Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, enter a building during an urban assault at Range 200 aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, May 16, 2017

Marines with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, enter a building during an urban assault at Range 200 aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, May 16, 2017 U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Jesus Sepulveda Torres

Want to Understand the Future of War? Talk to Chuck Krulak

As Marine commandant, Krulak bucked Pentagon wisdom and rebuilt the Corps for small, messy conflicts. Now his ideas run through the National Defense Strategy, urban-ops doctrine, and Jim Mattis' head.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Three days before the Pentagon will publish its new National Defense Strategy, Chuck Krulak opens a 20-year-old PowerPoint deck on a big iMac screen and walks me through its prescient description of the world to come.

“We saw shifting power, to China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam. [Economic power] was going, whether you liked it or not, to the Pacific,” he says, recalling discussions from the late 1990s, when he was the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps. “Then I said there’s going to be increasing cultural and religious strife…the rise of the non-state.…The change in weapons and information technology, the key there being it was accessible to everyone, because a lot of it was being driven by other countries.” 

Just as significant was “the CNN effect, which was really missed by a lot of people: Not only was there a rapid change in technology and everyone could get to it, but our enemy had watched the impact of our capability, they’d seen it on CNN,” Krulak recalls. “And their answer to it was asymmetric warfare: Not the Son of Desert Storm but the Stepchild of Chechnya.”

Even now, as the Pentagon pivots to confront the “revisionist powers” of Russia and China, the asymmetric threat looms large. As commandant, Krulak developed a strategic framework to meet that challenge and reoriented the Marine Corps to face it. Among the rising stars back then was one Col. James Mattis, a warrior-intellectual who earned his first star halfway through Krulak’s tenure. Today, Mattis is defense secretary — and there are traces of Krulak’s ideas embedded in his brand-new National Defense Strategy, released on Jan. 19 and meant to guide the American military for years to come.

Seated in his home office, surrounded by mementos of his 36 years in the Corps, Krulak revisits that vision and tries to offer perspective. There is a Vietnam-era M1 assault rifle over the window, bookshelves to one side, and pictures all around. There are photos with President Reagan and the first President Bush, small statues, a beret from the French Foreign Legion. Swords, shadowboxes and more pictures. It’s our first face-to-face conversation in 19 years.

Back when he was commandant, I was editor of Navy Times (and the Marine Corps Edition that would later become Marine Corps Times). We interviewed him in his office at the old Navy Annex, in the Commandant’s House at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., in our offices in Virginia. He visited for editorial boards, and on a few occasions dropped by without notice. On one of those visits he warned, at rising pitch and volume, about a future that would look more like Chechnya than Desert Storm.

With hindsight, that seems logical; at the time, it seemed overwrought. Chechnya was a debacle for a beleaguered post-Soviet Russian army, an urban quagmire of house-to-house fighting against an embittered, ideologically motivated break-away state. The United States faced no such danger. We had survived, and learned from, the Battle of Mogadishu. 

Krulak and his team of thinkers and planners sensed otherwise. They saw that the 1994-95 Battle of Grozny would somehow play out for the United States in the not-so-distant future. And it did, a decade later in Fallujah, and a decade after that in Raqqa.

The CNN effect, meanwhile, only expanded and morphed. Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook Live have replaced cable news as the viral media of choice. Smartphones put video cameras and an internet connection in the hands of the masses. The Army and Marine Corps’ new joint publication on Urban Operations, published in December, makes that clear: “The proliferation of cell phones, video cameras, Internet capability, and media outlets ensure close observation of the activities of Army/Marine Corps forces … public information of Army/Marine Corps operations is available faster than the internal military information systems can process it … Under media scrutiny, the action of one Soldier/Marine has significant strategic implications.”

So it is that the Strategic Corporal, a concept Krulak introduced in the 1990s, is now fully ingrained in military doctrine.

The CNN effect went further than defining global sentiment, Krulak says. It taught America’s enemies about its strengths and weaknesses.

“Where were we weak? We were weak in any kind of close terrain. If we got into urban environments, if we got into woods, if we got into any place where our systems, our overhead systems, couldn’t see, if they were able to get us dispersed, if we weren’t able to bring together our combat power, if we were dumb enough to continue to drive down the same roads, to walk like we did in Vietnam or drive like we did in Iraq, they would blow us up,” he says, leaning forward now in his chair and gesticulating to emphasize the point. “This is what I was telling, and the Marine Corps was telling, DoD. And they thought we were crazy.”

Who Would Fight the Three-Block War?

In 1995, Krulak created the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to explore these and other ideas. His team of writers and thinkers formed a sort of internal think tank, posing questions and challenging assumptions. “I’m saying then, ‘If this is all true, then what’s going to happen?’” Krulak says. “And what’s going to happen is what came to be known as the Three-Block War — really, hybrid warfare.”

The Three-Block War would come to define urban operations in the post-9/11 world. American troops found themselves simultaneously providing humanitarian assistance, conducting peacekeeping and stability operations, and engaging in direct combat, all within blocks of each other. The participants would be young soldiers and Marines, often acting independently, who would have to make snap judgments with potentially long-range consequences.

For Marines to survive those tests, Krulak reasoned, they had to be educated, trained, and prepared to make the right choices under pressure. That meant intensifying and extending training and imbuing it with history, ethics, and tactical decision-making drills. The Corps extended boot camp by 10 days, increased physical training, gave more time to drill instructors to form their charges. They also added The Crucible, a 54-hour test of endurance in which sleep- and food-deprived recruits learned they couldn’t make it through alone; they would rely on their teammates or they would fail. Only those who made it through The Crucible earned the title “Marine.”

