The top Marine is considering bolstering the size of the rifle squad to 15 Marines for forward deployed Amphibious Ready Group Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs.

In May, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller announced he was cutting a Marine from the rifle squad, to bring it to 12, while adding two new billets, a systems operator and assistant squad leader.

But, at a media roundtable on Wednesday, Neller said the actual decision was to boost the squad to 15 Marines, and forward deployed MEUs would be the most likely unit to carry the larger squads.

Though a final decision on the 15 man rifle squad has yet to be made.

The two models largely have been borne out of manpower concerns across the Corps.

As Neller has pushed a massive overhaul of the Corps to prepare the force for a bout with peer competitors, manning of the new future force has been a serious issue.

The Corps had considered a range of models as it carried out a review of its organizational structure for the modernization effort.

Cutting the squad down to 12 affords the Corps extra bodies to plus up the force in other high demand areas.

The problem: “We didn’t know what the end strength of the Marine Corps was going to be,” Neller told reporters.

Around 9/11, the Corps had nearly 172,500 Marines, and during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan those numbers grew to 202,000. Now, the Corps has funding for 186,000 Marines, Neller explained.

“Will that be there in five years, I don’t know,” Neller said. Marine Corps end strength numbers “ebb and flow” with funding, he added.

“We made some decisions that were not easy,” Neller said.

Some Marines and analysts have argued Neller’s decision to reduce the Marine rifle squad to 12 puts grunts at grave risk in a fight with near-peer rivals.

The Corps has argued a new suite of tech to include the Carl Gustaf anti-tank recoilless rifle, new night vision, automatic rifles and tablets will actually boost overall lethality, despite the loss of a Marine from the squad.

But the top Marine says he’s now considering a 15-man rifle squad for forward deployed Marines.

The 13-man rifle squad is already one of the largest for a modern military, Neller explained.

But, 15 is “difficult for one person, I think, to command and control,” Neller said. “That’s why we added those two other people.”

The two new billets will help absorb some of the informational overload from new tech like drones and tablets being pushed to the squads to boost battlefield situational awareness.

Neller said the decision to add a systems operator and assistant squad leader was the real “game changer” out of his infantry modernization efforts.

Implementing the new billets into the squad will probably not kick off for another year or so, Neller said.

Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.

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