Preparing for the Future: Marine Corps Support to Joint Operations in Contested Littorals

7 May 2021 | General David H. Berger Commandant of the Marine Corps

Over the last five years, the U.S. defense establishment has begun to grapple with the implications of the advent of a radically more complex and challenging strategic epoch. The return of great-power competition and the continuing threats of regional rogue states and violent nonstate actors challenge our Nation’s interests amid an ongoing “revolution in technology that poses both peril and promise.”

Consideration of the challenging future these changes are likely to produce has sparked an energetic focus on developing new operating concepts, technologies, and force structures in all the military services. The U.S. Marine Corps is no exception. In close partnership with the U.S. Navy, our thought in recent years has converged around the concepts of littoral operations in contested environments and expeditionary advanced base operations, and their implications for the full range of Title 10 service functions in organizing, training, and equipping the forces necessary to execute them. During my predecessor’s tenure as commandant, the U.S. Marine Corps embarked upon a campaign of learning to draw out these implications, a campaign that has continued and accelerated on my watch. Our learning to this point has led us to some interesting initial conclusions and hypotheses. One of the most interesting is the possibility that a major role for Marine Corps forces in critical future scenarios may revolve around enabling naval and joint force commanders as a dedicated multi-domain reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance force.

Reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance are precisely defined in joint and service doctrine. Reconnaissance operations, in any domain, use the full range of available “detection methods to obtain information about the activities and resources of an enemy or adversary.” Counterreconnaissance seeks to prevent adversaries from doing the same to us; it comprises “all measures taken to prevent hostile observation of a force, area, or place.” In the maritime context, it is wise to marry these current doctrinal definitions with the broader perspective conveyed in two “navy words of distinguished lineage”: scouting and screening. The distinguished naval tactician Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr. defined scouting as “reconnaissance, surveillance, code-breaking, and all other ways to obtain and report combat information to commanders and their forces,” and screening as “all measures used to frustrate the enemy’s scouting effort … includ[ing] the possibility of attacking a threatening enemy.” This broader naval understanding of the mission informs my understanding of reconnaissance and counterreconnaissance in the pages that follow.

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