The Infantry Marine Course

Supporting Force Design 2030 with enhanced infantry Marines

“Look at a man the way he is, and he only becomes worse, but look at him as if he were what he could be, then he becomes what he should be.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1100 UTC/Zulu Time, 19:00 Local Time. Somewhere in the USINDOPACOM Area of Responsibility January 2032
The lights were back again. Slow-moving and just off the horizon, they flickered just beyond the frequent driving rain squalls that made everything worse. SSgt TJ Boyd swore under his breath. He was on day fourteen of an eventful two weeks on the island. Frankly, he was looking forward to extract. With a linkup grid already passed, he was a few hours away from beginning his squad’s displacement to a platoon rally point just off the beach. But the lights complicated things. SSgt Boyd’s well-tuned baseline told him they were too far out to be the local fishing fleet. Those guys normally stuck pretty close to the reef, and something about the back-and-forth course corrections bothered him—too precise, too deliberate. Timelines for extract were normally tight, and the small boat guys were touchy about reprogramming their unmanned surface drones. Especially this late in the process of callbacks to support a beach landing site (BLS). Boyd decided right then and there to get ahead of the problem and roll L-hour for extract by 24 hours. Pro-words were passed via a data transmission mirroring the local electronic spectrum, and an alternate BLS was selected to better support tidal forecasts for the following night. His company commander told him after the OPORD to trust his instincts and adjust the plan when needed, and he was going to do precisely that. But that was weeks ago in the well deck and way before the actual shooting started.

Boyd called over his assistant patrol leader, Sgt John Taylor, already busy putting together the final touches on route planning for the night. Boyd got him working on a new timeline and established a hasty priority information requirement for the Stalker extra lite on the integrated battalion collection plan. Forty-five minutes later, they caught a break in the weather and were running an offset reconnaissance approach on the problematic offshore lights. “What the hell is that thing?” Boyd wondered aloud. He suspected the Peoples Armed Forces Maritime Militia, as he knew the enemy used non-combatants to skirt rules of engagement, screen, collect, and support targeting across the division’s battlespace. Moments later he identified myriad antennae bristling above the retrofitted fishing vessel, clearly illuminated on his handheld feed. Boyd’s suspicion was confirmed. Identified Peoples Armed Forces Maritime Militia presence in the area of operation was an identified commander’s critical information requirement and required a report to higher thereby breaking his squad’s communication window. A burst data transmission was discretely passed on battalion TAC relaying the updated enemy sit, complete with a recommended search zone offset around a hastily named area of interest. Boyd was not only worried about the Peoples Armed Forces Maritime Militia ship but also what else might be lurking further offshore. Fortunately, that was the surface battalion composite warfare commander’s problem to solve. Boyd’s problem lay closer in, just inside the horizon to the platoon BLS.

Several overhead searches of the nearest extract site confirmed his fears. Two small boats approached Boyd’s location with what looked like an enemy reconnaissance team’s worth of dismounts. Boyd called in his team leaders and passed a hasty WARNO: prep two loitering munitions, complete pre-combat checks for a possible night ambush, heavy weapons load-out, and procure additional water. His team leaders moved out smartly to prepare for combat, which gave TJ a minute to think and complete his plan. They would act decisively, combine old techniques with new tactics, and destroy their enemies. Boyd produced a weathered waterproof notebook he had kept with him since his earliest days at entry-level training in Southern California. The notebook now served as his de-facto leadership handbook. Something about having his handwritten notes from years of experience was a comfort in the chaos of war. His memories drifted back to his experience at the School of Infantry as he flipped slowly through his debrief notes from ten years prior.

