Modern Marines depend heavily on information dominance, electronic and cyber warfare, and network-based communication for their battlefield advantage. Despite that, it’s imperative they also train with the mindset that those technologies won’t always be there when they need them, a Marine Corps general said this week.
“There’s a balance. We have to leverage the technology we have — it gives us an operational advantage — but at the same time, which makes training even harder, you have to work through or be prepared for when it’s not there,” Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said during a discussion with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
With more than 40 years as a Marine, Neller recalls his own combat experience “when we were underneath the poncho at night with a flashlight stuck in our mouth trying to read the map and figure out where the hell we were, hoping some sergeant could tell us” and “where you’re operating on single-channel radio and if it worked 50 percent of the time, you were ecstatically happy.”
Marines today have grown up and been trained in an environment that’s much different, he said.
“[T]hey walk into the operations center and they’ve got big screen TVs with common operational picture, they know exactly where all their people are cause they have ‘blue force tracker,’ they can see the airplanes, they’ve got perfect comms, they’ve got multiple means digitally to chat or to text, let alone voice…,” Neller said.
“The fight that we used to think about in air, land and sea, and under the sea, has now expanded to space, to cyber and to the information domain,” he said.
As much as Marines have come to expect those technologies will be at their disposal on the battlefield, Neller isn’t so sure that will always be the case. Some oppositional forces may have the capability to jam communications and contest Marine networks, especially when the fight is on their own turf.
“We have developed a system of warfighting that is very dependent on the Internet, the network and space,” he said. “So looking at our potential adversaries, do we think that that’s going to be there if we were to engage with these folks? I would say I don’t know. I don’t think you can assume that.”
Neller added: “In fact I would think our friendly center of gravity from a tactical sense is we have to protect our network. If we lose that, then now we’re back to paper maps and [high frequency] radio…”
So they’re training more for that very scenario. In force-on-force training at Twentynine Palms training center in San Bernardino, California, the corps is purposely throwing a wrench into the plans of Marine trainees.
“It’s simple stuff like that, jamming the radio or saying, ‘Hey the GPS doesn’t work,’ or ‘The whole network server just crashed,’” Neller said. They even give the oppositional training teams new technologies like small unmanned aerial vehicles that many trainees haven’t encountered.
Despite these Marines’ dependency on modern technologies, Neller believes they will be able to adapt with the right training.
“I have no doubt in my mind that our force will figure it out — that they’re much smarter, more capable, more adaptive than we ever were, cause they’ve grown up in this, and they’ll adjust,” he said. “But we’ve got to put them in situations to where they deal with it. Because you train based on what you think is going to happen to you in the environment.”