Expeditionary Forces and Sir Julian Corbett

Expeditionary Forces and Sir Julian Corbett

Daniel E. Ward

The future force of the U.S. military needs to be able to address multiple types of threats across the spectrum from conventional state warfare to low intensity conflict, including hybrid style operations which blend both approaches. Potential enemies include regional actors whom exercise near-peer strength regionally such as China and Russia; non-state actors who promote instability and take advantage of weak governance; as well as nations seeking local dominance against neighbors which could upset stability. To address these diverse issues with finite resources, the U.S. military needs to maintain a global presence; dominate locally in rapid fashion; be able to sustain stability operations for extended periods; and be able to concentrate forces to meet more robust threats. This means a restructuring of current and future force postures. Vice reinventing the wheel, strategists can apply ideals laid out by Sir Julian Corbett in 1911’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. A modern interpretation of a Corbett-based theory suggests forces which are deployed or dispersed to ‘patrol’ locally, with the capacity to concentrate when needed to address larger threats. Such control of the global commons allows for rapid shifts as needed, while providing stable, secure lines of communication. Expeditionary forces will be a mainstay of such a future force template to allow for dispersal and concentration as required across the spectrum of future conflicts.

Strategic planning must serve as a foundation for operational concepts. The importance of expeditionary force in the U.S. is not new, but by aligning it to Corbett’s principles we solidify a construct for long term engagement. In order to effectively plan for an uncertain future, strategists need to demonstrate an understanding of their nations’ vital interests, risks and vulnerabilities, and the capacity available to address threats and concerns while moving forward. Taking these ideas into account, one must look at the vastly diverse array of potential threats the U.S. may face across the realm of its global interests, and in turn organize and structure its forces to be well-placed to adequately deal with such potential conflicts. Colin Gray notes that “for many years to come American policy will require” the military to “control territory and people” while also being “able to take down hostile regimes” and “remain on the cutting edge…in regular warfare.” 1This certainly calls for a force structure that is adaptable and with a broad range of skill sets. Such a force can be efficiently employed with a foundation in expeditionary warfare. While often associated with amphibious operations, can the expeditionary model be modified in principle to give it a broader scheme of capacity, and if so, can it meet a broad range of objective? Linked to our Corbett-based theory, the answer is a definitive ‘yes’.

Expeditionary Forces and Corbett Theory

Before moving ahead, we must define what we mean by an expeditionary force in this context. Joint Operations, JP 3-0, defines an expeditionary force as “an armed force organized to achieve a specific objective in a foreign country.”1 This is too limited for our purposes. The same publication however describes force projection as “the ability to project the military instrument of national power from the United States or another theater, in response to requirements for military operations.”2 This is a much better working concept. If we further tie this to the requirements of General James Amos for a “strategically mobile force that is light enough to get to the crisis quickly, yet able to accomplish the mission or provide time and options prior to the arrival of additional forces”, we have a basis for the overall goal and structure of our future force layout.3 Through this reimaging of expeditionary forces, in essence we have reached back in time and brought Sir Julian Corbett’s maritime theories to the forefront and opened the door for conceptualizing his ideas in a more global and modern construct. We both control lines of communication across a globalized environment and use force projection to quickly address threats to those areas.

Corbett’s ideas focused on dispersal and concentration, using forces in an expeditionary role with the capacity for massing only as needed, vice seeking out large-scale battle. He noted that “command of the sea…means…control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes”4. These communications are the conduits for maritime traffic and transport, ideas which can be applied within other domains whether on land or in space or elsewhere. Corbett’s cruiser concept was his basis for controlling lines of communication; individual or small group of ships actively work within and around a critical area, both serving in an active reconnaissance role as well as enforcing local control over national interests. If the event of a surge in belligerent naval forces, these dispersed units converge and concentrate to address the existential threat. In the 21st century, with the global concerns of the U.S. tied to virtually every region of the world, such a cruiser concept could be used across domains; placing dispersed forces in critical areas for both immediate response and active information gathering while having the ability to converge for support if faced with larger threats. Corbett’s maritime theory described the “object of a naval concentration like that of strategic deployment” as the ability “to cover the widest possible area, and to preserve at the same time elastic cohesion, so as to secure rapid condensations of any two or more of the parts of the organism.”5 The primary need becomes identification of the lines of vital communication and associated chokepoints upon which to apply the cruiser concept. Vital areas are those which have a pressure point on U.S. interests, whether the South China Sea, the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb, the frontier between Russia and Europe, or even cyber conduits or staging areas for spacecraft. If such a dispersed range of areas are vital, we must explore how forces can apply the cruiser concept and controls lines of communication while being able to focus their capabilities when needed.

