When Sgt. Cameron Brower heads out on his next deployment later this year, he’ll operate in a kind of rifle squad that top Marine leaders see as the future of the Corps’ core unit and a way to bring new technologies and capabilities to bear at the lowest tactical levels of warfighting.

Brower, with 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon, Echo Company, is one squad leader among a couple dozen in the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Battalion Landing Team with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The unit is the first fully manned deploying unit in the Marine Corps at the 15-Marine rifle squad configuration, unveiled in 2018 by last Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller. It adds two Marines, an assistant squad leader and a squad systems operator to the decades-old 13-Marine formation.

The move is an effort to put more capabilities in the squad, which some see as the base of the fight in a future battlefield that may require small numbers of Marines to operate in contested areas with a lot of firepower at their fingertips.

That push is a way to get Marines into the ­near-peer fight against adversaries such as the Russian and Chinese militaries. Top Pentagon officials expect any ­regional or broader conflict to include highly contested areas defended by ­sophisticated weapons suites and units with ways to launch more complicated attacks on exposed U.S. forces.

Experimentation with different squad sizes, gear and weapons began at least three years ago, and recommendations ranged widely as to what changes would happen in a military element that’s remained largely unchanged for at least seven decades.

This float isn’t the first one that Brower has ­experienced.

He spent his first few years in the Corps on an Afghanistan deployment and with the 13th MEU. But this will be his first as a squad leader.

Though the unit just composited in early May, some members had a kind of tryout of the ­15-Marine squad and some of its new technologies during field ­exercises earlier this year.

At the same time, the Corps is changing some training requirements, ­shifting retention strategies and adding hefty bonuses to keep critical corporals and ­sergeants in the squad leader role as they try and transform the infantry.

More Marines, more capabilities

Even in early field exercises, Brower saw an ­immediate difference with two more Marines and the gear his squad carried.

The first was that by having the assistant squad leader at his disposal, the first fire team had better ­leadership and he had more time to focus on the “point of friction.” He could maneuver his fire teams and cover more ground, both physically and intellectually, by delegating fires and other communications work off to his assistant.

Others were fundamental to the fire and maneuver that are the heart of the squad.

“We’re realizing we need to be spread out more,” Brower said. “Dispersion’s a lot better and we’re not losing (command and control) with that dispersion.”

And 15 Marines means two more guns in the fight.

“So that’s a lot of people so there’s always rounds going downrange,” Brower said. “Just the simple ranges, normally where there will be a lull with the guns going off, there hasn’t been a lull. There’s always somebody shooting, lead going downrange.”

And Brower’s boss is seeing some of the advantages already from his battalion level.

Battalion commanding officer Lt. Col. Tom Siverts was himself an enlisted Marine for much of his first decade in the Corps. He served in Desert Shield/Storm and, after commissioning, led Marines in Afghanistan, Iraq and on multiple other MEU deployments.

“The assistant squad leader is a hybrid, somewhere between comms and fires,” Siverts said.

The battalion filled out one platoon per company in the 15-Marine model as the accepted Marines from both the fleet and School of Infantry before compositing with the MEU, Siverts said.

The initial exercises, which included weapons and tactics instruction in March and April, allowed the commander to see the 15-Marine model in action with some of what will be the full kit to complement the new approach.

While the battalion wasn’t at full strength and didn’t have all of the new toys to play with, it did have enough to do platoon on platoon fights and employ a basic tool now at their disposal — a squad level drone.

Brower and his squad systems operator, recently promoted Cpl. Justin Solorio, told Marine Corps Times that during realistic urban training they were able to use the quadcopter in many of their raids, launching it over their combined anti-armor team foes, who they later learned never heard nor saw the small quadcopter drone.

That drone, the Instant Eye, has about a half hour flight time with no payload, Solorio said. Its ranges depend on the terrain, dense brush can affect the signal but open desert allows for greater distances.

Though a payload can cut the flight time in half, that payload is often worth it, Solorio said.

That’s because it includes thermal cameras, which make opposing troops easy to spot.

“It’s so much better using the payload,” Solorio said. “Instead of looking for little things in the trees, we just use thermals.”

And the device controller stores all of the recorded video for playback later and in case the drone is captured or destroyed, no mission information can be recovered by adversaries.

Each squad has a squad systems operator such as Solorio, who will not only run the drone or potentially future unmanned ground systems but also work tactical level counter-improvised explosive device equipment and electronic warfare jamming gear.

Those two options are already a sea change in what Marines from Brower to Siverts have seen on past deployment.

Siverts said in the past there might be a few RQ-11 Raven drones on hand within the battalion. In recent years those have trickled down to the company level and are still one asset in a larger, layered drone approach.

