Professional Note: Upgun Marine Company Commanders

By Gil Barndollar

Distributed Operations

DO was put into practice, albeit imperfectly, in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Army and Marine platoons controlled what would have been company areas of operation (AOs) in previous wars, and companies controlled what would have been battalion AOs. Many junior officers and NCOs experienced a level of responsibility and autonomy that hearkened back to the days of the Banana Wars in Central America in the early 20th century.

Doctrine followed tactical realities, and in 2008 Marine Commandant General James Conway signed A Concept for Enhanced Company Operations (ECO). This document stated the new reality plainly: “Conventional wisdom tells us that the battalion is the smallest tactical formation capable of sustained independent operations; current operations tell us it is the company.” The Marine Corps’ capstone concept, Expeditionary Force 21 (EF 21), echoed ECO in calling for company landing teams (CLTs) that can “provide a means to engage forward in more locations and respond to crises.” 3 Disaggregated CLTs not only would provide more offensive options; as smaller formations they also would be less easily targeted and thus more survivable. Just as the Marine Corps is a middleweight force—situated between the extremes of small special operations force (SOF) teams and the big mechanized fist of the Army—the company landing team might now be its center of gravity.

DO and ECO have brought new doctrine and new gear. 5 But along the way Marines seem to have forgotten Colonel John Boyd’s dictum of “People, ideas, hardware – in that order!” Netted iridium radios and Switchblade UAVs are all well and good, and so is the doctrine to employ them. But those tools and processes are built on a weak foundation if we do not ensure that the Marines who wield them are as rigorously selected and highly trained as possible. To realize the vision of ECO and EF 21, enhanced companies need enhanced company commanders.

The Problem

The responsibilities of Marine company commanders never have been higher. The days of a company command post being three Marines under a poncho with a map and a red lens flashlight are long gone. A company commander in combat can now expect to fight and sustain three or four subordinate platoons, employ numerous potential attachments, run a combat operations center (COC) and company-level intelligence cell (CLIC), supervise information operations and a variety of non-kinetic stabilization tasks, coordinate with a host of potential U.S. and allied entities and units, and potentially clear the company’s own fires. The new Marine Infantry Company Operations Publication (MCWP 3.11-1) sums this up: “The traditional infantry company was staffed and equipped to function only at the highest levels of violence and only within a narrow parameter of employment. The infantry company must now be able to operate simultaneously at varying levels of violence across all the phases of joint operations.”

Company commanders’ training, education, and experience has not kept pace with this massive increase in responsibilities. Infantry company commanders have traditionally been captains, usually officers with about seven to nine years of service. 7 They have led platoons and likely been company executive officers for a spell. They have deployed once in an infantry battalion, maybe twice. Prior to assuming company command, Marine company commanders have executed a three-year supporting establishment tour (a so-called “B billet”) where the odds are good that they have been removed from the infantry. Their professional military education as captains likely has been largely online, with the lack of mentorship and rigor inherent in that model. And as the years since Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom begin to stack up, they most likely have not served in combat. 

The Solution

Are captains prepared to lead company landing teams the minute they take the guidon at Pendleton or Lejeune? Perhaps. But they are nowhere near as well prepared to fight and lead rifle companies as infantry majors would be. Our hypothetical major company commanders have served for at least 12 years. They have spent nearly all of their lieutenant time—three years in the fleet—as platoon commanders.They have run more live-fire ranges than they can count, and trained with allied forces on three continents. They have become supremely confident mentors and leaders because they have spent most of a decade mentoring, leading, and learning. They have learned the hard way, by experience.

After “B” billets in the support establishment, our majors have served as company executive officers as captains. The time in those billets gave them mastery of logistics, fires, and administration, in every clime and place. After second B billet tours and in-resident schools, they have returned to infantry battalions as masters of their trade. They have a clear vision for what they want their companies to be and what they want them to do. And more importantly, they understand how to make their visions reality. Is there any question that “iron majors” are better prepared for the new realities and responsibilities of company command than captains? 

I am not the first to make this argument. Colonel David Hackworth, U.S. Army—one of the most decorated soldiers in American history—advocated for majors as company commanders more than 25 years ago in an article in Infantry magazine. The infantry company commander, wrote Hackworth, is “the key combat player” and “the most important commander in the chain of command.” Hackworth’s words are even more true today. He noted General George Patton’s comment that “an officer is not worth a pinch of salt until he has had a minimum of ten years commanding troops.” Hackworth referenced the British company commanders who led their hastily deployed men through hard fighting to retake the Falkland Islands in 1982, winning “against odds that a Las Vegas gambler wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole.” These men were hardened and highly experienced soldiers. The company commanders of the Parachute Regiment’s 2nd Battalion averaged 36 years old, with 16-years time in service and ample foreign deployments. “All had wide experience leading, fighting, and training. All were true mentors for their platoon commanders.” 8 All had easily hit Malcolm Gladwell’s famed “10,000 hours” as infantrymen and as leaders of men.

Colonel Hackworth made two other points in 1990 that ring especially true today. Major company commanders will be only one rank behind their battalion commanders. “Consequently, he will have the experience and confidence to defend his point of view.” 9 When a Marine battalion commander needs to send a company landing team 100 miles from friendly support, and rely on the judgment and skill of its commander, a major is more likely to have earned that trust than a captain. More experienced and senior company commanders will enable the decentralization and mission tactics upon which a maneuver warfare culture depends.

Colonel Hackworth was even more prescient in foreseeing our current dire financial straits as a nation and a military. He wrote that, “As the defense dollar is reduced, the importance of putting absolute professionals in command of the Army’s infantry companies becomes even more critical. In the future, fewer training and maintenance funds will be available, and the seasoned skipper will be better equipped to jump over that hurdle. His experience will allow him to train his command effectively and inexpensively in the local training areas, while continuing to make the training exciting and adventurous.” 10

Marine Majors Should Lead

The question is not whether Marine captains have succeeded as company commanders during the past 15 years of combat operations. They usually have. But the Marine Corps should be cautious about relying on past success as it looks to the future. It cannot count on the mediocre tactical opposition Marines generally faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The technological edge that has sustained U.S. battlefield success for the last half-century is eroding, with the evidence staring Marines in the face from the Donbass to the South China Sea. The hybrid warfare and distributed operations Marine infantry companies likely are to face in the 21st century’s urban littorals will be extremely demanding. The Corps owes its infantrymen the most experienced and best trained company commanders it can provide them, despite the initial strain this will put on manpower models. If company landing teams are to become the nation’s force of choice for crisis response and maneuver ashore, they should be led by the best officers for the job: Marine majors.

1. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, speech at the U.S. Military Academy, 25 February 2011, .

2. U.S. Marine Corps, “A Concept for Enhanced Company Operations” (Washington, D.C., 2008), cover page.

3. U.S. Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21 (Washington, D.C., 2014), 14.

4. Expeditionary Force 21, p. 32 EF21 was followed by the Marine Corps Operating Concept in September 2016.

5. See the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned AARs on the Infantry Officer Course’s Talon Reach exercises.

6. U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-11.1, Infantry Company Operations (Washington, D.C., 2014), 1-3.

7. U.S. Army counterparts are even worse off, with sometimes less than six years of service upon assuming company command.

8. Colonel David H. Hackworth, “Infantry’s Top Gun,” Infantry , July-August 1990, 10.

9. Ibid., 11.

10. Ibid., 10.

Mr. Barndollar served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016. He deployed twice to Afghanistan, and to the Republic of Georgia, Guantanamo Bay, and Bahrain. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge.



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