Guest Author | Center for International Maritime Security (2024)

USMC Transformation Week

May 26, 2022 Guest Author1 Comment

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Carl Forsling

The Marine Corps is a large organization, bound by tradition. Its long history of maritime and amphibious operations was challenged by nearly two decades spent in the deserts of the Middle East and Central Asia. While now we think of those as diversions, the World War II battles that form so much of the Corps’ identity took place over barely three years.

The problem with Force Design 2030 (FD2030) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) is that they both involve massive institutional changes being executed in a very short time. More specifically, there are multiple significant changes involved in implementing these broader concepts. Any of these by themselves would be a significant shift in the institution. Implementing them all simultaneously may be, in military parlance, “a bridge too far.”

One of the issues facing both FD2030 and EABO is that they are almost often rhetorically linked and made equivalent, when in fact they are distinct from each other. EABO is a tactic and operating concept. Some aspects of it are almost mundane—the seizure of advanced naval bases is a statutory responsibility of the Marine Corps dating back 75 years in law and far longer in practice.

But being able to execute EABO requires many additional changes in the way the Corps is recruited, trained, structured, and equipped—hence Force Design 2030 and its associated plans and directives. It is the product of a great deal of analysis. But the classified nature of those assessments means that outside of a small group, relatively few people have a full view of the complete and detailed reasoning behind it.

FD2030 was the product of a very insular process. The rollout was also extraordinarily quick—eight months from the Commandant’s Planning Guidance until Force Design 2030 was published and then implemented, during which time even some of the unclassified elements were very closely held.

Marines are well known for their almost religious fervor for the Corps, and in the Commandant as the head of that church. But there’s some limit to how much they are willing to take on faith, especially in an organization so tradition-bound. While it may be an extremely hierarchical organization, that doesn’t render the Marine Corps exempt from basic considerations of change management. Leaders can issue orders and they may be followed, but for changes and initiatives to endure, the myriad stakeholders in the institution must buy in to these efforts by virtue of effective persuasion.

Those stakeholders include not only the Marines themselves, but also combatant commanders, civilian leaders, Congress, and even Marine veterans. Senior veterans in particular see themselves as keepers of the flame in regard to the Corps’ heritage. To say that they need to be brought along is not to say that they get a veto, but an acknowledgment that the Marine Corps is more than just an assembly of units and equipment organized in a particular fashion. It is about people. Apart from whether the changes of FD2030 are the right moves in terms of the threats facing U.S. national security, FD2030 advocates have faced unnecessary challenges in implementation because of a failure to achieve early buy-in from many stakeholders. Change is not easy in any organization.

There is a reason that change management is a major subject in the business community. Businesses have to complete organizational change far more frequently than militaries do. Businesses sway in the winds of consumer preferences and technological change and must constantly reinvent themselves to survive.

Militaries on the other hand can persist indefinitely as steadily taxpayer-funded organizations regardless of how poorly they are adapting to the changing character of war. Perhaps the Corps would have been well served by borrowing some of the basic practices businesses use during periods of major change. One of the fundamental change management models is Kurt Lewin’s. Simply put, it first involves unfreezing—preparing an organization of the need for change. Only then can one actually execute the change.

Preparing for the change itself is a process. Just as with introducing a new electronic tool, some will be early adopters on the cutting edge, while others will trail the prevailing crowd as fast followers, and others will be dead-enders that fail to stay relevant. All of these mindsets exist within organizations, and leaders must find ways to bring all of these people onboard to execute change.

Finally, one can refreeze, and institutionalize the change so that the new way of doing business is instilled as the new normal. To conceptualize this model, think of a block of ice that needs to be changed from a cube to a sphere—you have to melt it, use a new mold to effect the change, then finally refreeze it in the new form.

The Corps admits to failing in its communications surrounding FD2030. As the Corps’ 2022 Force Design update states, “Our FD 2030 communication has not been effective with all stakeholders.” That is something of an understatement. It is only now that much of the Corps, much less outside stakeholders, is really understanding what Force Design 2030 implies, in the sense that its biggest changes are focused on Pacific-based III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), and that the changes to I and II MEF are more modest, allowing them to still execute traditional Marine Corps missions. Whether that was actually the intent from the beginning is still unclear.

Bold leaders, such as General Berger, frequently embrace a “go big or go home” mentality. Marine training and culture reinforces this tendency toward bold decisions in most contexts. “Speed, surprise, and violence of action” is only one of many mantras Marines hear and repeat to reinforce that notion. The fact that the Commandant normally has only a four-year term to implement his plans likely contributes to this. Any big change is controversial and has the potential for backlash, so the natural reaction is to move quickly to institute changes and to make them as irreversible as possible. In this case it means tearing out old force structure, both root and branch, then trying to fully mature the new design before turning over to a successor who might not share the same vision.

An “unfreezing” to prepare for change is not just for the sake of improving morale, though that is important. No matter how well thought-out the analysis supporting Force Design 2030 is, it did not make much of an attempt to capture the expertise of those beyond its planning cells, especially those in the operating forces. While a “campaign of learning” is an important and commendable part of Force Design, some of that learning is more easily gained by simply asking those closest to the problems a few questions. Even if the end state of the change remains the same, ground-level insight can help sidestep many problems.

Taking the time to involve the broader organization and other stakeholders from the beginning increases their buy-in and enthusiasm. Clearly the array of former Marine Corps senior leaders who have expressed their dismay over FD2030 did not feel as if they were consulted or informed. Yes, there is the chance that taking more opinions onboard might have diluted the purity of Force Design 2030, but it could have avoided some of the hiccups and discord that occurred. The more time spent preparing for change, the smoother the actual change is.

For example, the number of line V-22 squadrons was going to be cut from 17 to 14 until it became readily clear that 14 was insufficient to meet the requirements of combatant commands. This necessitated partially reversing those cuts in midstream. Had the bulk of the force and outside stakeholders been brought along from the beginning, this mistake could have been identified much earlier. The whipsaw effect on personnel, operations, and sustainment from drawing down and standing up would not have occurred. More people involved means that it is more likely that the carpenter’s adage, “measure twice, cut once” actually happens.

Honoring the input of stakeholders during the unfreezing process increases the chances of change actually refreezing and making the change last. People don’t always need to agree, but they do need to feel as if their concerns are heard. If they are not, they become more likely to push back and take opportunities to undo those changes.

General Berger’s successor might very well be a Force Design 2030 disciple. That new Commandant could fully refreeze his changes and make them an enduring part of the Corps and its institutional culture. Then again, he might not. The best chance to build a broad initial consensus on the nature of the change is at the beginning of the process. That moment has passed, and the resulting discord could greatly delay progress towards FD2030’s desired end state, much less building upon its foundation.

Change is always difficult, so once you do it, you want it to stick. It is for this reason that building a broad coalition in support of change early on is so important. An African proverb says, “If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.” The consequences of not adequately preparing the force for the changes of Force Design 2030 could be as great as the consequences of the design itself.

