Small Wars Journal

Exchanging Hats to Fix the Military Part 3: DIME Navy, COIN “Ultralight” Marines

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 8:01am

Exchanging Hats to Fix the Military Part 3: DIME Navy, COIN “Ultralight” Marines

Michael Gladius

When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they explicitly gave Congress the mission of maintaining (instead of merely raising) a Navy in Article I, Section 8. Thanks to North America’s geography, our nation has the continental size and resources of other historical great powers like China or Russia, but possesses the geographic security enjoyed by island nations like Japan or Great Britain. Thus, any potential invader (apart from Canada and Mexico) must possess a substantial navy of its own in order to successfully bring the war to our soil. Even an airborne invasion would fail without a navy to resupply the invaders. A strong navy, therefore, is America’s first line of defense against conventional threats. Since 71% of Earth is covered in water, America must also rely on her navy in order to project power abroad.

In this essay, we will discuss how the Navy and Marines can play a unique and necessary role in America’s 21st-Century security. The Navy will straddle both conventional and unconventional conflicts at sea, hand over all brown-water missions, and become the primary institution for nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Marines will become America’s dedicated COIN Force and transfer the mission of conventional amphibious warfare over to the Army. These roles and missions don’t have a start and end date like the Army’s, and so will require a different sort of leadership.

Conventional Warfare

Two subjects must be addressed in any discussion about the Navy in a conventional war: their geostrategic deployment and the interplay between doctrine, missions, and ship designs. The first issue relies heavily on political action, and the Navy will often be an instrument of political willpower before and after hostilities. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Navy’s geostrategic deployment innately involves and utilizes all four elements of DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic) power to their fullest. For example, it will decide whether a theater requires forward deployment of forces, or quick-response forces deployed from the rear. Geostrategic deployment also affects how the Navy will interact with other services, post- hat exchange: COIN will have very different requirements from conventional warfare, and expeditionary forces will have different requirements from continental armies.[i] The Navy’s geostrategic deployment is the main reason why it should trade away its riverine/brown-water gunboats. These will be better integrated into Army, Marine, and Coast Guard formations,[ii] as brown-water roles are much more closely tied to regional ground and/or unconventional operations, rather than global force projection. Unlike the proposed conventional/unconventional divide between the Army and Marines, the divide between the Navy and Coast Guard will be between global offensive/regional defensive tasks. One less mission for the Navy will allow it to spend more of its finite resources on global power projection, while the brown-water platforms themselves will be integrated into the same chain of command as the units with whom they will normally interact on deployment.

Because of its closeness to DIME, it is in the Navy’s best interests to play the long game when it comes to budgets, deployments, and ship construction. A long-term political solution could improve the Navy’s funding by ensuring it doesn’t fluctuate each year. Instead, Congress could agree on finite, flat spending plans lasting 5-10 years at a time. When drafting a new budget, the Navy would plan 5+ years down the road, and develop a detailed, to-the-penny roadmap. Congress would then allot a fixed amount of money each year for the next 5+ years, with mandatory sunset provisions built in. If the Navy goes over its own budget, there will be no changes in spending until the agreed-upon set of years is completed. Cost overruns will be paid for out of pocket by the responsible culprits, no differently from if a car mechanic damages a vehicle he’s working on, and mandating[iii] rigorous and thorough financial planning before approval will ease auditing. This reform is intended to tread a middle line between reigning in out-of-control defense spending and ensuring that spending doesn’t fluctuate too quickly, thus creating anxiety for the military and industry alike. If there’s enough time to do it twice under the current system, then there’s enough to do it correctly the first time under a less-frenzied system. Instead of comparatively hasty annual plans, the Navy will have 5-10 years at a time to refine their goals and iron out any wrinkles before submitting their plans to Congress. The Navy and Congress could furthermore stagger smaller, more focused spending plans instead of relying on omnibus bills, and if the Navy is not buying ships it can shift the bulk of its funding towards research and testing. Flat spending provides benefits similar to those of a flat tax, and multi-year spending blocks would pair nicely with anti-monopoly campaigns to prevent price-gouging by industry. In short, the entire basis of the existing system must be reformed to both demand and reward methodical long-term thinkers.

Adapting doctrine, ship designs, and organization for maximum flexibility is another long-term process, due to the time required for development and construction. Ships take time to build, and are hard to reactivate (particularly training crews) after they have been demobilized. The navy will have four main missions at sea in a conventional context: protecting convoys, hit-and-run slashing attacks, slugfests, and forward ballistic missile defense (STRATCOM would handle rearward missile defense, as we will discuss later in the essay). Due to the wide variety of possible missions at sea, the Navy must be as versatile as a Swiss Army knife, and therefore should minimax individual platforms. Minimaxing is preferable in both research and combined-arms warfare because specialized platforms push the envelope of what is possible more often than general-purpose platforms. In turn, raising the bar on specialized platforms allows greater flexibility in designing effective multiroles, and also reduces the amount of time and costs required to complete development cycles. During periods when the navy is not purchasing ships, narrowing the scope of individual research projects will enable more of them to take place simultaneously, and for less cost per project.

Unfortunately, niche capabilities such as minesweeping, sealift, floating repair docks, or convoy escort ships can readily be cast aside in favor of general-purpose ships during peacetime and/or low budgets, and America therefore needs a long-term solution to retain the ships and training. One option to retain niche capabilities could come through collaboration between the Navy and the Coast Guard: the two branches could jointly develop any number of dual-purpose ships that can be used for the Coast Guard’s specific needs, while also fulfilling the Navy’s niche needs. For example, shallow-draft patrol boats/speedboats are useful for policing and patrolling in littorals, but can be used in asymmetric naval warfare if they can carry missiles or minelaying/minesweeping equipment. Alternatively, new Coast Guard cutters could be designed to double as corvettes or frigates which can provide convoy escorts. Modern hull designs are already modular, and so the Coast Guard and Navy can each improve their own niche component designs separately, using the modular hull as a reference to ensure cross-compatibility. After that, it’s merely an issue of retrofitting. Since the Coast Guard could use these small ships when the Navy doesn’t, crucial ships will remain in production/service when America is either not at war or when neither service is researching new equipment modules.

