U.S. Marine Pfc. Nathaniel Haefling carries an M240 medium machine gun during a five-day capstone exercise for the Infantry Marine Course on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, April 30, 2021.

U.S. Marine Pfc. Nathaniel Haefling carries an M240 medium machine gun during a five-day capstone exercise for the Infantry Marine Course on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, April 30, 2021. Sgt. Jeremy Laboy

The Marine Corps Is Redesigning Infantry Battalions for the Future

Recommendations for a nimbler unit organization with fewer grunts and more tech will go to the commandant next year.

The Marine Corps is honing its plans for smaller, tech-heavy infantry battalions through two years of experimentation intended to reveal the best mix of people and capabilities for the distributed operations of the future.

“Nothing of this scale has been attempted in, certainly, decades,” said Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson, the commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate and the vice chief of the Office of Naval Research.

Dubbed Infantry Battalion Experiment Campaign Plan, or IBX30, the three-battalion effort is part of the Corps’ push to reorganize for conflicts with near-peer adversaries by 2030, which the current defense strategy says will require spreading forces across larger battlespaces while fending off new technologies like drones and cyber attacks.

“As we've seen in lots of recent conflicts, the proliferation of long-range weapons and sensors and things like that make it very challenging to survive on the current battlefield if you are a large unit that's operating in—--with large groups of people very close to each other. So you need to be able to disperse and distribute your forces and still achieve effects,” Watson said in an interview.

The current battalion with three rifle companies, a weapons company with crew-served weapons such as machine guns, and a headquarters company is not organized and equipped for future distributed warfare, he said.

A proposed infantry battalion design would eliminate the weapons company and train Marines in rifle companies to use a range of weapons instead of specializing in just one. The idea is that a smaller unit with more weapons training will increase their survivability and mission capabilities as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, Marine Littoral Regiment, or Infantry Regiment.

IBX30 is testing out this proposed redesign with three real infantry battalions, each one trying out the design in a slightly different way. The experiment, overseen by the Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, started late last year and will continue until 2022 when it plans to present recommendations to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger.

“Our recommendation may be one of the three, or more likely it'll be some combination that is different from any of the three, but takes into account what we've learned from experimenting with all three,” said Watson.

The idea for a reshaped infantry battalion goes back to Berger’s 2019 planning guidance, which called for a force that can move from the sea to the land, within range of long-range fires, and fight with more advanced weapons that do not require as many people in a single area.

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From this planning document, a team was established to come up with a design to present to Berger. They proposed that a future battalion should be “lighter, more maneuverable and with enhanced command and control, lethality, sensing, sustainment, and capabilities to operate in the information environment,” a Marine Corps Gazette article said in February. The unit would also have fewer Marines, which will require the battalion to be “better educated, trained, and equipped.”

Berger responded in the Force Design 2030 document published in 2020, saying he fully supported the redesign “in principle,” but called for live-force experimentation of the team’s proposal because he was not convinced it would make the Marine Corps more capable of distributed operations.  

The Marine Corps picked three battalions across three divisions for the experiment: 1st Battalion, 1st Marines; 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines; and 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. The units were picked based upon their status in the training and deployment cycle and the expertise of their senior leaders, Watson said.

“Another reason we want to do this across all three divisions is to make sure we take advantage of the most senior leadership, the most experienced infantrymen, and get an opportunity to collect their feedback. So they'll be an integral part of this assessment process,” Watson said.

Each battalion will test a variation of the proposed design, with differences in how they are organized and equipped in order to compare each unit, Watson said. 1st Battalion, 1st Marines will try a current infantry battalion design with a bit more troops and gear. The battalion is not a “control unit” for the experiment, Watson said, but rather allows the Marine Corps to see what small improvements could be made to the current structure to be able to fight in a distributed environment. This battalion will also be the first one in the experiment to deploy this year.

The 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines is being built to the exact proposed design with 735 Marines and a mix of newer weapons and still-under-development equipment. Getting all the new capabilities and specific Marines for the unit, such as those with backgrounds in electronic warfare, has taken some time, Watson said, but it should be fully built out soon.

The design and capabilities of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines will fall between the two others. The Marines in this unit will receive training on multiple weapons, but not on all of them, keeping some specialization, Watson said.

The three battalions will be prioritized for newer gear as well as experimental equipment, such as armed drones. Watson would not get into specifics about the exact makeup and capabilities of each battalion, citing operational security.

The three battalions will also receive some of the Marines who have gone through a new initial training concept that is also being tested, involving a longer infantry training where Marines are familiarized on more than one weapon. Training infantry Marines to be “multi-disciplinary” in weapons is also part of what the experiment is looking into, Watson said.

“So one Marine, based on the mission and based on the threat, can select the weapon systems that – or one unit can task organize and has the people organic to it who can employ a variety of weapons and sensors to accomplish their mission,” he said.

With so much being asked of these future infantry battalions, the Marine Corps wants to understand how a smaller unit, spread out from their command, can handle more technology and weapons in combat.

“How small is too small, you know. How big do you need to be and how many different systems is too many? So a lot of that is taking a look at human capacity,” Watson said.“Overall the things that look good on paper, don't always work in practice. So that's the benefit of the live-force experimentation.” 

Over the two years of the experiment, the battalions will move through training, pre-deployment, deployment, and post-deployment phases. The battalion-level training and exercises will be modified to include time to train on the new gear and develop methods for operating as a new unit, Watson said. Wargames will be used to test what they are seeing in the units and develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for the future battalions.

“We're embedding more flexibility in this training, so that the new infantry battalions and their leadership can attack it in innovative ways. They can develop their thinking, and again, their tactics, techniques and procedures and problem solve in ways that today's infantry battalion would not be capable of based on their organization and equipment,” he said.

Members of the Warfighting Lab are visiting the battalions to observe them, collect data, and get feedback from senior leaders within the units. Watson will soon gather the battalion commanders to ask what they are seeing and learning and to allow them to speak with one another. So far, he said, people are “pretty enthusiastic” about providing feedback and discussing a wide range of topics regarding the future battalions such as training and distributed operations.

“Everybody's hungry for more capabilities, everybody is interested in getting more of the enhanced capabilities that we're providing. But quite frankly we're a people-centric organization, and we believe this is more, first and foremost, about the development of the individual Marine and the organizational structure, and less about the technology. But both are required,” Watson said.