“We do two things: Make Marines and win battles,” Krulak says. The Strategic Corporal and The Three-Block War tracked directly to both. Making better decisionmakers and equipping Marines to make the right moral and ethical choices were his foremost objectives, and these tied into the very essence of what the Marine Corps is in the eyes of the American people.

The roots of that idea trace back a generation. In 1957, then-Commandant Gen. Randolph Pate wrote to Krulak’s father, Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak:

“Dear Brute,
Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?
When convenient, would you jot down some answers to the above question?”

Chuck Krulak fetches a copy of his father’s book, “First to Fight,” and reads to me excerpts from Brute Krulak’s storied reply: “The United States does not need a Marine Corps, mainly because she has a fine modern Army and a vigorous Air Force. Her Army fights on the ground – on any kind of ground – and does it well. Her Air Force fights in the air and does it well too. Marines are designed to fight on the ground and in the air just like the Army and the Air Force and have no corner on skill in either place.

“The Marines claim to have a mystical competence in landing operations, but they really don’t. There are thousands and thousands of soldiers who have been carefully trained…and they can do anything Marines can do.”

This is not what one expects from a Marine, but there is a point. He concludes: “We exist today, we flourish today, not because of what we are or what we know we can do, but because of what the grass roots of our country believes we are and believes we can do.” The American people, Krulak argued, believe “Marines are masters of a form of unfailing alchemy that converts un-oriented youths into proud, self-reliant, stable citizens.… Should the people ever lose that conviction – as the result of our failure to meet their high – almost spiritual – standards, the Marine Corps will then quickly disappear.”

The Strategic Corporal was at once a response to that perpetual existential threat – unlike any other military service, the Marines are institutionally paranoid about their survival – and also a response to the changing strategic realities of modern combat: that any institution operating in the public eye derives its power and influence from the public’s trust and is only so good as its most junior and most visible members.

The Strategic Corporal reflected a clear understanding that the moral failure of a single individual could have devastating impact. The United States had lost its moral standing in Vietnam after the massacre at Mai Lai; it lost it in Iraq after photos emerged of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. In Afghanistan, photos and videos of abuses, such as Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, undermined the mission and rallied the enemy, now no longer in just one country but, through the power of social media, around the globe.

Indeed, the roots of The Crucible trace to September 1995, just a couple of months after Krulak became commandant: “When two Marines and a sailor raped a little girl in Okinawa, that had massive strategic importance,” he says. “We’ve never gotten over it.”

The incident launched a protest movement that continues to this day. Its implications will reverberate even after 2024, when the Marines move to Guam and return Futenma Air Station to the Okinawans.

The Future

Though Mattis makes no explicit mention of ethics or morals in his defense strategy, he does highlight professional education, specifically “deepening our knowledge of history” and emphasizing “independence of action.” He argues for expanded international partnerships, increasing interoperability and fortifying alliances, which likewise depend on human interaction and the building of trust. It goes without saying that violations of that trust undermine such relationships.

Most important, he writes, “We must anticipate the implications of new technologies on the battlefield, rigorously define the military problems anticipated in future conflict, and foster a culture of experimentation and calculated risk-taking.”

Similar thoughts had driven Krulak to create the Warfighting Lab. Its early Hunter Warrior and Urban Warrior experiments involved unmanned surveillance aircraft, pocket-sized computers with GPS navigation, unmanned helicopter resupply, and new tactics and procedures developed or adapted to take advantage of those tools. The ideas seemed almost fanciful then, but within a few short years they were commonplace on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The ability to use technology is going to prove even more important when dealing with an enemy like China, Krulak says now, because of advances not only in communications and surveillance, but also in pure destructive power. “They have systems now that fire rockets, artillery, that literally can obliterate an entire grid square. So the ability to mass your forces in the way Clausewitz talked about mass, those days are probably over. The idea of crossing into Kuwait with two divisions in the Tiger Brigade, to be able to do that will be really, really difficult. Technology will become more and more important to the battlefield and to the battle space.”

Maneuvering Navy ships close to shore is increasingly risky, he notes. “But that opens the door for experimentation with deception methods,” Krulak adds, recalling a scene from Master and Commander in which Capt. Jack Aubrey escapes pursuit by using a small decoy float to confuse his enemy. “We need an innertube, whatever, that has the ability to simulate the radar signature of an aircraft carrier.”

Some things don’t change in warfare. “You always want to reach back to your touchstone and think about how to deceive the enemy,” he says. In the future, “we’ll need the ability to simulate a headquarters, because they’re going to want to go after headquarters quickly; the ability to work very dispersed, because of the ability to wipe out an entire grid square. … We’ve got to recognize that if you’re going to have that kind of lethality, then you’re going to have ways to deceive that lethality.

“The asymmetric warrior is always going to have the advantage. Why? Because he isn’t encumbered by bureaucracy,” Krulak says. “If we want to buy something, or invent something, or go after something, it is such a pain in the ass to do it. Whereas that cyber guy, he can just go and buy” what he needs and program it to do what he wants it to do.

That cyber enemy is actively using deception to try to foil American systems and defenses. America will have to respond in kind, just as Lucky Jack Aubrey might have done in his day, when the sea was as vast and unknowable as cyberspace is today. How will the U.S. military prevail? The answer should be familiar, Krulak suggests: “You’re going to have to use deception to beat the cyber guy.”