Manpower: The Billion-Dollar Afterthought

By Major Stephen M. McNeil, U.S. Marine Corps

Shift Culture to Recognize Costs

Solving the manpower problem begins with changing the Marine Corps’ organizational culture. Corps leaders must begin by recognizing a Marine’s total value, and cost, to the organization.

Manpower has been relegated to a secondary concern when compared to material readiness. Yet manpower is costlier, consuming the majority of the Marine Corps budget each year. Appropriations for fiscal year 2016 included $14 billion—61 percent of the total budget—dedicated to manpower. Compare this to the $6 billion, or 27 percent, of the Corps budget allocated to operations and maintenance, the 9 percent dedicated to investments—the purchase of new platforms, equipment, and material—and the 3 percent slated for construction, facilities renovation, and military housing.

Given manpower’s high price tag, it is reasonable to expect the majority of Marine forces are prepared to “fight tonight,” and that Marines arrive at operational commands on a time line that supports the full range of predeployment training requirements. This is not the case. Why?

Marine Corps manpower policies and practices are ineffective and inefficient. Leaders at every level strive to improve material readiness and unit tactical proficiency, but when it comes to improving their manpower posture, there is no sense of urgency. The Corps must reframe its concept of readiness to place the same emphasis on the cost of manpower as it does on the cost of equipment. It must adopt a culture of manpower readiness that includes ways to create savings—money that could be redirected to equipment readiness, new combat platforms, and material.

Manpower officers rely on the Marine Corps TOtal Force System to locate marines with unique capabilities, but data gaps make it difficult to identify skill sets. For example, there is no way for system administrators to document emerging capabilities, such as training on the Black Hornet unmanned aircraft system.

Modernize Operating Systems

Cultural change is a starting point. The Marine Corps next must modernize its manpower operating systems. The technology age has arrived, but the Corps’ manpower operating systems have not caught up.1 Some progress has been made in the past decade, but there is room for improvement, particularly in the data entry process.

The Marine Corps Total Force System (MCTFS) is considered the “gold source” for Marine Corps personnel data. Nearly all manpower applications derive their information from MCTFS. MCTFS data is entered through a process called unit diary, which begins with an individual submitting appropriate source documentation, such as a promotion warrant or training certification, to his or her administrative section. The administrative section, in turn, reviews and routes the material to a Marine credentialed to approve diary certification entries. The information ultimately is reflected in an updated MCTFS data record.

This process is disjointed and untimely. More concerning is that there is no system to ensure accuracy. Unless the diary entry concerns a Marine’s pay, it is unlikely an inaccurate entry will be rejected. Should a Marine detect an inaccurate entry in his or her record, the process must be repeated, but few have time to make these corrections. The result is a personnel database that is untimely, inaccurate, and ineffective.

In addition, the Marine Corps emphasizes personnel data metrics that do not adequately capture manpower readiness. Deployment to dwell (D2D) is an example. D2D is a calculation of a unit’s time spent at its home station compared to the number of days deployed in support of global force management requirements. Unfortunately, D2D does not adequately capture the readiness of those in the unit who may have deployed in support of unstructured requirements, such as individual augment billets, or an ad hoc command, such as a special-purpose Marine air-ground task force.

Equally important from an operational standpoint, the MCTFS does not correlate with the Defense Readiness Reporting System-Marine Corps, which establishes policy and ensures compliance of readiness reporting systems and reports Marine Corps readiness to the Joint Staff, Congress, and others. This results in a continuous dissection of manpower readiness based on varying assessments of a Marine’s ability to deploy.

There are easy answers to the problem. Craigslist, a classified-advertising website, for example, has an operating system that is intuitive and requires little to no training for effective employment. Craigslist users can query the database to quickly generate lists of items and services offered within a desired geographic radius. Based on initial results, users can narrow or widen their searches. What could be a complex process is economical and intuitive.

