The Marine NCO

by Capt Charles N. Black

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after they occur. ”

-Giulo Douhet

The focus of this article is to address the necessity to devote more time and effort in the development of our small unit leaders, specifically our noncommissioned officers (NCOs), in order to win the threeblock war. The Commandant has challenged us in his planning guidance to question what we as an institution do right, what we do wrong, and what we can do better. I believe that currently our schools do a superb job of producing an NCO who can function technically on the battlefield, i.e., he has a basic understanding of weapons, tactical formations, and leadership skills. However, in future conflicts our NCOs must be tactically and technically as capable as our second lieutenants. In order to do this, we must train our NCOs how to think, communicate, and take action in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. My intent is to promote thinking at the company level and to ignite professional debate on this fundamental issue: the training and education of our NCOs to fight and win the threeblock war.

Today we, as a Corps, stand on the brink of the next millennium, rapidly conducting a large-scale, friendly METT-T (mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support availabletime available) evaluation of our capabilities and limitations to fight and win future battles for our Nation. We have come to live in a world that is more volatile, unstable, and more uncertain than any other time in the last century. Our Commandant describes this future battlefield as the “three-block war,” one in which Marine units will find themselves dispersed within the battlefield simultaneously conducting operations across the compressed spectrum of conflict. One squad may be involved in a combined arms engagement with threat forces, while another squad only one block away is conducting humanitarian assistance tasks (numerous examples of this can be found in Marine Corps Lessons Learned System reports on operations in Somalia). Squad and team leaders will continue to operate in an uncertain enironment with rules of engagement (ROE) under the ever present and watchful eye of the international media. Urban conflict requires decentralized execution by capable, small unit leaders, and future successes will depend more heavily upon our NCOs than anv other time in history.

In his 1887 Proceedings review of a pamphlet published by the USA’s Artillery School titled “The Tactics of Infantry in Battle” by Col Sir Lumley Graham, Lt Dennis Hart Mahan, USN, highlighted the importance of Graham’s prediction of the emergence of the captain as a tactical decisionmaker in future conflicts. Since that time history has shown that Graham was correct.

Change is constant. A New World Order was established in the early 1990s with the downfall of the Soviet Union and the rise of a fractional, multipolar world community. This new environment brings with it an increase in operational tempo and operations other than war. It has become the norm, rather than the exception, for lieutenant platoon commanders to make tactical decisions that have had numerous implications on both a political and social scale. During Operation UPHOLD DEMOCRACY in 1994, 2dLt Palumbo’s actions in a firefight with Haitian police forces in CapHaitien directly impacted national security policy in that region. The level of tactical decisionmaking continues to be pushed further and further down the chain of command. The principles of commander’s intent and mission type orders increasingly become a requirement, not an option of local commanders. By 2010 the squad leader and possibly the team leader will regularly be required to make rapid tactical decisions in an uncertain situation without time to seek guidance.

Historically junior officers and NCOs have executed predetermined battle drills as a small part of a larger unit formation or maneuver. As we passed from close order to open order tactics, the focus of the NCO was primarily on the control of fires. Still, the squad and team leader were specifically trained to facilitate control of the unit and its fires-not to make tactical decisions. Our NCOs have proven their adaptability, inventiveness, and courage in every armed conflict. History is replete with examples of an NCO leading his men to close the last 100 yards; but nowhere was there a formal education process-learning and growth were purchased in blood and death on the battlefield.

The Marine Corps is not fully preparing its squad and team leaders to operate in chaos. Success in winning the three-block war requires junior leaders who are not only masters of techniques and procedures, but who are capable of making relevant and timely tactical decisions in concert with the commander’s intent. The current selection, training, and education of our combat arms NCOs are not consistent with this intent. The mandated professional military education (PME) courses, both resident and nonresident, provide only a start point. The PME and military occupational specialty (MOS)-related advanced schools focus on leadership and technical skills, with little time devoted to the development of tactical decisionmaking skills. These schools do a good job teaching the technical knowledge such as battle drills, weapons employment, gunnery, and other related small unit skills. Technical expertise is essential for success in maneuver warfare; but one must also have a fundamental understanding of theory and conduct of war. None of these schools have the underlying theme of teaching young leaders how to think and make decisions in an uncertain situation.

