The Next Agenda: Military Reform

By William S. Lind

The most serious gap between capabilities and practices may be the way so little of a Marine’s time and effort go to things related to winning in combat.

Over the last 10 years, the Marine Corps has been engaged in a major debate over maneuver warfare. That debate has been useful and productive, but maneuver warfare is just part of the challenge facing the Marine Corps. While correct doctrine is necessary for winning in combat, doctrine alone does not make a military Service combat effective.

As the pages of the Gazette and the experiences of most Marines attest, there are gaps in many different areas between the Corps’ capabilities and practices and what is needed for winning in combat. Such gaps are evident in training, in weapons, in unit cohesion, and in officer education. Perhaps the most serious is simply the way so little of a Marine’s daily time and effort go to things related to winning in combat. Addressing and closing these gaps-the gap between “looking good” in peacetime and winning in time of war-must be the Marine Corps’ next agenda. It is the agenda of military reform.

Military reform is an effort to bring our defense policies and practices at every level, from the infantry squad through the Pentagon and the Congress, into line with what is important for winning in combat. The focus of military reform is not efficiency, but effectiveness: effectiveness on the field of battle. As the briefing of the Congressional Military Reform Caucus states, “We have two simple goals. First, we want military forces that can win when called upon. Second, we want the support of the American people for such forces, not just for one or two years, but for the long haul.”

Military reform relates to all four Services, to the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and to the Congress. The military reformers have produced an extensive literature detailing problems and potential solutions in each of these areas.

What agenda does military reform offer the Marine Corps? Military reform looks at the Corps on three levels. The first is the superstructure: concepts and doctrine, equipment, personnel, training, and organization. These areas are part of the superstructure not because they are unimportant-each is very important-but because problems in each of them generally derive from deeper, often unseen roots. Part I of this article will examine the Corps’ superstructure. In Part II, we will look at some causes on two additional levels: institutions and institutional culture.

A single article cannot look at all the problems in the superstructure. It can only touch on some representative samples. In each area, Marines are encouraged to identify further problems and possible solutions.

Concepts and Doctrine

Important conceptual and doctrinal challenges facing the Marine Corps include:

* Learning how to do maneuver warfare. Many Marines are familiar with at least some of the basic concepts of maneuver warfare, such as missiontype orders, focus of effort, and throwing strength against weakness. But there is a great difference between having an academic understanding of maneuver warfare and actually being able to do it in combat. The first is necessary for the second, but it is by no means sufficient. Learning how to apply maneuver warfare in combat means major changes in Marine Corps education and training; some of those changes will be discussed later in this article.

* Understanding the operational art. The operational art is the art of using tactical events to strike directly at an enemy’s strategic center of gravity. In that sense, it is the art of the campaign. It is of major importance to Marines because, in many situations, the amphibious campaign is likely to be more important to the Nation than the amphibious assault. The Marine Corps needs to incorporate the operational art into its doctrine, educate at least a cadre of commanders and staff officers in its practice, and attempt it in major war games and command post exercises.

* Adopting true light infantry tactics. Although Marines call themselves light infantry, by historical and world standards they are line infantry. Line infantry tactics derive from French tactics in World War I; true light infantry tactics are descended from the German tactics of 1917-1918.

Adopting light infantry tactics implies major changes from current tactics. The attack is by infiltration; defense controls an area rather than holding a line and relies on ambushes and counterstrokes rather than visible defensive positions. Most fire support is local: machineguns, mortars, and infantry guns (distributed, locally attached artillery). Mobility and high tempo come from high march rates; units must be capable of marching a minimum of 40 kilometers per day on a sustained basis. That, in turn, requires a drastic reduction in the Marine’s load.

In order to adopt true light infantry tactics, Marines need to become familiar with the current literature on the subject, especially Gen Franz UhleWettler’s Battlefield Central Europe- The Danger of Overreliance on Technology by the Armed Forces.* The Corps also needs to begin experimenting with light infantry tactics, perhaps with the formation of a few light infantry training and testing units, and to publish a light infantry tactics operational handbook.

*Avoiding methodical battle. Methodical battle is the opposite of maneuver warfare. It requires its practitioners to focus not on the situation and the enemy but on their own stylized, memorized processes and procedures. In his splendid book on French doctrine between the World Wars, The Seeds of Disaster,** Col Robert Doughty. USA, notes that the fundamental French error was methodical battle. The French learned a “method” of fighting based largely on fire support coordination, and were determined to follow it no matter what the enemy did. Indeed, they were so thoroughly trained in it that they could do nothing else. In 1940, when the Germans drove events at a tempo faster than their method could accommodate, they had no option but collapse and surrender.

