May 2017

Preparing for the Future

A discourse on readying the Marine Corps for Irregular Warfare
Volume 101, Issue 5

Staff, Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation

Cpl Erick Galera
Our deployments are characterized by massive “tent cities” to house staff, radios, and generators.
(Photo by LCpl Jered Stone.)

2016 Kiser Family Irregular Warfare Essay Contest: Second Place

Small wars and their irregular components are and will continue to be a lasting element in U.S. foreign policy. The ability of our Corps to adapt to these unconventional environments will, to a significant extent, determine the success of our future operations around the globe. Combat experiences over the past decade and a half in the global war on terrorism (GWOT) have honed many of the skills that are relevant in those operations, and these lessons must remain learned. Nonetheless, intellectual and organizational stagnation will only lead to disadvantages relative to our foes in future interventions. Innovation and an intellectual commitment to experimentation must guide our approaches to training, organization, and our acquisition processes as we formulate strategies for the future.

The purpose of this article is to foster discussion among our Marines in relation to what is required by irregular operations. In order to accomplish this task, I have divided the discussion into three sections. The first, An Irregular Warfare Handbook, relates the importance of preserving and passing on the knowledge gained in the GWOT as well as an approach for doing so. The second, Reforms For A Lighter, Adaptive Force, is dedicated to advancing change necessary for creating a force that has the command flexibility and logistical efficiency required by the irregular environment. The last, Building Enduring Partnerships, advocates for the creation of a new force structure in which advisor battalions form the core unit for building lasting relationships with our military partners abroad.

Taken together, the suggestions presented herein, while not comprehensive, are intended to provoke the professional discourse necessary for preparing our Corps for inevitable contingencies. While some suggestions will require acquisition of new technology or a reordering of funding priorities, the chief advantage to the majority of the reforms presented below is that they can readily be implemented by fostering a change in the command philosophy of our Corps’ leaders. Debate and criticism are expected and welcomed.

Finally, a note on methodology. Much of the information contained in this article is anecdotal. In most instances, it is drawn either from colleagues or from personal experiences serving as an advisor in Afghanistan. Any errors are the author’s alone.

An Irregular Warfare Handbook

In 1940, the Marine Corps published the Small Wars Manual (SWM). After 40 years of unconventional fighting in Central America, collectively known as the Banana Wars, the Corps’ leaders knew that the preservation of lessons learned therein was critical to the success of future operations. This manual has had an enduring legacy, most recently with Gen James N. Mattis encouraging leaders in 1st MarDiv to read it before returning as an occupation force in Iraq. It’s lessons are timeless.

Vis-à-vis the Banana Wars, the lessons of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) and ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) are no less valuable. Yet, to date, there has been little effort to capture them in a comprehensive format on par with the SWM. This is an oversight that must be remedied immediately.

Officers and enlisted men recorded the powerful notions behind the SWM by drawing on relevant experiences in the unconventional environment from fighting guerrillas in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, among others. Today, we have a similar wealth of knowledge to draw upon. Marines who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the GWOT have hard-won insights from the irregular battlefield. However, because of regular attrition and retirement, these Marines are leaving the Corps at a rapid rate. Efforts must quickly be made to capture these experiences before the Marines who posses them leave our ranks.

Fortunately, the Corps has an institution fitted to this purpose: the Small Wars Center and Irregular Warfare Integration Division (SWC-IWID). Relatively unfamiliar to most Marines, the Center advances itself as a consortium of subject matter experts in the realms of counterinsurgency, stability operations, and security force assistance operations. Yet, if the Center’s notoriety—or website—are any indication of Marine Corps’ priorities, it seems as though Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) and the Marine Corps Exchange (MCX) fall out higher in the hierarchy of importance than the necessity of ensuring Marines are prepared for the complexities of irregular warfare. Thus investments in the SCW-IID in terms of funding, manpower, and a high-level mandate are necessary in order to accomplish the urgent tasks relative to ensuring our Corps’ success in the unconventional environment. In the meantime, the Center should dedicate itself to accomplishing a fundamental revision of the SWM through the framework described below.

First, a working group of Marine GWOT veterans, drawn from all ranks, should be assembled at the SCW-IID in order to prioritize and record significant lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, and further afield (some suggestions for subject matter are discussed in the following section). Once compiled, a staff of writers at SCW-IID should be tasked with assessing this information relative to that already contained in the SWM. They will then reconcile the two compendiums producing a revised edition of the handbook, not updated since 1940, to be titled The Irregular Warfare Handbook (IWH).

