“There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.” H.L. Menken.
The same can be said of most issues in the military manpower arena.
Many Marine leaders underestimate the complexity of the issues involved in managing 175K–200K individuals ― all of whom expect to be promoted regularly, assigned to the duty station of choice and provided lucrative incentives to remain in the Marine Corps ― while simultaneously meeting operational imperatives and recruiting tens of thousands of men and women per year.
Talent Management 2030 and numerous factors, ranging from research in brain science to the needs of the Marine Corps, demand a more senior, more experienced enlisted force, many senior Marines argue.
“Aging the force” has been seen as a solution to many problems over the years, particularly in technical fields and aviation. Developing a more senior force is narrowly seen as a panacea to manpower problems.
But devoting fewer resources to recruiting and providing one stop shopping for reenlistments are too often seen as cost-effective byproducts of growing an older, more experienced enlisted force. Senior Marine Corps leadership is currently touting the recent success of the Commandant’s Retention Plan, for instance.
The concept envisioned is simple: Identify the best Marines, publish the list, reenlist those Marines through a streamlined process and offer them preference for their next set of orders.
Marine Corps leadership apparently believes you cannot have too many reenlistments, citing the difficulties and challenges of recruiting in the current environment.
Simply stated, the Marine Corps’ intent is to retain rather than recruit. The purpose is twofold: build an older, more experienced force while saving manpower in recruiting and entry level training. Reducing the size of the recruiting force, although appealing, is a dangerous option not easily reversed.
Any savings would certainly be on the margins for there will still be a fixed cost to maintain a recruiting, marketing and media presence in communities across the nation. This presence will still be required to recruit first term, non-prior service Marines.
Again, we learned painful lessons from cutting back on recruiters and budgets during the downsizing of the early 1990s. Both quality and quantity suffered as a result.
The post-pandemic environment is unique, presenting many challenges not seen before.
One of these challenges is recruiting and retaining an enlisted force fully capable of meeting Marine Corps operational requirements. The Marine Corps is focusing on policies to age/mature the force when it should be focused on how best to structure the force to meet current and future operational requirements.
Some of the questions not being asked or answered include: What is it that we cannot do with the current structure? What is the right structure that can provide a Marine with a successful and satisfying career while meeting the needs of the Marine Corps? How much does it cost? What is the impact on promotions?
Another major question we should be asking is how much training and responsibility can a young first term Marine take on? We bring in high quality first term Marines: 70% mental group 1-3A; 98% high school graduates.
As an alternative to aging the force, why not seek to leverage this talent and redefine expectations to realize the full potential of first term Marines?
As a retired Marine said in this regard: How many times have you heard a young Marine say “I’m in over my head and don’t have the skills and ability to do this job” (not many) as opposed to “I think I’m capable of shouldering more responsibility and working at a higher level if you give me a chance.”
Our current enlisted force structure ― a young force predominated by first term enlistees ― was not a “manpower” decision. It was a Marine Corps decision based on the needs of the Marine Corps.
A young force is not only more flexible and less costly, it is best suited for the expeditionary nature of the Marine Corps. The choice is not between industrial age thought and 21st century thought, but how to best field a ready, capable and effective combat force.
Manpower decisions made today to age the force have consequences that can last a generation or more.
Decisions made, for instance, on officer accessions in the mid-1980s came back to haunt the service with a shortage of majors 15 years later. We must be careful not to create situations like those previously seen where staff sergeants reached 20 years of service without the opportunity to have ever been considered for promotion ― a reality in some MOSs in the mid-80s and later.
Some of the unattended consequences of aging the force include:
1. Cultural changes. Our culture is young, and first term Marines are eager for adventure, be it overseas deployments, contingencies or combat.
A more mature force will be less eager to face family separations and the rigors of contingencies. A distinguishing characteristic of the Corps is, unlike the other services, we are a young, first term force eager for adventure and challenge.
2. Quality. Quality may well suffer over time.
For the past 40 years, we have been looking for young men and women who are high school graduates, in the top mental groups, who want to be Marines but do not necessarily (at least most of them) want a career.
This approach allows the Marine Corps to recruit top quality men and women, most of whom want to serve one enlistment and then transition to college or skilled employment. With the emphasis on a more mature force, pressure on retention goals will inevitably lead to quotas, raising the challenge of quantity over quality.
3. Increased costs. A more mature force is simply more expensive, not just for pay and allowances but in hidden costs associated with an increased number of family members (family housing, schools, commissaries, medical services, etc.).
4. Grade stagnation. Simply promoting more Marines to senior ranks will do little to make the overall force more experienced than it is today. It will only shift the distribution of billets to more senior ranks.
An alternative is to retain the current grade structure but slow promotions, which will mean more time in grade before consideration for promotion to the next rank. Marine’s promotion expectations must shift as well. Slower promotions will not enhance retention.
5. Loss of flexibility to quickly change course. A Corps of predominately first term Marines is more flexible than a Corps of older, career Marines. When retention or recruiting becomes more challenging, the Marine Corps can react swiftly by adding recruiters, offering new or increased bonuses, increasing advertising or offering additional incentives.
When retaining a predominately career force becomes more challenging, the senior leadership will find itself with fewer tools to swiftly fix the problems. The market for retention and recruitment can shift quickly as we have seen over the years. An aged, more mature force could severely reduce senior leader’s ability to react to the shifts brought about by economic, national or world events, and changing cultural norms.
Finally, we must take into account that declining numbers of our citizens have any exposure to the military. Returning large numbers of young Marines back into their communities every year helps to maintain an important link to the American people. A large accession requirement means a large recruiting force in cities and towns across the country further cementing our special relationship with the public upon whom we depend for our existence.
Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak’s reminder rings true that we have a Marine Corps because our society wants one and it wants one because of our record of readiness, combat excellence and our role in shaping young men and women of character.
The challenges of aging the force are “wicked problems.” They are subjective and complex. They involve multiple stakeholders and different agendas. They are influenced by shifts in the political and economic winds. They are the opposite of simple.
Before we make changes in Manpower that wed the Marine Corps to generational changes, we need to admit that structuring the enlisted force for the 21st century is not a simple problem. It does not lend itself to quick, easy solutions.
Increasing reenlistments to make up recruiting shortfalls and instituting new processes for reenlistment is no substitute for the manpower structure carefully designed to meets the needs of the Marine and the Marine Corps.
Selective, targeted aging could be beneficial. This approach is at least worth an experiment to better understand some of the advantages and disadvantages of aging the force.
The Marine Corps needs to proceed carefully and with a full appreciation of the unintended consequences before making decisions that could adversely impact entire Marine Corps for a generation or more.
Col. Warren Parker is a retired infantry officer. During his 30 year career, he served as a recruiting station commanding officer, district commanding officer, chief of staff for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, and executive assistant to the deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.