“War is both timeless and ever changing. While the basic nature of war is constant, the means and methods we use evolve continuously. Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.”
—Fleet Marine Force Manual 1, Warfighting, 1989
This article describes recent changes to The Basic School’s (TBS’) program of instruction (POI), the impetus for those changes, the methodology for evaluation and implementation, and the desired result. Change is a constant in war, and as such, it is a constant in the training and education of officers charged to lead in war. Change is necessary, inevitable, uncomfortable, and challenging. Our doctrinal capstone, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, charges us to both maintain a culture of adaptation and remain mindful of the enduring nature of our chosen profession. Moreover, our maneuver warfare philosophy demands that we act with initiative based on duty and top sight. We must understand the guidance, mission, and intent of our most senior leaders and then act aggressively to carry out that intent. The TBS staff models this type of dutiful initiative in order to instill it in the Corps’ newest officers.
Some things are timeless. The goal of TBS is to develop officers who are adaptive, ethical leaders who thrive in the austere, uncertain, distributed environment of modern combat. For most students, TBS is the initial immersion in the Corps; for others it is the time to embrace their new role as an officer of Marines. TBS remains an experience greater than the sum of its parts. At its heart, TBS is a platoon commander’s school and a leadership academy. Instructors use the lessons they have learned in combat to prepare the next generation of officers. Some things change. The TBS staff seeks to anticipate the future operating environment Marines will face and then prepare the student for it. To do this, one has to look no further than our Commandant’s Planning Guidance. While nothing is ever certain, Gen James F. Amos tells us that the next war will take place in a world of increasing instability and conflict, characterized by poverty, competition for resources, urbanization, overpopulation, and extremism. The environment both in and around the immediate site of future battles will be volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. At the end of 10 years of war and in the face of the current debt crisis, the resources that we have come to expect—people, facilities, money, vehicles, technology, etc.—will be increasingly constrained. Absent established bases, our graduates will have to bring everything that they need with them to the fight, or they will have to do without. Our future enemies have had a decade to assess our strengths and weaknesses. They will deny future Marine leaders the opportunity to fight in the way that Americans have historically preferred. Outspending the enemy is no longer an option; we have to outthink him.
The changes in the POI reconcile that which is timeless at TBS with the mandate of our Commandant that:
. . . leaders at all levels must consider the likely challenges of the next two decades and how the Corps will meet them. The future will be different from the world we knew prior to the attacks on 9-11. Through innovation and a willingness to adapt, we will remain the ready and relevant force that America relies on in times of crisis!
From the time that then-BGen Charles Heywood established the School of Application, the competing factors of student throughput, resources, and the contemporary operating environment influenced the entry-level training of Marine Corps officers. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been no different. During the middle part of the last decade, the strain of multiple combat deployments, a substantial increase in resources, and the requirements of supported commanders all served to affect the manner in which TBS trained and educated student lieutenants.
The requirement to dramatically increase the annual number of students trained had the greatest impact. From 2007 to 2009, TBS increased its throughput by 392 student officers per year—an over 25 percent increase. Each student company grew to 300 personnel, the maximum size that the aging Camp Barrett facilities would support. Moreover, manpower planners added an additional student company for a total of seven Basic Officer Courses (BOCs) each training year. While TBS did see an increase in instructors, support personnel, money, and equipment, this expansion was far smaller than the increase in students. The requirements and constraints of volume throughput drove the institution. Synchronization of everything from barracks space to training areas became critical because four and sometimes five companies (not including a dramatically expanded Infantry Officer Course and an added Infantry Weapons Officer Course) were training together at any given time. Each class, discussion group, and field event had a larger audience. Instructors and support personnel were stretched thin. The timeline for each event was strict. This required that field problems have definitive start and stop points with a clear expectation of what the solution must look like to enable students and staff to transition to the next event. The number of vehicle movements increased, and total field time decreased in order to allow students to efficiently complete events, freeing up space and resources for subsequent classes. In spite of these obstacles, the quality of graduate that TBS delivered to the Marine Corps did not slip. The buildup of the Marine Corps from 175,000 to 202,000 brought unique challenges—challenges that were successfully met through the tireless efforts of the TBS staff.
TBS evolved to reflect some of the realities of the contemporary fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. While much of the expansion of vehicle movement was done as a result of the previously discussed numerical challenges, some was a natural outgrowth of the tactical experiences in theater. The necessity to move mounted along constrained main supply routes, operate in up-armored vehicles, and react to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) all combined to increase the focus on convoy operations. The POI grew to incorporate emerging technologies and expanding resources, including everything from new communications equipment to new optics to new digital training aids. Theater-specific and Service-directed requirements (e.g., counter-IED, COMBAT HUNTER, etc.) all added events to what was already the most extensive Marine Corps POI outside of the aviation training pipeline.
