A View From the Trenches on the Debate Wracking the Marine Corps
As a Marine gunner, I have some candid advice to senior retired leaders lambasting the Marine Corps’ reforms: Look in the trenches. The character of war has changed. We will either adapt or perish.
This debate has provided many perspectives that are all important for the Marine Corps and the United States, but surprisingly the debate has overshadowed what Force Design 2030 is already doing at the tactical level — especially among the infantry units who are at the service’s tactical edge.
I have been a Marine infantryman for almost 30 years. For the last three years, I’ve served as one of my service’s representatives on the Pentagon’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force, which focuses on small-unit, tactical operations. As most War on the Rocks readers will likely recall, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis created this task force in 2018 to improve the “combat preparedness, lethality, survivability, and resiliency of our nation’s ground close-combat formations.” Mattis explained:
These formations have historically accounted for almost 90 percent of our casualties and yet our personnel policies, advances in training methods, and equipment have not kept pace with changes in available technology, human factors science, and talent-management best practices.
Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 is doing more than any other military service’s plan to realize Mattis’ intent on close-combat lethality. For example, the initiative directs educating and training in this area, as well as properly manning small units with more mature leaders. It raises the rank to job requirements for fireteam leaders, squad leaders, and platoon sergeants, increasing the time, exposure, and experience needed for these specific small-unit leaders. It also directs an investment in better weapons and equipment for squad-, platoon-, and company-sized formations in order to enable them with organic intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting capabilities; tactical network and communications systems; and organic precision fires that change the long-standing equation of attacker-to-defender, this math equation for planning operations used to require three attackers for every defender, but not anymore. These changes have led to marines being able to conduct attacks much differently than in the past. I seek to explain these changes and tell a broader audience why I’m so encouraged by the commandant’s initiatives. But in order to understand these changes, we need to explain first what it was like for Marine infantrymen only a decade ago.
“What Now, Lieutenant?”
There are three words that every Marine infantry officer knows all too well: “What now, Lieutenant?” I asked a platoon commander this in 2013 as withering enemy fire was massing on our position, and casualties mounted.
On this cold morning in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, the feared most dangerous course of enemy action identified during the planning process was now being pressed on the marines. As the platoon commander assessed the battlespace with intensity, I asked again: “What now, Lieutenant?” Without looking at me, and keeping his focus downrange, his response was quick: “We need to close with the enemy, Gunner.” His answer was right, so I asked another question: “What do we need to do that?” His response was quick again: “We need to bring in fires and gain fire superiority so we can close.” Again, it was the right answer, but he quickly realized that he didn’t have air support and was already denied artillery due to the civilians on the battlefield. He only had medium machine guns with him since the use of mortars was also restricted by the rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties.
This is the American way of war. We do not kill civilians intentionally. So I asked again: “What now, Lieutenant? You don’t have fire support, and only organic machine guns against a numerically superior enemy who has massed fires. So, what now?” He broke his gaze from downrange and stared at me in shock and said that we had to break contact — to retreat. In both our hearts we knew it was the right answer, but marines have been trained to close with and destroy the enemy. That’s what we do. We don’t retreat, but that day we did.
The timeliness and responsiveness of fires, and their release authority, have always plagued light infantry units. These problems have only been exacerbated by technology and the ability of the higher headquarters, focused on the strategic and operational levels of combat, to have direct involvement in tactical decisions and actions.
The year before, in 2012, after a tough 15-day combat operation filled with daylong gunfights and casualties, I approached an exhausted company commander at Camp Leatherneck after being extracted off the battlefield by helicopter. His head was in both hands as he sat slumped over on the side of the flight line. He looked up at me as I approached, and I asked if he was okay. His voice, filled with frustration and guilt, announced, “Gunner, I know I am supposed to close with the enemy when we make contact and are heavily engaged, but I am not being given what it takes to do it, and I am not willing to waste my marines’ lives.” He was heartbroken and frustrated. He felt like he was betraying his lawful oath as a Marine officer by not attacking, even though he didn’t have fire support. Marines close with and destroy the enemy. That’s what we do, and when we don’t, then something’s wrong.
Every infantry leader of my generation is familiar with another tragic example of how this has unfolded: the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan. On one day in the summer of 2008, nine American soldiers were killed and 27 wounded because the Taliban were able to exploit these gaps in the kill-chain, leaving the American unit exposed and deprived of timely artillery and air support. Light infantry units have been overly dependent on non-organic fire support that has only fallen victim to kill-chain micromanagement. These problems, which pre-date the 9/11 wars, are not going to be wished away. The solution has always been clear: Provide small units with their own lethal weapons systems instead of keeping them assigned to a higher headquarters. Tragically, as Mattis stated in his Close Combat Lethality Task Force guidance, the solution to these problems has long existed. However, senior leaders responsible for combat development as well as resourcing, to include those in the Marine Corps, have not prioritized these units’ modernization. Instead, the Pentagon continued to choose to relearn the same lessons in blood.
