Small Wars Journal

Will the Marine Corps be Ready or Remain in the Starting Block?

Wed, 10/24/2018 - 12:09am

Will the Marine Corps be Ready or Stay in the Starting Block?

Dave Pinion

War will always remain a violent clash of wills as described by Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP-1); however advances in technology will soon shift the primary instruments that carry out the clash of wills from humans to automated systems. Up to this point, the fundamental purpose behind military technology has been to enable human cognition to employ weapons ever more effectively against the enemy.  In contrast, future military technology will be employed by artificial cognition in various forms against the enemy with humans somewhere in the loop.  Just as machine guns, chemical weapons, tanks, submarines and airplanes changed the character of war during World War One, disruptive technologies such as additive manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced robotics are changing the character of war as we know it.  Accordingly, if the Marine Corps is to remain a lethal and resilient force in the future, it must make radical changes to its programmed force and begin to confront the legal, moral, and technological issues that will accompany the development of emerging technology.

In lethal armed conflict, the growing availability of sensors and extended range of threat precision munitions indicate that the days of the infantry locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy by fire and close combat are likely coming to an end. Just as in naval combat, the battleship could and still can deliver more firepower faster than any other ship, however, it cannot get within range of other ships or land to deliver its devastating firepower due to the long range of anti-ship missiles. The battleship’s lack of range make it irrelevant in a naval fight and thus obsolete. Consequently, as the ranges of adversary reconnaissance and precision strike systems increase, the short range of direct fire weapons and the vehicles that carry them will become less and less useful and relevant.  The Marine Corps can have the most lethal infantry squad in the world, but if the squad cannot make it to the fight, then its superior lethality is irrelevant. The Senate Armed Services Committee has taken notice and is openly questioning the Marine Corps relevance in a South China Sea scenario given the currently programmed force

The shortfall does not end with the maximum effective range of weapon systems. There is a fundamental disconnect between the capabilities of emerging technology and current operational concepts.  Data analytics, sensor technology and precision strike systems will shift the advantage in warfare toward the defense much like a land version of the maritime anti-access/area denial conundrum. The hider/finder competition among combatants will likely become a striker/shielder competition. The defensive advantage will solidify the gains of those who are able to accomplish strategic surprise and present unprepared adversaries with a “fait accompli.” Without surprise, the adversary who moves first will likely be disadvantaged among a network of sensors and smart weapons systems.

As adversaries engage each other from ever increasing distances, future lethal armed conflict will likely find humans in roles that support and enable the maneuver of robotic and autonomous systems, many of which could be sent on one-way missions. The reason for this transition will not be to preserve valuable human lives, but because in a lethal contest between man and machine, human abilities will likely not survive. Much like the animals whose senses are not able to detect the threat of moving cars on a highway, humans in a combat zone will find it equally difficult to identify the variety of miniaturized sensors networked to the adversary kill chains.  This has profound implications for every aspect of how the Marine Corps organizes, equips, and trains.  Humans will still be in the lead for all competition short of lethal warfare, but when the shooting starts, humans will be too easily targeted.

Networked machine learning and AI means that adversary systems will no longer merely adapt between engagements but will likely do so during engagements, even during proxy wars. What defeats an enemy system now may not work an hour from now due to networked machine learning. A near instantaneous transfer of effective tactics, techniques and procedures will allow systems never before in combat to have the same experience as the most seasoned combat veteran in real time. If a human warfighter is seriously wounded or killed, it takes years to recruit, train and build the same level of experience, but a new autonomous system can be assembled and put into action at a fraction of the time and expense

Furthermore, the operating speed of future threat systems will eventually outpace and overwhelm human cognitive capabilities. Even enabled by artificial intelligence systems, the limited reaction times of humans competing against the growing efficiency and lethality of threat sensors and shooters will eventually render the human as a warfighting platform obsolete. As Gen. John Allen (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.) writes, “The speed of battle at the tactical end of the warfare spectrum will accelerate enormously, collapsing the decision-action cycle to fractions of a second, giving the decisive edge to the side with the more autonomous decision-action concurrency.” In this environment, autonomous systems provide a much higher teeth to tail ratio for operations which must take place inside the adversary weapons engagement zone. This has significant applicability to expeditionary advance base operations.

