Updated: Mar 29, 2022
Editor-in-Chief's Note: The letter below and those that follow it were forwarded to the Warfighting Society. Written in response to Major General Julian Alford's thought-provoking article on the future of US Marine Corps infantry in the June 2021 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, they feature a dialogue between two Marine officers: Courtney Massengale, an Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) veteran, mid-career field grade officer who neither publishes nor lurks on Twitter, and Sam Damon, an OIF/OEF veteran, mid-career field grade officer who publishes and tweets frequently.
You can read the first in this series at the link below.
You wrote, “No one can answer this question: If future wars are decided by precision guided munitions fired from over the horizon, why does a grunt need to be SOF-like? Wouldn’t an 18-year-old die just as gloriously as a 26-year-old? What am I missing here?”
You’re missing the whole point, man. If the future infantry isn’t SOF-like, there won’t be Marine infantry on those islands facing down Chinese missiles. Instead, it will be recon or MARSOC or some other Special Operations Force doing our job. Alford doesn’t say this and I haven’t read it anywhere else, but unless the Marine Corps matures the infantry, we run the risk of expending capital (intellectual and financial) to develop EABO/LOCE only for the grunts to lose the mission. If we keep the infantry the same, we’ll end up like cannon artillery - full of traditions and stories and exercises but possessing diminished value.
(U.S. Marine Corps, Aaron S. Patterson)
Here’s why: Forget that we’re still debating, experimenting, and revising EABO. Assume it all works - everything happens as envisioned. The Marine Corps can pull off the 5 missions and 10 tasks laid out in the Tentative Manual. We have all the anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-space missiles; our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms are fully matured and we’ve integrated seamlessly into the Navy’s Composite Warfare system. We’ve worked out our issues with the Navy and Joint Force and General Berger becomes the new John A. Lejeune; we even rename Bridgeport to Camp Berger in his honor.
Now imagine a regiment's worth of infantry Marines distributed across thousands of nautical miles, each unit with access, or the ability to access, precision-guided systems.*
Now consider Krulak’s Strategic Corporal. Imagine a corporal with the ability to fire an anti-ship missile into international shipping lanes. Full stop. Hold that image in your head. Let it sink in.
Maybe that corporal is a go-getter; maybe he has the makings of a varsity athlete.* How old do you want that corporal to be? Better yet, how old do the Secretary of Defense and President want that corporal to be? You know the answer.
Maybe you think this is far-fetched. You may ask, “Why would a corporal get to decide when and if an anti-ship missile should be fired, and at what?” Forget targeting stuff and authorities for a minute. That’s not the point. If someone can imagine a 20-year-old mistakenly starting WWIII, it’s time for bold adjustments.
The infantry envisioned by MajGen Alford is a function of risk-tolerance, not mission accomplishment. Mature forces allow the Marine Corps to buy down risk. The risk of tactical units wielding strategic agency in future war is assumed by our leaders. This is a principal-agent problem, wherein senior leaders (the principals) depend on dispersed forces (their agents) to accomplish the mission. The problem is, the agents’ T/O weapon isn’t an IAR but a Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires truck.
The Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary Fires Vehicle
The use of SOF is now enmeshed in our country’s collective psyche. Even before we demilled Helmand, strikes and SOCOM were the American Way of War, at least if you followed the news headlines. Remember, “boots on the ground” does not mean SOF - it means conventional forces.
There are many competing definitions of what makes an operation “special” and which unit deserves the title of Special Operations Force. There are distinctions between elite forces and SOF as well, depending on whom you read or talk to. I wonder how our leaders would define “Special Operations Force” and “special operations.” I’ve found James Kiras’ Special Operations and Strategy to be particularly helpful here. He writes that “...special operations fill a void that is unachievable conventionally and there is an elevated political or military risk associated with their failure.” Put another way, special operations forces do what normies can’t when the risks of failure are disastrous. Special Operations forces are low-risk options for high-risk missions.
So, why does a Marine grunt need to be SOF-like? Because if he isn’t, he won’t be on that island facing Chinese precision-guided munitions. This is the Call of Duty age, the post-Zero Dark Thirty moment, where the special operator is our nation’s elite warrior. He is decidedly not the acne-faced neighbor’s kid who enlists out of high school. He is not the new SOI grad walking across Marines Boulevard in RAT boots holding a ditty bag.
We trust Chris Pratt - we don’t trust a squad leader from V35.
Chris Pratt and Company in Amazon's Tomorrow War
There are a bunch of reasons why we want to be SOF-like, but the only one that matters relates to trust. The future infantry must reform because if it does not, the Marine Corps is either benched for real Special Operations Forces or employed to the level of trust afforded by senior leaders. That may mean the infantry fulfills the non-EABO Title 10 responsibilities or suffers the humiliation of a tiered asset flying in for the “real sea control”. This reminds me of an old grunt I knew from way back who missed OIF I. Rather than fighting in the March Up, he had to deploy to….Guantanamo Bay. He never lived that down.
The 2030 infantry battalion design rests on the belief that increased talent, enabled with technology, will allow smaller units to achieve similar or greater effects than the battalions of old. EABO requires trusting these small units with operational and strategic missions. The Commandant wants to buy down risk to compete in the gray zone, where nuclear shadows hang. A mature force hedges risk for senior decision-makers, for combatant commanders, and elected officials alike. For them, the stakes are too high and the technology too great to rely on sentimentalism towards the heroic grunts of old. Berger gets this. We should, too.
Alford’s Four-Block Littoral Force is both a normative claim (“we ought to do this”) and a campaign promise (“we will do this”). He’s ascribing SOF-like characteristics to the future infantry to compete with real SOF for future relevance. Read what soon-to-be Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps LtGen Eric Smith said about this:
“Where the commandant is going here is, if we’re going to be operating in a disaggregated environment, where you have 75 Marines operating throughout the first island chain, at times under duress, in competition and in crisis, and you need that really seasoned, mature decision-making capability, there is an age component to that,”
Maturity is a stand-in for judgment. We aren’t asking an 03XX to “close-with and destroy” - we are asking him to make a decision that has strategic and potentially catastrophic implications. By reframing maturity as a Marine infantry trait, Alford, Smith, and Berger are selling trust. “Pick us because we can get the job done and avert World War III.” But if we do not earn this trust, if we do not sell trust, the Marine infantry risks obsolescence.
Casing the Colors of the 8th Marine Regiment
*Whether or not individual Marines are making the decision to launch a strike is irrelevant - we are advertising this capability in our emerging doctrine. No need to have the on-the-loop vs. in-the-loop vs. out of the loop discussion here.
*Or maybe he was the honor grad for his platoon at recruit training, or he's been meritoriously promoted since PFC, or he's taking online courses to get his bachelor’s degree.