Sunday, 7 June 2020

Seven insights of Marine Corps wargaming

Way back at the end of March I wrote a piece about the US Marine Corps 2030 force design, in light of the neat little presentation that the Marine Corps Commandant produced at the time outlining the future vision for the force. You can read that article here, for those that haven't already. Today I want to delve a bit deeper into just one portion of that document, specifically the seven "key insights" that the Marine Corps derived from the intenstive wargaming efforts that helped shape their force design 2030 vision.

It's important to note at this stage that a) the list was by no means considered exhaustive, and that b) further study - including additional wargaming - would be undertaken to help sharpen the Marine Corps' understanding of the future operating environment, and therefore the seven key insights should not be considered absolute laws written in stone. With this in mind I just want to look at those insights in a little bit more detail and subject them to a bit of analysis. 

For the sake of clarity and orderly admin, let's just quickly recap what the seven listed key insights were, and then we'll break them down individually:
  1. The individual/force element which shoots first has a decisive advantage
  2. Forces that can continue to operate inside an adversary’s long-range precision fire Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) are more operationally relevant than forces which must rapidly maneuver to positions outside the WEZ in order to remain survivable. These “stand-in” forces attrite adversary forces, enable joint force access requirements, complicate targeting and consume adversary ISR resources, and prevent fait accompli scenarios. 
  3. Range and operational reach matters in the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility (AOR).
  4. The hider-versus finder competition is real. Losing this competition has enormous and potentially catastrophic consequences. This makes success in the reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance mission an imperative for success. 
  5. Forward bases and stations and fixed infrastructure are easily targeted, and extremely vulnerable to disruption.
  6. Mobility inside the WEZ is a competitive advantage and an operational imperative. Logistics (sustainability) is both a critical requirement and critical vulnerability. Forces that cannot sustain themselves inside the WEZ are liabilities; however, those that can sustain themselves while executing reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions create a competitive advantage.
  7. There is no avoiding attrition. In contingency operations against peer adversaries, we will lose aircraft, ships, ground tactical vehicles, and personnel. Force resilience – the ability of a force to absorb loss and continue to operate decisively – is critical.


"The individual/force element which shoots first has a decisive advantage" 

'Which shoots first' or 'that shoots first', I will defer to the more grammatically sound of my readers/followers. 

This point is one that has quite a basis in history and calls out to Lanchester's square law. The side that is able to shoot first and inflict casualties on the enemy can reduce the enemies combat power, thus diminishing the amount of counter-fire it receives in return. This effect becomes cyclical over time, granting a progressively greater and greater firepower advantage over the enemy as friendly forces are able to concentrate their fire on fewer and fewer enemies, while the enemy force's ever diminishing firepower takes a weaker and weaker toll.

At least on paper that is. In practice the military world seldom conforms to such neat principles, except perhaps on the grandest scales. A good example of this would be the German Luftwaffe during the later stages of the second world war. As they began to lose the daylight attrition battle against the USAAF, the numbers game spiralled out of their control. The more aircraft they lost the harder it was for the remaining aircraft to have a meaningful impact.

The problem with this insight with respect to the Force 2030 design is that it's not clear how the US Marine Corps intends to actually leverage it on a practical level.

There's a lot of talk throughout the concept document about the advantages of reconnaisance and counter-reconnaisance, but this does seem quite a vague suggestion. The US Marine Corps is not currently, nor projected to be, in the business of engaging in large scale naval warfare. The underpinning concept of Force 2030 is for the Corps to return to its traditional role of amphibious assaults, with a specific focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

As such it is likely to spend most of it's time attacking fixed objective points, breaking open the enemies defences and securing landing points through which the regular US army will be expected to flood en mass. Conceptual arguments about finding and engaging the enemy might be rendered somewhat moot by this approach, as the Corps is unlikely to find itself as the predominant player in the middle of some cat and mouse game with the Chinese.

Any amphibious operation, or at any rate one that is well planned and desired to be successful, is going to require a heavy dose of intelligence gathering and a sound understanding of the enemies dispositions. This in turn somewhat precludes the Corps from getting too entangled in some kind of grand meeting engagement, unless this observation is considered relevant to operations further inland.

