WASHINGTON: No thank you, Donald Trump. While the President-Elect wants to boost Marine Corps combat units by 50 percent — with 12 new battalions of infantry and one of tanks — the Commandant of the Marine Corps respectfully suggested that there are other additions the Marines need more. Don’t think good old-fashioned grunts: Think warrior nerds.
So what’s on General Robert Neller‘s Christmas list? Cyber specialists, electronic warfare troops, intelligence analysts, targeteers, engineers, anti-aircraft troops, and artillerymen with anti-ship missiles. The Marine Corps grew to 202,000 for Iraq and Afghanistan by adding combat troops, Neller told the US Naval Institute conference on Wednesday, but for a future war against increasingly sophisticated adversaries — try Russia or China — what the Marines need more of is high-tech support troops. That’s the portion of the force Neller plans to plus up with the 3,000 extra Marines in the latest draft of the annual defense bill, and that’s what he wants to keep adding to, even if he has to take Marines out of other jobs to do it.
“First things first, before we start growing more infantry or armor or things like that, y’know, the battlefield has changed,” Neller told reporters after his USNI remarks. “If we were still fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, in a stability/insurgency operation, I’d say, yeah, we’d probably need more infantry battalions….But if we’re looking down the road of the future, the capabilities we need more of now, in my mind, are those areas that I talked about: information, cyber, intelligence analysis, communication, air defense, deception, engineering….things like that.”
Those “are the things that we’re really going to need for the future,” Neller continued, “and if you don’t have those things, whatever formation you put on the battlefield is not going to be as survivable or combat effective.”
Even against relatively low-tech enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, infantry Marines relied on electronic warfare to jam remote detonators for roadside bombs, GPS satellites to help them navigate, drones to scout ahead, and wireless networks to transmit intelligence, orders, and plans. Now both Russia and the Islamic State have used their own remote-controlled drones in combat, putting a new premium on long-neglected jamming and anti-aircraft capabilities. Russian and Chinese hackers have hit networks from the Pentagon to the defense industry to the Democratic National Committee, inspiring massive investments in cyber defense. Even Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels now have anti-ship cruise missiles, forcing the Navy and Marines to rethink how they land and support troops ashore.
“We’re fighting in space, we’re fighting in the cyber domain, we’re fighting in the information domain,” said Neller, asking USNI audience members to raise their hands if they, like him, had had their identity stolen.
Warfare is changing even in the traditional Marine Corps domains of land, air, and sea. “We’re not just going to be able to sail around and go where we want to go and do what we want to do” — as we have since the Soviet Union fell — “because of the range and accuracy of anti-ship or coastal defense cruise missiles, the ability of mines to actually hunt you and find you,” Neller told reporters, previewing the driving concerns of the impending Littoral Warfare Concept. “If you’re in a small sea like the Arabian Gulf, or the Med, or the Black Sea, or the Baltic, the munitions have the ability to shoot all the way across.”
“It cuts both ways,” Neller continued. The golden rule of warfare, after all, is do unto others as they would do unto you, but do it first. “I would love to have an anti-ship cruise missile I could shoot out of a HIMARS launcher,” Neller said, “so if the Marines were to go for example to seize and secure an advanced expeditionary amphibious base, and the adversary had ships, rather than attack them with an airplane, I’d like to have some way to defend from shore.”
The secretive Strategic Capabilities Office is already working with the Army on an anti-ship seeker for the ATACMS missile, which can be fired from the HIMARS launchers already in service with both the Army and the Marines. SCO is also working on Hypervelocity Projectiles (HVPs) that can be fired from a conventional Army or Marine howitzer but which attain such velocity they could be used to shoot down incoming missiles. And Raytheon has developed an anti-ship version of its Excalibur precision-guided artillery shell. While Neller declined to name any of these technologies, he did say both that he was interested in new munitions that offered new ways of using existing weapons and that he was working with the SCO.
New equipment is important, but new training is critical. Wargames at 29 Palms in California now include urban combat, with “subterranean areas” like sewers and subways coming soon, Neller said. There are enemy drones, with (simulated) enemy airstrikes in the works; (simulated) artillery fire if the Marines stay in the open too long; and jamming and hacking of command-and-control networks.
In the future, “you’re going to have fight for information, you’re going to have to fight to see, you’re going to have to fight to not be seen,” Neller said. If you don’t want your riflemen fighting blind, deaf, and dumb, you need cyber/electronic warriors, intelligence analysts, and other support troops currently in short supply. “So,” he said, in addition to those traditional (combat arms) capabilities, you’re going to have to grow these other (supporting) capabilities.”
That said, “we follow orders,” Neller emphasized. Growing 13 more combat battalions would require a large-scale, long-term expansion of Marine Corps recruiting, training, and infrastructure, he said, but “if that’s what we’re told to do, we’ll go out there and do our very best to do it.”