CAMP PENDLETON, CALIF. — After 20 years of counterinsurgency and low-end conflict in the Middle East, the Marines are rapidly retooling for a different kind of fight.
As the service has shed legacy equipment like tanks and heavy artillery to reshape itself into a mobile, Pacific island-hopping force, it’s retooling how it trains the Marines of the future to fit into a more complex way of war while reinforcing its creed of “every Marine a rifleman.”
This week, the School of Infantry-West at Camp Pendleton, Calif., graduates the first three platoons to complete a redesigned Infantry Marine Course. The proposed longer entry-level training program will prepare infantry squads to operate against peer adversaries and high-tech threats in dispersed, littoral environments – in line with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s focus on preparing the service in 2030. The future battlefield could be across a large area of small atolls and isles that require forces to operate in small, dispersed units, but be capable of executing command-driven orders and react independently as needed, as was the case during World War II’s Pacific islands campaign.
“The first day of training is where we start with (the) why. That’s arguably one of the most important pieces of this,” said Capt. Dave Delong, the Headquarters and Instructor Company commander at Infantry Training Battalion-West. “Then we relate that to why all these skills they’re learning over the next 14 weeks are going to be important.”
That potential future environment is front-and-center in the new IMC program. New students sit through a briefing – the only time they’re in a classroom through the 14-week training – to hear and understand the future operating environment and how they’d fit in, all driven by the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, National Defense Strategy, and relevant geographic and operational plans.
“The way we look at our future battles, these younger Marines will be farther from support, [they] will have to make higher-level decisions at lower levels of command,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 AJ Pasciuti, IT-West’s battalion gunner. “So we want to empower the young Marines to be able to make those decisions independent of their leadership, and then also support their leadership by solving problems faster and at an increased rate than their competitors.”
Instructors say while the current Marine Rifleman course has trained infantry forces well for the desert battles in Iraq and Afghanistan against lesser-trained forces, the new course more appropriately prepares them for the more capable adversaries they’ll face in future conflicts. “The privates of today are the squad leaders of tomorrow. If we can change the trajectory now, they will be prepared by 2030,” Delong said.
Training officials say they are thrilled by what they’re seeing. The revised program takes a building-block approach and a student-centered learning model using technology and hands-on instruction in small groups led by their squad leader – each a Marine combat instructor – to teach foundational infantry-specific skills.
“They have progressed a lot faster and a lot more than we could had ever anticipated,” Delong said last week, as squads rotated through a live-fire marksmanship assessment during the course’s final “Capstone” field exercises. Instructors added competition among the squads and platoons to spur the students to outdo one another, much in the spirit of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-4 Competing and to remind them that “on a day-to-day basis, we are competing with our peer adversaries, and we need to be prepared for that.”
New Training Model
The proposed IMC course is about five weeks longer than the current nearly nine-week program that creates Marine Riflemen, military occupational specialty 0311, the largest community and the backbone of the Marine Corps. Among the changes is altering the instructor-student relationship, Pasciuti said, in that “we stopped focusing on the instructors, we started focusing on the students.” Each sergeant instructor was assigned to 14 students through the entire course.
The new course also has reaped other unexpected benefits. After the first day’s orientation brief, students spend the remaining 14 weeks – including a week-long final training exercise – outside the classroom and mostly in the field with their platoons and combat instructors.
The revamped course also includes water training and a qualification requirement not part of the current entry-level training. That addition largely came from last year’s fatal sinking of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle off southern California and a command investigation that found Marines had poor swimming skills, incomplete underwater egress training or little experience training in the water.
Students spent several hours weekly in the pool to work on swim strokes and, in some cases, relearn how to swim and survive in the water. Course developers decided to train and qualify students to WSI, Water Survival-Intermediate, a higher standard than the boot camp minimum, Water Survival-Basic. At that level they could use small boats and reach a beach without requiring larger vehicles, for example, according to ITB-West commander Lt. Col. Walker Koury.
While the addition of water training is important for amphibious operations that are the Marine Corps’ specialty, instructors say it also improves survival skills, acclimatizes infantry Marines for amphibious operations, builds confidence in their own abilities in the water and reduces musculoskeletal injuries by improving their overall fitness. “Personally, I think it always should have been a huge emphasis, being an amphibious force,“ said Sgt. Raz Ornelas, a combat instructor. “It’s very important for all units to focus on.”
