No Bended Knee
By Julian Tsukano and Jeremy Kofsky
“The Bended Knee is not a tradition of the Marine Corps.”
-General Alexander Vandergrift
General Vandergrift could not have been more succinct to the U.S. Senate on May 6, 1946, when giving his now famous Bended Knee speech. He must have dutifully recalled the very horrors, difficulties, and triumphs that became Operation Watchtower at Guadalcanal. This essay will seek to lay the argument that in the next war in the Pacific, the ability of the Marine Corps alongside the US Navy, to control critical sea lanes via small craft will be critical to victory much like the Patrol Boat was to the many amphibious operations in World War II.
As the ground forces commander on Guadalcanal, MajGen Vandergrift held sway as the landing force commander. His challenges were many, to include enemy composition, support from Naval Forces, and logistics. These issues paled in comparison to the overall demonstrative task to quickly land amphibious forces and reconstitute upon completion of the battle in order to move to the next objective. The Patrol Boat solved many of these critical problems of securing key sea lanes and keeping Imperial Japanese cruisers and destroyers off balance in order enable the amphibious landings at Guadalcanal.
The criticality of the Patrol Boat was violently apparent in the days after the successful Guadalcanal landings, when the Japanese were able to sink, damage, and scatter the critically important Naval Vessels supporting the Marine amphibious forces ashore. It was the remaining Patrol Boats that harassed Japanese forces buying critical time and decision space that enabled the landing force Commander, MajGen Vandergrift the opportunity to successfully execute operations ashore. In the next war in the Pacific, we will have a need for a similar platform, able to move small platoon sized elements rapidly through the narrow waterways and shallow waters of Malaysia, Philippines, and the islands of the South Pacific.
Such a platform exists in the SAFE Boats International Mark VI patrol boat. Able to carry a total of 18 embarked personnel and a wide array of sensors and weapon systems to include guided/unguided missiles, the Mark VI solves a maneuver challenge in and around the threat rings from Chinese weapons systems arrayed throughout the Pacific. Relatively inexpensive, easy to maintain, and currently bristling with a wide-array of electronic capabilities the MARK VI and its variants may just prove as important to supporting Naval Forces as the Patrol Boat of World War II.
Old Solutions to New Problems
The 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) and Force Design 2030 lay out a stark challenge for the current and future generation of maritime warriors. The “proliferation of advanced precision long-range fires, mines, and other smart weapons” and the requirement to operate within the adversary’s Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) forces new and innovative tactics, techniques, and procedures to be formulated and tested to provide the best possible Courses of Actions (COAs) to the commander. Any COA recommended needs to meet some key criteria to meet the core edicts of Force Design 2030 and the spirit of the CPG; namely:
1) The Navy/Marine Corps team needs to, in an integrated fashion, “operate inside an adversary’s long-range precision fire WEZ … [as they] are more operationally relevant than (outside forces needing to maneuver inward)”.
2) “Range and operational reach matters in the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility.”
3) “Mobility inside the WEZ is a competitive advantage and an operational imperative.”
While these operational realities impose certain limitations on possible COAs, the use of key Marine Corps concepts allows for possible solutions to the new operating environment, specifically decentralized command and amphibious/expeditionary operations coupled with better technology and equipment. The continued increase of Naval/Marine Corps integration at the various operational and tactical levels of operations affords new options previously tabled in favor of more “joint” employment options. The inclusion of the Mark VI, with a defined and tested Command and Control (C2) organization, expeditionary logistical mindset, and historical tactics and strategy offers a way forward to meet the intent of both the CPG and Force Design 2030.
Right Time, Right Equipment
The Mark VI is currently on the fiscal chopping block as the U.S. Navy seeks to divest itself towards other projects more in line with its current strategy in a peer/near-peer conflict. The current date of decommissioning for the current 12 Mark VIs is September 2021. During the Surface Navy Association’s 2021 Virtual Symposium, it was noted not only was the Mark VI being decommissioned but also the Cyclone Coastal Patrol Craft, creating a major deficiency in terms of riverine and coastal operations, similar to those experienced at Guadalcanal in 1941. This leaves a gap in coverage the Marine Corps, in concert with its Navy brethren, can fill in terms of getting the Marine Corps to operate in line with its expeditionary roots.
The Marine Corps should seek to not only take on but expand this program to meet noted deficiencies in operating within the WEZ in a contested environment before and during armed conflict. The current cost of the Mark VI is approximately $15 million per vessel. While this may seem like a steep fiscal price for the use of these physically small boats, new ways of control, sustainment, and implementation can provide them with an extended service life and a more capable Marine Corps able to operate with the WEZ and to be a deterrent to adversary actions in major operational theatres.
