific 30 years of conflict and then wildly extrapolating outward across the other 207 years of existence.

And while it is certainly true that the Marine Corps hardly turned away from an opporunity to participate in the "Big Ones" let us not forget that the use of the Marine Corps in these conflicts was more the result of operations so big that they required all of the available ground combat power - and then some - to attempt to reach national objectives. In effect, the Marine Corps was pulled from being a forward deployed, crisis response force to supporting sustained land combat operations because that was what needed to be done in the time and place those decisions were made.

A parallel, if imperfect analogy, is that the US military is heavily focused on COIN at the moment, to the detriment of other missions - because COIN was what it was being asked to do, right now, today. Now that "Third Party COIN" is ending, the military is stepping back to figure out how to rebalance itself to prepare for the most likely contingencies.

So, it is not surprising that the Ellis Group is reviewing how the Marine Corps - pulled to support sustained land combat operations (and certainly willing to be pulled) - needs to return to its normal means and method of employment - forward deployed, crisis response, naval service.

The answer to that question cannot be predetermined - and to pretend that the only answer worth entertaining is one artificially labelled "bold" or "disruptive" is farcical and flies in the face of practicality. The original Pete Ellis did a lot of drinking, and he did a lot of thinking. When John Lejeune began grappling with how the Marine Corps would support the US Navy's fight in the Pacific, Pete Ellis had some thoughts and answers. The truly bold, innovative, risk taker was General Lejeune who put the institution behind Ellis' thoughts.

In the same manner, the Ellis Group is not charged with merely figuring out how to invade China or some other modern version of Plan Orange. It is not charged with merely figuring out how to be a corps sized element of amphibious troops that augment the Army. It is charged with determining what the Marine Corps needs to do serve in the manner it has been asked to on a daily basis for the vast majority of its almost 240 years of existence.


Thu, 08/30/2012 - 4:25pm

In reply to by slapout9

An interesting and relevant editorial.

Interestingly, its second paragraph notes: "Almost any Marine knows the two Marine Corps of which I speak. One is the heir of the maneuver warfare movement of the 1970s and 80s, of Al Gray and War fighting, of free play training, officer education focused on how to think, not what to do, of the belief that the highest goal of all Marines is winning in combat with the smallest possible losses. This is the Marine Corps that led the advance to Baghdad in the first phase of the ongoing war in Iraq."

A statement which begs the question, Wasn't the Marine Corps division in this instance performing the role of an army division -- not fulfilling a mission unique to its branch of the service. If so, why do we need two ground forces, i.e. two armies. If every time a Marine division participates in a major combat operation, they do so in an army role, then perhaps these men, their assets, and their budget should be transferred to the army.

Overlapping mission responsibilities on a recurring basis, in the same type of terrain or environment, are inefficient and budget overhead wise costly. A branch of the military should not have as its de facto main mission that of loaning on a long term basis its main line units to another branch of the service.

So the Marine Corps is no longer the last bastion of the frontal attack? I will have to ask my family members and friends who are former Jar Heads about the editorial claim the USMC is now interested in winning with the fewest casualties. Maybe things do change over time.


Sat, 09/01/2012 - 4:06pm

In reply to by slapout9

Interesting food for thought which made me think. If we go back through the Navy's history of supporting ground operations initiated by ship borne forces -- absent the approximately seven WWII Pacific landings (including Army led Okinawa) where the six Marine Divisions went ashore and their 60+ years ago landing at Inchon, it was army units that the Navy carried to their destination and then supported with gunfire and logistically.

For instance: the landing of Winfield Scot's army at Vera Cruz in 1848 during the Mexican War and in 1914(?) at the same location; during the Civil War up and down the South's East and Gulf Coast's and along the Mississippi and other rivers on probably dozens (if not more) occasions - including supporting McClellan 1862 movement of the entire Army of the Potomac to Virginia; and during the 1898 Spanish American War in both Cuba and in the Philippines; during most of the invasions conducted during WWII whether in North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, Normandy, the Philippines, and on New Guinea.

During WWII the Marine Divisions (along with several Army divisions) were used by the Navy to seize Japanese controlled / fortified Islands in support of Admiral Nimitz's drive up the Central Pacific. The distance over which Marines fought was dictated of course by the size of the islands. The Okinawa ground invasion was actually an army operation on a much larger land mass with three Marine Divisions effectively loaned to them And had it occurred, the invasion of Japan would most certainly have been conducted primarily by army divisions with the six Marine divisions loaned to MacArthur forces.

Marines obtained division strength during WWII only because, as part of the Navy, they enabled Nimitz (and CNO Admiral King) to have complete control over the Navy's Central Pacific Campaign.