The Combat Instructors, MOS 0913, of the School of Infantry (SOI) deliver infantry Marines to the FMF who are ready to fight and win tonight. We believe these Marines will go on to serve as the more capable future squad leaders and platoon sergeants envisioned by Force Design 2030. While points of uncertainty remain in the Marine Corps’ effort to change, the 0913 works daily to develop tactical skills and decision making the future demands. We believe the skill of the infantry Marine will be called upon soon, with short to no notice, and likely while serving as part of a Marine Corps Stand-In-Force—all while under persistent enemy observation, threat, and detection. To develop tougher, more lethal grunts the Commandant directed Training Command to improve the process of building entry-level infantry Marines. The combat instructors of SOI believe we are achieving this end state and in the process developed an adult-learning model for training that is highly transferable across the Service. In writing this article, SOI hopes to describe many of these new methods of instruction that proved useful and effective in improving entry-level infantry training. A process that resulted in an improved instructor culture, which was a critical requirement to implement change. SOI is certain that the Marine Corps is beginning to make significant gains in its infantry capability, through a better-developed, tougher, and more realistic infantry training program. This article describes in greater detail, and to a wider audience, the enhanced entry-level infantry training conducted during the new fourteen-week Infantry Marine Course (IMC).

On 27 January 2021, Infantry Training Battalion completed in-processing for the first pilot class of IMC. Over the last 24 months, we have gone from piloting a course and continuous experimentation to an approved Marine Corps Program of Instruction (POI). The IMC POI resulted in a drastic improvement to entry-level training, yet in many ways, IMC re-established what many would consider traditional Marine Corps concepts. IMC stresses the importance of maneuver warfare philosophy, non-commissioned officer-led and developed training, tactical decision games, uncompromising physical standards, and a laser-like focus on practical application. These have become the new watchwords at SOI. As of January 2023, IMC is the only course offered for entry-level 0311s, 0331s, 0341s, and 0352s (weapons MOS Marines conduct an additional four weeks of training on machineguns, mortars, or anti-armor weapons at the Infantry Weapons Course or IWC).

As a first step in developing IMC, the Marine Corps embarked on a deliberate process to identify skills believed necessary in a future fight against a peer adversary. Through this process, the Marine Corps developed 39 infantry competencies required of every infantry Marine. Infantry competencies range from traditional skills such as employing the service rifle, patrolling, and land navigation to more subjective, whole Marine concepts skills including: “embodying the Marine Corps’ Warfighting Philosophy.” Through a process based on input from the three Marine divisions and our Service’s Training Command, a subset of twenty infantry competencies or behaviors were prioritized as a requirement for entry-level training. The twenty infantry behaviors selected became the foundation to develop the new IMC POI and the first pilot of the fourteen-week course.

IMC is built on an outcomes-based learning approach that implements 21st-century learning techniques. In a simple description, outcomes-based learning is a model that evaluates a Marine’s quantitative and qualitative ability on each of the 20x infantry behaviors. This model provides a wildly better ability to assess a Marine’s capability to perform individual and collective skills in a more realistic and dynamic combat environment. Outcomes-based learning is a recognition that just because somebody has passed the minimum requirements in a skill set, they by no means have achieved mastery. In the current unit training management construct, individuals and units are evaluated via a binary assessment of mastery or non-mastery, with no other options. This effectively leaves no room for recognizing and evaluating talent. How does a trainer compare a talented combat marksmanship coach’s shooting skills against a young Marine who barely qualified on the range? They have both passed the necessary shooting assessments with the service rifle and are equally good. We do both Marines a disservice by not accurately breaking out skill sets. The Marine who struggles does not get the training he needs and the Marine who excels is not recognized for exceptional performance.

Outcomes-based learning provides an opportunity to highlight the difference in a Marine’s learning. Each Marine’s skill in a particular behavior is graded on a scale. This scale is separated into five tiers we call skill acquisition levels (SALS): novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. A detailed grading rubric with highly quantifiable metrics and word picture descriptions aids the instructor in rating the SAL a Marine achieves for each behavior. Generally speaking, as SAL levels increase, Marines can perform each behavior with less supervision, execute the skill in more complicated and dynamic environments, and ultimately become teachers and experts. To graduate from IMC, each student must achieve the minimum SAL for all twenty infantry behaviors as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Marine Corps 20x entry-level infantry behaviors taught during IMC and their required skill acquisition levels. (Figure provided by author.)

