The three-star Marine general in charge of combat development has a simple message for Devil Dogs: The whole idea of combined arms has evolved in recent decades and the Corps must transform to fight and win.
Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl spoke Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., ahead of the soon-to-release Marine Corps Force Design update for 2022, due out in a few days.
Heckl shared a blunt message.
“Combined arms is more than towed cannon artillery, tanks and aviation,” he said. “It’s information, cyber and space.”
The three star said he hears Marines talking about staying “left of bang” when discussing adversaries such as China.
Left of bang means before rounds start flying and physical violence erupts on the battlefield.
But that definition has attained a new nuance in the information age, he said.
“Stop saying ‘bang.’ What is that?” Heckl said.
The response he gets from aggressive Marines is bang means when they shoot things.
But no, Heckl said, the new “bang” is information, it’s cyber.
“Bang is happening now,” Heckl said.
Integrated deterrence, which is layered into nearly every strategic document in recent years, runs all the way from nuclear missiles to the day-to-day operations inside China’s bubble, he said.
That’s what the three-star called the “true value proposition” of how the Corps will make Chinese military and political leaders reconsider war plans.
“We’re going to make it damn hard on our adversary’s part to make the decision that ‘today’s the day,’” Heckl said.
Heckl is a Marine aviator who’s spent much of his career on the MV-22 Osprey. Before taking over the job as deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration he headed I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, California.
The three-star covered a broad range of questions, specific to maritime security, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Corps’ moves on Force Design 2030, Commandant Gen. David Berger’s plan to reshape the force.
Recently, chorus of voices that includes nearly two dozen retired senior Marines, including generals and commandants publicly criticized the overhaul, claiming it will leave the Corps vulnerable and irrelevant as a premiere fighting force.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper told Marine Corps Times previously that while he and other former senior Marine Corps leaders understand that change is necessary, what Berger is doing with Force Design 2030 is off track.
“What the National Security Council, what the combatant commanders, expect Marine Corps units to do in the future, they simply will be unable to do,” Van Riper said.
The Force Design 2030 denunciations also critiqued the Corps’ tight-lipped approach that withheld details of the plan, specifically what informed decisions that resulted in sweeping changes.
Those changes included divestment of all tanks, reduction in traditional cannon artillery and, more controversially, a reduction in end strength to pre-9/11 levels of about 175,000 Marines in the coming years.
Heckl didn’t shy from a request for response on those criticisms.
“That’s probably on me for not doing an articulate enough job explaining force design,” Heckl said.
But, Heckl emphasized, the Corps’ focus is China.
“We always, always build to the worst case scenario,” Heckl said. “Which, in this case, is clearly China.”
The 2018 National Defense Strategy drove many of the decisions of Force Design 2030, an early working outline of which was released by Berger shortly after he took office in 2019.
The drawdown in end strength is overdue, he said.
That thinking precedes the current commandant, Heckl said.
Berger’s predecessor, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller found similar problems with a Corps that had ballooned from 172,934 Marines around 9/11 to about 202,000 in the course of sustained land operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Heckl echoed both commandants, calling that number “unsustainable” as the Corps had to find funding to shift its mission.
“This is much worse than the 70-year Cold War with the Soviet Union, much worse,” he said. “I’m just clearly acknowledging this.”
Heckl hit on specific complaints.
There’s little application for tanks or tubed artillery in the island-heavy, long-distance fight that the Pacific will deliver, he said.
The aviator said he has talked with infantry officers who advocate for tanks in urban battles, primarily as a fires platform.
Development of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, the Amphibious Assault Vehicle replacement, will provide better protection, survivability, and mobility, he said. Also, a program aimed at adding a 30mm cannon to the ACV will improve firepower should Marines in cities need mobile fire backup, he said.
And, the three-star said, the fight is joint.
“Even in our heyday, our tanks were dwarfed by the Army,” Heckl said.
To get after the new model of distributed warfare, Heckl said the Corps’ turning to all things unmanned, a concept outlined in Berger’s early force design drafts.
A MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron is up and running missions now. Two more will be added, he said. The packages of sensors and relays for targeting along with lethal options, gives Marines on the ground a host of “combined arms” options from a variety of platforms.
In a separate event unveiling the Marine Corps’ 2022 aviation plan on Monday, Lt. Gen. Mark Wise, deputy commandant of aviation, told reporters that an upcoming “sky tower” application held promise for using the drone as a data hub for Marines in austere locations.
And for now, the MQ-9 will serve as the base for a kind of “family of systems” of the Corps’ goal for its MUX or Marine air-ground task force unmanned aerial system expeditionary.
“This isn’t very complimentary but I say it affectionally, MUX is really a truck, right?” Wise said. “It carries a capability. The MQ-9 will not be the end state. There will be something after that and something after that.”
The thinking should focus on the capability rather than the current, or future, platform, he said.
But the unmanned and a new ship, he said, can also help the wickedest of problems – logistics.
The light amphibious warship, or LAW, features as a connector that can deliver first Marines and later resupply to sustain the fight, he said.
Other options, undersea, surface and air unmanned platforms can stretch that logistics supply chain further.
“We’re building specific tools, all the modernization we’re doing with force design is going to make the Marine Air Ground Task Force that much better,” he said. “We have three MEFs around the globe that we’re going to make more capable through the modernization of Force Design.”
And the communication piece?
“I’m going to correct myself and do a better job of informing,” 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.