But never before, except in experimentation, has there been a squad level overhead capability. And that is critical in how the battalion hopes to fight.

“The information they can get from that really facilitates maneuver warfare in my mind,” Siverts said.

And that’s to do with what the high-tech can add to the basic tasks of the infantryman.

“Speed can be security,” Siverts said. “If you have the ability to see where the enemy isn’t it allows you to move faster. I just think it contributes to decision-making.”

And it can lead to some unorthodox thinking.

Battalion Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Johnson told Marine Corps Times that the new tech in the hands of younger Marines brings about some new approaches on how to use that tech.

He saw that in a battalion field exercise earlier this year when one squad used the quadcopter as a decoy.

“Rather than flying it right over (opposing force), they flew in the opposite direction from where the attack was going to come,” Johnson said. “Young Marines come up with stuff that will ­surprise you.”

Solorio said another tactic that he and the other drone operators have adopted in urban settings is to land the drone on a rooftop or ledge. Then then can cut the propellers to save batteries and not make noise but still use the cameras to observe the scene.

Along with the squad drones, each of the Marines in the squad will carry the M27 Infantry Automatic ­Rifle, except for one, which will carry the M38, a more highly accurized M27 with an advanced rifle optic.

That gives the squad better range and a designated marksman in the ranks.

At the same time, each squad will have a grenadier with the new M320 grenade launcher, which users have said is more accurate and also takes the front-load problems off of the Marine’s main rifle.

Though they haven’t gotten them yet, Siverts ­expects that the unit will carry the Carl Gustaf 84 mm recoilless rifle.

The wider Marine Corps plan is to have one per squad and that will replace the current ­positioning, which uses a 0351 infantry assault Marine that resides at weapons company in assault sections that are tasked out to the platoons for greater anti-armor firepower.

The unit is also taking the Squad Common Optic and new binocular night vision devices that ­drastically increase clarity and swap the old green tinted view for white phosphorous imaging, ­providing greater depth and clarity on night ops.

The single-button optic is easier to use, Brower said and can last up to 48 hours on a single battery charge.

Beyond the equipment and new positions, the ­Marines in these beefed up squads also are ­seeing more training. Brower is a qualified joint fires ­observer. While that’s not a prerequisite for all squad leaders it is a path being pursued for assistant squad leaders within the new formation.

Siverts and Johnson said they’ve linked up with local artillery trainers to put as many Marines as they can fit into the joint fires primer course. While not the fully certified school, the primer course gets Marines exposed to the concepts and prepared for doing those missions.

And training methodologies for those have advanced. Prep work includes online courses to weed out those who might not pass the full course. Virtual trainers and simulations have come a long way from how Johnson and others in his generation were trained.

The sergeant major recalled during his squad leader course the training included a model jet fighter on a stick that was “flown” over a terrain map and when fake bombs were deployed instructors would drop a marble then mark hits with a cotton ball to practice adjusting fire.

How we got here

The Marine Corps has used a 13-Marine squad model since at least the 1950s with three, ­four-Marine fire teams and a single squad leader.

At first, former Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller, was going to cut the squad from 13 to 12, which he announced at a Marine awards dinner in May 2018.

That decision was rolled out with fanfare that ­included detailed public relations videos explaining the new configuration and how new technologies and shifted positions would make up for the smaller size.

But it came after his own experiments had ­recommended otherwise.

In 2016, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, conducted six months of experimentation with new configurations and gear. At the end a jointly-written article in Marine Corps Gazette recommended much of the equipment shifts and positions ultimately adopted, and a 15-Marine squad.

The 3/5 recommendations included specializing each of the three fire teams in certain areas. First FT would handle demolitions and rockets, second would take care of ground, air and water-based drones and the third team would run counter drone operations.

Those Marines also recommended the M27 for everyone, adding the M320 grenade launcher and the Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle. They also advocated strongly for light miniature attack munitions, or LMAMs.

The LMAM push seems to have gained supporters above the operational ranks.

The current commandant, Gen. David Berger, who at the time was a three-star over Combat Development Command also testified at the time that shoulder-fired counter drone technologies once seen as the squad or platoon-level solution for enemy drones, “have not panned out.”

To fill that gap, LMAMs may be the answer, ­according to another general.

Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant for aviation, testified to Congress in April that small, armed drones to counter other drones could provide new ways to defend forward deployed forces.

To fill that counter drone niche, the Marines rely on the ground based air defense-transformation, or GBAD, the ground/air task-oriented radar, or G/ATOR and light ­Marine air defense integrated system, or LMADIS. But those are used at higher echelons beyond the squad.

The squad configuration that 2/8 will deploy later this year adopts some, but not all of those recommendations. They will have M27s, optics, squad drones, new grenade launchers, and the Gustaf and squad-level jamming for IEDs.

Sources told Marine Corps Times that the original move to 12-Marine squads was a way for the top Marine to find other slots within the Corps for manpower desperately needed in the multidomain warfighting realm, which includes primarily cyber and electronic warfare.

By cutting the rifle squads by one position, Neller would have bought the Corps an extra 648 positions within manpower. At the time, the Corps had 1,100 difficult to fill cyber MOSs.

Neller’s 12-Marine squad lasted only a few months and soon top leadership moved to the 15-Marine model.

That fell in line with the thinking of one of Neller’s predecessors, interviewed by Marine Corps Times in March.

Retired former Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak, who led the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999, said that basic structure of the squad was sound, though adding one or two Marines could help. How do that wasn’t up for debate, in his mind.

“I am a firm believer that if you’re going to make a cut, you don’t salami slice the combat arms. If you’re going to make cuts, make a dramatic cut, cut a battalion, cut a regiment, cut an air squadron or group. Do that if you need the people,” Krulak said. “But, for goodness sake don’t just say okay we are going to slice a little bit out of everything.”

The Marines are a bit of an outlier in their formations. Infantry studies conducted shortly after World War II and in the early 1960s put nine troops in a squad as the ideal for command and control. Larger formations were deemed unwieldy and smaller units were too easily rendered combat ineffective through just a few casualties.

And neither the current 13-Marine nor evolving 15-Marine squad is what either other services or adversaries use.

The U.S. Army, for instance, uses a nine-soldier squad model. But that’s primarily because the ­formations of the Army operate more at the platoon or company level when mounting massed forces.

The Corps is expeditionary by nature so is overall smaller but has deeper wells of manpower within smaller, core formations such as the fire team and squad.

Adversaries such as Iran use an even larger formation, sporting 16-soldier squads with a squad leader, sniper, two-soldier rocket team, three, four-soldier fire teams all with automatic rifles, according to an article titled “Infantry Building Blocks,” published in the May-June 2018 issue of Military Review.

The same article described China’s dismounted infantry squads as nine to 10-soldier formations with a squad leader and three, three-soldier cells, largely devoted to anti-armor missions.

Russia has a different configuration entirely, centering even their “dismounted” squads around the use of either a BMP infantry fighting vehicle, which is tracked, or a BTR wheeled armored personnel carrier, according to “The Russian Way of War,” published by the U.S. Army University Press in 2016.

Those squads have six members, a squad leader with a senior rifleman, rifleman, machine gunner, grenadier and assistant grenadier, according to the publication.

Challenges and opportunities

What 2/8 finds on its upcoming deployment, set to leave at an undisclosed date later this year, will likely feed back into how the rest of the Corps evolves the squad both through personnel and technology.

Meantime, the Corps has a whole is prioritizing the squad in a way it never has before with new training approaches and cash.

Some of that comes from a recognition of the sacrifice and value of the infantry and other close combat units such as scouts and engineers that’s seeing a renaissance in both the Army and the Marine Corps.

And while commandants such as Neller and Berger are themselves from the ground combat forces, the top Marine doesn’t always get the full say in funding.

That’s been helped, to a degree, by the Close Combat Lethality Task Force. The task force was established by former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, himself a career infantry Marine.

The task force has helped redirect funding into better weapons, optics, body armor and training to the infantry and close combat formations in both services. It has also begun an extensive review of training modalities, recruiting and retention to form a “Close Combat 100,000” priority for projects that affect the ground combat element.

But with the good news for grunts comes other challenges.

Data obtained by Marine Corps Times showed that the Army is short by 5,000 soldiers for junior ­infantrymen, meaning its current manning levels for infantry at that rank range is at 79 percent.

To close that gap, the Army put out a $40,000 bonus for new recruits and up to $72,000 for soldiers who reclassify into infantry.

Trending low completion rates by Marines to ­become certified MOS-carrying 0365 squad leaders has pushed the Corps last year to throw a $30,000 bonus for 36-48 month contracts and a potential $40,000 kicker for the 72-month lateral move, totaling a possible $70,000 for Marine squad leaders.

Just completing the rifle squad leader course and agreeing to stay on with an infantry battalion for two years garnered a $10,000 bonus.

But that wasn’t enough.

The Marines dished out a $57,000 bonus, starting in July for 0365s to re-enlist.

While the deploying forces are bringing a fresh way of fighting the rifle squad that hasn’t seen dramatic changes since before the Vietnam War, finding the right Marines who can do the job and will stay in it remains a challenge.

Illustrations by Jacqueline Belker/Staff