Future Force Modeling

To create an overall model for future forces, military planners and organizers must focus on the utility and multi-facet nature of forces in dynamic operations. This means smaller baseline units with specialized capability to deal with a certain node in the spectrum of conflict, which can be ‘assembled’ with other units into a more cohesive construct. In part, this idea is already in play with the USMC, as it returns to expeditionary roots. Taking a page from Corbett, the USMC has embraced “doctrine known as ‘operational maneuver from the sea’” in which one uses “the sea as an avenue for maneuvering against an operational-level objective” linked with principles of “high-readiness, mission specific and variable forces, capable of long-distance sustainment in operations.”6 Can this concept also be applied to land-based forces and others who need local positioning tied to quick response in vital chokepoints? In 2013, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno argued for just such a shift, noting future ground forces need to be “capable of rapidly deploying scalable force packages, with the smaller packages capable of rapidly reassembling into larger formations as required.”7 While these ideas may clash with traditional large-scale, conventional operations often favored by U.S. planners, applicable case studies exist at both ends of the conflict spectrum with partners and potential opponents.

In the near-peer realm, China’s military expansion into the expeditionary realm and its embracing of Corbett illustrates a broader application of these concepts. China is a global economic powerhouse with aggressive development in areas outside Asia. The Chinese, while not currently on par with the US in terms of naval power, have close geographic ties to the South China Sea region, and are developing their naval strength and shore side anti-ship capabilities. Chinese doctrine emphasizes a layered approach to defense, based on the various island chains in the western Pacific. This approach is also coupled with development of a nascent aircraft carrier program and ballistic submarines, in addition to it touted DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, a combination which U.S. Pacific Command has stated could “pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy and, may even “neutralize” it’s power projection capability.”8 While Chinese strategy seems to emphasize recognition of its regional capabilities, it is moving beyond this model and expanding its Corbett-like ideals in a nascent expeditionary fashion, using a cruiser concept to spread its focus to lines of communication elsewhere. China has established basing for the first time in Djibouti, Africa, and it regularly supports worldwide joint operations against piracy. These functions allow for a budding effort of projection with the capacity to mass forces in areas outside its traditional theater. As China continues its growth as a global power, its concerns and vital interests grow with it. While Chinese doctrine at the academic level may highlight blue water engagement in the template of Alfred Mahan, their actual force structure and deployment demonstrate a kinship closer to Corbett.

French military action in Mali during Operation Serval demonstrates an example on the lower order of conflict of how to model future forces in an expeditionary role which embraces the requirements as outlined by General Odierno. Elements used for success by the French in this theater were “sub-brigade modularity; relatively light armored vehicles that emphasize mobility over firepower; an institutional and command culture accustomed and suited to austerity; greater acceptance of risk.”9 Essentially land-based cruiser forces quickly and independently engaged locally, both when and where needed with minimal lead time. Mobility was a premium factor, with a doctrine that focused on quick coordination at lower levels of command to maintain constant pressure and initiative. In such an environment, “heavy forces that arrive after the war is over would be less than useful.”10 Questions arise as to the feasibility of deterring more capably equipped opponents; the answer lies in the concentration of forces model or the ability to out maneuver heavier forces.

In 2004, Joint Force Quarterly noted that “rapidly deployable, highly maneuverable ground forces that can leverage the effects of modern precision weaponry are integral to dynamic military operations against elusive enemies.”11 Such a focus yields to a need for “greater expeditionary logistics, armor, and fire support assets” which are “critical in future operations.”12 These optimizing of forces ideals seem to be an oft repeated refrain, and expeditionary concepts are not new. However, by applying a simple Corbett-like foundation, we can address the Achilles heel of such forces. Lighter and more mobile forces may arguably be challenged by conventional, state military forces. These units might even be less than capable in regional competition where locals hold an advantage in terms of logistics and resources. However, these concerns are predicated on judging individual units or cruisers as stand-alone elements. To counter these concerns, the Corbett concept has units pre-positioned along and among the varied axis of concern to predicate time-delay in response. And the element of force concentration allows for a assembling of forces into a more robust construct when needed. A key element becomes the capability of joint forces to join into a cohesive unit, which can only be done through dedicated training and planning, with senior leaders allowing local commanders a high degree of tactical and even operational autonomy.  

The Way Ahead

Due to the convergence or merging of conventional and irregular warfare into hybrid forms of conflict, “the future requirement will be for joint forces designed for multidimensional, expeditionary-style operations.”13 There is competition for finite resources and “an increasingly fluid international environment in which there is no overarching threat to focus its energies, but rather a variety of lesser but still intimidating challenges.”15 The U.S. needs to move towards smaller, more independent, forward deployed units on a rotational system which provide coverage of vital geographical areas and which operate with a practiced ability to mesh if faced with a more existential enemy. As noted by Andrew Krepinevich, the “United States must be prepared to project military power where it is needed and in a timely manner” which “requires the military to have access to the "global commons"—space, cyberspace, the skies, the seas, and undersea.”16 To control these commons, one should not be prepared to deploy, but should already occupy the chokepoints with enough force to mitigate local problems. As Corbett intimated over 100 years ago, “the fleet should spread out and focus on protecting shipping lanes, blockading supply routes, and generally menacing the enemy at as many locales as possible…much like how the Royal Navy policed the world’s oceans during the 1700 and 1800s.”17 Except now the concept is not simply a naval one, but one which should be applied within the other domains as well. This will lead to an arguable reevaluation of forces, and may not be taken in stride with conservative planners, but it will give the U.S. more flexibility and options in dealing with threats from local terrorism to full-scale warfare.


