BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Ellis: Operational and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era

B.A. Friedman, ed. 21st Century Ellis: Operational and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. 151 pp.

Review by Brigadier Generals’ Julian “Dale” Alford and Austin “Sparky” Renforth, USMC

It is often said that it is impossible to predict the future, much less what the next war will look like.  Marine Captain Brett A. Friedman, in 21st Century Ellis, hammers home why such beliefs are simplistic. Instead, he explains how Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, USMC (ret.) did, in a variety of writings, most notably Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, predict the future. Friedman also explains how Ellis’ operational experiences, combined with senior leaders’ trust and decisions to enable him to receive a strategic education early in his career, were all essential to his now being referenced as the “Amphibious Prophet.”

21st Century Ellis’ 151 pages are divided into five chapters. The first chapter highlights Ellis’ operational experiences in the Philippines and visionary thoughts on countering insurgencies, in part described in a 1921 Marine Corps Gazette article titled “Bush Brigades.” Ellis’ insights reinforced the necessity of strategic legitimacy and its role in influencing the morale of those involved in countering an insurgency. His article also emphasized that “the use of artillery in street fighting against a small nation enemy should be carefully considered.” These visionary thoughts were published five years before T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 19 years prior to the Small Wars Manual, 43 years prior to David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare, and 85 years prior to Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency. Also noteworthy was Ellis’ emphasis on the importance of the Marine Corps’ proficiency in executing “small wars,” to increasingly include urban areas.

Friedman next takes the reader through Ellis’ experiences in France in World War I, primarily anchored around his 1920 Marine Corps Gazette article titled “Liaison in the World War.” This chapter highlights the challenges inherent in fighting an enemy as part of a coalition. Specifically, Ellis reinforced the maxim that “military units are nearly always required to work before they are well trained,” particularly in fighting as part of a coalition. As a result, Ellis emphasized the importance of teamwork and direct, face-to-face liaison officers to enable close and successful coordination in combat.

The third chapter describes Ellis’ 1911-1912 Naval War College writings and lectures focused on forecasted war in the Pacific. In four essays, “Naval Bases: Their Location, Resources, and Security,” “The Denial of Bases,” “The Security of Advanced Bases and Advanced Base Operations,” and “The Advanced Base Force,” Ellis provided the foundation of thinking that ultimately led to Operations Plan 712: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia’s creation. These essays provided critical insights for amphibious operations that are as salient today as they were in 1912; for example, “in general, the power of a fleet varies inversely as the distance from the base increases.”

“Ellis and the Pacific” is the book’s most insightful chapter as it includes his seminal 1921 work, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. This essay specifically described how war in the Pacific would be waged – two decades later. The reader is also reminded in this chapter that Ellis’ predictions and recommendations were only six years removed from the failed British, Australian, and New Zealand amphibious assault at Gallipoli. This failure resulted in both the Army Command and Staff College and Army War College both teaching the “impossibility of amphibious assault as a matter of course.” Yet, Ellis predicted not only that amphibious assaults would happen in the Pacific but also that a properly trained, educated, organized, and equipped Marine Corps, partnered with the Navy, was the optimal force to execute such challenging missions.

The book’s fifth chapter directly addresses our nation’s challenges in the Pacific now and going forward. Friedman does a great job highlighting China’s rapidly advancing five-domain warfighting capabilities, while also emphasizing our nation’s increasingly limited amphibious lift capabilities. Friedman specifically states “this (amphibious lift) limitation will severely restrict the options available to a joint force during any Pacific conflict.” In part due to both of these realities, our Corps’ posture in the Pacific is changing with the aim of “creating a more dispersed, mobile force layout.” To continue to ensure sea control, these increasingly distributed, smaller, primarily land-based MAGTFs must develop a symbiotic relationship with our relatively limited in capacity naval forces, to include MAGTFs on amphibious shipping. However getting to this point requires multiple changes to how our Naval Service currently operates, to include, at a minimum, greater naval staff integration, as well as long-range, medium altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial systems that can operate from expeditionary airfields while simultaneously extending digital and voice command and control networks; providing electronic and kinetic fires, along with multi-sensor, fused intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. When combined with the ongoing advances within the Marine Ground Combat Element, as well as the new and emerging platforms such as the G/ATOR, MV-22, F-35B/C, KC-130J, and forthcoming CH-53K, these collective capabilities will revolutionize how our Naval Service fights across the range of military operations.

In sum, 21st Century Ellis is a must read for all in the Naval Services. Emulating Ellis, we make the bold prediction that this important book will be added to our Commandant’s Reading List.

(Return to April 2016 Table of Contents)

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