Challenges in the Development of Autonomous Systems

There is an effort among many in science and government around the world to ban lethal autonomous weapons.  There are however, also worldwide bans on the use of chemical weapons, yet rogue regimes where the U.S. is likely to intervene still employ them.  The U.S. will be negligent if autonomous capabilities are not developed with proper controls.  There is valid concern that lethal autonomous systems with the wrong parameters could mistake non-combatants for the enemy and create a catastrophe.  In addition, there are considerable moral, legal, and ethical aspects that need to be addressed in the development of lethal autonomous systems as well as other operational concerns such as:

  • How to introduce unmanned systems without becoming predictable or introducing a vulnerability?   
  • How much authority should be given to autonomous weapons to attack targets of opportunity in a communications denied environment?
  • Who is responsible in the event of a lethal autonomous mishap?
  • Should autonomous vehicles use force to defend themselves? What about strikes against preemptive threats?

Autonomous systems may be operating with different sensors and data sources than any of its human teammates, with different assumptions of the operational environment making its behavior unpredictable.

There are myriad of significant issues that will take some time to work through which is why the operational concepts, the accompanying technology, and the legal and ethical concerns need to be made a priority today.  

What is Known that Could Inform Future Procurement Strategies?  

There are enough indicators about the future operating environment and the pace of technological progress to effectively determine which systems under development will remain viable.  For example:

  • Large constellations of commercial cubesats are being launched which will provide uninterrupted observation of every part of the planet, including vast tracks of ocean for anyone who buys a subscription. This capability will allow adversaries to track the movement of every ship from the time it leaves ports in CONUS and has significant implications for forward deployed forces and the survivability of amphibious ships and the surface fleet.  
  • Future technology will make sensors more capable and weapons more precise and lethal.
  • The military procurement process will not keep pace with civilian technology.
  • The speed of weapon delivery and their associated effects will compress reaction times necessary for survivability.
  • The range of modern aircraft is insufficient to penetrate adversary’s defenses making the aircraft carrier, the aerial refueler, or the base of launch vulnerable to enemy attack.  
  • Everything that runs on electricity will likely be given some type of cognition and ability to communicate via the Internet of Things.  
  • The increased capability of adversary ISR and precision strike systems require increased dispersion which will degrade situational awareness.
  • “Smart” IEDs will be able to target only U.S. vehicles and personnel without affecting the local populous.
  • Physical victories will not be as decisive as years past due to persistent global ideological networks.
  • Extraordinary coordination will be required among all domains in order to successfully defeat the system of systems that will make up the modern defense.

There are many in depth studies on the future operating environment, a common theme of which is that the tsunami of future technology will make the current Cold War model of organization, equipment, and leadership obsolete. Senior leaders must determine if the aggregate of emerging technologies heralds a change in the character of future conflicts and develop innovative operational concepts and procurement strategies accordingly. 

By continuing investment in platforms that only marginally improve legacy capabilities like the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, the Landing Craft Utility (LCU), or CH-53K among others, the Marine Corps is missing a fleeting opportunity to design a credible, survivable force based on what is known of the future operating environment.

Historical Context

We have missed historic opportunities to modernize before. In 1921, the World War I German battleship Ostfriesland was sunk off the coast of Virginia by Marine, Navy, and Army aircraft in a live fire experiment that heralded a new era in the character of naval warfare. The sinking of the Ostfriesland exposed the battleship’s vulnerability from the air but failed to dissuade the Navy’s reverence for the battleship in favor of the aircraft carrier until World War Two decisively settled the issue. Japanese admirals however, remained proponents of the battleship throughout the war despite their success with carrier air power at Pearl Harbor and the use of aircraft to sink the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse at the beginning of World War II. Fortunately for the United States, Japanese admirals failed to see how new technology had changed the battlefield and remained proponents of the battleship throughout the war.

The Way Forward

1. Update the Marine Operating Concept (MOC).  The MOC should be updated to incorporate directives from the National Defense Strategy and provide clear (classified and unclassified) guidance to all operational and functional concepts on how future operations will employ emerging technology as well as establish budgetary priorities toward their development. A robust experimentation schedule should be directed to validate the operational approach described in the update. Given the time it takes to develop robust systems, we need to look past 2025 if we are to effectively incorporate emerging technology that counters future threats. In the near term (5 to 10 years), AI can be used to automate processes, communicate across stove piped data systems, and shorten decision cycles that consume most staffs. In the long term (11 to 25 years), the Marine Corps should seek to develop AI and autonomous platforms which can accomplish missions in the future operating environment where humans would not survive.

