SAN DIEGO -- The head of the Marine Corps says it's time the U.S. military branch known for its fierce, young warriors becomes a little more mature.
The Marine Corps is considering offering bonuses and other perks to entice older, more experienced Marines to re-enlist as it builds up its cyber operations to defend the nation, especially against cyber-attacks from Russia and China. About 62 percent of Marines are 25 years old or younger, with many serving only four years.
The move marks a historical change that could transform a force made up primarily of high school graduates, lured by the bravado and physical challenges of joining a branch that prides itself on being the "tip of the spear," the first to go into battle and knock in doors. It's part of the Marine Corps' modernizing efforts after 16 years of largely low-tech, counterinsurgency fights.
"It's going to be a Marine Corps that's a little bit older, a little more experienced because as much as we love our young Marines ... we need a little bit older because it takes longer to learn these skills," Gen. Robert Neller told defense leaders at a San Diego conference. "And so we're an organization looking at the whole way we do business, and it's going to change our culture."
Marine Corps officials are quick to emphasize the core recruiting mission will remain the same for the branch that boasts having the toughest warriors in the U.S. military.
But getting more Marines to re-enlist could inadvertently ease pressure on recruiters. Less than 30 percent of the U.S. population is qualified physically, mentally and morally to serve, according to military leaders.
A greater number of older Marines could also help lessen behavior problems like excessive drinking that can be more prevalent among junior Marines.
"By older Marines, we're not talking guys with walkers but rather second- and third-tour enlisted Marines," said Gary Solis, a military expert at Georgetown University who served 26 years in the Marine Corps. "They may be only a few years older than the 18- and 19-year-old Marines, but those three or four years difference could make a hell of a difference as far as maturity when it comes to their outlook and unit cohesion."
The commandant said it also ensures the military gets a return on the money and time it spends training troops in cyber operations, something that could take three or more years.
The 2018 defense budget earmarked money for the Marine Corps to add 1,000 Marines, many of whom will work in cyber and electronic warfare.
Tampering with networks that control the operations of air defense, for example, could be as or more lethal than firepower in the future. Extremists have also been able to use mobile technology and social media to recruit members and raise money to become a real threat.
The Marine Corps is opening jobs this October in its new cyberspace occupational field. After the announcement of the field, Neller tweeted: "'Trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers'? Not exactly, but this is the next step in professionalizing our cyber force, which will be critical to our success, now and in the future."
The Marine Corps floated the idea of allowing people with cyber skills to bypass boot camp, but Neller opposed that, saying a Marine should be a Marine. Any applicant over the age of 28 will still be evaluated to ensure they exhibit the physical stamina to undergo the rigors of recruit training.
Though it will not be easy to compete against six-digit salaries in the private sector, the military plans to tout how its tech people are sent out in the field, offering the chance for high-adrenaline experiences beyond sitting in an office at a computer.
Marine recruits with high-demand technical skills who choose to enlist into cyber operations may be eligible for an enlistment bonus. The Marine Corps is also developing plans to recruit and retain cyberspace professionals in the Reserves, and in May unveiled new badges for enlisted troops and officers who work as drone operators.
David Coan, a 35-year-old chief warrant officer based at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, has applied to be a part of the new cyber force after serving 17 years in the Marine Corps. Many Marines retire after 21 years, but the combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said now he's found more reason to stay beyond that.
"There are a lot of Marines at my level who foster the hope of trying to move into these operations in this new realm," he said, adding it's exciting to be at the forefront of a new force and receive cyber training. "This is going to change the Marine Corps and the way it fights."