Concepts & Programs HomeConceptsSubordinate Operating ConceptsLittoral Operations in a Contested Environment


The purpose of the Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) concept is to describe naval operations in the littoral environment in light of emerging threats in order to provide a unified framework for Navy-Marine Corps innovation. It places a renewed emphasis on fighting for and gaining sea control, to include employing sea-based and land-based Marine Corps capabilities in support of the sea control fight. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) approved the classified version of LOCE in February 2017, and followed it with an unclassified version in September of that year.

Joint doctrine defines the maritime domain as consisting of the “oceans, seas, bays, estuaries, islands, coastal areas, and the airspace above these, including the littorals.” Joint doctrine also says the littoral is comprised of two segments. The seaward portion is that area from the open ocean to the shore that must be controlled to support operations ashore. The landward portion is the area inland from the shore that can be supported and defended directly from the sea. Today, the range of modern sensors and weapons extends hundreds of miles both seaward and landward, blurring the distinction between operations at sea and on land and necessitating an operational approach that treats the littorals as a singular, integrated battlespace. Depending on a given situation, the cognizant naval commander’s assigned operating area should include a sufficient portion of the landward battlespace to enable rapid engagement of threats therein. 

During the immediate post-Cold War era, the maritime environment was largely uncontested. As a result, the Navy and Marine Corps were able to focus on the capabilities that support maritime power projection unfettered by a corresponding need to fully invest in those capabilities required to establish sea control. The luxury of this presumptive maritime superiority meant that the capabilities, tactics, techniques and procedures associated with fighting at sea, along with the idea that maritime power projection might need to be conducted in support of sea control, were allowed to wane. In fact, the increasingly contested operating environment marks a return to the historic norm, with the added challenge posed by 21st century sensors and weapons. Friendly naval forces now routinely face land-based and sea-based threats employed by state and non-state actors who are implementing sea denial strategies. Armed with increasingly formidable sea denial capabilities, future adversaries may be capable of controlling choke points, holding key maritime terrain, or denying freedom of action and maneuver within the littorals by imposing unacceptable risk to forces at ever increasing ranges. Additionally, some potential adversaries are attempting to expand their sea denial capabilities into the ability to achieve sea control. These conditions call for a paradigm shift and the reinvigoration of a unified naval approach that effectively integrates sea control and maritime power projection capabilities.

Certain aspects of naval operational art have not been adequately developed for 21st century warfare. The Navy and Marine Corps already possess some very effective capabilities. However, adversaries now demonstrate the ability to rapidly adapt and implement sophisticated counters to U.S. capabilities. The Navy and Marine Corps need to renew integrated naval approaches for applying those capabilities, adapt them to meet emerging challenges, and identify capability gaps that must be overcome. At a time when adversary capabilities have extended the seaward reach of land-based weapons, thereby blurring the dividing line between land and sea, Navy and Marine Corps forces are often employed as separate entities in an artificially divided maritime battlespace. These practices inhibit the effective application of our complementary capabilities. Friendly naval forces lack recent experience employing unified and integrated task forces able to conduct operations in a contested littoral against advanced threats. Task-organized naval forces must be able to flexibly apply the capabilities resident in each Service both at sea and ashore. However, given advances in adversary sensor and weapon capability and capacity, as well as geographic considerations and global commitments, fleet commanders/Joint Force maritime component commanders (JFMCC) may be challenged to assemble the required capabilities, capacities, span of control, or optimal formations to effectively respond to crises, address larger contingencies, and deter aggression in contested littorals.    

The Navy and Marine Corps will refine how we organize, train, and equip forces in order to provide the fleet commanders/JFMCC the ability to operate in all five dimensions of the littorals for the duration required. These five dimensions include: seaward (both surface and subsurface); landward (both surface and subterranean); the airspace above; cyberspace; and the electromagnetic spectrum. These refinements will give the fleet commanders/ JFMCC a wider range of integrated, Navy-Marine Corps force options and additional sensor and weapons capacity. These task organizations will fight with unity of command, employing networked, seabased and land-based capabilities as well as common doctrine and operating principles, to counter adversary sea denial forces, disrupt his C4ISR-strike complex, and overcome disadvantages in capacity and/or weapons range by creating a modular, scalable, and integrated naval network of sea-based and land-based sensors, shooters, and sustainers that provide for a capable, persistent and mobile forward presence that will effectively respond to crises, address larger contingencies, and deter aggression in contested littorals. Five supporting ideas expand upon the central idea:

