The Marine Corps Works its Way Ahead: The Perspective of Lt. Gen. Brian Cavanaugh


By Robbin Laird

I had a chance to meet with Lt. Gen. Brian Cavanaugh at his office in Norfolk on Friday 24, 2023. He is Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic; Commander, Marine Forces Command; and Commander, Marine Forces Northern Command.

According to the official information regarding these two commands under “one commander and one staff”:


Commander, Marine Forces Command (COMMARFORCOM) commands Service-retained forces (active component and activated reserve component) and provides forces in support of joint, naval, and service requirements. As Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic, (CG FMFLANT) commands assigned Marine Corps forces and advises Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFF) on matters relating to the training, employment, and sustainment of Marine Corps forces in support of fleet forces.


Commander, MARFOR NORTHCOM as the Marine Corps Service Component Commander for Commander, U.S. Northern Command (CDRUSNORTHCOM), represents Marine Corps capabilities and interests; and exercises command and control over all assigned and attached Marine Corps forces.  Furthermore, the commander advises CDRUSNORTHCOM on the proper employment and support of Marine Corps forces; and coordinates and/or validates antiterrorism program/force protection/deployments/employment/ redeployments sustainment and planning of all assigned and attached Marine forces ordered to conduct homeland defense operations; and to provide defense support of civil authorities.

As Lt. Gen. Cavanaugh has spent many years in the Pacific, he comes to the Atlantic area in a period of change and under the impact of the war in Ukraine. He argued that the Marines are in a process of transformation which can be understood as one affecting all of the joint forces. As he put it:  “The joint forces have acquired their equipment and training in the past twenty hears focused on a capability, not necessarily specific threats. This clearly has changed as we recognize specific threats to which we need to modernize equipment and train our forces.”

“The joint forces have acquired their equipment and training in the past twenty hears focused on a capability, not necessarily a specific threat. This clearly has changed as we recognize specific threats to which we need to modernize equipment and train our forces.”

The updated National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy undoubtedly identify the primary threat from the People’s Republic of China and the CCP. The Corps has taken this task head on as evident in the Commandant’s Planning Guidance and the past few years of Force Design. However, from his seat on the Atlantic coast, where his headquarters sits abreast the Navy’s U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Cavanaugh explains the Corps’ support to National Defense is more than just a focus on the Pacific.

“We know the PRC is operating globally and competes with the U.S. and our allies across all domains. The Corps, and the greater Naval force, is looking at how we address security issues globally,” said Cavanaugh. His command is co-located with U.S. Fleet Forces Command, and he works closely with this command to support the Marine Corps’ Naval Integration efforts. Cavanaugh emphasized that they are working together to meet the evolving threat envelope facing U.S. and allied forces.

The Marines are the smallest of the joint forces but are very adaptable. Cavanaugh is focused on transitioning advanced Marine Corps capabilities and joint concepts to enable the Navy and the joint force to meet these emerging challenges across all global regions.

He argued that the current command structures along geographical lines needs to adapt as technology and our Nation’s threats do not subscribe to those geographical boundaries. The Marines are working to re-shape and re-define how they tailor their forces to work the defense problems posed by the newly evolving threat envelopes.

Cavanaugh explained that concepts like Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment address global security threats in support of Fleets and Combatant Commands. “We are focused on shaping different ways to use our tools to adapt various force packages to get the desired joint effect. In my discussions with fleet commanders, I focus on our complimentary capabilities. Marines can provide fires and sustainment in the broader Naval campaign.

“The Corps provides commanders across the globe with expeditionary, joint force enabling capabilities.   Our air, land, and sea capabilities facilitates integration with our fellow services and allies. That’s why we train and equip to enable the operations of the broader Joint Force, our allies and partners, and the NATO construct.”

As I have argued in my book on USMC transformation, the Marines are in the process of transformation from the land wars to shaping a more mobile force, one that can provide tailored force to provide payloads designed to deliver the kind of effect desired by the joint commander.

In an interview I did recently with Colonel Marvel, the CO of MAG-39, he described how his command was working the evolution along these lines. As he commented: “The Osprey provides unique speed and range combinations with an aircraft which can land vertically. It is a very flexible aircraft which could be described as a mission-kitable aircraft. The Osprey has big hollow space in the rear of the aircraft that can hold a variety of mission kits dependent on the mission which you want the aircraft to support.”

I discussed with Lt. Gen. Cavanaugh a similar process which the latest USMC aviation asset, the CH-53K, is bringing to the Marine Corps. Cavanaugh has many operational hours in the legacy CH-53D/E. He spoke about how he saw the new aircraft operating in the dynamic context for the Marines, the Navy, and the joint force.

