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The “Base” of Innovation

First Lieutenant James Winnefeld, USMC

(Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © (2021) U.S. Naval Institute/ Note: This essay is published, below, as it was originally submitted by the author.)

In the early morning hours of a temperate January day, a contingent of U.S. Marines, 1,723 strong, defended an expeditionary advanced base on a small tropical island from an impending enemy amphibious assault. The Marines reacted quickly, having used airborne reconnaissance in the preceding days to build better situational awareness of the enemy’s disposition.[i] As the sun rose the enemy was thrown back into the sea and the advanced base continued to provide support to the fleet. Thanks to investments of both time and money to innovate their force design, force structure, posture, and capabilities to support the advanced base mission, the Marines were able to successfully defend the island.

This is not a depiction of the Marine force of the future as outlined by Commandant’s 2030 force design.[ii] Conducted on Culebra Island off Puerto Rico over a century ago, the experiment was the culmination of a great deal of thought, debate and ultimately conclusions about how to approach the concept of the advanced base force.  This historic example has increased relevance for today’s force for two important reasons.  First, the Commandant of the Marine Corps General David Berger has challenged the Marine Corps with sweeping change not unlike the Corps at the turn of the 20th century. Second, it is an exemplar in how leadership can foster innovation and change in order to meet emerging threats.

The Need for an Advanced Base Force. . .  and a Reluctant Candidate

At the turn of the Twentieth Century the United States Navy, influenced by Alfred Thayer Mahan, began to shift its focus towards maintaining a permanent peacetime force ready to execute control over large swaths of ocean. The need for a large fleet capable of projecting power far away from US shores was compounded by the acquisition of territory in the Pacific and Caribbean ceded by Spain in the Spanish-American War. Success in any future naval campaign would require the fleet to seize and hold strategically important advanced bases in order to support the logistical demands of a large coal burning fleet. [iii]

The Marine Corps stood as the leading candidate to execute advanced basing operations (ABO) for several reasons. First, the Department of the Navy desired to keep all matters pertaining to or bordering the naval realm—advanced basing included—securely within the Department’s purview, and away from its Army rival. [iv]  Second, the Marine Corps previously displayed an aptitude for securing advanced bases when it deployed a battalion afloat to secure Guantanamo Bay as a coaling station for blockading ships during the Spanish-American War.  Finally, advances in technology leading to the increase in range of naval engagements implied the Marine Corps’ current role of providing security and sharpshooters for ship-to-ship combat was losing its relevance.  Many high-ranking Navy officers viewed Marine Corps presence on naval ships as wasted manpower and wanted to shift the service to this new mission.  The Marine Corps, however, was reluctant to address an advanced base role fearing the removal of Marines from ships would result in the disbandment of the Marine Corps itself.[v]  It was not the first or last time a service would cling to an existing concept in lieu of innovation to meet new realities.

Despite these existential fears, on November 22nd, 1900, Commandant Brigadier General Charles Heywood accepted the ABO mission outlined by the Secretary of the Navy’s General Board. The Corps’ first step was to establish an advanced basing school in Newport, Rhode Island followed quickly by two ABO experiments in Annapolis, Maryland and Culebra, Puerto Rico to test the validity of the concept. [vi] The latter was particularly significant because of the extensive foundation in naval integration it established.

A Successful Exercise in Naval Integration

Two years after the Marine Corps accepted the ABO mission, Colonel Percival Pope led the largest Marine advanced basing force since the capture of Guantanamo Bay in the Spanish-American War.[vii] Colonel Pope came ashore on Culebra with two battalions of Marines and immediately commenced final preparations for the concept’s first major test.

The force quickly ran into a series of unexpected problems.  Most prominently, the Marines found the majority of their supplies had been loaded first aboard their transport ships, which now required unloading of all the ships’ supplies in order to execute their mission. In a letter to Commandant Haywood, Colonel Pope described this arduous process and stressed the importance of better coordination with the Navy during the initial loading of ships for this mission.  Additionally, they discovered a shortage of equipment needed to adequately establish an advanced naval base, emplace coastal defense guns, and build fighting positions on the rugged island.[viii] Clearly, more thought was needed as to the required capabilities of an advanced base force.

