Since the release of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), much has been written about the need to rethink officer professional military education (PME). As the Marine Corps prepares for the possibility of fighting a peer adversary, it makes sense to prepare its commanders for the dynamic challenges of a modern battlespace. However, the Marine Corps has paid little attention to improving the enlisted ranks through PME. The Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) at least acknowledges the need for better PME and leaders who have a “bias for intelligent action.” But to prepare for a fight against a peer adversary whose capabilities match (and, in some cases, exceed) its own, the Marine Corps must invest in the training and education of enlisted Marines to develop intellectual tactical leaders who can outthink the enemy. As the Commandant’s Planning Guidance guides the Marine Corps’ restructuring to align better with the National Defense Strategy, the service must ensure that the force that emerges is smarter, faster, and better equipped to win in a future fight.
Marines of all ranks need to be capable of operating in the emerging and unfamiliar battlespace. The future operating environment will create challenges that require the Marine Corps to take advantage of everyone’s intellect and ingenuity in finding solutions. The service must not rely on its officers alone to be creative and independent decision-makers.
The current system to develop that creativity and independence is disproportionately skewed toward officers. Twelve percent of Marine Corps personnel are officers, while 88 percent are enlisted. Among enlisted personnel, 46 percent are noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and staff NCOs (SNCOs), from corporals to gunnery sergeants.1 These NCOs are the driving force behind operations and tactical decision-making in the Marine Corps.
Commissioned officers in general enter the Marine Corps with (or while obtaining) a college education, attend various schools that teach them tactical, operational, and strategic warfighting, and often go on to earn advanced degrees at civilian and military institutions during their careers. The release of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCPD) 7, Learning emphasizes the need for education. It specifically states: “Learning is an institutional priority and a professional expectation for all Marines.”2 While Learning speaks extensively about the need to develop a philosophy of lifelong learning, decentralized command, and critical thinking, the current enlisted PME (EPME) system does not support it.
Although Marines attend EPME starting as lance corporals, the quality of the education provided is inadequate to prepare them to be leaders who can outthink, outpace, and outmaneuver their adversaries. Marines treat EPME as a promotion requirement—a check-in-the-box. At present, it is not challenging, and it does not foster a competitive mind-set, innovative thinking, or serious leadership development. The Marine Corps needs to develop an NCO and SNCO corps capable of operating independently to win tomorrow’s fight.
The Lance Corporal Leadership and Ethics Seminar repeats much of what Marines learned in recruit training. Corporals School focuses on traditional Marine Corps topics, such as drill, the promotion system, and land navigation, while superficially teaching irregular warfare, tactical communication, and joint operations. Sergeants School is an inadequate attempt at mirroring civilian schoolwork, while again lightly covering warfighting and joint operations. None of these courses prepares Marines for dynamic leadership challenges, decentralized decision-making, or the modern battlespace.
Career and Advanced School for SNCOs is where enlisted Marines start to learn operationally relevant material; however, the average Marine does not become an SNCO until after 8 to 12 years of service. Many SNCOs will exit the Marine Corps when they reach 20 years of service, just when their knowledge and expertise are most useful in leading Marines. The Marine Corps cannot wait until halfway through a career to invest serious time and resources in developing a Marine.
Between the ranks of lance corporal and gunnery sergeant, Marines attend a total of 22 weeks of resident EPME. Marine captains who attend Expeditionary Warfare School receive 41 weeks of resident PME before they reach ten years of service—not counting the time spent at The Basic School. Marines attending all levels of resident EPME should be learning tactical and leadership skills to prepare them for the next rank.
The Marine Corps needs to approach EPME holistically to improve academics, unit-level training, leadership development, military occupational specialty (MOS) proficiency, warfighting, and joint force interoperability. To do so, it needs to engage with outside resources from academia and industry to supplement Marine instructors in bolstering innovation and creative thinking.
As the world becomes more technologically advanced and interconnected, Marines must be effective at written and verbal communication, employing logic and reasoning, and practicing different forms of leadership. Including academic topics in Sergeants School is a step in the right direction, but simply having Marines write a few short essays and give a couple of presentations during a five-week course is insufficient. If the Marine Corps truly believes in having academically sound Marines, then it must take academic instruction more seriously and start developing these skills earlier, and perhaps outside the Corps.
Using Marine EPME instructors to teach academic topics is inappropriate. The Marine Corps should instead remove the current academic topics from SNCO academies’ courses and have Marines learn them at civilian institutions. The current EPME Distance Education Program also should be replaced with a list of civilian courses to be completed by a set rank. This will reduce the time required at SNCO academies, improve the quality of the academic instruction they receive, and eliminate redundancy between the online and resident EPME curricula.
Local community colleges and online programs are perfect for providing Marines legitimate classroom instruction at no increased cost to the Marine Corps. On average, existing tuition assistance funds would cover six classes or more per year. With the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ new time-in-grade-based promotion requirements, an average Marine will serve a minimum of four years before becoming eligible for promotion to sergeant, and seven years before staff sergeant. Completing college courses during that time will not only make Marines more academically sound, but also prepare them for post-military life.