Carl Forsling is a retired Marine officer who currently works in the aerospace and defense industry.

Featured Image: A Marine with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion repels out of an MV-22 Osprey during helicopter rope suspension technique training on Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew R. Bray)

USMC Transformation Week

May 25, 2022 Guest AuthorLeave a comment

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Captain Ross W. Gilchriest, USMC

Introduction

The following contingency updates and expands upon “The Battle of the Aegean” scenario described in Chapter 15 of Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3d Ed.i The original scenario sought to highlight the operational level of naval warfare in the “modern tactical environment—dominated by sensors, missiles, and information operations, with undercurrents of torpedoes, mines, and amphibious operations.”iiAdditionally, the use of naval power in the scenario demonstrated how lethal naval power could be used as a tool for achieving limited strategic objectives amid the growing complexity of competition in the modern strategic context. For those familiar with the United States Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 (FD2030) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concepts, the “Battle of the Aegean” resembles the strategic, operational, and tactical environment described by the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, A Concept for Stand In Forces, and the Tentative Manual for EABO.iii Those documents, among numerous other statements, articles, and programs seek to define how the future Marine Corps will compete across the spectrum of competition.

EABO employs the capabilities of a stand-in force designed to seize and defend key maritime terrain in support of fleet maneuver inside the adversary’s Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ). Most analyses of EABO focus on its potential applicability to a fight against the pacing threat of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) inside the first and second Pacific island chains. While the EABO concept maintains the PRC as a key focus, it can also be applied in other contexts. Notably, General Berger has identified uses for EABO in the European theater to deter Chinese and Russian naval operations in the seas of the “High North,” including making Marines an integral part of the anti-submarine warfare fight.iv The following analysis seeks to illustrate how U.S. Marine Corps stand-in forces and EABO could be leveraged to support a naval campaign in littoral environments beyond the Indo-Pacific region. With enhanced reconnaissance, precision fires, and anti-air capabilities, as well as a focus on conducting Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), the Marine Corps provides policymakers and the fleet with a flexible response force capable of deterring and defeating adversaries across the spectrum of competition.v

The reimagined scenario updates the strategic and political context as a projection of current events, making some educated assumptions in order to establish the appropriate context for the introduction of EABO, while leaving the core crisis scenario and ADM Grant’s tactical plan largely intact. Some of the capabilities, while projected at the time, have come into existence or are currently under development. The discussion of individual concepts and capabilities will be limited to what is necessary in the context of the scenario. Readers are encouraged to visit the references in the endnotes to gain a deeper doctrinal and technical knowledge.

Background: The Battle of the Aegean

In the original scenario, ethnic tensions and violence on the island of Cyprus brought the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) allies Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. The decades-old dispute over control of Cyprus and islands in the Aegean Sea escalated into a full-blown international crisis after the Greek government announced a plan to emplace theater ballistic missiles on the island. Turkey, enraged by this threat to its security, sought to not only blockade the Greek ships in the vicinity of Cyprus, but also to defeat the poorly resourced Greek navy and assert control over the Aegean Sea. Turkey’s planned aggression alarmed the international community, but none of the international organizations could agree on a response, leaving the United States to use its military power to settle the dispute.vi

Charged by the President and the European Command Combatant Commander to “prevent Turkish forces from seizing the Greek islands—without touching Turkish soil,” (317), Admiral Ulysses S. (Sam) Grant, the Commander of Naval Forces Europe, assumed command of a naval task force composed almost entirely of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Facing a force of nine Turkish destroyers steaming south from the Dardanelles, and the main Turkish fleet of more than 25 destroyers and fast-attack craft off the southwestern coast of Anatolia, ADM Grant developed a plan to strike the Turkish amphibious ships before they ever left port. His attack consisted of a feint attack by Commander Charles V. Gridley’s eight Cushing-class corvettes to engage the main element of the Turkish fleet in order to allow two separate formations of eight Phantom-class unmanned killer-scout vessels to get into position to fire tactical ballistic missiles at the Turkish amphibious and transport ships in the embarkation ports of Ayvalik, Cesme, Ismir, Kusadasi, and Bodrum.vii

Though an Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) and its embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were available in theater, Grant opted to remove them from the battlespace, viewing them as too vulnerable a target. He did, however, send three patrol craft to rendezvous with the ARG and embark the detachment of Navy Special Warfare (SEAL) operators to conduct covert disruption operations in the Turkish ports.viii ADM Grant knew that the ability of the Phantoms to get into their firing positions without detection or interference would largely depend on the actions of the outmanned and outgunned Cushings. Though the scenario concludes before the opening of hostilities, the actions of the Cushings will need to be heroic to survive the dangerous exchange ahead of them, and the task force’s success hinges upon the Phantoms’ strike capability. At the conclusion of the vignette, the reader is left with the impression that ADM Grant, despite the glaring risks, remains confident in his plan and the skill of his subordinate commanders to win the day.ix

New Strategic Context: Living in Putin’s Shadow

In the eight years since the start of the Ukraine War, the strategic posture of the Eastern Mediterranean has shifted dramatically. After initially failing to achieve its goals of a takeover in Ukraine in 2022 and 2023, Russia gained control of the Donbas region and Black Sea coast, establishing secure lines of communication to support its forces in the occupied territories. The Ukrainian government, supported by the United States and its allies, maintains a conventional military presence holding key cities and infrastructure, but lacks the capability to resume offensive operations against a robust Russian defense. As a result, they have resorted to insurgency tactics.

The war in Ukraine has caused humanitarian and security crises in the region, especially for those countries sharing a land border with Ukraine and abutting the Black Sea, leading to a realignment of priorities in Europe. Defense spending by all North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries meets or exceeds the two percent of gross domestic product requirement. Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece have been especially affected by waves of migrants leaving Ukraine, as well as the threat of the Russian Navy, precipitating a transformation in their armed forces and a substantial increase in their Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) with NATO. They regularly conduct exercises in the Mediterranean and Black Sea for the purpose of limiting Russia’s options for escalating “Putin’s Pet Project” by hosting U.S. naval strike forces near key sea lines of communication and maintaining prepositioned supplies to support them. These efforts have not been perceived well by Turkey, which is especially suspicious of Greece’s intentions to possibly contest the Aegean region and militarize the island of Cyprus off its coast.

Turkey, on the other hand, began to establish a more autonomous foreign policy. The hard-line government, facing domestic inflation, currency, and unemployment crises, sought to shore up its economic and political alignment with Russia. While it does not directly support the Ukraine War, the Turkish government adheres to a strict non-interference principle. The Turkish and Russian militaries do not cooperate, but the two nations’ armed forces are able to coexist in the region. Turkey does not interfere with Russian maritime operations in the Black Sea or deny their transit through the Dardanelles. They have reduced cooperation with NATO allies, setting the stage for a rising antagonism that would foment the ethnic and political tensions leading to the aforementioned crisis between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and the Aegean Sea.