These dual-purpose ships would also benefit the Navy Reserve, which could potentially allow sailors to support the Coast Guard’s activities once per month for credit (similar to this article’s idea for medics), so long as they are actually aboard these particular ships at sea. By allowing sailors to get credit for spending their off-duty time aboard ships doing actual work at sea, the Navy Reserve would have the luxury to shift its focus onto truly Navy-exclusive training/exercises, while the sailors themselves would keep their skills sharpened and grow accustomed to working alongside the Coast Guard. Sharing an office/workspace/ship with other branches is imperative for Joint Operations, and this (along with experimental units) is easier done with reservists than active-duty, due to the ease of concentrating everything into one or two bases/locations. The Reservists will be crucial for a conventional war against a peer opponent, and must therefore not be neglected, nor their potential underappreciated.

A future conventional war would likely take place far from American shores, even against a peer opponent. America’s Navy would attempt to blockade an enemy’s ports to target not only their merchant fleets, but also to inhibit air transport/air mobility and provide forward ballistic missile defenses. The air and sea battles together will form a seamless, 3-dimensional whole on the surface, shoreline, airspace, and ocean depths. All participating assets, therefore, must be organically integrated into the Navy’s chain of command to prevent bifurcation. The goal will be to apply political-economic pressure onto an enemy and to make the cost of waging war too high to sustain. This strategy takes inspiration from both Corbett’s and Mahan’s theories, and treats them as companion pieces to one another; two sides of the same coin. Such a strategy, however, requires much more political involvement than would be the case with the Army, on top of being an inherently time-consuming process. A simple blockade alone will involve all four aspects of DIME, and require that they be integrated, rather than segregated, functions. Faced with this political-military reality, and the Navy’s preference in the Constitution over the Army, the Navy/Marines should therefore be the most political branch out of all the military.[iv] War is politics by any other means, and using the Navy as the primary conduit for DIME reflects America’s maritime relationship to the rest of the world.

If a blockade and political pressure fail, an enemy has two main options below the nuclear threshold: Attempt to defeat America’s Navy and reopen the ports, or to build overland substitutes, as China is attempting with its “Belt and Road” Initiative. If the enemy relies on overland routes, the blockade must be accompanied by political effort to deny freedom of maneuver overland, particularly if it passes through neutral countries. If the enemy’s Navy sails out to fight, America’s Navy will likely be forced to fight against an enemy fleet supported by land-based missile batteries and air support. The challenges will be very similar to those in the Falklands War, but much larger in scale. Just as antitank missiles benefitted infantry against tanks, ship-killing missiles (and drones) now allow smaller ships and land-based batteries to threaten capital ships. The threat of missile attacks (both conventional and nuclear), submarines, and drone swarms will require the Navy to increase the number of screen ships dually armed with long-range/rapid-fire weaponry capable of defeating or suppressing these threats, and keep their capital ships in reserve. Effectively, the roles have reversed from the early 20th Century: capital ships now play a supporting role to the screen ships.

Doctrinally, this scenario would be best handled by establishing a type of Surface Action Group (SAG) dedicated to screen ship tasks: anti-ballistic missile/aircraft/drone/submarine warfare, EW-Cyberwarfare, and minesweepers. We’ll call it an “Anti-Area Denial SAG” (AADSAG). An AADSAG would not require carriers, but would utilize destroyers, drones, minesweepers, and either frigates or cruisers. Due to the limited magazine capacities of smaller ships, individual craft would only carry a single missile type (anti-air, anti-ballistic missile, hypersonic, etc.) and the mix-and-match approach (along with modular ship designs) would provide natural combined-arms warfare which can readily be tailored to the particular mission/circumstances.[v] Both destroyers and cruisers/frigates should each have at least a pair of Phalanx CIWSs per ship[vi] in order to supplement their missiles, as these can double as a weapon to ward off both drone and small boat swarms. The destroyers would carry anti-submarine weaponry, while the cruisers/frigates would carry EW/Cyberwarfare equipment. All ships would carry mission-appropriate drones.

An AADSAG would be a low-cost formation of small, fast, low-tonnage ships armed with anti-weaponry, whose primary role would be to sweep aside anything other than a surface fleet. The low cost and size means that multiple AADSAGs could be deployed all at once in the same theater, where they would provide an early-warning screen for the main fleet, but would avoid engaging enemy fleets themselves. That initial clash would fall to a second screen (deployment in depth is always desirable when possible) of similar ship composition, but this time equipped with a wider variety of missile types to engage naval and air assets. This second screen would be called a “Screen-Reconnaissance SAG” (SRSAG), and contain more ships than an AADSAG (and possibly submarines). The SRSAG would skirmish and exchange initial blows with an enemy fleet, and would be able to defeat some smaller navies on its own. AADSAGs/SRSAGs could also be useful in waging and countering asymmetric naval warfare, thanks to their low profile, strong offensive capabilities, minelaying/sweeping assets, and speed.

Both AADSAGs and SRSAGs could employ drones in lieu of manned aircraft, allowing carriers to be held in reserve for striking decisive knockout blows. Since they use the same ships, but different missile/armament types, then a SRSAG could potentially perform both AADSAG and SRSAG duties in situations where freedom of maneuver is limited, such as the Straits of Malacca or Hormuz, and both of them can provide forward ballistic missile defense where appropriate. Screen ships are cheaper and faster to build, and missiles enable them to punch above their weight; therefore, self-reliant SAGs comprised of these will be necessary in a prolonged war.

Despite playing a supporting role, capital ships are still important in conventional warfare due to their ability to engage multiple opponents simultaneously. They are, however, expensive to build and maintain, especially supercarriers. For the missile (and future railgun) age, a second, cheaper capital ship should be developed alongside carriers: Missile Battlecruisers. Dr. James Holmes makes a compelling case for consolidating our precious aircraft carriers into battle groups instead of strike groups, and Missile Battlecruisers could fill any gaps created by this move. These would be much bigger than missile cruisers (in order to maximize their magazine capacity), have multiple launchers to allow launching one of every missile type simultaneously, and be nuclear-powered to retain high mobility. Their missiles should not use vertical launchers, since they cannot be resupplied at sea, but could use standard shipping containers instead. Battlecruisers would also bristle with Phalanx CIWSs and Bofors 40mm AA guns to defend against incoming attacks, and carry armed drones. Their nuclear engines would provide plentiful electricity for EW equipment, lasers, railguns, and allow them to serve as a cyberwarfare network hub in the same manner as the F-35. Battlecruisers can thus provide a relatively cheap, but powerful, area-denial capital ship containing numerous long-range offensive and defensive weapons platforms.