In spite of the demands and challenges described above, the TBS staff continued to look for ways to increase adaptability and better prepare students for the challenges ahead of them. In 2006, Col Royal Mortenson conducted a POI analysis that recommended increasing the students’ “tactical cunning” and developing a light infantry mindset. This assessment argued for increased force-on-force training; additional tactical decision games (TDGs); increased combat conditioning; physical TDGs; additional time in the field, including extended foot movements in field events; and other training initiatives that would develop a tougher, smarter, more aggressive, and adaptive lieutenant. The POI review laid the foundation for improvements in instructor development and advocated building students’ recognition-primed decisionmaking abilities. It recommended foot movements over unknown distances tied to field events or TDGs in order to stress students across multiple domains simultaneously. The end result of the 2006 review was the first rewrite and Training and Education Command-approved TBS POI since 1992.
In 2007, synthesizing all of the above recommendations, then-Col George Smith developed a qualitative description of what the end state of an officer graduate should be. Incorporating then-Col John Allen’s 1999 work in such areas as “pillars of officership,” the TBS staff described a Marine officer in terms of five “horizontal” themes. The staff chose the term horizontal because they would weave each aspect of each theme across the length of the 6-month POI. The five horizontal themes form the basis for all evaluation, especially leadership and officership, during a student’s time at TBS. In their current form, the themes state that a Marine officer is:
• A man or woman of exemplary character.
• Devoted to leading Marines 24/7.
• Able to decide, communicate, and act in the fog of war.
• A warfighter who embraces our Corps’ warrior ethos.
• Mentally strong and physically tough.
Commandant’s Planning Guidance
In his October 2010 planning guidance, the Commandant describes a future of hybrid warfare that combines “the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare.” Gen Amos states that this type of warfare requires adaptive, tough leaders who thrive in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments. He further charges that we must “better educate and train our Marines to succeed in distributed operations and increasingly complex environments.” The Commandant’s Planning Guidance accepts the future resource-constrained reality and, as a result, demands a return to our austere, expeditionary roots. It describes an environment where officers must make decisions with strategic consequences while working with local forces. In Gen Amos’ words, our lieutenants must lead “Marines who are not only fighters, but also trainers, mentors and advisors.” The Commandant’s Planning Guidance recognizes the centrality of education and training as a vehicle to accomplish his desired end state. To this end, Gen Amos charges formal school commanders with reinvigorating values-based training and building ethical decisionmakers.
Responding to the Commandant’s guidance, the Commanding Officer (CO), TBS, convened a series of operational planning teams (OPTs) during the fall and early winter of 2010 to 2011. Each OPT was armed with different planning directives to use in shaping revised schedules, classes, field events, decision games, and exams. Adhering closely to the Marine Corps Planning Process and the Systems Approach to Training and Education (SATE), the staff developed and the commander approved a “new” POI that has been executed beginning with Company C, BOC 3–11. The strength of this new POI is as much in its adherence to our Commandant’s charge to look to the future as it is in its firm foundation in the work of those who trained lieutenants since Gen Heywood’s day.
Each OPT received guidance that its final plan was to instill the five horizontal themes in each student, decrease total instructor and support resource requirements, increase staff platoon commander mentorship time, and develop the light infantry mindset within each lieutenant. The first OPTs were given separate guidance, different planning considerations, and unique constraints. One team was instructed to streamline the existing POI, removing events that were not basic or were more appropriate for follow-on training. The revised POI should increase SPC mentorship time and add a culminating force-on-force exercise. This first team was to make the field events long and arduous and minimize training time during garrison weeks. The second team received extremely broad guidance. It was told to design an entirely new POI that taught the horizontal themes and lasted 6 months. This team had free reign to challenge the status quo and develop new ideas.
After working intensively for several weeks, both OPTs briefed the commander and staff on their findings. The CO selected aspects of each to form a refined course of action. A new team, with additional guidance focusing primarily on supportability, commenced detailed planning. The crux move of this next planning effort was a detailed wargame to ensure that multiple training events for different companies could occur sequentially and simultaneously as they had in the previous POI. The wargame used a 2-calendar-year synchronization matrix to ensure that overlapping events would be executable. Following the successful wargame, the POI was subjected to a rigorous SATE Course Content Review Board (CCRB) process to ensure that the new schedule, master lesson files, and concept cards still supported all required training and readiness (T&R) events. Upon a successful CCRB, TBS implemented the new POI beginning with Company C, BOC 3–11.
Changes to the POI
The new POI reduces total hours by 150, increases company commander’s time by 40 percent, and increases combat conditioning time by 100 percent. It includes a more robust ethics curriculum, including decision games and scenarios during field exercises. Other new events include physical TDGs (in which lieutenants are required to make tactical decisions while executing combat conditioning events and Marine Corps Martial Arts Program routines), more time for instructor development, and a total of over 150 miles of foot movements. These hikes are incorporated into field exercises, not individual physical training events. They are designed to teach the importance of planning foot movements, bringing only mission essential equipment, and moving together as a unit. All foot movements are either approach marches to the field or retrograde marches from the field.