An Expeditionary Stand-In Force in Readiness

In the decade since General Berger introduced FD2030, the Marine Corps has largely accomplished its goals of developing stand-in forces that are fully integrated with the Navy for the purpose of supporting sea control and sea denial operations around the globe. Driven largely by improvements in long-range precision fires, unmanned assets, networked communications, and improved training for the individual Marine, the Marine Corps is viewed as vital by national policymakers for projecting power in littoral regions around the world. As the Ukraine crisis continued and the security posture in Europe and the Mediterranean changed, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) Combatant Commander and the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed the creation of the 2d Marine Littoral Regiment (2d MLR). Headquartered at Naval Station Rota Spain, the 2d MLR regularly conducts operations in the Mediterranean region, with a heavy emphasis on “Phase 0” operations, such as theater security cooperation, reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, and operations in the information environment (OIE) to establish an intelligence baseline and posture forces forward in support of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.x

Comprised of the 2d Littoral Combat Team (LCT) (Naval Support Activity Naples), the 2d Littoral Logistics Battalion (LLB) (Naval Support Activity Souda Bay), and the 2d Littoral Anti-Air Battalion (LAAB) (Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy), the 2d MLR has refined EABO based on lessons learned in the Indo-Pacific and is proficient in conducting distributed operations. The continued fielding of assets such as the M142 HIMARS and ROGUE NMESIS anti-ship ballistic missile systems, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), tactical mesh network communications, loitering munitions, Long Range Undersea Vehicles (LRUSV), and the integration of information maneuver and electronic warfare specialists at the tactical level enables the littoral combat team to not only seize and hold key maritime terrain, but also to conduct reconnaissance across all domains and prepare to conduct strike and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) operations in support of sea denial.xi

Thanks to the development of semi-submersible vessels, sea planes, and the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW), the 2d logistics battalion can support mobility and sustainment for 2d Marine Littoral Regiment forces in the region.xii Marine aviation has also adapted, electing to deploy the anti-air battalion as distributed detachments with a robust anti-air defense capability provided by by the Marine Air Defense Integrated System and Medium Range Interceptor Capability.xiii

Connecting all of these capabilities with the fleet is the recently fielded Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system.xiv The JADC2 has enabled the integration of sensors across the battlespace to create a common intelligence picture, known as Multi-Domain Awareness (MDA) that leverages Activity Based Intelligence (ABI) to identify anomalies in the baseline and facilitates rapid target engagement by linking distributed Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting (ISR-T) and fire control systems on a single network.xvAll-in-all, the 2d Marine Littoral Regiment presence in EUCOM provides commanders with options far beyond that of the typical Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which saw similar developments in capabilities but retained its legacy core mission set of conducting amphibious operations across the range of military operations.

First to Fight and First to Strike

In the six months leading up to the Aegean crisis, the EUCOM Commander ordered 6th Fleet and 2d MLR to form a joint task force (TF 67) in order to maintain control of the Eastern Mediterranean. He assigned TF 67 an area of operations encompassing all littoral territory from the north of the Dardanelles, Israel to the east, the Suez Canal and Egypt in the south, and Sicily to the west. ADM Grant assumed command of TF67, and understanding the strategic context, assigned 2d MLR three Littoral Operations Areas (LOA), with the intent to utilize EABO to support fleet actions in the event of a contingency.xvi

Delta Company and Echo Battery, 2d Littoral Combat Team mission, disguised as theater security cooperation, was to defend the anti-air battalion’s Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) operations on Crete, while being prepared to conduct strike and anti-surface warfare operations. Their critical position at the maritime chokepoint of Crete would enable them to control access to the Western Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.xvii Additionally, while no aircraft were currently staged at the Expeditionary Airfield, the FARP’s position would extend the operational range of the aircraft carrier in the region without endangering the multi-billion dollar warship.xviii

In the Aegean Sea, Echo Company and the long-range undersea vehicles platoon were participating in the annual EXERCISE SALAMIS, where platoons occupied various Aegean islands to conduct training with Greek soldiers and marines. While the activities consisted mostly of small-unit infantry training, the exercise stimulated the local information environment, providing the electronic warfare and information maneuver specialists the opportunity to collect, analyze, and infiltrate Turkish command and control networks, including a “back door” into their largest cellular carrier.xix As the crises escalated, ADM Grant ordered Echo Company to transition to an afloat posture aboard their attached light amphibious warships, with plans to occupy predetermined expeditionary advanced bases on several of the Greek islands to conduct strike and anti-surface warfare operations—an agreement that required deft application of diplomacy from the State Department and a high degree of discipline from Marines and Sailors to maintain operations security.xx The infantry units could secure expeditionary bases to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of the Turkish coast and provide fire control for strikes.xxi

In the far Eastern Mediterranean, Fox Company and an MQ-9 Reaper detachment from VMU-2 were supporting Israel’s Gaza operations, which had escalated over the 2020s. Due to Arab countries’—particularly Egypt’s—growing relationship with Israel, a popular uprising in Gaza spread across the Sinai Peninsula. While Fox Company and VMU-2 remained the most isolated of the 2d MLR’s forces, their presence in the Eastern Mediterranean enabled ADM Grant to extend his senor network to the rear of the Turkish fleet at Askaz. They may not play a direct kinetic role in any lethal exchange with Turkey, but their ISR-T capabilities might prove a key advantage in gaining the ability to fire effectively first.

Further west on the North African Coast, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was tasked with providing humanitarian aid, intelligence support, and air reconnaissance to Egypt, while preparing to conduct noncombatant evacuation operations, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, and, if necessary, amphibious raids or assaults. While he hoped offensive actions against the Turkish mainland would not be necessary, ADM Grant retained the option to re-task the MEU to fulfil this role in the event of escalation with Turkey.

Thanks to the Marines’ persistence with FD2030 and EABO, ADM Grant now had assurance that his fleet could maneuver in the area with eyes, punching power, and sustainment positioned forward in the event of a crisis. When it became clear that he would need to fight the Turkish fleet and scuttle their transports, ADM Grant gave the order to transition 2d MLR from Phase 0 shaping operations to kinetic operations in support of the fleet. While he was still concerned about the numerical disadvantage of Commander Gridley’s eight Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to defeat the main Turkish fleet, ADM Grant knew that Fox Company and the MQ-9 Reaper detachment from VMU-2 could provide unmanned aerial surveillance of the main Turkish fleet’s movements, pass that targeting information to the long-range undersea vehicle platoon of Echo Company’s or the NMESIS platoon on Crete, and enable a first strike. He knew this kill chain could determine the overall battle. This first strike would have to come before the Turkish ships’ radar could detect the low-profile littoral combat ships and fire upon them.xxii

All that money and headache for multi-domain awareness had paid off after all. The remainder of Echo Company would establish air and missile defense zones at their advance bases to enable the logistics battalion to refuel and rearm Gidley’s force at sea and extend his culminating point.xxiii Meanwhile, the F-35B and C variants could take off safely from the carrier far in the western Mediterranean and utilize Delta Company’s forwarding arming and refueling base on Crete to increase their sortie rate against the Turkish ships. This would enable him to disrupt Turkish communications with electronic warfare and conduct strikes against their ships while they were busy fighting CDR Gridley on the surface.

