The courage to change: Modernizing U.S. Marine Corps human capital investment and retention

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Executive Summary

Since its modulation to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) successful 1973 — and particularly since its archetypal 1985 Enlisted Grade Structure Review — the United States Marine Corps has been committed to an idealized “first-term” unit with an inexperienced, bottom-heavy people structure. In pursuit of debased unit costs, the Marine Corps is unsocial successful its committedness to precocious enlisted turnover which reduces aggregate experience, proficiency, and stableness crossed the operating forces erstwhile compared to the different subject services. Today’s Marine Corps enlisted manpower absorption practices are unnecessarily disruptive to cohesion, wasteful of talent, inimical to the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy, and incompatible with requirements of the modern battlefield. The hidden assumptions underpinning the mode the Marine Corps fills its enlisted ranks necessitate urgent, sober, dispassionate, thorough, and courageous reexamination.

The existent Marine Corps enlisted absorption strategy was designed during the Reagan medication to remedy 2 circumstantial concerns. First, it sought to thrust down mean per capita wage and payment costs by limiting the fig of Marines with greater than 4 years of service. Second, it sought to execute azygous promotion timelines crossed each subject occupational specialties (MOSs) by imposing pyramidshaped people structures. By immoderate measure, this strategy was palmy astatine solving the perceived problems of 1985. Perpetuation of that paradigm, however, locked the Marine Corps into a remarkably durable process that has proved resistant to adaptation contempt monolithic advances successful technology, important changes wrong American society, and mounting grounds of its inefficiency.

Over time, the Marine Corps developed a assemblage of taste accepted contented to warrant its high-turnover unit system. Senior leaders person argued that this youthful recruitand-replace exemplary is much affordable, much physically fit, and much proficient than a much mature invest-and-retain model. Yet, arsenic volition beryllium demonstrated, specified assertions are questionable. While lance corporals are surely cheaper than sergeants, hidden and intangible costs of the existent strategy are overmuch much analyzable than a elemental examination of salaries. While the Marine Corps lacks capable outgo information to pass a valid examination of alternatives, qualitative investigation suggests that an alternative, somewhat older unit whitethorn beryllium much affordable than assumed. There is besides ample nonsubjective grounds that the existent Marine Corps enlisted unit is little fit, little proficient, and little cohesive than a somewhat much mature and unchangeable alternative.

Enlisted manpower absorption indispensable beryllium modernized if the Marine Corps is to person wrong its ranks the much experienced and technically proficient Marines required wrong a highly technical, distributed, and adaptive stand-in force. To execute the unit plan goals of its 38th and existent commandant, General David H. Berger, the Marine Corps’ astir elder leaders indispensable find the courageousness and the resoluteness to marque hard choices and past aggressively supervise their implementation. To person the unit the Marine Corps wants, it indispensable summation concern successful — and retention of — enlisted quality superior successful keeping with its appetite for accrued capability.

By immoderate standard, the Marine Corps strategy has managed to conscionable the internal, selfreferential measures of occurrence arsenic defined wrong its manpower absorption orders and directives. The professionalism, sacrifice, and hard enactment of recruiters and manpower professionals person met demands of the high-turnover, low-investment system. Time and again, young Marines person prevailed connected modern battlefields. They person succeeded successful spite of — not due to the fact that of — the strategy successful which they operate. This insubstantial steps extracurricular of the presuppositions of the “logical pyramid” paradigm and considers afresh whether Marine Corps enlisted quality superior practices present the top imaginable Fleet Marine Force (FMF)1 capableness for a fixed unit budget.

Key findings

  1. The Marine Corps committed to its existent enlisted quality superior paradigm successful the mid-1980s to code a circumstantial interest implicit fairness of promotion opportunities crossed subject occupational specialties (MOSs) and a tendency to trim unit costs by minimizing the vocation unit (Marines with greater than 4 years of service).
  2. Though each 4 services run nether communal constraints, the Marine Corps’ enlisted quality superior doctrine is remarkably distinct. It appears to remainder upon the unacknowledged presuppositions that Marines are easy replaced, that the trained vocation unit indispensable beryllium “controlled,” and that precocious aggregate acquisition and unit stableness are unnecessary.
  3. While each different services steadily accrued the information of their forces with greater than 4 years of service, the Marine Corps unsocial has consistently resisted doing so.
  4. Over time, systemic vocation rewards and incentives led to a de facto prioritization of resources and high-quality noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to recruiting and entry-level grooming (ELT) astatine the disbursal of the FMF.
  5. Presumptions of the superior carnal fittingness of a “young and lean” unit are contradicted by the Marine Corps’ ain fittingness trial show data. Likewise, claims that inferior Marines, who are predominately successful their precocious teens, tin workout judgement nether unit comparable to much mature Marines person been decisively undermined by advances successful neuroscience.
  6. The existing strategy is profoundly wasteful of quality capital, expelling 3 of 4 Marines astatine the precise clip erstwhile they person proven compatible with subject work and are conscionable entering their carnal and intelligence primes.
  7. The existing strategy is incapable of providing the much skilled and experienced unit required to conscionable the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps’ Planning Guidance2 and “Force Design 2030”3 goals. Absent a cardinal paradigm shift, translation efforts volition fail.

The views expressed successful this insubstantial are those of the writer and bash not bespeak the authoritative positions of the Department of Defense, Marine Corps, oregon the U.S. Government.


  1. The forward-deployed, afloat, and combat-ready operating forces of the Marine Corps disposable for situation effect and struggle are referred to collectively arsenic the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).
  2. David H. Berger, “38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance CPG” (Washington, DC: United States Marine Corps, July 17, 2019),
  3. David H. Berger, “Force Design 2030,” (Washington, DC: United States Marine Corps, March 2020),


The writer is grateful to chap Marines Jim Lively, Tom Wood, Rory Quinn, Scott Cuomo, Mark McCarroll, Reggie McClam, Thomas Hobbs — and others who chose to stay nameless — for their invaluable insights, challenging questions, and honorable feedback. He is likewise grateful for the wide serviceman mentors who were consenting to lend their voices and elevate this treatment to the highest levels of the Marine Corps.

Dr. Frank Hoffman, Mr. Twayne Hickman, and outer adjacent reviewers greatly improved this paper. Will Bushman and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Personnel & Readiness provided invaluable information and context. Dr. Mike Strobl of Marine Corps Manpower & Reserve Affairs devoted important clip to supply an organization effect utilized to refine and equilibrium the last product.

Within the Brookings Institution, Dr. Mike O’Hanlon has mentored and assisted scores of Federal Executive Fellows implicit the decades and was, successful 2020, ably assisted by Adam Twardowski and Leah Dreyfuss. Their proposal and encouragement were decisive successful the completion of this project. The ever professional, able, and thorough Ted Reinert edited this paper. Rachel Slattery provided layout and graphics.

An earlier draught of this insubstantial on with recommendations for further probe was presented to Marine Corps lieutenant generals and generals successful January 2021.

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