ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The concept that set the Marine Corps apart from the other services decades ago, the one that set up a particular way of warfare for generations of Marines, is no longer untouchable.
The Marine Air-Ground Task Force may remain the way the Marines want to fight but increasingly it may not be what they will deliver when steel meets steel, especially in maritime spaces.
That’s because the Marines have gotten marching orders from the top Devil Dog to truly reintegrate with their naval roots and optimize the force for supporting maritime operations.
And that means that Marines will arrive in different sizes of formations, carrying different types of weapons, some traditional bullets, grenades and rockets. Others in the invisible spectrum of electronic warfare or pushing out sensors to feed the battle network with invaluable information.
To do that, Marines may not need a compliment of amphibious tracked vehicles, artillery and tanks.
Thinking such as that is echoing down the ranks, the head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson, told the crowd here on Oct. 23 at the annual National Defense Industrial Association’s Expeditionary Warfare Conference.
“We’re no longer going to stick or take an uncompromising position on the sanctity of the MAGTF,” Watson said. He noted that the MAGTF is still how the Marines prefer to fight but other means might be necessary to meet the end.
“But ultimately, if what is needed is a piece of the Marine Corps that is not organized like a MAGTF or a capability the Marine Corps can bring that is not a MAGTF, then we are not too proud to provide that.”
Gone are the days of the Marine Corps trying to be all things to everyone, he said. They’ll still “answer the call” for whatever mission is tasked, but that doesn’t mean the force can optimize for everything.
“We’ll do the best job with what we’ve got,” Watson said. “And I think that’s a fundamental shift for us.”
That seems to be as much a force of new ways of warfare as it is a reality of likely constrained resources of the future.
Mark Cancian, a retired Marine officer who now works as a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, noted that his analysis shows no growth for personnel in the future Marine Corps budget planning.
That means new capabilities have to come from somewhere.
“Coastal defense, cyber, space,” Cancian said. “They will have to take down existing capabilities to find the structure and the space to do that.”
He identified some gaps between what the Corps wants to do with its force and equipment and what’s in the inventory.
For example, the Marines have six armed drones. The Air Force has 284.
To truly build manned-unmanned teams in distributed operations, they’ll need a lot more drones.
Dakota Wood, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, who spoke on the same panel with Cancian and with Marine Corps Times after the conference, laid out some of the growing pains that will emerge from the next couple of years. Though, not all of it is new.
Even the MAGTFs of today don’t operate in concert, together, at all times.
“When you actually have people on the ground or in the air it is routine that they go off and do independent things, you know, in other words, a Marine Corps squad, or platoon sent off on a patrolling package someplace, doesn't have a helicopter right over its head the entire time,” Wood said.
But how Marines have viewed the fight for generations has had a similar construct.
“So, you know, these Marine Corps units, using the equipment they have, they do do things kind of separately, but the MAGTF construct has just been so ingrained for so many years, that anytime you would talk about deployment concepts or equipment requirements, it was just always in terms of the MAGTF,” Wood said.
That has, in some ways, limited how Marines try to approach a problem.
Wood pointed to the demands of the geographic combatant commanders. Some of which would ask for a certain capability or formation. But they would then get pushback if it was only an infantry company or a single aircraft section, because that wasn’t contained within a MAGTF.
But current and future scenarios will call for exactly that. For instance, an Air Force or Naval aviation crew or Marines on an aircraft carrier providing air support.
In that situation, a commander might put a squad type of unit or half of the platoon size unit and they're going to figure out the numbers, that will deploy a naval surface missile or an anti-ship cruise missile on the side of a hill in some small atoll right, he said.
“You’re not going to get rid of aviation, you’re not going to get rid of your ground component and you always need logistics, but if they are serving as fleet marine forces deployed with as part of a naval component,” Wood said.
Even Maj. Gen. Tracy King, director of expeditionary warfare, said in another panel that new analysis is taking another look at the composition of the Amphibious Readiness Group and the Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The MEU, nearly the smallest of the MAGTF formations, while it has the full complement of the components to make a MAGTF is mostly a support mechanism for allies or for small-scale situations, he said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.