Lance Cpl. Clinton Bilbrey, a squad leader with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, takes a break after completing a platoon attack on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in 2011. (Cpl. Reece Lodder / Marine Corps)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — The Marine Corps is developing new courses for select noncommissioned officers amid a broader effort to update how it chooses and grooms infantry squad leaders, Marine officials said.
The overhaul will likely include a new Squad Leader Development Program, which Gen. Jim Amos ordered as part of the planning guidance he issued upon becoming the Corps’ 35th commandant in October 2010. Amos called for the service to improve the experience level and training of its maneuver-unit squad leaders. At the same time, the Corps has sought to improve unit cohesion by keeping NCOs and other key leaders in place longer, and equipping them to handle burgeoning leadership challenges such as suicide, sexual assault, hazing and drug use.
Specifically, Amos tasked officials here at Manpower and Reserve Affairs with developing options for assigning trained, second-tour sergeants to squad-leader billets. Pending approval, the recommended course of action calls for a dual-track program in which some first-term Marines would become combat instructors at the School of Infantry upon their re-enlistment, spending about two years teaching basic infantry tactics, techniques and procedures before returning to the operating forces to lead squads as seasoned sergeants.
Other first-term infantrymen would stay in the operating forces upon their re-enlistment, becoming combat instructors at SOI in the second half of their four-year contract, said Ken Knarr, a contractor with II Corps Consultants Inc., which is assisting Quantico’s Training and Education Command with enhancing small-unit decision making.
This approach was recommended in December 2011 by the Ground Board, a panel that includes the Marine Corps’ four division commanders and Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations. The proposal went under additional scrutiny afterward and was recommended again by Tryon last year, Knarr said.
However, in light of the service’s active-duty drawdown, Marine officials are still determining how and when the new program should be implemented, Knarr said. As end strength falls, current plans call for reducing the number of infantry battalions from 27 to 24. However, senior officials have acknowledged further cuts are possible as spending is slashed across the military, meaning the infantry’s size and requirements remain in flux.
In the meantime, the Corps is moving forward with revisions to military occupational specialty-specific courses taught at SOI East and West, replacing the standard resident courses held for riflemen, mortarmen, machine gunners, assaultmen and anti-tank missilemen. These new “advanced” courses focus on skills needed within specific specialties, said Capt. Jason Pollard, an infantry task analyst at TECOM. Leadership lessons that had crept into the curriculum have been shifted back into other professional military education, like the Sergeants Course.
At the same time, the Corps developed a new six-week Infantry Small Unit Leaders Course, commonly known as the ISULC. Pilot programs were launched last spring at SOI-East, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and later at SOI-West, at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Combined, about 60 Marines have gone through three iterations of the new ISULC at Lejeune. An additional 30 have gone through the course at Pendleton, Pollard said. The number is relatively low so far, but Marine officials expect it will climb once the Squad Leader Development Program is approved, providing a steady pipeline of students.
The ISULC is restricted to sergeants and focuses on preparing infantry Marines to lead others in combat.
“Training is based on infantry collective and leader tasks, providing an environment to further develop the combined arms capability, as well as technical and procedural proficiency of small unit leaders,” according to a course description on the TECOM website. “Additionally, infantry sergeants will be trained as squad level trainers able to design, develop and implement training at the individual, fire team and squad level.”
Knarr said the course has proved popular with sergeants so far, in part because it provides ample opportunity for group discussion so the Marines in it can compare and contrast experiences.
“I think they’re getting appreciation that they’re not just replicating what they’ve done in the past,” he said. “They’re getting to some level of understanding for why their unit did what it did and why other units do what they do. I think it expands the experience base through that discussion base of shared experiences.”■