Despite these setbacks the maneuvers at Culebra were widely regarded as a major success in actual execution of naval integration. In a note to Commandant Haywood, Admiral Joseph Coghlan (the senior Navy commander at Culebra) wrote the relative “high state of efficiency and the promptness displayed by the regiment were due to the hearty cooperation of the whole force working harmoniously to carry out the plans of the Department.”[ix]

It rapidly became apparent that strong joint and naval integration was required to tackle the complex advance base mission. The amiable climate achieved between senior Navy and Marine leaders likely eased any concerns the Marines might have had towards self-preservation and the validity of their newly assigned mission. The exercise did, however, leave many unanswered questions regarding how the naval force would leverage force design and force structure for an advanced based force. Nevertheless, the maneuvers at Culebra created a baseline for proper problem framing, academic study, and further execution.

Framing the Problem, Building the Solution

After the success at Culebra, the Marine Corps development of ABO was briefly eclipsed by other realities. Colonel Pope’s force was significantly downsized to a battalion of 300 men as forces were pulled to handle a deteriorating situation in Mexico. There was a serious lack of manpower throughout the remainder of the decade due to other Caribbean missions in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Hispaniola. While other attempts at ABO took place, none of them approached the scale seen at Culebra in 1902.[x]  

After prodding from Navy’s General Board, the Marine Corps refocused its effort on the advanced base mission towards the end of the decade. The Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance allotted $50,000 (about $1.4M in today’s dollars) for advanced base accessories and the advanced base school, now located in Philadelphia. The school created a “systematic curriculum and increasingly focused the professional training and thought of Marine Officers on the advance base problem.”[xi] Armed with backing from senior leaders, prior operational success at Culebra, and increased financial support, the Marines realized they had the necessary support to innovate from a position of institutional security. As a result, the Marines moved on bold proposals towards force design, structure, posture, and new capabilities for the advanced base mission.

The Marine Corps systematically examined innovative ways to combine different elements to create the advanced base force organization. One result was to combine two expeditionary advanced based regiments to form an expeditionary brigade. A fixed regiment would man coastal defense guns, field artillery, and mines while a mobile regiment would maneuver against the enemy beyond the reach of the fixed regiment. An engineer company was included in the force design as a direct result of the lessons learned from Colonel Pope’s Marines struggle with building fortifications on Culebra. Finally, the advanced basing force would also gain a search light and signal company. [xii]

Realizing the strain put on the force due to the various Caribbean missions, naval leaders re-examined the Marine Corps total force structure in order to support the advanced base mission. It became clear the current structure simply did not allow for the creation of two expeditionary regiments. This triggered extra emphasis on the Marine Corps’ recruiting program to build up manpower. Additionally, the Marine Corps began to divest effort in other areas—such as the occupation of the Philippines and ship detachments—and consolidate expeditionary forces into one station in Philadelphia.  “The closing of six minor navy yards and naval stations during 1911 allowed some enlargement of the Marine detachments. . .  by 1912 all of the elements required for an advance base force where there to be put together.”[xiii] These focused decisions about force structure allowed the Marine Corps the end strength necessary to support the force design built for the advanced base mission.

In addition to force structure and force design, the advanced base school focused on how the Marine Corps should define the advance base posture. All future advanced bases would fall into two “bins”—temporary and permanent. Temporary advanced bases were to maintain a minimal amount of presence which could be built up and defended during times of war. The anticipated activities of these bases were defending an attack by fire from the sea, preventing enemy maneuver through mining operations, and attacking an enemy outside of friendly weapon engagement zones. Permanent advance bases were characterized as being defended by extensive, permanent defenses with a large buildup of material and repair plants.[xiv] The best example of a permanent advance base at the time was Pearl Harbor. Establishing these “bins” provided a framework for how to strategically think about advanced bases, which could ultimately ease tough manning and equipping decisions further down the road.

