2009 Chase Prize Essay Contest: Second Place
On a cool morning at Twentynine Palms, an artillery regiment’s fire for effect interrupts the quiet. Not far from the impact area, an infantry battalion conducts maneuver operations. Closing in on the notional enemy, the commander orders the fire mission repeated. Silence. The time on target comes and goes, but no rounds impact. In the fire direction center (FDC), an automated system operator has lost digital communications with the subordinate battalions. Troubleshooting commences. An hour later the operations chief directs a Marine to phone a field service representative (FSR) who promptly fixes the problem. Then, the maneuver commander receives his fire support.
Computer systems frequently malfunction, but using civilians to troubleshoot these programs undermines fire support’s ability to be “semper flexiblis.” As a result, the skill of uniformed operators has atrophied. Fixing this problem requires the Marine Corps to reduce its dependency on contractors and train Marines instead.
Artillery, mortars, naval guns, and close air support (CAS) are well-known components of the Corps’ war machine, but behind the rockets and explosions lies an obscured necessity—automation. The fire support community depends upon various automated systems, including the advanced field artillery tactical data system and several command and control (C2) personal computer programs. These systems compute firing data, track statuses, maintain digital communications, and facilitate many more vital tasks. A battlespace commander must have this information to maximize his firing assets.
Marines are the system operators, but when they run into difficulty their primary course of action is calling a contractor. Troublesome in training, this lack of independence can be lethal in combat. 1st Battalion, 6th Marines’ (1/6’s) Commanding Officer, LtCol Anthony Henderson, notes how his StrikeLink operators (a CAS system used to acquire and transmit target data) struggled to perform proficiently without FSRs in Afghanistan:
Many problems arose by Marines not having proper field experience with the STRIKELINK Tactical Location and Digital Hand-Off System (TLDHS) call for fire system. This capability was first introduced to the Forward Observer Teams at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and due to lack of training, troubleshooting could not be effectively employed. In training, STRIKELINK worked well under the supervision of the Civilian contractors [emphasis mine].1
Nonuniformed experts held up Henderson’s Marines. During an earlier conflict, pirates manning artillery pieces helped GEN Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans.2 Today, the Marine Corps is similarly dependent upon civilian assistance.
At its core, this weakness derives from training deficiencies. MOS schools equip Marines with basic skills, and the Marine Corps relies on subsequent training to turn junior operators into experts. This method is failing. Although Operating Forces Marines attend classes across the fire support community, system operators are not fully prepared for war. Navy/Marine Corps Departmental Publication 3500.54A (NavMC 3500.54A), C2 Training and Readiness Manual (C2 T&R Manual), is flawed. It stipulates that with only an extra week or two of training, Marines become “advanced” operators.3 Such requirements fail to consider that students need more time to master their system’s technical intricacies. Moreover, with other mandatory training packed between deployments, units cannot allocate time and money for training that the manual prescribes. As a crutch, the Corps hires contractors.
This unofficial doctrine creates a culture of dependency. According to the Contractor Engineering and Technical Services Personnel Manual, nonuniformed instructors should be transient. These civilians are to equip Marines to “become capable of maintaining and operating the weapon systems and equipment,”4 but in actuality, students are poorly taught. Instructors merely conduct step-action drills and hope Marines pay attention. When operators fail to record complete instructions, fire support is delayed or never delivered—unless the hired help is present.
High turnover rates reinforce the status quo by depriving units of seasoned operators. Experience teaches best, but most Marines are limited to only 3 years on station. Because incoming operators may have spent time away from the Operating Forces and bypassed years of modernization, they rarely achieve anything beyond basic proficiencies. For instance, many battery FDC Marines cannot perform functions beyond fire mission computations and inputting common data. Higher up the spectrum, fire support coordination center (FSCC) Marines can only gain expertise after months of intense study, but they are not afforded this luxury. All told, the Corps’ adeptness with fire support hangs by a thread.
Reform does not lie on the horizon. In 2008 the government renewed a contract that guaranteed that the Marine Corps can cut corners a bit longer:
Computer Science Corp. [CSC], Falls Church, Va., is being awarded $6,603,439 for task order #0065 . . . support for fielded tactical C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] systems for Marine Corps Operating Forces (OPFORs). Technical support under this effort includes on-site/on-call support at the MCTSSA [Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity] Operating Forces Tactical Systems Support Center (OFTSSC), on-site technical representation at specified Marine Corps Command organizations worldwide, exercise support based upon the operational schedule of the supported units, and support of contingency operations (e.g., hazardous duty, combat operations, peace-keeping). . . .5
Task order #0065 solidified the Marine Corps’ aversion to expertly training Marines. One year later, #0074 reinstated the order and added over $11 million.6
Reliance on basically prepared Marines falls short of the Corps’ standard. Traditionally, victory is achieved by equipping warriors with advanced combat skills, teaching them how to fight under any conditions. When infantry units deploy, no contractor is present to troubleshoot machinegun malfunctions. Weapons knowledge is ingrained, second nature, and vital. As this formula fades from fire support, the outlook is grim.
