Teaching Light Infantry Tactics

by Maj John F. Kelly and Capt Philip E. Smith

Teaching light infantry concepts is not an easy task. In some ways, it involves teaching Marines a whole new way of thinking, of acting, of solving tactical problems. However, if the Marine Corps is expected to fully implement its new maneuver warfare doctrine, this is what needs to be accomplished.

Training effective light infantry must begin with a thorough understanding of tactical concepts. Most Marine Corps schools, however, traditionally have emphasized specific techniques and procedures and have not addressed the conceptualization issue to any large degree. The “how to” has been stressed over the “why” of tactics. In addition, the techniques and procedures have largely been presented as if they were timeless and appropriate to every war, battle, and skirmish.

Commencing with the initial drafts of OH 6-1, Ground Combat and particularly with the publication of FMFM 1, Warfighting, an evolutionary process of change was initiated at the Infantry Officer Course (IOC). As this process continued, and as we responded to such realities as the expeditionary nature of the Marine air-ground task force, limited war, and low-intensity conflict, a move toward light infantry techniques became inevitable. Fundamental to these changes was the decision to teach not simply the technical details of the infantryman’s trade, but to teach the fledgling infantry officer how to think.

This process begins when the student is first designated a future infantry officer about halfway through The Basic School (TBS). At this point, he receives a required reading list that includes, among many works, Perspective On Infantry, Battlefield Central Europe, The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (Leavenworth Paper #4), and the Maneuver Warfare Handbook. This process of reading and reflection continues during IOC in the form of additional books and smallgroup discussions.

Throughout the length of the course, students are also issued a number of weekend readings (e.g., book excerpts or articles from the Gazette, Infantry, Armor, etc.) in support of material that is scheduled for presentation the following week. For example, several readings are required on various techniques associated with countermechanized defense. The authors present differing points of view on the “best” way to execute this tactic or how to accomplish this task in a given environment. The instructional point is to increase the student’s perspective on the topic. This process of thought development continues for the duration of the course and is reinforced in sandtable and map exercises, tactical exercises without troops (TEWTs), TACWAR, short tactical decisionmaking exercises (similar to the series that began in the April 1990 edition of the Gazette), and, of course, in all field exercises. Although most of these methods of reinforcement have been standard fare at IOC for a decade or more, they now reflect the doctrinal philosophy of maneuver warfare and modern techniques.

A key factor in teaching any individual to think for himself is the establishment of an environment of open discussion and communication. It is also important to avoid suggesting that a student’s solution is right or wrong, providing a “yellow” or “recommended” solution, or even for the instructor to muse on how he might have accomplished the task. In the first case, it will inhibit students from offering solutions in the future; in the second case, suggesting an institutional right answer will restrict the students’ options if given a similar situation again.

Beyond the aspect of teaching the student how to think is the task of exposing him to the tactical concepts, techniques, and procedures that will ensure his effectiveness as an infantry leader. Any individual attempting to execute maneuver warfare or operate as a light infantryman must be provided, through training and historical perspective, as full a “bag of tricks” and as many techniques and procedures as possible. Procedures are relatively simple, and instruction on them at IOC covers technical tasks such as an in-depth introduction to both the 60mm and 81mm mortars, call for fire, 60mm mortar fire commands, plotting board, all aspects of machinegun employment to include qualification and defilade fire, and “sapper” level assault/field expedient demolitions. Tactical techniques are more difficult, as there is always more than one solution, and the “right” one is personality and situational dependent.

It is clear that modern techniques change as the situation demands. They cannot be codified and expected to apply forever. The first step is to make clear the concept behind the tactic, ensuring that it is fully understood, then introducing a variety of applicable techniques. An understanding of the overall concept allows this “bag of tricks” to be modified as the situation dictates. Instruction in tactical formations is an example of a technique (various formations) too often given precedence over the concept. Only if the concepts that drive unit movement (e.g., thick or light vegetation, open or close terrain, enemy contact likely or unlikely, possible air threat, etc.) are completely understood will the present tactical formations be recognized as only a set of techniques to use as starting points and not restrictions.

Training at IOD commences with mission-type orders, not just in the teaching of tactical skills, but in every aspect of the training day. The focus is on the development of decisiveness, self-reliance, and initiative in the individual and a fostering of team identity in the group. The training environment supports the natural and individual instincts of the students rather than attempting to make them all think in an “accepted” fashion. Field training is emphasized over classroom and application over lecture. Maximum use of the Socratic method is the teaching style and is viewed as critical, as it serves to place the students in continuous decisionmaking situations.

Most field-training exercises at IOC occur at night. Unlimited objective infiltration attacks, extended tactical movements over difficult terrain, and squadsized patrolling exercises are emphasized. These training techniques increase the number of individuals responsible for decisionmaking and navigation, begin the process of building proficient night fighters, reinforce the most infantry-intensive skills, and create unit bonding at the fire team and squad levels.