Either way, it does have a distinct hint of "Revolution in Military Affairs" showbiz about it. Not that it's an incorrect observation, it's not. It's  just that it's difficult to see the relevance of it to what the Marine Corps is being asked to do, at least in the sense of a broad operational concept. 

If we're getting right down to the level of an individual Marine then that's fine, but that's not really something that you address at such a grand, force concept level. And to the best of my knowledge there's no real acknowledgement in the Force 2030 document addressing that point, e.g. any mention of new optics or the mass issuance of binoculars. 

"Forces that can continue to operate inside an adversary’s long-range precision fire Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) are more operationally relevant than forces which must rapidly maneuver to positions outside the WEZ in order to remain survivable. These “stand-in” forces attrite adversary forces, enable joint force access requirements, complicate targeting and consume adversary ISR resources, and prevent fait accompli scenarios."

A lot in there to unpack at first glance, but again it does have a scent of some very fancy but ultimately very vague management type speak to it. It's unclear again at what level this is being described. 

For example if we were talking the level of the warship, this makes a lot more sense. A ship that can defend itself adequately against enemy long range anti-shipping weapons can indeed remain in a threat area to cause attrition to enemy platforms, enable access to that environment for other friendly platforms, complicate the enemies targeting and consume some of its ISR resources.

But that's not what the Marine Corps is being asked to do. So what long-range precision fires is it referring to? Artillery? Because land forces have operated within their enemies long range fire zone for about as long as firearms of any kind have been in existence.

Are we talking here about the amphibious support ships? The Force 2030 design does make reference to a requirment for smaller, lower signature, more affordable amphibious ships, though getting all three of those in one package is just setting yourself up for failure. And if we are, then amphibious ships are not going to be busy trying to attrit enemy forces, so again the relevance seems somewhat limited.

I hold my hand up at this point and acknowledge the fact that I might just be dumb, and that maybe I'm not seeing the wood for the trees. I suspect this could all be explained with a stunning 3-hour powerpoint lecture. And I'm not denying that the statements so far are true; forces that can operate inside the enemies weapons engagement zone are indeed likely to be more operationally relevant, at least until someone starts arguing about fuel trucks.

What I'm not seeing is how those observations relate to the Marine Corps or the task that it has been asked to do? If we're talking about the amphibious assault platforms then again it makes a lot of sense, right up until you start relying on them to cause attrition, which would seem to imply that we're meant to be talking about something else. 

Theoretically the F-35 can be a conduit by which an assault ship can attrit enemy forces, but the Marine's F-35 compliment is mainly about supporting its ground forces, while the whole "sea battle" business is more the US Navy's bag. It just seems a somewhat odd statement, or wording of a statement in this context. 

"Range and operational reach matters in the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility (AOR)."

Yep. 

"The hider-versus finder competition is real. Losing this competition has enormous and potentially catastrophic consequences. This makes success in the reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance mission an imperative for success."

Again, not a particularly contentious statement I would argue. But what does it have to do with the Marine Corps? They're not likely to be involved in the hider vs finder competition until they make landfall. Once that has occured clearly reconnaissance becomes important, but the way it's framed in this statement, using words like catastrophic, it gives the impression that we're still talking about operations at sea.

That's not to say that losing the reconnaissance battle on land can't be catastrophic, but again I come back to the argument that the Marine Corps is likely to have at least a fairly decent idea about what it's up against and where that enemy is when conducting an amphibious assault, diminishing the chances of a catastrophic failure of counter-reconnaissance.

It would seem to me that this is another wargaming observation that is perhaps operating at a level above which the Marine Corps will actually concern itself with, that is to say an observation more revelant to the naval conflict. If it is in reference to ground operations then is it really even that much of a revelation to be noteworthy in this manner, as if it were some sudden, unexpected discovery that reconnaissance was important to land warfare? 

"Forward bases and stations and fixed infrastructure are easily targeted, and extremely vulnerable to disruption."

