Monday, March 16, 2020

A Terrible Decision by the Commandant of the Marine Corps

What are the primary drivers when it comes to the unmanned systems we will deploy forward, ready for wartime use? 

Size, range, use, mission, flexibility, technology risk, commonality, basing, cost? What weight do you give each variable - and why?

With only a few systems that will end up getting a funding line, you need to make sure you thought it through correctly, and have the right set of priorities.

This week, let's take a look at the USMC's recent decisions on unmanned air systems from the point of view of friend-to-the-blog Bryan McGrath.

Bryan, over to you.

Since assuming the duties of Commandant of the Marine Corps last summer, General David Berger has enjoyed a fairly smooth go of it, releasing a Commandant’s Planning Guidance to near-universal acclaim and putting forward a vision of naval integration around which the Department of the Navy has wisely moved to coalesce. And so, it was surprising earlier this week to see the Commandant make a decision that so starkly works against the principles of integration for which he has so forcefully advocated.

The decision, as the Naval Institute’s Megan Eckstein first reported, was to restructure the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary program -- known as “MUX”--from one centered around a large, medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned vehicle organic to the ships of the amphibious force to a “family of systems” approach that would rely heavily on a “very large land-based aerial vehicle and a medium sized one for shipboard operations”. There are three main reasons that this decision is wrong, and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly should intervene quickly to reverse the Commandant’s error.

Reason 1: Kiss the “Lightning Carrier” concept goodbye

Commandant Berger expressed support for the “Lightning Carrier” concept in his planning guidance. As described in detail in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s 2017 Fleet Architecture Study, the Lightning Carrier would evolve the current LHD/LHA from its current singular devotion to the support of troops ashore, to a multipurpose, multi-mission conventional deterrence platform built around the considerable capabilities of the F-35B. The LHD/LHA would become more of a small aircraft carrier and less of an amphibious assault platform. Key to this transformation would be the provision of the LHD/LHA or its escorts with a proper intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISRT) platform, one acting as an integral part of the planned and executed operations of the amphibious presence forces. As envisioned, MUX was the platform that would create this transformation. To put it another way, to achieve the Lightning Carrier, the F-35B was necessary, but not sufficient.

Barrels of ink have been wasted over time in the distinction—made primarily in the United States—between an aircraft carrier and an amphibious assault vessel. The most important distinction has been the availability of organic ISR/T from the aircraft carrier’s deck. The E-2D more than anything else, is what makes an aircraft carrier. Its huge wingspan requires a large ship. A large ship requires nuclear reactors to be efficient and effective. As capable as the LHD/LHA has been, it is utterly dependent on land-based ISRT and the ISRT provided by the carrier air wing. Had the Commandant made the decision to provision the amphibious force with a true MALE ISRT platform, the LHD/LHA would minimize its reliance on inorganic targeting and surveillance. Denying this organic capability regrettably makes an F-35B-packed LHD/LHA into a more lucrative and less well-defended target, and less of a maritime dominance/integrated naval power platform.

Reason 2: Missed Opportunity for Closer Integration with the Navy’s Surface Forces

There is no question but that a capable MALE UAV within the MUX program would have been a costly proposition, one that it would have been difficult for the Marine Corps to shoulder alone. This is why the true value proposition for this program would have come into sharp relief in a Navy/Marine Corps program that would provide the MAGTF with the ISRT it requires under the MUX program, and the Surface Navy with the additional ISRT it requires as a result of a new generation of longer-range anti-ship and strike missiles. One of the more innovative aspects of the MUX acquisition was the oft-repeated desire that the unmanned vehicle be capable of fitting into an ARLEIGH BURKE Class Destroyer helicopter hangar. A common solution based around modular sensor and weapons packages would have been a win-win for both the Marine Corps and the Navy, bringing with it considerably more and more responsive lethality and ISRT within the forces that make up the “contact” and “blunt” layers of our National Defense Strategy.

Reason 3: Unwise Reliance on Land-based ISRT

The most disturbing aspect of the Commandant’s decision is the degree to which he is sacrificing the precision and certainty of organically-controlled ISRT for the uncertainty and inefficiency of land-based solutions, a subject my former colleague Seth Cropsey and I studied in our November 2019 monograph “If You can’t See’em, You Can’t Shoot’em: Improving US Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Targeting”.

Looking specifically at the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton system, we suggested that the Navy’s planned buy of 68 systems (in order to have 20 deployable at all times) was woefully inadequate to the task of consistent ISRT of the area inside the First Island Chain, a task made even more difficult by the extensive fly-in ranges of the land-based aircraft that would provide the coverage, in some cases using half their fuel simply to transit the huge distances in the Western Pacific.

A truly effective conventional deterrent in the Western Pacific is one in which each and every Chinese Navy ship captain understands that he is targeted as soon as he leaves port, the kind of targeting perception under which U.S. commanding officers currently operate within the First Island Chain. This certainty is not going to be provided by wide area search platforms ferrying in from thousands of miles away. It will be provided by ISRT platforms of enough mission duration that sensor to shooter kill chains can be maintained organically, while high altitude, long endurance land-based UAV’s remain the purview of theater commanders executing operational and strategic surveillance schemes.

Putting aside the wisdom of more heavy reliance on land-based ISRT, there is a roles and missions question here. Do we need yet another service buying and operating its own large, land-based ISRT systems? Does the Marine Corps really believe that even if it were to acquire such systems, that they would be able to exercise the same level of MAGTF level control of them in an age of Joint asset allocation? The Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) should look long and hard at any USMC program that seeks to duplicate already existing and somewhat inefficient capabilities.


Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly has been exceptionally good at talking about Integrated American Naval Power, and he has an opportunity to strike a tangible blow for its future by halting the USMC MUX program in its tracks and directing the Commandant and the Chief of Naval Operations to report back to him on the prospects for an integrated, departmental solution to the mission requirements of the two services. An organic, MALE UAV that services the targeting needs of our nation’s conventional deterrence forces where they operate and under their control is a necessary step to providing a deterrence posture that influences the adversary to reconsider aggression.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a national security consultancy. The ideas offered here should be considered his and are not those of any client he represents.

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