Beyond Grunts and Pilots: Senior Leader Talent Management in the Marine Corps
In his visionary Commandant’s Planning Guidance, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger, outlined his vision for the service with clarity and pragmatism. He both prescribes and proscribes aspects of achieving this new vision of America’s “premier naval expeditionary force-in-readiness.” Before the critical section on warfighting, the document discusses talent management in refreshingly honest terms. It critiques the Marine Corps’ industrial-age manpower model, promotion system, unresponsiveness to marines’ changing professional interests, imprecise incentive approaches, and fitness report system. But there is a huge hurdle to the implementation of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance regarding talent management and the design of the future force that must be addressed: the implicit restriction of the Marine Corps talent pool to infantry officers and naval aviators – grunts and pilots – in senior leadership positions.
Succinctly, the Marine Corps is run by infantry and aviators. While only consisting of approximately 38 percent of the service’s active component officers, to reach the highest levels of the service, history demonstrates that a Marine officer must come from one of those two communities. This is to the detriment of the service’s talent management efforts. In the past 50 years, every commandant has been an infantry officer except two: Gen. Leonard Chapman, an artillery officer who served as the 24th commandant from 1968 to 1971, and Gen. James Amos, the only naval aviator commandant from 2010 to 2014. Even going down one echelon of command, there is no occupational diversity. Reviewing the public websites and current commanding officer and commanding general biographies of Marine expeditionary units, expeditionary brigades, expeditionary forces, component commands (excluding Special Operations Command and Strategic Command due to their functional responsibilities), and the deputy commandants for programs and resources, combat development and integration, and manpower and reserve affairs, we see more infantry officers and aviators. Of these 24 senior leaders, 14 are infantry officers and nine are naval aviators. Only the commander of Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa breaks the template as a logistician (who is also the lone reservist).
These assignments are necessarily generalist in nature; the origin of the term “general officer.” They require the command, employment, and/or development of the holistic collection of capabilities across all warfighting domains and functions. Yet, judging by the current command slate, marine officers who are not infantry or naval aviation are not deemed as capable of these responsibilities despite their level of talent or experience.
This restrictive approach to talent management doesn’t comply with the vision for manning the force as outlined in the Commandant’s Planning Guidance. It certainly doesn’t “encourage those you need and want to stay” nor depict a manpower model that values “talent or performance or potential future performance.” This infantry/aviator senior leader duopoly only reinforces the commandant’s statement that “primary occupational fields are set early in a career and marines are essentially stuck either accepting it for an entire career or choosing separation” and “cuts off careers […] when [marines] have decades of productivity left in them.” Sourcing senior command ranks in this rigid manner ignores the increasingly complex operating environment and the growing importance of non-lethal capabilities offered by cyberspace operations and information warfare in the electromagnetic spectrum, space, and cognitive domains. These capabilities – well employed – are critical for the Marine Corps and Navy to compete against peer threats, “contain a brewing crisis, and […] fight if required to do so.”
How can the Marine Corps expand its the senior commander talent pool? First, the commandant could indirectly or directly influence the command selection process for the Marine expeditionary units, which is the first echelon of command that employs fully integrated Marine capabilities. These seven commands have outsized importance in their strategic role relative to combatant commanders and often auger the next generation of brigadier generals. As command selection is a non-statutory board, the precept message, which already provides guidance regarding the Marine expeditionary units, could include a consideration to slate a commanding officer who is the most qualified to employ the unit’s full range of capabilities, regardless of designation as an infantry officer or naval aviator. In a more direct approach, the modification of Marine Corps Order 1300.64B Command Screening Program would enable the slating of these commanders under the commandant’s special selection process to match individual capacity for command with increased occupational diversity.
Next, the general officer assignment list could recommend officers from outside the infantry and naval aviator communities to the cross-functional deputy commandant positions and as commanding generals of the Marine Corps components, Fleet Marine force headquarters, marine expeditionary forces, and Marine expeditionary brigades. These recommendations would also include the nomination of major generals to the rank of lieutenant general. This approach – in addition to placing general officers with different yet important backgrounds into key force development and force employment positions – would provide selection boards with a demand signal to search for talent outside of the infantry and naval aviation fields, a critical reinforcing feedback loop to locate and promote individuals with senior leader potential from a larger population.
Finally, a modified precept for general officer promotion boards could direct the expansion of promotion opportunity across the officer population based on performance and potential, not simply specialty. Despite the precepts for the Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2019 major general promotion board specifically stating that “we must constantly consider the [Marine] Corps’ critical need for general officer leadership across all specialties,” the results of these executive-level talent searches do not reflect that direction and more directive precept language may be required. The FY2019 major general board chose five infantry officers and naval aviators from the seven recommended brigadier generals, while the FY2020 board recommended nine of 13 officers from those two communities. The Marine Corps employs a quality spread of its officers upon accession to ensure the overall health of all fields. Lieutenants are grouped into thirds based on their performance at the Basic School, available slots for each military occupational specialty are also broken into thirds, and officer and specialty are assigned based on their respective group. This system ensures evenness so that one field does not monopolize the most talented personnel while others receive the least performing. In the pyramid promotion hierarchy of the military, this quality spread should evolve slightly but remain mostly intact. Instead, approximately 70 percent of Marine Corps general officers originate from a population of approaching 40 percent. Considering the reformist tone of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, this indicates that talent from other specialties is likely artificially constrained and disregarded by the organization’s preference for infantry officers and naval aviators.
In the age of ground-based long-range precision fires to assist the Navy in sea control and sea denial, the service recommended only a single artillery officer, whose community’s high mobility artillery rocket systems are likely the basis for this anti-surface fires capability, for advancement to major general across those two years. Perhaps this fact is one of the reasons the Commandant’s Planning Guidance notes that “our investments in air-delivered long-range precision fires are known, suitable, and sufficient; however, we remain woefully behind in the development of ground-based long-range precision fires.” Unmanned aerial systems are specifically mentioned in this document, yet the service has no general officers who have commanded a marine unmanned aerial vehicle squadron. Perhaps this explains the service’s continued institutional insistence on manned aviation for large acquisition programs. Expanding this thought to the enterprise at large, it is possible that the high selection rate of infantry officers and naval aviators for advancement within the general officer ranks – and the utter domination by those populations on the general officer command slate – at the expense of other critical warfighting capabilities is a contributing factor to the 37th and 38th commandants of the Marine Corps diagnosing the service as “not manned, trained, equipped, or postured to meet the demands of the rapidly evolving future operating environment” in their capstone documents. A lack of diversity in command and advocacy creates a reinforcing feedback loop for the limited communities from which the majority of senior officers derive that is antithetical to the development of the future force for the rapidly-evolving, complex operating environment.
The hegemony of infantry officers and naval aviators in promotion and command assignment at the most senior levels of the Marine Corps should change to develop the future force that the Commandant’s Planning Guidance envisions. Without expanding the search for talent beyond this cohort, the service will continue to artificially limit the potential pool of general officers who are exceptionally qualified to serve in billets of increasing responsibility and authority. As the Marine Corps faces renewed great power competition against peer adversaries who challenge the traditional norms of warfare and the revolutionary potential of new capabilities and technologies, the organization must embrace an “all hands on deck” attitude towards finding and promoting the very best and brightest leaders available regardless of their primary occupational specialty.
Maj. Leo Spaeder is a Marine air-ground task force planner currently serving at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, Combat Development & Integration, Headquarters Marine Corps. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the U.S. Marine Corps or Department of Defense.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps