Loren Thompson - U.S. Marine Corps Retools Strategy As Tech Threats Mushroom

The U.S. Marine Corps is postured for the past rather than the future. That's the conclusion its top leaders came to after a year-long review of how the threats Marines face are changing and what the Corps must do to adapt.

Eventually, these divergent trends will put Marines at a disadvantage in fighting the nation's wars. The other military services face a similar challenge, but because the Marines are America's first responders in overseas crises, they are likely to be early casualties of the chronic under-investment in new technology. Here is how the Corps describes its central problem in a recent revision of the Marine Operating Concept:

The Marine Corps is not organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.

This is not the way the Marines used to talk about challenges. The traditional message has been that the Marine Corps is almost infinitely adaptable, able to improvise and prevail no matter how austere the circumstances. But the appearance of new information technologies in the hands of foreign adversaries clearly has it worried. As my colleague Daniel Goure puts it, there aren't any low-end threats anymore -- even rag-tag extremists have smart phones, drones, GPS jammers and lethal anti-armor weapons.

So the Marine Corps has to change. This week I sat down with Lieutenant General Robert S. Walsh, the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration, to discuss where his service is headed. Walsh is dual-hatted as head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and thus has the lead for developing future warfighting doctrine, requirements and training concepts.

Walsh says that "we are nearing completion of an extremely exacting capabilities-based review that identified several critical gaps that must be addressed in order to fight and win against highly capable adversaries." Among other things, the review found a need for more sophisticated information warfare capabilities; additional unmanned aircraft systems; active protection of combat vehicles; and better expeditionary defenses against airborne and ballistic threats.

The good news is that the Marines have sustained their investment in the unique MV-22 tilt-rotor and stealthy F-35B fighter, both of which are capable of landing on a dime pretty much anywhere rather than requiring air strips. The ability to combine the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and reach of a fixed-wing plane is already delivering big operational dividends to the Corps in terms of flexibility and versatility.

But everywhere else that Walsh looks, he sees problems that need to be fixed. For instance, the minimum number of amphibious warships needed to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades is 38, and at the moment the Navy only operates 31. If current shipbuilding plans aren't changed, the service won't have what it needs until 2034. There's plenty of shipbuilding capacity for building additional ships sooner and the cost is not high -- a couple of days worth of federal spending at present rates -- but Congress has capped defense spending.

Without adequate resources, the Marine Corps has been forced to fund readiness while neglecting modernization. But now, Gen. Walsh says, "We've got to start modernizing -- we aren't postured for the future fight."

The Marines are not abandoning their traditional emphasis on maneuver warfare or individual initiative. If anything, the new warfighting environment will require small units to exercise even more autonomy and initiative as they operate in widely dispersed operations. So leadership training down to the most junior officer will be crucial to future success. But it is no longer enough to maneuver effectively at sea, on the ground, and in the air. The Marine Corps must also learn to maneuver on the electromagnetic spectrum.

That's where the sensors, smart weapons and networks that increasingly define modern warfare operate. If Marines can't dominate the spectrum, then their communications will be jammed, their emissions will make them vulnerable to targeting, and they may even be denied access to GPS. Enemies will use non-kinetic weapons like cyber attacks to take down systems that the Marines count on to multiply their effectiveness.

So information warfare has become central to Marine planning. The service has already shifted 6,000-7,000 Marines into information specialties to cope with the various assaults enemies may launch on the electromagnetic spectrum. That's a big commitment in an organization that currently numbers only 182,000 uniformed warfighters. But all the other requisites of modern warfare like long-range fires and armored warfare must also be serviced, so some increase in personnel will be needed just to keep the Marine Corps abreast of emerging threats.

It's unusual to hear Marines like Gen. Walsh talking about information warfare. The historic ethos of the Marine Corps was always about the human elements of war, and the importance of esprit in overcoming material obstacles. But there's just so far those values can get you when the enemy is able to track your formations, target your combat systems and disrupt your command links. So now the Marine Corps must adapt its most cherished principles to a world in which the worst actors may have the latest technology.