A good job is being done by many commanders who run in-house education programs due to a shortage in school quotas and the void in formal schools. Battalion Landing Teams 2/6 and 1/8 of FMFM are just two examples of units that conducted such inhouse programs. These programs, consisting of additional instruction in FMFM 1, Warfighting, and reinforced through sand table discussions, combat leadership guest lecturers, and tactical exercises without troops, were instrumental in the increased development and operational capabilities of these units at the NCO level. Majs David J. Furness and William H. Weber’s article “Leadership and Maneuver Warfare” (MCG, Apr93, p. 47) addressed a similar issue about inadequate NCO training and education. The education of our future small unit leaders must be improved.

Successfully applying maneuver warfare to win the three-block war requires an institutional NCO education program founded in excellence on the basics. The German Army of the 1930s effectively developed a professional NCO corps that was extensively educated in the theory and conduct of war, technical knowledge, and decisionmaking as evidenced by their superior performance during the Battle of Sedan in 1940. If NCOs are to retain their status as the “backbone of the Corps,” then we must infuse them with the skills necessary to win on any battlefield: to quickly evaluate a situation, make a decision, and then violently execute that decision. We must do better-our NCOs deserve more.

Today, only a few semiformal NCO schools exist for the newly promoted corporal. These schools successfully teach leadership, drill, and other troop handling skills. They fail to introduce the basic maneuver concepts that must be instilled and reinforced throughout a young NCO‘s time in service. Many argue that an NCO does not need to learn about maneuver warfare and decisionmaking. Decentralized and dispersed operations on urbanized terrain will require our Corps to implement maneuver warfare concepts at the lowest level. The only way to make warfighting a reality is if the young NCO understands and can successfully apply decisionmaking skills in an uncertain environment. The systems approach to training mandates a progressive building block approach to training. The education process must also be progressive, beginning with our basic warfighting principles.

The Marine Corps needs a new combat leader NCO school by restructuring existing PME and advanced MOS schools. This new school should focus its efforts on mastering techniques and procedures and, equally important, how to think. The end-state of the school must be to develop junior leaders with the will and knowledge to take decisive action in an uncertain environment within the commander’s intent-a goal identical with that of the Infantry Officer Course. The underlying tenets of this school must be the ability to make a decision, communicate that decision to his subordinates, and execute that decision. Additionally, developing excellence at techniques is essential. The decision process must be continually reinforced throughout all technical and tactical training.

I do not propose that corporals or sergeants become masters of doctrine or the operational art of war. Four basic concepts must be mastered in order to facilitate decisionmaking in uncertain situations. The first concept is commander’s intent. What is the final result desired by higher headquarters in relation to the enemy, friendly, and terrain? Second, the squad or team leader must be capable of working with mission orders. This is nothing new to most combat ready units. Third, give the NCO a tactical problem and mission statement and let him determine how to accomplish the assigned task. Fourth, the NCO must understand the concepts of main and supporting efforts. Mastery of techniques and the application of these four concepts will ensure success in the three-block war.

Selection to NCO rank must not be taken lightly. Because of the lack of formal schooling, today’s corporals are often little more than higher paid lance corporals. Selection must be based upon character, potential leadership ability (decisionmaking), and technical proficiency. Selection should not be determined by cutting score points accrued for time in service. Many Marines are great lance corporals, but do not have the ability or will to lead Marines as an NCO. Those selected for promotion would attend the combat leadership school, and upon successful completion be promoted to corporal. The new NCO would then return to his parent unit as a leader, willing and capable of leading Marines in combat. The new unit cohesion program established by Headquarters Marine Corps will facilitate those selected for NCO rank to attend the school during the down cycle of the battalion. To build cohesion among junior leaders, all those selected from a given unit would attend the course at the same time operating as a tactical unit throughout the course. The school will ensure consistent education and training. The NCO‘s further education and development would be left up to his chain of command until he attends an advanced combat leaders course developed for staff NCOs.

The future success of the Marine Corps depends upon our ability to fight and win urban conflicts. To fight and win hinges upon the ability of our smallest unit leaders to make prudent decisions in the face of uncertainty. Warfare is changing and so too must the education of the Marine NCO.