The Ground Combat Element in the Pacific Reset


By Robbin Laird

As the USMC works its relationship with the US Navy, a core focus is upon how the Marine Corps can provide for enhanced sea control and sea denial.

A means to this end is an ability to move combat pieces on the chessboard of the extended battlespace.

But where does the ground combat element fight into this scheme for maneuver?

During my visit to MAWTS-1 in September 2020, I had a chance to discuss this with several USMC officers involved in the current Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course.

And training in the context of transition is no picnic. 

The key is to ensure that the USMC is combat capable today as it transitions to a new GCE that is lighter and more capable of tapping not into the air-maritime joint force, above and beyond what USMC integration provides.

As Col. Gillette, the CO of MAWTS-1 put it: “So long as I’ve been in the Marine Corps and the way that it still currently is today, marine aviation exists to support the ground combat.

“That’s why we exist. The idea that we travel light and that the aviation element within the MAGTAF provides or helps to provide the ground combat element with a significant capability is our legacy.

“We are now taking that legacy and adapting it.

“We are taking the traditional combat engagement where you have battalions maneuvering and aviation supporting that ground element and we are moving it towards Sea Control, and Sea Denial missions.

“We are reimagining the potential of what the infantry does.

“That doesn’t mean that they do that exclusively because, although I think that our focus in the Marine Corps, as the Commandant said, is shifting towards the Pacific that doesn’t relegate or negate the requirement to be ready to respond to all of the other things that the Marine Corps does.

“It might be less of a focus, but I don’t think that that negates our requirement to deal with a variety of core missions.

“It’s a question of working the balance in the training continuum.

“What does an infantry battalion train to? Do they train to a more traditional battalion in the attack or in the defense and then how do I use my aviation assets to support either one of those types of operations?”

“As opposed to, “I might have to take an island, a piece of territory that we’re going to use a mobile base, secure it so that we can continue to push chess pieces forward in the Pacific, in the Sea Control, Sea Denial end-state.”

“Those are two very different kind of skill sets. If there’s one thing that the Marine Corps is very good at it’s being very versatile and being able to switch from one to the other on relatively short order. But in order to do that, you have to have a very dedicated and well thought out training continuum so that people can do both well, because if you say that you can do it the expectation is that you can do it well.”

Obviously, this is a major challenge and during my visit I had a chance to talk with Major Fitzsimmons, the Ground Combat Department Head at MAWTS-1, who clearly is facing the challenges which his CO outlined,

So what is the future of the Ground Combat Element in a distributed Marine Corps force operating both in the blue waters and the littorals?

This is clearly a challenge being worked, with the GCE facing the challenge of dealing with more traditional tasks as well as adapting to the evolving reconfiguration for the maritime fight.

And it is a major shift facing the GCE for sure.

The GCE is shifting from its most recent experiences of fighting in the land wars as a primary mission to providing support to, in Major Fitzsimmons words, “a more amphibious distributed force operation.

“And in my view, this is a very big shift.”

Major Fitzsimmons provided a very helpful entry point into this discussion by recalling the earlier work which the Marines had done with the Company Landing Teams.

As Major Fitzsimmons put it: “The Company Landing Team was an experiment at how do we lighten the footprint of the force while still giving them the capabilities of what we see in larger forces today.

“To do that, we would leverage digital interoperability, connectivity, and reach back to weapon systems, to information, to targeting, to any of those capabilities that you generally see at some of the higher echelons that were not organic to a infantry company at that time.

“The challenge then is to ensure that the infantry company has access to those types of capabilities and mature the force.”

What Major Fitzsimmons meant by maturing the force was discussed later in the conversation.

He highlighted the importance of having Marines earlier in their career able to work with various elements of the joint force, because they would need to leverage those capabilities as part of the more distributed GCE.

The Company Landing Team experiment also raised questions about equipment and personnel.

“How do we reinforce the CLT and how do we augment it with enablers?

“How do we augment it or enhance it with more proficient and more experienced fires personnel?

“How do we augment it with small UAS capabilities?

“How do we augment and enhance it with digital interoperability?

“How do they communicate with their organic radios across multiple waveforms?

“Who are they talking to?

“What is their left and right for decisions?

“Do they have fires approval?

“Would the company commander have fires approval, or would he have to do what we were having to do in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I’ve got to call my boss and then the boss’s boss, in order to get fires employed?””

With the introduction of the new Marine Corps Littoral regiment, it is clear that these aspects of the CLT experiment are relevant to the way ahead.

As Col. Gillette noted: “We are shaping a new Marine Littoral Regiment, MLR, but we’re still in the nascent stages of defining what are the critical tasks that something like that needs to be able to do and then how you train to it.

“How do we create not only the definition of the skill sets that we need to train large formations to, but then what venues must we have to train?”

Major Fitzsimmons is an infantry officer with fires experience at the company and battalion level, and clearly is focused on the key aspect of how you enable smaller and less organically capable forces in the extended battlespace and ensure that they have adequate fires to execute its missions.

And in dealing with peer competitors, clearly the ability to link the GCE with fires requires the right kinds of communication capabilities.

As Major Fitzsimmons put it: “We are going to have to be significantly more distributed and quiet with respect to our emissions signatures than we have in the past.”

A major challenge facing the GCE is the range of adaptability that they will have to be able to deliver and operate with in the future.

As Col. Gillette noted earlier, the variety of skill sets required will be varied and tailorable.

How to train to best deliver such capability?

As Major Fitzsimmons put it: “I think the biggest shock to my community is going to be the level of adaptability that we’re going to have to be able to achieve.

“We are going to have to train smaller forces to operate more autonomously and to possess the ability to achieve effects on the battlefield previously created at higher echelons.”

He focused as well on the tailorable aspect envisaged as well.

“We will need to be tactically tailored to achieve whatever effect we need.

“It should be akin to a menu; based on the mission and the effects needed to shape the environment towards mission accomplishment, we will need this capability or that capability which may require each element to be manned and equipped differently.”

Then there is the challenge of the sustainability of the tailored force.

How to ensure the logistics support for the distributed maritime focused USMC GCE?

In short, fighting with the force you have while you transition to a new one is a major challenge facing the trainers for the USMC going forward.

Featured Photo: U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, participate in an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Kirk)