Reshaping ISR for Navy-USMC Integration


By Robbin Laird

The terms C2, ISR and training are changing significantly in the shift from the land wars to the high-end fight. C2 is migrating from hierarchical direction to mission command and distributed operations; ISR is moving from intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance to INFORMATION to decision making for an integrated distributed force; and training is open ended learning process of how to shape modular task forces that can work together to deliver the desired crisis management and combat effects.

We have written a great deal in the past months about the very significant changes in these domains, and I have recently published a book which highlights some of these changes.

But as the Marines work with the Navy towards more effective integration for the high-end fight, both sides face significant challenges to work with one another. On the one hand, the US Navy has added new ISR capabilities in the form of P-8s and Tritons which have not been designed in any way to support the kind of maneuver operations which the Marines are built to do. On the other hand, the excellent C2 which the Marines have built to operate ashore are not built to work with the at sea maneuver force.

There is no magic technological wand which can be waved over the two forces and create integratability. This must be worked from the ground up on each side and the ultimate purpose of doing so needs to be shaped in very concrete ways and in very clear mission areas. Why are they integrating? For which crisis management or combat effect? Against which adversaries and for what demonstrated positive outcome?

During my visit to II MEF, I had the chance to discuss the way ahead on the Marine Corps side with a very experienced SIGINT officer, who is the head of II MEF G-2 and is the senior intelligence officer for the MEF, Col. William McClane. He joined the Marines towards the end of the Cold War, and as I have seen in both Marine Corps and Navy interviews, there are a smattering of such officers towards the end of the careers who bridge the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the new phase of peer competition.

Obviously, the bulk of their careers have been through the land wars period, but these officers understand how very different those wars are from facing an adversary with full spectrum forces able to conduct contested operations across the battlespace, up to and including nuclear weapons.

I have referred to this as the strategic shift, but in many ways, this is more of a strategic shock than a strategic shift. The Navy is shifting from support to land operations to blue water maneuver warfare; the Marines are shifting from being best mates of the U.S. Army to reworking into a maneuver force for full spectrum crisis management. In my own view, the question of being reworked as a maneuver force for full spectrum crisis management is only partly subsumed under an effort for enhanced integration with the Navy. Land-based operations even in the conditions of maneuver warfare is only partly part of the maritime fight.

In effect, what is happening is that as the Navy reworks its locus from the land wars to blue water expeditionary operations, the Marine Corps is reworking how it can assist in such a shift but also, how it can operate from afloat and ashore mobile bases to shape a way ahead in their ability to work with allies in interactively shaping more effective support for allied defense, on the one hand, and more effective allied integration with the Marine Corps and the joint force’s ability to operate across the extended and contested battlespace.

I had a chance to talk with Col. McClane on several issues but will highlight three major ones. The first one is the return of Russia as a definer of North Atlantic defense. The second is the intelligence to information transmutation of ISR. And the third is the challenge of working more convergence between Navy and Marine Corps ISR systems.

But the overview point made by Col. McClane was clearly articulated by him: “We are in a campaign of learning to shift from COIN operations to great power competition.”

Part of that learning is re-focusing on the Russians. When I went to Columbia University for my PhD in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the universities were committed to Russian studies. They certainly are not now. If there is a refocus on dealing with the Russians, the absence of analysts with Russian knowledge, language, and substantive, is a major problem.

This is certainly reflected in refocusing a force like the USMC. What Col. McClane noted was that our Nordic allies certainly have not taken a vacation from dealing with Russians, and that their domain knowledge is a key part of shaping a rethink of how to understand Russian behavior training, and operations. And clearly, it is the Russian military we are dealing with, not the Soviet Union.

This means that there is a double knowledge challenge. The first is that much of the residual U.S. knowledge remains under a Soviet hangover. And second that fresh knowledge of how the Russians operate under President Putin militarily needs to be built out.

The second is the intelligence to information shift in ISR. As Col. McClane put it: “We tend to get too fixated on the cyber piece to the determinant of working the information piece about how Russian decision makers operate and will operate in a crisis. That is a craft which we need to master.”

The information piece is about shortening the cycle from knowing to acting, as well as working information war. Col. McClane noted that “it is crucial we master the process whereby information can be tailored for messaging that affects the adversaries’ cognitive decision making. The messaging is key.”

The third key challenge we discussed is aligning USMC and US Navy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. A key example is that the P-8 which is being operated by the US Navy and our allies in the North Atlantic is not generating data easily usable by the USMC. In fact, in the recent Dynamic Cape 21 exercise, the Marines were able to work much more effectively with USAF unmanned aerial systems than Navy assets in terms of ISR missions.

This means, for Col. McClane: “We need naval capability development not just US Navy, and USMC separate acquisitions in the ISR area. If we are truly going to fight a naval campaign, the Marines will need to be able to tap into U.S. Navy systems useful to a Marine air-ground task force. Fixing and resourcing the Naval ISR enterprise is a key part of shaping the way ahead.”

Featured Photo: U.S. Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters, assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, prepare to retrieve U.S. Marines during a simulated air assault as part of exercise Trident Juncture 2018 in Keflavik, Iceland, Oct. 17, 2018. Trident Juncture, a NATO-led exercise, hosted by Norway, will include around 50,000 personnel from NATO countries, as well as Finland and Sweden, and will test NATO’s collective response to an armed attack against one ally, invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan Nelson)