By integrating 2d MLR’s EABO capability, ADM Grant knew he now possessed a decisive advantage across all domains and warfighting functions that would give his subordinate commanders much more than just a fighting chance. Ultimately, however, CDR Gridley’s action would be the feint that enabled his decisive attack by the unmanned undersea vehicles currently gliding through the Aegean to their firing positions after being released from their expeditionary sea base mothership.xxiv With so many Turkish assets concentrated on the fight with Gridley, the chance of them detecting the undersea vehicles would be slim to none. Even if they failed, he could always have the strike warfare commander assume control of the undersea vehicles and conduct strikes with the Marines’ platforms.

Prior to giving the order for CDR Gridley to go “weapons free,” ADM Grant reflected on the naysayers who believed FD2030 and EABO would make the Marine Corps irrelevant to American military power.xxv In an earlier era, the whole operation could hinge on whether or not a Turkish or U.S. Navy sailor in the combat information center spotted the other first; the loss of life would be significant. In the present moment, he was grateful that the “soldiers of the sea” had made the hard choice to return to their naval roots.

Endnotes

[i] Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd Edition, Blue and Gold Professional Series (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

[ii] Hughes and Girrier, 306.

[iii] Gen David H. Berger, “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” (Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps, July 15, 2019), https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700; Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations” (Department of the Navy, February 2021); Gen David H. Berger, “Force Design 2030” (Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps, March 2020), https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/CMC38%20Force%20Design%202030%20Report%20Phase%20I%20and%20II.pdf?ver=2020-03-26-121328-460.

[iv] General David H. Berger, “Marines Will Help Fight Submarines,” November 2020.

[v] LtCol Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (Ret.), “Still First to Fight?,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 2020.

[vi] Hughes and Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 308–13.

[vii] Hughes and Girrier, 313–25.

[viii] Hughes and Girrier, 313–14.

[ix] Hughes and Girrier, 325–27.

[x] General David H. Berger, “A Concept for Stand-In Forces” (Washington, D.C.: United States Marine Corps, December 2021), 4–5; Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” chap. 2.

[xi] Ryan White, “The First Weapon System for the USMC’s New LRUSV: Hero-120,” Naval Post, June 22, 2021, sec. Naval News, https://navalpost.com/usmc-metal-shark-boats-hero-120/; “Metal Shark Developing LRUSV for the U.S. Marine Corps,” The Maritime Executive, accessed May 9, 2022, https://maritime-executive.com/corporate/metal-shark-developing-lrusv-for-the-u-s-marine-corps; Xavier Vavasseur, “Here Is Our First Look at the USMC’s NMESIS: NSM Being Launched from an Unmanned JLTV,” Naval News (blog), April 28, 2021, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2021/04/here-is-our-first-look-at-the-usmcs-nmesis-nsm-being-launched-from-an-unmanned-jltv/; “Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), US,” Naval Technology (blog), accessed April 7, 2022, https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/navy-marine-expeditionary-ship-interdiction-system-nmesis-us/; Corporal Levi Voss, “3rd MAW Procures Marine Corps’ First MQ-9A ‘Reaper,’” Marines.Mil (blog), September 7, 2021, https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2766284/3rd-maw-procures-marine-corps-first-mq-9a-reaper/; Terrence K. Kelly et al., “Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013).

[xii] Walker D Mills and Collin Fox, “‘Cocaine Logistics’ for the Marine Corps,” War on the Rocks (blog), July 22, 2020; Christopher D. Booth, “Overcome the Tyranny of Distance,” Proceedings, December 2020; Alec Blivas, “6 Platforms for Marine Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations Logistics,” The Diplomat, November 11, 2020, Asia Defense edition, sec. Security; Captain Walker D. Mills and Erik Limpaecher, “Sustainment Will Be Contested,” Proceedings, November 2020; Megan Eckstein, “Navy, Marines Will Need Recapitalized Sealift, Logistics Capabilities to Succeed in Pacific,” USNI News, December 2, 2020; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” CRS Report (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, April 1, 2021).

[xiii] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” A-4.

[xiv] John R. Hoehn, “Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2),” CRS Report, In Focus (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, January 21, 2022); JADC2 Cross Functional Team, “Summary of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) Strategy” (Department of Defense, March 2022).

[xv] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” chap. 4; Chandler P Atwood, “Activity-Based Intelligence: Revolutionizing Military Intelligence Analysis,” Joint Forces Quarterly 77, no. 2 (2015): 10; Ben Conklin, “Activity Based Intelligence: A Perilous Journey to Intelligence Integration.”

[xvi] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 3.7.5.

[xvii] Brian Kerg, Anthony King, and Michael Murray, “How Marine Security Cooperation Can Translate into Sea Control,” War on the Rocks (blog), September 13, 2019.

[xviii] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 8.5.6.

[xix] For an example of how exercises could be used to “stimulate the environment,” see the vignette “EXERCISE SHOULDER-TO-SHOULDER-203X” in Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, 4–12.

[xx] Colonel George J. David, “Making It Work: Force Design 2030 and Access,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 2020.

[xxi] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 8.5.2.

[xxii] In the original scenario, Gridley commanded Cushing-class corvettes. For this updated scenario, these have been replaced by the LCS. Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, sec. 8.5.1; Mallory Shelbourne and Megan Eckstein, “Navy Integrating Littoral Combat Ships, Expeditionary Sea Base into New Operating Concepts,” USNI News, January 18, 2021; “U.S. Navy’s Gabrielle Giffords LCS Launches Naval Strike Missile,” Naval Technology (blog), October 3, 2019.

[xxiii] Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, “TM-EABO,” sec. 8.5.3.

[xxiv] In the original scenario, CAPT Hughes referred to this capability as the Phantom-class. Xavier Vavasseur, “Here Is Our First Look at the US Navy’s Orca XLUUV,” Naval News (blog), May 7, 2022, https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/05/here-is-our-first-look-at-the-us-navys-orca-xluuv/.

[xxv] Paul K. Van Riper, “Jeopardizing National Security,” Marine Corps Times, March 21, 2022, sec. Commentary; Paul K. Van Riper, “The Marine Corps’ Plan to Redesign the Force Will Only End up Breaking It,” Task & Purpose (blog), April 20, 2022, https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/marine-corps-force-design-infantry/; Anthony Zinni, “What Is the Role of the Marine Corps in Today’s Global Security Environment?,” Task & Purpose (blog), April 19, 2022, https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/zinni-marine-corps-role/; Terry Dake, “The Marine Corps’ Reorganization Plan Will Cripple Its Aviation Capabilities,” Task & Purpose (blog), April 22, 2022, https://taskandpurpose.com/opinion/force-design-2030-cripple-marine-aviation/; Dan Gouré, “Will Commandant Berger’s New Marine Corps Be a High-Tech Forlorn Hope?,” RealClear Defense (blog), April 1, 2020.