Outcomes-based learning also calls for the continuous assessment of a student’s skill across all twenty infantry behaviors. In our old eight-week POI, Marines were given three opportunities to master a training and readiness task. Following evaluation, they were given pass/fail feedback on performance and were then never assessed on that skill again. Cramming for the test and moving on to the next event is a poor method for skill retention over time. During IMC, students are continuously evaluated, tracked, and counseled using a report card to identify, by behavior, a student’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities to improve. At the conclusion of the course, these report cards become a warm hand-off tool for Marines reporting to the FMF and are used to support talent management at the squad and platoon levels.

Figure 2. Example grading rubric for the Conduct Fire and Maneuver infantry behavior with defined skill acquisition levels. (Figure provided by author.)

IMC also improved the way instructors teach new infantry Marines. We based this process on an updated adult- learning model. Historically, end-of-course critiques and retention tests revealed a shockingly low return on large classroom instruction and specifically highlighted zero value in PowerPoint lectures. Marines at IMC now invest those training hours in small group interactions provided directly by their combat instructors, who serve as a training squad leader. Our classes are conducted in unit squad bays or directly in a field environment outside of a lecture hall. Ample time is afforded for questions from the students. Small group “class” instruction is always followed by extensive practical application and interaction with the material, equipment, and combat instructors. Student participation is an absolute requirement, and their buy-in and commitment to the process are extremely encouraging for the future of the Service.

Enhanced evaluation via SALs, an outcomes-based approach, and adult-learning techniques all provided a solid foundation to change the way we did business at ITB. However, to really achieve the end state of a better, more lethal entry-level infantry Marine, we needed to improve the instructor culture. We believed that entry-level infantry training methods required a complete overhaul. With this honest self-assessment, ITB moved from an instructor climate that presupposed every student was actively striving to fail, to a course anchored on the principle that every student has exceptional potential. Our students are Marines who raised their hand and volunteered to serve their country, and they should be treated, trained, and developed like adults. Specifically, they should be treated like members of a rifle squad in an FMF infantry battalion. Fostering this type of training environment required an update in the instructor-to-student relationship developed during an IMC class. We had to move instructors from the role of unapproachable passive observers to actively involved coaches, trainers, and mentors. The IMC combat instructor serves as the squad leader for fourteen weeks in a process that is highly similar to Marine officer training at The Basic School. The IMC squad leader billet is loosely fashioned on the new lieutenant, staff platoon commander dynamic for our entry-level officers.

The center of gravity of IMC is the small-unit leadership provided by the IMC squad leader. On training day one, fourteen students are assigned a seasoned combat instructor who will be their coach and mentor for the duration of the course. As the training program progresses in difficulty, these squad leaders shift roles from instructor to tactical leader of the squad. IMC squad leaders take their Marines through patrols, supported live-fire attacks, urban combat, and force-on-force exercises. This close relationship with a combat instructor allows students to develop a deeper understanding of what they are taught while receiving immediate, constructive feedback. Instructors build trust with their students in the process, fostering a highly accelerated learning environment. The squad leader now has time to ensure that every student becomes what they should be. Many of our squad leaders describe class graduations as a bittersweet event. Seeing their Marines complete the course and depart for the FMF leaves many instructors wanting to continue the onward journey with their students. All with the understanding that many of our students will begin a daunting training workup and follow-on deployment upon arrival at an infantry battalion.

IMC’s increased focus on the individual Marine comes at a cost, most notably in time and instructor manpower. IMC is an additional investment in a Marine’s initial training pipeline and a significant increase in combat instructor hours. The new course is not simply longer than our previous eight-week offering. IMC gets more out of our students over each training day across the longer fourteen-week program through a more efficient training schedule. To reduce time spent waiting around, ITB-W implemented a block scheduling process—similar to how a civilian high school might schedule classes. The block schedule is broken down by platoon to eliminate the phenomenon of the large 300-man class milling about smartly. Training is broken down into three platoons and across multiple topics to ensure students stay engaged with different kinds of material during an average training day. Instead of spending an entire ten-plus hour training block on marksmanship, IMC students receive smaller two- to three-hour blocks focused on different infantry behaviors. A typical training day might include blocks for swimming instruction, live-fire training, field craft skills, and radio programming. This approach to scheduling improves student retention by providing manageable amounts of information before students reach oversaturation. It also enhances student recall on demand by providing multiple, repeated, and increasingly complex touchpoints with all evaluated infantry skills. The block schedule, a spiraling approach or “non-linear pedagogy” in education speak, is a proven better way to learn as an adult. The skills trained in week one of the POI carry on through the end of the course and are assessed continuously.

