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The 21st Century Marine

The first recorded war in human history was fought around 2700 B.C. between Sumer (in modern Iraq) and Elam (in modern Iran), in the area around what is now Basra, Iraq. And while it seems little has changed in nearly 5,000 years, it could be argued that the latest war in that region has seen more change in weapons and warfighters in one decade than in any of the 470 preceding it.

Air and naval superiority obviously were beyond the imagination of the Sumerian soldiers, but now, as then, the real fight has been on the ground, with the edge going to those with the best individual weapons, armor, combat intelligence, communications, field leadership, and training. A decade of battle on those same sands to open the 21st century has seen an unprecedented evolution – in some ways, revolution – from the Marines who entered the region in the wake of 9/11.

“The Marine Corps we had in 2001 is entirely different from what we have today, in large part from investments made to counter the threat. For instance, our table of equipment has expanded for radios and vehicles to do more distributed operations,” noted Col. J.G. Doering, director of the USMC Center for Irregular Warfare (CIW). “We used to have very offense-focused training, but now it is more about counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, focused on the population and countering the threat by using the skills we have learned to gain the local population’s support.

“Our training before deployment has shifted away from large force-on-force exercises to a more counterinsurgency, population-focused event we call Enhanced Mojave Viper at 29 Palms [Calif.], where Marines go into an urban environment with role-players who create a very realistic scenario. The feedback on that has been positive in making them much more well prepared to face what they see in Afghanistan.”

The CIW was established in 2007 to be the central Marine Corps agency for identifying and coordinating irregular warfare initiatives across all elements – doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, education, and facilities. The mandate was to take a holistic view of the Corps and the battlespace to ensure there were no gaps in capability focus in preparing Marines going forward.

As with his predecessors from Operation Desert Storm back to the American Revolution, the 21st century Marine is physically fit, tightly bonded to his comrades, and committed to success. But while the new breed of special operators belonging to the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) are leading the way in many respects, a renaissance is occurring throughout the Corps.

Afghan role players watch Marines from Company K, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., as they search the building below them. The battalion was undergoing Enhanced Mojave Viper training at Combat Center Range 220. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. M.C. Nerl.

The new Marine goes into battle today – and even more so tomorrow – with a far greater knowledge than ever before of the languages, religions, local and regional power structures, cultures, and history of those he will encounter, both friend and foe. When required, he is a teacher, a builder, and a role model. Each Marine has life-saving medical training and basic supplies in his kit. And he has the benefit of technology, with individual radios, GPS location and navigation, personal body armor, and the ability to see over the next hill or around the next building without exposing himself to enemy fire.

“While we continue to expand our capabilities and our capacity, we’re going to narrow our focus on some key regional areas,” Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, MARSOC’s commander, said of his SOF contingent, but reflecting the future of all Marines. “The success of MARSOC depends on the skill sets we provide to our individuals.

“We will continue to seek those individuals who have the makeup to operate across a distributed and multi-layered battlefield. We must continue to develop our Marines and sailors into regional experts who can operate in an area and work by, with, and through the native population. This can only happen by eliminating language and cultural barriers through advanced training; those are keys to mission success.”

The Marine Corps is the youngest of the services, encouraging a much more rapid turnover among enlisted personnel, which means they have far less time to spend on advanced training to get a reasonable return on that investment. The Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL), part of the Corps’ Training & Education Command (TECOM), is the focal point for ensuring the non-specialized Marine, who comprises 99 percent of the Corps, nonetheless is globally prepared, regionally focused, and fully capable of effectively navigating the cultural complexities of today’s operating environments.

According to CAOCL Director George Dallas, that means focusing on being able to communicate and enhancing a basic “encyclopedic” regional overview – a bit of geography, history, political and military issues, and culture-specific items – with the ability to keep learning throughout their careers.

“We want the individual Marine to be able to communicate with the people he meets, which is not about being a linguist. That training involves four things – words, such as how to say hello and stop; social graces; functional terms; and a huge non-verbal piece – what do hands, arms, facial expressions, and gestures really mean. We have 19 mission sets of terms, based on what a Marine is going to do, to teach him the words associated with that mission set,” he explained.

“We also educate them in some of the cultural contexts to the language, such as time, which means one thing to us and something completely different to lots of other cultures. If we can teach a Marine that difference, he will be more patient and understanding.”

That training ranges from mobile teams who spend about 40 hours in face-to-face sessions with groups of Marines to computer-based culture awareness sustainment training they can access from anywhere with an Internet connection. Every major Marine installation also has language learning resource centers with computers, cable TV to access international TV and radio stations, and, in some cases, instructors for key languages.

The training is even more intensive – and never-ending – for 21st century Marine officers and senior NCOs, using all of those same modes. A very specific program at the unit leadership level is called Key Leader Engagement training and is required for the leadership of base units and deploying battalions.