Featured Image: Marines assigned to Task Force Ellis, I Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force, utilize a Polaris MRZR D4 during a field exercise on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, April 23, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Manuel A. Serrano)

Fiction, USMC Transformation Week

May 24, 2022 Guest Author2 Comments

Transforming the Marine Corps Topic Week

By Ian Brown

D-90

“—unprecedented chain of events culminated today in his early resignation only three months into his second nominated term. Citing the well-publicized campaign against his reforms, he noted that his person had become a distraction from the Service’s ability to fulfill its mandated functions. As he stepped away from the microphone, our Pentagon correspondent heard him comment that ‘never was so much so misunderstood by so many,’ but she could not get him to elaborate. While his successor awaits Senate confirmation, sources already report that the rapid recapitalization of divested weapons systems will be a top priority for the new—”

D-1

“You’re f*cking kidding me,” spat Colonel Sara Hård, though she knew the general was, sadly, serious. The general’s fleeting smirk confirmed her suspicions.

“Come now, colonel,” responded Brigadier General Paolo Ricci. “We all have our roles. This is just what your little science experiment was designed for, right?” Hård bit her tongue until she could taste blood. It was that, or say something that would see her leave the room stripped of her already tenuous command. Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not f*cking see…

“Sir,” she said, working to keep her tone neutral, “I don’t dispute that this assignment is one of the many possible missions my regiment was constructed to execute, but I strongly believe that a more mutually supportive deployment—”

Enough.” The smirk was gone. “Let me be clear, colonel. I’ll use your band of littoral misfits because this crisis is here, and so are you. And as it happens, your reason for being happily aligns with this specific request of the Norwegian government. Who knows, this could be the perfect chance for the Marine Littoral Regiment to finally show its quality.” A ghost of the smirk reappeared. “So you will plant your space experts and cyber warriors and influencers and missileers on those islands, and make noises if any Soviets get too close—which they won’t. We will handle anything that comes down the road.”

And there it was. General Ricci, poster child of the old guard, wanted his refurbished tanks and artillery tubes to have a public knife fight upon which he could slap the bumper sticker of “locate, close with, and destroy,” because that’s what the old guard wanted. Her “influencers”—linguistic trend analysis among their skills, not that Ricci cared—were screaming that this conflict would unfold another way. They want an amphibious win against us, her influencers said, they’ll come by sea, the road is just a distraction—but Ricci clung to his vision.

“Captain Rhys, please have the duty driver return Colonel Hård to the airfield,” he said nonchalantly. Hård rose and wordlessly followed the captain out of the room. She could feel Ricci’s eyes mocking her as she left.

Hård sat in silence on the drive back to Kirkenes Lufthavn. She had known this eleventh-hour plea with the MAGTF commander was likely fruitless regardless of the moment’s urgency. The Russian Federation had collapsed following its army’s expulsion from Ukraine and subsequent economic free fall. The chaos had forced NATO to contend with more than a dozen new breakaway regimes all fighting each other, with the violence regularly spilling over NATO borders. The New Murmansk Soviet had been quiet thus far, until a few days ago when its Chairman broke his silence.

The Chairman’s exact words—rights under the Svalbard Treaty, a litany of historical injustices, the protection of Russian-language speakers—were largely irrelevant. Only two things mattered. The Soviet’s military forces were among the most potent of the breakaway states and the Northern Rotational MAGTF was in a position to do something about it.

Hård had hoped this meant the Marine Littoral Regiment’s turn had finally come after the long months of being shunted aside. Facing the pending Soviet offensive, she thought her argument was strong: the MLR, along with Ricci’s conventional forces, should redeploy to Bear Island and Svalbard together to oppose Soviet landings and threaten their naval forces seeking to break into the Atlantic. Ricci gave one of his smirks and assessed Soviet amphibious and naval capability as “low.” But since the Norwegian government shared her concern, her MLR would cover the islands. Away from the “real” land fight in Hesseng he wants, and the cameras.

A knock on the car window pulled Hård back from her dark thoughts. She was at Kirkenes Lufthavn. Giving the waiting driver a tight smile and small nod for his forbearance, she got out. The MV-22 Osprey that had brought her here was already spinning a short distance away, and a shadow in front the aircraft’s silhouette walked toward her. She recognized her assistant operations officer, Major Travis Cuomo, who raised a hand holding a cranial to her in greeting.

“I’m guessing we’ll be in Longyearbyen a bit longer?” he asked as she strapped her cranial on.

“Yes,” she replied, continuing toward the Osprey. “I’ll have some orders to transmit once we’re airborne. Weather update?”

“Low pressure system’s growing. Pilot’s gonna have to buster to get us back before the skies close.” Cuomo paused. “With aviation grounded, we’ll be awfully lonely out there.” Hård smiled tightly.

“Nonsense,” she said with forced lightness. “It’s just an opportunity to grow where we’re planted.” Cuomo quietly nodded as they approached the Osprey’s tail ramp. After the Osprey lifted, Hård plugged her cranial into the aircraft’s communications system and started sending orders into the ether. The lights of Kirkenes faded behind them. Far to the west, lightning danced on the horizon.

D+1

“Dog Three Six confirms the Pyotr Velikiy is destroyed.” Hård nodded thanks at the corporal who had delivered the message.

“Good,” replied Hård. “Tell Captain Garard and the Influence cell to launch their packages in 20 minutes. I don’t need to review it.” The corporal nodded in return, and went back to his corner of the hotel dining room. Outside, the arctic storm swirled, an angry contrast to the unnatural calm of her Marines inside the Blu Polar Hotel. Turning away from storm, Hård headed to a different corner to watch the Influence cell at work.

Captain Garard was quietly guiding the editing process for the latest information packages. The work was a microcosm of what her “misfits” brought to the table. Her Space Marine liaison team had received commercial satellite cuing for the Soviet Northern Fleet flagship Pyotr Velikiy a few hours ago. The satellites fed targeting information to the Maritime Strike Tomahawk battery with the Lava Dogs on Bear Island, which then—with the satellites watching and her Influence cell listening—launched a missile salvo.

Hård observed the strike playback as Garard’s team massaged it. Two missiles struck the ship, one detonating the vessel’s magazine to break its back. She listened as the radio transmissions from the Pyotr Velikiy changed from bored reports to screams. Radio silence followed as the two pieces of the Pyotr Velikiy’s hull slid beneath the storm-frothed waves.

Of the Influence cell’s information packages, the first was for public consumption, highlighting a straightforward message: we are winning. It showed the video but omitted the screams, instead dubbing over a patriotic Norwegian rock ballad that had gone viral when the New Murmansk Soviet announced its intentions. This package would go to Norwegian news outlets, Russian social media, even Ricci’s COMMSTRAT Marines—not that the latter would do anything with it.

