September 2018

Changes to the Marine Corps Rifle Squad Organization—One Marine’s Opinion

Volume 101, Issue 9

Katharine L. Hanifen

Sara W. Bock
Officer candidates from OCC-221 maneuvering as a rifle squad assault objectives during a field exercise at MCB Quantico, Va., on March 7, 2016.
Cpl Patrick Owens, USMC

Editor’s note: At the Marine Corps Association & Foundation Ground Dinner in May, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert B. Neller, announced the reorganization of the Marine rifle squad. Squads will be made up of three fire teams, each with three Marines, and a command element of a squad leader, assistant squad leader and a systems operator. Every Marine will carry the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle. The following is one Marine’s review of the reorganization.

The mission of the Marine Corps rifle squad is to “locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or to repel the enemy attack by fire and close combat.” This has been the mission since the inception of the United States Marine Corps at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia in 1775. Different tactics, techniques and procedures have been employed over the centuries to make the Marine Corps rifle squad the effective fighting force that it is; recently, however, some changes have been proposed to modernize the rifle squad and these changes favor new technology over flexibility. The Marine Corps must take a step back to re-evaluate the construction of the squad to maximize flexibility and effectiveness.

Currently, each individual rifle squad consists of 13 members—three four-man fire teams and a squad leader. Each member’s job is determined by the member’s billet description. A rifleman employs his rifle, acts as a scout and follows orders from the team leader. The automatic rifleman employs his automatic rifle and takes orders from the team leader. The assistant automatic rifleman employs his rifle and assists the automatic rifleman in the employment of his weapon. The team leader leads his team, employs his underbarrel grenade launcher and follows the orders of the squad leader. This concept follows the rule of three, which is a theme throughout the Marine Corps. The squad leader tasks out three Marines to serve as the team leaders and the fire team leaders run their three Marines, who become the team. This build of the Marine Corps rifle squad worked well with the inclusion of a belt-fed machine gun at the fire-team level.

With the recent adoption of new weapons platforms, such as the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle (IAR) for each Marine rifleman and the M320 grenade launcher, this doctrine has become obsolete. The automatic rifleman no longer needs an assistant and the grenade launcher will be moved from the fire team leader to allow for better control his team without the worry of utilizing a secondary weapons system. The new proposed concept is a 12-man squad—three three-man teams consisting of a team leader, an automatic rifleman and a designated grenadier. The headquarters element of the squad will consist of a squad leader, an assistant squad leader and a squad systems operator, the last of whom will deploy all the new gadgets to be introduced to the squad, such as tablets and small unmanned aerial systems for reconnaissance.

The rifle squad will be equipped with the Multi-Role Anti-Armor/Anti-Personnel weapons system (MAAWS) and a squad Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). The Commandant believes that this new loadout, which provides every member with a fully automatic rifle, will give the rifle squad a 300 percent boost to overall combat power.

In my opinion, several issues plague this proposal. The main reason this organization will not work in practice is the inability to properly divide a team into the lowest fighting unit—the buddy pair. From day one, Marines are taught about buddy pairs, or two individual Marines together. This is the smallest unit that can effectively fire and move. Breaking a four-man fire team down to three will remove a buddy pair from the equation. This factor is especially reinforced during Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). MOUT is basically movement and fighting inside an urban setting. This is where most of the fighting will occur for modern infantries. In this environment, it is imperative that flexibility be upheld as leadership can become decentralized very quickly, even at the squad level. Fire teams working on initiative-based tactics work best in the four-man model. This is most clear when it comes to clearing buildings and rooms. Without getting too far into the details, four men can search and clear a basic structure and maintain 360-degree security at all times. When losing a man in a team, the security of the team is compromised and may result in more casualties in an urban fight. In defensive operations involving entrenchments, the current breakdown of a squad can establish a linear defense about 100 meters long and effectively support each two-man fighting position internally. With the three-man teams, that level of protection would be much more difficult to obtain. Finally, considering offensive operations, the three-man team squad model has one fewer man in each team to provide effective fire for movement and maneuver on an objective.

