Infantry Marines get specialized training to operate specific weapons, but that could change as the service experiments with a model to create generalists who can use several different systems in combat.
Three infantry battalions are spending two years testing new models that could revolutionize the Marine Corps' ground combat element. The effort is part of a 10-year plan to reshape the service as it prepares for possible conflict with near-peer threats -- mainly China.
The model that could perhaps lead to the most dramatic changes to the Marine infantry battalion is called the "arms room concept," which Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, describes as "an armory of many different systems."
"Your Marines would be trained in all of them, and then you pick the weapons suited to the mission," Watson said. "... It's producing a more mature, sort of multidimensional utility infielder as an infantryman."
Commandant Gen. David Berger released his annual update on Force Design 2030, a directive for sweeping servicewide changes he says are necessary to prep the force for its next fight. Those plans call for a redesigned infantry battalion.
"I am not confident that we have adequately assessed all of the implications of the future operating environment on the proposed structure of our future infantry battalion," Berger wrote in March 2020. Now, he has directed a battalion in each of the three Marine Corps divisions to begin experimentation.
The "arms room" concept was the model originally proposed to redesign the infantry battalion, Watson said. One of the battalions is experimenting with that model, while the others are testing out a modified version and an alternative.
The concept, officials said, could eventually eliminate infantry battalions' weapons companies, shifting those weapons -- 81mm mortars and the Javelin portable anti-tank missile, for example -- into headquarters or rifle companies.
But infantry Marines need different training to employ those weapons.
Grunts traditionally attend basic infantry training before they're given specialized instruction on a specific weapon system. Now, as part of the experimentation, the Schools of Infantry that train enlisted grunts on both coasts are running 14-week test courses -- 50% longer than the current nine-week course.
During the longer course, Watson said, Marines are learning how to operate a host of weapons rather than specializing in one.
"What this would do is increase the duration of the entry-level infantry training pipeline [and] train the infantry Marine in a variety of crew-served weapon systems, such that they are capable of operating more than just one," he said. "Then, the unit would make the decision -- based on the mission they're assigned, based on the threat, etc. -- what weapons systems they'd want to assign to their Marines."
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, deputy commandant of Combat Development and Integration, said they recognize there are critics of the "arms room" concept. He said he points those who say it won't work to the infantry automatic rifle with improved optic.
"You have basically trained Marines hitting targets all day long at 500, 700, 800 meters that used to be the range of school-trained snipers," Smith said. "[They're] hitting them all day long because the weapon system and its heavier barrel and the optic that goes with it means basically trained Marines can pick it up and pop individual targets out at ranges that used to be the sole domain of a sniper."
Similarly, with the new Organic Precision Fires-Infantry loitering munitions, or OPR-I, Smith said Marines can strike targets "well beyond what a 60mm or 81mm mortar can do."
"You may not need that mortarman to do that," he said. "... So I would tell the ['arms room'] naysayers, 'Hey, give it a minute.'"
The change could ultimately lead to a single military occupational specialty for all infantry personnel. Military.com reported in December that the Marine Corps was considering merging its infantry specialties -- which include riflemen, reconnaissance Marines, machine gunners, mortarmen, snipers, anti-tank missile gunners and light-armor vehicle Marines -- into a single MOS.
Leaders stressed this week that no decision has been finalized about how the infantry battalion will be organized.
"We'll come out of this [experimentation] with a recommendation to the commandant on what the future will look like," Watson said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the identification of the person quoted.