The NCO and Maneuver Warfare

by Capts William H. Weber IV & David J. Furness

1992 Chase Prize Essay Contest First Place

As leaders, we must push power downward to the young Marines who hunger and thirst for more responsibility-and are quite capable of handling it. . . . In combat, NCOs carry battle. Is it fair to expect them to do this in war if we have not trained them in peacetime-by allowing them significant responsibility and authority?

-Gen Walter E. Boomer

On the third day of the ground war during Operation DESERT STORM, a platoon of Company A, 1st Light Armored Infantry Battalion moved north toward Kuwait International Airport as the point element of the battalion’s drive, conducting an aggressive forward reconnaissance with the battalion moving up quickly behind them to assume blocking positions north of the airport. At 1700, an Iraqi strongpoint halted the battalion’s movement, and the point platoon came under sporadic machinegun fire. Far over on the right flank, a light armored vehicle, commanded by a corporal, pushed out on its own to try and find a way around this obstacle. Unsupported by any friendly forces, the vehicle commander found a route that would allow the battalion to bypass the strongpoint and continue its mission. The corporal called his platoon commander: “Red 1 this is Red 6, I’ve got a way around over here on the right. We can get on a trail under those power lines on the 68 grid line and continue moving.” The platoon commander acknowledged the transmission and immediately changed his direction, moving his platoon and the rest of the battalion around the obstacle and onto the route blazed by the corporal. The battalion accomplished its mission, arriving in its blocking position an hour early, ensuring that other units could seize the airport without concern about possible Iraqi reinforcements descending from the north. A junior NCO, using initiative and making decisions, allowed the battalion to accomplish its mission. His platoon commander listened to him and was willing to commit the battalion to a route chosen by a corporal. This is maneuver warfare.

Understanding maneuver warfare is difficult. Executing it is even harder. Our current warfighting doctrine, as set forth in FMFM 1 and FMFM 1-3. fails to address the key to maneuver warfare execution-creating a command environment that empowers our NCOs. Without NCOs who are willing and able to make decisions on their own, and without officers who will support those decisions, we will surely fail. Our doctrine of maneuver warfare “applies equally to the Marine expeditionary force commander and the fire team leader.” It is a decentralized system that “requires leaders at all levels to display sound and timely judgment.” How do we make our Marines into the warfighters our doctrine demands? The answer is simple. If we are going to fight the way our doctrine dictates, we must empower our NCOs so that decisions are made and executed at the lowest level.

Empowering our NCOs is critical for many reasons. In Men Against Fire. S.L.A. Marshall observes: that no commander is capable of the actual leading of an entire company in combat, that the spread of strength and the great variety of the commander’s problems are together beyond any one man’s compass, and that therefore a part of the problem in combat is to determine which are the moral leaders among his men when under fire, and having found them. give all support and encouragement to their effort.

If a commander cannot control all of his people, then how can he ensure unity of effort and reliable action by subordinates? The solution lies in proper leadership, and commanders must take notice. If we, as an institution, fail to develop our NCOs so that they are the tactical equals of junior officers, we risk slowing our physical and mental speed at the point of contact and throwing away many valuable opportunities for battlefield success. Our NCOs must make and execute decisions.

The empowerment of the NCO starts with the leadership of the unit commander and the command environment he fosters. He must personally take an interest in his NCOs’ professional development and give them the responsibility and knowledge to train junior Marines. FMFM 1 describes this command environment:

All commanders should consider the professional development of their subordinates a principal responsibility of command. Commanders should foster a personal teacher-student relationship with their subordinates. . . . [and] should see the development of their subordinates as a direct reflection on themselves.

Besides our doctrinal emphasis on junior leaders who make decisions, we also stress the use of mission tactics as the best way to take advantage of these junior decisionmakers. Mission tactics requires units that can quickly execute basic and advanced techniques and are led. down to the lowest level, by men who make timely decisions. This decentralized decision authority must include the NCO. In his book On Infantry. John A. English concluded his discussion of the subject by saying:

. . . the decentralization of tactical control forced on land forces has been one of the most significant features of modern war. In the confused and often chaotic environment of today, only the smallest groups are likely to keep together, particularly during critical moments.

The noncommissioned officer therefore holds the key to the execution level of maneuver warfare, the level where we translate our doctrine into action. The Marine Corps must acknowledge this. Many company grade officers do not regard the NCO as a leader, trainer, and decisionmaker. They are not comfortable with young corporals and sergeants training their Marines or having the freedom of action necessary to grow as leaders and decisionmakers. Hampered by the need to clear all decisions before executing, the junior leaders atrophy. Action at the point of contact slows to a crawl. Opportunities and battles are lost.

But we can solve these problems. Our company grade officers must force our NCOs to accept more responsibility while simultaneously focusing their junior officers and staff NCOs on improving the abilities of NCOs to lead, think, and fight-added responsibility should be accompanied by the training that will allow NCOs to succeed. This is empowerment. The command environment we foster and the schools we send our NCOs to must work together toward this end if we expect to create true warfighters.

Conversations we have had with several of our contemporaries convince us that we were truly fortunate as new lieutenants to be sent to units that viewed the tactical expertise of NCOs as their number one priority. One of our company commanders explained his priorities to all of his new lieutenants and staff NCOs in these terms:

* The NCOs would be the principal trainers of Marines.

* Our responsibility was to ensure that the NCOs were tactically proficient and could conduct effective training.

* Our focus of training would be at the individual, team, and squad level.

He understood that expertise at the small unit Jevel is essential to the execution of our warfighting doctrine. He believed that by focusing the efforts of the company on building strong NCOs and strong teams and squads, the company as a whole would succeed. He realized that limiting the NCOs participation in the planning and execution of small unit training negated their responsibility for ensuring that their unit was prepared for combat. It also diminished their credibility in the eyes of their Marines. By clearly defining the NCO‘s proper role in the conduct of training, we began to give them the power they needed to succeed.

