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Marines Spread Command Responsibility To Cut Fog of War

May 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Decentralized decision making, shared data enhance new operational doctrine.

U.S. Marine Corps transformation efforts are seeking to keep humans at the center of an increasingly automated decision cycle. As the service morphs into a network-centric fighting force, planners are designing doctrine and technologies to serve warfighters’ needs without burying them in excess information.

Although the information age has led to increased precision in battle, the technology is only as effective as the soldiers who wield it. By developing command and control systems that empower tactical level officers, the Marine Corps hopes to maintain the initiative in future operations.

The principal goal of force transformation is to project power, explains Col. Arthur Corbett, USMC, director of future warfighting at the Expeditionary Force Development Center, Quantico, Virginia. He notes that concepts such as Sea Basing, where logistics and support operations are staged from an amphibious task force, will enhance the Marine Corps’ capability to conduct operational maneuver from the sea, which is the service’s historic capability.

An important outgrowth of this traditional approach is the new doctrine of ship-to-objective maneuver (STOM), which envisions seaborne Marine forces moving from beyond the horizon to operate deep inland. This requires unique command and control capabilities, such as over-the-horizon communications, with sufficient bandwidth to support a Marine expeditionary force going ashore, the colonel says.

Using STOM as a means to maneuver against agile, adaptive adversaries places demands on front line commanders who require real-time intelligence for situational awareness. Officers also will need more flexibility and freedom from higher echelons to carry out forward operations.

One concept developed by the center is distributed decision-making, which Col. Corbett describes as “proliferating” the command responsibility across all echelons in the battlespace. By contrast, many current concepts concentrate knowledge at higher levels of command. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but we think there is a greater need to have smarter sergeants, lieutenants, captains and battalion commanders forward than with more centralized staff,” he says.

Decentralizing decision making among front line officers is important to take advantage of tactical opportunities, Col. Corbett maintains. For example, a platoon commander reaches the top of a hill and sees an undefended bridge that is in his direction of advance. Instead of contacting headquarters and asking permission to take it, he seizes it then notifies his superiors that he has secured the bridge.

The ability to exploit opportunity flexibly must be reflected in future command and control systems that permit commanders to update or change their intent as the tactical situation changes. “We believe that technological changes are great things, to the degree that they permit human decision makers to be more effective. But we cannot see technology as a panacea. It’s going to have to be dependent upon thinking, agile, intelligent and intuitive commanders,” the colonel says.

Distributed decision making seeks to take the uncertainty of battle and spread it among more decision makers who can deal with local issues before they become major problems at the theater command level. Col. Corbett draws a distinction between this flexible “free market” approach, where front line commanders use technology to influence their tactical situation, and highly centralized methods, where all data passes through a central staff before lower echelons can act upon it. He compares this latter approach to a World War I general making decisions from a chateau miles away from the front. “Our question is, Are we reconstructing the chateau with bits and bytes?” he asks.

New technologies also must have appropriate doctrines developed for their use. During the recent campaign in Afghanistan, live video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were available to commanders both inside and outside of the theater. Regional commanders experienced difficulties because they were receiving calls from officers outside of the battlespace offering suggestions or trying to influence events on the ground. This is an example of when the appropriate doctrine was not matched to the UAV’s use, explains Lt. Col. Richard Webster, USMC, transformation branch head at the center’s Futures Warfighting Division. “Is the maneuver commander down on the ground at the company or battalion level [controlling the UAV], or is the general flying the airplane and telling the company or battalion what they need to know?” he asks.

Sorting out just how a new system fits into or affects existing operations is done through experiments and exercises. These efforts permit the Marine Corps to work with a piece of technology to determine if changes must be made in existing doctrine or organizational models. Doctrine is only written when a majority of commanders agree that the equipment or solution works, Col. Corbett maintains.

Marine Corps force transformation is closely tied to the U.S. Navy’s transformation program. Col. Webster notes that Navy initiatives, such as Sea Strike, Sea Shield and Sea Basing (see page 29), are capabilities that the Marine Corps wants to pursue in the future. “It is not sufficient for the Navy and the Marine Corps to develop independent information technology or command and control systems. We’ve got to find a way to better tie our capabilities together,” he says.