Once a blockade of an enemy’s ports, shoreline, and airspace is established, the navy will have great freedom of maneuver, strategically speaking. An enemy who does not surrender when blockaded may force America to mount an invasion if non-military options fail, at which point the Navy will task more assets to providing fire support to land forces and escorts to supply convoys (forward ballistic missile defense will remain unchanged). There are two types of amphibious invasions, which will be referred to as “archipelago” and “continental.” The distinction is one of scale, revolving around whether the defender has sufficient room to build a defense in depth and/or disperse his forces. For instance, the Philippines are an archipelago, but their individual islands are large enough to array a defense in depth. Any invasion would require multiple divisions on both sides in order to capture and/or defend them. Therefore, a conventional invasion of the Philippines would be defined as a continental invasion. The artificial islands in the South China Sea, on the other hand, are too small to build a proper defense in depth, and occupying them would be defined as an archipelago invasion.

An archipelago invasion (ARCHINV) would likely be launched to eliminate airfields and small, dispersed missile batteries built on small islands. Without the ability to be defended in depth, these islands are useful for little more than artillery/air pads, and thus will play a supporting role in a wider defense network. They cannot survive for long without a friendly navy to support and resupply them.

To eliminate these, three methods are available, based on time and importance. For islands that are relatively isolated/unimportant, and the mission is not time-sensitive, a simple naval blockade can cut off all resupply and compel the defenders to surrender out of hunger. If the island is more integrated into a defensive network, then the Army or Marine Raiders will be assigned to reduce it, based on whether the island is worth occupying. Time-sensitivity will depend mostly on political factors and naval activity such as the imminent arrival of a naval relief force to the island.

If the Island is not worth occupying, then either a barrage of missiles or a raid by Marine Raiders will suffice. Marine Raiders would be specially-trained in infiltration via submarines, and focus on destroying an enemy’s aircraft or artillery. Such tactics will be reminiscent of the raid on Makin Island in 1942. Once the enemy on the island has no capacity to threaten the fleet from afar, the Raiders will vanish back into the sea, leaving the impotent island to be blockaded. The Raiders themselves would be divided between demolition experts and SAW gunners (for emergencies), wear the enemy’s uniforms (and be trained in his languages), and normally operate at squad size (~12 men). The current Marine Raiders Regiment would remain organizationally the same, and would merely add specialization to each of its existing battalions: 1st Battalion would train for hot climates, 2nd for cold, and 3rd for urban terrain. All raiders would attend mountain warfare school, since mountains can be found in all climates. Not only would using Raiders free up SEALs to focus on their niche roles, but the Raiders could provide backup/security for the SEALs to prevent another “Lone Survivor” scenario.[vii] This combo (along with the Marines embracing COIN overall) would effectively make Special Operations Command (SOCOM) obsolete, while consolidating all relevant assets under a single chain of command. More on this later.

If the Island is worth occupying, then the Army will be tasked with the occupation. A missile barrage can soften up the island’s defenses,[viii] followed by a rapid air assault backed by Close Air Support (CAS). Helicopters are much faster than armored amphibious vehicles, and are not limited to landing on good beaches. If the tree cover is dense, then fast-roping can remove the need to land the choppers. To counter MANPADS, the choppers’ speed, door gunners, and supporting CAS/Naval fire support will be crucial for suppression while unloading the troops. Once on the ground, the deployed light infantry will capture the island speedily, using mortars, direct-fire weapons like the Carl Gustav, and heavy machine guns as their own organic artillery. Without the ability to organize a defense in depth, the defender will have few options to slow the attackers or protect his heavy artillery. Pockets may hold out for longer, but a cohesive defense (and, more importantly, the long-range weapons) will fall quickly. In the odd chance it doesn’t, the Navy can increase its suppressive barrage while Army brings in reinforcements, unopposed, using their own ships, LCACs, or choppers. Once the Army has captured the island, it will then set up its own artillery to support the Navy, and be equally reliant upon the Navy to protect the island from being retaken.

A continental invasion (CONTINV) would be launched anywhere an opponent can deploy a defense in depth. This sort of invasion would be the responsibility of the Army, and would not involve WWII-style beach assaults. Thanks to antitank missiles, even the speediest of armored amphibious transports would be sitting ducks in the water, and not sturdy enough to survive hits. If the enemy defends the beach, a thin screen of concealed infantry armed with antitank rockets and heavy machine guns firing Armor-Piercing rounds could destroy numerous transports in the water and on land before anybody can dismount (the machine guns would also tear apart the infantry who do dismount). This is before factoring in the use of underwater obstacles and mines, which a peer opponent would use liberally.  If the enemy doesn’t contest the beach, or has its screen withdraw after disrupting the landing, as Japan did in 1944-45, then they will be in a position to either grind down American forces as they advance inland, or even counterattack and push them into the sea. Amphibious landing craft are still important for logistical reasons, but are no longer a viable option for making opposed landings.[ix]


Image Source: Orange County Register

The modern method of making a continental amphibious landing would resemble the recapture of Corregidor in 1945: airborne/airmobile forces, combined with infiltration and unopposed landings. Infiltration retains the advantage of surprise, while airborne/airmobile forces retain the advantage of speed. Dismounted LRS units can locate the enemy’s heavy guns before the opening barrage of GR-AMM[x] begins, and would pair nicely with sniper platoons and/or Special Forces conducting Unconventional Warfare (UW). Airborne troops would land in an opponent’s strategic depths to disrupt reinforcements, while airmobile units would be free to land anywhere they please in proximity to the beach. They can land already deployed in depth, fast-rope in difficult terrain, and roll up an enemy’s beach defenses (if any) from behind. If there are no beach defenses, then they can neutralize any surviving heavy guns or begin tactical exploitation. Once they have linked up with the beach, the army’s own ships alongside the Navy’s unarmored amphibious transports can ferry heavy infantry and armor to shore to begin operational exploitation.

