The Marine Corps is willing to make reductions in the capacity of its forces to grow its capabilities in cyber and information warfare.
“An infantry battalion may look a little bit smaller in some ways, but you may add more cyber, information warfare capabilities, so that’s definitely an area that we are looking at,” said Deputy Commandant Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh during an Oct. 28 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The Marines have expanded the way they are operating in their concept plan, Expeditionary 21, Walsh said. They are no longer just about small landing teams; now the Marines want to be a “middleweight” force that integrates seapower through communications between land and sea forces.
Doing that involves better cyber and command and control technologies that can be used in environments that could jam, interfere or scramble those signals.
“We have to be able to look at this future force. We know that in the information warfare area, cyber, leveraging space capabilities, ambiguous warfare, cy[ber] ops; that area there that you are seeing a lot of proliferation in, we know we’ve got to invest in that area,” Walsh said.
The Marine Corps created the new position of assistant deputy commandant for information warfare in August. The position pulls together the Marine director of intelligence, director of command, control, communications, computers and intelligence and the chief of the Marine Corps Forces Cyber Command, Walsh said.
“Instead of three individual stovepipes kind of doing their own thing [this] pulls together everything from a capabilities development standpoint,” Walsh said. “It all comes back to that combat development integration, a lot of people doing good things, but how do you integrate it together.”
The Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), the principle organization for Marine operations, has expanded from just air, sea and land to now encompass cyber and space.
Walsh said cyber and space are areas the Marine Corps is growing not only on the defensive side, but also through offensive capabilities.
Walsh said one of the struggles for the Marines is the ability to remain interoperable in cyber and command and control with itself and other services at sea.
“We’ve been on land for so long that we’ve got all our systems that work so well on land, they are not able to communicate with the shipboard command and controls. So therefore a typical Marine would rather get off the ship, get in the dirt, stand up its antennas because we can operate better that way,” Walsh said. “You go back aboard the ship that may get an upgrade or an integration every 6, 8, 10, 15 years, it’s got older technology. You want in there and go, ‘I don’t want to play in this environment.’”
Walsh said cruisers and destroyers are more up to date, but they still need to be able to communicate with ships that use older equipment.
The Marine’s decision to risk capacity for capability in cyber is framed by the larger dilemma of budget uncertainty.
Walsh said in the past the military has had trouble planning for the future because it did not know what kind of funding it would receive the next year, let alone further into the future. And that isn’t counting the looming threats of sequestration cuts.
Now that Congress and the White House have reached a two-year budget deal that will raise the budget caps and temporarily fend off sequestration, Walsh said it helps, but does not solve the planning problem.
“There is goodness in it and it gives us some stability and we’ve had this before and we’ve come up with budgets for a year,” Walsh said. “It isn’t giving us that sense of here is where we are headed and here is how we can develop our long-range strategy and programs like we really need to be doing for that future force … it’s going to solve our near-term problems. But the longer-term I think we are still looking for Congress to come together in new ways to solve these things so we can get back to more traditional program development strategy.”
Walsh’s remarks come on the heels of a new report that said the Marine Corp’s strength is at the lower end of marginal and has the potential to be described at weak within the near future. A marginal score means modernization programs are appropriate to sustain current capability size, 40 to 59 percent of service requirements are met and equipment age is 41 to 60 percent of the expected life span.
The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength rated the Marine Corps capacity as weak, however, because it operates with slightly less than 64 percent of the number of battalions required to fight two major wars at the same time.