Capt. Daniel Nilsson, commanding officer for Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, discusses future community improvement projects with locals after opening a mosque to the public in Marjah, Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew D. Johnston.

“Then, throughout the 30 days they are at Enhanced Mojave Viper, they get additional training, but at some point are assessed on their ability to conduct themselves and how well they did with both language and non-verbal communication. The ranks also are assessed. For example, there may be a key leader engagement at the squad level, as well,” Dallas said.

“We’ve had training for about four years now, but it has really been only in the past couple of years that it has gotten more formal and professional, based on standards to which we teach culture and language. So we have matured the process into a professional, standards-based, requirements-driven product.”

Today’s Marines are enthusiastic users of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance and reconnaissance and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to deal with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), check vehicles for explosives, and be the first to look into caves, buildings, and other areas where boobytraps or insurgents may endanger lives. In the next decade and beyond, Marines and semi-autonomous robotic devices will work together even more closely (see “Devil Droids”).

“We believe the individual Marine is the most formidable weapon on today’s battlefield and will remain so tomorrow. Whatever the future holds, our emphasis on making Marines will not change,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway wrote in his “Marine Corps Vision & Strategy 2025.” “Expeditionary excellence requires Marines who are morally, physically, and mentally tough. Marines must be agile, capable of transitioning seamlessly between fighting, training, advising, and assisting – or performing all of these tasks simultaneously.

“This force must be highly trained and educated to function in both current and emerging operational environments against evolving foes. We will go to greater lengths to understand our enemies and the range of cultural, societal, and political factors affecting all with whom we interact. Our training and education programs will provide skills that enable civil-military and combat operations and are particularly important in complex environments.

“The individual Marine will remain our most important warfighting asset. The recruitment, training, professional education, and retention of high-quality, disciplined warriors imbued with our core values is paramount to our mission. We will continue to exploit technology to enhance the performance of the individual warrior. Marines at all levels must be prepared to excel in ambiguous and dangerous conditions, operate from a commander’s intent and with minimal direct supervision.”

According to retired Marine Col. Jim Lasswell, now technical director at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL), peak physical fitness will remain – even become more – critical to the individual Marine. But of equal importance is technical savvy – the ability to quickly understand and use new technologies in the field, often in ways those who provided it never imagined. And tying everything together will be a revolution in training, including the ability for individual Marines to train anytime, anywhere – including in theater.

Cpl. Luis E. Piris-Santiago, a scout team leader and Unmanned Air Vehicle operator with Charlie Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5, carries the Raven after a successful landing during a systems test in western Anbar province, Iraq, April 8. The Raven is a UAV that provides real-time video imagery of the battlefield. The plane is controlled by an operator using a remote with vision display and knobs like a video game device. The 21st century Marine works increasingly closely with robotic vehicles. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

“We are just on the cusp of a major change in how we train individuals. The idea of lecture-demonstrate-then do is probably over as more efficient technologies and simulation are employed, allowing individuals to progress at their own rate, which will be faster,” he predicted. “Fifteen years from now, I would expect each Marine to have an embedded training capability as part of his kit, a digital assistant that also will help them do their jobs. That may be maps or on-site training or maintenance diagrams, even diagnostics capability they can plug into a given piece of equipment.

“If the regular Marine is to be culturally and language efficient, that will have to be done individually, because you cannot train a unit to the lowest common denominator and succeed. But we can do that through better technology, from a digital assistant to help them with language skills or incorporating a universal translator, should that come to be. Tie that into advanced goggles that can put information in front of them at any time or place and you have a major change in individual training and performance enhancement, how they expect to get assistance and how they interact with their equipment, from radios to vehicles.”

Lasswell also expects new technologies to reduce the number of systems each Marine carries, while increasing overall capability, many the result of pushing existing technologies to their logical conclusion.

“In civilian life, only a few years ago, you had a pager, a cellphone, a Gameboy, an MP3 player, etc. Now all those are combined on a smartphone. I think GPS, radios, Blue Force trackers, training, etc., will be on a single system and all hardware will be tied into a single energy source that will be built into the combat uniform,” he said.

“Networking all Marines together will become part of that. We’re already seeing a networking of sensors and weapons and that will be available to all individuals who need it. If there is a sensor on the battlefield, anyone and everyone impacted by that sensor will have access to it. We also already are seeing some counter-surveillance capabilities, so the individual Marine will be able to detect if he is under surveillance and detect threats at much greater distances.”

The equipment now carried into battle by every Marine (See “Sea Soldier’s Load” and “Power Hungry”), including his clothing and armor, did not exist or were not included at the dawn of this century – and new items are being added or replacing larger, heavier devices on a constant basis. As computer power, displays, communications and power supplies grow even smaller and lighter, the 21st century Marine will become more situationally aware, able to operate independently, knowledgeable about the people and terrain around him, and able to react, as needed, with increased lethality or improved non-lethal weapons.

That does not, however, mean tomorrow’s warfighter will look like a character from a science fiction movie.