The production of the IWH is significant for several reasons. First, although there is a wide variety of disparate articles and less comprehensive publications that encapsulate the lessons learned in the GWOT, these are so numerous and varied as to serve almost as an impediment to the serious student rather than useful resources. Next, the comprehensive nature of the IWH would allow for a wide-ranging inclusion of irregular warfare themes in curricula across the spectrum of PME. Finally, and most importantly, the publication of the IWH, with its incorporation of the knowledge currently enshrined in the SWM and lessons from the contemporary operating environment, will reignite intellectual analysis of the unconventional fight and lead to a rebirth of interest in irregular warfare as a necessary component of our warfighting art—an art that, in the wake of OIF and OEF, is in need of serious revision itself.

Reforms for a Lighter, Adaptive Force

Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have altered the manner in which we prepare and outfit our Marines for war. Political considerations in these conflicts, in which tactical actions have strategic implications, have thrust centralized command structures upon combat leaders. The necessities of counterinsurgency have institutionalized a methodical decision-making mentality, one less tolerating of improvisation and the quick, “70 percent solution—the discourse outlined in ‘The Attritionist Letters’” provides a prime example of this dynamic. In addition, we have become incredibly willing to increase the soldier’s load. The enormous weight of body armor, counter-improvised explosive device equipment, and bulky communications gear has noticeably impeded the mobility of the dismounted rifleman. Furthermore, the immense logistical requirements placed on units operating in the partnered or dispersed environments has necessarily limited their ability to sustain operations on an irregular and fluid battlefield. In short, the requirements of recent conflicts have made normative the elements that make many of our units slower, inflexible, and less adaptive.

In contrast, irregular warfare requires light and mobile forces able to rapidly execute operations in a decentralized manner in the context of dispersed operations. In many instances these operations will be carried out with partnered forces against an unconventional opponent. The institutionalized elements mentioned above will hinder our Marines in such an environment; riflemen laden with heavy equipment and forced to wait upon approval from commanders not located with the operating units will present an unattractive partner to our allies abroad. Hence, these disadvantages must be addressed in order to maintain our relative military advantage in future irregular conflicts.

In particular, our doctrinal commitment to decentralization has been undermined by the political requirements of a counterinsurgency made highly visible by the press. Under these circumstances, tactical decisions often have strategic consequences. Our command structure adapted to this environment by centralizing the decision-making process. Almost any company-grade officer who served in these operations can provide testimony to the long approval processes required for the most basic requests; fire support is the most prolific example. Decisions traditionally delegated to platoon or company commanders were instead pushed to the battalion or regimental level in order to ensure a proper vetting.

The centralization of command structures evident in Iraq and Afghanistan has had an enduring legacy. Almost all of our current operations officers and battalion and regimental commanders developed their chief impressions of combat command in these conflicts. The consequence has been an organizational culture that has institutionalized an unwritten commitment to centralization in direct opposition to our doctrine enshrined in MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1996). As evidence, one only need pay a visit to a regimental or battalion combat operations center at any integrated training exercise. An observer will immediately be confronted by an immense infrastructure of tents, radios, and generators whose chief purpose is to keep a command staff—located away from point of friction—in control of the fight. Micromanagement, in many instances, is not an overstatement of the command situation.

This is an approach to command that will ultimately fail in the irregular environment. In particular, dispersed operations require an extreme delegation of authority to local commanders—in many instances young lieutenants or SNCOs. They will be required to make incredibly important decisions whose nature will not permit a long wait for approval by higher command.

In order to institutionalize this decentralized approach, we must alter the manner in which we approach training. In every training evolution, commanders must implement decentralized command to the maximum extent, if for no other reason than to inculcate the requisite trust of subordinates. A recommitment to decentralized command in the training environment will ensure that we possess the flexibility necessary for successful operations in the dispersed environment and will best prepare our force for irregular warfare in the unconventional battlespace.

Beyond a change in command culture, our Marines require a further indoctrination in the values of cross-cultural study. Although almost all current mission-essential tasks lists will remain relevant, these lists must be expanded to include tasks relative to the partnered environment. Irregular warfare will often necessitate that Marines across all levels of responsibility work closely with foreign partners. Thus, basic language training in a breadth of strategically valuable dialects, training in procedures for working with interpreters, and an enforcement of currently required cultural and regional specialty coursework should be prioritized in operational units. This prioritization will not fully equip Marines to work with foreign forces—that can only be accomplished through the creation of the new force structure to be discussed below. It will, however, better prepare Marines for such eventualities and, to a certain extent, keep the necessities of the cross-cultural environment “on their radar screen.”