Fast-forward to a training exercise in March 2022 at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The marines from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, one of the service’s experimental infantry battalions, emerged from their assembly area and began their attack on a heavily defended objective. First platoon was up against an entrenched enemy platoon supported by armored vehicles, machine guns, and organic indirect fire weapons consisting of light mortars and grenade launchers. As a general rule of thumb, attacking an entrenched enemy in the defense has been thought to require a force ratio of at least three to one. By echelons, this rule of thumb suggests a platoon is needed to dislodge a squad, a company to dislodge a platoon, and so on.
As the marines moved towards their line of departure, you could hear the radio communication between element leaders and their fire support taking place. Long-range rocket artillery was being employed by the battalion in support of the attack, which had already started in order to suppress an enemy reserve element beyond the line of sight of those conducting the attack. Marines operating within the battalion’s fire support coordination cell coordinated the employment of these fires, leveraging intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities provided by the unit’s remotely piloted aircraft. They also leveraged the lethal effects from Hero-120 drone strikes. Over the past decade, these revolutionary armed and remotely piloted aircraft, sometimes referred to as loitering munitions, have repeatedly proven their devastating effectiveness in combat against armored and mechanized vehicles. General Berger’s decision to take advantage of the democratization of airpower, providing these weapon systems to the Marine infantry, proved to have similar effects for Alpha Company. Instead of marines only being able to “suppress” the enemy reserve element during their attack, they were now able to “destroy” it, at ranges far exceeding the engagement criteria set in planning.
Simultaneous with the enemy reserve element’s destruction, Alpha’s first platoon commander and his squad leaders, all seasoned Infantry Unit Leader Course-certified staff sergeants, made final assault preparations at their line of departure. They were aided by receiving up to the second, real-time information on the enemy disposition at their objective. This information, provided by a young lance corporal remotely piloted aircraft operator, was also passed to the company’s Switchblade 300 operators. The platoon commander told these marines to destroy in priority order: enemy light armored vehicles, crew-served weapons, command and control locations, and then groups of three or more combatants on the objective.
“Enemy mortar position destroyed, three enemy vehicles destroyed, now attacking targets in trench line,” came the voice of the lance corporal guiding the loitering munitions onto the enemy.
While the lance corporal and the Switchblade operators employed their combined arms capabilities to destroy key parts of the enemy’s defense, the company’s electronic warfare marines — another new addition to the formation catalyzed by Mattis’ intent to increase the company’s organic ability to locate and interfere with enemy communications — waited for first platoon’s assault element to cross the line of departure. On order, these marines had two tasks. First, they were to jam the enemy’s tactical network. Second, they were to flood the objective area with “spectrum noise” designed to confuse the enemy such that the platoon’s radio emissions could not be effectively targeted. Concurrently, the company’s cyber marines protected the unit’s tactical network from enemy attack.
Once the priority targets were destroyed in order on the objective, the platoon commander ordered the electronic warfare and cyber marines to execute their tasks. He then ordered the staff sergeant leading the platoon’s support-by-fire element to occupy its position. Expeditionary modular autonomous vehicles armed with machine guns raced to their firing locations while the Switchblade team destroyed additional enemy positions. Suppressive machine-gun fires then effectively engaged the enemy across the objective. These fires, employed by marines from positions of cover as they leveraged advanced, video-streaming optics on their machine guns, enabled the platoon’s Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle element to go into action. This element, equipped with anti-armor and bunker-busting capabilities fielded only a year ago, leveraged the weapon’s extended range capabilities and advanced fire control systems as it moved from “cold” into “hot” positions to destroy reinforced enemy targets in the objective area.
Conditions were now set for first platoon’s marines to cross their line of departure into the assault. As the marines maneuvered, they employed by hand and from their M320 grenade launchers squad-organic drones equipped with camera payloads and high explosives. The platoon’s supporting effort assistant squad leader controlled this additional “swarm” of drones from a covered position, providing further precision strikes on enemy crew-served weapons teams and individual defenders in the trench.
During the platoon’s movement from its attack into assault position, the enemy attempted to thwart the attack by unmasking and employing light-armored technical vehicles that had not been previously identified. As the vehicles unmasked, the company’s Switchblade operators had their armed aircraft in loitering positions above the objective. These marines subsequently made quick work of these vehicles, destroying with top-down attack strikes, within seconds. All the while, the platoon’s squads continued maneuvering unimpeded into their assault positions without taking any casualties.
