Marine Corps infantry battalions instill a culture of continual improvement. Relentless in the pursuit of excellence, most infantry Marines have little patience for those who do not excel at their profession. This culture eventually drives infantry Marines to look beyond the scope of their own military occupational specialty (MOS) and seek to master other Marine Corps skills as well. Cross-vocational training is as common in an infantry battalion as weapons maintenance.
This is especially true of fire-support Marines who work alongside the infantry. Squad leaders would often ask my artillery Marines to teach the call-for-fire process to their squads and then quiz them on it until they had mastered the skill. Soon after those first few call-for-fire classes, squad leaders and team leaders were teaching their own call-for-fire classes and no longer needed an outside instructor from the artillery community.
Most infantry Marines want to learn every military skill they can. If a job can be done by an infantryman, then the infantryman wants to do that job. Infantrymen do not want to outsource jobs to another MOS. As an artilleryman, I believe Marine Corps fire-support teams are indispensable assets, but the infantry generally does not see it that way. For example, if mortarmen can learn to act as observers for their 81-mm mortar platoons, then they believe they should do so. If a sniper team has a greater capability to insert into an area of operations undetected and is able to observe fires well enough to get the job done, it is understandable why they would be an infantry battalion’s preferred observers.
This mentality is at the heart of the Commandant’s Force Design 2030. General David H. Berger has made it clear he believes in a “multi-disciplinary infantry approach” in which infantry Marines receive more diverse and intensive entry-level training.1 The future infantry battalion model largely does away with job specializations and instead focuses on implementing a jack-of-all-trades approach to training. If the Marine Corps is to “increase [its] up-front, entry-level training investment and then look to make corresponding modifications to advanced infantry training to develop quality, maturity, and capabilities,” it can anticipate a future in which many of the capabilities that currently belong to the entry-level fire-support Marine are marginalized.2
Better Fire-Support Training
The push to broaden the scope of the infantry Marine’s knowledge base, coupled with divesting the majority of the service’s cannon batteries, renders current fire-support skills increasingly irrelevant in the future fight. Newly minted fire-support Marines graduate from a schoolhouse that is still adapting to this new future. Currently, the curriculum of the Fire Support Marine Course (FSMC) at Fort Sill contains basic observation skills, mastery of the basics of call-for-fire, and an addendum naval surface fire-support course.3 While this curriculum creates effective observers for surface-to-surface fires, divesting cannon artillery reduces the value of these skills to the future infantry battalion. The 2030 rifle company does not need another observer for organic mortars. Instead, the value of a fire-support team will be the unique capabilities it brings that the infantry cannot provide. Former U.S. Army Field Artillery School Commandant Brigadier General William Turner in 2014 said it best: “The operational force demands our fire supporters be subject matter experts in the operational art and science of integration and employment of precision and Joint Fires.”4
In more-senior Marines, this expertise comes from joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and joint fires observers (JFOs)—Marines certified to coordinate and deconflict aircraft and surface-to-surface fires. Junior Marines typically will not have an opportunity to develop either of these capabilities until they have completed at least one deployment and a year in the fleet. While there is certainly value in on-the-job learning, Marine Corps fire support should follow the future Marine Corps infantry model and invest more heavily in entry-level training. The 2030 fire-support Marines should leave the schoolhouse with skills that enhance the capabilities of their supported infantry battalions, rather than reinforcing capabilities infantry Marines already possess. This can be accomplished with the following two recommendations:
Lengthen the Fire Support Marine Course. The FSMC should be the same length as the proposed infantry training pipeline to ensure entry-level fire-support Marines are trained and evaluated on those capabilities that belong uniquely to fire supporters, such as precision targeting and aircraft integration. Currently, FSMC is a 10-week course, while the School of Infantry has been increased from 8 to 14 weeks and will eventually become 18. A similar time investment is needed in the fire-support community to ensure Marines have the instruction needed to refine their joint and precision fire-support skills to a level that allows them to succeed in joint fires certification courses. The increased length should be used to diversify and deepen a fire-support Marine’s exposure to core JFO skills and prevailing digital fire-support systems.
Time should be devoted to learning the Precision Strike Suite–Special Operations Forces (PSS-SOF), which allows Marines to mensurate a refined target grid for precision-guided munitions. In addition, Marines should be given training on the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), a system to which they usually receive no exposure before they arrive to the fleet, and the primary tool by which Fire Support Coordination Centers and artillery units process missions and pass necessary battlefield information. Finally, Marines should begin to train to core JFO skills that will allow them to attend and succeed in a JFO course. The goal is Marines certified in each skill when they arrive in the fleet and able to provide an immediate capability to their supported infantry battalions.
Send FSMC graduates immediately to the Joint Fires Observer Course, AFATDS Operator Course, and a Target Mensuration Only Course before they depart Fort Sill. These courses would certify fire-support Marines in essential skills, would produce fire-support Marines better equipped to support Force Design 2030, and should become part of the natural progression of the fire-support entry-level training pipeline. Ideally, a fire-support Marine who arrives in the fleet should be ready to fully support his or her rifle company with skills in joint precision targeting that the infantry battalion cannot organically provide. Currently, fire-support Marines take about a year of on-the-job training to learn core JFO skills. These are the skills and certifications that supported infantry units are looking for in their fire-support teams, and the object of entry-level fires training should be to create Marines with them. The 2030 fire supporter should be fully trained on joint fires integration and familiar with relevant digital fire-support systems.
While ambitious, a significant increase to the length and rigor of fire-support entry-level training is needed. Force Design 2030 makes clear that future infantrymen should be multidomain, multidiscipline warfighters who excel in a wide range of roles. To stay relevant in a rapidly changing Marine Corps, fire supporters must provide a level of expertise in joint fires integration that the infantry cannot source internally.
1. GEN David H. Berger, USMC, Force Design 2030 (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2020), 11.
2. Berger, Force Design 2030, 11.
3. Headquarters Marine Corps, NAVMC 3500.7C Artillery Training and Readiness Manual (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2018), 17–58.
4. BGEN William A. Turner, USA, “Modernizing Fire Support Training,” Fires Bulletin, U.S. Army Field Artillery School, 2014.