USMC Transformation Path: A Discussion with LtGen Heckl

By Robbin Laird

Recently, I met with LtGen Heckl in his office at Quantico.

I have known him for many years, and interviewed him in his last position, as CO of I MEF, and then earlier as the CO of 2nd Marine Air Wing.

And recently I interviewed him in his current position which is Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration.

The current transformation phase the USMC is undergoing is focused on ways the Marines as a distributed force can more effectively support the joint force. This is the most recent phase of change for the modern USMC, which has followed the significant change driven by the coming of the Osprey, the lead on the F-35 global enterprise, and now a new aviation capability, the CH-53K coming to the force.

USMC aviation is a backbone to force distribution, notably when one focuses on the movement of force, or logistics support.

As Heckl put it in our interview on February 1, 2024: “The pacing factor for everything we are doing in shaping the distributed force is logistics and to do so in a contested environment. We are focused on our ability to move ourselves organically.

“The CH-53K, the KC-130J and the Osprey can provide basic timely lift with support by surface connectors crucial as well. We need to be resilient. If one component of our ecosystem of moving and supporting a distributed force is not available or will not work with the current situation, then we need to have another component available.”

A key focus on the payloads being delivered by the USMC in its force transformation are both ISR and counter-ISR capability.

When I met with the PACFLEET commander last year, he highlighted the central importance of having such capability.

As LtGen Heckl underscored: “The real value proposition we are putting forward as the Stand in Force  for the joint force is our sensing capability. The insertion of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) of a sensing capability that can link with other assets, such as the F-35, allows us to sense, connect, and operate even in the face of the denial of space-based assets.

“When we’re in an integrated environment, everything we’re doing, we’re approaching from that perspective so that we will still be active even when an adversary takes action to degrade our ability to connect, we will still be connected.”

The approach to innovation in his command is rooted in his own experience as a Marine.

Innovation is driven best by putting equipment in the hands of Marines and let them drive the innovation process.

Ed Timperlake and I will be publishing a book this year on MAWTS-1 which underscores the centrality of the Marine Corps process of driving innovation in such a manner.

Not surprisingly, Heckl is a former CO of MAWTS-1, where he served from 18 June 2010 to 8 December 2011.

We discussed two other key times in his career when such an approach was clearly evident.

The Osprey Deployment to Iraq

The first was from his first deployment of the Osprey to Iraq (which was the second to deploy) and the second was his lessons learned when he was CG of I MEF.

According to his bio: “As a CH-46E pilot, Lieutenant General Heckl deployed with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 365 and HMM-263, and served as a CH-46E Instructor and Division Head at MAWTS-1, MCAS Yuma, AZ. Additionally, he was assigned as one of the initial cadre of pilots with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204 (VMMT-204).”

Heckl was the second squadron commander for the first deployments to Iraq. He was part of the historic effort to introduce this revolutionary aircraft into the force.

The Osprey was deploying but without the crew having deep knowledge of the eco system to operate and sustain the aircraft. They had to learn on the fly quite literally. Heckl described how they arrived in Iraq to operate in the summer months where the heat and the dust storms were critical factors.

They had to operate the new aircraft in brownout situations and to maintain the aircraft with the devasting impact of heat and dust on that aircraft.

While there, they developed a way to fly in brownouts that would allow the aircraft to not miss a single mission. Later on, the software would be developed for the aircraft which would aid the pilot in doing operations in brownouts, but during his deployment they had to invent a procedure.

The Marine maintainers in the squadron worked ways to ensure the aircraft was available for the required missions, and Heckl noted in the interview that they did not miss a single mission required of them.

This was a new aircraft, with the operating and maintenance procedures not fully established, but in spite of that the Marines were successful.


According to Heckl: “A very large reason for the success of the aircraft was because of the Marines, particularly the maintenance Marines. We had a very, very difficult summer from an environmental perspective. The heat and the dust posed major challenges. And yet, we didn’t drop a mission, not a single mission. We never turned off an assault support request.

“This happened because the platform was given to the Marines to figure out and operate. The Marines drove the innovation and the requirements needed as the experience with the aircraft evolved. That is what we are doing at the command currently.”

Lessons Learned at I MEF

LtGen Heckl argued that “everything I do as the CG of the command is informed by my experience as the CG of I MEF.”

A key point he had made when I interviewed as CG of I MEF was this: “The challenge seen from I MEF is that for us to be effective we need to be credible. To be credible, we need to be forward with credible forces. We are focused on positioning the MEF to be in a position to be an effective deterrent force.”

This is certainly why he has been focused on shaping ways for the Marines to become effective parts of an inside force providing the kind of sensing capability which enables a joint kill web force.

He noted that “now with Marine Rotational Force Darwin and Marine Rotational Force Southeast Asia, we have both MEF flags west of the international dateline virtually all year long.”

Innovation at the Command

The focus of the Command is to explore new platforms which can be put into the hands of Marines to experiment with and to determine if and how they could be integrated into USMC operations.

He cited several new platforms they are working with and put those platforms in the hands of Marines to experiment with. The feedback from those exercises and experiments will inform future platform choices.

One platform is the Stern Landing Vessel. As one source described this platform:

“The Stern Landing Vessel program is an interim capability the Marine Corps is funding for experimentation purposes until it more clearly defines all the requirements for its Landing Ship Medium. During a call with reporters on Monday, Tomczak and Lt. Col. Tim Smith, a senior officer at MCWL overseeing the SLV program, said the Marines currently plan to acquire three SLVs.

“The first vessel is under contract with Hornbeck Offshore Services and is being leased with an option for the Marines to eventually buy it if desired. The service has the funding for two more ships, to be acquired in fiscal 2024.”

According to Heckl: “The SLV will participate in Project Convergence, Capstone Four, on the West Coast in the February-March timeframe. And the fleet will use the ship with some new payloads onboard, and this feedback will guide our way ahead.

“Our approach to learning is not based on the OODA loop. Our combat learning is simultaneous and never ends. It is based on exercises. We will send the SLV eventually to the Third MLR in the Pacific.”

A second new platform he highlighted was one based on how the drug lords smuggle in drugs via a low-profile submersible.

This was described in a 6 September 2023 SEA Power story as follows:

The U.S. Marine Corps is exploring a concept to enhance its ability to supply its forces its forces inside a contested environment: low-profile vessels used by drug-running cartels.  

The Corps, however, is looking at autonomous low-profile vessels (LPVs), said Lieutenant General Karsten Heckl, deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration, speaking Sept. 6 at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, who advocated the use of autonomous unmanned systems wherever possible. 

Drug runners have built and used manned LPVs frequently over the last two decade to carry loads of illegal drugs from Latin America to the United States. The LPVs, called semisubmersibles, are fabricated in secret locations and, with a small crew, carry their payload along the transit lanes, trying to avoid visual and radar detection with their very low profiles. 

“We just copy the drug lords down south running drugs,” Heckl said. “They are hard to find, so now we figure, hey, it works, right?  

A third example is the evolving approach to building the NEMISIS strike capability.

According to Heckl: “The two prototypes we have will be tested off of the SLV which can carry a payload of two NSMs.”

He underscored: “To your point about the importance of putting in the hands of Marines, we are focused on doing so and then we learn from them and that informs our campaign of learning. It drives future requirements. It drives programs that are currently underway. It’s a nonstop process of iterating to get exactly what we need to put in the hands Marines.”

The force development being engaged by the Marines is precisely to shape an effective kill web force. As Heckl put it: “The most important pillar of what we are doing in Force Design is enhancing our ability at maneuver warfare. That rests upon pushing decentralized C2 down to the lowest level we can because we trust Marines to make the right decision. We have trained them properly; they understand intent and guidance and they execute.

“When you are dealing with an adversary that is the opposite, namely tightly controlled with hierarchical C2, one seeks to gain an advantage.”

I would add: there is always the reactive enemy, and the U.S. needs to take ensure that it is the most effective reactive enemy with its distributed forces operating within a kill web.

Featured Graphic: A rendering of a Marine Corps’ Stern Landing Vessel. The Marine Corps modified a Hornbeck Offshore Services’ offshore support vessel to create a Landing Ship Medium prototype for experimentation. (U.S. Marine Corps).

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