CONTINVs will be entirely an Army affair, due to the numbers necessary for success against a peer opponent. Traditional amphibious landings are simply too slow and too costly for the 21st century, and the Marines are too few in number to do this alone. As an example, the Battle of Okinawa (466 square miles) required 7 divisions, larger than the entire Marine Corps combined, and invading a larger landmass would require even greater manpower (think Operation Overlord). The Army is not incapable of amphibious warfare, and has in fact played a major role in every significant landing apart from Iwo Jima.[xi] Not only will the Army need to make a successful landing, but must rapidly exploit and break out from the coast in order to prevent the enemy from constricting their freedom of maneuver. As soon as the troops hit the beaches, the battle becomes a continental war, in which the Navy is no longer the star player. This strategy relies on speed, and therefore placing all elements under Army command will reduce friction within the chain of command. Artificially forcing Army and Marine commands together into the same battle will not add any measurable advantage. While the elite Marine Raiders can still be useful for raids on islands which will not be occupied, switching the majority of Marine units to airmobile light infantry would cause an identity crisis by making them redundant/interchangeable with Army units. This puts the Corps at risk, as Congress may then simply reassign their units to Army command (effectively abolishing the Corps) or disband them for the sake of cost-effectiveness. Attempting to relive the glory days of WWII amphibious warfare won’t make the Marines relevant, but switching to COIN will.

Unconventional Warfare

America does not have a dedicated COIN Force, even after 18 years of war in Afghanistan. In the early days of the invasion, Special Operations Forces (SOF) were utilized as a stopgap measure since most other military units were not equipped or trained appropriately. Using SOF was also seen as a way to avoid looking like an occupying army and to let the Afghans liberate their own country. Ever since then, SOF have been grossly misused as little more than SWAT teams, and are now deployed in over 100 countries across the globe. Transforming the Marine Corps into America’s COIN force would end this abuse (allowing SOCOM to be disbanded), address a decades-old institutional gap, make the Marines truly distinct from the Army, and allow SOF to return to their original purpose in waging UW.

This change would not lead to a conflict in culture between the Marines and Navy. Maritime power has no start or end date like conventional land wars do, and counterinsurgencies easily last decades. As mentioned previously, it is in the Navy’s self-interest to have a culture that plays the long game, and COIN would be conducive to the Marines adopting the same. Wherever America’s long-term interests lie, naval power will always be necessary to get there and to sustain whatever is already there. Maritime power’s connections to DIME power will be also crucial in COIN. Doctrinally, some theorists argue that COIN is the graduate level of warfare, while others believe conventional warfare is. Both sides can agree, however, that each requires a different sort of leadership. Thus, separating COIN and conventional missions between two branches of the military makes institutional sense. The Navy’s fleets, and Marine Raiders, will play a limited role in continental land wars but will be constantly engaged in global politics to keep problems far from our shores (and themselves out of garrison duty). Adopting a formal COIN Force would also ensure that the military doesn’t continue the schizophrenic back-and-forth between conventional and unconventional warfare that we’ve all grown accustomed to.

Assigning the Marines to COIN permanently would require three radical changes to America’s counterinsurgency mentality. First, the fallacy of decapitation strikes must be dropped. Second, the role of Gendarmes must take precedence over SOF. Third, Marine divisions would be organized, manned, and run completely differently from Army divisions.

The cornerstones of COIN are:

  • Political reform
  • Gendarmes
  • Intelligence
  • Border security
  • Hunting guerrillas into extinction

Political reform is necessary because maintaining the status quo is an inherently reactive strategy. This does not mean turning every nation into a mini-America, but rather leaving a country more internally unified than when we arrived. In Vietnam, the Americans supported popular land reforms. Other options include redrawing borders to merge or divide nations. If an insurgency is indigenous, then our partners will need to resolve their own internal problems in order to accomplish any long-term goals. If the insurgency comes from foreigners and foreign influences, then they will have already tailored their plans to specifically defeat the status quo. Thus, improving a nation’s internal unity faster than an opponent can sow division allows us to choose our own battles and force the enemy onto the defensive. An underappreciated resource for this is communities-in-exile. Communities such as the Cubans, Vietnamese, or Iranians long to return to their ancestral homelands and already have some degree of political/cultural organization friendly to the USA. These organizations could thus be transplanted in the aftermath of regime changes to prevent power vacuums, so long as they fully integrate existing political dissidents and organic resistance movements. Proactive Political Reform necessarily requires strategic-political foresight and a shared vision among both the political and military actors. Without this foresight and long-term planning, we will repeat our mistakes from the breakup of Yugoslavia, where the international community tried to force hostile camps to live together, and then passively stood aside and watched while genocide was committed.

This change in mentality also relates to the second point: prioritizing Gendarmes over Special Forces. America currently does not have Gendarmes, but these will be indispensable in COIN for numerous reasons. Gendarmes straddle the worlds of politics, intelligence-gathering, and military force. Using them as the centerpiece to COIN strategy ensures unity of vision, especially when organically integrated into military forces (usually light infantry[xii]). This is in contrast to Special Forces, whose primary purpose is intelligence-gathering and UW. Gendarmes are simply more versatile for DIME; a melting pot of seeming contradictions. On the moral level, Gendarmes are far more palatable than political officers or commissars when it comes to blending war and politics in the grey zone. On the physical level, Gendarmes possess the training necessary to police areas contested by guerrillas or other paramilitary forces such as drug gangs. Anything too challenging for gendarmes can be handled by saturating the region with light infantry, who possess the numbers, mobility, and firepower to beat the guerrillas at their own game and overwhelm them with relentless pressure. Any region sufficiently pacified to not require gendarmes can be transferred to regular host nation police forces. Most host/partner nations will require gendarmes of their own to continue the fight after America leaves, and some political reforms could be introduced/leveraged through their training programs. Communities-in-exile are prime recruitment grounds for gendarmes in their home countries as they share the benefits of indigenous proxies, but with greater political reliability. They can serve as a pro-American Praetorian Guard during regime changes, and those who don’t become gendarmes can organize permanent institutions to rebuild their homelands that do not vanish when America leaves. Institutionally, gendarmes would provide a permanent space for non-lethal weapons development and employment, and would be exclusive to the new Marine Corps, giving them a new source of pride in their uniqueness.