The second package also had a straightforward message: we are going to kill you, and you can’t stop us. It swapped out music for the dying crew’s screams. This one would go out across Soviet naval military channels to sow pure fear. Similar packages had gone out following each strike, and her Marines had been gratified to watch some of the Soviet ships turn back after receiving the Influence cell’s transmissions. It was maneuver warfare at work—space and influence domains joined with long-range fires assets to create a combined arms effect that had significantly shrunk the Soviet threat to the archipelago. Things were going pretty well. Except…

The amphibs were missing. There were four Project 23900-class amphibious assault ships in the Soviet Northern Fleet, and when that Fleet had met the front edge of the storm southeast of Svalbard, satellites lost track of them. Her Space Marine liaisons had worked to recover the tracks scattered by the storm—but despite reacquiring many lucrative targets, the amphibs remained ghosts. That meant thousands of Soviet naval infantry were out there, location unknown, plowing toward them—

“Ma’am?” A hand touched her shoulder; it was Captain Garard. “We’ve launched the packages,” said the captain. “Just wanted you to know before we start breaking things down to displace.”

“Thanks,” Hård replied with a small smile. “I guess that means I should be getting myself ready to move too, doesn’t it?” Garard gave an agreeable nod as the room’s calm turned to flurried activity. In moments, her Marines had packed up the command post and were hauling their Pelican cases into the rain toward their next location under the displacement plan that kept them ahead of the Soviet targeting cycle. Hård gave herself another small smile. The rain seemed to be slackening; that would make it all the easier to find the amphibs. Things were indeed going well.

D+2

“Riptide Six, launch the barn.” Hård pushed the “end” button and tossed down the handheld. So much for things going well. A sharp crack overhead caught her attention. From her latest command post high above Isfjorden, she looked up through the camouflage netting to see pieces of burning debris floating in the dark sky. It was the latest casualty in the air battle raging above them.

They’d found the amphibs; or, rather, the amphibs had found them. Under cover of the storm, the Soviets had reached the Isfjorden undetected. Her regiment’s coastal radars picked up faint returns, called it in, and then came the missiles and loitering munitions as the line of Project 23900 ships brazenly pushed toward Longyearbyen. But once the initial surprise had worn off, her Marines stung back.

Explosions and flaming debris filled the air in the battle between her Stinger and MADIS gunners, and Soviet missiles and drones. The Soviet drones came in increasing numbers, intended to soak up as much ground-based air defense as they could, but she’d trained her Marines to be ready for this. A new sound thrummed through the airspace, and she again looked skyward to watch the results.

“Launching the barn” was a contingency she’d kept in the back of her mind for unconventional employment of her MLR’s excess tactical ISR drones. Now those drones would add their rotors and propellers to the air battle. New flashes lit up the night sky as her drone operators sent their unmanned platforms against the cloud of Soviet drones in kamikaze runs. They plunged down from above to cut their Soviet counterparts in half, or drove into Soviet rotors and propellers to send them spinning to the ground. The frequency of the flashes slackened after a few minutes, and Hård knew that her Marines had cleared the airspace for the battle’s next phase. She picked up her handheld, scrolled to a different contact, and pressed the “call” icon.

“Go for Dog One Six,” came the reply.

“This is Actual,” Hård said. “Ghost them, and be ready for leakers.”

“Yes ma’am,” the voice responded. “Everyone goes swimming.” Hård felt a small measure of sympathy toward the Soviet amphibs for the hard time about to unfold. She looked through her binocular NVGs, saw a flash and bloom of light on the flight deck of the rear-most amphib, and then the rest of the Ghosts came.

The Ghost drone—its predecessor first tested in Ukraine but later dismissed by the old guard as lacking the spirit of true combined arms—was silent, low-profile, and launchable from almost anywhere. Hård swept her NVGs across the dark sky, the darker-than-dark silhouettes of the Ghosts barely visible as they converged from a hundred launch points around the island, and then plunged into the amphibs.

The rear-most ship took three hits to the bridge in quick succession, and as its course drifted slowly to starboard it became clear the helm was beyond human control. The next ship in line suddenly spewed flames from virtually all of its openings. Fuel tanks ruptured, and we know they have poor damage control. Jesus. As she watched, some of the flames fell down to the water rather than rise in the air, and she knew those flames were wrapped around people. She shifted her gaze to the right—

—to be blinded by a searing white light from up the fjord. Hård ripped her NVGs off, blinking away painful spots. When her vision cleared, she looked down the fjord and saw a sheet of fire spreading across the water where the lead amphib had been. A Ghost had hit its magazine, and the ship was simply gone. Need to work up an award for whoever flew that drone, she thought, just as a tall black shape cut in front of the pool of flame. It was the last amphib, burning in more places than she could count, but clearly still under control and just as clearly, its captain was sprinting to shore to give the embarked naval infantry a fighting chance. Hård put her NVGs back on in time to see smaller black shapes speeding from the ship’s stern. In an act of true desperation, the Soviets were launching their landing ships while the amphib was still at flank speed.

Then the Marines’ next defensive layer opened up. Carl Gustavs lanced across the water, Javelins arced up and then back down. More flames blossomed across the landing flotilla until it looked like fire had replaced water within the fjord. The last amphib charged toward the shore without slowing, and Hård guessed that it was no longer under human control either—this collision would kill or cripple anyone left alive on board that inferno. From her distant post, the sound of the warship crunching into rock sounded like a thousand empty oils drums being tossed around in a giant’s dryer. Then the ship simply sat, and burned. Just like that, it was over.

Her handheld vibrated. Hård looked at the screen. The number combination indicated it was a valid contact in the MAGTF C2 network, but she didn’t recognize it. She swiped to answer.

“Colonel Hård?” The voice was a faint quaver. “Colonel Hard? Ma’am?” Hård had to say “yes” several times before the answer finally registered with the caller. When it did, the caller muttered something indistinguishable, and Hård finally placed the voice.

“Captain Rhys? Why the hell are you calling me directly—“

“They’re all dead, ma’am,” Rhys replied softly. “They’re all dead, and we need you back here, and they’re all dead…”

It was several minutes before Hård could get Rhys to say anything else.

D+4

Hesseng and Kirkenes Lufthavn were smoldering heaps, though at least the airport had enough unbroken tarmac for an Osprey to land. Hård waited for the aircraft to shut down before stepping off the tail ramp, dreading the revelations to come. She walked toward the pitifully small field hospital the Norwegians had erected for survivors on the far side of the airfield.

Rhys’ bed was close to the door flap. Hård pulled up a folding chair and sat down. They looked wordlessly at each other for a few moments, with Hård finally breaking the silence.

“What happened?”

“The general got his close fight,” Rhys said softly. “He thought their air would be grounded by the storm, and they would have to come up the highway into Hesseng. Our artillery would pound them on the way in, and then we’d have the urban tank battle that…” Rhys trailed off.

“That would prove Ricci right,” Hård finished. Rhys nodded.

