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Marine Commandant Announces New Promotion, Cyber Warfare Opportunities

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, speaks to sailors and Marines during a visit to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (William Hester/U.S. Marine Corps)
Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, speaks to sailors and Marines during a visit to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, on Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. (William Hester/U.S. Marine Corps)

A new directive from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller announces dramatic changes to the service set to take place by the end of next year.

Neller, who took command of the Corps in September, released a 13-page "fragmentation order" Tuesday that builds on guidance set forth by his predecessor, Gen. Joseph Dunford, but also includes a handful of brand-new initiatives. Among these: a process that will offer more promotion looks for lance corporals and corporals, the installation of company-level unit fitness instructors to create stronger Marines, and an expansion of Marine Corps cyber, electronic warfare and information operations career fields.

In his FRAGO, titled "advance to contact," Neller said the order builds on feedback he has received from Marines, sailors and support staff across the fleet. While not formally at war, Neller said, the Marine Corps finds itself facing a high operational tempo and constant global threats not consistent with an interwar period. The Corps, he said, must stay ready and become more modern while continuing a host of ongoing operations.

"This will require pragmatic institutional choices and a clear-eyed vision of where we intend to be in 10-20 years," Neller wrote.

Structure changes and promotions

The commandant promised to carry on Dunford's work of reviewing total Marine Corps force structure, setting a fall 2017 deadline to complete a comprehensive review that emphasizes the Marine air-ground task force, air elements, logistics, and support units to ensure that the service has the right number of jobs and proper rank structure in each field to take on future challenges. Neller said the Corps would make structure changes as necessary to meet the requirements of the future force, and suggested the service would be willing to pare down some units significantly in order to become more modern and capable.

"We will be willing to accept risk in the size and organization of our units in order to create the capabilities we need for the future," he wrote.

Neller also announced plans to review Marine Corps promotion processes, the systems by which personnel are assigned, and retention rates past the first and second terms of service "in order to reward high performing Marines."

This effort appears to build on a Dunford initiative that provided fast-track promotions to specially selected infantry squad leaders in order to resource top talent and fill manning gaps in the infantry community. But the Neller effort goes further. The Marine Corps, he said, would implement a time-in-grade promotion review process at the battalion and squadron level for lance corporals and corporals to ensure quality Marines were evaluated for promotion in a timely manner.

Currently, both lance corporals and corporals are required to serve eight months in their rank before becoming eligible for promotion, but numerous other factors affect their promotability. They must also reach a minimum composite or "cutting score" that is determined by the Marine Corps' manpower needs as well as the individual Marine's job performance and professional education.

It's not clear if Neller's directive signals a move away from the cutting score system, or just a guaranteed promotion look after a designated time-in-grade threshold. Both the manpower review and the promotion changes, he said, would be completed by April.

The Marines' structure review will also include an evaluation of waterfront and staff assignments, to ensure that the Corps' structure is best suited to "meet the needs of our evolving relationship with the Navy." A staff realignment to that end is due to be completed by the end of 2016.

Modernized warfare

In a nod to the changing nature of warfare, Neller said the Marine Corps would beef up its information operations, cyber and electronic warfare capability within the three Marine expeditionary forces and within the Marine operational forces. This move signals coming opportunities and incentives for Marines in all three job fields in the next two years; according to the FRAGO, this change will be completed by the end of fiscal 2017.

"We will look at advances in technology that create opportunities to adjust table of organization structure spaces that more appropriately meet current and future force operational requirements," Neller wrote.

To this end, the Marine Corps will also develop more training, simulation and experimentation opportunities, particularly those that emphasize computers and intelligence; night operations; operations in a nuclear, biological and chemical environment; and the ability to make rapid decisions in dynamic and uncertain situations, Neller said.

The focus of these training efforts will be the junior leaders in the enlisted and officer ranks.

"We will emphasize decentralizing authority and placing accountability down to the lowest level of leadership -- to train as we will fight," he wrote.

The document also revealed plans to design an "experimentation roadmap" that will put cutting-edge and emerging technology to the test during scheduled exercises and provide more virtual training opportunities in conjunction with traditional MAGTF training.

"Enabled by technology, we will increase the amount of training each unit can accomplish -- to 'increase the reps' in mentally and physically stressing environments for all elements of the MAGTF before they do so on the battlefield," Neller wrote.

The Marine Corps also plans to pursue technologies such as unmanned aerial systems, or drones, robotics and artificial intelligence, and autonomous technologies that can aid operations, according to the FRAGO.

New training for fitness

In a dramatic move, Neller announced the creation of a company-level force fitness instructor program set to take effect by the end of 2017. Those instructors, he wrote, will work with unit commanders to develop a physical training program for the company, battery or squadron to which they are attached.

This development is likely linked to the Marine Corps' development of gender-neutral physical standards for ground combat jobs, and the opening of previously restricted military occupational specialties to women no later than April of this year.

Multiple Marine officials involved with research efforts to determine the impact of opening the infantry to women said unit fitness trainers might help to bring male and female Marines to their physical peak and make them better-equipped for combat jobs and less prone to injury.

More training, operations with special operations forces

As the Marine Corps continues to operate globally, the document announces plans to develop an "integration model" with special operations forces by the end of this fiscal year.

This builds on Dunford's guidance and recent efforts to do more with the SOF community, including a pilot program that deployed six-man SOF liaison teams with Marine expeditionary units that debuted last year.

Neller emphasized reducing unnecessary redundancy while deploying crisis response forces and working to streamline Marine Corps efforts with SOF operations.

"Since Marines and SOF will remain forward deployed, we must create true integration models to maximize the capabilities of the full sea-based MAGTF, including command and control, alongside our SOF partners," he wrote.

Concluding the FRAGO, Neller emphasized his wish to cut through Marine Corps bureaucracy and promote creative leadership and a different approach to changing problems and challenges.

"As we move forward, we will no doubt make mistakes. This is to be expected from aggressive but calculated actions," he wrote. "As long as we do so with resolve and learn from our actions, we will make progress. Marines have a bias for action. We will set measures of effectiveness and conduct continual assessment in order to adjust our course."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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