2. Stop incremental improvements of existing systems.  Investment should be focused instead on emerging technology that will have a much higher return on investment. The majority of capabilities currently being procured are mere incremental improvements of 20th century capabilities that will be operationally obsolete long before the equipment wears out. Planned obsolescence must be incorporated into procurement strategies. The opportunity costs for investing in expensive legacy capabilities is unacceptably high given our strategic competitors are outspending the U.S. 1000 to 1 on emerging technology.  Senior leaders have the opportunity to make a generational leap in capability rather than a single step. Much like the debate in the 1930’s about replacing the horse with mechanized assets, leadership should focus on the capability desired and not the platforms they know and love. Leadership must resist the temptation to employ new technology in the manner of legacy capabilities akin to using motorized assets to deliver fresh horses to the battle instead of replacing the horse altogether. The challenge is to achieve an acceptable level of programmatic and operational risk while making this leap.

3. Restart the process for identifying future threats and capability gaps. The process to identify future threats and prevent strategic surprise needs to be reinvigorated. Within the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the Futures Assessment Division has been disbanded and Marine Corps Intelligence Activity analysis only looks 10 years into the future. The now defunct Support for Strategic Analysis process once provided detailed scenarios of how we would fight in future years, but it is no longer producing (or updating) mid- and far-term scenarios from which to discern those Joint capabilities and capacities required to defeat future threats or to explore future concepts. Operation plans by themselves are insufficient for depicting future environments for analyses as they are largely based on near term threats pitted against programmed U.S. and multi-national forces and rely on different assumptions. Significant analyses, wargames, and simulations based on future scenarios can provide insight to the impact that emerging technology will have on air, land, sea and cyber capabilities and what will be needed to be successful in the future. Analysis based on future threat technology should feed into a roadmap that critically examines at what point current tactics and programmed equipment are no longer survivable or relevant, and whether are they worth continued investment.

4. Make Artificial Intelligence a program of record. An AI program of record is needed to implement solutions to problems across the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities (DOTMLPF) spectrum. There are many commercial solutions fully operational and already in use with various government agencies and parts of the U.S. Army. AI has tremendous cost savings in terms of money and manpower where AI solutions are implemented. Accreditation needs to be made a priority. Unlike the fielding of traditional software procurements which are pushed out as a one size fits all group, individual commanders could request innovative AI solutions for their specific problems in accordance with the service AI strategy or guidance in the updated Marine Operating Concept. The requests would be routed to the AI implementation panel at Deputy Commandant for Information which would chair a panel that evaluates and prioritizes requests, and implementation is then paid for by AI program funds. This model would transform the Marine Corps into a more efficient, innovative, and lethal organization.    

In a race against adversaries to develop and incorporate emerging technology into viable operating concepts, the Marine Corps is still in the starting blocks. There are many obstacles to progress, among which are internal politics, the acquisition culture/paradigms, the hesitancy to upset programs of record and our penchant for honoring the sunk costs of traditional power projection platforms. The majority of the programmed force doubles down on legacy capabilities with new versions of old equipment. Disruptive technology should be prioritized and programmed for with a service level strategy to guide investments; not treated as a collateral duty as it is now. There is technology that can be used to improve and sustain our current operations in the near term, and technology that will completely disrupt the Marine Corps operational model in the long term. As an institution, we must be positioned to recognize and capitalize on both. If we fail to recognize and incorporate disruptive technology; efficient, well executed leadership of an obsolete operating paradigm will only hasten our organizational defeat.  

The pace of global commercial technology development cannot be stopped, so the question is whether the Marine Corps will change in order to capitalize on emerging technology, or if change will be forced on us in catastrophic ways. As MCDP 1 so wisely states, “It is important to understand which aspects of war are likely to change and which are not. We must stay abreast of the process of change for the belligerent who first exploits a development in the art and science of war gains a significant advantage. If we are ignorant of the changing face of war, we will find ourselves unequal to its challenges.”


Categories: Marine Corps

About the Author(s)

LtCol Dave Pinion, Ph.D, is a military faculty advisor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and author of the book, Do Good and Fear No Man.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government.