WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps needs a different kind of Marine to succeed in a future fight: older and more cognitively mature, cross-trained to juggle a variety of roles and missions, tech-savvy.
And the service plans to cultivate a corps full of these types of warriors with the help of artificial intelligence and data analytics tools.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger released a Talent Management 2030 report Wednesday that outlines new ideas on staffing the service to better meet the needs of the next decade.
“Our ability to fight and win on future battlefields demands a personnel system that can recruit, develop, and retain a corps of Marines that is more intelligent, physically fit, cognitively mature, and experienced,” the report says. “We need a system that can identify each Marine’s talents, help them develop those talents into skills and aptitudes, and assign them to billets and duties where they can apply their strengths to best support their unit’s mission.”
“Without fundamental change to our personnel system, executed at speed, we risk undermining the larger goals of Force Design 2030,” it adds.
Gone are the days of bringing in 36,000 new Marines every year and then letting three-quarters of them go at the end of their first term, Berger told reporters in an interview at the Pentagon. The service wants to bring in a smaller number of new Marines each year, focusing on those who show promise in performing under pressure and mastering multiple specialties.
Once the service has invested in training those Marines, the emphasis would shift to retaining more of the high-performers, allowing the Marine Corps to grow older and more experienced in the coming years and creating units at the tactical level that can handle more complex work.
For Berger, his vision for future operations is clear: small units will be spread across operating areas like the South China Sea, taking on an outsized role in sensing the maritime environment around them and reporting back to headquarters to build a larger operating picture. These small units will be tasked with everything from setting up expeditionary refueling and rearming stations to reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance to launching anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons.
Berger was blunt that today’s force is not up to the task.
“We’re going to have to ask of Marines more going forward if they’re going to win in a crisis, in a competition, in a conflict, than we had to in the past,” he told reporters. “By that, I mean we’re going to be operating more distributed.”
“That means every person has to have multiple skills; every person has to be able to make decisions in lieu of regular communications,” Berger added. “Each one of us, he’s got to be a medical person and a machine gunner and two other things because we’re not going to have the latitude to plug and play people at will. This is a different environment we’re going to have to operate in; it takes a more mature force to do that. We can’t have a force full of 18- to 20-year-olds.”
This runs counter to today’s manpower model, which “was built to produce a first-term force. It was built to build a young, resilient, physically tough, replaceable force. Not all that highly skilled,” he said. “I think it’s worked for us — it will not work for us going forward.”
Developing Marines for Force Design 2030
Shortly after taking over as commandant in July 2019, Berger released his Force Design 2030 plans for modernizing the force. In support of those plans, the Marine Corps has set out on several technology acquisition efforts: a light amphibious warship, a long-range unmanned surface vessel, an anti-ship missile launched from an unmanned ground vehicle, a slew of solutions to improve secure communications across great distances, offensive and defensive systems in the electromagnetic spectrum and more.
Berger said none of that will work if the service doesn’t have the right people to use them.
“I needed to focus on [Force Design 2030] for the past two years,” he said. Now, “I have to shift to the human being part and the training part. Our logic is, if you don’t fix those two, and especially the human part, it doesn’t matter what the design of the future force” is.
Some Marines will still come into the service the way they always have, through recruiters they’ve met at high schools and colleges. A smaller number will be brought in that way, Berger said, and those that do will go through additional screening beyond the usual fitness test and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test that helps determine potential occupational specialties.
The Marines who will be accepted will be “not just more technically savvy or technically capable, but the kind of person who can be trained in multiple skillsets and one or two languages,” he said, noting the Corps now has tools to assess someone’s potential to pick up multiple skillsets.
Those assessments and screenings, coupled with advances in data analytics and artificial intelligence, will help the Marine Corps determine which applicants can best fill a smaller number of spots for new Marines.
On the other hand, there will be more opportunities to come into the Marine Corps at an older age, after perhaps working in the civilian world. Today, a highly trained cyber expert would still have to enlist as a private or be commissioned as a second lieutenant if they wanted to join the Marine Corps. Berger said the Marine Corps must create better opportunities to laterally bring in talent from industry, government and academia and put them at mid-grade levels that acknowledge their experience and training.
