ARLINGTON, Va. ― Marines in the middle of recent experiments, unit and equipment changes can look to the Ukraine conflict for real-world previews of how the Corps’ war-fighting concept might unfold in a future fight.
Small units using devastating weaponry to destroy large enemy formations. Sinking ships from shore and then fading quickly into the background. Cycling information so rapidly that the enemy can’t keep up, shattering the ability to run effective combat plans. All of these scenarios are happening now as Ukrainians fight off the Russian military invasion.
But they could also be pulled from the pages of a variety of combat concepts and force design overhaul that the Marine Corps started nearly three years ago.
On Thursday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black sat down with reporters at the Pentagon ahead of the service’s Monday release of its 2022 annual update on Force Design 2030 ― the blueprint for how the Corps will adapt to a new warfighting landscape.
Berger first cautioned that many of the lessons of Ukraine are yet to be learned, but do hold value even early in the conflict.
“I’ve learned to be a little patient in learning about a conflict while it’s going on over my career,” Berger said.
And there are themes in the conflict that resonate with recent force changes, but no one answer to all the force design questions.
“I would not say that anything, any singular event in Ukraine validates or invalidates force design or any aspect of it,” Berger said.
But the way the Ukrainians were able to “close the kill chain,” using information, sensing and a ground-based anti-ship missile to sink the Russian cruiser Moskva on April 14 in the Black Sea showed a hint at what Marines will do in future conflicts.
“This is the direction the Marine Corps is going as a part of what the nation needs us to do in sea control and sea denial,” Berger said. “It does serve as an example of the vulnerability of ships, write large, to missiles.”
Ukrainian officials have announced that on Saturday they sank a second Russian ship in the Black Sea with a drone strike.
Multiple media outlets have reported that the U.S. shared intelligence with the Ukrainians, which helped sink the ship. Berger did not comment on specifics of that or other Ukraine incidents and any U.S. involvement.
Marine leadership has been asked repeatedly if their force design is too narrowly focused on China and the Indo-Pacific Command. But Berger, his top generals and staff have said that changes, while aimed at China as the “pacing threat” are applicable to all adversaries in various regions.
Black told reporters that the largest exercise the Corps conducted this year was actually in Europe with Cold Response, a NATO-led exercise with 30,000 troops from 27 countries operating mostly in Norway.
“So the idea that the Marine Corps is focused on just one theater, it’s not the case,” Black said.
The top Marine said he’s gotten quick-turn lessons wrong himself in the past, as have others. But there were lessons that analysts have already drawn that can be fed back into the force.
First, he saw that smaller units, more widely distributed with their own way to sense the enemy, have proven their worth in Ukraine.
Add to that access to lethal tools, either in the unit or on call, and those small teams can be devastating.
And the small units can overmatch “large, bulky formations that have a huge logistical footprint.”
That’s a nod to the way Ukrainian teams have harassed, slowed and immobilized long convoys of Russian military vehicles in their tracks.
Second, the value of ground forces, he said.
For two or three decades, thinking in some circles saw a future where units would simply stand off at a distance and lob munitions at each other, making the close-in fight a relic.
“Not so much,” he said.
On Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that combined arms as a concept had changed. That’s everything from tanks, artillery and aviation to cyber, space and information influencing how leaders use those tools.
In recent years, the Marine Corps established the Marine expeditionary force information group, or MIG, to handle information and its use and influence on MEF and subordinate unit operations.
The Corps also is slated to release a new doctrinal publication in the coming weeks specifically on information, according to the 2022 annual update to Force Design 2030.
The third lesson shows some of the biggest change the commandant has seen in his four decades ― the use of information, which always has been valuable but not as fast or shared as widely.
“But I’m watching this conflict unfold and the way that the Ukrainian civilians and military have used information in front of the adversary, in other words, at a faster pace earlier and at a faster cycle it seems like the Russians can’t quite catch up and get in front,” he said.
The Russians simply can’t keep up with the Ukrainians on the information front.
“This is the first time in my career where we have shared the volume of intelligence that we’ve had so openly and so quickly, for good reasons,” Berger said.
That needs to continue, the four-star said, especially with allies and partners when countering adversaries like Russia or China.
The information challenge is at the center of how the Corps’ force design focuses on reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance.
In a separate talk with media on Friday, Heckl along with Maj. Gen. Benjamin Watson and Maj. Gen. Eric Austin shared the role that sensing plays in that information environment.
Watson noted that the Corps historically had been slow in developing its own sensing capabilities, instead relying on other services to provide that.
“It’s a position we’d prefer not to be in, not to have that be the only option,” Watson said.
The expanding MQ-9 Reaper drone program is finally giving Marines a resident drone capability that they plan to adapt with new sensors and other equipment.
That should companion well with the Marines’ new role as ship killers.
“If we’ve got a missile that shoots 100 nautical miles, then we want a sensor, organic to us, that can find a target well beyond that,” Watson 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.