Gendarmes are also useful in that they can operate in the interior while Special Forces and light forces secure the border.[xiii] In both Vietnam and the Middle East, enemy guerrillas used international borders to escape American forces, and future opponents will likely use this tactic as well. Before policing and political activity, a COIN force will need to prioritize sealing the border and prevent any crossings or escapes. Placing American troops on the borders can demonstrate America’s commitment to protecting a nation’s sovereignty, as well as providing advanced warning to forces deployed in the interior. In the early stages of a counterinsurgency, light forces should deploy en masse along the border to encircle large regions and impede enemy forces’ ability to maneuver. This is only an option in the beginning of the campaign, but in later stages a lure-them-in strategy can bait enemies on the other side of the border into traps. Gendarmes can support border security if the interior is sufficiently pacified, while Special Forces can operate on the opposite side of the border as necessary. A porous border is a guerrilla’s friend; a sealed border is a death trap.

The point of sealing a border and saturating guerrilla-held regions with light infantry and gendarmes is to systematically destroy the guerrillas’ capacity to fight or maneuver, and to keep them constantly on the back foot. The idea of “decapitation” as a strategy to defeat insurgencies is still highly popular, but has been utterly unsuccessful. While individual assassinations may be successfully executed, the larger goal of dissolving an insurgency through them has yet to be realized. This is because the logic behind decapitation strikes necessarily presumes two things:

  • That the target is irreplaceable, and
  • That the organization is centrally controlled to the point where it cannot function without him/her.

For dispersed, decentralized opponents, the strategy simply does not work. A more accurate model would be taken from hunting: In the wild, alpha males monopolize females and hoard resources from other males. Sport hunting saves endangered species from extinction by targeting the alpha males, allowing the beta males a shot at reproduction and a more equal sharing of the alpha’s loot. Translated into COIN, this means that killing local strongmen merely clears the way for the men beneath them to fight each other for the empty seat. Instead of crumbling, the organization fractures into smaller organizations dominated by aggressive young men eager for a fight. Instead of “every guerrilla killed creates two more,” a better proverb would say “every guerrilla leader killed creates two more.”

So how, then, can insurgencies be defeated militarily? The answer comes from the British Army in Malaya/Burma, who issued a standing order that all guerrilla bands were to be hunted into extinction, even if it meant crossing the border. Assassinating leaders doesn’t break an insurgency, but repeatedly annihilating their units will. Unlike a nation-state, guerrillas don’t have vast pools of recruitment or entire economies to support them. Their resources are finite, and when nobody ever returns from a mission they therefore suffer proportionately more than the state would. Nor is this only a physical problem: insurgents’ credibility drops when they can’t win anything, but everybody still dies. The counterargument that focusing on annihilating guerrilla bands will only cause resentment among the locals is also fallacious. Most of America’s Communist or Islamist opponents are not popular with the locals, since they rely on threats, intimidation, and drug smuggling to keep their revolutions going. Tribes like the Pashtun, whose codes of honor require violence to avenge their honor even if their own members were in the wrong, respect overwhelming, ruthless strength more than fairness. If their war bands return bloodied but intact, they can always return for another fight. If they are wiped out completely, then they must choose between fighting to extinction or humiliation. Afghan generals who give orders to take no prisoners are wildly popular with their troops and the locals, politically dependable, and also the most effective fighters against the Taliban. This unapologetic ruthlessness was also seen in the Montagnards during the Vietnam War. This is not to suggest that surgical methods have no place in COIN, but to assert that they are capstones, not cornerstones. Nobody likes to fight for the side that always gets killed to the last man, and those that do generally don’t last very long.

The classical solution to an insurgency is to saturate the contested region with light infantry. These would relentlessly patrol in squad- and platoon-sized units (although company-sized may be necessary in certain areas), and use a mixture of mobile and ranger tactics to match and overwhelm the insurgents in combat.


Carrying less than 40 lbs. per man, they can easily match the guerrilla’s mobility on foot, but can also take advantage of helicopters and even draft animals. America successfully used platoon-scale pacification tactics in Vietnam through the Aero Rifle Platoons and the Combined Action Companies (CACO), and should use these as starting points for a COIN Force. Combined Action companies succeeded in developing good relations with villagers and in bolstering morale for the Vietnamese Popular Forces (i.e., pro-government militias), while Aero Rifle Platoons provided a versatile Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for patrols not engaged in the villages. The main drawback of the traditional methods is how manpower-intensive they are. It’s not uncommon to require a 20-to-1 numerical superiority to wage COIN, and this is one reason why SOF continue to be seen as a more cost-effective solution. Unfortunately, the image of a cost-effective solution is at odds with reality, and so the traditional methods are still the only viable options for now (especially if sealing long stretches of border is a top priority). Recruiting among communities-in-exile could potentially reduce the need for Coalition troops, however.

With this in mind, Marine Divisions will necessarily look and feel radically different from Army divisions. To begin with, they will need to be much larger, in order to have sufficient manpower for patrolling, minesweeping/counter-IEDs, and policing. The Marines may benefit from using the Pentomic Division structure, which was useless for conventional combat but would provide ample manpower/space for COIN’s three combat components (light infantry, gendarmes, and SOF).


1960 Pentomic Division Structure

Since COIN is a war of platoons, battalion-level maneuvers and above are less common, and so the inherent unwieldiness of the pentomic structure will pose less of a problem. Under this model, each Marine division would have 5 “Legions,” one of Gendarmes and four of heliborne Marine light infantry. Exiled community recruits would be organized into separate units (likely battalion-size) to avoid dilution; these units would then be attached to existing Marine legions as the campaign necessitates. A division’s Marine SOF (i.e., Marine Recon), and the division’s brown-water gunboats (enough to make at least 1 Legion riverine), would each be a separate battalion not permanently attached to any Legion, and the Marine Raiders will remain in their regiment independent from the rifle divisions.