We believed that for the NCOs to train their Marines, they had to become unquestioned experts in techniques and procedures, battle drills, and tactics. They needed to understand completely our warfighting doctrine and what their role was in it. To reach these goals, we established a program at the company level that should be a part of every unit in the Marine Corps. The program began with an examination to test the basic skills of the NCOs. Then, using existing publications such as The Essential Subjects. The Marine Battle Drill Guide and Command Tasks, Soldier Skill Level 1, 2, 3, 4 for MOS 11B and 11C, the company began to train the NCOs while simultaneously conducting basic individual training. Once our NCOs mastered the basic skills, we began to teach them advanced warfighting techniques and concepts. We conducted sandtable and map exercises designed to illustrate the fundamental maneuver warfare principles. These exercises forced the NCOs to develop their own courses of action and express them in a standard five-paragraph order format. We stressed the ability of the NCO to communicate his plan to his Marines. There were no right and wrong answers, but unsound tactical thinking was thoroughly critiqued. The intent of this training was to develop the thought process that we could later expect the NCO to employ in combat. We tried to train the NCO to become the tactical equal of the junior officer.

Initially, the transition from troop handler to small unit leader was difficult. Many junior NCOs lacked the technical and tactical expertise to educate and train their Marines, and they were reluctant to assume their new role. They quickly overcame this initial reluctance when they realized that we meant to give them real power. They then became eager to learn about their profession. They understood that their increased role brought additional responsibilities, and they rose to the challenge. After several months of intensive training, augmented by many quotas to NCO school and the division’s squad leader’s course, the technical and tactical proficiency of the NCOs skyrocketed. These corporals and sergeants were hungry for additional tactical expertise-they were becoming professionals. As they began to instruct their Marines, some astonishing things happended:

* The NCOs’ status as leaders increased dramatically.

* A clear teacher-scholar relationship grew between the NCOs and their Marines. The NCOs’ focus became training. They became inquisitive and interested in professional reading. Marine Corps Institute courses, and tactical decision games.

* The example set by the NCOs constantly reinforced critical skills and techniques throughout the company. A strong bond developed between the NCO and his men, leading the Marines to an almost unquestioned faith in their junior leaders.

* The entire company’s growing competence in battle drills, techniques, and procedures allowed the NCOs to adapt easily to rapidly changing tactical environments. They became much more aggressive and willing to make significant decisions. During free-play exercises, the NCOs’ new-found freedom translated to dramatically improved physical and mental speed at the small unit level.

The company became a warfighting machine driven by a desire to learn and become more competent. The worth of an NCO rested not only on how well he could drill or prepare for an inspection but also on how he could think and execute on the battlefield. The officers were constantly challenged professionally because even the most junior leaders in the company clamored for knowlege. Morale was never a problem because the command environment bred professionalism.

This is what a Marine Corps rifle company should be.

The second element in our drive to create true warfighting NCOs is formal education. To get a better understanding of the importance of education in our present situation, it is wise to look to the experience of the German Army between the two World Wars. The treaty ending World War I dramatically limited the size of the German officer corps. Given their reduced officer strength, they realized that they would have to rely more heavily on their NCOs. The Germans moved quickly to raise the competence level of their troops. During the 1920s and 1930s-while the American enlisted man was wasting away-the Germans began sending their NCOs to a new school, a school dramatically different from any other in the world.

The Germans designed their NCO schools to create decisionmakers. They believed that a man could be trained to make decisions quickly by getting him in the habit of making decisions. Once that habit was in place, all that remained was to give him the experience necessary to make good decisions. They were, in essence, attempting to teach intuition, an effort which modern research suggests was not in vain. Recent research also suggests that the best way to do this was embodied by the structure of the German NCO school: force men to make decisions again and again punishing only timidity while gradually giving them the experience and knowledge needed for the development of battlefield intuition. They will become battlefield leaders.

This school was very different from our current NCO schools where much of a Marine’s time is focused on garrison skills that although admittedly important subjects for the NCO. are of limited value in the face of the enemy. Our educational system makes the considered point that drill is but a means to an end, but there is a demonstrably superior way of reaching our goal of NCOs who crave responsibility and consider themselves as elite professionals in the U.S. Marine Corps. Specifically:

* NCO schools should be lengthened from their present 38 days to at least 4 months. The schools should devote this additional time to two things-decisionmaking exercises and directed study on the art of war, study aimed at making the NCO both knowledgeable and hungry for more learning.

* Attendance at NCO schools should be an absolute requirement for promotion to sergeant.

* Because NCO schools would be truly professional schools, we would expect to be paid back by the Marines who attend it: any Marine graduating would serve at least 2 additional years in the Fleet Marine Force before he could leave the Corps. Attendance al an NCO school would therefore be voluntary, and any Marine refusing to attend would not be promoted past the rank of lance corporal. Failure at NCO school would mean reverting to lance corporal for the remainder of the enlistment or immediate release from the Corps.

Making these changes would be costly. The future success of our Corps, however, depends on producing Marines who can fight our doctrine on a decentralized battlefield. Institutionally, we are not doing this, and we must. The money must be spent, and the NCOs must get the power they need. We must force our future company commanders to let their NCOs do their jobs. We must educate our company grade officers at Amphibious Warfare School on the real role of the NCO in warfighting and on how to train him to fill that role. We must also change the expectations of the NCOs by changing our NCO schools-the NCO should leave these vital schools fully expecting to be challenged professionally by his officers. He should return to his company with a burning desire to take charge on the battlefield, and, by doing so, force the Marine Corps to execute what we spend so much time talking about-our doctrine.