The course stresses that security and protection are gained not necessarily through the donning of helmets and flak jackets, or by burrowing deep in the ground with massive defensive fortifications, but by moving frequently and stealthily, remaining invisible, and exploiting the micro aspects of terrain. Although the relative advantages and disadvantages of both are addressed, in most cases students seek the reverse rather than forward slopes for their defensive positions.

Although there is little or no differentiation between offensive and defensive operations as they are presented at IOC, it will be useful for clarity’s sake to treat them as separate entities here. The defense is viewed with an ambush mentality that seeks to draw an enemy into the defense and to strike and shock him before he even realizes he is at risk. At this point, his only thought is for survival and not immediate action or calculated response. This approach suggests that it is the minimum ranges of weapons that are important-and they are. The student further understands that the key to any defense is the counterattack. In the case of an antiarmor defense, for example, the students look first to take advantage of the terrain. Most often they will seek to draw the tanks and other armor in close and execute the technique of massed surprise fires rather than the more traditional approach of ever-increasing concentric volumes of fire using heavy, medium, and light antiarmor weapons. In the first case, the secrecy of the ambush is maintained until the defender elects to act; in the second, the ambush is compromised by the defender’s own action. The first suggests nonlinear tactics, while the second employs a linear orientation.

Operations with a generally offensive bent take the form of infiltration attacks, although more traditional operational techniques (e.g., mechanized attack, strongpoint neutralization, urban combat, etc.) are also included. Platoons break down to squads, and sometimes into fire teams or smaller, to conduct lengthy moves at night over long distances. If the enemy is encountered during the infiltration, the unit might attack, depending on the mission and commander’s intent. In most cases, if an enemy unit is identified and is beyond the students’ capability to destroy, they might seek to establish ambushes along likely avenues of enemy egress or reinforcement and call observed supporting arms fire to drive the enemy from their positions.

Consistent with maneuver warfare and light infantry tactics, students come to realize that artillery and air support should not and cannot serve as a substitute for good tactics but as an adjunct to them. The functions and capabilities of various fire support agencies are conceptually grasped prior to any attempt at teaching specific methods of employment.

The most difficult task encountered when the IOC staff embarked upon the reorientation of the curriculum was that the staff themselves required philosophical reorientation. The guiding principle was established that maneuver warfare philosophy is different and that it is unlike anything the Marine Corps had done previously. This is important, as effective trainers require a full understanding of the concepts and historical perspective of maneuver warfare and light infantry. Fundamental to this understanding is an appreciation of the various styles and generations of tactics. This can only be accomplished by a thorough familiarity with military history and current military thought gained by focused reading, discussion, and study. It became immediately obvious that the teacher could no longer afford to be a bare semester ahead of the student. The answer was a comprehensive staff development program that initially oriented on specific areas that were immediately required to initiate the transition and then grew broader in perspective. This program remains in place for new instructors and, as is the case with future IOC students, it begins months before an instructor reports for duty.

These are some of the training prescriptions IOC found most effective in implementing the teaching of maneuver warfare doctrine and light infantry techniques in a formal school. This effort has also been somewhat horizontal, as a number of staff noncommissioned officers from both Schools of Infantry, Officer Candidates School, and the Marine Corps Institute have audited the complete course in order to share information, publications, and experiences. Something akin to this effort is required if the Marine Corps is seriously considering “converting” its present infantry units into light infantry. It is obviously much more demanding in almost every aspect to train and operate at light infantry standards. However, along with the much increased tactical capabilities attained by training and operating as light infantry, these units can also execute traditional “line” infantry missions with minimal preparation.

Effective employment of Marine light infantry units requires leaders imbued with the maneuver warfare philosophy. It is therefore a requirement that increasing effort be applied throughout the Marine Corps to increase the speed at which maneuver warfare is institutionalized as our operating philosophy. There are essentially two points of view on how to accomplish this, The “chipping away” method consists of training the entry level personnel (TBS, IOC, the Recruit Training Regiments, and Schools of Infantry) and only a minority of more senior personnel through squad leaders and platoon sergeants courses, Amphibious Warfare School, and the Command and Staff College. This process takes the long view and requires waiting 15 to 25 years for the newly trained lieutenants to become generals and the privates to become sergeants major. This view also assumes that entrylevel Marines (privates and lieutenants) will maintain this “revolutionary” orientation in spite of pressures from above (real or perceived) to conform to the “old way.”

The other method is to do it now. This process requires targeting not only the entry-level Marine but also every other rank through general and sergeant major. This is the most effective means to change rapidly in the short term and institutionalize the ideas quickly.