The Marine Corps must not assume that total war is gone. While the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters safely harbor contractors behind the wire, these havens may not always exist. Has the Marine Corps forgotten our foundry—Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Inchon—when safe locations were nonexistent? Sometimes contractors venture into hot zones, but the current fight is limited. In the future the Corps has no guarantee that civilians will weather freezing rain, thick mud, and enemy airstrikes. If the Marine Corps fights a technologically advanced nation (e.g., Iran, China, or North Korea) contractors will likely abandon ranks.
But a more urgent crisis is at hand. For nearly a decade the military enjoyed few fiscal restraints, and the fire support community has not seriously considered that the government may someday remove contractors from the payrolls. Already President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates are slashing major defense projects,7 and the deepening recession may precipitate further cuts. If the government rescinds a company’s contract, a great portion of fire systems knowledge will disappear overnight. Departing contractors will leave Marines out in the cold.
Supporters of the status quo hold that the Corps’ recent fire support successes validate the current model. Indeed, Marines are as deadly now as they have ever been, but below the surface, computer operators lack expert knowledge. Marines offset training deficiencies through irregular training events, rote learning, and FSR visits. Skeptics further surmise that hiring contractors is the best use for the Corps’ money, but this assessment is shortsighted. A cost-benefit comparison reveals that immediate investments save future resources: $18 million (CSC’s bill since 2008) spent properly training Marines will reap rewards beyond those of another $18 million handed to military contractors.
Eight years ago the Marine Corps understood that without more comprehensive training, advances in digital automation would outpace a Marine’s ability to operate the systems. A 2d MarDiv study concluded that doctrine regarding automated C2 systems training was ambiguous, and that:
[b]eyond operators’ courses, no formal training standards [existed] for individual C2 system proficiency, and no unit-level standards [existed].8
The study also found that due to these factors Marines resisted C2 system integration.9 In response, the Corps revamped its doctrine and stipulated specific training requirements and standards.
These reforms have proved ineffective. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM commenced shortly after the study, hindering a vigorous overhaul. The team recommended more Operating Forces training, but an increased operations tempo has stood in the way. Thus, for most of the last decade, contractors helped the Marine Corps do what it was too busy to do itself—skillfully operate automated fire support systems. Certainly, a better way of doing things is in order.
To maintain combat independence, the Marine Corps must redefine “systems expert.” Currently, NavMC 3500.54A specifies appropriate training intervals for Marines who work with fire support systems,10 but the order fails to mandate comprehensive training or acknowledge busy operation tempos. A better goal is to make experts from the start. The C2 T&R Manual should consider automated systems’ complex nature and require that Marines be trained in computer science. These courses would extend beyond the current and incomplete methods; indeed, the Marine Corps must establish a new MOS to create a cadre of uniformed computer system experts. Several new job specialties consolidated under one occupational field are needed to address the Corps’ diverse fire support automation needs. Units would benefit exponentially from these modernized warriors. (See Figure 1 for training requirements.)
Specialists would be the Corps’ primary systems experts, understanding how computers and communications networks function. They would assist, not replace, current operators. Divided into teams, these systems “mechanics” could acquire upgrades and teach new software. Deployed specialists could repair networks and software in any clime or place. As their careers progress, senior experts would recommend software changes and updates to manufacturers. Under this initiative the fire support community would need contractors only to develop and teach the new MOS. Eventually, Marines themselves will become the primary instructors.
Finding adept students will be relatively simple and may not require large bonuses or increased benefits. Many high school and college graduates are seeking computer-based jobs and training,11 giving the Corps unprecedented access to an emerging pool of viable recruits and officer candidates. Moreover, contracted companies offer technology-savvy civilians the opportunity to serve one’s country. A large part of this market is ready to assume the mantle of high-tech warriors.
As the Marine Corps enters a new decade, it should determine whether Marines are fully adapting to contemporary warfare. Maneuver tactics have modernized, but training in fire support automation is stagnating. To remain at the spear’s tip, Marines must master a new type of warfighting.
1. Henderson, LtCol Anthony, Topic: StrikeLink, 12 December 2008, accessed 27 January at https://www.mccll.usmc.mil//index.cfm?disp=lms.cfm&doit=view&lmsid=44796.
2. Howe, Daniel, What Hath God Wrought, Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 2009.
3. Department of the Navy, NavMC 3500.54A, accessed 19 November 2009 at http://www.marines.mil/news/publications/Documents/NAVMC%203500_54A.pdf.
4. U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Order P12304.1, Contractor Engineering and Technical Services Personnel Manual, accessed 15 August 2009 at http://www.marines.mil/news/publications/Documents/MCO%20P12304.1.pdf.
5. GlobalSecurity.org. Contracts dated 29 September 2008, accessed 20 November 2009 at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2008/09/dod-contract....
6. Defense.gov. Contracts, 5 November 2009, accessed 20 November 2009 at http://www.defense.gov/contracts/contract.aspx?contractid=4155.
7. Shalal-Esa , Andrea, “Congress slams defense budget cuts,” accessed 17 December 2009 at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE53600C20090407.
8. Liebe R., W. Wright, and E. Blake, Regimental Combat Operations Center Study for 2d Marine Division, Studies Analysis Division, 23 July 2002, accessed 24 February at https://www.
10. NavMC 3500.54A.
11. Marsan, Carolyn D., “Computer science major is cool again,” Network World, 17 March 2009, accessed 17 December 2009 at http://www.networkworld.com/news/2009/031409-computer-science-majors.htm....