Two Small-Unit Leaders Respond to the Marine Commandant’s Note
What impact will the team leader, squad leader, platoon commander, and company commander have in the Marine Corps’ future? What can the small-unit leader do to make a difference within the organization? We have deployed around the world, one of us as a ground intelligence officer, and one as an infantry squad leader, now Mustang. Our experience and education suggest that the answers to these questions, if communicated broadly and clearly by our leadership, will drive actions at the lowest levels of the organization and significantly shape the Marine Corps warfighting capability.
There is certainly no shortage of guidance at the strategic level. In addition to the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, there are conceptual documents on expeditionary advanced base operations, littoral operations in a contested environment, distributed maritime operations, and – of course – general operations. But these don’t address the small-unit leader in any meaningful way. Instead, they are top-brass-heavy and hardly provide actionable guidance to direct the small-unit leader’s tactical development. Outside of the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, the documents are hardly read or discussed at the small-unit level.
To build off these current strategic documents, we believe small-unit leaders should embrace the theory of the “chaos imperative,” interact more with the Navy to lay the foundation for the future of distributed maritime operations, and be willing to challenge institutional norms associated with managing manpower and human resources in their unit. The “chaos imperative” is the concept that as operational complexity increases, tactical improvisation, adaptability, and agility will be victorious over scripted warfare. That is, leaders should be encouraged to take risks in order to improve their decision-making skills.
Chaos Imperative: The Theory All Small-Unit Leaders Should Know
Small-unit leaders need direction. Marines follow a common Warfighting philosophy, but the commandant needs to address small-unit leaders. The bottom line is that units guided by small-unit leaders with a common understanding of commander’s intent will be more effective regardless of the technological advancements at their disposal. According to Air Force Lt. Col. David Blair the chaos imperative is “understanding a commander’s intent amidst chaos, junior troops can seize the initiative and press the attack through unanticipated means – the surprise of a subordinate seizing unexpected opportunities delights a good commander and vexes an enemy.” For that reason, the highest levels of leadership need to deliver their intent to that audience via articles like the commandant’s note. Any change to equipment or mission focus will be more effectively implemented through the external influence of small-unit leaders rather than any external control.
Distributed operations at the small unit level allows small-unit leaders to use their own judgment and decision-making in line with strategic goals. This is a more effective approach than being externally controlled by high-level decision-makers. “A strategy of denial will largely be on the back of the surface fleet and Marines deployed,” as Rep. Mike Gallagher said, advocating for distributed maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific. But to do so there needs to be more trust and more risk-taking in small unit decision-making.
Leadership from junior troops is nothing new. At the same time, commandants of the Marine Corps need to encourage leadership at lower ranks to sustain the service’s relative advantage. For example, in 2005 the 33rd commandant published A Concept for Distributed Operations, arguing the need to enhance the capabilities of small-unit leaders through better equipment and advanced military education and training. Unfortunately, the Marine Corps has yet to adequately act on this concept — if it had, there would not have been a need for then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to establish the Close Combat Lethality Task Force to improve the “combat preparedness, lethality, survivability, and resiliency of our Nation’s ground close-combat formations.”
Current training operations in the continental United States, from unit-internal field exercises to service-level exercises, instill an unrealistic and symmetric risk-averse mindset. Concerns among higher-level commanders cause the small-unit leader to appease random requirements rather than argue for justification. This is the “frozen middle” bureaucracy where marines default to the status quo. How does this happen? First, during planning, scripted scenarios can have a heavy-handed influence on the small-unit leader’s problem-solving skills. Second, during execution, the number of reports demanded by command operations centers from the small-unit leader often contradict the commandant’s priority of limiting electromagnetic signatures. A significant part of the problem is that small-unit leaders comply with these requirements without considering how they inhibit their unit’s growth or impede future performance when real-world constraints exist. Small-unit leaders should scrutinize these requirements and propose alternate solutions that seek to increase their own risk thresholds and creativity (i.e., conducting rehearsals in different locations than their upcoming live-fire range, and cutting reporting requirements).
As rotational deployments continue to dominate the operating force’s deployment schedule, marines need to fully leverage opportunities to assess their performance in isolation from their headquarters. Small-unit leaders are supposed to be ready to lead disaggregated, distributed, and dispersed units far from the “flagpole.” A good example is Exercise Archipelago Endeavor near Stockholm, Sweden. Every year, Marine Rotational Forces Europe sends an infantry company to conduct an amphibious assault alongside Swedish Marines during which leaders are spread amongst the thousands of islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago. Here, the unit’s ability to maneuver from island to island is completely beholden to their small-unit leader’s ability to take calculated risks, formulate tactical solutions to problems that they think will meet commander’s intent, and make effective decisions in an unknown environment outside of the Marine Corps’ scripted, desert comfort zone. John Vrolyk recently recommended the Corps adopt a similar exercise in the Indo-Pacific. We, of course, fully concur with our fellow small-unit leader. But before such exercises can help create the Corps of the future, the institution needs to collectively understand and embrace the foundation of the “chaos imperative.”
