The Marine Corps must contend with two issues – to innovate after a decade of war and to operate under the fiscal pressure faced by the entire Defense Department. It will likely have to reduce its endstrength while adapting to a variety of new threats. These challenges should force the Marine Corps to reconsider some fundamental premises today that will help it effectively adapt to the operational environment ten to twenty years from now.
The Marine Corps must intellectually contest some basic organizational issues. The fundamental structure of the Marine Corps is based on a model that was effective during the World War II and Korea, where high casualty rates, limited communications, and massing of firepower were primary concerns. Is the same organizational structure, particularly the use of enlisted Marines, right for the Marine Corps of 2025 and beyond?
While amphibious operations will be the cornerstone of the Marine Corps for the foreseeable future, it could also find itself in a host of other roles and missions: complete integration into the special operations community, fully distributed operations, partnership building, and even supporting federal law enforcement or intelligence units to counter transnational threats. How will the Marine Corps adapt?
Below are a few “what-if” challenges that should stimulate debate among Marines at all levels on the use of the greatest asset in the Marine Corps, the enlisted Marine, over the next several decades.
What if… the US economy remains flat and unemployment rates climb because automation and robotics have replaced humans in labor-intensive fields? A typical rifle squad of the future may consist of all college graduates and the only difference between an E-1 and O-1 is the training path selected by the Marine Corps. How does the Marine Corps maximize personnel and prevent underutilization of the talent entrusted to it by American society? Harvesting civilian education and skills may become as important as making Marines.
What if… the line between Marine officers and enlisted Marines is erased or significantly blurred? Many retired military officers and scholars alike note the problems with the antiquated military personnel system. Changes in the private sector are often compared to changes that should occur in the military, particularly closing the gap between the roles of officers and enlisted. How can the Marine Corps close this gap? Will 25 different ranks still be necessary to distinguish levels of authority or should the rank structure be compressed?
What if… the 18 year-old private becomes obsolete in infantry units? Given the missions being considered for the Marine Corps and the emphasis placed on smaller, more independent units, should Marine Corps Infantry become more elite? Should an enlisted Marine first be assigned to a support unit for their initial enlistment, then compete for a slot in the infantry when reenlisting? This would create a more mature and highly specialized infantry but it would also create problems with leadership roles if everyone in a unit were an NCO.
Could changes in the compensation system facilitate a more agile organization with qualified personnel filling billets at different echelons or types of units? Consider what an oval vice pyramid enlisted force structure would look like. A Corporal in a line unit may find himself as a Lance Corporal in a more high-end unit, with no loss of compensation. This model is analogous to major league baseball – if a single A player plays well, he moves up to AA, where he will have a decreased role on the team but more compensation, then after improving performance, moves up to AAA ball, where again, he rides the pine for a while.
What if… semi-autonomous or unmanned weapon systems become fully integrated into small units? How will future technology change leadership roles? Integrating and controlling technology may become as important, if not more so, than leading (human) Marines. If so, how do leadership development models change?
What if… the lethality and non-lethality of a small unit increases significantly? A decade from now, infantry units will likely increase both lethal and non-lethal force at the squad level. Advances in nano-explosive technology, directed energy weapons and lasers, and electro-magnetic weapons will cause this change. How would dramatically improved capabilities alter the size of a typical rifle company and officer/enlisted ratios?
What if… human performance enhancing technology is accepted on the battlefield of the future? The concept of creating super-“soldiers” (using super with Marine seems a bit redundant) through robotic or biomedical enhancement is currently under debate. How will the Marine Corps manage civilian integration after conflict? Does the Marine Corps simply escort these military-modified super humans to the front gate and turn them loose on society? Or is Marine for life a future reality?
In 2008, the National Research Council (with LtGen Amos and RDMLs Burke/Davenport as advisors) addressed similar issues for both the Navy and Marine Corps (embeded below). It is unclear to what extent the study’s findings were actually considered within the services.
Service purists will resist any change and argue that the Marine Corps has adapted in the past without any significant change in force structure. However, the Corporals of today will become the Sergeants Major of 2025 and beyond. They must start to consider these issues now to effectively shape the enlisted force of future.
The original version of this post appeared on the Marine Corps Gazette Blog.