Ultimately, he said, in a fight against China, “my assumption is, we will not have a technological advantage. We will not have a numerical advantage. And it will be an away game for us. We’re on the short end of all three. What we will have, what we need, is the intellectual edge.”
How big data and AI will enable changes
The report notes “the Marine Corps is awash in personnel data, yet does very little to analyze the data we do collect in meaningful ways. When it comes to data analytics, we have barely scratched the surface of the possible.”
Starting in 2022, that will change.
On the recruiting side, the report notes about one in five new Marines doesn’t complete their first enlistment, indicating screening deficiencies.
“Employing analytical tools and using data already collected during the recruiting process, we have been able to identify characteristics most indicative of non-EAS (end of active service) attrition,” the report says. “With this data, we can now forecast, with a higher degree of accuracy, which Marines are more likely to leave active duty before the end of their first enlistment. The implications are clear and powerful: employing better analytics can improve recruiting and conserve service resources.”
“In 2022, we will adopt additional assessment tools to more thoroughly evaluate our applicants, seeking to better place these recruits in career fields where they will provide the most benefit to the Corps while achieving personal and professional success, and at the same time, identifying those who are unlikely to complete their first enlistments.”
The report notes the ASVAB isn’t sufficient to provide data about a recruit’s potential strengths and fitness for duty. The psychological evaluation, similar to the special forces’ screening process, “can be completed affordably and with minimal impacts to an applicant’s timeline for enlistment” but will yield significantly better data.
Additionally, “we will retool how we assign our enlisted recruits to military occupational specialties.”
“Today’s process is mostly arbitrary, with MOS assignments being driven by recruit shipping dates (i.e., recruits are assigned career fields based on what MOS slots need to be filled in a particular time period),” the report says. “We need a new, data-driven model that assigns recruits to specialties where they can develop their talents, best contribute to the success of their units, find career satisfaction, and re-enlist.”
Berger notes in the report this will be made possible by investments in AI and machine learning tools.
“[E]nabling the change we seek will require shedding or upgrading antiquated human resource (HR) data systems and investing in information age tools and processes consistent with industry standards,” the report says. “At the same time, we must refine standard administrative processes with the aim of simplifying and digitizing, empowering the digital natives who make up the vast majority of our Corps.”
AI won’t only help the Marines recruit the best talent, it is meant to aid in promotion and selection boards as well.
“There are still too many aspects of the board process that are analog, human dependent, and prone to error — all challenges that can be mitigated with technology,” the report says.
Paying for the plan
When Berger announced his Force Design 2030 plans, he said the Marine Corps needed to divest old systems to free up funds for new ones, since he assumed there wouldn’t be extra money to pay for overhauling the force.
His views on the talent management system are roughly similar: there will be some new costs intended to be covered by savings elsewhere, though he admits he’s not sure yet whether the service will see a net savings or if the additional costs may mean it fields a smaller force.
“We haven’t figured it all out yet,” Berger said. “Our premise is we can’t afford not to do this. Whether it comes out plus in the black or the red, we don’t know yet.”
The Marine Corps would spend more money on higher salaries for higher-ranked Marines. It would spend more money on bonuses and benefits to entice qualified Marines to stick around. It would have to pay for digitized personnel systems and the AI tools and decision aids. However, it would spend less on personnel who process new recruit applications, if it were bringing in fewer Marines and screening fewer candidates.
Less clear are the costs associated with on- and off-duty mishaps and disciplinary issues. “Marine Corps safety data [indicates] our youngest Marines are responsible for a disproportionate share of the total costs to the service as a result of mishaps, both on- and off-duty,” the report says. “Our youngest Marines are also responsible for a disproportionate share of misconduct across the force.”
Berger said the service has not calculated the predicted savings compared to the new costs associated with this talent management plan.
But he stressed that he’d be open to a reduction in end-strength as a result.
“We’re building the structure that we believe has the maturity, the experience, the reps to make decisions, to handle the tough elements of really fighting distributed that we’re going to ask them to do,” he said. “If that ends up being a smaller force, we have to go with quality.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.