“They killed our guns with rockets first. BM-30s and Tornados.” Rhys half-sobbed. “The Soviets know this ground, they live next to it. They know where you can put towed artillery and where you can’t. We were too far away to shoot back and too slow to move out of the way. Then they moved closer and did the same to Hesseng. They didn’t kill many of our tanks, just destroyed all the buildings so we couldn’t move. And when the weather broke, Tu-22s put cluster bombs on everything still standing.” Rhys paused again. “Then they came up the highway. Not many, but enough to…make their point. They drove right up to our stuck tanks and the rubble on our fighting positions, and pulled those Marines out who were still alive and…you saw the YouTube videos?” Hård nodded silently. She’d watched them on the flight over. The crew chiefs had kindly loaned her a rag to wipe up the vomit afterward. Ricci had gotten the close fight he wanted; close enough, as the Soviet videos showed, to put bullets in the back of Marines’ heads.

Rhys was silently weeping now. Hård stayed with the captain until weeping gave way to exhausted sleep, and then stood up to leave. On tables at the back of the field hospital were a number of body bags awaiting temporary burial. One lay on a separate table, a strip of bright yellow tape stuck to its side, with “Ricci” scrawled on it in black letters. Hård did not look at it on the way out.

D+30

“—retired generals expected at today’s hearings on the recent skirmish in the High North. Viewers might recall that yesterday’s hearings were interrupted by protestors, several of whom were later identified as family members of Marines executed by Soviet forces in the Norwegian town of Hesseng. Protestors displayed several of the horrifying images we have seen of shell-shocked Marines being shot at point-blank range by the Soviets, and, well, listen to the replay here as the protestors were removed: ‘Was that close enough, general? The Soviets got close and my son is dead, was that close enough, are you happy now—’”

Major Ian T. Brown currently serves as the operations officer at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University, Quantico. He is a contributor to previous CIMSEC Fiction Weeks, and has also discussed military fiction and wargaming on the Sea Control podcast. The views expressed here are in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the Krulak Center, Marine Corps University, the United States Marine Corps, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: “War Ship” by Romain Laforet via Artstation.

The Lighter Side

May 24, 2022 Guest Author1 Comment

By Billy Mitchell

Yes, it’s me. Billy Mitchell, Army officer, airpower advocate, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. I am writing today because I am finally confident enough to reveal the details of my long-term plan to integrate naval aviation into the U.S. Air Force. I know it’s time to buzz the tower because Top Gun: Maverick is finally in theaters and reviews are in – it’s a hit!

What’s that you say? You never heard that the Top Gun franchise is an Air Force info-operation to render the U.S. naval aviation community ineffective by failing to change its culture or adopt unmanned technology? What I’m about to tell you is classified. It could end my career – and no, this isn’t the worst dogfight you’ve ever dreamed of….

Given the hopes that Top Gun: Maverick will inspire a similar recruiting boom as its 1986 predecessor, I know that Congress and naval aviators will never get rid of their carriers or the people in their strike fighters. So once the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Rocket Forces render your community and service impotent with “Great Balls of Fire,” just remember boys, there’s no points for second place in service parochialism or great power conflict.

Back When I Was the Top Gun

If you look at the Wikipedia page of 1986’s Top Gun, some people might have you believe it’s a Paramount Pictures production at the height of the Cold War and Reagan/Lehman-era 600-ship Navy build-up. But the history goes back way further to the interwar period. And me? I didn’t feel the need for speed, only victory.

You see, I fought in the Spanish-American War and World War One (as you all seem to call it). I was an Army aerial observer in France and saw what aviation could become, so when I got back to the U.S. in January 1919, I was appointed the Director of Military Aeronautics. I knew that airpower would become the predominant force of war, so our country would need an independent air force equal to the Army and Navy.

I was the maverick in 1919 who wanted floating bases of aircraft to defend the country, but your senior naval aviators thought I’d never understand sea-based aviation requirements, so used Assistant SECNAV Franklin Delano Roosevelt to block me. FDR can thank me later for projecting forward the technology that won World War Two. But as I’m sure you historians remember, I got the Navy to commit to demonstrations of aviation against battleships by working the press like I am today. “1,000 bomber aircraft could be built and operated for the cost of one dreadnought and my airplanes could sink that battleship,” which is something you still seem to have forgotten today with your Ford-class carrier embarking F-35s compared to the B-21 Raider…But I digress.

As we remember now, SECNAV Josephus Daniels rigged the initial demonstrations in an attempt to show battleships could survive the bombing attempts. But in July 1921 with bombs I personally oversaw in designing, we sunk the old German warship Ostfriedland with a total of six bombs. Thankfully for the Navy, this exercise gave Bill Moffat enough authority to start building the carriers you would use to win in the Pacific in World War Two. But the only reason you used them was because the Japanese were so successful at sinking your battleships in Pearl Harbor (using airplanes).

There was some real genius in their flying – from the development of the Thach weave, to Dick Best sinking two Japanese carriers at Midway, or Pappy Boyington’s exploits throughout the Pacific – but I couldn’t say that here, to my Army Air Corps and Air Force brethren. I’d be afraid that everyone reading this would see right through me – but I know after World War Two, everyone had fallen for manned carrier aviation.

I never got to see it in person though. After a September 1925 crash of the helium-filled rigid airship Shenandoah that killed 14 and destroyed three seaplanes, I issued a statement accusing Army and Navy senior leaders of “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” And to think I could have saved that line for your post-Cold War shipbuilding policies! Anyway, that statement got me court-martialed, and I resigned from the Army as a colonel. In short, how did I end up here? Well, the list of people I pissed off is long, but distinguished.

“Here” is the ‘Wild Blue Beyonder,’ the Aviator Afterlife I came to after my coronary occlusion in 1936. It’s here that I’ve been able to watch, far above you all, the advancements of aviation and try to help the Air Force absorb naval aviation. How can I do this, if I’m directly above you? Because I’m inverted. And it’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

After World War Two and the Need for a Movie

I watched as your admirals and SECNAV James Forrestal opposed unification to create a separate Air Force after World War Two. Their fitness reports said it all – they led by the seats of their pants, totally unpredictable. But it takes a lot more than just fancy grandstanding to win a long-term interservice rivalry. Despite the innovation of nuclear weapons and the B-36 Peacemaker, the admirals whined about the cancellation of the USS United States, and justified carrier-based strike-fighter-launched nuclear weapons to stave off the budget cuts you’d actually enact 50 years later.

That “Revolt of the Admirals” really taught me something though – I can’t get the Air Force to beat you at your culture, so I needed to let you beat yourself. It wasn’t until Howard Hughes, the Aviator-actual, arrived in the Wild Blue Beyonder, and we chatted about his film directing experiences, and how disappointed he was the Spruce Goose never made it to use in World War Two. That’s how I gave him his callsign “Goose” after the kangaroo court. He hated carrier aviation just as much as I did, given that the U.S. Navy gave up on seaplanes 60 years ago at the time of this writing.

As we were writing the movie, we got nervous. We thought for sure that the 1982 Falklands War would teach the U.S. Navy the enduring need for long-range strike capabilities, given how even small numbers of Argentine fighters carrying Exocets could sink ships and push carriers out of effective range. I turned to Howard and said, “Talk to me Goose – will this movie even work?” He nonchalantly responded, “Oh yeah, these bro-culture aviators will lap it up. Just a walk in the park for us.” So we worked through the traditional Hollywood seances to pitch Tony Scott, Don Simpson, and Jerry Bruckheimer. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, we can now just plug into the internet, but thankfully Paramount loved the idea.