Training officials and instructors say this first iteration has shown that students can absorb a lot more information than initially expected. The goal of the Infantry Marine Course, said Col. Coby Moran, SOI-West’s commander, “is to produce a better trained, more lethal, more capable entry-level Marine that can come into the Fleet Marine Force (and) can hit the ground running.”
Moran said he anticipated students would be overwhelmed, but “they categorically have said, ‘No.’ They’ve asked for more swim training, more comm training, more casualty-care training, more weapons training, further advanced skills training.” He’s been impressed by students who made snap decisions on the simulated battlefield “without being prompted” and seeing others take initiative and lead their teams and squads.
The first iteration of the pilot course has reaped other unexpected benefits. “Our numbers have been cut significantly, a significant reduction in attrition,” Pasciuti said, declining to provide details. “And there’s no change in standards. We just attacked the problem differently.” Instructors attribute much of that to the new and longer curriculum, pace of instruction, swim training, gradual build-up in field training, hikes through Camp Pendleton’s hills and the availability of athletic trainers and rehabilitation specialists for reducing injuries that could force a student to be recycled or dropped.
Under the four pilot classes planned, every IMC student is assigned the 0311 Military Occupational Specialty of Marine rifleman upon completion. The first three platoons’ graduates are reporting together to one of three infantry battalions, one in each Marine division in the Fleet Marine Force: 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines at Camp Pendleton; and 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines at Camp Lejeune.
Next month, the first group of female Marines will join the second platoon with Infantry Training Battalion-West at Camp Pendleton for the second trial of the 14-week “proof of concept” pilot. They are graduating Thursday from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif., the first group of female recruits to train there in an integrated training company. They will join ITB-West’s Alpha Company for the next IMC class starting June 8. Infantry Training Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in June will begin training the first of two platoons in the 14-week pilot course.
Brig. Gen. Jason Morris, who leads the Quantico, Va.-based Marine Corps Training Command, said the Marine Corps plans to complete its review of the pilot course and expects to fully implement the new training by October 2023. It might include extra training and events sought by combat instructors, such as more force-on-force or weapons training, that could add another four weeks, but no decision has been made yet on that. “It will grow and iterate and change and develop over time,” Morris said.
Koury said he’d expect to see some slight tweaks to the training as the next IMC classes get underway, including more force-on-force events. He said he’s seen for himself that they can take on more leadership roles, recounting watching one platoon effectively attack another with support-by-fire and maneuver, but without a sergeant there to lead them. “Without any attempt to teach mission planning and leadership, it happened,” he said during a media roundtable last week. “What would happen if we started intentionally teaching them?”
Building Thinkers, Sparking Initiative
The IMC’s first nine weeks train prospective infantry Marines in individual, foundational skills, while weeks 10-13 focus on collective training, where students go through more focused training on their squads and platoon’s capabilities. The final training exercise, in week 14, is a running scenario that includes force-on-force action and with students largely on their own with instructors there solely for safety and guidance. Squads and platoons cover miles on foot along Camp Pendleton’s scrubby hills and ranges, day and night, as they move through each event and the final certifications and assessment. They covered some 30 kilometers in the final days.
Training officials say the pilot course re-instills foundational skills at a critical stage for young, prospective infantry Marines. Alpha Company’s students were hungry to learn and eager to take on more challenges than what was thrown at them. For example, instructors plastered warning orders on walls and doors in their squad bays well before they provided students any formal instruction. “The students were naturally curious. The Generation Zers are naturally inquisitive. They found out what a warning order is before we had to teach them,” Pasciuti said.
It’s not just around the barracks, but in the field where the sergeant instructors saw their 15 students outperform expectations. “The hard part is changing the mind of the instructor,” he said.
Alpha Company’s students surprised seasoned combat veterans like Pasciuti, who admitted he underestimated them when his nine-member squad attempted a planned ambush on the students’ patrol base. The platoon had set up their patrol base and security differently than expected, and high ground and dispersed teams gave them the tactical advantage. “About two hours before I made contact with them, they made contact with me,” the gunner said. Using their rifle optics and training, the students found his opposing squad “and then watched us suffer for two hours as we were trying to make our way as sneaky as we could through some of the worst terrain we could find.”