Marines with Company D, 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, and 1st Tank Battalion, testing the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV) C7 command and control variant communication system at Camp Wilson, N.C. The equipment is designed to provide superior communication capabilities its predecessor currently cannot, said Capt. Nate Brogdon, the operational test project officer with the Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity. With the new system, troops have the ability to access, monitor and transmit over all radio networks, including artillery and air support, from any position on the battleground. A variation of the system will also be included in the upcoming Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which is slated to replace the AAV in the coming years. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. R. Logan Kyle.

“One thing we’ve found in Afghanistan and Iraq is we must be able to deal with the locals. To put the individual Marine into an all-encompassing uniform like a Star Wars Imperial Trooper would interfere with that,” Lasswell said. “Having a suit to help him deal with chemical or biological threats, monitor life signs, etc., is possible and conceivable, but I think the 2025 Marine will look only marginally different from the 2010 Marine. The key will be the power capability, which may not be that apparent to people looking at what he is wearing.”

The next 15 years also will see the introduction of a lighter, more capable personal weapon, he predicted, along with a re-examination of the concept of personal protection equipment (PPE).

“We may see a shift toward things like caseless ammunition to reduce weight, which would be the first major change in our service rifle since Vietnam,” he continued. “With PPE, we definitely want something lighter, but there always is a tradeoff on mobility. I think we have hit a high point in terms of weight for protection; we can’t handle more weight. But I would bet the emphasis will be on improved mobility rather than greater protection.

“Some of our experiments indicate a person who is more agile, can move faster, is more survivable than someone with more armor but moving slower. Better power also can improve protection, perhaps in the form of electric armor, which we’ve already looked at. Improving sensor reach also will be a better protection than just taking the hit and surviving.”

MCWL also is looking into small precision weapons for both individual and squad use – including a steerable bullet.

“We want to give the individual Marine the ability to do more, to extend his vision via a small UAV that can look over the hill or around a building, then take action, whether target another weapon or employ his own weapons, from a lethal small UAV to a steerable bullet,” Lasswell said. “There is a DARPA program we are watching closely; you have to be able to guide it and it has limited range, so we don’t yet know if it is worth our time and expense to have bullets we can steer. But we are open to the concept.”

Lance Cpl. Jeffrey M. Roberts, a 21-year-old team leader from Destin, Fla., shouts an order to one of his Marines from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment before beginning a patrol in Fallujah, Iraq. On the morning of Dec. 12, Roberts’ squad was attacked by insurgents in a firefight that left his squad leader, Sgt. John T. Matter, wounded, but still standing. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Zahn.

Military versions of smartphones, iPads, Kindle-type digital readers, and breakthrough technologies such as paper-thin displays that can be rolled or folded to fit into a pocket, also are anticipated by 2015 – most much sooner. But perhaps the two most important items will be a lightweight, long-life, multi-functional replacement for all the batteries the individual Marine now carries (See “Power Hungry”) and a low bandwidth solution to all of the enhanced data exchanges on a battlefield networked from “throne to spear.”

“Warfighters are finding ways to send things that once required a lot of bandwidth with less, but bandwidth use is up, even so, because more information is being sent. But we will become more and more efficient, allowing us to send more information to the far edge,” Lasswell said. “And as information goes from one to many instead of one to one, decision-making will continue to change. Since MCWL was created 15 years ago, we’ve been concerned with what information is essential to commanders and what is essential to individual Marines. Along with that is how much capability does each level require.

“These all take a lot of power and we want to reduce, not increase, power requirements in the field. That is a continuing quandary. If we can get more bandwidth, we would like to get sensor information on-demand down to the individual Marine, if he needs it. We’ve been investigating a hub-and-spoke approach, but don’t yet know which users need what and whether that should be push or pull. We might have a certain level pushed, then allow users to pull in more information relevant to them. That requires thought and experimentation to determine what is useful and what will just clog our limited bandwidth.”

Culturally aware, able to communicate on a one-to-one level, familiar with local religions, history, power and political structures, networked from the squad to higher headquarters, able to pull whatever information he needs from any sensor or database and read it in his goggles, wearing a PPE-enhanced combat uniform able to monitor vital signs, and with built-in power for a wide array of equipment, supported by small, medium, and large UAVs and UGVs, and armed with a scalable range of precision lethal and non-lethal weapons – that is the 21st century Marine.

“The Marine of the future will have to be multi-purpose and multi-trained to meet the situations he will face. But the core value is to make sure he is adaptable, can understand his environment and turn to his training for whatever situation he is in and be able to go back and forth across the range of military operations,” Doering concluded.

“The commandant once said it is difficult to get things exactly right about the next war, but we also can’t afford to get it wrong. I think both state and non-state actors in the future will use both high and low tech against us – a high-capability guided missile one day, a low-tech IED the next. So you have to have a balanced force with the capabilities to meet and beat both of those challenges.”

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2010-2011 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...