They did think it was a little on the nose to have our two main characters be a maverick aviator named Mitchell who doesn’t fit into the system and a lovable and awkward counterpart with the name Goose who disappears from life halfway through. I remember Jerry Bruckheimer screaming at the Ouija Board: “You don’t own this movie! Paramount does! Mitchell, your ego is writing checks your lack of a body can’t cash!” Which was fair – but the movie was a huge success!

Over $350 million at the box office; cemented Tom Cruise as a star; convinced people across the country that being shirtless with jeans was a legitimate volleyball uniform, and led a whole generation of naval aviators to join the community just as the Soviet Union collapsed. Without that threat requiring them to innovate, they could just live off the vapors of Maverick, Goose, Viper, and Ice Man at Tailhook, while occasionally bombing Eastern Europe or the Middle East. That was some of the best flying I’ve seen to date – right up to the part where their cultural inertia ensured they’ll get killed in this century. And thanks to the Navy pulling all non-strategic nuclear weapons off non-SSBNs by 1991, that whole argument for carriers from the Revolt of the Admirals went right out the window!

Heck, the original Top Gun was so impactful over so many decades that Goose and I finally were able to convince John Paul Jones and Willis “Ching” Lee as a practical joke that the SWOs needed their own movie. They pitched Hollywood on what became 2012’s Battleship. It was a box-office bomb, but it helped take Navy surface forces out of the Air Force’s long-range strike game in three ways:

  1. It validated that toxic leadership should be maintained through nepotism or special privileges, and that the fire of battle will ultimately fix these cultural issues.
  2. Rihanna’s character served as an operations specialist, gunner’s mate, and various other roles, validating the optimal (minimal) manning constructs that were so successful with the Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt-class destroyers.
  3. And lastly, the climactic battle is premised on the USS Missouri, a museum battleship, getting underway in mere hours through the capabilities of septuagenarian veteran maintainers with limited financial investment or detailed explanation. I believe this is the current NAVSEA policy for leaving American shipyards, as I’ve seen it explained in the Balisle Report, Comprehensive Review, and the regular pictures of rusty combatants traversing the world’s oceans.

And to think the SWOs killed the Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) in 1994 only to bring it back three decades later as an improved “Maritime Strike Tomahawk”? What a run for Top Gun.

This is what the Chinese call a “Target-Rich Environment” – the Need for a Sequel

Even after the PLA lost that lovin’ feelin’ during the 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, those reckless U.S. carrier aviators put their crew and their plane first. The PLA on the other hand couldn’t live down having multiple American aircraft carriers nearby and interfering in the China/Taiwan issue. In the following generation, they “fielded, and [are] further developing, capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency.” And look, I get it – you don’t have time to think up there in the Pentagon, developing the future of carrier aviation over a generation. If you think, you’re dead. People know the F-35 works just like the F/A-18 works just like the F-14 worked.

Except Goose and I started to get worried again. When the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile reached initial operating capability in 2010, we thought, “Surely these naval aviators will clamor for the aircraft ranges necessary to operate from beyond that missile’s danger zone.” But ride into the danger zone they did, continuing to do ineffective presence while the South China Sea was militarized, and providing free OPFOR training to the Chinese. Within three years naval aviation was landing the X-47B drone aboard a carrier – an unmanned reconnaissance system with such accuracy it would dent the carrier deck with its consistency. Surely you Cruise-wannabes would acknowledge the future and transition it to a program of record for an unmanned strike fighter, enabling far longer ranges and time-on-station than manned fighters. Right?

Even in the think tank world, experts started asking: Is the carrier obsolete? Why has the air wing’s range diminished dangerously? How could air wings transform to do long-range sea denial in support of a Taiwan counter-intervention scenario, now seen as the pacing challenge for American geopolitics this century? And all of this while the Chinese fielded the DF-26 “Guam Killer,” DF-17 Hypersonic Missile, and tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)/Hypersonic Glide Vehicle hybrid with potentially global conventional strike range? It was as if senior aviators were screaming at future wars, “I will adapt to new technologies when I’m god$%& good and ready! You got that?”

We knew it was time for a sequel. If the U.S. naval aviation community could once again fall in love with manned carrier aviation, they would never adopt the unmanned systems at the speed or scale needed for modern threats. A sequel, loved by all, would pave the way for a single service with conventional and strategic long-range maritime strike capabilities able to take it right into China’s danger zone: The U.S. Air Force. Will thousands of sailors die and billions of dollars of American treasure sink for these facts to be realized? Probably. The defense department will regret to inform many that their sons and daughters are dead because their predecessors were shortsighted.

So yeah – we got Top Gun: Maverick made. It’s great. Was it a bold, ironic move to open the movie with Tom Cruise shredding a government boondoggle manned aircraft trying to fly at Mach 10 when that could very easily be unmanned? Sure – but goodness that anthem is iconic, so don’t think about the force structure implications. And you know what the best part is? We probably didn’t even need the sequel. The Winged Luddites of carrier aviation ensured that X-47B was killed in 2015. The replacement MQ-25 Stingray won’t reach IOC until 2025 and is slated to provide only tanking to the long held-dreams of putting Top Gun’s finest right to the edge of the envelope – not even going Mach 2 with their hair on fire. Probably going Mach .9 max conserve to make the whole trip for blue water ops.

All this while my Air Force actually is succeeding with multiple autonomous drones and developing greater autonomy so that as DARPA’s AlphaDogfight trials showed, drones never get too close for missiles to switch to guns. They just always win. But the Air Force’s airfields don’t move– so they’re easy to target right? Sure – but the Navy’s newest moving airfield was bought in 2008, and will deploy in 2022. So are you going to tell me that your crippled maritime industrial base will replace a carrier during the length of the entire world war? It’s like Meg Ryan once said, “Take me to war and lose me forever!”

Where does this leave carrier aviation? You want to say this is fine. But really, it’s so bad it would take my breath away. If I were in fact a corporeal junior naval aviator looking at the long-term direction of my community in the face of growing threats, I’d want to find anyone – Congress, senior community leaders, or acquisition professionals from the past three decades and just scream: “Guys, it’s not your leadership, it’s your attitude and acquisition execution. The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse. Dangerous and foolish. You may not like who’s enabling airpower with you, but whose side are you on?”

So as I sit up here in the Wild Blue Beyonder, all I can say is: The Air Force will be your wingman anytime. Mostly because you can’t stay out at these ranges anyway. Looking forward to taking your aircraft and dollars next POM cycle. Watch the birdie!

Colonel William (Billy) Mitchell, US Army, Retired, is an incorporeal spirit, airpower advocate, and unlisted executive producer of military films in Hollywood. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Top Gun: Maverick movie poster by Paramount Pictures.

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