IMC students also receive improved training by layering infantry behaviors together. For example, radio and land navigation behaviors are provided during the same training event. Tactical combat casualty care will occur during a patrolling exercise. Layering skills provide students who might struggle with specific topics multiple opportunities to demonstrate competency. This model accommodates students who have a different, often longer, learning process than others. These simple changes in course ideology and method are producing visible results in our students. Our initial feedback from the FMF highlights a tactically improved, more mature, decision-making infantry Marine.

Figure 3. Example IMC block schedule for one of three platoons in a training class. (Figure provided by author.)

Initial FMF feedback on IMC students highlights a stronger, more physically fit entry-level Marine. The development of IMC offers our Service a springboard toward establishing quantifiable standards for service as an infantry Marine, where previously very few existed. IMC requires a minimum fitness level to begin training, an absolute must considering the arduous nature of the course. Infantry Marines are now held to a much higher physical standard to graduate. Marines earning the 0311 infantry MOS will be required to achieve first-class scores on the Physical Fitness Test and Combat Fitness Test. They will also achieve a minimum swim qualification of Water Survival Intermediate and pass an evaluation on the Shallow Water Egress Trainer, which simulates procedures for evacuating a sinking aircraft. Several IMC graduates completed Water Survival Advanced during the course, the highest Marine Corps swim qualification. Student outcomes in SALs at IMC are not capped and exceptional performers are given the opportunity to exceed minimum requirements. Student physical graduation requirements also include a grueling weeklong warfighting exercise, a ten-kilometer combat endurance assessment, and completion of a 20km hike with a 75-pound fighting load.

To accomplish this litany of new and improved physical standards, ITB developed a more innovative physical training (PT) plan. PT cards, swim cards, and ruck training are designed under a progressive overload model, which builds up physical fitness beginning at boot camp and continues through IMC through increased weight, distance, and exercise repetitions. IMC class hikes are also conducted as an individual effort without a company structure to set the pace. Marines are thereby forced to participate, understand the route, and take care of their feet as part of the process. They can no longer blindly go internal during physical evaluations. In adding responsibility and freedom to loaded movements, hike times and failures have markedly decreased. All graduates from the course have exceeded the Marine Corps training and readiness standard for a forced march.

Swim training cards are broken out between beginner, intermediate, and advanced swimmers, which improves every student regardless of the skill level they bring to IMC. Our swim training has proven wildly effective in developing Marines who are more comfortable in the water and is not a one-size-fits-all workout program. Pool PT sessions provide the added benefit of de-loading wear and tear on joints. We hypothesize this is a factor in the limited overall injury rate for IMC students. Students also conduct an active recovery period once a week, which is spent stretching while their squad leader discusses whole-Marine-concept topics, including moral leadership, personal accountability, and resiliency. Our PT program is one element of a highly-integrated plan that we believe can help produce the more mature, better-thinking Marine that will be an asset on arrival to the fleet.

Decision making and maturity are areas where we believe IMC Marines can outpace our peer adversaries. One of the foremost complaints concerning young Marines arriving in the fleet is their inability to think for themselves. At ITB we believe new Marines often make questionable decisions because we have failed to provide them with opportunities to think and creatively solve problems. Previous entry-level Marines were conditioned, through a model of Industrial-Age education, to regurgitate facts on command without any thought given to circumstances or conditions. Marines were taught a specific solution to a specific situation rather than being able to critically assess a problem and develop a creative solution. This generated a mindset of learned helplessness. Even when options were available, Marines chose not to act. Individual Marines who can think and decide quickly have always been—and will remain—a force multiplier on the future battlefield. Faster decisions generate tempo by exercising speed overtime against our enemy. The initiative of IMC Marines to take appropriate action at their level can generate combat power. Their actions in training are integrated by an overarching commander’s intent, a concept introduced and continually reinforced during IMC. ITB also uses a constraints-led approach to instruction to maximize decision-making opportunities for students.

