WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps, tasked with accelerating its force modernization efforts, started the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise series to put promising technology prototypes in the hands of Marines for rapid feedback and learning.
Now, the Corps is planning its next step forward: a first-of-its-kind war-gaming center that will allow the service to repeatedly run scenarios, each time tweaking concepts, tactics and technologies to guide the Corps’ Force Design 2030 decision-making process at a rapid pace.
The Marine Corps Wargaming and Analysis Center will give the service this rapid learning capability, said Scott Lacy, the chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, which will oversee the center’s operations.
“It’s beneficial because it enables us to speed up what we call the campaign of learning, which is about identifying a concept; war gaming that concept; ultimately taking that result and conducting a live, virtual or constructive experimentation with it; and also identifying where new technology on the horizon may fit in to that process, and then ultimately that turns into requirements, which ideally turns into acquisitions,” Lacy told Defense News on Aug. 27. “And so if you can hasten that process of campaign of learning and build a really rich body of analytic work that underpins those decisions, it’s really valuable to the institution.”
“We’re not currently manned, trained or equipped for a peer adversary in this operational environment, and we owe it to the country to get ourselves into a better place,” Lacy said. “Everything we can do to hasten the process of change in the right ways, that puts us in a better position for competition with a peer adversary because that adversary is not slowing down, that adversary would love it if we continue to operate as slowly as possible.”
What can Marines do at the center?
The 100,000-square-foot center in Quantico, Virginia, will transform military war gaming from a tabletop exercise to an immersive experience in a simulated environment.
Real-world intelligence will inform the background environment in the war games. Science and technology experts will help shape the tools adversaries employ in the modern and futuristic scenarios. Sophisticated graphics and modeling technology will help players clearly see the challenges they face and recognize how new concepts, tactics and weapons would fare in a potential battle.
The primary mission of the center will be capability development, Lacy said, noting the facility will be large enough to host war games involving hundreds of participants and to simultaneously run multiple, differing scenarios.
“Where we have something like Force Design , where we have a very concrete vision of the way ahead that needs additional details filled out, this is the center that will help us get at those details faster and figure out what works and what doesn’t work” in the war game, and then use that information to design live experiments, Lacy said.
The center will help shape how the service looks in 2030 but will remain relevant well into the future to ensure the force stays ahead of ever-evolving threats.
“The analysis that results from this process and the decisions that are underpinned by that analysis will be part of the institutional decisions on resourcing and decisions on [the] way ahead,” Lacy added. “And as the commandant has described a number of times, this is likely to be against a peer adversary and move/counter-move pacing threat. And so we need to be able to rapidly identify when the adversary has created a counter-move that impacts our plans, and then find our counter to that counter — and this will really expedite that process.”
The center will also help answer questions about force size and equipment needed for the Corps to succeed in various environments — and it will then help the service continuously question those answers to ensure they hold up in modern scenarios.
“The ability to rerun different courses of action at machine speed — you know, many, many, many, many times — allows you a body of data that is impossible to replicate now” with tabletop war gaming and live experimentation, Lacy said.
Given the capacity of the center, he added, there will be opportunities to perform operational planning for missions such as resupplying a disaggregated force in a contested environment, or seizing a particular island or airstrip.
How does industry benefit?
The center is meant to help the Marine Corps as well as its joint and interagency partners focus on preparing for future operations. But the benefits could extend to the acquisition process and to industry, providing faster and clearer requirements for companies to address emerging capability gaps, Lacy said.
Much like the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, or ANTX, series before it, the war-gaming facility could provide a new way for small businesses to get their ideas to the Marine Corps without needing a fully fledged manufacturing capability.
When the Navy and Marine Corps started ANTX in 2017, businesses large and small, traditional and nontraditional, were encouraged to bring prototypes to the beach for a ship-to-shore maneuver demonstration. Marines and sailors would test the prototypes in something akin to a real contested environment, and then provide feedback to industry and service decision-makers.
“One way in which they’re very similar is the sense of providing very useful, detailed feedback to the institution, to the Marine Corps,” Lacy said, adding that the war-gaming center would do in a simulated environment what ANTX did in a live environment.
He also said the barrier to entry for industry could be lower with the war-gaming center.