Proposed model, showing combat units only. Logistical and HQ units deliberately omitted due to merger with Naval Logistics units. Headquarters and Service units will contain primarily warrant officers.

Each Gendarme/Light Legion would contain 3-5 battalions of either heliborne or L-ATV mounted infantry, but only the gendarme battalions would possess separate weapons companies. The division’s snipers and non-lethal weaponry would be placed into these gendarme weapons companies’ orders of battle, and Marine SOF (both Recon and Raiders) will supply its own snipers. Each light infantry company would possess its own organic mortar platoon[xiv] in lieu of a weapons platoon, and all direct-fire weapons (particularly SMAWs and LMGs) will be integrated directly into the rifle platoons, effectively making them into permanent reinforced platoons. Each platoon (both rifle and gendarme) would have at least a squad of minesweepers/EOD techs apiece to allow constant clearing operations.

Despite being more numerous (around 25 battalions!), the per-capita equipment requirements of the division will be smaller, and its teeth-to-tail ratio will be more austere. Light infantry normally only carry handheld weapons, and rely on light mortars and snipers instead of towed artillery. Gendarmes and SOF will also carry only handheld weaponry, and the Marine Raiders will share a common pool of equipment with the Navy SEALs. These formations can all make use of obsolete equipment, particularly aircraft and brown-water craft, since they are not fighting against opponents with technological parity or extensive A2AD.[xv] Switching to light, propeller-driven attack aircraft might even end the Marine Corps’ obsession with accident-prone V/STOL jump jets, which coincidentally is one of the biggest design flaws of the F-35. The Marines could merge their Logistics Groups with the Navy’s Beach Groups to avoid duplication of effort in resupply. Doing away with amphibious command ships and relying instead primarily (if not exclusively) on Wasp-class LHDs and CH-53s would shed much unnecessary equipment and free up manpower for other tasks. Marine LHDs will remain in port under most circumstances, saving billions in fuel costs. The proven Wasp-Class LHDs would also provide an easily-referenced logistical ceiling to ensure that Marines don’t become overburdened- if it doesn’t fit, redesign or leave it behind.

In terms of administration, the Marines will rely on long-term deployments and assignments. Marine Divisions can be assigned to individual geographic combatant commands,[xvi] and tasked to study (and even produce original research on) all cultures contained within. When a battalion is assigned a series of villages in a county/province, the men will stay for the longest possible duration, in order to become a familiar, friendly face to the locals. Gendarmes will not be cycled in and out constantly, but will take their time to develop long-term relationships with partner nations. In terms of training, Marine training will incorporate language and cultural etiquette from day one, depending on to which combatant command they will ultimately be assigned. The Navy already possesses the necessary resources, and their programs should be expanded and consolidated to allow Naval/Marine personnel to study under the same roof: for example, relocating the Marine Raiders from Camp Lejeune to NAB Coronado to share an office/barracks with the SEALs. Existing SOF resources on COIN can be readily transferred over to the Marines’ curriculum, and Marine Raiders/SEALs can utilize these “lessons learned” and clever tricks from past guerrilla movements to improve and innovate when executing raids on an enemy’s A2AD platforms in a conventional war. Secure in the knowledge that COIN isn’t going anywhere, the Marines can rest easy, knowing they won’t become a second, redundant Army.

The Navy’s Nuclear Role

Assigning the majority of nuclear missions to the Navy would not be a pointless exchange of hats. Nuclear weapons are inherently offensive (as opposed to anti-weapon) weaponry, and their use is equally a political act as a military one. Since the case has already been made in favor of using the Navy/Marines as the primary branch for DIME power, this aligns organically with strategic nuclear weapons usage. The navy already possesses a portion of America’s strategic nuclear weapons in the form of its SSBNs, and nobody has ever proposed that these are misaligned with the Navy’s mission. If nuclear weapons are never used, then the submarines and aircraft/supercarriers are still useful below the nuclear threshold. Blue-Water Navies are inherently offensive, global, strategic-minded institutions; our Navy’s internal culture will be a natural fit for nukes. This move would also allow STRATCOM to refocus its efforts onto the fledgling Space Force and America’s geostrategic defenses.

Tactical nukes would be shared among the Army and Navy, with the Army retaining its tactical nuclear artillery, and the Navy using its smaller surface ships to launch tactical nukes like the W76-2 (submarines would be reserved solely for strategic missiles). Development of missile battlecruisers could potentially allow launching both tactical and strategic nukes off of a single surface vessel, in the same manner that nuclear submarines already can. All strategic nukes, both submarine- and air-deployed, will be given to the Navy.

If America wishes to retain Global Precision Strike in its arsenal, then the Navy is a much more appropriate candidate branch than the Air Force or STRATCOM. As mentioned in Part 2, Air Power alone cannot win wars, and the Air Force/STRATCOM are leftovers from a pre-1940s way of thinking which revolves around the notion that they can. Prior to WWII, theorists suggested that Airpower was superdominant, and that strategic bombing could compel an enemy to surrender without needing an army or navy (a similar idea in this same period believed the same about tanks’ ability to operate without infantry or artillery support- it was also a bad idea). The experience in WWII proved to be the opposite, and the costs were high: America alone lost 45,520 airmen KIA and 41,057 became POWs. After the war, the Army Air Corps was split away to become the Air Force, under the mentality that NATO ground forces in Western Europe could not hope to defeat the Soviets conventionally. Under the “New Look” of 1953 and Eisenhower’s one-dimensional Massive Retaliation doctrine,[xvii] ground forces were relegated to the status of a tripwire, and it was believed that only an overwhelming wave of nuclear bombing could stop the Warsaw Pact. The Air Force alone, independently of other services, could strike deep into the USSR’s interior, decapitating crucial nodes and annihilating Soviet Armies with precise, devastating nuclear strikes all at once. With the Army assumed to be unable to drive back the Soviets, and the Soviet Navy outmatched by the Anglo-American fleets, an independent Air Force would thus become the primary strategic counteroffensive arm. The idea of placing these assets under Naval command, which already possessed strategic assets like bases and carriers, was not considered for ideological reasons,[xviii] and the Navy had to fight to keep its own aircraft from being transferred to the new branch in the infamous “Revolt of the Admirals.”[xix]

