What is a Warfighting Culture?

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For the past 14 months I have been privileged to serve as an exchange officer with the United States Marine Corps. During this time I have witnessed a military organization with a strong warfighting culture founded upon four key traits – A Fighting Spirit, A Focus on Warfighting, A Critical Mindset, Innovation and Adaptation. These traits provide the foundation for a warfighting culture that make this professional organization the formidable fighting force it is today and set the conditions for it to remain so in the future.

The Marine Corps offers an example of a warfighting culture worthy of careful consideration. However, as we seek to learn from others to evolve our own warfighting culture for future war and conflict we must ensure we do so through the lens of our own unique circumstances. A combination of comparative, reflective, and visionary (future oriented) thought is required. This short observational piece offers some contributions to the former.

A Fighting Spirit

From the minute a new recruit stands on the yellow footsteps at recruit depot, a fighting spirit is driven into every Marine. To earn the title Marine, for it is earned not given, a recruit must first pass a series of physically and mentally challenging combat focused tests culminating with the Crucible. From day one, Marines are conditioned to have a determination to win, an eagerness to fight, and to accept nothing less than victory.

All Marines are expected to fight regardless of their role; fighting is not just something the Combat Arms do. Collective training events put Combat Service Support, Combat Support and Combat Arms through equally rigorous and demanding training. Additionally, physical training and individual combative programs such as the Marine Martial Arts Program continue to develop and reinforce a fighting spirit throughout a Marines career. Here’s what happened when UFC fighters took on Marine Martial Art Experts.

A Focus on Warfighting

The Marine Corps has an intense focus on warfighting against dynamic, adaptive, highly capable peer adversaries. Whilst it is well understood that the Marine Corps will be called upon to act as 911 force to operate at any point on the spectrum of conflict at short notice, it is full scale warfighting that the Marine Corps invests in most heavily, and for good reason. By preparing for the most dangerous courses of action, the Marine Corps ensures it has the necessary expeditionary capabilities and associated readiness levels for a worst case scenario, whilst also maintaining the necessary capabilities for dealing with any short notice contingency that may arise.

The Marine Corps does not allow its warfighting focus to be compromised. As with any large military organisation things don’t go to plan, and things change, however within the Marine Corps a focus on warfighting is the context for dealing with these things. A loss of confidence in a commander’s ability to lead their unit, unacceptable behaviour, a failure to maintain physical standards, all are dealt with firmly and swiftly. The introduction of women into combat arms has been dealt with within the same context to good effect. Political and public debate around the topic has not been allowed to distract the Marine Corps from its core mission – “…to win our nations battles swiftly and aggressively in times of crisis…”[1]

A Critical Mindset

From Lieutenant Colonel “Pete” Ellis’ conceptualization of amphibious operations that set the conditions for victory in the pacific in World War Two to the modern day, the Marine Corps has always conducted a critical analysis of its operating environment and its ability to wage war. This is perhaps best demonstrated in its current capstone concept document, The Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC), which boldly states: “The Marine Corps is currently not organized, trained and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.”[2]

The MOC, released in 2016, conceptualizes a likely future operating environment (FOE), identifies five critical tasks and specifies 209 subordinate tasks, not counting the implied tasks within, that the Marine Corps must achieve to be able to fight and win in the FOE.

The MOC is intended to serve as a guiding document, not to be adhered to dogmatically. Accordingly, the Marine Corps has built a framework for learning around the MOC to advance the concepts and ideas articulated in the document, and identify ideas and capabilities not included. This framework includes 12 Warfighting Challenges, each of which has specified learning demands and is assigned to a Marine Corps organization to lead and coordinate.[3] Institutional learning against the demands is collected and presented quarterly to a General Officer board, known as the Quarterly Future Review (QFR). Annually, a consolidation of learning occurs through a document called the Future Force Implementation Plan (FFIP). Both inform the future force development process, and prioritization of funding for future capabilities to realize a Marine Corps envisioned in the MOC.

Innovation and Adaptation

The MOC, and the Commandant’s command guidance set the conditions for innovation and adaptation in todays Marine Corps.[4] In addition to the multitude of capabilities being developed by defence science and technology organizations, there is a wide spread acknowledgement that good ideas do not wear rank. Through initiatives such as the Commandant of the Marine Corps Innovation Challenge, which prioritizes learning demands and occurs quarterly, the Marine Corps seeks to leverage the talent resident in individual Marines across all levels of command to solve challenging operational and tactical problems.

The result is the submission of tactically and operationally relevant ideas, which are then allocated funding and subsequently assessed under operational conditions.[5] For example, one of the 2016 winners with an initiative that generates a common logistics sustainment-operating picture was a Staff Sergeant. His initiative received funding and he was assigned to lead a project team to develop a system of prototypes for testing and experimentation. All of which occurred within a 12-month timeframe, and will inform the future force development process. This quarter’s Innovation Challenge is focused on Information Warfare capabilities, and will no doubt provide more innovative solutions to advance required Marine Corps capabilities.

The Australian Army Mission is to “…fight and win the joint land battle…”, therefore we to must ensure that we have a robust warfighting culture.[6] Nothing less is acceptable. Everything that we do must be done within this context. A warfighting culture is exactly that, it’s a culture. It is not a specialist skill set, capability platform, or some vacuous management vision statement; at heart, it is the core character of an organization and its people. Stating you have a warfighting culture does not simply equate to having a warfighting culture. It must be instilled into every individual from day one, cultivated and continuously worked at so that it is evidenced in every word and action of every individual, regardless of rank or role. There is no doubt the Marine Corps has a robust warfighting culture, can we say the same?

About the author

Major Mark Tutton is an Australian Infantry Officer currently posted to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.


[1] The full Marine Corps Mission is available here: https://www.marines.com/who-we-are/our-purpose.html
[2] The MOC can be accessed here: https://mcwl.marines.mil/Portals/34/Images/MarineCorpsOperatingConceptSept2016.pdf?ver=2016-12-02073359-207
[3] The Marine Corps Warfighting Challenges (MCWC) can be found in the Marine Corps Force Development Strategic Plan, which can be found here: http://www.mccdc.marines.mil/Portals/172/Docs/MCCDC/FDSP/USMC%20Force%20Development%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf?ver=2015-11-18-075025-083 The MCWC are: 1. Integrate the Naval Force to fight at and from the sea. 2. Conduct entry operations. 3. Ensure interoperability throughout the Joint, Inter-organizational and Multinational (JIM) force while shaping the security environment. 4. Special Operations Forces Integration, Interoperability and Interdependence (I3), 5. Conduct Information Warfare. 6. Develop situational understanding. 7. Employ 21st Century Marine Air Ground Task Force & Naval Fires. 8. Conduct Maneuver Warfare. 9. Sustain the Expeditionary Force. Protecting the Full Force. 11. Enhance Training to Mission. 12. Improve Individual Training and Education.
[4] The purpose of the Commandants Innovation Challenge is to identify missions that currently require Marines to accomplish and that could be replaced by an autonomous system. Additionally, submissions must identify systems or technologies that could make Marines more effective or more safe.” More information can be found here: https://www.marines.com/what-we-do/adapt-and-overcome/warfighting-lab.html
[5] “Challenge winners have the opportunity to directly partner with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab to further develop their ideas into reality through prototyping, experimentation, and possibly Marine Corps wide fielding.” More information can be found here: https://www.marines.com/what-we-do/adapt-and-overcome/warfighting-lab.html
[6]  The full Australian Army Mission can be found here: https://army.gov.au/our-people/who-we-are