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‘Every Marine a rifleman’ still relevant, says sergeant major of the Corps

Just prior to two symposiums on Marine goals and principles, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black spoke to Marine Corps Times about the summits, and how he views the roles of the heart of the Corps – its noncommissioned officers.

During the first week of February Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black held two summits diving into some of the concerns and changes needed for the Marine Corps to prepare for the future fight.

The first summit, titled “Every Marine a Rifleman,” took a particular look at what it means to be a Marine in modern age.

“There is really commonality amongst us in our culture that every Marine is a rifleman,” Black said in an exclusive interview with Marine Corps Times before the summits.

The phrase “every Marine is a rifleman” was coined by Gen. Alfred Gray, the 29th Marine commandant, during his post-Vietnam transformation of the Marine Corps that saw the force take on its expeditionary mission as America’s ready-to-deploy force, able to head to combat on a moment’s notice.

While the expeditionary mission remains, in current commandant Gen. David Berger’s vision of the force, outlined in his planning guidance and Force Design 2030 documents, the main focus of the Corps in a near-peer fight will be about dispersed operations and opening up sea lanes for the Navy. He may also de-emphasize the Marine Corps’ golden calf: the Marine air-ground task force.

Black said that, despite the changes, the phrase every Marine a rifleman is still as relevant today as when Gray first came up with the term.

“This is not to refute, but more so to highlight or validate Gen. Gray’s premise that every Marine is a rifleman first ... valid even in a future operating environment,” Black said.

The top enlisted Marine compared this time to that of Gray’s along with Lt. Gen. John Lejeune, 13th Marine Corps commandant, along with every other interwar period that saw the Marine Corps develop and advance.

“Every interwar period is alike,” Black said, giving an example of how the Marine Corps in the 1980s started to prepare for the battlefield that would result in the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Before the 1990s ever happened we had already had doctrine and joint publication, we were already training the force to operate in military operations, other than war and low intensity conflict,” he said. “That served us very, very well.”

The sergeant major also rejected the idea that the new doctrine would somehow lead to a Marine Corps that had lost its edge or gone soft, noting that Marine Corps culture will always be one that maximizes the war fighting spirit.

The future fight will still require Marines to “first and foremost,” have a “warfighting ethos that we literally locate, close with and destroy our enemy,” Black said.

NCOs in the future fight

The second summit in early February examined the roles of the staff noncommissioned officer for this future fight.

Part of the doctrine backed by Berger emphasizes distributed operations that will see responsibility pushed down to more junior Marines than had happened in the past.

Squads of Marines may end up taking on the responsibility of companies, while platoons take on the responsibilities of battalions during distributed operations, leaving sergeants, staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants making bigger more strategic decisions than in the past.

Black said the current crops of Marine Corps staff noncommissioned officers are more than up to task, but in the pursuit of perfection the Corps needs to do more to prepare these Marines for the task.

“The problem is not that our staff noncommissioned officers are not capable,” Black said. “With some adjustment we can always improve what makes someone better at their job.”

Black said the summit helped develop the specifics on what the Marine Corps will do to provide these Marines will the opportunities they need to develop and improve these skills.

The battlefield the Marine Corps is preparing for will be different than what it is used to in its recent history. It will involve new formations, different weapons and different strategies.

Most importantly it may be the first fight in generations where an enemy can match the U.S. military in technology, weapons and logistics.

Though combat during the Global War on Terror may have exposed Marines to what it means to be combat, the experience on how to fight may not transfer over if the U.S. were ever to go to war with China or Russia.

“None of us, with the exception of a very small few, have any experience on what it means to be in an engagement, or operate like we are right now in competition against a peer threat, that all resides in doctrine,” he added.

Black said Marines will have to rely on doctrine that has been “through the crucible of combat,” to understand what it will take to fight in the next war.

“We constantly update that doctrine, based upon the experiences of the institution,” Black said.

“No matter what happens its always somebodies first time in combat. They may have been led and trained on someone who may also be having their first experience in combat. Traditionally, the Marine Corps is successful.”

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