Beyond the training environment, Marines must review the manner in which we outfit our warfighters for combat. In particular, lightening the soldier’s load will require alterations in both the delegation of load out decisions to the lowest levels of command as well as in the equipment that we choose to issue to our Marines in certain operational environments. Local commanders, the leaders actually on the ground, must be given the latitude to decide not only what their units will wear and carry, but also when they will do so. In contrast, blanket requirements for the wear of certain personal protective equipment must be done away with as they limit our capabilities. In Afghanistan, for instance, dismounted Marine advisors often found themselves unable to keep pace with their more lightly outfitted Afghan Army and Police counterparts. Had commanders on the ground been given the latitude, relative to the threat, to strip their body armor and leave certain counter-IED devices behind the wire, adaptations could have been ordered that increased the mobility and, thereby, the effectiveness of the partnered force. Such a delegation of load out decisions will rely upon one element—the trust of higher-level commanders. Responsible officers must be willing to risk the potential political fallout of mistakes made under such circumstances. Once this flexibility has been institutionalized, a necessary step in lightening the force and making it more adaptable will be accomplished.

Our equipment issuance and acquisition processes must also be adapted to the requirements of the irregular warfare environment. Technology, specifically in the realms of materials science and communications gear, must be leveraged in order to provide Marines with a lighter and more compact kit. In the case in which body armor is necessary when operating against a more mobile foe or with a more lightly equipped partnered force it must be reduced in weight. In order to accomplish this, we must invest in materials research and development so as to acquire gear that maintains protection while decreasing the weight and bulk carried by the average Marine. The same must be done in the realm of communications gear.

Very high frequency (VHF) and high frequency (HF) radios must be reduced in size and weight while maintaining range and functionality. Furthermore, they should be designed in such a way so as to facilitate integration into partner force communications networks. As a corollary to this, satellite communications (SATCOM) radios should be issued as often as is practicable. SATCOM radios dramatically increase the ability of our Marines to communicate over significant distances and are on the whole lighter and more compact than the majority of VHF or HF radios. Satellite capacity will be a limiting factor. Nonetheless, as capacity increases over time, issuance of SATCOM radios can be expanded, thereby increasing the effectiveness of our Marines on the ground.

Realizing that the dismounted Marine, unencumbered by logistically-intense vehicles and weapons systems, is often best equipped to fight in the irregular environment is another important step in adapting ourselves to unconventional operations. For example, without the maintenance and enormous fuel resupply requirements of HMMWVs, MRAPs, MAT-Vs (military all-terrain vehicles), and other vehicle systems, Marines will thus be enabled to operate for longer periods of time in a dispersed environment. If necessary, suitable replacements can be easily found in most host nations—Ford, Toyota, and other truck and SUV manufacturers are the models of choice for our foreign partners. Although lacking the protection of a HMMWV or MRAP, utilization of such commercially-available vehicles, in addition to reducing lift, maintenance, and fuel requirements, may offer alternate force protection measures by reducing the overt visibility of our vehicle fleets.

Traditional tactical vehicles can also be replaced or augmented in certain scenarios by: 1) a return to the use of pack animals, such as mules or horses—much as special forces operators did in the early years of OEF, 2) the utilization of newly developed autonomous robotics technology such as the legged squad support system, or 3) new platforms being developed by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory such as the internally transportable vehicle-replacement or the weaponized multi-utility tactical transport vehicle. These alternatives offer the smaller logistical footprint required for dispersed operations in the irregular environment.

Reforms and approaches, such as those mentioned above, will serve to better prepare and equip Marines for service in irregular conflicts abroad. In particular, a re-institutionalization of the doctrine of decentralization, a focus on cross-cultural training, and efforts to lighten the warfighter’s equipment load and logistical requirements will create the foundations of a lighter, more adaptive force. However, in order to meet the demands of building and maintaining foreign partnerships, a reorganization of our force structure itself will be required.

Building Enduring Partnerships

Counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated a need for foreign forces’ advisors on a scale larger than can be supplied by special operations units. This need is both enduring and can arise with little warning. In the past, our approach to this requirement has been to recruit augments from throughout the Operating Forces, train them in the skills required by advisors, and deploy them as temporarily organized advisor teams that are disbanded upon their return from operations abroad. Although relatively successful in recent decades, this approach is neither enduring nor as effective as a more efficient force structure could be.

The creation of the advisor occupational specialty, as an additional MOS available to Marines who have previously trained and served as advisors, has made some progress on this front. However, outside of temporarily organized advisor training cells existing at the MEF level, there is no permanently established unit dedicated to training and preserving advisor skills. Current Operating Force battalions or units will most assuredly require advising capabilities in the irregular environment; however, they cannot be expected to shoulder this burden as an additional role on top of already significant conventional training requirements. Thus, the formation of a unit dedicated to this requirement is necessary. The advent of an advisor battalion in each MEF is one approach to solving this problem.