  1. Composite Warfare Commander
    The Navy and Marine Corps will conduct wargaming, experimentation, and exercises to determine the most effective way to integrate Marine Corps capabilities into the CWC construct for operations on the sea and from the sea, and from the land to the sea. The LOCE concept proposes designating the MAGTF commander as an expeditionary warfare commander (EXWC) or a strike warfare commander (STWC) depending on the nature of the mission and forces involved. For example, current, emerging and envisioned Marine Corps capabilities (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, air defense batteries, F-35B/C, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCM), etc.) can be integrated into the CWC construct as additional sensor and firing nodes for the various warfare commanders, including the STWC, surface warfare commander (SUWC), and air and missile defense commander (AMDC). Each warfare commander, whether a Navy officer or Marine officer, will support or receive support from the other warfare commanders as the tactical situation demands and CWC directs.
  2. Integrated Fleet/JFMCC Staffs
    The Navy and Marine Corps will explore assigning Marine subject matter experts (SMEs) to fleet/ JFMCC staffs to provide the requisite expertise regarding Marine Corps capabilities, limitations, and support requirements.
  3. Littoral Combat Groups (LCG)
    The Navy and Marine Corps will explore the viability of a force package designed to establish sea control in order to conduct crisis response in an uncertain environment. Due to the focus on sea control, the LCG would be Navy flag led as an integrated naval task group that includes an amphibious ready group (ARG), a Marine expeditionary unit (MEU), one or more a surface combatants, and select capabilities from the Navy Expeditionary Forces. In the event of an expanding crisis or larger contingency, when more combat power is required to gain sea control, the fleet/ JFMCC commander may elect to reinforce the LCG with additional capabilities or combine the LCG with other formations such as a carrier strike group (CSG), an afloat Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB), or a special purpose MAGTF.
  4. Increasing Capacity
    Recognizing that capability and capacity will always be subject to resource constraints, the Navy and Marine Corps team will examine ways to leverage existing capabilities while also seeking relatively low-cost means to further negate adversary capacity. Major areas for innovation include the conduct of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), the continued development of the Navy’s distributed lethality (DL) initiative, and the development of screening/scouting surface forces. Collectively, these initiatives seek to complicate adversary targeting and help provide friendly forces a favorable missile ratio.
  5. Force on Force Littoral Exercises
    Our current certification exercises serve valid and useful purposes. However, they need to be complemented by realistic and stressful littoral exercises that challenge leaders’ cognitive skills and accelerate learning. Revitalizing littoral operational art requires a realistic and challenging training environment that places humans and machines in conditions as close to actual combat as possible. The most effective way of achieving this is by conducting realistic, evaluated force-on-force exercises—using a combination of physical and virtual means—that produce winners and losers. To enable this approach, “friendly” forces must be pitted against a red team that replicates the capabilities and tactics likely to be employed by adversaries in the littorals. By putting our concepts, doctrine, organizations, tactics and capabilities to the test under stressful conditions, we will learn what works and what doesn’t. We will determine how to integrate new technology and how to coordinate actions in all dimensions and warfare specialties. Most importantly, leaders will be forced to make time-sensitive decisions in the face of uncertainty and then—in a rigorous post exercise critique—explain their actions to their seniors, peers, and subordinates. This is not a novel idea; it is the method used by the fleet and fleet Marine force commanders during the interwar period that generated victory in World War II. Leaders need to prepare themselves for these demanding events through unremitting professional study, conducting rigorous analysis of friendly and enemy capabilities, developing an aggressive spirit tempered by realism, and fostering the ability to think like the enemy.

The LOCE concept seeks to provide a unified framework for Navy-Marine Corps innovation and stimulate creativity to answer the contested littoral problem by advancing Navy-Marine Corps integration.

U.S. Marine Corps Concepts & Programs