The POI consolidates field training into six long, arduous events—five week-long exercises (most ending with a live fire range) and a culminating 8-day war. The war is force-on-force, free play. Students draw on everything they have learned, face new challenges, and make decisions that determine how the exercise unfolds. Students partner with an indigenous force for the first time. TBS staff members step away from their instructor role and act as observer-controllers and evaluators. The “war” ends with a live fire platoon (reinforced) attack and a retrograde march back to Camp Barrett.
Changes to Instructor Battalion
Implementation of the new POI coincides with changes to the role of enlisted Marines at TBS and refinements in instructional methodology. Given the instructor-intensive nature of the new POI, ongoing efforts to increase interaction between student officers and combat-experienced SNCOs and NCOs, and the enduring requirement for TBS to provide training and logistical support to Marine Corps National Capital Region units, Instructor Battalion (the battalion that includes all TBS permanent personnel) reorganized to maximize effective and efficient use of its resources. The new structure aligns units and personnel along functional lines, streamlines combat service support tasks into a single company, clearly assigns training in individual and team T&R skills to enlisted combat instructors, affords specially screened and selected SNCOs and NCOs the opportunity to both teach and evaluate student officers, and frees up officer instructors to focus on teaching officership and platoon-level events.
In the past, field exercises required large groups of combat instructors to serve as the opposing forces for student units. This use of combat-experienced NCOs limited officer-enlisted interaction and prevented students from gaining the benefit of seeing tactical events from both the “friendly” and “enemy” perspectives. Most of this “aggressor” requirement has been eliminated because students now oppose each other in force-on-force scenarios. This more efficient and effective approach affords students the chance to face a thinking enemy who is trying to “win,” allows combat instructors to provide more meaningful contributions, and increases the opportunities for SNCO and NCO instruction.
The increased emphasis on enlisted instruction enhances the mentorship student officers receive from captains—the center of gravity of TBS. Whenever possible, captains and NCOs teach as a team. The captain provides the example of officership, while the sergeant demonstrates the high caliber expected of the Marine NCO. The seasoned NCO lends credibility to the captain through his experience and example.
Changes to Instructional Methods
Incorporating the lessons of the institution’s past and the Commandant’s vision of the future, TBS improved its educational methodology to better develop student officers. Incorporating pedagogical lessons learned from higher education, modern theory of adult learning, and best practices from the most demanding military schools across the joint force, TBS ensures that each instructor is best able to respond to individual student learning styles. Students are challenged to take ownership of their own learning. They “do” in TDGs, sand table exercises, and in the field more than they listen in lectures. They are forced to make creative decisions with limited time and insufficient information. They are driven to adapt to rapidly changing, chaotic situations. Several lectures have been modified to use the case study methodology. Students no longer receive principles over a series of slides; they experience discovery learning through making decisions in an actual historical situation. Students read and write critiques of books on the profession of arms. They then discuss these books in a group, debating what they have learned. The goal in all of this is not to show lieutenants what “right looks like,” but rather to allow them to succeed or fail on their own analysis and effort. Many times we learn more from our failures than from our successes.
Far from being an indictment of what came before, the “changes” at TBS represent a continuation of evolving methodologies and a tradition of innovation from the past into the future. With the reduction in student throughput, the new POI used the increase in available time to expose students to more decisionmaking repetitions in garrison and especially in the field. With more experience, students are expected to make decisions with incomplete information. They grow to expect limited direction from their instructors as problems unfold. They are better able to debrief each other based on their collective experiences. They are more comfortable operating in the field and expect to operate with less. They plan more effectively for their logistics needs and are prepared to move on foot. Three BOC companies have now executed the modified POI. The transition has been smooth. Students are thriving and exceeding expectations.
As the quotation from Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 at the start of this article states, war is both timeless and ever changing and so is training and educating officers for war. TBS has been imbuing officers with these qualities since its inception. It will continue to do so. Instruction will evolve as war evolves, all the while remaining true to our history, traditions, and warrior ethos. We, the TBS staff, believe that the new POI maintains this balance and provides the right leader at the right time to lead the Nation’s force-in-readiness.
1.Amos, Gen James F., “Introduction,” Commandant’s Planning Guidance 2010, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, 2010.
3. CO, TBS, July 2005 to July 2007.
4. TBS POI Tactical Cunning Review and Implementation, Microsoft Powerpoint presentation, June 2006.
5. CO, TBS, July 2007 to June 2010.
6. CO, TBS, June 1999 to April 2001.