This is very true and has been demonstrated a number of times now. Again though, not entirely sure why this is considered a sufficiently revolutionary observation to be noteworthy. It also doesn't really address the fact that fixed infrastructure is sometimes inevitable.

You can't really have a port for example without some means of loading and unloading vessels, along with somewhere to store the unloaded items until they're ready to be shipped onwards, and some kind of infrastructure for accepting and supporting the other transport modes that link with the port. 

"Mobility inside the WEZ is a competitive advantage and an operational imperative. Logistics (sustainability) is both a critical requirement and critical vulnerability. Forces that cannot sustain themselves inside the WEZ are liabilities; however, those that can sustain themselves while executing reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions create a competitive advantage."

Kind of a repeat of a previous point, but expanding upon it. What would really help at this stage would be if we had a better idea about just which precision weapons were being referenced. Are we talking battlefield level? Operational? Strategic? 

The force concept document does have a bit more detail on this elsewhere, specifically referencing affordable and distributable platforms that can provide logistical support, at which point it appears we're talking about the ship level.

But even then the whole concept doesn't make an overall lot of sense. Most modern state militaries have been able, to a greater or lesser degree, keep themselves logistically supplied while inside enemy weapons range, barring certain scenarios when one party has the other surrounded, which even by itself does not preclude the replenishment of some supplies, merely their quantity. It certainly can't be said that supply problems are something the US has ever really been known to struggle with on a routine basis. 

It's also a particularly bizarre place to bring up the issue of reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance. The way it's emphasised seems to put this mission at the core of the Corps' role, which is a little odd I think.

It could perhaps partly be explained by reference elsewhere in the document to a perceived deficiency in expeditionary long range precision systems which were identified as surface to air missile systems, anti-shipping systems and long range, high endurance unmanned systems, the thinking being that these could be used to assist the Navy.

But that seems to be a very loose use of the term "long range precision fires", which is generally accepted to refer to artillery systems such as guided long range rockets. This reference would also seem to hint at the Marine Corps seeing itself as actively seizing territory in a contested environment and then using this as a platform for anti-air and anti-shipping systems.

While that 100% attracts my attention and is a drum I would most happily beat, that does kind of seem a little like the Marine Corps creating a role for itself that is not particularly asked for and deviating away from its core assigned mission, with a strong hint of wanting to get itself involved in the "long range precision fires" fad. 

"There is no avoiding attrition. In contingency operations against peer adversaries, we will lose aircraft, ships, ground tactical vehicles, and personnel. Force resilience – the ability of a force to absorb loss and continue to operate decisively – is critical."

Again, nothing especially controversial there, although it does somewhat clash with the overall theme of the force concept 2030, which revolves around trading mass and redundancy in basically every area on the altar of those hard working "long range precision fires" again.

But is this really something that needed wargaming to reveal? Even in Desert Storm, with numerous advantages in their favour, the US and its coalition allies still suffered a number of casualties both on the ground and in the air. 

Overall the insights seem to generate more heat than light. Much of it is not especially news to people who have even a cursory knowledge of military history and some of it really doesn't make a lot of sense without some more specific framework being explained to underpin. 

As a set of insights used to inform a future force organisation they're quite lacking in context. The otherwise reasonable conclusions that can be found in other parts of the force concept document don't always strictly chime with what is being laid out in these key insights, to the point that the force design at times seems almost detached from them. 

More wargaming needed indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, these are all pretty banal. I think the seven insights should be taken more as a report card. These wargames looked at the Marine Corps' role in the National Defense Strategy 2018 (which did specifically task the Marine Corps with certain things). That's the overarching "concept" such as it is. "Insights" is a fancy way of saying "This are the things we need to be really good at but we're really not, please provide us with some money."

    Also a caution about amphibious assault: the role is actually amphibious operations as a whole. Amphibious assaults are one of five types of amphibious operation in US doctrine. The use of amphibious assaults is actually being de-emphasized in favor of amphibious raids and amphibious support to other operations (in the form of Expeditionary Advance Bases).

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