“If a firm in industry comes up with a potential solution and … that looks like something that we want to examine further, then we would work via the current process that we’ve got for inputting industry ideas and figure out how to turn that into a representation in a war game. And that would help us determine if the capabilities that are described … would move us in the direction that we want,” Lacy said.
Lacy said the war-fighting lab hasn’t determined how fully engineered a technology must be before it can be used in a war game, but avoiding manufacturing a prototype would be a win for small companies trying to pitch ideas.
In the meantime, he said, industry should continue to engage with the Marine Corps through advanced planning briefs to industry to stay in the loop about acquisition needs to support Force Design 2030. The center, he added, will only help quicken the pace at which the Corps can send requirements to industry for development and acquisition.
“I think what we will ask them in the future is very similar to what we are asking of them now. But we will be capable of moving faster, I believe, to get after those issues [on which] we’re seeking their help,” Lacy said.
Why is a new war-gaming center needed?
The Marine Corps Wargaming and Analysis Center was formally established in 2017 by then-Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, but the idea and early planning work date back to 2015. Now-retired Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, who served as the deputy commandant for combat development and integration from 2015 to 2018, told Defense News it was becoming clear the Corps needed a path away from optimization for ground wars and toward preparing for naval warfare against an advanced adversary like China or Russia.
“We saw that it was going to take a lot of innovation to move us in a new direction because we certainly didn’t have any of the right ideas, and there was no blueprint on how to do this,” he said in an Aug. 30 interview.
Walsh and other leaders at the time looked to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab as the nexus of the “combat development process with the operational environment.” They reached out to previous leaders like former Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak, who helped stand up the lab in 1995.
Walsh and his team reinvigorated the lab and reoriented it to address the threat of peer adversaries. ANTX and the Marine Corps Wargaming and Analysis Center were meant to bolster separate parts of the lab to support innovation and rapid learning.
An experiments division and a science and technology division were aided by the creation of ANTX in 2017, with a demonstration format that allowed them to learn a lot in a tight feedback loop among concept planners, war fighters and industry.
The Marine Corps Wargaming and Analysis Center was the comparable idea for the war-gaming division, which already existed to carry out war games that fulfilled Title 10 obligations — the roles of each service — and to participate in joint, interagency and multinational war-gaming events.
Though the war-gaming division did important work, “we were still operating way behind the times as far as what you could do with the technology that was out there today as far as war-gaming, analysis, modeling and simulation,” Walsh said. When he’d brief Marine Corps and Pentagon leadership on his recommendations for new gear to modernize the force, or go to Congress to ask for funding, he said he had analysis from tabletop games, but felt it fell short of ideal justification.
“The Wargaming and Analysis Center [would] beef up the war-gaming division at the war-fighting lab to get more analysis, so when you stood up before another audience to go, ‘This is where we’re headed, this is what they need, these are the capabilities they need, this is the program of record that we need,’ you would have the analysis behind it that you could stand there and people go: ‘OK, we can buy into that, that makes sense, and we’ll support you.’ ”
Walsh said the initial ANTX events had demonstrable effects on Force Design 2030 and Marine Corps acquisition, with the ideas for a long-range unmanned surface vessel and unmanned ground vehicles capable of launching weapons dating back to the 2017, 2018 and 2019 series.
The ANTX series will continue, and Walsh said he hopes the war-gaming center in a few years will bring the force design process full circle, convincing the Pentagon and Congress the Corps has the analytical rigor behind funding requests for new programs, rather than just anecdotal success stories from Marines experimenting in the field.
“When somebody like [Commandant Gen. David] Berger steps up and says, ‘Here’s my Commandant’s Planning Guidance, here’s Force Design 2030; now I need these new capabilities, whether it’s ground-based anti-ship missiles, long-range sensors, [MQ-9 drones],’ — whatever that may be — he’s able to sit there now and show the analysis that goes behind it that can help justify how we got to where they are,” Walsh said.
“So in a very innovative way, that allows the Marine Corps to go from concept all the way to rapid prototyping much quicker because they’re able to put a much finer point on things where people will really acknowledge the hard work that was done. And when they challenge it — they’ll challenge it — and [then] hopefully in most cases [they’ll] be able to accept the work that was done behind it, instead of questioning it and going: ‘Hey, this is too subjective, we don’t have enough detail here.’”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.