Then “of their own volition,” said Pasciuti, “the students moved a machine gun to a position where they could rain down onto the “enemy” and sent two fire teams to attack his squad. “I didn’t get a word in edgewise,” he added. “I stood up and I found a bunch of lasers sighting on my chest.”
Pasciuti said he later grilled the sergeant instructors but was told, “we didn’t do anything.” The students came to a decision on their own. “When given the opportunity, these young Marines – given this scope to allow them to fail so many times in a safe environment – now they’re starting to succeed because they can conceptualize what we’ve taught them,” he said, adding, “It was impressive and frustrating at the same time.”
Moran said the pilot’s first platoons have shown that “entry-level Marines can take a five-paragraph order, understand what SMEAC (Situation-Mission-Execution-Administration-Command) means – not every entry-level Marine got that in the old days – figure out what my mission is, what my tasks are and be able to execute those.” And if the situation changes, he said, students adjusted to execute the commander’s intent.
While that’s taught to and expected of Marines at the sergeant level and above, the colonel said, “we think it’s helpful to push down at the lowest levels possible. Every Marine needs to be able to do that,” especially in distributed, maritime environments that “requires you to think in maneuver warfare terms.”
Moran said he and his staffs have been collaborating with SOI-East and ITB-East throughout development of the proposed “program of instruction” through the Course Content Review Board process. Each course will reflect some unique regional differences, largely in geography, training ranges and logistics support. “They’re going to mirror each other,” with rare differences, once formalized as a program of instruction, said Maj. Edward Arrington, SOI-East’s operations officer.
With more advanced training at the initial schoolhouse, training officials believe new infantry Marines will arrive at their battalions more proficient in infantry skills – per the service’s Training and Readiness standards – than they would under the existing course and be better positioned to contribute sooner to their infantry platoons.
“We would expect our graduates to join their units in the fleet today and be able to directly contribute to a successful infantry unit at a team level, at a squad level, at a platoon level,” Moran said, “and be able to directly integrate into whatever training they have going on within the infantry battalion training spectrum. We think that’s a great enhancement just for a unit’s training timeline.”
“It also means if we in the future get into a fight tonight scenario, where we do need to rapidly train and deploy Marines, our IMC graduates should be able to fight, win and survive on a future battlefield at a much greater level,” he said, “without that long, preparatory pre-deployment training timeline.”
The training also goes after Berger’s vision of a more multi-disciplinary Marine. “Given the latitude and being empowered to both learn and to teach, we are finding the secret sauce and really what our entry-level Marines are capable of doing,” Morris said. “This will continue to evolve. We have found some great things of how you do signature management, how you make yourself more survivable on the battlefield.”
“I want to make sure we spread that across the rest of the force,” he said. “This is more than just about the infantry … This is about really how do we bring the rest of the Marine Corps up to this same level of cognitive decision-making ability and survivability and lethality on the future battlefield.”
Training officials say they have been communicating with fleet units about the pilot course and transition and proper employment of the newly trained infantry Marines, who as “new joins” with broader sets of skills might not be well-received at their new infantry company.
It’s “one of my biggest fears,” said Sgt. Maj. Henry French, ITB-West’s senior enlisted. As first sergeant, he dealt with Marines who hazed or harassed new members in some sort of a power play. French has spoken with the three battalions and impressed on them that leadership experiences the new infantry Marines got at IMC benefit the battalion, providing someone “probably just as capable as a Marine on his first deployment.”
“If you keep them all together, with the right leadership, these Marines will prosper, more than others in recent years,” French said.
The IMC course will require more combat instructors, and potentially a longer course to train new CIs, officials said. About 80 additional combat instructors are needed to support SOI-West’s longer pilot course. That includes an additional company of combat instructors – about 25 sergeants and staff sergeants to serve as squad leaders, platoon sergeants and platoon commanders – plus other instructors and training support.
Combat instructors “have to be more adept at teaching communications, teaching machine gunnery, teaching anti-tank missilier employment, missile employment, from an MOS perspective that maybe they never learned that initially,” Moran said, since infantry students have gotten that specialty training separate from the basic course. Requests for the additional personnel and investments to train more combat instructors are working their way through Training Command and Marine Corps personnel officials.