Now, the real fight began. Gaining a foothold on a defended objective remains one of the toughest tasks for any combat element. Squad one was given this task, and once the squad leader had massed enough combat power, he gave his orders. But before he could establish his internal support-by-fire and assign the marines that were going to deliver the high-explosive breach using hand grenades, a swarm of Drone 40 loitering munitions massed and smashed into the entry point designated by the squad leader. The assistant squad leader back at the attack position had planned these fires before the attack, and the squad leader was caught off guard by how quick, accurate, and effective this happened. The squad leader gave first fire team the command to enter the trench, and the foothold was established. When it became time to clear the trench, the squad’s “quadcopter” gave visual feedback to the assistant squad leader, leading the fire team clearing the trench. One by one, each bunker was first cleared by the assistant squad leader using the quadcopter and Drone 40 loitering munitions before a marine went inside to confirm all enemy combatants were destroyed. Very little rifle fire was used by the assault squad.
Once the objective was secured, the platoon consolidated in the immediate area. Based on the training scenario, however, the enemy had an additional tank capability still in the reserve, which intended to wage a counterattack on the platoon. Similar to what happened toward the start of the scenario, though, marines in the battalion fire support coordination center, leveraging remotely piloted aircraft for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as long-range rocket artillery fires, and Hero-120 systems, destroyed the tank formation. In the end, the objective was secured in less than 20 minutes, and there were no casualties taken by the main effort squad.
The platoon’s second and third squads then moved quickly to join the assault squad on the objective. Armed with new infantry assault rifles, suppressors, variable-powered scopes, additional recoilless rifles, and M320 grenade launchers, these marines were fully prepared and eager to employ combined arms to destroy any additional counterattacking enemy force. Additionally, the relative speed of the platoon’s attack, enhanced by wearing lighter body armor, integrated enhanced hearing protection to block out rifle fire and rocket fire preserving the marines’ hearing for verbal commands, and enhanced individual night-vision goggles, provided the marines with game-changing advantages when compared to the infantry attacks discussed earlier from Afghanistan. The lethality and efficiency of Alpha Company’s attack left the squads on the objective with little to do as the remaining enemy hastily retreated, simulated by autonomous robotic targets that make live-fire training as realistic as possible. After this enemy retreat, the expeditionary modular autonomous vehicles displaced from the support-by-fire position and moved to the limit of advance, joining the platoon consolidating in the defense, carrying their packs and extra ammo.
The speed and lethality that was delivered by 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines with their hyper-enabled small units is all part of the experimentation being conducted by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in support of Force Design 2030. Even though some of the technologies described have yet to be fielded (for example, Switchblade systems served as surrogates for the proven Hero-120 systems until they are fielded), the conceptual employment of these “system of systems” is undergoing rigorous real-world employment and development with the General Berger’s Force Design 2030 Fleet Marine Force. While many of these capabilities are new to the Marine Corps, they are combat-tested systems that have been in use by special operations forces and the militaries of allied nations such as Israel for many years.
“Watch This, Gunner”
1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, which is also involved in the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s infantry battalion experimentation effort, deployed to 29 Palms, California in 2021. While in the desert, the marines conducted platoon attacks on Range 410. Marine rifle platoons have executed attacks on this range for the past 40 years. In 2021, however, a young captain involved in the experimentation presented a problem to the training control group that runs the range that now, miles away from Range 410, even from Camp Wilson, with organic intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting drones and precision loitering munitions, the marines can destroy every target on the range from beyond line of sight, so the dilemma fell on the control group, what now? How do we evaluate platoon attacks with platoons that have these types of capabilities?
Bottom line: When a small-unit leader involved in the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s infantry battalion experimentation efforts is asked “What now, Lieutenant?” you get an entirely different response today than I did while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Force Design 2030 provides the squad leader, platoon commander, and company commander with an increase in lethality and survivability from their own intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting assets along with loitering munitions employed with a level of precision and accuracy that minimizes the threat of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Now, when asked “What now, Lieutenant?” you get a sheepish grin, and a “Watch this, Gunner.”
Chief Warrant Officer (Marine Gunner) Stephen W. LaRose is a member of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force. He is also a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as various other operations around the globe. He is the recipient of two Bronze Stars and was awarded the 2013 Hulbert Trophy for outstanding leadership by a Marine gunner. The opinions and views expressed here are not those of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Photo by Lance Cpl. Ryan Ramsammy. 2nd Marine Division.