Compare the Craigslist example to the effort a manpower officer would expend to answer a basic question such as “How many field-grade officers currently are deployed in support of individual augment assignments?” The officer would have to generate a custom MCTFS query that includes Marines’ present reporting unit codes, temporary reporting unit codes, geolocation codes, and duty status. This may not sound monumental, but for those operating at the organizational level, such as a division, wing, or Marine expeditionary force headquarters, the task is daunting. This level of effort would not be acceptable in the corporate world. Since 2001, corporations have demanded information be provided in “three clicks or less.”2 A Craigslist-like operating system could be a game-changer for manpower officers.

Another liability of Marine Corps operating systems is that they provide so little information on Marines. Manpower officers rely on MCTFS data to locate Marines with unique capabilities, but gaps in the data entry process make finding these skills a needle-in-the-haystack process. For example, each weapons and tactics instructor exercise requires a cadre of support personnel that includes a motor vehicle operator who is qualified to operate a rough terrain container handler, or Kalmar—a massive vehicle used to transport intermodal containers. Because the licensing program for this, and many other platforms in the Marine Corps inventory, mostly takes place at the unit level and is validated by a page-11 entry in the member’s service record book, there is no means for system administrators to identify and provide this capability.

Foreign security advise-assist capability is another overlooked qualification. Despite the Marine Corps’ participation in the advise-assist mission in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past 15 years, it was not until September 2014 that the Corps developed a means to document this capability.3 In addition, all too often, Marines graduate formal schools only to have their newfound capability go undocumented—particularly if the school is outside the Marine Corps umbrella, as is the case with costly, long-term information operations courses provided by the U.S. Army.

But the most glaring example of the Corps’ inability to document a Marine’s skill set is in emerging capabilities such as unmanned aircraft system (UAS) training. Recently, Marines from 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, the battalion supporting the Commandant’s Sea Dragon 2025 initiative, received contractor training on the Black Hornet, Instant Eye, and Sky Ranger UAS platforms.4 Because MCTFS has no means to articulate a UAS-qualified Marine on these particular platforms (and the currency of that skill), however, this capability seemingly does not exist.

Revamp Leadership Pipeline

The third component in remaking manpower is education. A curriculum that addresses manpower principles and best practices is absent from the professional officer development pipeline, specifically at The Basic School (TBS), Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS), Command and Staff College (CSC), and Commander’s Preparation Program. Without formal education for future company commanders, operations officers, and battalion and squadron commanders on qualitative manpower practices and the ways and means to economize the force, the Marine Corps cannot improve.

This gap has existed for a long time, and it would cost pennies to fix. Manpower and Reserve Affairs is collocated with Marine Corps officer career-level formal schools; everyone learns the basics of staffing during the officer and enlisted assignments branch roadshows; and the Manpower Management Records and Performance Branch provides wave-top instruction on fitness reporting procedures. Other than that, however, the Corps relies on the firsthand knowledge and skill of its staff manpower officers. It is time to raise the bar. The course curricula at TBS, EWS, CSC, and the Commander’s Preparation Program must be modified to include periods of instruction on manpower practices. It is costing too much not to make these updates.

“Recovery in inches” is a phrase that has sprung into use over the past year, suggesting readiness will be recovered incrementally and that creating efficiency takes place over the long haul. By this time next year, the Marine Corps will have spent another $14 billion on manpower. Will there be changes, or will the Corps hope the problem just goes away and instead rely on hardworking staff officers to carry the day? The service is at a turning point. It is time to make difficult but necessary changes to ensure the Marine Corps again can be found equal to every emergency in the future as it has been in the past.

1. Staff, CD&I and MCIA, “ The Future Starts Now: Marine Corps Force 2025 Implementation and Information Warfare Capabilities ” Marine Corps Gazette 101, no. 8 (August 2017).

2. Jeffrey Zeldman, Taking Your Talent to the Web: A Guide for the Transitioning Designer (Indianapolis: New Riders, 2001), 448.

3. “Approval of the Foreign Security Force (FSF) Advisor Free MOS and Process for Experience Track Designation: MarAdmin 472/14,” 23 September 2014, .

4. “Marine Corps Experimentation: The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory,” MCCLL Reports, 10 July 2017, 14–15.

? Major McNeil is studying at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He deployed during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
With manpower accounting for the largest portion of its budget, the Marine Corps could increase readiness by updating its personnel systems and better training its leaders on manpower principles and best practices.


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