Evolving the Marine Corps for Irregular Warfare



The concept of an evolution to a new type of warfare has been understood for decades, but the U.S. military, the Marine Corps included, has failed to adapt to the changing methods of waging war. The type of warfare that goes by the names irregular, counterinsurgency, low-intensity, and hybrid, among others, is not new at all. Although the methods used in this type of war may seem unfamiliar or un-warlike to a conventionally trained military, it is war nonetheless. While the Marine Corps still relies solely on the methods of conventional maneuver warfare, or even older ones of attrition and massed firepower, our enemies have adapted other ways of defeating us. Both state and non-state actors have used terrorism, propaganda, recruitment through social media, and combined regular and guerilla tactics to defeat far technologically superior forces. No matter what name we give to the poorly understood methods of irregular war, the fact remains that it is still war, and we must adapt if we are to be successful in it. As our enemies’ methods of war have evolved, ours must evolve as well if we want to remain relevant. It is time for the Marine Corps to change the way it thinks about, trains for, and carries out irregular warfare.

“Light” not “Line” Infantry

The Marine Corps must adopt the capability to fight as light infantry. FMFM-2A: Light Infantry offers some useful insights into what “light” infantry is, and how it differs from “line” or “regular” infantry. Light infantry is “a flexible force capable of operating in austere conditions with few logistical requirements, providing the commander a force ideally suited to complement heavier elements of the army.”2 Where line infantry is akin to the heavily armed and armored but rigid phalanx of Greek hoplite warfare, light infantry is more akin to the hit-and-run ambush mentality of Mongol horsemen or Prussian Jaegers. Light and line infantry forces work in mutual support of each other. A combination of the ambushes, raids, and harassment of light infantry, with the overwhelming mass and finishing blow of line infantry and heavier forces creates havoc for the enemy.

Unfortunately, the entirety of the Marine Corps infantry is focused on fighting as line infantry, rather than as the more flexible combination of light and line infantry. Too much concern on armored protection, firepower, and linear drill-like tactics has limited our capability. The United States already has a medium/heavy force, and it is called the Army. Within the Marine Corps, tanks, artillery, attack aircraft, and armored vehicles can deliver heavy firepower, but infantry battalions lack significant training in fighting as a light force.

It is important to note that “light” is not a description of the actual weight of the unit but of its notion of agility and operational versatility.3 With this in mind, John Boyd’s ideas of variety and initiative4 are essential elements of operating as light infantry. Light infantry must be adaptable and able to use a variety of assets at their disposal to surprise, harass, and demoralize the enemy. For the modern Marine Corps, this means more mobile vehicles, more flexible and creative tactics, more decentralized execution, less logistical tail, and more methods for physical, mental, and moral warfare. Light infantry Marines must be able to live off the land, strike the enemy when he least expects it, then disappear back into the shadows, all with minimal direction from higher headquarters. They must be “an influence, and idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas.”5 Light infantry is not usually the main effort but complements it by keeping the enemy off balance and reactive, allowing friendly forces to maintain the initiative.

The operationally versatile mindset of light infantry can be used not only to demoralize the enemy but to find creative ways to convince other parties to join our cause, as will be discussed later.

No More Drill

“Each new generation has brought a major shift towards a battlefield of disorder. The military culture, which has remained a culture of order, has become contradictory to the battlefield.”6 Drill, saluting, crisp uniforms, and rank structure are products of first generation warfare and are irrelevant and sometimes detrimental to operating on the modern battlefield. While armies in the 18th and 19th centuries benefitted from tight formations and instant obedience to orders, these same qualities have caused modern armies to be defeated by numerically and technologically inferior enemies.

Modern fighting units require adaptable and flexible tactics, flattened command structures, and uniforms and equipment based solely on functionality. The necessary mindset of constant change and flexibility is the complete opposite of the rigid and linear mindset that drill instills. It is typically harder to unlearn habits than it is to learn them. With that said, instilling recruits and candidates with a drill mindset from the beginning of their training makes it harder for them to unlearn the bad habits of linearity and rigidity, reducing their effectiveness when operating in ambiguous environments. Luckily, many Marines have been able to unlearn drill habits and have proven to be highly adaptable fighters and leaders, but many struggle to overcome the drill mindset. Adaptability and critical thinking must be the focus of entry-level training through the use of tactical decision games and force-on-force field exercises.

There is still some need for a division of responsibility between leader and led, so some form of rank structure should be retained. But the command structure should be more akin to that employed by LtCol Evans Carlson in the Second Raider Battalion during World War II.7 Leaders must be empowered down to the lowest level; Marines of all ranks must display mutual respect and suffer the same hardships and living conditions; and every Marine must be allowed to voice his or her opinion in decision making. Drill and fancy uniforms still have some utility when used for ceremonies, parades, or other formal occasions, but they are useless just about everywhere else. Eliminate our 18th century habits, and the Marine Corps will start adapting faster to the demands of future wars.

Relaxed Grooming Standards and Local Dress

A Marine on patrol in full battle-rattle, complete with rifle, body armor, helmet, goggles, camouflage utilities, radios, and a clean shaven face and living on a built-up base with hot showers, abundant food, TV, and internet sends two clear messages to local observers: “You do not want to mess with me,” and “I am not one of you.” These perceptions can have either a positive or negative influence, depending on what the intended message is. If the objective is to intimidate the enemy and assert American dominance in an area, then they certainly send the right message. However, if the objective is to talk to people and convince them to support our cause, then they only magnify the gap between Marines and the populace.

Read the Remainder at Marine Corps Gazette

3 thoughts on “Evolving the Marine Corps for Irregular Warfare

  1. Pingback: Evolving the Marine Corps for Irregular Warfare | Rifleman III Journal

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