March 1, 2006  

How Marines are preparing for hybrid wars

British historian Michael Howard observed long ago that during extended eras of peace, military planners are like sailors. He meant true sailors, those who use sextants and abhor the Global Positioning System. Likewise, military leaders must navigate into the future without crystal balls, using “dead reckoning” off of small conflicts and technical advances to gauge the nature of the next enemy and the next war.

Because such periods are not without risk, generals often are accused of fighting the last war. Howard suggests that despite this risk, military leaders must “sail on in a fog of peace” until the last moment: “Then you find out rather late in the day whether your calculations have been right or not.”

There are those who would like the Marine Corps to sharply reverse course, focus on the near-term threat and return to its small-wars legacy. This is a legitimate argument but reflects some bad sightings for future navigation. That course would only deepen the chances that we would find our calculations to be in error, and only further increase the chances that the Marines would not be best positioned for the next war.

Since 1989, Marine Corps planners have struggled with this dilemma along with the rest of the Pentagon. Many theories — and PowerPoint presentations trumped up as theory — have been offered as the new face of war. Several blue-ribbon panels have heralded dramatic new priorities for American arms. The Pentagon bought the hype and veneer of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), subsequently embraced as “transformation.” Hundreds of contractors flocked to Joint Forces Command to bastardize the English language while offering their new concepts — some useful, some just warmed over pap. The Marine Corps resisted the siren call of technology and the underlying techno-lust embedded in the RMA debate. The Marines grasped the immutable nature of war, and remained America’s Spartans, a disciplined cadre dutifully cognizant of the brutal realities of war.

This disdain for errant theorizing spurred a counterrevolution. In the mid-1990s, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak tried to shift the debate to future enemies instead of our own technology and simultaneously refocus the Marines toward a future marked by chaos and irregular warfare. He prophetically laid out the need to reframe military thinking away from linear formations and conventional conflict. In his most noted speech, he recalled how the vaunted Roman legions of Varus were bested by the Gauls led by Arminius in the Teutoberger Wald in A.D. 9. The parable was clear: Dominant first-class powers can lose to adaptive adversaries.

An intense, but short-lived, renaissance followed within the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory was established at Quantico, Va., and new concepts such as Operational Maneuver from the Sea were promulgated as the basis for future exploration. The Sea Dragon initiative was put in place and the Warrior series of innovative war-fighting experiments was conducted. The Marines took the lead in developing concepts and tactics for urban warfare. These efforts underscored Marine leadership’s commitment to explore novel technologies, operational concepts and force designs. Unlike the RMA alchemists who promised dramatic gains by sheer assertion, the Marines sought an empirical basis for their “dead reckoning.” This work laid the foundation for numerous training programs throughout the Corps’ operational commands, which paid huge dividends during the drive to and through Baghdad.

Conflicts in the Balkans, various attacks against our embassies in Africa and in the Middle East, and the first attack against the World Trade Center seemed to provide more confirmation that the Corps’ dead reckoning was on track. But the Corps now stands some eight years after Krulak’s “Strategic Corporal” and “Three Block War” constructs. It has been some six years since Krulak’s prescient speeches that foretold a world of more complex contingencies and more adaptive enemies. Aside from small isolated pockets in the Marine Corps, these constructs were not followed through in terms of major program changes. Thanks in part to limited resources, Quantico’s innovative experiments all but ceased. A form of creeping complacency set in. To outsiders, the Marines appeared willing to stand pat, that it was only the other services that needed to adapt to a new post-Cold War era. Instead, the Marine Corps continued apace well past Sept. 11, 2001, with concepts dating from the late 1980s for over-the-horizon amphibious assaults.


Some outside commentators suggest that the Corps needs to revert to its pre-World War roots. Others believe the Marines should focus primarily on fouth-generation warfare, countering global insurgency and the dangerous cesspools where jihadists prey on fragile states. This suggests that the Marines shift their orientation, force structure and acquisition programs from rare major-combat operations to the more likely need to pre-empt crises and respond to terrorists and insurgents. This could lead to a shift from the Marine Corps’ basic structure of Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEFs) built around divisions and wings to smaller brigades along the lines that the Army is moving. It also would require the Marines to create units to address shortfalls, adding information and psychological operations, security cooperation, active-duty civil affairs troops, and more military police assets. Such capabilities are more relevant to today’s savage wars of peace, but have been slighted in favor of more traditional naval-assault missions.