Finally, the Department of the Navy began to look towards gathering equipment to give the Marine Corps new capabilities to execute the advanced base mission. As more emphasis was placed on the advanced base mission, the Bureau of Ordnance provided an additional $100,000 funds on top of the $50,000 initially promised.[xv] Even so, the Marine Corps had to rely on outdated technology in order to gain new capabilities. A prime example was the Marine Corps acquisition of two 4.7-inch field guns from the Army to test as anti-ship weapons. In addition, the advanced base force was able to acquire an assortment of mines, one 5-inch 51 caliber anti-ship gun and several other permanent field guns. In a testament to the focus of joint/naval integration, two Marine officers were sent to the Army School for Submarine Defenses at Fort Monroe, VA to build competency in their mine warfare capability.[xvi] The last major addition to the advance base force’s capabilities were two aircraft acquired for reconnaissance as well as basic anti-air defenses. [xvii]

By the summer of 1913 the pieces required for the permanent advanced base regiment were in place and an intensive training regimen was instituted. All that remained was an exercise to validate the force structure, force design and new capabilities of the infant advance base force. Naval planners would turn to a familiar island in the Caribbean as the location of choice for this test.

The Culebra Maneuvers

With doctrine set and much theoretical and practical training complete, the time came to conduct an advanced base maneuver experiment. The General Board once again turned to Culebra for the test during the Naval Winter Maneuvers of 1913-1914. American planners felt Culebra would be the focal point of a potential war with Germany, dubbing it “the key to the Western Atlantic and the Caribbean.”[xviii] Thus, the Culebra maneuver was not considered merely a practice run for potential advanced bases on islands in the Pacific; rather, a successful exercise would bode well for the ability to maintain strategic control in our own back yard against a peer threat.

The advanced base force consisted of a brigade of Marines divided into fixed and mobile regiments as outlined by the advance base school. Colonel George Barnett was placed in command of the brigade, Colonel Charles Long commanded fixed regiment and Lieutenant Colonel John Lejeune assumed command of the mobile regiment.[xix]

The scenario built for the maneuver templated that “Red Country”, built to resemble Germany, would attempt to gain a foothold in the Caribbean. In response, the Marines would embark their advanced base brigade and head to Culebra. The time spent integrating with the Navy facilitated the Marines ability to conduct an efficient embarkation. Direct improvements included the appointment of a single embarkation officer and a focused emphasis on the “significantly complicated combat loading process” throughout embarkation.[xx] By January 9th, 1914 both regiments had fully embarked, steamed south and dropped anchor off the coast of Culebra. It took both regiments less than ten days to transition all men and equipment ashore and finish the necessary emplacement of a temporary advanced base.

Colonel Barnett tasked the fixed regiment with the establishment and defense of the advanced base in the Great Harbor on the south side of Culebra. Adding an engineer company to the force design greatly facilitated the fixed regiment’s ability to rapidly emplace its large coastal defense guns and construct the advance base.  Additionally, the fixed regiment had thoroughly trained to its mine warfare capability allowing for the rapid deployment of mines in defense of the harbor. Colonel Lejeune placed one of his mobile regiment’s battalions on the southeastern tip of Culebra to defend the harbor’s flank and the other in overwatch of the likely enemy landing beaches to the east and north. [xxi]

The U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, simulating the “Red Fleet”, began the joint exercise on the night of January 18th with simulated naval bombardments from its cruisers and destroyers.  Responding in kind, the Marines ashore began to simulate tracking and detonating mines underneath enemy ships. Additionally, Marine aviators conducted reconnaissance and spotting flights during the day to locate the enemy. Coastal defense guns were fired with such enthusiasm that Colonel Barnett had to order batteries to “simulate fire by firing one blank charge as the first round” in order to conserve propellant for the planned post exercise target practice. [xxii]

The climax of the exercise came on the night of the 21st when the “Red Fleet” attempted a landing on the western edge of Culebra in the early morning hours. The mobile regiment responded quickly to the assault massing simulated “heavy rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire on the approaching boatloads of sailors and marines.” Shortly after seven in the morning the umpires assigned to judging the exercise ordered a ceasefire ruling the island of Culebra “impregnatable” validating the concept in execution. [xxiii]

Past as Prologue

With fundamental changes occurring throughout the force to meet emerging threats, it is important now more than ever to study how leaders in the past led institutional change and fostered innovation.  Five interwoven lessons, drawn from this small example in history, should be applied as our leaders guide us through another era of change.