The development of missiles and precision-guided munitions made this decapitation/obliteration argument more compelling, but ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword. Improvements in antiaircraft guns, ABMs, and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) allowed ground forces to keep up with improvements in aircraft, thus shifting the balance in the opposite direction from what was expected. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Egyptian Army (a mediocre force at best) used missiles to devastating effect against the Israeli Air Force, destroying 102 of their aircraft (half of whom were lost in the first 3 days) and 1000 of their tanks. In the 1990s, the Serbs used SAMs far more effectively, and shot down an F-117. In Ukraine’s 2014 war, Russian Air Defense platforms shot Ukraine’s Air Force out of its own airspace. These trends suggest that the 1940s-era decoupling of airpower from ground/surface formations leads to bifurcation in command, duplication of effort, extra friction, and unnecessary losses in precious airmen. Strategic bombing was a failure, and tactical airpower wasn’t; this has not changed in the past 80 years. Global precision strike is a useful tool, but it has many of the same strengths and limitations as snipers; it is not a substitute for conventional power. It has the disadvantage of relying on a few expensive platforms which cannot readily be scaled up and are hard to quickly replace. The current Air Force simply cannot afford to sustain the losses which must be expected in a conventional war, particularly against a serious opponent, like Russia or China, fighting for national survival. AirLand Battle/Multidomain Operations doctrine furthermore affirms the need to weave air and ground/naval power into a seamless whole, which directly contradicts the current technology-based divide. It is also due to missiles that the Army is no longer a mere Nuclear Tripwire, and neglecting the Artillery Army in favor of relying solely on Global Precision Strike will lead to many more Task Force Smiths.

Faced with this reality, it would be better to assign all Offensive Global/Strategic missions (including Global Precision Strike) to the Navy, while giving STRATCOM all Defensive Global/Strategic missions. STRATCOM would thus acquire the “lean and mean” Air Force for Air Supremacy (a mission which doesn’t have clear distinguishing lines between offense and defense), Ballistic Missile Defense of American Soil, the Space Force, and would keep its existing Joint Functional Commands with some adjustments. Offensive assets ought to be organically integrated into a single chain of command,[xx] but redundancy is extremely useful in the defense (particularly with anti-weaponry). All branches should have the ability to shield themselves from incoming attacks without relying on another branch, as nobody likes playing the babysitter. This would also allow each branch to custom-tailor their anti-weapon platforms, which will drive innovations that the other branches can then copy. If the Army/Navy can protect their own assets, then STRATCOM can protect everything else (particularly civilian targets) with undivided attention. Anti-weaponry platforms are usually much cheaper to mass-produce than the offensive weapons they counter, and so issuing them out like candy will not bankrupt the nation. For STRATCOM, and Ballistic Missile Defense in particular, 5-10 year spending block plans like those discussed earlier could potentially rein in costs of cutting-edge anti-weaponry technologies and avoid panicky, we-need-this-5-political-minutes-ago development cycles.

From a political point of view, moving our nuclear assets out to sea also removes them from American soil. If an enemy wishes to fight nukes with nukes, then the detonations will be out at sea or on foreign soil, not our own. Placing large quantities of anti-weaponry platforms directly on American soil is a strong deterrent to direct attack, and the large existing storage facilities would allow liberal use of ABMs without the fear of depleting stocks. The advantages of arraying mobile, forward-based naval missile defense and STRATCOM-directed home defenses in depth would be politically palatable, and would make 5+ year spending block plans/reforms more appealing to elected decision-makers.

From a military point of view, the Navy’s SSBNs are preferable to the Air Force’s ICBM silos because they can move, and can do so while remaining concealed. Submarines reveal their location when they open fire, as all platforms do, but ICBM silos’ locations are public knowledge, and therefore easier to target in advance. Submarines can maneuver throughout the oceans and launch nuclear strikes from unexpected directions, whereas static launch pads’ trajectories are predictable. Nor are SSBNs at a range disadvantage to ICBMs, as the Trident II missile can fire 7,000-12,000 km, and can launch from a location thousands of kilometers closer to an opponent’s territory. The inability to move has other problems besides strategic mobility. Silos rely on their construction to survive hits, but advancements in bunker-busting technology (likely mounted on hypersonic missiles) may negate their defenses. Static launchers negatively affect internal discipline, as hours of idleness and passive monitoring lowers morale, leading to an above-average court-martial rate compared to the rest of the Air Force. A better use for such static defenses (should we retain them) would be by STRATCOM or the National Guard for Ballistic Missile defense, now that America has purchased Israel’s Iron Dome System. Even better would be to convert them into testing grounds for bunker buster munitions or into Urban/Tunnel Warfare schools for the Army. The latter options would be even more lucrative for the northwestern states’ economies than the current system, and their location would be a good replica of the central Asian steppes’ geography and winter climate.

Aircraft-deployed nuclear weapons share the advantage of mobility as SSBNs, but not nearly to the same degree. Nuclear bombers cannot carry 24-40 high-yield weapons apiece, nor can they be powered by nuclear reactors. As a result, their payloads and ranges are inherently more limited. This can be slightly extended by LRSOs,[xxi] but stealth is harder to achieve on aircraft than on submersibles (and even more so on tankers for refueling). Therefore, it is not fallacious to conclude that the submarine’s usefulness has surpassed that of the bomber, and that air-delivery should be considered a secondary option after the submarine option. Compared to land- and air-based alternatives, SSBNs have much better reliability and have no unique weaknesses. Therefore, America could easily move to a Strategic Nuclear Diad of bombers and submarines, both of which are organically integrated into the Navy, and save billions in maintenance costs.

Finally, the Navy should become the primary nuclear branch because it can utilize the technology in both weapons and propulsion. Unlike the Army and Air Force, the Navy can power its heavy vessels with nuclear reactors instead of relying solely on conventional fuel (try doing that in a tank or fighter jet!). However, nuclear power aboard ships could have a secondary use: the Fischer-Tropsch Process. The Fischer-Tropsch Process produces synthetic oil/fuel from Carbon Monoxide, and could potentially harvest Carbon from any organic material in the air, land, or sea. The process operates at higher temperatures (150-300oC) well within the temperature range of most nuclear reactors, allowing waste heat to be recycled. If individual reactors are somehow insufficient, then they can be connected. By using this process, the Navy could synthesize conventional fuel while at sea, reducing their dependence on vulnerable tankers. Supercarriers could someday create fuel for their planes, and floating repair docks could synthesize fuel for smaller ships. Land-based naval nuclear reactors, particularly those on foreign shores, could use the much-safer Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR) to produce electricity and synthetic fuel since Thorium is abundant in coal ash and safer to transport than Uranium. Pairing existing naval nuclear power with synthetic fuel production would mean fewer convoys to guard, longer range and loiter times, and less reliance on foreign oil supplies. All three will benefit America in the long run, and allow consolidated research in useful techniques like nuclear fuel reclamation and recycling of waste products.


While some may argue that exchanging hats is a solution in search of a problem, it is the least-invasive way to reform the military. America’s military definitely needs reform: the Army occupies an awkward middle ground between counterinsurgency and conventional warfare, the Navy needs to rebuild after the post-Cold War drawdown, the Marines only recently have stopped banking everything on EFVs, and the Air Force’s bombing campaigns continue to fail despite possessing unchallenged air supremacy. There are too many high-ranking officers, too little time spent preparing them, and constant talk of a toxic work environment reminiscent of the Pentagon Wars. Rather than a “Bridge to Nowhere,” rearranging assets calls into question every assumption of the status quo, but without throwing away useful hardware or personnel. After all, doesn’t everybody want to keep their jobs and collect their retirement packages? If today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions, then rearranging assets allows us to end initiatives that have passed their expiration date without humiliating anybody or causing them to lose face; an upgrade, not an abolition.[xxii]

These reforms are ultimately about a change in mentality from technology-based to mission-based. The Navy’s mission is inherently global/offensive, and so having two institutions (three if you count STRATCOM separately) working on one mission makes less sense than having one institution per mission, with all contributing elements organically integrated accordingly. On the other extreme, America still does not have an institution dedicated to COIN missions, but two institutions each spending half of their efforts on it (and their other halves on conventional warfare). All of these divisions are due to a “technology first, ideas second” mindset that dates from the 1940s, which leads to each institution thinking it’s the star player because it alone (supposedly) has the indispensable tool to assure victory: The Navy thinks it’s #1 because it carries our armies abroad, the Army thinks it’s #1 because it puts boots on the ground, and the Air Force thinks it’s #1 because of how important Air Supremacy is. This conscription-era system is also the source of “Up or Out” promotions, which create a conveyer belt for vertical talent and leaves no place for the horizontal talent necessary for Modern Combined-Arms Warfare. Joint Operations and the Military Reformers of the 1980s were a response to this flawed setup, but their successes only treated the symptoms. The current setup is not sacrosanct, and rearranging assets can fix many if its flaws without firing anybody. There is no shortage of missions available, and organizing/orienting our institutions around them instead of hardware guarantees institutional longevity as the tools to accomplish said missions are constantly changing but the missions are not. Thus, rearranging assets is like a chiropractor that removes dogmatic knots and loosens stiff tissue, increasing the institutional body’s flexibility, strength, and spryness.

End Notes

[i] Expeditionary Forces are best-suited to limited wars or geographically restrictive areas. They are ill-suited for vast terrain or wars with unlimited goals.

[ii] Likely consolidated at the division level, since they will be akin to LRS and/or truck convoys

[iii] Failure to comply will result in a court-martial

[iv] The Navy can also boast of being the last branch to be segregated by race, and the first to be desegregated, both of which carry a lot of political weight in this day and age.

[v] Whichever missile type is more likely to be employed will be placed onto the larger ships to ensure ample supply

[vi] One at the bow and one at the stern would allow 360o protection

[vii] A 12-man squad of raiders in this scenario could have guarded the prisoners/ORP, carried extra radios/EW equipment, or provided extra firepower with their SAW guns.

[viii] Hopefully hitting ammo/fuel dumps in the process

[ix] If America is not facing a conventional opponent, then they can’t oppose an amphibious landing, making armored transports moot.

[x] Guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles

[xi] The Army played an unusually minor role in this battle

[xii] These can be heliborne, horse-mounted, or dismounted.

[xiii] The Marines could collaborate with the Border Patrol to train/develop doctrine, and possibly provide a career pipeline for ex-marines in the Border Patrol

[xiv] The ideal ratio is one mortar per squad, minimum. 60 mm mortars would be a good fit for this ratio, while 81 mm and larger would be added on top for increased firepower.

[xv] and any losses in obsolete equipment isn’t a big deal

[xvi] SOFCOM will be eliminated, not replaced. Marine Divisions will be tasked to certain geographic/cultural Commands.

[xvii] Eisenhower later changed his mind and supported the Kennedy Administrations’ “Flexible Response” Doctrine, encouraging its use in Laos during the early 1960s.

[xviii] Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson articulated this mentality best: “There's no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We'll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”

[xix] The Korean War also played a major role in saving the Navy and Army, as the Air Force could not replace ground and naval forces.

[xx] This could also be used to justify making the Army a COIN force, and assigning all conventional missions to the Marines, but this is very unlikely.

[xxi] Gravity-dropped bombs are outdated and needlessly endanger the crew

[xxii] Men who inflexibly cling to dogmatic arrangements are, more often than not, insecure about their authority. This contrasts sharply to men who were willing to sacrifice their lucrative pay and risk dismissal to do what they believed was right.

About the Author(s)

Michael Gladius is the pseudonym for a budding commentator in the fields of military history and theory. His goal is to blend the lessons of history, principles of human behavior, and practical wisdom in order to draw upon a wide array of factors for optimized solutions and problem-solving. He is currently studying in Europe.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 7:31am

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The author presents ideas that are definitely worth considering.  The USMC as the primary COIN, and even the primary SOF, element would allow the Army to focus on "big/ conventional war" scenarios, which many Army leaders seem to prefer.  Eliminating the USAF and restructuring them into the Space Force (vs standing up a new organization), while turning over strategic air efforts to the Navy and tactical air efforts to the Army ought to be looked at as well.