Marines doing more with less

6 mins read

It is Saturday, and the rain, biblical by some standards, is gone. Because we have sunshine, and the temperature is warming, I’m sitting on my deck — a pleasant place where I can hear the indistinct sounds of basic training now under way on Parris Island.

Those sounds included reveille, as well as other bugle calls which occur throughout the day. Notwithstanding an adolescent history of living on army posts, I do not remember most of the bugle sounds that work their way across the water.

I am, this morning, reassured by these bugle sounds, and I’m reminded that they’ve been with us for thousands of years. I’m also aware that things are changing in the military, dramatically changing, especially for the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps began as a modest cohort of rough, aggressive, ship-based men tasked with forcibly boarding enemy ships and killing (or capturing) the crew. The British Marines were particularly good at boarding French ships and some historians argue their sword-fighting ability was a decisive factor in the rise of the British Navy and the British Empire.

By the end of the second World War, the Marine Corps had grown larger, acquiring tanks, artillery and it’s own air support. Along the way they also acquired their own reputation for physical fierceness — for close-in, bayonet-assisted fighting. A reputation burnished on the beaches of Okinawa and in the jungles of Guadalcanal. A reputation that compares favorably with renown of the Roman Legionnaire before, during and after the time of Christ.

The Roman soldier was young man who had been schooled in war from the womb spending his first 10 years in the field or in camp. Food was simple — bread, soup and sour wine — and discipline was swift, sometimes fatal for those who were hesitant or faint of heart.

Beyond discipline, the real advantage for the Roman Army was its organization. From the time of Republican Rome, the Army understood that fighting as a group was the key to its success.

In the 6th Century before Christ, the Army was organized into a Greek-inspired Phalanx that was six soldiers deep and 500 men long. Each man carried a long, thrusting spear called a hasta.

But in the 3rd Century BC the Romans began fighting in smaller units that were three men deep and 60 men wide. This change was responsive the rough, uneven landscape around the Mediterranean Sea.

Then, 100 years before Christ, there was another shift to tactical units (cohorts) that were six men deep and 100 men wide allowing these “cohorts” to fight as individual units or in combination. Weapons also changed as a shorter, throwing spear (pilum), replaced the hasta.

The fundamental tactic of Roman infantry was sweeping ten cohorts on its right wing against the enemy’s left wing. This took advantage of the fact that the left side of a soldier, the side that held a heavy, cumbersome shield, was the weaker side.

The Marine Corps is also making changes in its organization by shrinking the size of its squad which now consists a leader and 12 riflemen grouped into three “fire teams” of four. Henceforth the Marine Corps will have a leader, an assistant leader, a technician and nine riflemen divided into three ‘fire teams.’


Presumably this new, tech-savvy soldier will control the drones that will be introduced into the ranks giving the Marines a reconnaissance capability that they never had before. By 2030 the Corps plans to focus on “unmanned aerial systems” that will change the way it fights.

And sometime in the next 10 years it will discard its artillery and its tanks.

The Marine Corps will reorganize itself into smaller units capable of rapid deployment to the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan and the Gulf of Aqaba. They will go ashore wherever there is a beach but they won’t be relying on their own attack helicopters or the controversial tiltrotor Ospreys that were first delivered in 1999. Plans also call for reducing the F-35 squadrons from 16 planes to 10.

The recruits I am now hearing on Parris Island will embrace a new political reality — namely China, North Korea and the unstable states on the Persian Gulf. They will return their focus to the “littoral’” and be equipped to accomplished “sea denial and sea control”.

And like the Romans they will adjust the size of their units; embrace new technology and, apparently, do all of this with 12,000 fewer troops.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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