At a bare minimum, for promotion to sergeant, the Marine Corps should require the completion of general education classes that include oral, written, and interpersonal communication coursework. Marine students also should choose from a list of general education topics such as world history, ethics, and civics. Requiring Marines to complete three to eight college classes in four years is feasible when many colleges and universities offer a mixture of in-person and online courses. Improving skills and building knowledge at the start of careers will not only make Marines academically sound, but also set them up to be better leaders, managers, and communicators.
Moreover, the Marine Corps should require the completion of an associate’s degree before promotion to staff sergeant. Such a requirement would give Marines an incentive to continue their education beyond minimums while developing the intellectual acumen expected of senior enlisted leaders. Building on the classes required for promotion to sergeant and combined with Joint Service Transcript credits, Marines could reasonably complete an associate’s degree in seven years. With the world becoming more technologically advanced and problems becoming more complex, the Marine Corps cannot afford to have uneducated leaders at any rank.
NCOs, SNCOs, and junior officers can teach much of the current EPME curriculum locally, without sending their Marines away to resident programs every couple of years. Units need to employ their coaching, counseling, and mentorship programs to teach drill, fitness reports, MCDP-1, Warfighting, fieldcraft, and other similar topics. Leaders can bring in subject-matter experts from a variety of units to teach skills such as patrolling, tactical communication, and first aid.
Topics covered at SNCO academies should be those that unit-level leadership cannot provide. These academies should possess a cadre of military and civilian experts specializing in leadership development, organizational management, and advanced warfighting. Transferring the responsibility of teaching fundamental knowledge to unit leaders will lessen the time Marines spend away from work, force leaders to take ownership of developing their Marines, and present opportunities to develop a positive feedback loop within the unit.
SNCO academies should be recruiting military, academic, and industry experts in leadership development, organizational management, and advanced warfighting to promote creative thinking and teach best practices. Marines who complete resident EPME should leave with a better understanding of different methodologies in coaching, mentoring, leadership, and organizational management. If the EPME curriculum is to continue including topics such as irregular/asymmetric warfare, joint planning, and expeditionary operations, then SNCO academies need to bring in experts from the special operations community and command staff instead of teaching Marines from doctrinal publications and case studies alone. The academies also should bring in officers with higher-level leadership and educational experience to teach from their perspectives. If NCOs and SNCOs are to support commanders effectively in a peer fight, there needs to be a mutual understanding of expectations, intent, and strategic objectives.
MOS Proficiency and Warfighting
Certain MOSs have a well-defined development structure that increases proficiency over time. New riflemen attend infantry training battalion courses to learn the fundamentals of being an infantryman. When they become NCOs, they will attend the Infantry Squad Leaders Course, then Infantry Unit Leaders Course as an SNCO. They also will have the opportunity to attend various advanced schools to learn skills such as scout sniper, assault climber, joint fire observer, etc., to increase their proficiency and lethality.
For MOSs without an in-depth development structure like the infantry’s, civilian training and certifications can enhance their capabilities. Lean Six Sigma, Project Management Professional, Microsoft Office, supply chain management, and a variety of other certification programs can enable Marines to bring industry best practices back to the Marine Corps. Data, networking, and cyber Marines should be working with civilian experts to learn different techniques in defending friendly networks and exploiting hostile ones. Navy Corpsmen assigned to deployable Marine units should seek out emergency medical technician (EMT) and paramedic certifications to further enhance the capabilities acquired in their A and C schools. Corpsmen are the only enlisted combat medical personnel who do not leave their initial training with an EMT-Basic certification despite training alongside Army and Air Force medics.3 The Credentialing Opportunities Online (COOL) program can finance these initiatives from existing funds.
Joint Force Interoperability
To bring the full might of the U.S. military to bear against future adversaries, the Marine Corps must better integrate itself with its sister services. Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment already demonstrates that working hand-in-hand with the Navy will be crucial for Marines to survive and operate in a contested environment. Marine officers regularly work with their joint service counterparts in planning, resident PME, and personnel exchanges. Enlisted Marines need to be able to do the same.
The Marine Corps should regularly send Marines to attend the other services’ EPME courses. Marine joint tactical air controllers should work regularly with Air Force tactical air control party specialists to exchange best practices. Intelligence Marines should work regularly with their Navy counterparts in targeting, collection, and analysis, not merely attend school together in Dam Neck, Virginia. Marine low-altitude air defense gunners should train alongside Army air-defense artillerymen. There are endless ways for Marines to learn from and train with their counterparts. Creating understanding between services to enable the joint force during peacetime will ensure that cohesion is maintained during a conflict.
The Marine Corps has long neglected the training and education of its enlisted Marines. EPME needs to be holistic in making Marines more lethal, knowledgeable, and independent. The possibility of conflict with technologically advanced adversaries in a distributed, degraded, and denied environment means the stakes are too high not to invest in and leverage the talents, intellect, and abilities of Marines at all levels. The Marine Corps must improve the training and education of its enlisted Marines now to create capable tactical leaders with the skills and wisdom to respond to the evolving challenges facing the nation.
1. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Defense Manpower Requirements Report Fiscal Year 2020 (Arlington, VA: 2019), 96.
2. U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 7—Learning (2020).
3. Jeremy D. Miller, “Certification Tips for U.S. Navy Corpsmen Transitioning to Civilian Workforce,” National Registry Certification for U.S. Navy Corpsmen, National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (2016), www.nremt.org/rwd/public/document/news-military-ems-3-2016.