All the services in one way or another are exploring and adopting their practices into a more holistic “multi-domain” approach.

In a future fight against a near-peer competitor, the decision cycle will be significantly tighter than years’ past. Forces will have to seamlessly incorporate effects in all five domains of war; land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.

While the Marine Corps is working in conjunction with the Army on the emerging concept of multi-domain battle ― an update to the Army’s air-land battle concept ― the Marines are also working to, as the commandant said, get back to their naval roots as it applies to littoral operations.

Last year, the Marines introduced the Marine Corps Operating Concept, which described a service unprepared to face a peer adversary in the year 2025, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said Sept. 20 at the Modern Day Marine expo in Quantico, Virginia.

One item that was addressed in the concept was how the service can better work with Navy shipmates as part of naval integration, Neller said.

As such, he noted that Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, wanted a concept that talks about how Marines will operate within the future battle space as part of a naval force in a maritime campaign.

The end result: “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment,” a document released in mid-2017.

While the document doesn’t present any new ideas for an informed audience, Neller noted that it has to be put into the context of the fight during the previous 16 years. “We’ve been fighting a sustained land campaign ashore,” he said, adding that the focus of the Marines, the Army and Special Operations Command has been to go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, conduct a stability operation, and repeat.

“We didn’t have to fight to get to the fight. We just went,” he said. “We haven’t had to fight to get to the fight since World War II.”

Now the Marines need to be able to fight and win in contested environments, a process that involves fighting just to get to the battle space; adversaries will use shore-to-sea missiles, cyber, electronic warfare, and aerial and subsurface unmanned systems to disrupt friendly forces.

“This is what this concept is about; we need an approach, we needed an approach, we have to continue to work on an approach that treats the littorals, that area ― not just necessary shallow water or brown water — but [in] the area where you’ve got, air, land, sea, under the sea, the normal domains of combat, how do we operate to get there, how do we operate to get on that land where we can provide our maximum capability,” Neller said. “It’s going to be a land, air, sea operation, but it’s going to involve space, it’s going to involve information, it’s going to involve the electromagnetic spectrum; all things that we haven’t had to think about in the past 15 to 20 years.”

The Marines recently conducted a major exercise in California that sought to game how emerging technologies such as unmanned systems might be used as the first wave to storm a beach. The Ship to Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation, or S2ME2, Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, focused on how the naval force projects power in a 21st century contested environment.

For the exercise, the Marine Corps released a special notice listing five capability concepts, which were determined to be the keys to success for a future threat environment:

  • Ship to shore maneuver.
  • Amphibious fire support and effects.
  • Clear amphibious assault lanes.
  • Amphibious command and control, communications, and computers.
  • Amphibious information warfare.

Following the S2ME2, technologies tested that are most valuable and “ready for prime time” will be put in the hands of operators during October‘s Bold Alligator exercise in North Carolina with the II Marine Expeditionary Force. While the Marines have been executing this exercise for nearly a decade, Neller said this year’s will be one of the largest yet.

These types of exercises can be helpful not only from a future operational preparedness perspective, but in uncertain budgetary environments where the exercises can better inform the costs of new technologies.