This proposition involves the creation of three advisor battalions, each dedicated to providing the advising arm required by our MEFs. Structured around easily detachable advisor teams, these battalions would subsume the already existent advisor training cells and utilize them to stand up units capable of providing an enduring and readily available advisor element. Tasked with supporting the MEF’s infantry regiments, each advisor battalion would be organized so that they can provide advisor detachments to infantry battalions large enough to staff them with a small headquarters element as well as an eight-man advisor team for each infantry company. When organized in this fashion, the advisor battalion for I MEF, for example, would contain approximately 300 Marines, a size that is not overtly prohibitive vis-à-vis manpower requirements.

Once created, the teams within advisor battalions would be assigned to the individual units (battalions, companies, platoons, etc.) with which they are expected to deploy. Both during the typical annual training schedule as well as in cyclical pre-deployment training pipelines that may arise in response to future conflicts, these teams would work heavily with the units to which they are attached—thus inculcating the relationships necessary to successful partnered operations. Furthermore, in order to better facilitate the development of this dynamic, as well as to address the basic cross-cultural training requirements for the conventional units previously mentioned, training evolutions such as integrated training exercise (ITX) and Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluations should be re-designed so as to incorporate to the maximum extent factors germane to partnered operations. In particular, evolutions with simulated partnered forces and interactions with foreign citizens should be incorporated whenever possible. Thus, an implicit understanding of tactics, techniques, and procedures would be developed between the attached advisor team and the conventional unit.

Obviously, this reorganization of the force structure cannot be accomplished overnight or without addressing training or manpower constraints. First, it should be stated that this proposition does not intend that advising be made a primary MOS for Marines graduating from the basic training pipeline. Instead, it should remain an additional MOS granted to Marines who complete requisite training (e.g., the curriculum of an advisor training cell). Furthermore, the current necessities of operating in a constricted manpower environment requires an approach that places minimal stress on an already constrained availability of personnel. Thus, placement in advisor battalions should be made as part of the B-billet process in the same way that Marines are assigned to Marine Security Guard or Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team companies. Once selected, Marines would undergo the necessary advisor training requirements, receive their advisor MOS, and then serve for three years in the advisor battalion before returning to their primary MOS. When approached in this manner, the creation of advisor battalions should involve little more than a reordering of the Corps’ priorities, perhaps assigning fewer Marines to less critical B-billets (e.g., Marine Officer Instructor duty) rather than an increase in personnel requirements.

Through such an organization, the MEF’s infantry regiments would be freed from the necessity of intensive cross-cultural training requirements, would be staffed with an advising arm capable of reaching across the lingual and cultural divide of partnerships abroad, and thereby be enabled with an ability to build lasting partnerships. Furthermore, the proposed structure is a flexible one. Although organized in order to provide maximum support to the MEF’s infantry regiments, advisor battalions could be re-tasked as necessary to support any variety of other units within the MEF. Thus the Corps’ primary warfighting force would be equipped with the advising capability necessary for large-scale partnered operations in irregular environments.


The aforementioned proposals are intended to enhance the combat effectiveness of our Corps in irregular conflicts in the future. By empowering the Small Wars Center and Irregular Warfare Integration Division and publishing the Irregular Warfare Handbook, critical lessons can be preserved and passed onto the next generation of warfighters. In addition, by re-emphasizing decentralization and refocusing our training to inculcate this approach to command, we will equip subordinate leaders with the latitude and trust necessary to operate in the dispersed environment. Furthermore, a prioritization of innovation and experimentation in how we arm, equip, and transport our Marines, specifically focusing on making them lighter and more adaptive, will ensure that they are able to operate in the irregular and partnered environments. Lastly, the creation of advisor battalions will create an enduring capability within the MEF for building and sustaining foreign partnerships while simultaneously allowing other units to focus on mastering conventional tactics, techniques, and procedures.

The proposals above have their foundation in the knowledge and experience gained in recent operations, specifically those in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 15 years of war, the United States Marine Corps is uniquely positioned to compile these lessons in order to prepare for the future. In particular, with the rise of the Islamic State, a more aggressive Russian Federation on display in Ukraine and the Crimea, and the expanding hegemony of China in the South China Sea, it is a future that portends the requirement of the Corps participation in irregular, unconventional, and partnered operations abroad.

Only a well-reasoned discourse among our Corps’ leaders can engender the transformations necessary to adapt to the requirements of the future. The propositions contained herein are not the only answers to these problems—in some instances they may be less desirable or effective than other approaches. However, they are nonetheless offered in the hopes that they contribute to this necessary and urgent conversation.

>Author’s Note: Sources for this article included the “Small Wars Center and Irregular Warfare Integration,” accessed at; and Headquarters Marine Corps,

FMFRP 12-15, Small Wars Manual, (Washington, DC: 1940).

Capt Rothrock is a Tank Officer who deployed as an advisor to the Afghan Border Police during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. He is currently the Marine Officer Instructor, NROTC, SUNY Maritime College.