Marine Corps Pilot Program Allows Qualified Signals, Cyber Recruits to Join Service Up to Rank of Gunny

1st Radio Battalion Marine
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Tyler Coyne, a signals intelligence system administrator, conducts a function check on an odin sphere during a preventative maintenance inspection at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 11, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Amelia Kang)

The Marine Corps has announced a new pilot program that will allow some signals and cyber recruits to enter the service at high enlisted ranks, including up to gunnery sergeant.

The Marine Corps Talent Acquisition Pilot program, or MCTAP, began this month and will last two years. Its aim is to recruit critical personnel, the cyberspace warfare operator and signals intelligence collection manager specialties, into the Corps as the services compete against the civilian sector's often higher-paying salaries for those skills.

The announcement last week is a culmination of several years of conversations and planning by the Corps on how to incentivize people with highly technical and marketable skills to come to the Marines without sacrificing the cultural fabric of the most tradition-bound service in the U.S. military.

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"The time and investment in identifying, acquiring, and developing talent is significant, especially in these fields," said Lt. Gen. James Glynn, deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. "This initiative enhances readiness and contributes to lethality by leveraging proven private-sector talent to rapidly meet critical areas of capability."

For this program, the Corps is looking for prior-service Marines, veterans of other services, and civilians with a degree in computer science, information systems engineering or other related skills. Marine veterans do not have to complete boot camp again, but others participating in the program do.

    While at recruit training, veterans from other services or college graduates will receive pay for the rank they qualify for, which can be up to gunnery sergeant at more than $3,625 per month for those with less than two years of service.

    The Marine Corps will recommend an initial rank for the applicant based on education, certifications, years of relevant work and supervisory experience, and an interview process, Master Gunnery Sgt. Sage Goyda, the lead project officer, told on Thursday.

    "At the conclusion of the interview, the acquisition panel will recommend any required professional military education and training, as well as a rank up to gunnery sergeant," Goyda said. "The deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs will make the final determination before the applicant accepts or denies."

    Service members coming from other ranks must have relevant experience in the field. For example, those coming from the Army must come from intelligence or cyber military occupational specialties, or MOSs.

    Marines in this program can't promote to first sergeant or sergeant major, according to a Marine Corps administrative message about the program. They will be able to promote to master sergeant and master gunnery sergeant.

    "It is improbable that we will see a college-aged applicant with enough experience and education to be selected as an E-6 or E-7," Maj. Danielle Phillips, a Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokesperson, told

    The idea of lateral entry -- especially for cyberwarfare -- is not new. The now-former Commandant Gen. Robert Neller was kicking around the idea as far back as 2017. His successor, Gen. David Berger, brought the idea closer to reality in 2021 when he released the first document outlining his vision for the Corp's revamp by 2030.

    "We should have an open door for exceptionally talented Americans who wish to join the Marine Corps, allowing them to laterally enter at a rank appropriate to their education, experience and ability," the Talent Management 2030 document argued.

    Ever since then, critics have worried that the idea meant the Corps would make gunnery sergeants out of purple-haired teens who would bypass the legendary tortures of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the Crucible and force battle-hardened Marines to take orders from those who hadn't earned their Eagle, Globe and Anchor in the same manner.

    In an interview with War on the Rocks in January 2022, Berger acknowledged the concern but stressed that "none of that is in place right now."

    "I'm allowing us to have a discussion about it," he added.

    Critics of lateral entry also overlook the fact that the Corps has been recruiting some of its most visible Marines -- members of the President's Own Marine Corps Band -- without a boot camp requirement for years.

    The most recent recruiting document for the prestigious musical organization notes that "members of 'The President's Own' are not required to undergo recruit training" before being granted the entry rank of E-6 or staff sergeant.

    While those recruits are required to meet a physical standard, the document does note that "unlike other Marine Corps musical units, 'The President's Own' has no secondary combat role, and its members are exempt from all such training."

    Concerns over lateral entry persisted and so, in March 2023, then-assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith also told reporters that he was aware of concerns that "somehow, somebody's going to sneak their way into the Marine Corps" and firmly put an end to the idea that skipping boot camp as part of any lateral entry option was on the table. Smith is now the commandant of the service.

    Those who enter the program and are not prior-service Marines will still need to attend boot camp.

    "I didn't -- shame on me -- think I had to remind people that you got to earn it as a Marine," he said.

    Those who enter the program will be assessed after six months and then again a year after they enter the billet.

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