Infantry: Marines Watch, Learn And Change


June 9, 2018: The U.S. Marine Corps has announced a new squad and platoon organization, based on its experience so far this century, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actually the new squad was just one of many changes for marine combat units. The new squad will have twelve men organized into three fire teams with three men each led by a squad leader (sergeant). There will also be an assistant squad leader (corporal) and a squad systems operator. Everyone will be armed with the new M27 IAR (Infantry Automatic Rifle). Each squad will have a quad-copter UAV (based on commercial models many marines are quite familiar with off duty.) The systems operator will usually handle the UAV, although all marines in the squad who have quad-copter experience will be identified so there will also be additional operators available. The systems operator also handles the new digital radios that can also communicate with marine air support (helicopters or fighter-bombers). The systems operator is trained to deal with all the electronics in the squad, as well as apps used on smartphones or laptops.

The “system operator” recognizes a trend developing since the 1990s as more new (and veteran) marines became familiar with computers off-duty. After 2001 it was noticed, in a combat zone, how numerous and useful these tech-savvy marines were. That tech capability grew with the growth of the Internet and appearance of more electronic devices. Even before the “systems operator” position was established marine commanders found it useful to identify the tech heads in their unit and put them to work as needed. In the last decade marine units, especially the infantry squad has acquired (officially and unofficially) a lot more electronics like night vision, electronic scopes, GPS and laser rangefinder devices.

The “systems operator” had already become an informal position throughout the marine battalion and now that work has been formally recognized and additional (and standardized) training is provided for those designated as geek specialists. In addition to the squad systems operator, each platoon will have a UAV specialist and each marine infantry company will have a five-man counter-UAV team. Each marine battalion will have a three-man team to handle “information warfare capabilities. Each marine company will now have a ground controller for air support. Previously there was one less ground controller per battalion and one infantry was always without one.

For a long time, the marines used a four-man fire team in the squad, including one light machine-gun (since the 1980s the M249). One reason for getting the M27 was to replace the aging M249s with a better weapon. The M27 was the result of five years of research and development to create a weapon that could replace the M249, which had generated a lot of complaints Iraq (jams from all the dust and sand). Finally, many of the marine M249s are simply wearing out.

The marines were originally looking for an IAR (Infantry Automatic Rifle) that weighed between 4.8 kg (10.5 pounds) and 5.7 kg (12.5 pounds) empty, used a large magazine (100 rounds or more) as well as the standard M-16 30 round magazine. The heavy barrel on the IAR had to be able to handle the sustained fire of 36-75 single shots a minute. The higher number was the ideal. It had to have the standard rail on top for mounting accessories, be resistant to jamming from dust and sand and, in general, be a lot better than the M249.

The M27 is a 3.6 kg (7.9 pound, empty) automatic weapon based on the German HK416. It has a forward grip, a bipod and heavier barrel and can use a 30 or 100 round magazine. Unlike the M249, it does not have an easily replaceable barrel, but it is more accurate and has a slower rate of fire (560-640 rounds per minute). The M27 uses a mechanical system that is less likely to jam, as well as a floating barrel (for better accuracy.) Marines found they could use fewer rounds of more accurate fire with the M27 than they did with the M249. The M27 can use larger magazines but required a skilled and discipline user to prevent barrel overheating. In other words, you only go full automatic if it is really necessary. With modern sights and other accessories, it is easier to do that, especially 5.56mm weapon that is actually more accurate at longer ranges than the M4 or M249.

Initially, the Marines bought 4,200 M27s in 2009 as light machine-guns to replace the M249s. Battalions were allowed to retain some of the M249s, to give the battalion some options. The Marines withdrew from service about 20 percent of their 10,000 M249s once all 4,200 M27s were delivered. Marines and infantry, in general, have always preferred having more automatic weapons. Having some additional light machine-guns (like the M249) in reserve and available for emergency situations has been a marine custom since World War II.

The M27s began entering regular service in 2011 and as more were used in combat it became apparent that the IAR was very effective and popular with its users. In late 2016 the marines experimented with equipping all the riflemen in a battalion with M27s for large scale training exercises and were impressed by the results. That, plus the excellent combat record, led to the willingness to spend over $30 million to buy a lot more. The M27 costs $1,300 each compared to $750 for the standard M4 assault rifle, a variant of the M16 used by the army and marines since the 1960s.

One M27 per squad is equipped with a more powerful scope and a suppressor (to hide flash and reduce sound) and used by the squad sharpshooter. His M27 is called the M38 Designated Marksmanship Rifle. The designated sharpshooter is an old custom, dating back centuries. For a long time it was an informal position but eventually, the “designated sharpshooter” got a scope, official recognition and special training.

The new marine squad has a lot more firepower, with every marine armed with an M27. While some marines were not sure the smaller fire team would be as effective in combat as the four-man standard, provision was made to deal with this in combat. The new marine squad officially contains fifteen men (four-man fire teams) but in peacetime, the fourth man is not provided. If need be the marines are ready to switch back to four-man fire teams if combat experience shows it is necessary.

The marine are adding a lot of new weapons and equipment to the marine battalion. The marines are phasing out the TOW ATGM (anti-tank guided missiles) and increasing the number of Javelin ATGMs. New 81mm mortars feature longer range and more effective ammunition. The portable MAAWS (Carl Gustav recoilless rifle) replaces the 1980s era SMAW. The marines are making more “dune buggies” like the MRZR4 all-terrain vehicles. These weigh 1.5 tons (loaded with nearly 700 kg of fuel, passengers, and cargo). It is a 4x4 vehicle that is 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) long and has no doors, four seats, and a steel framework on top which is usually left open for maximum visibility. The vehicle is optimized for cross country operations and also has an 88 horsepower engine. Fuel capacity is 7.25 gallons (27.4 liters) and range depends on what sort of terrain is being crossed. Marines saw SOCOM using these in Afghanistan and were impressed enough to order some for marine units. The MAZR4 proved very useful to marine units that got them and word got around.


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