The 2015 National Military Strategy of the United States notes that “in this complex strategic security environment, the U.S. military does not have the luxury of focusing on one challenge to the exclusion of others” and “must provide a full range of military options.”18 The future holds uncertainty, but not completely unknowable quantities in the conflict equation. Issues must be dealt with quickly, decisively, and with regard for vital interests. Forces cannot remain static and in garrison, but must actively project power and patrol over large distances. This active role has traditionally been more commonplace in the maritime domain, but needs to be adopted by partnering services. In order to do so, forces must be expeditionary, and not just the USMC in its somewhat traditional role, but also ground and air forces, as well as units focused towards more abstract cyber and informational realms. How can this be accomplished? By looking back at previous concepts laid out by Corbett and tweaking them to the present. By applying his ideas, not necessarily the exact concepts, we can effectively employ cruisers across the globe, ready to deter and fight as needed, and with the ability to concentrate into a heavier fist if called upon to do so.

End Notes

1. Colin S. Gray. Another Bloody Century. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006, p.110.

2. Kevin Scott. Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0. Washington, DC: Joint Doctrine Division, 2017, p. GL-9.

3. Ibid.

4. James E. Amos. Expeditionary Force 21. Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2014, p. 5.

5. Julian S. Corbett. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. London, 1911, p. 42.

6. Ibid, p. 62.

7. D.J. Beaumont. Expeditionary Warfare and Military Operations Under a Maritime Strategy. Commonwealth of Australia, 2014, p. 24.

8. Michael Shurkin. “What it Means to Be Expeditionary”. Joint Forces Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3, p. 76-85. National Defense University, 2016, p. 77.

9. Leszek Buszynski. "The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry”. The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2, p. 139-156. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012, p. 147.

10. Michael Shurkin, p. 84.

11. Colin S. Gray, p. 203.

12. Christopher J. Bowie, Robert P. Haffa, Jr., and Robert E. Mullins. “Trends in Future Warfare”. Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 35, p. 129-133. Washington, DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2004, p. 131.

13. Brad Nicholson. Balancing Force Modernization and the Most Likely Future Wars We’ll Be Fighting. West Point, NY: Modern War Institute, 2017, p. 5.

14. Michael Evans. “From Kadesh to Kandahar: Military Theory and the Future of War”. Naval War College Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, p. 132-150, 2003, p. 142.

15. Hal Brands. The Promise and Pitfalls of Grand Strategy. Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2012, p. 46.

16. Andrew F. Krepinevich. 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2009, p. 288.

17. P.W. Singer. “Wired for War? Robots and Military Doctrine”. Joint Forces Quarterly, Vol. 52, p. 104-110. National Defense University, 2009, p. 108.

18. Martin Dempsey. The National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2015. Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2015, p. 3.

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Below are a few comments:

"French military action in Mali during Operation Serval demonstrates an example on the lower order of conflict of how to model future forces in an expeditionary role which embraces the requirements as outlined by General Odierno. Elements used for success by the French in this theater were “sub-brigade modularity; relatively light armored vehicles that emphasize mobility over firepower; an institutional and command culture accustomed and suited to austerity; greater acceptance of risk."

This is a fine example of "seizing the initiative" and "dominating", but the stabilizing and enabling activities were so unsuccessful, the operation transitioned completely to Barkhane and extended to five states in the Sahel. Barkhane began on 1 August 2014 and continues today. This is an example of military means not consolidating gains and enabling political ends. The MINUSMA mission is the most dangerous peacekeeeping mission in the world and the Malian government is a soap opera of turmoil and ineffective government penetration to an entire region of the country.

"The U.S. needs to move towards smaller, more independent, forward deployed units on a rotational system which provide coverage of vital geographical areas and which operate with a practiced ability to mesh if faced with a more existential enemy. As noted by Andrew Krepinevich, the “United States must be prepared to project military power where it is needed and in a timely manner” which “requires the military to have access to the "global commons"—space, cyberspace, the skies, the seas, and undersea."

One of our primary advantages is the ability to project power, which is why our adversaries have devoted so much time and resources to developing Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. This is a significant joint problem and has implications for successful joint operations. The "choke points" and other aspects of key terrain are likely inside IADS and EW coverage areas. This emboldens adversaries and allows coercive and protected activities in all domains.

“Russia has fielded the most modern integrated ground-based tactical air defense system on the planet. Russian air defense assets are capable of destroying enemy means of air attack throughout the range of altitudes: extremely low (up to 200 m), low (200–1000 m), medium (1000–4000 m), high (4000–12,000 m), and in the stratosphere (above 12,000 m), and at different flight speeds. These air defenses are designed to protect maneuver brigades from airstrikes and cruise missile.” –Les Grau

I would also argue the Army has shifted significantly to large-scale combat operations readiness and understanding it's crucial role as the land component of the joint force.