When we look at Marine Corps practice today, too often what we see is methodical battle. Thanks largely to the highly methodical combined arms exercise (CAX) at Twentynine Palms and the carefully choreographed Marine Corps combat readiness evaluations, tactics are driven by fire support planning rather than the other way around. Tempo, constrained by detailed orders, by slow-moving fire support coordination techniques, and often by an absence of even the concept of tempo, is very slow. It looks as if the Marine Corps is repeating the French mistake, not so much in its formal doctrine as in the way Marine units actually operate. Methodical battle dominates.

How can the Corps avoid methodical battle? Marines need to understand that combat is dominated by surprise, uncertainty, and rapid change, which no set method can accommodate. Their focus must be outward, on the situation and the enemy, not inward on staff procedures and coordination requirements. They must grasp the idea that tempo is itself a weapon-often the most powerful weapon. Field exercises must avoid the compulsive rigidity and canned solutions of the CAX, instead emphasizing adaptability, improvisation, high, tempo, verbal mission orders, and running mental estimates. Training, like combat itself, must be dominated by the need to deal with a hostile, independent will in an environment of fog and friction.


Apart from the aviation wings, the Marine Corps is not heavily equipment oriented, which is good. Overconcern with equipment leads to neglect of leadership, tactics, and realistic training. However, equipment must still be adequate to do the job. In that regard, military reformers inside and outside the Corps question several Marine Corps acquisition programs, including:

* The M198 howitzer. A fine weapon for coastal artillery, the weight and bulk of the M198 make it a questionable artillery piece for an expeditionary force. The Marine Corps seems to realize it made a mistake here, and that it needs a light, modern 105mm howitzer or more heavy mortars or both.

* The M1A1 tank. Maneuver warfare requires tank units with operational, not just tactical, mobility. They must be able to pick up and move 100 kilometers or more into the enemy’s rear when an opportunity appears. With a weight of almost 70 tons, fuel consumption 4 times that of the M60, and dependence on black box maintenance, which is to say, on a secure, well developed line of supply, the M1A1’s operational mobility is poor. With the Israeli modifications-reactive armor, removal of the cupola, extra machineguns, and added protection against fire-the M60 looks like a better as well as a more affordable tank.

There is also a question of whether the Corps, focused as it properly is on Third World conflicts, needs heavy tanks. Should it instead rely on light armored vehicles (LAVs)? The Chadians defeated the Libyans using Toyota pickup trucks and a few French LAVs. The answer to this question is not clear, but it should be thought through carefully before a new tank is purchased.

* The Osprey. The fundamental question about the Osprey goes beyond the specific aircraft. The real issue is whether the helicopter (or tiltrotor) is a viable combat aircraft. In past conflicts, including Vietnam, helicopter losses were high. Even against the minimal opposition encountered on Grenada, we lost about 18 percent of our helicopters. Are we deluding ourselves in thinking we can make helicopter or Osprey assaults without prohibitive casualties? What do modern air defenses and the proliferation of automatic weapons in most armies mean for the survivability of the Osprey? Is the Osprey in effect a bigger, stronger cavalry horse-a system serving a concept whose time has come and gone?

Reformers also raise questions about Marine Corps equipment needs that are not being met. These include:

* A light antitank weapon that works. The Dragon is virtually useless, and the LAAWs small warhead raises serious doubts as to its effectiveness. Without an effective light antitank weapon, Marine infantry and rear areas are seriously at risk. It is difficult to overstate the importance of effective infantry antitank weapons in modern combat, or the disaster that can ensue if the troops come to realize they are defenseless against enemy tanks.

The Marine Corps should make obtaining an effective light antitank weapon one of its top priorities. The AT4 may be such a weapon, but the tests done on it to date are not adequate to know. The Marine Corps should run its own tests on the AT4, firing it at real tanks under combat conditions. If it passes, buy it; if not, start testing other weapons available on the world market.

* A real close air support aircraft. Marine air claims to be specialists in close air support, but the Corps has no suitable close air support aircraft “Fastmovers” do not work well for close air support, because their speed makes it difficult for the pilot to see what is happening on the ground; their guns are too light for effective strafing (which in close support is often more useful than bombing); they have virtually no antiarmor capability (weapons like Maverick simply won’t work under combat conditions); and they are highly vulnerable to automatic weapons fire. The latter point is especially important because, in combat, every soldier shoots at every airplane. Ironically, the Harrier is the most vulnerable aircraft in this respect in the whole U.S. inventory because the fuel is stored around the engine, and it has no self-sealing tanks.

The only real close support aircraft the United States has today is the A-10. That aircraft has some serious deficiencies, but the basic concept is valid: a slow airplane, designed to survive multiple hits from automatic weapons, built around a powerful gun that has a real antiarmor capability. The Marine Corps should join current DOD efforts to design and procure a follow-on to the A-10 that preserves those characteristics while fixing the A10’s specific faults, namely its overlarge size, sluggishness, and high price. Until the Corps acquires such an aircraft, its rhetoric about close air support will be just that: empty words.

* Heavier reliance on off-the-shelf systems. The Marine Corps has traditionally been a leader in finding inexpensive systems that enhance combat performance. The current research and development (R&D) process seldom develops such systems, but the civilian market offers many. What Marine does not know he can buy better boots, packs, and other equipment in the civilian market-often at lower prices than we pay for the “approved” items? Similar opportunities exist with radios, dirt bikes, and even weapons. The current procurement process generally avoids off-the-shelf equipment, not because it is inferior, but because it leaves the R&D bureaucracy out of work. The Marine Corps can cut through this bureaucratic game by purchasing off-the-shelf equipment whenever it can do the job.


To military reformers, personnel issues are usually the most important issues. Wars are fought by people, not by weapons. Many Marines rightly believe that the Corps’ most serious problems are personnel problems. Examples include:

* Hollow units. Too often, although a unit looks fully manned on paper, it is actually understrength. Up until a couple years ago, troops were FAPed (troops from operational units reassigned to basethe so-called Fleet Augmentation Program) out to the point where, at times, companies went to the field to train with as few as 60 men, platoons with as few as 12. The recently announced policy of filling the Marine Corps from the bottom up-starting with the combat units-is a promising step toward solving this problem. Current reports indicate actual company strength is up to about 130 men, a major improvement.

* Unacceptable levels of personnel turbulence and turnover. Despite the Precise Personnel Assignment System (PREPASS), personnel turbulence continues at a high rate. This makes unit cohesion impossible and severely undermines training. No unit can train to a high standard when it faces a constant influx of new, largely untrained people. This problem can be solved only by fundamental reform of the personnel system so that units remain stable for at least three years (the normal term of enlistment). The Army’s cohort program, as originally conceived, is one possible answer to this crippling problem.

* Commanders with no recent Fleet Marine Force (FMF) experience. Too often, many years pass between company, battalion, and regimental command. The intervening time is filled with paperpushing jobs that have little relevance to combat. By the time an officer gets another command, his leadership and tactical skills are often rusty at best. Then, he has his new command for only about two years-far too short a time to make himself and his unit proficient The overall result is institutionalized amateurism. The root cause is the officer surplus that we will look at in Part II of this article.


Neither equipment nor doctrine mean much unless a unit is well trained. Marines pride themselves on their training, but that pride is open to question. Problems include:

* Too many restrictions on the drill instructors (DIs) in boot camp. The modern battlefield requires a thinking Marine who can take initiative, not automatons, and boot camp should reflect this. Trainees should be faced with challenges that require them to think for themselves. But this does not mean boot camp should not stress trainees. Combat is the most stressful of all human activities, and basic training should expose Marines to heavy stress. Current regulations largely prevent DIs from doing this. A high school football coach can yell and swear at his players and push them around a bit, but a Marine DI cannot do that with his trainees. DIs should not be brutal, but in trying to prevent brutality we have gone too far in the other direction. We have also taken away too much of the DI’s authority and discretion by making officers oversupervise. We need to move back toward traditional Marine boot camp with its heavy stressing of recruits, with the modification that the stress should require trainees to think, make decisions, and show initiative, not just obey.

* Too little time for platoon and company commanders to train their own units. This is an especially severe problem in the 2d Marine Division. Large unit and individual training are both important, but they cannot be substitutes for letting the platoon and company commander take his unit to the field on its own frequently and regularly. If this means allocating additional resources to acquire new training areas or funding company moves to distant training areas, such actions must be taken. At least in the 2d Marine Division, the current situation is intolerable.