He argued that the CH-53K is very different from the legacy aircraft in terms of physical attributes of lift capacity and ease of flight operations. But it is a digital aircraft which he anticipates will be part of the overall transition of the USMC in providing tailorable capability to the joint force.

This is how he put it: “Because it is a digitally enabled aircraft, the CH-53K can operate within the mesh network as user and provider. It’s a part of a broader interoperable kill web that can pass data to other parts of the kill web and enable the joint sensor-shooter relationship.

“I see the CH-53K leading with UASs in a mesh web and passing data to enable Aegis ship operations. It’s not just a muscle platform, it’s part of the digital interoperability revolution affecting our platforms and allowing them to be part of a joint kill web.”

We discussed the importance of Northern Europe and the opportunities for Marine Corps naval integration in support of the region and our Nordic allies. The East Coast Marines will receive the CH-53K first among Marine Corps forces and bringing them into the Northern European area of operation provides an opportunity to shape the aircraft’s path of innovation along with our allies.

This type of win-win integration is what Lt. Gen. Cavanaugh is focused upon.


Lieutenant General Brian W. Cavanaugh assumed the duties as Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic; Commander, Marine Forces Command; and Commander, Marine Forces Northern Command on 30 August 2022.

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Lieutenant General Cavanaugh earned his commission through the United States Naval Academy in 1990 and was designated a Naval Aviator in 1992. He served with HMH-462, HMH-362, and HMX-1. He commanded HMH-362 in Iraq during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and MAG-36 during multiple disaster relief efforts in Asia.

As a General Officer, he served as Deputy Commander, U.S. Marine Forces Pacific; Deputy Director for Operations, Joint Staff J-3; Assistant Deputy Commandant, Programs, Headquarters Marine Corps, Programs and Resources Department; and as Commanding General, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

Lieutenant General Cavanaugh’s other staff assignments include instructor at Officer Candidates School; Aide-de-Camp to the Chief of Naval Operations; Joint Doctrine Branch Chief, Joint Staff; Executive Assistant, Vice Director Joint Staff; Director of the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Safety Division; and Marine Military Assistant to the 75th Secretary of the Navy.

Lieutenant General Cavanaugh’s education includes a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Naval Academy, an MBA from Webster University and a Master of Science in National Resource Strategy from the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He is also an MIT Seminar XXI Fellow.

Lieutenant General Cavanaugh has accumulated over 3,000 flight hours, primarily in the CH-53D/E.

Featured photo: U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Brian W. Cavanaugh, right, the commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic, Marine Forces Command, Marine Forces Northern Command, speaks with Naval officers and Chiefs stationed aboard the USS Bataan (LHD 5), left, during a ship tour on Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, Feb. 24, 2023. Cavanaugh toured the ship to discuss readiness and capabilities with leadership, as well as meet and converse with Marines and Sailors. The Bataan, or “Big Five,” is a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, which, along with the San Antonio class amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19), and Harpers Ferry class dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50), forms the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group.

This tour occurred after the interview with Second Line of Defense. The photo reminds us of the importance of the commitment to build up and modernize the amphibious fleet as a means of enhancing the role of the blue/green team across the spectrum of conflict. In my co-authored book with Ed Timperlake on the way ahead for the maritime kill web enabled force, one capability we highlighted was re-imaging the role of the amphibious force.

This is how we put it: “There is no area where better value could be leveraged than making dramatically better use of the amphibious fleet for extended battlespace operations. This requires a re-imaging of what that fleet can deliver to sea control and sea denial as well as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) offense and defense. Fortunately for the sea services, such a re-imaging and reinvention is clearly possible, and future acquisitions which drive new connectors, new support elements, and enhanced connectivity could drive significant change in the value and utility of the amphibious fleet as well. In addition, as the fleet is modernized new platform designs can be added to the force as well.

“And as we will address later in the book, this entails shaping variant payloads as well to be delivered from a distributed integrated amphibious fleet. As building out the evolving fleet, larger capital ships will be supplemented and completed with a variety of smaller hull forms, both manned and autonomous, but the logistics side of enabling the fleet will grow in importance and enhance the challenges for a sustainable distributed fleet. That is certainly why the larger capital ships – enabled by directed energy weapons as well – will see an enhanced role as mother ships to a larger lego-like cluster of smaller hull forms as well.”[1]

[1] Laird, Robbin F.; Timperlake, Edward. A Maritime Kill Web Force in the Making: Deterrence and Warfighting in the 21st Century (pp. 109-110). Kindle Edition.