Since that time, and (in my opinion)the foolish decision during the 1948(?)reorganization establishing the Marine Corps as a fourth branch of the military, the Corps has been in search of a mission. At least through my time, the Fleet Marine Forces (their divisions and Air Wings) were under the operational control of the Navy Admirals commanding the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

Thinking about what you interestingly and technically accurately noted, the Marine Corps owes it existence as division sized units with supporting air wings to Admirals Nimitz and King's need to have complete control over their Central Pacific Campaign where the land masses they were securing were of a very limited size. When the targeted land masses became larger, such as on Okinawa, control necessarily passed to the Army as in previous wars and campaigns. I believe your thoughts are correct, and I never thought of it that way. Even us old ones learn -- at least occasionally.

However, a Navy campaign up the Central Pacific was a one time occurrence and we will never see the likes of that again -- so why division sized Marine Corps units and why a separate branch of the military into perpetuity?

A former Navy Officer, I am from a well over centuries old Navy and Marine Corps family, and if those like me still alive read this, my "former" Marine Corps cousins an in-laws will not be happy. Fortunately, they spend their time on Marine Corps blogs.


Fri, 08/31/2012 - 4:11pm

In reply to by zacchaeus

Here is an opinion of what I think happened. The Navy and Marines(Seaman trained as Soldiers/USA Pirates so to speak) together were a combined arms team/force, not just an Infantry force. The Navy through Naval gunfire was essentially the Marine corps artillery and that was the defining difference. The "range of Naval gunfire" (originally I guess it was ship cannon fire) that determined the "shift point" from Naval/Marine operations to Army operations. As time passed and the "range" and "type" of Naval fire support that could be given to the Marines has so changed the nature of the Marine corps and the Navy for that matter, that it has created a very confusing idea of just what the Marine Corps is. Again this is just my opinion of what happened.


Thu, 08/30/2012 - 7:58am

One has to wonder if this group actually conducted an academically and intellectually sound assessment and reached conclusions that were not in lock-step with the CMC’s current positions, would they have published it?

If the Big 10 concluded that the Marine Corps variant of the JSF was not required or the Marine Corps could survive @ 150K, would they have the intellectual honesty to publish the findings in an open forum such as SWJ? Would the CMC accept truly bold thinking, as the Ellis Group espouses to produce? Pete Ellis was not afraid to challenge the thinking and leadership of his day and that enabled him to become the “prophet” of Marine Corps lore.

Bold thinking may be in short supply but the propaganda machine is clearly FMC.


Tue, 09/04/2012 - 6:13pm

In reply to by stanman

Presuming that some sort of conflict occurred in any of these areas, it would be absolutely unnecessary for ships to enter into shallow coastal waters to hit an enemy target operating close to shore. In fact, it would be incredibly stupid to so do. Just because your enemy makes a run for the beach and / or stays in shallow waters, doesn't mean that you do the same. That is what weapons systems are for. You never let the enemy dictate where and how you are going to fight. It is a fools game to fight on the other side's terms. There is no tactical reason to go into shallow waters.

If we're worried about some coastal vessels coming out into deeper waters "asymmetrical" style, radar will pick them up -- just sink the damn things before they get anywhere close. The others will get the idea and leave -- or die. Hopefully the Navy will never buy into this asymmetrical warfare / COIN theory nonsense that you have to worry about the casualties local (in this case) boats suffer. War is the killing / destruction of your enemy during a conflict -- whether the suspected target is an enemy or not.

And, if some opponents keep their submarines in so called shallow waters, let them enjoy themselves. Submarines have to come out onto the high seas to have ships to attack. A sub in any water can fire cruise type missiles at fixed targets, but if they want to target moving ships with missiles they have to light off their fire control radar, and it doesn't much matter where you are when you do that, its then over for them. You don't have to be in shallow waters to conduct Electronic Warfare, even if your enemy is in shallow waters. Also, I wouldn't count on the protection of shallow waters if I was the skipper of an enemy sub.

If the Navy is ever dumb enough to send ships into shallow waters to board suspected ships during a period of conflict, instead of just sinking suspected combatants, than our Admirals will have completely lost their minds. The Navy should leave the asymmetrical / COIN theory of war and its accompany concern for collateral casualties to civilians to the ground forces. It has no place in sea going warfare -- should that occur. The risk and potential cost is to great -- better to mistakenly kill many of them than to expose a ship to loss when it is totally unnecessary.

The only value an LCS's shallow water capability will provide is in an environment where ships or other vessels are being stopped and searched near coastal waters in an essentially non-combat environment such as along the coast of Africa in Pirate land or in the Persian Gulf directly post-9/11 -- presuming that is still going on.

By the way, I've been in few of those noted areas, they can be quite deep.

Absent running up and down the rivers of some future occupied country, I still do not know of any area of the world where, in the event of a major conflict, the Navy would have to give up the benefit of its weapons long range capability and send its ships into coastal waters to conduct operations.


Sat, 09/01/2012 - 10:07am

In reply to by CBCalif

The Straits of Hormuz
The Red Sea and approaches to the Suez Canal
The Straits of Malacca/Sunda
The Skagerrak
The Dardenelles
The English Channel/North Sea
The Agean Sea
The Levantine coast
The Black Sea
The Baltic, specifically the Gulf of Finland and the approaches to Kronshtadt.

All of these regions have seen plenty of green/brown operations and remain critical points in SLOC.

USN cognitive dissonance on littoral regions of conflict.


Fri, 08/31/2012 - 8:08pm

In reply to by CBCalif

“Penetrating through all its excessive verbiage, the objective of this paper is redefine the mission of the Navy to one requiring it to emphasize the type of tasks the Marine Corps wants to perform to sustain its independent status.”

Actually, that is incorrect. The paper’s point is to inform others that the Marine Corps intends to reemphasize its role as an amphibious force after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade. You may not have been paying attention but the PRC has become very hostile in the South China Sea and the Pacific. An independent Marine Corps is required to deal with that mess because it is so big. However, the Navy needs to understand that without the threat of boots on ground the PRC will not take the United States seriously. Nothing says you have lost like the Marine Corps controlling your streets. So, the Navy will have to increase its efforts in the arena of amphibious shipping to meet the needs of the nation, not the Marine Corps! History is repeating itself and the Navy / Marine Corps team needs to scale up and reprise the victorious roles they played in the last century, only they need to be bigger and badder this time. Sectarianism is not helpful!

While the Marine Corps continues as a well trained and well organized ground force with three large infantry divisions accompanied by its own close air support -- it is a branch of the military in search of a mission that will enable it to remain one among equals at the JCS / DOD level.

Post WWII -- in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- Marine Corps divisions have essentially been loaned to the Army and participated in their campaigns. Some of us remember, and most realize, that the last large scale amphibious landing took place in 1950 at Inchon in South Korea.

As someone else wrote, the need to borrow Marine Corps divisions indicates that the Army is understrength versus the missions assigned to it. A thought to which I would propose adding, perhaps the Marine Corps is over strength and a transfer of budget and units to the Army would be in order.

Would somebody please identify the specific geographic locations (not just one) on this planet where all these brown water / littoral combat operations are going to take place. Historically there have been two that come to mind, on the Mississippi River and on other inland waterways in support of the blockade of the Southern States during the first half of the 1860's and a century later on the Mekong River area in South Vietnam.

I can envision a comparatively small scale series of amphibious assaults taking place against pirate bases along the East Coast of Africa, to bring an end to piracy, but where else? Further, that is not a brown water / littoral operation.

As a former Navy Officer, I admit being amused by the (not unexpected) hubris of the Marine Corps assigning itself the missions of strengthening naval war fighting partnerships, to focus innovation in naval war fighting [presumably on target types selected by the USMC], and to coordinate with [their] naval partners (really) to identify opportunities for increasing naval war fighting effectiveness. All this from officers who have only been passengers on Navy Ships or who at most managed brigs and manned maybe a single 5 inch gun mount during general quarters.

As some (obviously retired) Marines have suggested, perhaps it is time to down size the Corps to a force of about 10 or 12 battalion landing teams which can employed, under Navy command, as soldiers from the sea for use in operations such as anti-piracy operations should that ever occur, in brown water operations should that ever occur again, and in support of SOG groups should they require or make use of one time raiding forces that can be provided from a nearby sea based force. In the advent the need for large scale amphibious operations ever again occurs, their missions as noted would provide that expertise. The Marine Corps Commandant should be no more than a three star and their status as a separate branch of the service removed. The other two-thirds of the Marine Corps should be transferred to the Army along with their air support components. In fact, those Air Force squadrons designed strictly for close air support should also be assigned to the army.

At the risk of being considered heretical, at least to Marines, it simply makes no sense for this country to have two ground forces. Penetrating through all its excessive verbiage, the objective of this paper is redefine the mission of the Navy to one requiring it to emphasize the type of tasks the Marine Corps wants to perform to sustain its independent status. It is out of touch with the reality of the Navy's core missions.


