Marine Corps announces sweeping changes to ground-combat forces
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 15, 2018
The Marine Corps is making sweeping changes to the structure and equipment of its ground-combat forces aimed at improving lethality and agility on the battlefield.
Officially announced last week, the modifications are the result of nearly two years of study and experimentation known as Marine Corps Force 2025 and Sea Dragon 2025. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller spoke about them earlier this month at a gala for the service’s top officers and enlisted ground-combat leaders in Arlington, Va.
Changes will be felt at almost every level of Marine Corps life.
The number of Marines in a rifle squad will be decreased from 13 to 12. The service will also add more automatic weapons, drones and all-terrain vehicles, while improving night optics, grenade launchers and shoulder-fired rockets.
The Marines are fast-tracking some of the changes, but others will be phased in over the next three to five years.
“The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to dominate one,” Neller said in a Marine Corps statement. “And that is what we are going to do.”
The Marines sent an experimental unit to Okinawa in May 2017 to test various unit sizes, concepts and technologies as the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s ground-combat element. The systems were on full display during last summer’s Talisman Saber drills in Australia.
A ‘better’ Marine Corps
Some of the changes are being made to the fundamental makeup of the Marines’ smallest ground units.
A rifle squad — whose mission is to “locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat,” a Marine Corps instruction said — has typically consisted of 13 Marines.
Each squad includes three fire teams of four Marines each, built around a single automatic weapon and led by a sergeant serving as squad leader. Fire teams include a corporal fire-team leader or grenadier, two lance corporals — one with an automatic rifle and another assisting — and a private or private first class serving as rifleman.
Under Neller’s changes, fire teams will now feature three Marines, Capt. Ryan Alvis wrote in a statement. All will be armed with an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle with suppressors and improved optics.
Though fire teams are losing a Marine, they are gaining two automatic weapons, giving each squad a total of 12.
Two new positions — assistant squad leader and squad systems operator — are also being created for each squad, Alvis’ statement said. Rifle squads will keep an additional slot open for one rifleman per fire team should they need to add depth, but the positions will remain unmanned.
Late last month, the Marines awarded a contract to Heckler & Koch for up to 15,000 M27s that will partially replace M4 carbine semiautomatic rifles, a Marine Corps statement said. The rifles cost about $1,300 each.
The new makeup of the squad will see a squad leader — who will remain a sergeant with five to seven years of experience and formal squad leader training — backed up by a corporal as an assistant, the statement said. The new squad-systems operator will be a lance corporal formally trained in a variety of technologies.
Fire teams will consist of corporals in the leadership role, backed by lance corporal grenadiers and automatic riflemen.
The changes will be implemented across all Marine infantry battalions over the next three to five years, the statement said. Neller said this will ensure Marine Corps infantry formations remain the most “lethal, agile, and adaptable in the world.”
“We are going to change,” he said in the statement. “Not that we aren’t good; we are. But we must continually strive to get better.”
21st century battlefield
The Marines will also immediately begin distributing quadcopter drones to every squad. Platoons will gain a drone operator, and rifle companies will get a counter-drone section of five Marines.
Marine squads will also receive improved binocular night-vision devices and improved optics that include thermal capability and improved M320 grenade launchers.
They will gain additional firepower and rocket range as the Multi-Role Anti-Armor Anti-Personnel Weapon System, known as MAAWS or the “Carl Gustav,” replaces the Mk-153 Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon, or SMAW.
Squads will also get handheld devices that provide a digital link to close-air support and adjacent units, and an M38 Squad Designated Marksmanship Rifle with a suppressor and variable 2.5-8 power optic, the statement said.
The M38 is not a sniper rifle, but provides improved identification and engagement of targets up to 600 meters away. Marines carrying it will be required to complete additional training on range estimation, scope theory and observation.
Beyond the squad level, Marine scout snipers are to receive the Mk13 Mod 7 Long Range Sniper Rifle, the statement said. That rifle is used by members of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Weapons companies will get four additional extended-range Javelin antiarmor missile systems, bringing their total to 12, to offset the loss of four wire-guided TOW missile systems, the statement said. Eventually, TOWs will be eliminated from Marine Corps battalions altogether.
The Marines also announced the elimination of two 81-mm mortar systems, bringing the total down to six; however, they will pack a bigger punch with extended ranges and ammunition improvements.
Marines should also see more Polaris MRZRs, an all-terrain vehicle that resembles a dune buggy.
Each rifle company will gain an operations/intelligence section, a logistics cell and small arms repair, the statement said. Marine battalions will add an information management officer and an information environment operations officer and chief to integrate “information warfare capabilities.”
Each infantry battalion will gain a forward air controller, which means each rifle company will have one assigned.
Plans also call for combat engineer squads to increase to 13 Marines and engineer platoons to be attached to each infantry battalion.
The Marines’ 2nd Tank Battalion will get an additional company while the service upgrades its M1A1 active protection systems and target acquisition and sensor suites, the statement said.
The service also plans to bring back 5th Battalion, 10th Marines as a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, battalion in fiscal year 2023.
The Marines also plan to field upgraded light armored vehicles with anti-tank capabilities.