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We Chat About the Future With the US Marines' Little-Known Braintrust, the Ellis Group

VICE News sat down with members of the Ellis Group to discuss the future of coalition warfare and disaster response in and around the Pacific.
Photo by Erik Estrada/US Marine Corps

Last week, the most senior levels of marine and naval infantry forces from 24 countries got together in Hawaii to chew the fat, shoot the breeze, and otherwise chinwag about the future of amphibious military operations — from disaster relief to major combat operations — in the Pacific. The event, known as the Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Symposium 2015 (PALS-15), will theoretically have a long and lasting influence on the way nations in the region respond to crises and maintain regional security.

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VICE News was lucky enough to be there, and in between the PowerPoint presentations, we sat down with some of the shit-hot hotshots of the Ellis Group. The cadre of 10 hand-picked military and civilian staff is named after Pete Ellis, the godfather of modern amphibious warfare. The Ellis Group is a tiny, little-known office stashed in the corner of the Marine Corps bureaucracy, and it functions as the Marine Commandant's soothsayers and oracles, dedicated to figuring out anything and everything about the shape of wars yet to come.

The PALS-15 conference focused very heavily on using amphibious military forces for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) missions. Which, on the face of it, is a bit odd. It took a ton of logistical planning to bring all these military bigwigs together, so once they were all in the same room, why in the world would they talk about being volunteer first responders?

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Thing is, the level of violence associated with an operation doesn't scale directly with its importance or impact. HA/DR missions are, essentially, a soft power lifesaving counterpart to the traditional hard power exercise of hitting a beach and holding it against all comers. And there's no getting around the fact that the Pacific region is temperamental when it comes to Ma Nature.

"The Pacific is God's own natural disaster playground," Major Brian Davis of the Ellis Group told VICE News. "The fact is that natural disasters occur almost annually."

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The 24 nations involved in PALS-15, including the host US, are shown in red. Brazil, India, and East Timor (in yellow) were invited but unable to attend. The gathering was held in Hawaii, bellybutton of the Pacific, and headquarters to the US Pacific Command. 

So fine, the countries of the Pacific regularly get pounded by typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis. How is this the Marine Corps' problem? Well, let's start with why amphibious capabilities are so important. First, the Pacific is, to use a technical term, ginormous. And ships are the best way to move huge amounts of material over the long distances of the Pacific. If physics and geography mean that ships are the best way to get stuff moved into place following a crisis, then amphibious ships are the best way to actually do something with all that stuff once it's adjacent to a disaster area.

"Amphibious ships are platforms that specialize in influencing events ashore by means other than ordnance," said Art Corbett, concept developer with the Ellis Group. "An aircraft carrier is very effective at delivering bombs: If bombs are going to solve your problem, get an aircraft carrier."

Bombing the hungry, hurt, and ill after a disaster wouldn't solve a whole lot of problems, so amphibious ships tend to be the preferred tool of choice for HA/DR missions. While amphibious strike groups pack plenty of ordnance on their own, they are also a good way to get relief supplies, construction equipment, and medical facilities to affected areas when the transportation networks are so damaged that other relief options are cut off. And natural disasters are pure hell on the infrastructure so important for getting critical supplies to victims following a calamity.

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"When the typhoon erases the airport, you can't get things there, and there's no port facility to get things there," explained the Ellis Group's Lieutenant Colonel Greg Wardman. "How are you supposed to get support and relief to people on all these islands when they've basically been wiped clean?"

Overcoming the absence of friendly, usable air and sea ports is pretty much the whole reason amphibious forces exist.

Marine forces are good in a first responder role because of the mechanics of conducting amphibious operations. There's limited space onboard ship to move people around and organize them — and screwing around with that stuff while at sea is an invitation to get sunk — so Marine forces often work from a book of preplanned mission options. The US Marine Corps playbook, for example, includes more than a dozen mission options ranging from amphibious assault (a.k.a. forcible entry) to rescuing downed pilots to peacekeeping and stability operations.

Before going on deployment, Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) — which combine Navy and Marine assets into a complete package — train together, rehearsing the playbook, so that they can start doing stuff instantaneously when called upon. (Or as instantaneously as 5,000 people can do anything.) ARGs start launching aircraft in support of a mission no more than six hours after getting the word. The ability to jump into high gear quickly is an obvious plus for any first responder, whether they're firefighters or marines.

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So HA/DR is important in the Pacific, and amphibious capabilities are important to HA/DR. But those facts aren't all that prompted everyone to show up in Hawaii, nor are all the fruity cocktails with little umbrellas in them. As it so often is, money was also a big motivator. Budgets are still tight after the world economy went bust in 2008, and armed forces everywhere are scrambling for dollars as they more broadly try to justify their existence.

In a way, 2013's Typhoon Haiyan presented that opportunity. The Ellis Group's Tom McKenna summed it up, noting that "the international response to lack of response to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief needs has spurred some of the surge in interest." In other words, just as nations were getting hammered for not doing enough in response to a disaster, first responders happened to be looking to justify their existence and expense. So everyone wants to demonstrate how good they are at responding to disasters.

Thing is, if everyone is responding at the same time, it creates a bunch of complications. Broad multinational coalitions where all the people of the world come together peacefully to clean up after a disaster — or wage war — are, on some level, a completely unrealistic fiction. The military services of the same country already have a hard enough time working together; they have different cultures, organizations, and norms that make joint operations a chore. That gets much, much harder when you go international or interagency (non-governmental or otherwise).

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To be sure, there are practical advantages in working with other countries. For instance, it can help smooth over the kind of cultural differences that impede re-establishing civil society and rule of law in a counterinsurgency campaign or after a national disaster. But all of that extra capability comes with requirements: liaison officers, interpreters and translators, logistics support — that's to name just a few. Those added requirements amount to a tax on a force. Thus, the question that goes with cooperating with an ally is this: Does the practical, real-world benefit of partnership exceed the coalition tax that a force must pay to operate with partners?

Talking and hammering out some basic things in advance — even fundamentals, like agreeing that everyone in a coalition will aspire to use a common working language — is so much easier than figuring it out when the shit hits the fan. So all the time spent in conferences in Hawaii is a way for existing and prospective coalition partners to pay down the cooperation tax.

This is a positive sign for the US. While the ostensible focus last week was on HA/DR cooperation, the real issue at hand is cooperation with both new and existing allies should all hell break loose in the form of a high-intensity, full-spectrum Asia-Pacific Battle Royale.

"The reality of it is there's no point in the world, at this stage of the game, where the United States is going to do anything unilaterally," Wardman said. "The sky is blue, water is wet, and you're going to go to war in a coalition. So you may as well embrace it and stop fighting it."

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Related: Figuring Out the Future of War in the Pacific — Or, What the Hell is Seabasing?

The US is called upon a lot to take a leadership role because the US has the biggest, shiniest, and most expensive kit in the world. It's like being the only one of your friends who has a car; for better or for worse, you're always asked to come along.

Planners at PALS-15 kept talking about the considerations of time and distance, noting that it's pretty inefficient for forces whose home is in the western Pacific to sit around and wait for a US force coming all the way from San Diego before addressing a crisis. The US wanted to discuss cooperation in part because ultimately, the US doesn't want to be the only one of its friends who has a car.

Or as Davis put it, "The ultimate solution is… that the host nation can handle the crisis, or the regional partners can handle the crisis, and we don't have to respond at all."

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS