WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Marine Corps continues to reshape the force through the commandant’s Force Design 2030 effort and the recently released Talent Management 2030 plan, cyber and information warfare Marines in the future may be further empowered to use their digital skills to create operational advantages for kinetic forces, one official said.
The Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group (MIG) formation was fielded four years ago and has already made progress in training fellow Marines on how to operate amid cyber threats as well as showing MEF commanders how to blend a range of kinetic and non-kinetic options, Col. Brian Russell, who commands the II MEF Information Group, said Nov. 10 during a discussion as part of C4ISRNET’s CyberCon.
But those Marines’ talents could still be further unleashed.
“As our commandant redesigns our force to be a stand-in force, forward-deployed, persistently engaged in the information environment, I think our forces can provide a measure of access to the entire joint force to get into networks and get into systems in support of the combatant commanders’ objectives,” Russell said.
He painted a picture of what those operations could look like, citing a recent essay Commandant Gen. David Berger wrote on his vision of a stand-in force, or one that can live and operate in and around enemy territory and win the daily reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance battle.
In his essay, published this month in Proceedings magazine, Berger wrote: “In a 21st-century reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance battle, an adaptive adversary will try to change signatures and adjust sensors to defeat the collection efforts of the United States and its partners, and to overcome their deception efforts.
“Marines on the front lines may have to write computer code to adjust the software on sensors and systems in real time,” he continued. “The examples are many, but the implications are clear. Developing future Marines who will operate as SIF demands as much focused attention as any other aspect of the stand-in concept — perhaps more.”
In combination with the recent talent management plan that emphasizes retaining high-performing Marines over recruiting fresh new ones every four years, creating a more mature and experienced force, Russell said the commandant’s plans are particularly well suited for MIG Marines.
“I have a good number of Marines that love to code in their off time. And so when the commandant comes out in his vision for the stand-in force in [Proceedings] this month and says Marines on the frontline will have to reprogram their software in their systems on the fly to achieve operational outcomes, this is all about how we enable the creative brilliance we already have in the formation,” he said.
“The best thing I can do as a commander in support of retention is to give them mission: let them operate in the cyber domain, let them perform those influence functions, let them do what they came in to do. And that’s the best retention setup we’ve got,” Russell continued.
Russell added that the MIG Marines have come a long way in the last four years in getting comfortable with their non-kinetic mission areas within the force’s portfolio. But he said developing more maturity and experience in the force would only make these MIG Marines more comfortable in taking bold actions to reshape the operating environment to their favor: influencing the local population, taking out an enemy network, disrupting the enemy’s kill chain and more.
“We need a more mature Marine going forward as part of this talent management plan to be able to make those decisions very quickly, the decisions that modify terrain” and help the force win, he said. The ultimate goal is to pair the “more mature, experienced, trained individual” with the right authorities and the right technology to make a difference.
Russell said it’s taken a mindset change to get as far as the Marine Corps has in embracing the warfighting functions resident within the MIG, including communications, intelligence, fires, cyber, psychological operations, communication strategy and more.
“Whether you like it or not, or realize it or not, all of our Marines are involved in this information environment, and we need to prepare them for that reality. We do that through training,” he said. “I have my own cyber force inside the MEF Information Group, very similar to a cyber protection team, that trains against our Marine forces when we are out training, trying to get into our networks we’re using to command and control, just to give that sense to everyone that this is a very real threat we operate against each and every time we deploy.”
He likened some of the cyber training to a Combat Hunter training program ground forces use.
“It teaches Marines how to baseline their environment: if you think, Marines are out on patrol, they’re understanding what’s in the village and what appears out of the normal, and to identify what’s out of the normal and then go investigate it or report it up,” Russell said. “Apply that to just the cybersecurity perspective. How do you know your network is doing what it should be, a baseline? Do you understand what normal looks like? And when something abnormal happens, you better go investigate that, you better report it up.”
In addition to training regular forces on how to operate in the information environment, Russell said the MIG is constantly experimenting with new formations that can help operational commanders understand and employ a blend of kinetic and non-kinetic options on the battlefield. For example, in one event he took a firepower control team and added in communication strategy, psychological operations and electronic warfare Marines to see how they could work together and enable the operational commander’s objectives.
“My cyber Marines, my network administrators, my application developers, they’re all [analogous to] cyber engineers, modifying the terrain to the time of need, just like you have a normal engineer bulldozing terrain to build a road or whatever it is. These information Marines are cyber engineers in some sense, we just need to enable them to modify that terrain to the operational advantage,” Russell said.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.