*Insufficient skill in techniques. Techniques are those things that are done by formula. They range from using a weapon, through patrolling, to battle drills. Too many Marines do not perform them to a high standard. The new Battle Drill Guide offers a useful tool for improving performance in techniques, and its application throughout the Corps should raise standards significantly. It is important, however, that the correctly rote and formalized training emphasized by the Guide not be allowed to carry over into tactics, which must never be done by formula or method.

* Insufficient tactical training. Tactical training requires free-play exercises, because nothing else duplicates the hostile, independent will of the enemy that characterizes combat. Only free-play training requires commanders at all levels to confront the unexpected and devise schemes for dealing with it, which is what tactics is all about. Tactics is the opposite of techniques in that it is a free, creative activity in which each situation is different. Only free-play exercises allow such creative freedom.

Unfortunately, free-play exercises remain the exception rather than the rule. Even the 2d Marine Division, which pioneered free-play training in the early 1980s, usually sees only one major free-play exercise each year, and that only involves a portion of the division. Free-play training must become standard Marine practice at all levels. It must begin in The Basic School and must be extended to the CAX by adding a second, nonfiring, aggressed free-play segment MCCRESs should also be free-play. A number of reforms along these lines are currently being considered by the Marine Corps, and prospects for them look promising.

* The infrequency of fluid aviation training. Too often, the aviation wings are allowed to play by their own rules, which say they must be given substantial advance notice of when and where air is to be employed. This allows detailed, slow tempo planning and rigid, centralized control. In war, such an approach is unlikely to be effective. If air is to be useful, it must be able to respond quickly to the unexpected. Aviation units must be fluid enough to support a fluid, high tempo situation on the ground.

A similar problem exists in air-to-air training. Too much of it is simple one versus one or two versus two training; too little, the many versus many situation a real conflict may offer. As past combat and some peacetime exercises have shown, there is a qualitative difference in a many versus many situations.

The Corps needs to make major changes in aviation training. The most important is compelling aviation to respond with little notice to the needs of ground commanders, including the need to mass air, not just provide a couple quick passes.


Three organizational problems in the Marine Corps provide examples of reformers’ concerns:

* The lack of fighters. The Marine Corps obtains only 3 divisions and 3 aviation wings from almost 200,000 men-a low ratio by world standards. As Maj Mark F. Cancian pointed out in previous Gazettes, the proportion of actual fighters within those few divisions is also low. A force that is supposed to be “lean and mean” has become a vast supply train, maintenance depot, and conglomeration of headquarters looking for a few good fighting men.

* Insufficient tactical mobility. Most Marine ground forces are heavy, slow-moving line infantry. They have neither adequate motorization to be mobile in open terrain nor the close terrain mobility true light infantry obtains from its high march rates. In terms of tactical mobility, most Marine units are fortress troops or siege troops.

To fight maneuver warfare Marines must have good tactical mobility. This suggests reorganization into a mix of true light infantry and motorized/ mechanized units from which a “package” suitable to the terrain can be task organized.

* Marine aviation’s organization as a complete miniair force. Despite the close air support rhetoric, Marine aviation includes a strong fighter force, deep interdiction aircraft, and air transports. History shows that once an aviation service becomes a complete air force, it tends to divorce itself from ground support. Its members think of themselves first as flyers, not soldiers. If Marine aviation is truly to focus on supporting the Marine on the ground, it needs to be reorganized to emphasize that role at the expense of air-to-air and deep interdiction capabilities. It also needs to give Marine pilots enough ground combat training and tours with ground units so they continue to think of themselves as Marines first and pilots second.

Again, the above are examples, not a full discussion of all the problems in the Marine Corps’ superstructure. But they are sufficient to illustrate that there are problems, many of them serious, in each of the superstructure areas: concepts and doctrine, equipment, personnel, training, and organization.

What are the solutions? We have suggested a few here, again as examples. But by definition, superstructure problems derive from deeper, often hidden causes. They can only be resolved by identifying those causes and eliminating them. Next month in Part II, we will look at some of the underlying causes.


*This work has been translated by the U.S. Army, but has not been published in the United States. Copies are available for interlibrary loan from Breckinridge Library at Quantico.

**Review by Col Allan R. Miliet, USMCR, in MCG, Oct86.