WASHINGTON — The Marine of 2030 will be a digital native, born into the age of the Internet of Things and raised with drones, virtual reality goggles and maybe even 3D printers at home — making the commandant of the Marine Corps comfortable they’ll be able to manage a battlefield swirling with information.
Gen. David Berger described the young Marines of today as having borrowed their parents’ smart phones in elementary school but the Marines of tomorrow having their own technology from an even younger age, giving them greater fluency in the information realm.
This will give the service an advantage on a modern battlefield, Berger said at the Modern Day Marine 2022 convention, but only if the Marine Corps properly trains and educates these Marines and finds ways to best harness their interests and skillsets.
“We’re moving beyond the idea that every Marine has one skill, one occupational specialty,” Berger said. “Today’s Marines ... [are] capable of proficiency in more than one skill, more than one weapon system, and to stay in front of our competitors we’re going to need them to.”
In the infantry battalion of 2030, for example, “those Marines are going to be capable of operating the entire range of organic weapons systems in a rifle company — not a single identity as a machine gunner or a mortarman,” Berger continued. “They’ll be able to operate every communications device in the battalion. They’ll be trained as a basic engineer. They’ll have life-saving training. They’ll also probably have small boat coxswain skills.”
These multiple military specialties would be supplemented by areas of interest to the Marines — coding, flying drones, leveraging social media and more.
Berger wrote in his November 2021 Talent Management 2030 document the service must invest in data-driven tools and models to steer recruits to specialties where they can grow their talents, contribute the most to the greater Corps, and find career satisfaction so they continue to reenlist.
All told, having the right Marines with the right professional training and personal interests in the right billets should create a force that can disaggregate into small, dispersed units and still be well prepared to win.
“The experimentation that we’ve done so far in force design indicates that it’s not just possible, it’s necessary,” he said.
Berger described a 2030 infantry battalion that could produce squads or platoons that can manage the whole kill chain themselves — with the expertise on hand to find the enemy, disguise or distort their own signature and position, employ lethal or non-lethal effects, and then move to a safer location — without relying on help from specialized units.
Some critics of Berger’s vision have worried too much will be piled on Marines, or that they’ll lose the proficiency that comes with focusing on a single weapon system.
Berger said the service has conducted nine force-on-force exercises at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., over the past year and a half to validate the new look of the infantry battalion.
Each and every event has proven “small, distributed, lethal teams that can employ organic [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], loitering munitions, and weapons like the Javelin, Carl Gustaf — much more lethal than larger formations that are using traditional force structures and concepts. And it’s not even close: So far, out of the nine, it’s a perfect record of 9-0″ for the revamped infantry battalion.
Berger said giving the Marines in a small unit multiple lethal and non-lethal systems to choose from and the expertise to operate them all on their own is a gamechanger, allowing small units to extend their reach across much larger swaths of area.
In a separate media roundtable on May 5, Berger said he could envision a day when the traditional combined armed training event at Twentynine Palms’ Range 400 might include threats on the range, but Marines seeing and prosecuting their targets from off range, as their reach continues to grow over time.
That these Marines filling the squads and platoons will be digital natives is important, Berger said. He views 21st century combined arms as the effective combination of ISR, precision fires, cyber, information warfare and electronic warfare, he said in his speech — and that needs to be conducted at the lowest tactical level effectively to win a future fight.
“The ability to manage your own electronic signature, locate the threat, detect and exploit their communications, jam their transmissions, interfere with their command and control — it’s always been important in war, but today I would offer they can be decisive. The combatant who can manage the electronic warfare spectrum and executes a tight ISR-to-decision cycle, closed-loop kill chain, really can dictate the tempo of conflict going forward,” the commandant said.
For older Marines, that might feel like having to fight in multiple domains at once. To digital natives, operating in the information and cyber domains is second nature, Berger said.
He said he hopes industry will bring the rapidly evolving power of artificial intelligence and machine learning into play, providing small units the tools to fuse data from their own sensors and the larger operating picture and to give them actionable information.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, who spoke alongside Berger at Modern Day Marine, said the heads-up display on the F-35 pilot helmets is a great example of how technology can help an individual make sense of vast quantities of data, and he said he hoped something comparable could be developed for Marines on the ground.
Additionally, Berger said these Marines will come in feeling comfortable in the information and cyber domains, but the service will have to figure out how to refine their behavior to be appropriate for competition or conflict with an enemy.
“The learning part, the training part, will be educating the squad leader, the platoon commander, on the offensive and defensive aspects of cyber, and a clear understanding of how to manage your signatures and how to try to affect the threat’s ability to get into your network, and what damage it can do,” he said.
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.