To do this, every infantry-oriented school that has as part of its curriculum the teaching of topics relative to infantry operations, must conduct a detailed course evaluation with a goal of eliminating superfluous instruction and/or any instruction that does not specifically lend itself to developing self-reliance and initiative as a way of life. The ultimate goal of all schools must be a vision of what the institution wants the graduate to be. The schools must be staffed with only the best and most experienced personnel who are themselves strong on the character traits described above and share the vision of the institution. As an example, the entirely new concept of control as it is articulated in FMFM 1 (i.e., mission orders and commander’s intent) would be emphasized. When a course includes instruction or use of electronic communication assets, the technical and procedural instruction would be moved as far toward the end of the course as is possible. This would allow entry-level Marines to concentrate on tactics and the concepts of communication without getting overwhelmed by procedures that sometimes appear to restrict rather than aid in communications. The use of communication by absolute exception would also be emphasized.

The concept of the program of instruction (POI) needs to be changed from one that inhibits development and change to one that assists in the evolution of change. This means eliminating the reliance on lesson plans that spell out a single way to do specific tasks through such things as enabling learning objectives (ELOs) and terminal learning objectives (TLOs). These do not lend themselves in any way to the teaching of tactics as an art as per the Commandant’s training and education memo dated 1 July 1989.

IOC is the only officer school that focuses exclusively on tactics and tactical techniques and procedures, although TBS has more of this instruction than ever before in its history. The Amphibious Warfare School, of course, teaches tactics, but must focus instruction on the majority of the students who do not have combat arms specialties. This reality orients the program toward basics and makes it less challenging for combat arms specialists than would be possible in different circumstances. Command and Staff College focuses, not on tactics, but on staff functioning and interaction. The tactical frame of reference for the vast majority of officers, regardless of rank or occupational field, is therefore what they learned at TBS or IOC. The Marine Corps must establish a system of cradle-to-grave resident refresher courses for infantry officers similar to the system currently in force for our noncommissioned and staff noncommissioned officers at the Schools of Infantry.

In the case of infantry captains, a four- to six-week resident course organized and conducted at Quantico should be established as soon as possible. The class size should be no more than 30 attendees, with the course condueled two to four times a year. This course should involve a great deal of focused reading and discussion, guest lecturers and seminars, TEWTS, and map and sandtable exercises. The point of the course would be both conceptual and practical. Rather than making this a return-to-the-Fleet Marine Force (FMF) course with all infantry captains attending en route, it should be filled by quota assignment to each individual infantry, light armored infantry, and reconnaissance battalion with the commander sending his best captain. Similar in concept to the Weapons Training Instructor Course for selected aviators at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, the intent would be to have this officer return to his unit and serve as a catalyst for training and education. A similar course for field grade officers would be conceptually identical to the course for captains but would in fact be a return-to-the-FMF course. This would ensure that all potential battalion commanders can understand and operate using maneuver warfare philosophy that is so critical for light infantry units.

While the Marine Corps considers these broader changes in teaching tactics, IOC is continuing to move ahead, teaching the tactics and techniques of light infantry. It is our belief that the future of Marine infantry is primarily as modern light infantry. Training our infantry units to the exacting standards of light infantry tactics, techniques, and procedures will provide the most versatile force possible, and one that is at the same time absolutely adaptable across the spectrum of conflict. The transition involved will be a major one, as it has been at IOC. Light infantry warfare is not simply “business as usual” with new buzzwords, but a new and different way of thinking and fighting. It is, in the view of the IOC staff, what the Corps’ new doctrine of maneuver warfare means for infantry. As such, it should be the focus not only for IOC, but for every Marine Corps infantry unit as well.


The following is a short bibliography regarding the concepts associated with light infantry:

Canby, Steven L., Classic Light Infantry New Technology (Arlington, VA: Defense Advanced Research Center, 1983).

English, John A., On Infantry (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1981).

Fuller, J.F.C., British Light Infantry in the Eighteenth Century (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1925).*

Gudmundsson, Bruce I., Stormtroop Tactics (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1989).

Lupfer, Timothy T., The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (Leavenworth Papers No. 4) (Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 1981).**

McMichael, Scott R., A Historical Perspective on Light Infantry (Research Survey No. 6) (Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 1987).

McMichael, Scott R., Discussions on Training and Employing Light Infantry (Research Survey No. 8) (Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, 1988).

United States, Department of the Army, Vietnam Primer (Washington, DC: US. Government Printing Office. 1967).

United States Marine Corps, FMFM 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1989).

United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940).

United States War Office, Fighting on Guadalcanal (Washington, DC: US. Government Printing Office, 1940).

Uhle-Wettler, Franz, Battlefield Central Europe.*

*Forthcoming publication expected to be available through the Marine Corps supply system at some future date.

*Available through the Marine Corps supply system. Use PCN number: 50100296400.