Wed, 08/29/2012 - 11:06pm

.....What a piece of neo-Tofflerian BS. I got about halfway through, and just couldn't take it, anymore. This thing is riddled with historical inaccuracies, and a complete lack of understanding of it's core subject matter.

A navy that seeks to project power, whether at the theater or global level, has five (5) missions:

1. Maintain the SLOC (what they refer to as the "global commons", i.e., the "blue navy"; "global commons" being an idiotic term at all levels of planning)
2. Intimidate the enemy via their known presence ("deception operations")
3. Escort (hopefully fast) convoys to the target area[s].
4. Get ground troops (and/or specfor's) over the beach (Via amtraks or helicopter; "green navy")
5. Support those troops, and thus the mission, via direct combat (NGFS/NMFS, CVBG-based aviation, riverine combat craft, etc.), direct support (Food/HDR's, POL, deployment of hospital ships), or indirect means (i.e., "being a presence", "Looking Big & Intimidating")

For US Forces, there is a sixth component: Maintain a SLBM force as part of a Nuclear Triad -- just because the Soviet Union is gone, that doesn't mean that other players don't want to take their place. Quite the opposite.

.....Wash. Rinse. Repeat. At as many levels as necessary.

For the direct amphibious "boots on the ground", they must be prepared to shift from "peacekeeping" (showing the local factions that they are no longer in the running for 'king of the roost'), "security" (whether for NGO's or refugees) and "nation-rebuilding" (i.e., the PRU concept), to LIC/COIN, to "main force" operations, without missing a beat.

We used to know this. We've done this in the post.

WTF happened, Over?


Wed, 08/29/2012 - 7:59am

Not a drop of bold thinking in this paper.

I’m sure the real Pete Ellis would be thrilled about his name being attached to this group and their output. This paper seems more of an advocacy piece for current Marine Corps capabilities than a serious study of future naval challenges.

For instance, power projection for a nation teetering on insolvency will be a real challenge and the entire concept needs to be rethought. Military power projection without the other elements of national power (all in decline), is simply intimidation. Potential competitors are well aware of the nation’s fiscal problems and the inability to sustain any significant military action that the Marines would be involved in. This entire paper is based upon the premise that the defense budget will remain constant. Doubtful that Ellis would have made such an analytical blunder.

Is obviously the Navy, whose littoral policy and strategy is deeply flawed because it is essentially a most unwilling effort. Between the farce that is LCS and most misnomered Zumwalt, it really shows a Navy that is not really committed to green, let alone brown water operations. As for the CG, Deepwater does little to support the green/brown mission.

This is a Cinderella mission that will remain underfunded and underresourced in an age of tight fiscal discipline. This is really despite the low cost of entry.

It is not something the USN is historically unfamilliar with. After all, they did get monitors over oceans.....and PT boats all over the Pacific. In more recent times, Elmo Zumwalt ran a fiine brown/green campaign in the Vietnam. Persistence and resillience, the two pillars of littoral dominance.


Wed, 08/29/2012 - 2:06pm

A Fire Team sized AAV that is air droppable, submersible and can scale a six hundred foot high limestone cliff might sound crazy to some, but it is actually possible with current technology. However, I am concerned that the collapse of the EFV program seems to have the Marine Corps so discouraged that it is not even investigating the possibility of such vehicles. The utility of a fully autonomous amphibious vehicle in countering low-cost area denial weapons was not even mentioned in this article, a serious oversight in my opinion. The Marine Corps needs to do whatever it can to get over the malaise in thinking that has set in because of the failure of the EFV and other programs. The success of our future engagements in the pacific will depend on our ability to innovate long before the hostilities begin. We will not be able to do what needs to be done if we are still dwelling on the loss of the EFV.


Wed, 08/29/2012 - 8:01am

In reply to by TJ

Clearly you are not part of the “No Colonel Left Behind” Program, HQ’d at Quantico. Interesting how the Marines seek bold new ideas from the officers who created the problems they are experiencing today. Obstructionist (vice visionaries) is an excellent categorization.

I read a recent interview with the Commandant – he was in complete denial about the fiscal crisis facing the nation and the realities facing the Marine Corps. He argued for maintaining the status quo using the same, tired arguments we’ve heard since 1991. It appears that 10 big thinkers he selected for this project are like-minded.

Since I wrote my essays that describe the Marine Corps' low capacity to develop a capabilty like this in less than 10 years (and less than $14B), the silence from the Marine Corps Establishment has been deafening.

A good way to live up to the "Ellis" name is to tap all those who have proven themselves to be creative Ellis's in respectful, collegial ways--instead of sidelining them, or harrassing them, or ignoring them. A good way to waste this effort is to continue to leave all the obstructionist Establishment in power.