Following this new proposal, every Marine rifleman will be issued a new M27 IAR. That means that every person in the squad will have a fully automatic rifle. On paper it sounds like a good idea to increase firepower. In reality, however, it will place a burden on logistics, training, individual load weight and marksmanship. There is a drastic doctrinal difference between machine-gun automatic fire and automatic rifle fire. The latter should only be used during assault fires when the enemy is within hand grenade range. I have seen a 225-pound Marine captain rock back on his heels while firing the eight-pound M27 in fully automatic mode. His fire was ineffective and it was a good teaching moment for him as a commander.

Suppressing fire is defined as, “fire on or about a weapon system to degrade its performance below what is needed to fulfill its mission objectives.” Suppressing fire is only effective if the intended targets are hit or are hitting close enough to cause a legitimate impression that the fire could hit.

This effect prevents the target from doing its job. When fully automatic rifle fire does not hit the target or hit close to the target, the shots are ineffective and ammunition is wasted. Volume of fire is not equivalent to accuracy of fire. More automatic weapons do not automatically increase combat power.

Included with the new overhaul of the squad are the extra weapons and equipment such as the MAAWS and the DMR. In a three-man team with already defined billets, weapons distribution throughout the squad must be considered. With a four-man fire team, the rifleman billet should be equipped with any special type of equipment. A rifleman billet is ideal for including other organic weapons such as the DMR or the MAAWS. Providing a DMR to a rifleman enables him to better act as a scout and increases his capability to engage targets with precision. Giving a rifleman a MAAWS provides the squad an antiarmor or anti-structure role. Eliminating these billets from the fire teams adds additional weapons systems to employ in different facets to an already stretched and overburdened team.

The addition of these new weapons systems and equipment also adds weight. Infantry Marines already are overburdened with the typical load of 97 to 137 pounds of equipment to carry. Automatic riflemen using the M27 are expected to carry 21 fully loaded 30-round magazines. Each magazine weighs 1.4 pounds. Adding additional ammunition and weapons systems such as the MAAWS onto Marines who are already burdened with too much to carry will only decrease fighting effectiveness and increase injuries. Including a rifleman billet as a fourth member in each fire team spreads weight around and increases team effectiveness.

The three-man headquarters element consisting of a squad leader, an assistant squad leader and a squad systems operator also must be examined. Before 2015, squad leaders were chosen based on rank or ability. Usually a sergeant in the company would automatically be assigned as squad leader. This default decision could result in a team with inexperienced or incompetent leaders. Now, the Marine squad leader billet has its own military occupational specialty (MOS) designation. Squad leaders are sent to the advanced military schools that this billet demands. With this education completed, a squad leader does not need an assistant. An assistant could generate conflict in the decision-making process of the squad and the assistant billet should be eliminated completely.

The newest billet announcement—the squad systems operator—will provide a squad with a host of new capabilities in enhanced situational awareness and reconnaissance. The devices that the squad systems operator will use consist of a ruggedized handheld tablet and a quad-copter unmanned aerial vehicle. This idea should be implemented as soon as possible.

A Marine rifle squad should consist of three four-man teams with a team leader, grenadier, automatic rifleman and a rifleman. The squad leader and squad systems operator should encompass the headquarters element. This makes a 14-man squad that retains mission flexibility and allows even spread loading of other organic weapons. Regardless of the weapon system utilized, Marines should be trained extensively on how to employ their weapons as their billets demand. This applies mostly to the automatic rifleman.

The adoption of the M27 and other weapons systems is a step in the right direction for the Marine Corps infantry. The inclusion of a Designated Marksman Rifle, a MAAWS and a systems operator give wider capabilities to a small unit leader. The format of the rifle squad and the consideration of weight must be addressed in order to adapt to the changing battlefield and the inclusion of new and better equipment. Cutting manpower and sacrificing flexibility by putting a larger burden on an already overladen fire team—removing one of the members and assigning additional roles to already stretched billets—is setting Marines up for failure at the doctrinal level.