Specifically, a constraints-led approach to training provides a student with a problem, followed by the things they are not allowed to do. It then asks the student to solve the problem as they see fit, within the provided constraints. Our course does not tell the Marine exactly what they must do to solve a training problem. We surmise this is a more realistic approximation of actual combat. We tell them what is not allowed and make them use their own judgment to think within the bounds of safe training. The constraints-led approach develops student decision making, judgment, and maturity by forcing them to be problem solvers and applies to all skills layered across IMC. The combat instructor will always debrief the student’s solution to provide immediate, individualized feedback and solidify any learning points. Peers in the course observe training as well to accelerate their own learning and to provide peer coaching- a surprisingly important learning tool for Gen-Z Marines. By the end of the course, students make thousands of decisions and receive feedback for most of them from both combat instructors and peers, increasing the experiential basis for sound decision-making.

“As a lifetime serial learner, I have found that ordinary people can do the extraordinary who are committed to experiential learning, are intellectually curious, and possess an unquenchable desire to acquire new knowledge … this may be our only advantage in the future fight.”
—BGen Lorna M. Mahlock, MCDP 7, Learning

In the cognitive domain, we are developing an entry-level Marine steeped in initiative, creative in generating outside the box options, who has the maturity to assess first- second- and third-order effects, and is decisive enough to choose the best course of action. Building a Marine with this overall maturity and ability is a complex process and requires re-framing how students think. We currently focus the students on how their actions as individuals shape and impact the collective unit. The overarching method for accomplishing these tasks requires an approach to teaching and learning that emphasizes a safe operating space for students to make mistakes. Ultimately, the responsibility for the student’s success falls on the instructor and is achieved through close mentorship and teaching.

Learning experts generally agree that successful adult education occurs when students have a purpose for what they learn. IMC begins with a “Road to War” class that highlights peer adversary capabilities and geopolitical dynamics. We believe this reinforces why each infantry skill provided to IMC students is vital in a future fight. The Road to War class is immediately followed by a combat order for an amphibious assault. After receiving the task and purpose, students are asked to solve a problem in the form of a tactical decision game. While the students do not always provide a sound plan, this exercise forces them into a decision-making role and immediately sets a precedent. They will be required to think during IMC and must plan and execute actions based on their assessment of the situation. The students always discuss their plans with the squad leader, receiving personally tailored, constructive feedback.

Additionally, during IMC, we hold small group discussions on MCDP 1, Warfighting: the Marine Corp’s premier contribution to military doctrine. We believe it is essential that junior Marines develop a solid foundation in maneuver warfare and begin to internalize the countless leadership lessons contained in the pages of MCDP 1. Marines who graduate from IMC possess the motivation to seek information and the responsibility to hold themselves and their peers accountable. To further develop this personal responsibility, IMC students are given a base set of rules to operate on, known as the “Standing Orders of IMC”. The Standing Orders combine timeless principles like individual accountability, understanding task and purpose, weapons and field discipline, with new aspects of the current operating environment such as understanding your electronic signature. A daily warning order is posted each night to set the tone for every day of the course. This drives students to seek additional information and make initiative-based decisions as they participate and prepare for each training day.

