Marines operating at sea could soon form the biggest rifle squads in the modern military as top leaders move toward expanding their size to 15-person teams.
Rifle squads deployed with Marine expeditionary units could plus up to 15 as soon as 2020, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said Wednesday. The extra personnel will help squad leaders deal with new responsibilities they're taking on as warfare grows more technical.
"If we take it to 15, that's difficult for one person, I think, to command and control," Neller told reporters during a Defense Writers' Group event in Washington, D.C. "That's why we added those two other people -- to help that squad leader whose workload is increasing."
Marine officials announced in May that the traditional 13-person squad would drop to 12, including new assistant squad leader and squad-systems operator billets. Both of those Marines will come from the infantry ranks.
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A 12-person squad will be the minimum size grunts can expect across the infantry, said Lt. Col. Eric Dent, Neller's spokesman. But if operational demands require it, leaders will have the ability to flex the size to 15 by adding an additional rifleman to each of the three fire teams.
Squads deploying aboard Navy ships and executing crisis-response missions around the world are likely to be the first to see the boosted numbers, Neller said.
Squad leaders are taking on a host of new responsibilities, which have been tested during an ongoing, years-long experiment, called Sea Dragon 2025, meant to help the service prepare for the future fight. Infantry Marines are now operating drones, self-driving vehicles, robots and other technologies, in addition to their existing duties.
"We added those two other people to help that squad leader whose workload is increasing, particularly if he's flying [an unmanned-aerial vehicle], terrain permitting, or he's got tablets and information and ... the ability to command and control and deliver fires that he never had before," the commandant said.
Adding the assistant squad leader and systems operator not only requires creating new billets, but developing their training programs -- something Neller wants to execute as quickly as possible.
"I want to see if I can condense the space to get those two individuals, particularly the squad systems operator, trained and to the squad," he said.
Getting those billets filled will be a "game changer," Neller said, as would having them work in 15-person, forward-deployed teams. The typical squad size in the Army, for example, is nine.
Filling the new billets could prove challenging though. Marine officials are throwing big bonuses at squad leaders this fiscal year in an effort to keep seasoned grunts from leaving the infantry for other assignments. It remains to be seen whether assistant squad leaders and systems operators will see similar incentives.
The move to boost the makeup of a deployed squad is just one of the decisions that came out of a force-wide review about how best to organize the Marine Corps to take on a near-peer enemy, and many of the decisions were based around funding. The service currently has the budget for a force of 186,000, but that could change, Neller said.
In case it does, Marine leaders developed different scenarios they can use in the years to come. Regardless of size, though, he said it is essential to move the force toward being ready to fight a more sophisticated enemy.
"We have to increase these capabilities that we needed, that we didn't think we had, to fight a future fight," Neller said. "That's command and control, long-range precision strike, air defense, information operations, more intel, unmanned aircraft and increased engineering capability.
"And so we made some decisions that were not easy," he said.