Marine Companies Win Praise, But Also More Responsibility

By Kimberly Johnson
The Marine Corps is shifting more authority to its company commanders to reflect the influential role that young officers have played in recent wars.

Commandant Gen. James Conway recently signed off on new guidelines for “enhanced company operations,” which formally recognize that smaller units are taking over much of the responsibility that previously fell on larger organizations.

“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,” Conway wrote in the document that outlines the service’s vision for enhanced company operations.

The blueprint is expected to shape future training and equipping, particularly for counterinsurgency operations.

The company — made up of three platoons — is the lowest level of command with a headquarters element. Three companies form a battalion.

Combat lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan show that Marine captains who commanded companies have had a dominant role on the battlefield and acquired increased responsibilities over large areas, Conway said.

The expanded duties of company commanders, however, have not been matched by the Corps’ war-fighting doctrine, training or allocation of resources. That is why Marine officials consider the new concept for enhanced company operations a significant milestone.

“The implications are serious,” the concept document said. “The reality is that a great deal of work is needed to prepare the company commander for success in this ever expanding role.”

One of the priorities is to improve the company’s access to battlefield intelligence. That is critical, said the document, because company commanders “must be able to adjust on the fly” in response to rapidly changing conditions. These commanders also need visibility of the weapons available in the combat zone so they can better coordinate fires. “Air-delivered fires must be accessible by leaders at all levels,” even down to the squad level, the document said.

Company commanders also need capabilities to create their own localized information operation campaigns, and be able to tap into command-and-control networks that typically are accessible only to battalions or regiments.

“We’re asking captains and lieutenants to do today what we asked lieutenant colonels and colonels to do 20 years ago,” said Vince Goulding, director of the experimental division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory at Quantico, Va. “It’s our collective responsibility to ensure they’re trained and equipped to do it.”

Because so few Marines will be responsible for large swaths of terrain, it is important that they understand the environment, he said as he pointed at two maps on his office wall.

“Why do I have maps of Antietam and Iwo Jima in here? If you put that map on top of that map, they’re identical in size and shape,” he said. “In 1862, we put 100,000 Americans on Antietam ... In Iwo Jima, we put 65,000 Marines.... Today on a battlefield three miles by five miles, that would be a rifle company doing what three divisions did in 1945.

“You can’t do maneuver warfare unless you have intelligence-based operations,” Goulding said.
Traditionally, intelligence trickles down to the company from higher command. But in counterinsurgency fights it’s often a rush to beat the clock. A company commander can’t wait to get intelligence from regiment or battalion, Goulding explained. “Things happen too fast on this battlefield.”

Besides, the best tactical intelligence comes from the patrolling Marines who are “out there kicking rocks,” he said.

One complicating factor in the Corps’ plan for company-based operations is a shortage of intelligence officers, who are often poached from military service for more lucrative positions in the private sector.

Earlier this year the Corps created company-level intelligence cells that standardize the training, manning and equipping needed for intelligence collection and dissemination, said Maj. Thomas Browne, the company-level operations project officer at the Warfighting Lab.

“It was designed for the current fight, but this model has applicability beyond,” Browne said.

 “Pushing intelligence down to the company levels, that’s something we will probably be doing for a long time,” he said.

Standardization is key to the success of this project, Goulding said. Before, units were collecting and processing intelligence on their own using ad hoc methods, which meant months of collected data could be completely lost during changeover between units.

“If you standardize the training and equipment, then it becomes much easier for those companies to coordinate,” Goulding said.

A battalion commander must cherry pick 28 of his best and brightest Marines for the training, which essentially takes them away from their infantry roles during the combat deployment. They return to their companies after the specialized training.

Marines are selected for the assignment based on their ability to work independently with little guidance, and for their computer skills. Selection of quality Marines for the job is essential, said Capt. Mark Schaefer, intelligence officer for Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines — the first battalion to use the standardized intelligence cell concept during its recent deployment in Iraq.

In a counterinsurgency fight, “effective intelligence operations are more important than massing combat firepower,” Schaefer said.

Introduction of company-level intelligence cells made a dramatic difference for the battalion in Iraq by improving situational awareness and reducing the turnaround time for processing intelligence, Schaefer said upon his return from Iraq in late September.

The intelligence cells enhance “analytical power,” Schaefer said. It also provides the company commander a centralized source of data. They are kept close to the company command post because the analytical power can be lost if they’re physically separated, he said.

Cells focus on their specific company area of operations, Schaefer said. “The concept is very effective … If used and managed properly it can multiply combat power for infantry battalions,” he said. “This especially holds true in a counterinsurgency fight where the center of gravity lies within a population,” Schaefer said. “The [cells] can reduce uncertainty for the commander.”

Oversight of the intelligence cells is required. In a counterinsurgency, intelligence has to be vetted before suspects are killed or captured. Companies are not authorized to conduct unilateral targeting. 

Schaefer said he would recommend that target selection remain at the battalion level because the “impact of killing or capturing the wrong target can be huge.”

In the future, the Corps will experiment with outfitting companies with an array of networked air and ground sensors that will give them an “organic” surveillance and reconnaissance capability, Goulding said.

“What kills you on the battlefield isn’t what is 20 miles away coming at you in trucks and tanks,” he said. “It’s what’s over the next hill that you don’t know about.”

Operations in Iraq only have proved that more capabilities are needed, said Goulding. “Whatever that intelligence tells that company commander, it’s only useful if he acts on it.”

One of the latest experiments is the ”company level operations center,” which is designed to give company commanders more tools to act on what they know.

“What we learned was that, in addition to the intelligence function, these captains were also being asked to coordinate fires within a large area of operation … They’re being asked to do a lot of their own logistics in a large area of operations,” Goulding said. “Once you get the intelligence and you share the intelligence, now you’ve got to do something with it.”

The company-level operations center project will outfit commanders with improved equipment, revamp training and develop a new organization in order to beef up the information management flow.

Creating a battalion-style operations center at the company level is the logical next step, Schaefer said. “I think it would bring better situational awareness down to the lower level.”

Selected to demonstrate the project is the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment at Twentynine Palms, Calif. The unit trained for the company level operations cell concept in August and will put it to practice during its upcoming deployment next year. Their feedback is expected to help shape a battalion training package for future operations.

A company-level operations center opens the door to semi-independent operations for company commanders, said Capt. Jose Vengoechea, project officer for the concept at the Warfighting Lab.

“It gives his company the ability to process intelligence at a lower level and turn it around much quicker to affect operations.”                          

Topics: Logistics, Marine Corps News

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