First, the naval service attacked change methodically and established a framework upon which to build. While the naval leaders of the day never explicitly spelled out the design levers of force design, force structure, force posture, joint/naval integration, and new capabilities, they did frame their thinking around those same levers. Our institution is already on the right track having built a framework of thought through the design levers outlined by the Commandant in his 2030 Force design.[xxiv]

Second, leaders at all levels were able to lead innovation in the different design levers from a position of security. The General Board fostered an environment in which bold innovation and ideas could be advanced in an unthreatening environment.  The Marine Corps was quickly able to divest missions to meet a new reality. Staunch adherence to this principle is important for a force to rapidly flex to meet any peer threat, whether against Germany in 1902 or China in 2020.

Third, innovative ideas were able to move rapidly up and down the chain of command without being mired in bureaucracy. Perhaps the best example of this was Colonel Pope’s communication directly with the Commandant about the merits of combat loading and strong naval integration. Many of these ideas were drawn out through wargaming and execution and implemented quickly by the force; today’s leaders must be actively plugged into and emphasize both tools.

Fourth, the naval services must devote time and money for innovation to succeed. It’s easy to strangle innovation in the crib if the necessary resources are not available to see it through to validation.  New ideas were thoroughly wargamed, trained to and tested in execution. Large sums of money and the Winter Maneuvers of 1913-14, typically Navy-centric exercise, were dedicated to further a Marine Corps-centric mission.

Finally, sister services are important during the innovation process. The Navy was always present during ABO development and Marine Corps leaders realized early on they would need the full support of the Navy in order to be successful. Cross service coordination is hard. The Blue-Green team cannot rest on its laurels of joint integration in the MEU in the past since future missions will require more integration than ever before. It is a capability that must be practiced, religiously.

For ABO in the early Twentieth Century, these lessons worked in concert, resulting in a more capable force ready to fight the next war. The ABO concept was further refined and became a key contributor to War Plan Orange, the island-hopping campaign of World War II and the future identity of the Marine Corps.

The 2030 Force Design has challenged the Marine Corps to initiate a new age of innovation and change to maintain naval supremacy against emerging peer adversaries. The leadership challenge of guiding change and nurturing innovation is not new. Our leaders must provide a dedicated environment in which assumptions can be safely challenged, ideas can rapidly move up and down the chain of command, and where joint integration is at the forefront of decision making.  The force is ready to innovate and change to meet new threats. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.


[i] Cosmas, Graham A. and Shulimson, Jack, “The Culebra Maneuver and the Formation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Advance Base Force, 1913-1914,” in Assault from the Sea. Bartlett, Merrill L.  Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1983, 129.

[ii] Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Design 2030. (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps, 2020).

[iii] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 121.

[iv] Clifford, Kenneth J. Progress and Purpose: A Developmental History of the United States Marine Corps, 1900-1970. Washington: History and Museums Division, United States Marine Corps; for Sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1973, 10.

[v] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 123.

[vi] Daugherty, Leo J. Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 1898-1945: Profiles of Fourteen American Military Strategists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009, 72.

[vii] Clifford, Progress and Purpose, 8.

[viii] Daugherty, Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 46.

[ix] Daugherty, Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 47

[x] Clifford, Progress and Purpose, 11.

[xi] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 123.

[xii] Daugherty, Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 73.

[xiii] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 124.

[xiv] Daugherty, Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 72

[xv] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 126.

[xvi] Clifford, Progress and Purpose, 13.

[xvii] Daugherty, Pioneers of Amphibious Warfare, 73

[xviii] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 127.

[xix] Clifford, Progress and Purpose, 18.

[xx] Cosmas, The Culebra Maneuver, 127.

[xxi] Ibid, 128.

[xxii] Ibid, 129.

[xxiii] Ibid, 129.

[xxiv] Headquarters Marine Corps, Force Design 2030, 11.


First Lieutenant Winnefeld is serving as a fire support officer attached to 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines and currently deployed with Special Purpose Marine air-ground task force Crisis Response Central Command. He is a 2018 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. 

Published: Wed Aug 17 16:20:12 EDT 2022