For example, under Sea Shield, the Navy is developing a theater capability for air and missile defense. This system will link Marine Corps weapons and sensors on the beach to Navy systems at sea to create a unified defensive umbrella that can be projected on shore. Col. Webster adds that these capabilities also will fully integrate with elements of a joint force.

Combining command, control, communications, computer and intelligence capabilities in operational systems is another important aspect of force transformation. These efforts are present in the landing platform dock (LPD) integration program. The USS San Antonio LPD 17 will transport the core vehicles necessary for STOM operations, such as MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, air-cushioned landing craft and advanced amphibious assault vehicles. The San Antonio-class support ships will contain advanced systems connecting force commanders with units ashore and higher echelons outside of the theater. The systems aboard the LPDs enable officers to work in a collaborative planning environment by providing videoconferencing capabilities and secret Internet protocol router network access in officers’ staterooms. Col. Corbett views the USS San Antonio as an example of a transitional ship. “It’s one of the first ships that gives us a better understanding of what the information age looks like on an amphibious platform,” he says.

Another effort is the shared data environment. Rather than pushing every bit of information down to an operator, the concept calls for the creation of a system accessible by a variety of applications. This network also will feature the appropriate amount of bandwidth for different types of users and will operate in both garrison and tactical environments. Beyond providing a common battlefield picture, it will offer warfighters the means to contribute to the entire force’s understanding of the battlespace. Col. Corbett notes that the center is vigorously pursuing this concept in addition to the related ability of streaming data across what he refers to as the last tactical mile—battalion-size units and below.

This shared environment reinforces the concept of proliferating decision makers. By dispersing command authority among front line officers, only information appropriate to higher echelon commanders will filter back. But leadership traits and principles must be changed to achieve this, Col. Webster says. The first requirement is relying on and trusting forward commanders more.

Another trait that must be learned is restraint—the ability of officers in an information-rich environment to keep themselves from micromanaging forward troops. “Commanders can make this a little easier on themselves by demanding that they deal with issues relevant to their appropriate level. We need to make sure that our leadership traits and principles reflect the requirement to trust subordinates and the need to restrain decisions based on icons,” he says.

Data filters also may aid future Marine warfighters. Col. Webster cites the examples of an infantryman and a fighter pilot. The infantryman is concerned about rain and might be interested in any precipitation in the next 12 hours. The fighter pilot is interested in a variety of weather conditions such as atmospheric pressure or continuing thunderstorms. In the future, certain alarms may be sent to both the infantryman’s and the pilot’s equipment so that if rain is expected, or if barometric pressure drops, icons will blink on their data screens. The colonel believes that providing user-controlled filters will be important because they will allow systems to be tuned to forward only mission-specific information.

However, Col. Webster believes that future command and control architectures must be human-centric to support decision superiority instead of only providing information superiority. “The goal is to increase the speed and quality of the decisions, not merely the information to the decision makers,” he says.

Col. Corbett concurs, noting that blindly emphasizing information or knowledge superiority as a silver bullet ignores an enemy’s intelligence and breeds hubris. “Because when you think you’re smarter than your adversary, you’ve probably established the preconditions for defeat. You get this arrogance that, ‘I’ve got a computer, and he doesn’t, so I’m smarter.’ The idea that I’m smarter than this guy simply because I’ve got higher technology is probably what led Custer into Little Big Horn, and maybe it’s what led us into the battle of Mogadishu. It will continue to lead us to places we don’t want to go if we’re stroking our own arrogance with this idea of information superiority,” he contends.

What the Marine Corps—and by extension all the other services—seeks is decision superiority. One advantage of this approach is that, when a force can gain and maintain the initiative, it knows it has decision superiority. “You’re the one who is deciding and acting, and your adversary is responding to you. And you can also tell when you are losing,” he adds.

The colonel believes this is a better metric than information because, while data may provide a picture of the battlespace, “if the enemy knows where he put the mine last night, and you don’t, he has relative information superiority over you.” The goal is to develop concepts for command and control systems that are based on serving human needs. “We must keep in mind that we’re dealing with intelligent, reactive, adaptive adversaries who will always astound us with their innovation on the battlefield and their ability both to learn and to execute on information that we don’t think they have,” Col. Corbett maintains.