We Need a Joint Squad Leaders’ School
James Mattis spent most of his career in the infantry and recognized the importance of continually improving and modernizing the ability of ground units in 21st Century combat. As defense secretary, he made improving ground combat units a priority. In doing so, Mattis created something called the Close Combat Lethality Task Force (CCLTF). The CCLTF wasn’t designed to be exclusive to infantry; it was meant to encompass combat engineers, scouts, and special operations forces as well. But modernizing the infantry was at its heart. Mattis is now gone, but the CCLTF lives on. It is attempting to devote three billion dollars to the effort. This essay suggests that at least some of those billions be spent on the creation of a Joint Squad Leaders’ School.
For years, infantry advocates such as retired Army Major General Bob Scales and Bing West - a noted author and former Marine Corps infantry officer - have advocated spending much more effort and resources on the heart of the infantry which is the basic infantry squad - and the heart of the squad is the squad leader. If the leader’s training and education is improved, the performance of the squad as a whole will be advanced exponentially.
Back in the mid-nineties of the last century, when I was Director of the Marine Corps’ embryonic Experimental Unit, Mr. West approached me with the idea of creating a Squad Leaders’ Combat Decision Range using then state of the art training devices to improve the leader’s situational awareness and decision-making skills in a high stress, time constrained environment. He also argued for giving the squad better land navigation and communication technologies such as GPS and cell phones which were then becoming economically feasible to the mass market. Around the same time Major Dave Dilegge was pestering me to start a Small Wars publication which would reprise discussion on counterinsurgency and irregular warfare which had been neglected in the military since the end of the Vietnam War.
When he became Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1996, General Charles Krulak formalized experimentation by creating the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. He wanted to ensure that training - rather than mere technology became part of Marine Corps modernization. In doing so, he created the concept of the “Strategic Corporal” who could operate as effectively and independently at the lower end of the conflict spectrum as in conventional combat.
I like to think that that the work we did in the Lab helped to make our infantry much more lethal and survivable in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we all realized that much more needed to be done in preparing small unit leaders for an increasingly complex operating environment.
As CCLTF Director Joe L’Etoile points out, the creation of a professional cadre of infantry squad leaders in both the Army and Marine Corps remains very much a work in progress. All too often, a sergeant who makes his third stripe at the four-year mark is assigned as a squad leader with very little educational or training background. Non-commissioned officer academies are a start, but they are generalist in nature and are designed to educate leaders in all occupational specialties. They are not a substitute for the increasing specialized skills needed to lead today’s and tomorrow’s infantry squad.
Things today are not a lot better than when I entered an infantry battalion in the early 1970s at the tail end of the Vietnam War. At the Basic School, lieutenants were taught to listen to their more experienced platoon sergeants and squad leaders and learn from them. The reality on the ground was much different. When I took over my first platoon in 1972, my platoon sergeant was a newly promoted E-5 with two years of service who had pinned on his third stripe as a reenlistment incentive. One of those years had been spent as a lifeguard at the base pool. Two of my squad leaders were corporals, and one was the most senior lance corporal in the platoon. I and my fellow platoon commanders became mommy, daddy, teacher, and cheerleader. Things are much better today, but as L’Etoile points out, infantry non-commissioned officers can still stand much more improvement in the way of professional development. The days when the skills required for leading an infantry squad were considered to be gained by osmosis should be long over, but some infantry Military Occupational Specialty sergeants still go through their entire E-5 experience without having served in an infantry billet.
What is needed is a Joint Squad Leader’s School that would train Army and Marine Corps newly selected sergeants to lead infantry squads and weapons platoon sections. Such a course of instruction would be structured similar to the Marine Corps Basic School - which all newly commissioned second lieutenants must attend. Upon graduation, every Marine Corps lieutenant – no matter what his eventual military occupational specialty becomes - has received the basic instruction necessary to allow him to lead an infantry platoon if needed. Those designated for assignment to infantry billets get more advanced training, but pilots and even lawyers, can – and have - commanded infantry formations successfully in a pinch. The course should be a minimum of three months long. Successful service as a squad leader for a minimum of two years should be key to future promotion.
A squad leaders’ school should not only teach basic small unit tactics. It should qualify the students to call in fire support - to include airstrikes - and manage the increasingly challenging technological enhancements available to modern infantry - including ground robotics and the employment of small tactical unmanned aerial systems. In addition, in an era of increasing cyber warfare, student squad leader candidates must be able to operate effectively when the computer screens go dark and GPS fails. Land navigation skills, communications work-arounds (desperation comm), and operating under commander’s intent (mission orders) should be key elements of the curriculum.
The school should be joint because there is goodness in economy of scale and there is no sense in building and maintaining separate facilities for both services. Admittedly, Marine Corps infantry squads vary in organization from Army squads, and the Army has mechanized and light infantry variations. The basic tactics for these differing units should be taught separately by experienced experts from each service, but common core subjects such as weapons training, land navigation, supporting arms use, and communications lend themselves to common instruction.
Like the Marine Corps Basic School, students at a squad leaders’ course should be educated so they can operate two levels up from their present billet. In other words, graduates should be prepared to step into the role of platoon sergeant or platoon commander; this happens frequently in combat and even in peacetime when the unexpected happens. Three months after graduating from the Basic School, I found myself commanding a rifle company. Obviously, I had a lot to learn about the people side of leading a larger organization, but I was confident in my ability to operate tactically and employ supporting arms. To that end, as at the Basic School, students should rotate among all the billets in an infantry platoon from platoon commander to basic rifleman during the course of instruction.
A squad leader should also be taught to do training management of his squad, effectively counsel squad members on their performance, and give competent input on proficiency and conduct marks. A familiarity with the literature of the trade should be encouraged as well. Books such as Rifleman Dodd, Fields of Fire, The Naked and the Dead, Helmet for My Pillow, Battle Leadership, and The Forgotten Soldier pass along valuable lessons - good and bad; they should be read and discussed.
Not everyone can be a modern squad leader, and graduation should not be automatic. Those who lack the physical stamina and mentally agility to be successful in the field should be washed out and sent to less demanding billets. An infantry battalion that does not have at least 80% of its squad leaders as graduates should be declared not combat ready until the personnel system resolves the problem.
If it hasn’t arrived already, the day will soon come when an infantry squad will be able to deliver the firepower and cover the frontages of a Vietnam era company. If squad leaders are not trained and educated to handle that responsibility, they will be as dangerous to themselves and their unit as they are to the enemy.
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