While IMC is building a better decision maker, it also produces a significantly more lethal Marine. IMC graduates are trained to a significantly higher standard in rifle marksmanship. They are subject-matter experts and combat capable in all environments with the M27 Individual Automatic Rifle. They are also trained in the employment of medium machineguns, grenade launchers, anti-armor systems, and light mortars—all of which are new weapons skills for 0311s. Each squad conducts multiple non-illuminated, night squad-supported live-fire attacks. Students act as both the maneuver element and support by fire element on live-fire ranges. To develop a basic understanding of combined-arms techniques and battlespace geometry. These collective skills develop a next Marine up mindset and provide every student with a basic level of leadership experience. It also provides each student with the ability to pick up any company-level weapon system and become relevant in a firefight. By better training individual Marines, we sought to develop a course that would aid the infantry battalion operational tempo. By reducing the time required for new Marines to be ready to participate in collective and Service-level training events, we hope to provide battalions with a new ceiling of training opportunities and increased flexibility. Marines arriving at a unit do not require remedial training on basic skills. After receiving an update on specific unit standard operating procedures, Marines are ready for more complex collective live-fire training at the squad and platoon levels. The Marines are prepared and ready to be immediate impact players in a rifle company on their first day in the fleet.

The success of our students at IMC is also not limited to the schoolhouse. Lessons learned in the training environment are directly relevant to their experience at an FMF battalion. SOI improved this learning trajectory during a Marine’s first enlistment, through a squad-cohort shipping model. Graduating Marines arrive at their battalions in the same training squad. Marines now arrive as a cohesive team and are provided a warm handoff from their IMC squad leader to their gaining battalion. IMC squads that are kept together in these same training formations benefit from months of implicit communication, peer mentorship, and camaraderie. They are ready to receive NCO leaders and take training opportunities to the next level.

The Marine Corps continues to draw on a long history of innovation and experimentation. The Marines at SOI believe the daily work we do at IMC can help build momentum toward this ongoing effort to improve our Marine Corps. The combat instructor believes the enhanced skill required of these future infantry Marines is being developed today, time now, in the graduates of IMC. Providing this better infantry Marine is one way we can outpace our potential adversaries. While Force Design 2030 is an ongoing process and the Marine Corps has multiple decision points that may impact the future force, the IMC is uniquely positioned to adapt. Pending Service-level Force Design decisions may shape the requirement for what constitutes an entry-level infantry Marine. The IMC methods described in this article are well suited to this dynamic environment as they are flexible enough to support our Service as it continues to evolve and improve. We also believe the highlights in this article about infantry training are highly transportable across other areas of the MAGTF and we look forward to our small contribution to building the enhanced FMF of Force Design 2030. A fleet of Marines that will remain the Nation’s elite infantry community, ready for hidden challenges in an uncertain future. The 0913 is confident the watch is passed to a generation of young Marines who were highly successful in an exceptionally demanding course, and who have done things never asked of entry-level students. This group of IMC Marines possesses the potential for outsized impacts across the Marine Corps.

A Sample of Commendatory Feedback We Have Received from the FMF

  • 06 level commanding officer: Without question, there was a tangible improvement with their tactical acumen, physical fitness, and enhanced field skills. In fact, they outperformed many of their senior Lance Corporals that have been in the unit longer. Additionally, we had very few casualties throughout this training.
  • 06 level commanding officer: IMC graduates who struggle in the Fleet are a reflection of poor leadership … We changed leaders and the Marines’ performance took off.
  • 05 level commanding officer: Sustain survivability and field craft from setting up individual packs and equipment …They demonstrate a buy-in for part of the process as we evolve the infantry Marine and his training … Their bias for action and bias for leadership is noteworthy … They are critical of the training and critical thinkers on the range.
  • Battalion sergeant major: The IMC Marines have shown an increased ability to process information and tactically employ squad-based weapon systems. The IMC Marines have the ability to quickly rationalize the tasks at hand and complete evaluation checklists with minor corrections. The Companies have already begun incorporating IMC Marines into the Machine Gun sections. Their proficiency and understanding of employment considerations were viewed higher by leadership verse that of legacy Marines. The IMC Marines are more likely to apply input in the decision-making process. The legacy Marines have continuously been viewed as a standby for tasking and match intent type of mentality.
  • 81mm Mortar Platoon Commander: The new IMC Marines have a higher mental capacity to learn new weapon systems.
  • FMF Squad Leader: IMC Marines have initiative like they were born with it.
  • FMF Squad Leader: The lowest common denominator is now higher in my squad than it has ever been.