The Chaos Imperative in Practice
In practice, the chaos imperative means that the Navy and Marine Corps will redefine the infantry. Will this lead to “maritime commandos”? The Marine Corps seems to be moving toward small pockets of infantry deployed internationally and poised for missions of deterrence and power projection. We agree with earlier propositions in previous War on the Rocks articles — the Marine Corps needs lethal, agile, and combined-arms maneuver capabilities afloat. This is a lighter, distributed, and redefined structure of today’s infantry. Regardless of the shortage of naval assets, the joint force requires a military solution in which the Marine Corps provides much greater contributions to the nation’s sea power capabilities. This has led to several innovative concepts of employment, including the Warbot combat team concept as well as the proposed Expeditionary Advanced Maritimes operation concept, which entail high numbers of Marines operating on fast attack crafts as part of “distributed maritime operations.” If these trends are brought to fruition, then would the traditional infantry unit continue to operate more as a conventional force or special operations force? Where in the spectrum would it fall? Maybe a new conventional “maritime commando” unit would operate in both realms. Regardless of the character of the future infantry unit, small-unit leaders need to get better at working on small vessels and leveraging their squads with capabilities that extend beyond traditional infantry capacities.
Transitioning to work with small vessels will be especially difficult. Currently, all Marine Corps service-level exercises take place in the landlocked desert (Integrated Training Exercise in Southern California, Mountain Training Exercise in Nevada, and Talon Exercise in Arizona). Marine bases are also generally completely separate entities from Navy bases. Regardless, small-unit leaders should be afforded the opportunity to take the initiative to establish connections with local Navy counterparts for training and policy development.
As part of this effort, Marines need to investigate best practices of the Navy’s “brown water capabilities” (such as Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman, Riverine, and Patrol Torpedo Boat operations) and coordinate their own training to begin operational development and refinement from the bottom up. A potential foundation for small-unit leaders to start studying is BJ Armstrong’s Small Boats and Daring Men. Although these are historical concepts, they are still critical to the future (as demonstrated by the notional Indo-Pacific War of 2025) because they provide a baseline lexicon for small units to start creatively thinking about unmanned systems employment and distributed maritime operations. There are currently very few opportunities for the small-unit leader to experiment with the Navy, but it is essential to take full advantage and make naval integration a top priority to begin to test, experiment, and better understand how to incorporate and interoperate with the naval service.
It is now time to put marines back on vessels. Marines should practice maneuver warfare in complex environments, confined to shallow water. Naval integration means committing to what marines can do to help the naval commander fight his fleet. Given the Navy’s loss of 12 percent of its manpower since 2001 in comparison to the Corps growing slightly over the same period (see Figure 1), perhaps the best way for marines to help the Navy is to fully embrace and extend the littoral mission that Jake Yeager describes to the blue waters. However, the Navy currently lacks the resources to sufficiently execute. Looking at the commandant’s overinvestment list, maybe short-term acquisition efforts should be directed toward capabilities such as littoral combat ships (Mark VI or Combat Boat 90s) that can augment Littoral Combat Groups (LCG) instead of longer-term technological innovation efforts like unmanned vessels.
Source: Graph generated from authors using data from the Defense Manpower Data Center.
Above all, the small-unit leader should embrace maneuver on the water via littoral combat ships. Doing so promotes a more offensive orientation for the naval surface force. Small-unit leaders should be ready to prioritize manpower in this realm to grow and improve, despite the fact that they will likely push the limits of their current military prowess and require increased modularity between specialties. Among many changes, this means that small-unit leaders will have to incorporate more swimming into physical training, more training exercises in such environments, and conduct tactical decision games with a blue map instead of a forested or desert background. Responding to an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz or a Chinese threat to a Philippine island is only possible if amphibious operations are incorporated in standard operating procedures at the lowest levels.
Every Marine a Rifleman? Challenging Norms When Managing Manpower
The Marine Corps is not positioned to incorporate uniquely qualified people into their small units. Marine Corps Special Operations Command does it well, but why not the rest of the service? Bottom line, the Marine Corps needs to be better at being modular. Modularity is the ability to break up and incorporate complex systems into dynamic environments. More directly, incorporating unique components that work together to addresses an ever more dynamic mission set. Through the lens of the military, modularity functions in capabilities much like the Special Operating Forces where individuals have uniquely qualified skillsets (such as joint terminal air controller, intelligence, communications, explosive ordnance disposal, dog handlers) to complete a complex task, yet simple enough to fluidly interoperate and adapt to dynamic situations as a unified team. Modularity through the lens of a business allows for corporations to take advantage of untraditional approaches to designing, manufacturing, and developing the business of today for the market of tomorrow. The key for modularity is a system that can be self-contained, can interoperate effectively between different units, and must be governed by a system of firm-but-flexible rules. To be mission-effective the institution itself needs to break from its firm mandated manpower requirements — right now the Marine Corps does not have the capability to be a lethal and effective modular force. Modularity is the long-term solution and will require extensive retraining of marines.