While the Mark VI program has been hampered operationally by a lack of massing units, it has provided a quality Course of Action in terms of operational Command and Control and blending in Navy and Marine Corps structures to create a truly integrated team concept. Navy/Marine Corps Task Forces such as TF 51/5 have shown that fully integrated Navy and Marine Corps operational and administrative chains of command can work in harmonious concert with each other to achieve combined operational objectives. Given the relatively similar makeups in the staff systems (a Navy N-1 (Administration) is analogous to a Marine Corps S-1) and the fact combined staffs all the way down to the platoon/shop level have proven success, creating Mark VI squadrons for every U.S. Navy Fleet would allow for a robust support package.
This support package at the Fleet level would allow for more coverage of limited conflict areas, thereby freeing up larger ships to take over more strenuous missions, provide a capable expeditionary asset to support Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations (EABO) within the WEZ, and provide a riverine assault/screening force in the event of a large scale conventional operation (LSCO). Using both Navy and Marine Corps operations, intelligence, logistical, and communications personnel would serve to create a truly blended team capable of operating successful in all nautical environments, specifically the blue, green, and brown waters. As each Mark VI could carry up to a reinforced platoon of specially trained Marines and accompanying Naval personnel, this would add a tremendous capability to the Fleet Commander’s arsenal.
As with any new platform the service should be rightfully concerned about the logistical sustainment tail associated with the Mark VI. Due to its relatively shallow draft and low overall signature, the Mark VI can and should make use of lightly supported port facilities typically found in remote areas throughout the Pacific region, the fjords of Scandinavia, and the riverine basins of South America. Such a logistical network is not without significant precedence. During the early 20th Century, the British Empire was able to maintain reach throughout the British Commonwealth by way of Coaling Stations in the Pacific. These Coaling Stations provided fuel, ammunition, and light maintenance capability to the British Empire’s blue water Navy. Lightly guarded and in significant numbers that the loss of a few stations would not impact the British Empire’s naval reach. These Coaling Stations were so well planned and supported that many would later become critical trading hubs and subsequently major economic sites in their own right. For example, Singapore was once a sleepy backwater Coaling Station and is now the regions greatest economic power per Capita.
Alongside the return of the Coaling Station concept, the Mark VI will be able to use the many hundreds of Commercial Ports that dot the Pacific region to great effect and without significant investment. The Mark VI is well known to be a craft able to be repaired underway and when appropriate pier side in a shallow draft port facility. With the correct mission occupation specialty Marines aboard, the maintenance of the wide array of technical systems can be supported and where unable to dotting the modern Coaling Stations with the appropriate repair parts with further enable to underway repairs (Mission Occupation Specialty is used since the Marines would have multiple traditional Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs) to suit the needs of the overall mission).
Given the ability to redesign and the relatively small logistical footprint of a Mark VI, given most of its parts can be procured from local vendors, and appropriately certified culinary specialists can enable provisions off the local economy via butchery and/or health inspection verification, the Mark VI crew could bound between several port areas in its assigned Area of Interest. This highly maneuverable force would be able to provide a harder target to adversary forces in the outset of conflict and would belay the true numbers and intentions of the Mark VI squadrons. Combining the use of on-hand logistics and supply specialists and the use of both the techniques subscribed to in “Cocaine Logistics” and “Logistics Sleeper Cells,” the Mark VI crew would be theoretically self-sustaining for months on end, which would be critical in a peer/near-peer conflict.
Mission Meets the Boat
The CPG lines out the need for Commander's Intent and the ability to operate within the WEZ. The Mark VI, with a cross-trained crew in riverine, mechanical, infantry, and logistical/communication areas, could provide the necessary early distractions and screening capabilities/operations to ensure the larger Expeditionary forces have time to marshal and move towards their objectives. The Mark VI squadrons would operate with set orders of pre-approved targets within their areas of operations. At the outset of hostilities, the detachment commanders would seek, through their organic intelligence assets, to refine their targets and carry out operations, independent of the larger Fleet construct. This operational parameter exists in the case of loss of overall communication and works to provide an ability to still operate within the overall Fleet battle plan. Having the ability to make independent decisions, while working within an overall strategy, would enable commanders to exercise initiative and exploit gaps in the enemy’s plans/logistical underbelly.
The Mark VI is a robust, capable platform with some organizational and implementation flaws. By making changes in how it is deployed, tasked, and commanded, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps can take a perceived liability and transform it into a critical asset to support the overall aims of Naval and Marine Corps strategy, specifically support to EABO and operations within the WEZ. Allowing more directly supporting logistics and utilizing new ways of carrying out operations will further expand the lethality of the Mark VI and ensure it holds a new-found appreciation within the Navy/Marine Corps team.