The most controversial aspects of becoming the U.S. Small Wars force are the acquisition implications. Reorienting the Marines for a second Small Wars era may risk termination or sharply reduced buys of the Marine’s No. 1 aviation priority, the V-22 Osprey. At somewhere between $75 million and $80 million a copy, the tilt-rotor Osprey is arguably too expensive and fragile for use in “dirty wars” along the world’s periphery. Admittedly, its operational reach and speed are unsurpassed, but these are not significant operational attributes in small wars. The speed and self-deployability of the Osprey make it a superb platform to use for special operations troops to attack high-value targets. But it is not suited for persistent missions in the undeveloped world, where contact with the local population and the enemy will primarily occur in dense urban slums. The Rand Corp. recently warned the Pentagon in an assessment of Operation Iraqi Freedom that concepts calling for deep insertions into contested territory need to be seriously reviewed.

Another possibly deserving casualty would be the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a replacement for the venerable amphibious assault craft the Marines have pioneered since the 1930s. The EFV affords seamless high-speed transition from sea to deep inland objectives. Its 25 mph water speed poses new options for creating surprise against countries with littoral flanks or long coastlines. Like the Osprey, however, this program has a troubled history with costs that have doubled as the program has been restructured numerous times since the 1980s. Its water-crossing capability remains desirable, but it is optimized for rare ship-to-shore maneuvers and is inadequate for tactical maneuver during small wars. EFVs will cost $8 million a copy, money the Corps could invest in more-flexible fighting systems with greater force protection and broader utility in cities and against irregular opponents.


The choice between an amphibious Marine Corps of the past and one devoted solely to the modern version of Kipling’s “savage wars of peace” is strategically flawed, however. While many defense analysts, myself included, might like to see both the Pentagon and the Corps make distinct adjustments to today’s Long War, valid requirements for maritime power projection and forcible-entry operations remain at some level. While it might be nice to imagine what might have been had the nation been better prepared for al-Qaida’s challenge and Iraq’s incipient insurgency, it is impossible for those responsible for sailing into “the fog of peace” to overlook U.S. security interests in large maritime-oriented theaters such as the Pacific Ocean. While the future remains opaque and the stars clouded, it is equally hard to overlook the changing geopolitical landscape in the Indian Ocean and the Far East and remain totally committed to Small Wars as the sole mission of today’s Spartans.

Because we cannot blithely assume away the need to project power far from the U.S. into opposed situations in an era where anti-access capabilities are proliferating, the sea-based skills inherent to today’s Marine Corps should not be tossed away lightly.

Another problem that could pose future strategic rocks and shoals is the nature of future wars. Again, a simplistic choice of big versus small wars is flawed. We should not imagine that all future threats will be state-based and conventional. Nor should we assume that state-based conflict has passed into history’s dustbin. State-based conflict is less likely, but it is not extinct. Nor is it entirely conventional in nature. Too many in the Pentagon are waving China around as the next peer competitor in order to dismiss the new irregular threats and revert back to their intellectual comfort zone — a big-war paradigm. Such a view overlooks non-Western military thinking and Chinese strategic culture.

Tomorrow’s conflicts will not be easily categorized into simple classifications of conventional or irregular. In fact, some of today’s best thinking acknowledges the blurring of lines between modes of war. Mike Evans from Australia’s Land Warfare Center had defined the future as “a world of asymmetric and ethnopolitical warfare — in which machetes and Microsoft merge, and apocalyptic millenarians wearing Reeboks and Ray Bans dream of acquiring WMD.” Colin Gray, in his latest book, “Another Bloody Century,” also characterizes future conflict as blurred.

Rather than the simplistic quad chart found in the new National Defense Strategy, future scenarios will more likely present unique combinational or hybrid threats specifically designed to target U.S. vulnerabilities. Conventional, irregular and catastrophic terrorist challenges will not be distinct styles — they will all be present in some form. This could include states blending high-tech capabilities, such as anti-satellite weapons, with terrorism and cyber-warfare directed against financial targets. Rage and despair can now be translated into catastrophic levels of violence at greater distance, abetted by globalization and systems we ourselves have designed. Violence will not be a monopoly of states. We will face major states capable of supporting covert and indirect means of attack, as well as super-empowered fanatics capable of direct and highly lethal attacks undercutting the sinews of global order. Opponents will be capable of what Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis has called “hybrid wars.” In such conflicts, future adversaries exploit access to encrypted command systems, man-portable surface-to-air missiles and other modern lethal systems, as well as promote protracted insurgencies that employ ambushes, improvised explosive devices and coercive assassinations. Cunning savagery and continuous organizational adaptation are the only constant. Hybrid wars will never be characterized as low intensity, or lesser-included operations. They may involve extended and extremely lethal conflicts of the most persistent violence.

Hybrid wars do not allow us the luxury of building single-mission forces. What is necessary is for the Marines to achieve resynthesis to achieve a better mix of expeditionary tools. This new balance should retain the Corps’ historical role as the nation’s shock troops, but also prepare the Marines for more protracted and subtle missions instead of “first in/first out” missions or short “operational raids” from the sea.

And while the Corps major acquisition projects may not be appreciated, the capabilities generated by the V-22 and the EFV are clearly required. The V-22’s speed is its best counter, whether in conducting deep penetrations or quickly bringing reinforcements to an embattled special operations team, which may be the reason they are in favor of it. The EFV’s modern armor, speed and potent firepower outclasses other infantry fighting vehicles, and its water borne capabilities have applications far beyond traditional ship-to-shore maneuver. Maneuvering through the rivers, canals, and marsh lands of Iraq has highlighted the benefits of supposed “niche” capabilities.


Although the Marines stumbled by not initially embracing Krulak’s clarion call, they’ve been making up lost ground rapidly. The present commandant’s new vision clearly acknowledges that the Corps’ future is in irregular warfare, and he’s embraced an emphasis on small-unit leaders that will lead to improved war-fighting excellence. Among current initiatives being undertaken, the following have particular merit in a world of hybrid conflicts:

• Institutionalizing urban training and established large-scale training centers for city fighting.

• Formalizing stability- and support-operations training for pre-deploying units.

• Revamping the semichoreographed combined-arms exercise at Twentynine Palms, Calif., into the well-received Mojave Viper event, which has created a more comprehensive and realistic training environment.

• Enhancing what already was a superb educational foundation in irregular warfare at Marine Corps University.

• Introducing pioneering efforts in language training at MCU and establishing a Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning at Quantico to infuse cultural awareness throughout the Corps’ training and educational continuum.

• Tweaking the Corps’ force structure to incorporate missing expertise in information operations and civil affairs while generating depth in intelligence, reconnaissance, military police and explosive ordnance disposal units.

• Establishing foreign-military training units to assist American foreign policy in preventing crises rather than reacting to them.

• Designing and testing a Marine component to support U.S Special Operations Command.

The most important step Corps leadership is taking is centered on enhancing the professionalism of the young noncommissioned officer. Despite recruiting commercials acclaiming the individual Marine as the world’s most potent warrior, the Corps does not significantly invest in the training and education junior Marine NCOs. Noting that small wars are won by small-unit leaders, the Corps’ current leadership realizes that existing “rule sets” that govern how they select, train and educate noncommissioned officers need retooling. Their preparation for combat decision-making is at the heart of major Marine initiatives, rigorous experimentation and sharply increased funding.

As former Marine Capt. Nathan Fick put it so forcefully in The New York Times, the dumb grunt is an anachronism. He has been replaced by the strategic corporal. Immense firepower and improved technology have pushed decision-making with national consequences down to individual enlisted men. Modern warfare requires that even the most junior infantryman master a wide array of technical and tactical skills.

To produce Marines in the 21st century, imbued with an aggressive warrior ethos and armed with modern capabilities that will enable them to prevail against traditional and nontraditional foes, the Corps plans to sharply upgrade the suite of equipment of its basic infantry units as well as make the kind of training investments that the British and Australians do with their NCOs.

The key remaining challenge is to identify resources so the Corps’ budget supports both its power projection and persistent-presence roles. New missions and new capabilities suggest that additional resources are needed to size the Corps appropriately and to fund critical training programs. Some running room must be found in the budget to better posture the Marines for hybrid wars. With the necessary resources, tomorrow’s Marines will be as ready for hybrid wars as their predecessors have always been in the past.

Howard once quipped that whatever conception of future warfare the military focused on, it would turn out wrong. However, this did not disturb him. The real trick is not to be perfectly prophetic; it’s more important to “not be too badly wrong” and to readily acknowledge gaps and react quickly.

Despite the bewildering complexities of today’s global insurgency, the Marines did not get it “too badly wrong.” True, many at Quantico in the late 1990s were focused on future amphibious assaults — modern Inchons with greater speed and deeper thrusts. Too little attention in the acquisition budget was given to the “stepchildren of Chechnya” and strategic corporals. But while many tactics had yet to be worked out, the Marine Corps’ expeditionary mind-set and organizational framework proved more than adequate. Most important, thanks to a superb educational system, the officer corps was intellectually prepared. The organizational DNA of the Marine Corps retained its inherent flexibility and penchant for innovation. More than any other service, when the fog of peace cleared, the Marines were ready to sail into action in 2001, and will be in 2020 if their program for continuous evolution is not dismasted by the Pentagon’s transformation designs.