Small-unit leaders should be given more flexibility to seek manpower solutions on their own. Scout sniper platoons provide an effective, yet short-term fix, to the organic trading model. In some units across the fleet, you will see intelligence analysts and radio operators serving as scouts in the scout sniper platoon due to their high efficacy with unmanned aircraft systems and complicated communications equipment. Some current operating procedures and manning orders do not allow for this, but it is efficient, organic, and most importantly it makes the overall unit more lethal. Marine Corps Special Operations Command has done an exceptional job weaving highly demanded capabilities into their force. In a sense, it allows small-unit leaders to trade components of their command to make their units more effective. So why not expand this universally? Why not integrate small-boat enlisted sailors and officers into the Fleet Marine Force? We recognize current units do have additional attachments based on mission set but to truly modernize the approach to manpower means small-unit leaders need to think outside the box on how to drive excellence within their own organization, and negotiate on behalf of their own people.
The unit level manpower system is failing. There are a set number of positions in the unit and there has to be a perfect matching of credentials. In situations where the organization needs a position to be filled but no one has the required “credentials,” there is a vacancy and the unit operates deficiently. Small-unit leaders are best poised to solve this problem because they know the marines within their unit that have the capabilities to fill these positions based on natural capacity to learn or personal backgrounds (both of which are not metrics precisely tracked in a military training record). This perspective is discounted due to lack of credentials. This is a matching issue and, in most cases, an individual who is motivated and capable of learning a requisite skill and the rare small-unit leader that wants to push back on the manpower constraints to allow them to do so are both out of luck. Why not simply trade within a unit or be malleable for a change? Indeed force design is the number-one priority for the commandant, yet units are continuously forced to get creative to solve their manpower dilemmas. In the case that small-unit leaders need to accommodate growing demands for specialties within combat units, and there aren’t enough marines to do the job, then another short-term solution would be lowering the strictness for credentialing by arguing an individual’s aptitude.
Long term, there are two key realities that need to be embraced. First, close combat personnel are an “excepted” function of national security because they will bear the majority of the burden of future conflict regardless of whether it’s on water or land. Second, emerging technologies require higher-level specialties to more fluidly mesh with close combat units. The current system fails to acknowledge either of these realities. Marine enlisted infantryman are trained to patrol through both urban environments and temperate landscapes but they do not have the modular capabilities to adapt to the new direction of the Corps. Moreover, close combat units remain low on the list of priorities for manpower. This means that small unit leaders need to incorporate non-infantryman more saliently into traditional infantry operations, and stretch the standards for credentialing through comprehensive on-the-job learning.
The Marine Corps can take a few steps to translate theory into practice. Small-unit leaders should be trained, educated, and expected to operate based on the “chaos imperative,” to take initiative to interact more with the Navy, and to break institutional norms when managing their unit’s manpower. This is important because small-unit leaders need direction on the future of the Marine Corps. Small-unit leaders have the potential to greatly influence the Marine Corps’ ability to compete with, and deter, adversaries in the future and we need everyone onboard.
The commandant’s recent article on the direction of the Marine Corps talks about future capabilities that will form a nexus with the Corps’ amphibious roots. The Navy and Marine Corps are focused on the water, and adversaries are developing advanced technologies that increase the importance of decision-making at the lowest levels. Meanwhile, as another small-unit leader recently described, the Marines are currently in the desert attacking antiquated Cold War era armor and “Ivan” targets at range 410A hoping that their skill sets will be relevant to a future fight. This recent note is a step in the right direction, but the Marine Corps needs more like it.
To redesign the Marine Corps, the commandant says new concepts will require “naval services to operate outside our traditional comfort zone and embrace a new cooperative mindset to maximize the reach of American sea power.” We argue that small-unit leaders have the potential to greatly influence the Marine Corps’ ability to compete with, and deter, its peer adversaries in the future.
There are several things that small-unit leaders can begin doing immediately. First, small-unit leaders should read BJ Armstrong’s Small Boats and Daring Men to learn about the qualities of small-unit irregular and naval warfare and how it aligns with the future of the Navy and Marine Corps. Second, they should study training publications for Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman, Riverine, and Patrol Torpedo Boat operations. Third, marines leading teams ought to experiment with incorporating untraditional specialties into their units (i.e., does it make sense to have just infantry as scouts in the scout sniper platoon, or can we include radio operators and intelligence analysts?). Fourth, they need get to the water and do due diligence in finding ways to train and learn about the interconnectedness of naval operations at the small unit level. Finally, small-unit leaders should push feedback to their commands on how to further develop maritime capabilities and best practices so that they can adjust their standard operating procedures.
As company-grade officers, we appreciate the continued discourse at the highest levels of the Navy and Marine Corps in anticipation of the future operating environment. However, it is in small units where strategic thinking turns into practice.
James Camp is a ground intelligence officer in the Marine Corps and has served as scout sniper platoon commander, company executive officer, and assistant intelligence officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. He deployed to Japan, South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine, Israel, and South Africa in those capacities. He has a degree in economics from the University of Chicago.
David Laszcz is a Marine officer pursuing a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Pat Tillman Scholar.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.