For over a decade the U.S. Marine Corps has been seeking to reorganize itself to be less than an elite infantry force that supplant U.S. Army troops. The marines want to be more of a seaborne special operations organization that is capable of handling a wide variety of tasks, from large scale amphibious operations down to squad-size teams operating like U.S. Special Forces A-Teams. Both these units consist of twelve highly-trained and experienced troops. The marines are not seeking to compete with the Special Forces or the British Royal Marine Commandos because the U.S. Marines have to deal with new forms of warfare using new technologies. This is not happening all of a sudden, but components of the new warfare began emerging as the 20th century was ending.
One of the many new concepts this introduces is fundamental change in the composition of the marine squad. A recent reorganization has reduced its size from fourteen to twelve and is happening while the marines are introducing new weapons, gear and technologies. This means the squad must be composed of marines with more training, years of experience and the ability to quickly learn new techs and tactics.
Unlike the army, whose infantry was mainly conscripts, the marines were able to rely on volunteers from 1940 to 1972, including World War Two, the 1950-53 Korean War and the 1964-72 Vietnam War. This included a huge expanding of the marines from a few regiments in 1940 to six division in 1945. Peacetime army conscription ended after the Vietnam War. The marines always sought the few who could learn quickly how to fight and win. That meant that all marines were trained to think like a leader. Some marines had more talent for that and willingness to accept leadership roles despite their youth, as in late teens to early 20s. With that the marines have been successful with E-4 (out of nine enlisted ranks) corporals leading infantry teams (4-5 men) and E-5 sergeants leading squads. The army has long had its teams of conscripts and volunteers led by E-5s and squads by E-6s. Now the marines are going that route because they need more experienced personnel, with a longer list of technical skills, to lead the squads of similar, but less experienced marines. The marines are doing this for the same reason the army Special Forces has A-teams led by an experienced junior officer (an O-3 captain) and composed of even more experienced troops, all NCOs E-6 or higher or warrant officers (sort of super NCOs). The marine squads will not be doing all the things Special Forces teams are trained to do, but they will have to master more skills, and gain some experience using them, than junior (under three years’ service) marines ever have.
This means the marines need to change the composition of the force, going from the current model where 60 percent of marines are new and obliged to serve only four years. The marines only needed half of its new marines to reenlist to maintain the size of the force and provide suitable candidates for new officers and senior (E-5 and up) NCOs. The new model of a force with more marines who have already re-enlisted at least once means the marines will need fewer new recruits each year and a smaller percentage will be allowed to reenlist. The marines have always been more selective and this has paid off in combat. But combat has gone through a lot of fundamental changes since the 1990s and the marines want to make the most of it. The marines also accept that they will have to shrink their force in order to pay for the larger proportion of more experienced, higher-rank marines who get paid more than new recruits.
In 2018 the U.S. Marine Corps went public with its new squad and platoon organization, which is based on its experience so far this century, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new squad was just one of many changes for marine combat units. The new squad has twelve men organized into three fire teams with three men each plus an E-6 sergeant squad leader, an assistant squad leader (E-5 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 it became common for new (and veteran) marines to be familiar with computers, usually while 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 the 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 marines. 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.
Over the last three decades, the military has learned to play the personnel recruiting and retention game by the same rules the civilian world uses. While the snazzy uniform and high morale helps, it's sometimes about money as well. A marine with 20 years-service can retire on half pay, and often get a civilian job paying more than what they made while in uniform. If a marine is getting out partly because of money, then you can keep him if you match the offer. Patriotism also plays a role, but this pitch works better if preceded by some cash. For veteran marines you have to take into account family responsibilities and the need to do whatever can be done to keep veteran marines in the corps.
In 2010, when the marines were again threatened with a sharp reduction in its size, marine commanders responded that they would prefer to be a smaller force, one that concentrates on its main mission; amphibious and other special operations. The marines were unhappy with the way they have been used as an army auxiliary since 2003. The marines consider themselves specialists, while the army are generalists and, for example, carried out more amphibious operations than the marines did during World War II. Because of generations of marine determination, the marines came to comprise a quarter of America's ground combat forces. That's active duty, when you count the much larger army reserve force, the marines were 18 percent of ground combat forces in 2010. The marines never wanted to be just another part of American ground combat forces. The current reorganization is another effort to return to their specialties.